A royal forest, occasionally known as a kingswood (Latin: silva regis), is an area of land with different definitions in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The term forest in the ordinary modern understanding refers to an area of wooded land; however, the original medieval sense was closer to the modern idea of a "preserve" – i.e. land legally set aside for specific purposes such as royal hunting – with less emphasis on its composition. There are also differing and contextual interpretations in Continental Europe derived from the Carolingian and Merovingian legal systems.
In Anglo-Saxon England, though the kings were great huntsmen, they never set aside areas declared to be "outside" (Latin foris) the law of the land. Historians find no evidence of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs (c. 500 to 1066) creating forests. However, under the Norman kings (after 1066), by royal prerogative forest law was widely applied. The law was designed to protect the venison and the vert, the "noble" animals of the chase – notably red and fallow deer, the roe deer, and the wild boar – and the greenery that sustained them. Forests were designed as hunting areas reserved for the monarch or (by invitation) the aristocracy. The concept was introduced by the Normans to England in the 11th century, and at the height of this practice in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, fully one-third of the land area of southern England was designated as royal forest; at one stage in the 12th century, all of Essex was afforested, and on his accession Henry II declared all of Huntingdonshire forest.
Afforestation, in particular the creation of the New Forest, figured large in the folk history of the "Norman yoke", which magnified what was already a grave social ill: "the picture of prosperous settlements disrupted, houses burned, peasants evicted, all to serve the pleasure of the foreign tyrant, is a familiar element in the English national story .... The extent and intensity of hardship and of depopulation have been exaggerated", H. R. Loyn observed. Forest law prescribed harsh punishment for anyone who committed any of a range of offences within the forests; by the mid-17th century, enforcement of this law had died out, but many of England's woodlands still bore the title "Royal Forest". During the Middle Ages, the practice of reserving areas of land for the sole use of the aristocracy was common throughout Europe.
Royal forests usually included large areas of heath, grassland and wetland – anywhere that supported deer and other game. In addition, when an area was initially designated forest, any villages, towns and fields that lay within it were also subject to forest law. This could foster resentment as the local inhabitants were then restricted in the use of land they had previously relied upon for their livelihoods; however, common rights were not extinguished, but merely curtailed.
The areas that became Royal Forests were already relatively wild and sparsely populated, and can be related to specific geographic features that made them harder to work as farmland. Prosperous, well-farmed areas were not generally chosen to be afforested; if they were, they tended to lose the status fairly rapidly.
In the South West of England, forests extended across the Upper Jurassic Clay Vale. In the Midlands, the clay plain surrounding the River Severn was heavily wooded. Clay soils in Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire and Northamptonshire formed another belt of woodlands. In Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey, woodlands were established on sandy, gravelly acid soils. In the Scots Highlands, a "deer forest" generally has no trees at all.
Marshlands in Lincolnshire were afforested. Upland moors too were chosen, such as Dartmoor and Exmoor in the South West, and the Peak Forest of Derbyshire. The North Yorkshire moors, a sandstone plateau, had a number of Royal Forests.
William the Conqueror, a great lover of hunting, established the system of forest law. This operated outside the common law, and served to protect game animals and their forest habitat from destruction. In the year of his death, 1087, a poem, "The Rime of King William", inserted in the Peterborough Chronicle, expresses English indignation at the forest laws.
Offences in forest law were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game). The five animals of the forest protected by law were given by Manwood as the hart and hind (red deer), boar, hare and wolf. (In England, the boar became extinct in the wild by the 13th century, and the wolf by the late 15th century.) Protection was also said to be extended to the beasts of chase, the buck and doe (fallow deer), fox, marten, and roe deer, and the beasts and fowls of warren: the hare, coney, pheasant, and partridge. The rights of chase and of warren (i.e. to hunt such beasts) were often granted to local nobility for a fee, but were a quite separate concept.
Trespasses against the vert were rather extensive: they included purpresture, assarting, clearing forest land for agriculture, and felling trees or clearing shrubs, among others. These laws applied to any land within the boundary of the forest, even if it were freely owned; although the Charter of the Forest in 1217 established that all freemen owning land within the forest enjoyed the rights of agistment and pannage (see below).
In addition, inhabitants of the forest were forbidden to bear hunting weapons, and dogs were banned from the forest; mastiffs were permitted as watchdogs, but they had to have their front claws removed to prevent them from hunting game.
