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The Charter of the Forest

In 1215, nearly one third of the land in England consisted of forest. Today, the word ‘forest’ describes a densely wooded area but the term meant something very different in the thirteenth century. Forests in King John’s time were lands where the King enjoyed a monopoly over all management and distribution of resources. Some of these lands were forests in the modern sense of the word including Sherwood Forest, associated with the legends of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, and the New Forest, which remains one of the largest tracts of woodland in England. Other thirteenth century ‘forests’ however, consisted of inhabited countryside with villages and farmland.

As the population of medieval England increased, “the law of the forest” became increasingly onerous to both the nobility and their peasant tenants who were unable to develop or expand their land without the King’s permission. Magna Carta, ‘The Great Charter’, addressed forest privileges in a series of clauses but England’s barons considered this issue to be so significant that they drew up a subsequent document that expanded on these provisions in 1217, during the minority rule of John’s son, Henry III. The Charter of the Forest is much less well known than the Magna Carta but it expanded on the latter’s provisions and provided the foundation for the modern concept of common stewardship of resources.

For King John and his privileged predecessors, the forest was both a hunting ground and a lucrative source of revenue. Hunting had been the sport of English Kings since Anglo-Saxon times but it was William the Conqueror and his descendants who enforced a royal monopoly over hunting large animals in the forest. Members of the nobility might receive a license to hunt ‘free warren’ such as foxes, otters, badgers and rabbits but only the King, members of his hunting parties or his foresters were entitled to hunt deer or wild boar.

Penalties for poaching the King’s game were severe. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, “[King William I] made many deer-parks; and he established laws therewith; so that whosoever slew a hart, or a hind, should be deprived of his eyesight. As he forbade men to kill the harts, so also the boars; … His rich men bemoaned it, and the poor men shuddered at it.” Although two of William I’s sons, Richard of Normandy and King William II died in hunting accidents in the New Forest, successive Kings fiercely protected their exclusive right to hunt large game animals.

The chronicler William of Newburgh complained of William I’s youngest son, King Henry I, “He was, also, immoderately attached to beasts of chase, and, from his ardent love of hunting, used little discrimination in his public punishments between deer killers and murderers.” By the reign of King Richard the Lionhearted, the punishment for killing a deer was blinding and mutilation even though the King only spent a few months in England over the course of his reign and had little time for hunting between his military campaigns.

The Charter of the Forest acknowledged that deer remained the property of the King but abolished physical punishments for poaching. According to the tenth clause of the Charter, “No one shall henceforth lose life or limb because of our venison, but if anyone has been arrested and convicted of taking venison he shall be fined heavily if he has the means; and if he has not the means, he shall lie in our prison for a year and a day…”

Henry III showed little enthusiasm for hunting, but large game remained property of the Crown in law until the 1971 Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act in the United Kingdom formally abolished, “any prerogative right of Her Majesty to wild creatures…together with any prerogative right to set aside land or water for the breeding, support or taking of wild creatures; and any franchises of forest, free chase, park or free warren.” The Charter of the Forest remains the statute in force for the longest time in England.

While the young Henry III’s barons were willing to accept that the monarch owned the deer and wild boar in the forest – provided that the penalties for poaching were lessened – they insisted that the King curtail his right to use his forest prerogatives to extract revenue from his subjects. The King’s Chief Forester and his deputies, who attended forest courts and made regular inspections of forest lands, were among the King’s most unpopular officials because of their ability to extract payments for land development or levy fines for violations of forest law.

The regulations governing the use of forest land before the promulgation of the Charter of the Forest were extensive and arbitrary. Permission from the Chief Forester was required before forest land could be cleared and cultivated, and the King received rent in perpetuity for these newly developed tracts. The right to pasture animals in the forest was strictly controlled and could be revoked at the King’s discretion. Farmers could only chop down trees for their own use if removal of a tree did not create waste, which was defined in the reign of Henry II as “If a man standing on the stump of an oak or other tree can see five other trees cut down around him.” If an individual offender could not be identified in the forest courts, the Chief Forester had the power to impose a fine on the entire community.

Forest court records from John’s reign provide examples of the offences and penalties for breaking “the law of the forest.” In 1209, Roger de Crammaville of Kent was fined twenty marks for owning dogs that did not meet forest regulations, which dictated that three claws of their forepaws be removed to ensure that they were unable to hunt game. That same year, the King ordered the destruction of unauthorized ditches and hedges on forest land. This decree was deeply unpopular because wild animals, including deer, were able to destroy crops in fields unprotected by hedges or ditches. In addition to collecting fines and other payments, John also used his forest prerogatives to settle personal scores. In 1200, the King expressed his displeasure with the Cistercian Order by forbidding the monks from pasturing their livestock in the forest until twelve abbots begged his forgiveness on their knees.

The boundaries of the forest changed frequently as monarchs designated additional lands as forest to increase their revenue. Both Richard and John also agreed to “disafforest” land upon the payment of a large sum from a community whose members agreed they would be better off without the restrictions imposed on forest dwellers. These agreements between individual communities and the monarch were precursors to the Charter of the Forest, which applied to the entire kingdom.

The Magna Carta began the process of transforming the forests into common land that served the needs of communities. According to the 1215 version of the Great Charter, “All evil customs relating to forests…are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably.” This clause was eliminated from future reissues of Magna Carta as the Charter of the Forest expanded and developed the provisions concerning use of forest land.

The Charter of the Forest precisely defined the “evil customs” mentioned in the Great Charter, and presented an alternative vision for the management of common resources. In contrast to the arbitrary regulations and fines imposed for forest offences by John and his predecessors, the Charter stated that “Every free man may henceforth without being prosecuted make in his wood or in land he has in his forest, a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit or a ditch, or arable outside the covert in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour.” This clause both revoked John’s unpopular decrees and transferred authority over forest development from the King to the commons. Instead of answering to the King alone, forest dwellers had to consult with their communities, ensuring that any development did not disadvantage their neighbours.

The Charter of the Forest also ended the unpopular practice of Kings transforming new land into ‘forest’ stating that, “All woods made forest by King Richard our uncle or King John our father, up to the time of our first coronation shall be immediately disafforested.” Although surviving evidence suggests that John only created two new forests during his reign, the arbitrary and mercenary nature of these changes infuriated his subjects and they were eager to ensure that Henry III and his successors did not exercise the same prerogatives.

When Henry III came of age in 1227, the future of both Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest became uncertain. According to a decree passed in 1218, no charter approved during the King’s minority remained valid during his majority without confirmation by the adult King. There was a real possibility that Henry III might refuse limits on his powers imposed by his barons while he was a child. The King ultimately agreed to uphold Magna Carta in exchange for a tax on the movable property of the clergy, and the Charter of the Forest for a tax on land. Henry III’s fifty-six year reign coincided with a period of prosperity for England as land development in rural areas matched the needs of communities instead of forest regulations imposed on them by the King. The lasting legacy of the Charter of the Forest is the precedent for community stewardship of shared resources that endures into the twenty-first century.

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