Forest Law in England

Forest Law in England Handout

Hlafdige Arastorm © Virginia Fair Richards-Taylor 2016

When Duke William invaded England he set aside preserves (forest is from the Latin fores meaning “out of bounds”), to which his successors added until nearly half the land was included. The entire county of Essex was declared Forest. These were like our National Forests, there were villages in them, but those who lived there had to answer to Forest Law, which was entirely separate from Common Law of the Realm, (as well as that law, and Ecclesiastical Laws).

Aside from sport and food for royalty, Forest Law provided income for the Crown. People had to pay to collect wood, to hunt, to clear land, to build, to use any product from wood to nuts to honey to game that came from the forest. The wealthy could buy the right to take a certain number of deer or boar, or paid to install a warren. The Foresters set to enforce these laws were notoriously corrupt, and the people were often less than cooperative. Queens often had income from forest warding.

There was a special vocabulary used in forest law: Agistment meant grazing cattle, assarting meant clearing land, pannage was allowing pigs to feed in the forest, estovers was permissible wood gathering, “venison” was meat from not just deer, but also hare, & boars. Red deer, Fallow Deer, Hare, Boar and Wolf were “beasts of the forest”; Roe deer, foxes, cats, and martins were “beasts of the chase”; rabbits, badgers, pheasants, partridges, quail, mallards and herons were “beasts and fowl of the warren”. Forest law protected both “venison and vert” (animals and plants).

Officers in charge of the Forests included, the Warden, Foresters, underforesters, Agisters, Constables, Rangers, Surveyors, and Regarders. Residents had to provide shelter and food for Foresters (or be fined). Everyone had to attend Forest courts: Woodmotes every 40 days, Swainmote 3 times a year, and Eyre court every three years (or be fined). They were forbidden clearing land, bearing bows or spears or having “running dogs” (if they were not mutilated by being declawed). Even lords with lands within the forest were not allowed to hunt their own lands, or fell their own trees without paying for the priviledge.

Henry of Huntingdon recorded that ‘he (William) loved the beasts of the chase as if he were their father. On account of this, in the woodlands reserved for hunting, which he called the “New Forest”, he had villages rooted out and people removed, and made it a habitation for wild beasts’. There were five clauses in the Magna Carta trying to restrict the excesses of the Crown. After about 1300 the laws gradually started being reduced, Local lords gained more control of their own lands, and sections were disafforested.

Bibliography Bechmann, Roland, Trees and Man, Paragon 1990

West, John, Mediaeval Forest (Then&There series) Longman Group 1978

Young, Charles R, The Royal Forests of Medieval England, U Penn Press,1979