I have two offerings for you today, neither of which is mine. The first comes as the result of a conversation in a car returning from a pub quiz (which we won despite there being no questions about the Middle Ages). I realised that it has been a while since I shared a Bardcore video. So here is the latest from Hildegard von Blingin’.
She has been doing some wonderful things since I shared her version of Jolene a couple of years ago, so please have a look at everything else.
The second offering is a video of a handcart being trundled across fields and through a wood, with no commentary. It’s worth watching just to see the glory of an English bluebell wood in spring.
Jason Kingsley has made some amazing videos about the Middle Ages. He jousts and there are some videos about how he trains his horses to be used in jousts. There are lots of videos about life in the Middle Ages and there’s also another video about how the handcart was made and how it might be used.
This week I’m delighted to welcome Cara Hogarth to the blog. Her new book, The Minstrel and Her Knight, set in 1367, was published on Wednesday. You’ll have to read it to find out if there are any rabbits in it.
Q: When is a rabbit not a rabbit?
A: When it lived in the Middle Ages.
According to the source of all wisdom that is the Oxford English Dictionary, the only thing a medieval English-speaker would identify as a ‘rabbit’ was a baby rabbit. An adult rabbit was a ‘coney’. As John Trevisa wrote in 1398: ‘Conynges … bringen forþ many rabettes & multiplien ful swiþe.’
As John’s spelling indicates, the medieval ‘coney’ could appear in all sorts of spelling guises, including: conyn, conyne, cunin, conig, and konyn. But basically, a medieval English speaker called a rabbit a coney. This aligns nicely with other medieval European terms for the little furry beast:
classical Latin cuniculus
Old French conil
Anglo-Norman coni, conie, conig, coniz, conys, conynge, coning, coninge, couning (in the days before standardised spelling)
Scottish Gaelic coinean
Hilariously, it seems that ‘coney’ rhymed with ‘honey’ and ‘money’ for the first few centuries of its English life. The long ‘o’ sound seems to have been introduced in the 19th century, quite probably to avoid salacious associations.
So, given that English is at base a Germanic language, why is the medieval word for rabbit so French? Because we can blame the French (or at least the Normans) for introducing rabbits to Britain in the first place. I’ve listed so many variants on the Anglo-Norman term for ‘rabbit’ so you can see for yourself how the ‘coney’ came to be. Yes, the Normans reintroduced rabbits to Britain. (The first record of them is in 1176 in the Scilly Isles.) The Welsh, Irish and Gaelic terms for rabbit are all derived from the Anglo-Norman.
It seems that rabbits did hang out in the British Isles during a previous interglacial but since then found the climate inconducive and died out. The current strain of British rabbit seems to have originated in Spain. The Phoenicians spread the Spanish bunny about the Mediterranean somewhat, and the Romans followed suit, initiating a long tradition of rabbit farming.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, medieval monks continued the grand tradition of rabbit farming, generally housing them in specially-constructed ‘warrens’. The monks were doubtless encouraged by their persuasion that baby rabbit was, by ‘a quirk of early-medieval canonical interpretation’, considered aquatic and could therefore be eaten on fast days.
Possibly following monkly example, the French nobility developed a fondness for rabbit (unfortunately for their meat and fur rather than their more endearing qualities) from the 900s on, which led in turn to taking them over the Channel to Britain. Rabbit warrens seem to have been established on islands first (the Scilly Isles and Lundy Island are the first attested warren sites), and later light coastal soils such as in Breckland and coastal East Anglia. This was partly because medieval rabbits really didn’t care for the British climate and did best in light sandy soils and drier regions (which were more reminiscent of Spain, perhaps). It also made sense to make use of unproductive agricultural land by farming rabbits on it.
But, to quote historian Mark Bailey: ‘The rabbit was a rare beast in medieval England’. It seems to have been even rarer in Scotland, not appearing in the wild there until 1792. Essentially, most medieval English rabbits and all medieval Scottish rabbits were farmed rabbits. (Sorry, ‘coneys’ I mean.) Some of the furry blighters inevitably escaped from their warrens – rabbits are good at digging, after all – but until the mid-1700s, wild rabbits were not common in Britain.
