Although the Beagle is generally regarded as a British breed its origin, however obscure, is almost certain to be found outside the British Isles. In the opinion of those who have researched the subject the Beagle has evolved from small hounds used for hunting small game in southern Europe, as opposed to the larger sight-hound used for hunting larger and faster quarry.
Evidence to this effect comes from the Greek author Xenophon born about 433BC who was an enthusiastic follower of hunting and wrote a "Treatise on Hunting" in which he refers to the small hounds which hunt hare and rabbit on foot. The method of hunting used then differs from that today in that the hounds were used to drive the game into nets laid out by the huntsmen. Illustrations on pottery of that period show two types of hounds: the small ones with thick muzzles and long ears, and the much longer legged hound with slim more pointed muzzles and shorter ears.
The development of the Beagle is exclusive to this country, starting with the Romans who acquired the small Greek hounds and brought them to this country for trading and hunting. The Saxons were known to have used them for hunting hare and exempted the from the Forest Laws drawn up by King Canute in 1016. Whether or not there were any hare hunting hounds native to Britain at this time is not certain, but Capt. Otho Paget, described as the "dean of all Beaglers" wrote: "There were, however, in England packs of hounds before the time of the Romans and it is on record that Pwyll, Prince of Wales, a contemporary of King Arthur, had a special breed of white hounds of great excellence." The Normans who were keen hunters brought over some larger hounds, probably of Harrier size. In the 14th century Chaucer mentions in his Canterbury Tales the "Small Houndes" belonging to the Prioress, and in the 15th century the name Beagle was used for the first time by several writers. In Tudor times, Queen Elizabeth 1st had a pack of "Singing Beagles", a name inspired by their cry which is still used today. These Beagles were also supposed to have been small enough to fit inside a lady's gauntlet. Another Royal reference came from James 1st who referred to his wife as his "Dear little Beagle", apparently as a term of affection!
No names appear to have been given by the Greeks, Romans, Saxons or Normans to their small hunting hounds. In the 11th century the name Kennetty was used to refer to hounds of similar size to the Beagle; Rache was also used at about the same time but this was thought to refer to the larger hounds of Harrier size. Hayreies and Hayrers were names given in the 15th century for harrying game, those names becoming Harrier sometime during the next century. The first recorded use of the name Beagle appears to be about 1475 in "The Squire of Low Degree" in which it is written: