I grew up not far from the New Forest in Hampshire and spent a lot of time there as a child and teenager. It wasn’t until decades later that I started to wonder why it had so few trees. Although there are (modern) plantations out there, most of the forest is heathland, with occasional bits of bog. It was a long time before I realised that a forest isn’t just a big wood; it’s something else entirely.
In the Middle Ages a forest was an area that was legally defined as a forest, set aside for the king’s enjoyment, mainly hunting. There didn’t have to be a single tree there for it to be made a forest. This was known as afforestation. It was particularly common under the Normans and early Plantagenet kings, who loved to hunt. If they thought that a particular area looked as if it might provide good hunting, they could just turn it into a forest. The New Forest was one of the first, created in 1079 by William the Conqueror.
No one was allowed to hunt in the forests but the king and anyone he invited to hunt with him. Henry II was particularly vicious in the punishments meted out to poachers or others who encroached in any way on his rights in the forests. Some of them were executed, but castration and blinding were common punishments. By this point the royal forests covered almost a third of England.
They were governed by Forest Laws, quite separate from the laws covering the rest of the kingdom, and managed by foresters and agistors. Forest Law was a French concept brought across the Channel by William the Conqueror. The forests had their own courts and judges. Most of the cases covered poaching, but there were other problems. Forests were not popular with the king’s landholding subjects. The country was short of arable land. Although the population was small, it was hard to grow enough to feed it, partly because yields were low, sometimes only twice as much seed was produced as had been planted. Since the forests were vast (all of Essex was once part of a royal forest) many manors were included within them, usually held my lords who would rather be making ‘better’ use of the land than providing entertainment for the king and his friends. Sometimes thy might try to ‘salvage’ a bit of land from the forests. Animals such as cows and pigs could be kept in the forests, but they had to be moved when the king wanted to hunt or at certain points in the year when he didn’t want his prey to be disturbed. Sometimes the animals were in the wrong place and that could result in a visit to the forest court.
Forest Law specified the hunting season for some animals. It also clarified some of the many things that couldn’t be done in the forest, such as felling timber, clearing woodland and killing the animals to be hunted.
In 1217 an attempt was made to reduce the punishment for not observing the Forest Laws. This was the Charter of the Forest. It didn’t last long, as Henry III restored the right to mutilate and castrate ten years later.
Forests could be disafforested on payment of a fine to the king. This happened mostly during the reigns of Richard I and John, who were perennially short of money. When a part of the forest was released on payment of a fine it became known as a chase and this was the private hunting ground of the person or group of people who had paid the fine.
Hunting in the royal forests didn’t end well for all of England’s medieval kings. William II (Rufus) went out into the New Forest one day in 1100 and was shot dead by Sir Walter Tirel. It was never established whether it was accident or assassination, but Sir Walter was known for being very accurate with a bow and William’s brother Henry was in the party. A few days later Henry was proclaimed king. The event is commemorated by the monument in the picture at the top of the post: Rufus Stone.
England in the Reign of Edward III by Scott L. Waugh
Making a Living in the Middle Ages by Christopher Dyer
A Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases by Christopher Corédon and Ann Williams
A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod
April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.