Forest Law

“In the forests,” wrote Richard Fitz Nigel (d.1198) treasurer of Henry II, “are the secret places of the kings and their great delight. To them they go for hunting, having put off their cares, so that they may enjoy a little quiet. There, away from the continuous business and incessant turmoil of the court, they can for a little time breathe in the grace of natural liberty, wherefore it is that those who commit offences, there lie under the royal displeasure alone.”

When the Normans came to England, forest covered a third of the land, although gradual encroachment by the plough had already begun to take its toll. But the land did not have to be wooded to fall under Forest Law, many towns and villages were under jurisdiction and the whole of Essex at one time, was known as the King’s Forest of Essex.’

The strict forest laws, ‘in order to keep the peace of the king’s venison,’ caused a great deal of hardship for those that lived in or near the Royal Forest. Dead wood could be taken from the forest for fuel, but no bough was to be chopped down. No timber or undergrowth could be used for shelter and it was forbidden to carry a bow and arrow. Dogs kept within the forest had to be ‘lawed,’ which was defined in ‘The Forest Charter’ of 1215 as the cutting of three talons from the front foot without the pad.

The wild beasts protected by law were the red deer, the roe, the fallow deer and the wild boar. A favourite few were sometimes given special hunting privileges, but it was forbidden, even for them, to touch the red and small fallow deer.

During the reign of Richard I, Sherwood Forest was held by Prince John, who granted it to Ralph Fitz Stephen and his wife Maud de Caux. They were given the special privilege to hunt hare, fox, cat and squirrel.

This cabalistic verse indicates the four evidences by which according to feudal laws a man was convicted, (like Will Stutely in the movie) of deer stealing.

Dog Straw (drawing after a deer with a hound)

Stable Stand (caught with a bent bow)

Back Berond (carrying away the venison on his shoulder)

Bloody Hand (hand stained with blood).

Edward the Confessors ‘Red Book’ has the following caution:

Ommis homo abstrest a venariis meis, super poenam vitae.

(Let every man refrain from my hunting grounds on pain of death).

Administration of the Royal Forests was the responsibility of the chief forester and his wardens. These men were never popular and in a late ballad, Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham, Robin as a youth manages to kill fifteen foresters.

Some lost legs, and some lost arms,

And some did lose their blood;

But Robin hee took up his noble bow,

And is gone to the merry green wood.

They carried these foresters into fair Nottingham,

As many there did know;

The dig’d them graven in the church-yard

And they buried them all on a row.

Here we have an example of how the discontent and oppression caused by the harsh, merciless foresters were repaid in the ballad makers world. This ballad is not dealing with an historical incident, but we can be certain that it was the vain dream of many a poor man.

The forest laws were very harsh during the start of Norman rule, but with their financial problems, both Richard I and John were prepared to sell off certain areas of Royal Forest to wealthy nobles. Landowners paid King Richard 200 marks to release a large area of Surrey from Royal Forest and similarly, King John received 5,000 marks from Devon.

Three clauses in Magna Carta were forced upon King John, to lighten certain Forest Laws and the young king, Henry III had to agree to the Forest Charter of 1217 exacted by his barons. This charter redefined more clearly the Forest Laws and disaforested certain areas. It also limited the number of meetings held by the forest courts, which had become an administrative burden for those living near the forest. Archbishops, bishops, earls and barons were now given the right to take one or two deer during a journey through the forest and punishment for stealing venison was reduced from death and mutilation to a heavy fine, imprisonment followed by banishment.

This charter was not of course a final settlement and records of forest inquests reveal a vivid picture of the discontented attitude of the people during the thirteenth century:

(Thirteen people)…... and others of their company whose names are to be found out, hunted with bows and arrows all day in Rockingham Forest (in 1255) and killed three deer. They cut off the head of a buck and put it on a stake in the middle of a certain clearing………….placing in the mouth of the aforesaid head a certain spindle, and they made the mouth gape towards the sun in great contempt of the lord king and his foresters.

© Clement of the Glen 2006-2007

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