Disafforested lands on the edge of the forest were known as purlieus; agriculture was permitted here and deer escaping from the forest into them was permitted to be killed if causing damage.
Payment for access to certain rights could provide a useful source of income. Local nobles could be granted a royal licence to take a certain amount of game. The common inhabitants of the forest might, depending on their location, possess a variety of rights: estover, the right of taking firewood, pannage, the right to pasture swine in the forest, turbary, the right to cut turf (as fuel), and various other rights of pasturage (agistment) and harvesting the products of the forest. Land might be disafforested entirely, or permission given for assart and purpresture.
The chief royal official was the warden. As he was often an eminent and preoccupied magnate, his powers were frequently exercised by a deputy. He supervised the foresters and under-foresters, who personally went about preserving the forest and game and apprehending offenders against the law. The agisters supervised pannage and agistment and collected any fees thereto appertaining. The nomenclature of the officers can be somewhat confusing: the rank immediately below the constable were referred to as foresters-in-fee, or, later, woodwards, who held land in the forest in exchange for a rent, and advised the warden. They exercised various privileges within their bailiwicks. Their subordinates were the under-foresters, later referred to as rangers. The rangers are sometimes said to be patrollers of the purlieu.
Another group, called serjeants-in-fee, and later, foresters-in-fee (not to be confused with the above), held small estates in return for their service in patrolling the forest and apprehending offenders.
The forests also had surveyors, who determined the boundaries of the forest, and regarders. These last reported to the court of justice-seat and investigated encroachments on the forest and invasion of royal rights, such as assarting. While their visits were infrequent, due to the interval of time between courts, they provided a check against collusion between the foresters and local offenders.
Blackstone gives the following outline of the forest courts, as theoretically constructed:
In practice, these fine distinctions were not always observed. In the Forest of Dean, swainmote and the court of attachment seem to have been one and the same throughout most of its history. As the courts of justice-seat were held less frequently, the lower courts assumed the power to fine offenders against the forest laws, according to a fixed schedule. The courts of justice-seat crept into disuse, and in 1817, the office of Justice in Eyre was abolished and its powers transferred to the First Commissioner of Woods and Forests. Courts of swainmote and attachment went out of existence at various dates in the different forests. A Court of Swainmote was re-established in the New Forest in 1877.
Since the conquest of England, the forest, chase and warren lands had been exempted from the common law and subject only to the authority of the king, but these customs had faded into obscurity by time of The Restoration.
William I, original enactor of the Forest Law in England, did not harshly penalise offenders. The accusation that he "laid a law upon it, that whoever slew hart or hind should be blinded," according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is little more than propaganda. William Rufus, also a keen hunter, increased the severity of the penalties for various offences to include death and mutilation. The laws were in part codified under the Assize of the Forest (1184) of Henry II.
Magna Carta, the charter forced upon King John of England by the English barons in 1215, contained five clauses relating to royal forests. They aimed to limit, and even reduce, the King's sole rights as enshrined in forest law. The clauses were as follows (taken from translation of the great charter (Magna Carta)):
After the death of John, Henry III was compelled to grant the Charter of the Forest (1217), which further reformed the forest law and established the rights of agistment and pannage on private land within the forests. It also checked certain of the extortions of the foresters. An "Ordinance of the Forest" under Edward I again checked the oppression of the officers, and introduced sworn juries in the forest courts.
In 1300 many (if not all) forests were perambulated and reduced greatly in their extent, in theory to their extent in the time of Henry II. However, this depended on the determination of local juries, whose decisions often excluded from the Forest lands described in Domesday Book as within the forest. Successive kings tried to recover the "purlieus" excluded from a forest by the Great Perambulation of 1300. Forest officers periodically fined the inhabitants of the purlieus for failing to attend Forest Court or for forest offences. This led to complaints in Parliament. The king promised to remedy the grievances, but usually did nothing.
Several forests were alienated by Richard II and his successors, but generally the system decayed. Henry VII revived "Swainmotes" (forest courts) for several forests and held Forest Eyres in some of them. Henry VIII in 1547 placed the forests under the Court of Augmentations with two Masters and two Surveyors-General. On the abolition of that court, the two surveyors-general became responsible to the Exchequer. Their respective divisions were North and South of the river Trent.