In fact, the rabbit was not particularly common throughout medieval Europe – which makes its appearance in manuscript marginalia all the more curious. Remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well, Monty Python turn out to be surprisingly well-informed in the most peculiar of instances. In this case: killer rabbits.
Marginalia are images painted on the margins of manuscripts. Sometimes they appear irreverent and/or grotesque, yet appear alongside deeply serious religious texts. There are all sorts of theories concerning their purpose (parody, allegory, simple scribal boredom), but we don’t really know why medieval people sometimes painted killer rabbits next to their prayers.
Here is a wonderful YouTube introduction to the killer rabbit of medieval manuscripts.
Kabir suggests that: ‘The role reversal of these rabbits in the marginalia was mainly used for humor. The world turned upside-down was portrayed where the innocent rabbits could take revenge from humans and other powerful animals who hunted, skinned, and ate them.’ Perhaps, but rabbits were also considered symbols of cowardice and the furry beasties here depicted are most definitely not acting like cowards! Role reversal, maybe – but remember the Easter bunny? The Easter rabbit is used to symbolise resurrection (rabbits live underground in tomb-like spaces and have a legendary ability for rebirth, i.e. reproduction). By the same token, it is also a symbol of unbridled sexuality. Which makes me wonder how much of a coincidence it is that ‘coney’ used to rhyme with ‘honey’. But evidently the humble coney is a complicated character. It can mean many things. But one thing it wasn’t in medieval Britain: a ubiquitous pest. No, the medieval coney was a rare and valued beast (and it had huge sharp teeth).
Bailey, M., ‘The rabbit and the medieval East Anglian economy’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 36, no. 1, 1988, pp. 1 – 20.
Dickenson, V., Rabbit, Reaktion Books, 2013.
Kabir, ‘The portrayal of violent rabbits in medieval marginalia’, The Collector, 18th Sept 2020.
Veale, E., ‘The rabbit in England’, The Agricultural History Review, vol. 5, no. 2, 1957, pp. 85 – 90.
About the Author:
Cara Hogarth writes historical romance set in the Middle Ages. Her novelThe Minstrel and Her Knightexplores the disreputable profession of medieval minstrelsy, and her novella ‘To Kiss an Outlaw’, flirts with Robin Hood. Neither book contains killer rabbits, but Cara loves to dive down a rabbit hole of history.
Some time ago I read something that changed the way I think about life in medieval homes. It also changed the way I write about them in my novels. Like you, probably, I think about the human inhabitants of buildings, but we should also be considering the animals that shared domestic spaces with their owners. Be warned, though. People didn’t really keep pets in the Middle Ages. The animals they accommodated earned their keep, one way or the other. One of my chickens hasn’t laid an egg in eighteen months. In the fourteenth century, I’m afraid she would have found her way to the stew pot.
I mentioned in a previous post that people in towns kept pigs. If you had a garden, you kept a pig, usually more than one, because you killed an adult pig in November to eat during the winter. There are many reports of pigs being a nuisance in towns, because they escaped from their gardens, damaged the neighbours’ gardens and added to the general chaos and filth that was a street in a medieval town.
Dogs were also kept by many people, mostly for hunting/poaching. They needed to be exercised, so they would also be in the streets, again, adding to the chaos and mess.
Fewer people owned horses, because they were expensive and most people didn’t need one. I don’t suppose that I need to add that they also contributed to the filth of medieval streets. It’s no wonder that the rushes that covered most ground-level floors had to be changed so often. People must constantly have been treading things in from outside, although they probably slipped off their pattens before they got too far inside the house.
Wealthy people kept hawks of various kinds. These were generally kept in a mews, but wealthy people, then as now, liked to show off their wealth, and their favourite birds went everywhere with them. There would be perches in the solar, where the birds would sit for visitors to admire.
It’s difficult enough these days to imagine what the inside of a medieval house or castle would look like when it was full of people, but it’s even more difficult to remember to think about the animals that lived with them.
I’ve often come across the term ‘knight’s fee’ in my reading and not known what it meant, so this week I decided to do some reading in order to find out. You’re probably already wondering how the picture of peasants working in a field above has anything to do with knights. I hope all will become clear.
