6th November 1217. Laws of the Forest.
‘The forest has its own laws,’ said Royal Treasurer, Richard fitz Nigel in the ‘Dialogus of Exchequer’, based not on the Common Law of the Realm, but on arbitrary legislation by the king’.(1)
In the 13th c the Neville family who held the office of Chief Forester must have upset one of the clerks at Westminster as he wrote on one of the rolls: ‘Richard de Neville is black and a bad man’.
It was Today in 1217 that saw the issue of the Forest Charter under the young Henry III which had been forced upon the King in an attempt to remedy long held grievances. Regulation was to be conducted three times a year in The Swanimotes.
In February 1218 the name Magna Carta is first used to distinguish the Forest Charter from the longer and more comprehensive Magna Carta.
The Forest Charter, on the right, is dated 11th February 1225. Now in the British Library it is one of three surviving.
The Charter promised that, ‘in future no one shall lose life or limb for our venison‘, in a situation where forest beasts were so protected that there was an inquest for any found dead.
Of all the regulations most hated was the ‘lawing of dogs’ which meant cutting of three talons from the front paw to protect the deer.
Mastiffs were the only dogs able to live in the forest and each year the tax collector would check that the dogs had a toe missing.
The Danish King Cnut (Canute) had restricted areas for hunting before the Normans encroached on the ‘forests’ which were areas of land including woods, wetland, heath and grassland.(2)
Now these became special Royal Forests where monarchs and aristocracy would hunt deer and other game under its own law, with minor disputes settled by ‘verderers’.
These areas were massive running from Epping described as the King’s Forest of Essex to the Thames, which for many miles was the northern boundary of Windsor Forest.
Indeed one could pass south-west through the woods of Eversley or Bagshot into Pamber ( Sir William Paulet was Keeper) into Bere Forest and finally the King’s New Forest bounded by Southampton Water and the Channel.
The Middlesex Forest was once owned by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem having taken over from the Knights’ Templar, eventually being taken by the Crown at the Dissolution of the Religious Houses’; St. John’s Wood, London is now a reminder of those days.
The New Forest today has grazed areas known as lawns (3) such as Bulmer Lawn, which originally were areas grazed by sheep, rabbits and horses.
Today seven White Park Cattle graze the Savernake Forest, Wiltshire. This rare and ancient breed were enclosed in parks following the removal of many forest areas following the protection of Forest Laws.
(1) In the reign of Henry II (1154-89).
(2) Forest: (Latin foris: ‘outside’).
(3) Lawn: (Middle English, ‘launde’ meaning heath).