The last serious exercise of forest law by a court of justice-seat (Forest Eyre) seems to have been in about 1635, in an attempt to raise money.
By the Tudor period and after, forest law had largely become anachronistic, and served primarily to protect timber in the royal forests. James I and his ministers Robert Cecil and Lionel Cranfield pursued a policy of increasing revenues from the forests and starting the process of disafforestation.
Cecil made the first steps towards abolition of the forests, as part of James I's policy of increasing his income independently of Parliament. Cecil investigated forests that were unused for royal hunting and provided little revenue from timber sales. Knaresborough Forest in Yorkshire was abolished. Revenues in the Forest of Dean were increased through sales of wood for iron smelting. Enclosures were made in Chippenham and Blackmore for herbage and pannage.
Cranfield commissioned surveys into assart lands of various forests, including Feckenham, Sedgemoor and Selwood, laying the foundations of the wide scale abolition of forests under Charles I. The commissioners appointed raised over £25,000 by compounding with occupiers, whose ownership was confirmed, subject to a fixed rent. Cranfield's work led directly to the disafforestation of Gillingham Forest in Dorset and Chippenham and Blackmore in Wiltshire. Additionally, he created the model for abolition of the forests followed throughout the 1630s.
Each disafforestation would start with a commission from the Exchequer, which would survey the forest, determine the lands belonging to the crown, and negotiate compensation for landowners and tenants whose now-traditional rights to use of the land as commons would be revoked. A legal action by the Attorney General would then proceed in the Court of Exchequer against the forest residents for intrusion, which would confirm the settlement negotiated by the commission. Crown lands would then be granted (leased), usually to prominent courtiers, and often the same figures that had undertaken the commission surveys. Legal complaints about the imposed settlements and compensation were frequent.
The disafforestations caused riots and Skimmington processions resulting in the destruction of enclosures and reoccupation of grazing lands in a number of West Country forests, including Gillingham, Braydon and Dean, known as the Western Rising. Riots also took place in Feckenham, Leicester and Malvern. The riots followed the physical enclosure of lands previously used as commons, and frequently led to the destruction of fencing and hedges. Some were said to have had a "warlike" character, with armed mobs numbering hundreds, for instance in Feckenham. The rioters in Dean fully destroyed the enclosures surrounding 3,000 acres in groups that numbered thousands of participants.
The disturbances tended to involve artisans and cottagers who were not entitled to compensation. The riots were hard to enforce against, due to the lack of efficient militia, and the low born nature of the participants. Ultimately, however, enclosure succeeded, with the exceptions of Dean and Malvern Chase.
The Forest of Dean was legally re-established in 1668. A Forest Eyre was held for the New Forest in 1670, and a few for other forests in the 1660s and 1670s, but these were the last. From 1715, both surveyor's posts were held by the same person. The remaining royal forests continued to be managed (in theory, at least) on behalf of the crown. However, the commoners' rights of grazing often seem to have been more important than the rights of the crown.
In the late 1780s a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the condition of Crown woods and those surviving. North of the Trent it found Sherwood Forest survived, south of it: the New Forest, three others in Hampshire, Windsor Forest in Berkshire, the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, Waltham or Epping Forest in Essex, three forests in Northamptonshire, and Wychwood in Oxfordshire. Some of these no longer had swainmote courts thus no official supervision. They divided the remaining forests into two classes, those with and without the Crown as major landowner. In certain Hampshire forests and the Forest of Dean, most of the soil belonged to the Crown and these should be reserved to grow timber, to meet the need for oak for shipbuilding. The others would be inclosed, the Crown receiving an "allotment" (compensation) in lieu of its rights.
In 1810, responsibility for woods was moved from Surveyors-General (who accounted to the Auditors of Land Revenue) to a new Commission of Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues. From 1832 to 1851 "Works and Buildings" were added to their responsibilities. In 1851, the commissioners again became a Commissioner of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues. In 1924, the Royal Forests were transferred to the new Forestry Commission (now Forestry England).
The Forest of Dean was used as a source of charcoal for ironmaking within the Forest from 1612 until about 1670. It was the subject of a Reafforestation Act in 1667. Courts continued to be held at the Speech House, for example to regulate the activities of the Freeminers. The sale of cordwood for charcoal continued until at least the late 18th century. Deer were removed in 1850. The forest is today heavily wooded, as is a substantial formerly privately owned area to the west, now treated as part of the forest. It is managed by Forestry England.