Knight’s fee is a term that applied mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and was the amount of land that came with the obligation of military service. All land in England was held, in theory at least, by the king. William the Conqueror gave large chunks of it to his tenants-in-chief in return for military service. The tenants-in-chief, in turn, gave bits of land to men further down the chain who owed them military service. This obligation was inherited and confirmed by their descendants. The military service was up to forty days a year, which is why you’ll occasionally read about men returning home on the forty-first day. This service was unpaid. It was, of course, the king’s option to pay for more. The knight wasn’t obligated to accept, but it probably wasn’t a wise move to turn the king down.
These knights should not be thought of in the same way as the knights who trained for war since childhood and went off to fight in armour on the backs of magnificent horses, although some of them were that sort of knight. Many of them turned down the opportunity to become a knight of this kind, as the costs were too high. They were, rather, the lowest level of the landholding classes and were sometimes not much wealthier than the peasants who worked their land.
These men usually had one manor from which they had to raise enough money to look after their family and meet their military obligation. Fairly quickly this requirement to go to war themselves was replaced by a tax or fine known as scutage. Henry II collected it as a tax every four years; under other kings it was simply a way in which the landowner could pay for a knight to fight in his stead, either by hiring a knight himself or paying the money to the king.. These men would not all have been trained knights, so paying the king so that he could employ trained soldiers was probably a good option for many of them.
Even in the twelfth century there was no realistic expectation that the tenants-in-chief would be able to call on as many knights as their landholdings indicated should be available. The knights themselves must rarely have performed military service as they might have been too old, too young, too ill or disabled. Scutage, the tax or fine, allowed them to pay for someone else to go in their place.
Towards the end of the twelfth century the size of a manor sufficient to require a knight’s fee was five hides. A hide was generally considered to be 120 acres, but in this context it was usually understood as an amount of money rather than the size of the land itself. A hide was the area that would support a family for a year or that could be ploughed by a team of eight oxen. Both measures would indicate different amounts of land in different parts of the country, since a family could live for a year on a smaller piece of land in an area where the soil was good than they could where it was poor. The hide was a taxation tool more than anything else.
Around 1300 there were about 1,100 to 1,500 knights who technically owed the knight’s fee. By the start of the Hundred Years War in 1327 the vast majority of soldiers, including knights, were paid. In 1352 Edward III stopped trying to call men for their obligatory service and all soldiers who served thereafter were paid.
These days we think of livery as clothing that identifies a group of people as belonging together, both in colour and design. It has its origins in the custom of a medieval lord giving food and clothing to the people who served him. Clothes would have been given once a year and wine probably at Christmas, as well as food at various times of the year.
After a time, ‘livery’ came to signify just the clothing itself and not the food. Originally the colours were russet or blue, but, after a while, the clothes became part of an identification system at courts across Europe. Clerks wore blue, knights green and squires stripes. Household servants also wore stripes. It wasn’t just lords who did this; guilds also had their own liveries to identify their members.
Wearing a man’s livery meant that you were under his protection. With greater lords, the livery included their heraldic colours, which made it easy to identify their retainers. This was both a blessing and a curse, as it meant that most people were less likely to antagonise them, although it also made them the target of the retinue of a lord who might not be on the best of terms with their lord. It also meant that they were also easily recognisable if they committed a crime whilst wearing their livery. For the lord himself there were also benefits. The more men a lord had dressed in his livery, the more powerful, important and wealthy he seemed to everyone else.
Liveried retainers must often have committed crimes or caused problems, for Parliament tried on several occasions to introduce laws in order to have more control over them during the reign of Richard II. John of Gaunt argued, however, that dealing with a lack of discipline in his household was the responsibility of the lord and not the courts.
Chaucer, as a member first of the household of the Countess of Ulster and then of her husband, Lionel of Antwerp, would have worn livery and there are records of sums of money being given to him to buy clothes.
The idea of livery also carried over to the army, where each lord had his own retinue of soldiers. In 1346 the Welsh soldiers in the retinue of Edward, Prince of Wales, wore a short white coat with a hood.
When I was a child, we used to eat rabbit quite a bit, as it was cheap, being plentiful. Rabbits were so abundant that they were considered a pest and, in the 1950s, they were culled with myxomatosis. Not only did this make rabbits unfit for human consumption, but it also wiped out 99% of the rabbit population in England. They’ve made a comeback and rabbit meat, so I’m told, is trendy. I’m a vegetarian now, so I don’t know.
Until fairly recently, I assumed that rabbits had always been in England, but it turns out that, like many other things, they were introduced by the Normans and have been here less than a thousand years.
Rabbits, known as coneys or conyngs, were reared in warrens. In the Middle Ages this just meant land set aside for rearing small game. It was only later that it only referred to rabbits.
As with other game, only a small number of people had the right to hunt rabbits. Free warren was the right to hunt small game (which included rabbits and hares) and it could only be awarded by the king. Having a warren on your land was a privilege and also indicated to people around you that you were important. Status was everything in fourteenth-century England.
As well as providing food, rabbits were bred for their fur. Both could be very profitable to a lord of the manor who had the right to breed them. Free warren usually belonged to the person on whose land the warren was, but it could also be leased out to other people, which could cause problems, as we shall see later.
Rabbits didn’t do well in England to start with. They didn’t spread beyond the managed warrens for centuries, but when they did breed in the wild, they became a pest, hence the myxomatosis. They were despised as an animal to be hunted, but peasants hunted them anyway, since meat was meat. The most common technique was to send a ferret into the warren to chase the rabbits out into nets held by the hunters. The ferrets were muzzled so that they didn’t eat the rabbits themselves. In some parts of the country, ferrets were hired out to poachers of rabbits.
Ferreting wasn’t the only method used to catch rabbits. Smoke was also popular. What can only be described as a smoke bomb was made of yellow arsenic, sulphur and myrrh. It was set alight and dropped into the burrow. The escaping rabbits ran into the waiting nets. A less sophisticated method involved lighting a fire at a main entrance to the burrow. Spaniels were also used to chase rabbits into the nets.
Many lords of the manor employed warreners, who were very well paid, to look after the rabbits. Poaching them became so lucrative that organised gangs got involved A warrener’s life was a dangerous one. Warrens were usually far from any villages on the manor, so the warrener was on his own.
The gangs were mostly led by members of the gentry. The Coterell brothers and the Folvilles were involved in poaching. The poaching itself was probably carried out under their direction by peasants, possibly because they were poor or had a grudge against the owner of the warren. Some of the men caught poaching claimed that they were the ones who really had the right to hunt there and that might often have been true, as warrens were sometimes leased out, and who had the right to do what could sometimes be obscure.
The fourteenth century was a time of social mobility and rabbit fur was very popular among people who wanted to climb higher. The white belly-fur of a rabbit could be taken, at a distance, for ermine, used by those at the top of the ladder. It was known as miniver, although the term included any non-specific white fur. You can see why having a rabbit warren could be very lucrative and why gangs of poachers might be interested in them. In an attempt to ensure that everyone knew their place, a series of sumptuary laws were made in the second half of the fourteenth century. The one in 1363 said that wives and daughters of esquires could wear miniver if the squire had an income of more than 200 marks (£133 6s 8d).
Rabbits could be hunted all year round. My favourite writer about hunting, John Cummins, writes dismissively, “The warren falls more into the field of livestock husbandry than hunting” and I think I agree with him. Worse, rabbits could also be a distraction to hunting dogs, causing them to chase after the rabbit rather than continue following the scent of the animal they were tracking.
Rather shamefully, I’d almost got to the end of this post before I remembered that there’s a part of Southampton not far from where I live called Shirley Warren. Sure enough, it turned out that this used to be the free warren of the lords of Shirley manor. It’s a long, thin strip of land with a stream in a narrow valley with fairly steep sides. These days it’s full of houses, a hospital and a cemetery. For my UK readers, Benny Hill is buried in the cemetery.
I promised you a post about hermits and here it is. Monasteries had their origins in the practice of Christians from the third century on of going out into the deserts of Egypt and what is now Israel to be alone with God, among them St. Jerome, pictured above.
In the sixth century Saint Benedict created the first monastery as we would recognise it so that people could live a solitary life, but in community, which sounds a bit of a contradiction in terms, but made sense to him and to the people who gathered together in response to what he was doing. ‘Monk’ is derived from the Greek ‘monos’ which means alone. In the eleventh century a revival in eremitism started in Italy which spread across Europe and there were still many hermits in England in the fourteenth century. In some ways it was, by then, seen as a revolution against monasticism, although it was usual in most Benedictine monasteries for there to be two or three hermits associated with the monastery.
