The ancestors of today’s Mastiffs were those bred by several well known breeders of the early 19th Century including Sir George Armitage and his gamekeeper, George White a well known dog dealer of the time and a Mr. T.H. Lukey. On the back of the interest of a small group of people a modern type was being formed and built upon and interest in the breed began to increase. If today’s pedigrees could be traced far back to these times many of today’s Mastiffs would be shown to be descendent of a few dogs owned and kept by this small group of people.
Between the mid 19th century and the beginning of the 20th Century the Mastiff breed was to become far more popular and sound in its foundation and in 1859 the first dog show was held. A dog show at the great Crystal palace in 1872 attracted over eighty Mastiffs and in 1873 The Kennel club of Great Britain was formed followed 10 years later in 1883 by the Old English Mastiff club of Great Britain.
There are a few differences of opinion on where the Mastiff originated, but most agree that the British are the creators of the breed as we know it today. According to the Mastiff Club of America the Mastiff is a descendant of the ancient Alaunt and Molosser (http://www.moloss.com/001/ptxt/breed.html).
There are documentation and depictions of Mastiff type dogs that were found on Egyptian monuments dating back to approximately 3000 BC. Classical Greek art has also depicted Mastiffs, as well as Babylonian wall reliefs from the seventh century BC. There is evidence of Mastiff-like giant dogs dating back as far as 2500 BC in the mountains of Asia. Bas-reliefs from the Babylonian palace of Ashurbanipal (now on display in the British Museum) depict Mastiff-type dogs hunting lions in the desert near the Tigris River. The first written mention of Mastiffs came from China in a document dating to 1121 BC. By 600 BC dogs known as Shojis - Large, fierce, short-faced "hounds" - were found in China. The term hound was used often in reference to Mastiffs in ancient times. Even Aristotle mentions the progenitor of the Mastiff, the molosser in a list of most useful breeds in 350 BC.
Mastiffs were thought to have originated with the Assyrians over 4000 years ago. Phoenician traders are believed to have introduced the Mastiff to ancient Britain, where the Romans found them and brought them back to fight in their arenas. When Romans invaded Britain and took the dogs back to Italy where they were used to guard their property and prisoners. This is probably the time when many of the sub-breeds started being created.
The Mastiff 'type' is known to have been around in the what is now the UK certainly since Medieval times where it was bred as a working dog for guarding duties on farms and estates around the country. Obviously due to the nature of the society of the time the Mastiff would have been owned by the more affluent members of society but it is known that these powerful dogs were kept by the working man to guard his own master’s crops and livestock from poachers and predators.
Some folks would like to debate the origin of the breed but the general term Mastiff is used in reference to many breeds which probably all descended from the same original stock. The proper noun "Mastiff", however, refers to a specific breed that originated in England over 2,000 years ago. The proper name is the "English Mastiff" but is sometimes, and incorrectly, called the Old English Mastiff.
Shakespeare referred to Mastiffs as “The dogs of war" and it is known that several hundred Mastiffs were given by Henry VIII to King Charles V of Spain to be used as fighting dogs on the battle field. This produces a most frightening image of these powerful beasts charging across the battle fields of the era which surely would have given their masters an incredible psychological advantage over the enemy not to mention the odd victory. Marco Polo wrote of Kubla Khan Kennel of 5,000 mastiffs used.
During the Elizabethan Era the true English Mastiff was used for entertainment to fight wild animals such as bears and tigers, etc. Unfortunately, probably the darkest period in the history of this great dog was that of the Elizabethan era where Mastiffs were used in the activities of Bull and Bear bating. Thankfully, these sports declined as did, unfortunately, the number of Mastiffs. This decline in numbers can be of no surprise since even at Elizabethan food prices a Mastiff could not have been the most economical canine companion. Thankfully there were still Mastiffs kept apparently for the more appropriate purpose of guarding the large country estates of the time including Mastiffs kept at Lyme Hall.
Sir Piers Legh made the mastiffs famous when on October 25, 1415 in the battle of Agincourt after he was severely wounded was guarded by his faithful mastiff bitch who had accompanied him to Battle. Sir Piers died in Paris from his wounds and his body was returned to England, together with the mastiff bitch, which had in the meantime given birth to pups. The Legh family of Lyme Hall, Cheshire, kept and bred mastiffs for many generations.
The ' Lyme Hall Mastiffs ' were bred and documented and bred only at the Lyme Hall forming a strain which lasted several hundred years. Pictures show these early Mastiffs to have been smaller of head than the Mastiff of today but clearly anyone could recognize the dogs as having been Mastiffs.
It has to be realized that in those days there was no breed standard for any dog and no Kennel Club to define any breed but early descriptions of fearsome large canines with huge head, mighty body and great voice clearly referred to an early Mastiff type canine.