The extent of Epping Forest was greatly reduced by inclosure by landowners. The Corporation of London wished to see it preserved as an open space and obtained an injunction to throw open some 3,000 acres (12 km2) that had been inclosed in the preceding 20 years. In 1875 and 1876, it bought 3,000 acres (12 km2) of open waste land. Under the Epping Forest Act 1878, the forest was disafforested and forest law abolished in respect of it. Instead the corporation was appointed as Conservators of the Forest. The forest is managed through the Epping Forest Committee.
An Act was passed to remove the deer in 1851, but abandoned when it was realised that the deer were needed to keep open the unwooded "lawns" of the forest. An attempt was made to develop the forest for growing wood by a rolling programme of inclosures. In 1875, a Select committee of the House of Commons recommended against this, leading to the passage of the New Forest Act 1877, which limited the Crown's right to inclose, regulated common rights, and reconstituted the Court of Verderers. A further Act was passed in 1964. This forest is also managed by Forestry England.
A forest since the end of the Ice Age (as attested by pollen sampling cores), Sherwood Forest National Nature Reserve today encompasses 423.2 hectares, (1,045 acres) surrounding the village of Edwinstowe, the site of Thoresby Hall.
The core of the forest is the Special Area of Conservation named Birklands and Bilhaugh. It is a remnant of an older, much larger, royal hunting forest, which derived its name from its status as the shire (or sher) wood of Nottinghamshire, which extended into several neighbouring counties (shires), bordered on the west along the River Erewash and the Forest of East Derbyshire. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, the forest covered perhaps a quarter of Nottinghamshire in woodland and heath subject to the forest laws.
|Name of forest||County||Disafforestation date||Notes||Soil or landscape|
|Aconbury||Herefordshire||1216, part||360 acres assarted to support a nunnery in 1216|
|Alice Holt and Woolmer Forests||Hampshire||1812||||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Bagshot||Surrey||Part of Windsor Forest||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Bedfordshire||Bedfordshire||1191, Part disafforested|||
|Bere Forest including Bere Ashley||Hampshire and Dorset||1269, in Dorset||||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Bere Porchester||Hampshire||1810||||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Bernwood Forest||Buckinghamshire||1622||Including Brill and Panshill||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Bernwood Forest||Oxfordshire||1622||Partly in Bucks||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Blackmoor Forest||Dorset||1277||||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Bowland||Lancashire and Yorkshire|
|Braydon Forest or Forest of Braden||Wiltshire||1630||Including parish of Minety, at that time in Gloucestershire Disafforested with riots||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Brewood Forest||Staffordshire or Shropshire||1204|||
|Brigstock||Northamptonshire||1638||Part of Rockingham Forest|
|Brill||Buckinghamshire||Part of Bernwood Forest|
|Carlisle||Cumberland||or Inglewood Forest|
|Cannock Chase||Staffordshire||1290, in part||1290 partially given to the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield for a Chase|
|Chippenham||Wiltshire||1618–23||Perhaps excepting Bowood or Pewsham New Park||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Chute Forest||Hampshire and Wiltshire||1639–61||Included Finkley and Digerley Forests|
|Clarendon Forest||Wiltshire||1664 (Clarendon)||Including Panchet Wood and Milchet Park, with the associated Forest of Buckholt, Hampshire|
|Claverley and Worfield||Shropshire|||
|Cornwall||Cornwall||1204||Two woods and two moors disafforested 1215|
|Dartmoor||Devon||1204||Annexed to Duchy of Cornwall 1337||High moorlands|
|Dean||Gloucestershire and Herefordshire||||Midland clay plain, oak forest|
|Delamere||Cheshire||1812||Also known as Mara and Moudrem; outside of normal forest administration|
|Duffield Frith||Derbyshire||A group of six royal forests|
|Epping Forest part of Waltham Forest||Essex||1878||Epping Forest Act 1878 established preservation and common rights|
|Forest of Essex||Essex||1204||Entire county afforested to 1204|
|Essex, north||Essex||1204||"North of the Stanestreet", Tendring Hundred 1228||Boulder clay, fertile lands|