Hermits were allowed to leave their hermitages which were usually caves or hovels, but recluses (anchorites and anchoresses) were not. We’ll come on to them next week. Hovel is not necessarily a pejorative term. It just means a hut or small cottage. Living in caves seems dreadful to our modern sensibilities, but people were living in caves in England well into the twentieth century. They only became unfeasible when most homes had electricity, running water and gas. Not all hermitages were small, however, some were quite substantial outposts of a monastery containing chapels and accommodation for travellers
Generally hermits could go where they liked, but their ability to wander was eventually seen as a threat to the stability of the church. Hermitages began to be placed under the supervision of a nearby monastery or bishop in order to maintain some kind of control over where they went and what they did. In 1389 a law was passed stating that hermits had to have letters of accreditation from their bishops in order to prove that they weren’t vagrants. According to the writer, William Langland, there were men who thought their lives would be easier if they pretended to be hermits. I’m not sure what their lives were like if they thought a hermit’s life was better, since the hermit was supposed to renounce the world and be a servant to everyone.
They wore special clothes: a brown habit and white scapular. A scapular is a short cloak that covers the shoulders. This clothing was blessed by a bishop when a man became a hermit. It served two purposes. It was plain, which demonstrated the hermit’s lack of vanity and it also symbolised his rejection of family and society.
Hermits were supposed to provide hospitality to visitors. Their lives were about public service and they could work as guides, ferrymen and river pilots. It was also common for them to earn their keep by repairing roads or bridges.
Hermitages were usually found near these bridges, ferries, fords and causeways and where roads went into a dangerous or unwelcoming area. This goes some way to explaining why so many hermits appear in medieval romances, that is novels in the form of poetry. They usually help the knight with his quest. Knights in romances were always on a quest for one thing or another.
Some fourteenth-century hermits expressed themselves in their writing. Richard Rolle was a hermit in Yorkshire and he wrote commentaries on the Bible as well as devotional lyrics in both Latin and English. A lot of what he wrote was for women recluses (anchoresses). Despite this, he was read by both clerics and lay people.
We’ve seen before that there was a lot of lay interest in the religious life. This was tempered by dissatisfaction with what the church could provide in terms of the spiritual life for people who could not become monks, nuns or priests. Walter Hilton was another hermit and he wrote a book about how lay people could accommodate their desire for spiritual contemplation with the necessities of their secular lives.
Although being a hermit was considered by some to be the pinnacle of monastic life, requiring years of preparation, some lay people showed such an aptitude for it that they were allowed to become hermits by their local bishop.
This is a bit by way of being a companion piece to the post I wrote about forests a couple of weeks ago. Those of you who read it will already know that a wood was not a small forest. Unlike a forest, it did have to have trees and lots of them.
I was surprised to read in my sources that England was not as wooded as I had always been told as a teenager that it was in the Middle Ages. There was a picture in my head of a country so densely wooded that it was difficult to travel from one place to another for all the trees in the way. Not only had woods been supplying fuel and timber for centuries, but they had also been cut down to provide more farming land. It could almost be said that there was a shortage of trees by the fourteenth century.
Like everything else, woods were technically the property of the king. In practice they belonged to the lords of the manor, who used them for their own benefit. Wood was a precious resource, used for timber and fuel: for cooking, heat and smithies. In the fourteenth century, coal wasn’t a widespread source of fuel, although it was used in those places where it was easily accessible. In some parts of the country peat was used.
Woods had to be managed carefully to ensure that the lord of the manor and his heirs received the maximum benefit from them. Only they had the right to fell trees and sell them. Tenants, villeins and serfs on the manor might have other rights in a wood, though.
Oak, ash and beech were the most common trees. All were useful, but the oak and the beech also provided acorns and beechmast in the autumn and these were eaten by pigs. Almost everyone owned at least one pig and they would usually have the right of pannage, which meant that their pigs could forage in the wood during the autumn. On some manors this was a right that was enshrined in the by-laws of the manor, on others the tenants, villeins and serfs had to pay for the right.
Other rights included cablish, which was the right to collect branches that had been blown down for firewood. Housebote and haybote were the rights that allowed tenants to take timber to keep their houses and fencing in good order. As you might imagine, all these rights were open to abuse.
Given the value of a wood, they were not allowed to go wild. They were managed by woodwards. One way of managing a wood was to coppice it. This meant cutting a wood on rotation so that new growth in one place was cut every few years. This new growth was used for fuel and fencing. Larger trees were allowed to grow to be harvested as timber. Woodlands tended to be quite open, as the pigs’ foraging prevented new growth. As well as looking after the coppicing, another of the woodward’s duties was to ensure that no one took something from the wood to which they were not entitled. That must have been a difficult task.
Wood was a very precious resource and London needed a lot of woods around it to provide timber for building. There were probably the most intensively managed in the country.
Medieval society used a lot of wood. Timber was used for houses and boats and ships. It was used to make tools and weapons. Tables, stools, carts, ploughs, bowls, cups, chests and pattens were all made from wood. Some wood was used to make charcoal or potash, both of which were used in medieval industries. Charcoal was used wherever a lot of heat was required, such as a forge. Potash was used to bleach fabric and to make soap. Everyone used wood one way or another.
Last week Ellen Hawley wrote a post that mentioned medieval burgesses. I read it and wasn’t sure that I agreed with something that she quoted from a website that gave a definition of medieval burgesses. In my head and, I’m afraid, in my novel His Ransom, burgesses were the men who governed a town. This week’s research has shown that my earlier research was sorely lacking and I apologise now to anyone who has read the novel for the misinformation.
It’s true that governing bodies of towns were made up of burgesses, but burgess was not the title of a member of the governing body. A burgess was a free man who lived in a borough, paying rent to the lord of the manor. He was neither a serf nor a villein bound to a particular manor. Instead, he had many rights over the land he rented. Serfs and villeins were not eligible to become burgesses, even though some of them would have been able to afford the rent.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor could create a borough/town within their manor by making their tenants burgesses. Burgesses held a plot of land (usually less than half an acre) and paid a fixed rent for it. This meant that they didn’t have to provide agricultural services to the lord.
Their rights to this piece of land were quite extensive. They could sell it (or leave it to someone who would in turn become a burgess), sublet it or mortgage it. They also had the right to sell and buy goods in the town’s markets without having to pay tolls. This is what many of them ended up doing.
A borough was originally a centre for trade with a wall around it. Alfred the Great created many of them in the tenth century with the idea of having places that could be defended against the Vikings. This was in a time before castles first appeared in England. The borough’s walls and its soldiers provided protection for the market and its inhabitants.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries lords of the manor created boroughs and towns in order to have markets and fairs on their land, which would provide extra income for them. As well as the profit on the rents paid by the burgesses, it also gave the lord’s serfs and villeins somewhere nearby to sell and buy goods, paying tolls to him for the privilege, since they didn’t live in the town.
There were 100 boroughs in England in 1086. By 1300 there were over 500. Some of them had been created by various kings and some by abbeys, but most had been made by lords of the manor.
A burgess was eligible not just to sit on a town’s governing body, but he could also be selected to represent the town in a parliament. Parliament was not a permanent institution, but met for a few days (usually about a fortnight) more or less once a year, at least during the reign of Edward III, at the behest of the king. You’ll note that I use the word ‘selected’ rather than ‘elected’. The method of selection varied from town to town, but the representatives were usually selected by the other burgesses.
A very complicated selection system was used in King’s Lynn, where the mayor chose four burgesses who chose another four, then the eight selected another four. These twelve men selected the men they sent to parliament. There were also rules about which groups could provide the twelve men. The objective seemed to have been to ensure that the town’s representatives in parliament really did represent the views of those who ran the town. You’ll note again, that they weren’t representing the views of everyone in the town, but only those of the burgesses.
Over the years, burgesses tended to become wealthy men from trade. As a consequence, they were expected to look after the poor and infirm. They would, themselves, have seen this as a religious duty. They provided the money for hospitals and gave money to abbeys and friaries for the support of the poor and other good works. In Southampton they paid for a conduit to carry water from a spring about a mile outside the town down the hill and into the town. The photograph at the top of the post is the fourteenth-century Conduit House at the bottom of the hill, halfway between the spring and the town.
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.