|Exmoor Forest||Devon and Somerset||1815||||High moorlands|
|Feckenham Forest||Worcestershire and Warwickshire||1622–31|| Riots on disafforestation 1630–31||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Filwood||Somerset||Part of Kingswood|
|Geddington||Northamptonshire||1676||Part of Rockingham Forest|
|Gillingham Forest||Dorset||1625||||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Hainault||1851||Part of Essex Forest|
|Harewood||Herefordshire||||Midlands clay plain|
|Hastings, Rape of||Sussex||1206-7|||
|Hatfield Forest||Essex||Part of former Essex Forest|
|Hay of Hereford||Herefordshire||Midlands clay plain|
|Forest of High Peak||North Derbyshire|
|Forest of Huntingdonshire||Huntingdonshire||Mainly Forests of Weybridge, Sapley and Herthey. Whole small county in C13th|
|Inglewood Forest||Cumberland||Sometimes including Allerdale|
|Isle of Wight Forest||Hampshire|||
|Kesteven Forest||Lincolnshire Fens||1230||'Forest of the March' NB: this is not the modern forestry management district of the same name||Marsh, fens|
|Keynsham Forest||Somerset||Alias Kingswood|
|King's Cliffe||Northamptonshire||Part of Rockingham Forest|
|Kinver Forest||Staffordshire formerly extending into Worcestershire||||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Leicester Forest||Leicestershire||1628||Riots occurred at disafforestation.|
|Long Forest||Shropshire||Incl Longmynd, Stapelwood, Burswood, Lythwood and Stapleton||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Long Mynd or Strattondale||Shropshire|
|Lonsdale (including Wyresdale and Quernsmore)||Lancashire||1267|||
|Linwood||Hampshire||Part of the New Forest|
|Macclesfield Forest||Cheshire||See Delamere Forest|
|Malvern Forest||Worcestershire||1290||After this, strictly a chase||Midland clay plain, woodlands; upland moors|
|Malvern Chase||Worcestershire||1632, 1676||Strictly a chase, but 'disaforrested' with riots, confirmed 1676; Malvern Hills Act 1884 established preservation and common rights||Midland clay plain, woodlands; upland moors|
|Mara et Mondrum||Cheshire||1812||Delamere Forest is a remnant|
|Melchet||Wiltshire||1577–1614||In southeast of county, between Clarendon and Hampshire border|
|Melksham and Chippenham Forest||Wiltshire||1623||||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Mendip Forest||Somerset||Also known as Cheddar|
|Forest of Middlesex||Middlesex and part of modern Hertfordshire||1218|||
|Morfe Forest||Shropshire||lying east and southeast of Bridgnorth||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Needwood Forest||Staffordshire, east||was parcel of the Duchy of Lancaster; Chase?|
|New Forest||Hampshire||1877||New Forest Act 1877 established preservation and rights of common||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|New Forest, Staffordshire||Staffordshire||1204|||
|Forest of Northumberland||Northumberland||1280|||
|Ombersley and Horewell||Worcestershire||1229||||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Ouse and Derwent||Yorkshire||1234|||
|Oxford and Stamford Bridges||Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Huntingdonshire|||
|Pamber Forest||Hampshire||1614||Granted to John Waller and Thomas Pursell|
|Penchet||Part of Clarendon Forest|
|Pickering Forest||North Yorkshire||1639||||Sandstone upland plateau|
|Poorstock Forest||Dorset||(see Powerstock)|
|Purbeck||Dorset||1550||Granted to Duke of Somerset|
|Rockingham Forest||Northamptonshire||1638 & 1795-6||Including Brigstock, Cliffe, Geddington and Northampton Park; Bailiwicks disafforested 1790s||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Forest of Rossendale||Lancashire|
|Forest of Rutland, with Sauvey Forest||Leicestershire||1398||Granted to the Duke of Abermarle|
|Salcey Forest||Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire||1825||||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Sauvey||Leicestershire||1236||Except Withcote, 1627|
|Savernake Forest||Berkshire and Wiltshire||1550||Or Marlborough Forest; Granted to Duke of Somerset|
|Selwood Forest||Somerset and Wiltshire||1627–29||||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Sherwood Forest||Nottinghamshire||1818||Famous by its historic association with the legend of Robin Hood.||Clay plain, woodlands|
|Shirlett Forest||Shropshire||Final extent was a small area northwest of Bridgnorth|
|Shotover Forest||Oxfordshire||Including Stowood||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Stapelwood (including Buriwood, Lythewood and Stepelton)||Shropshire|
|Surrey, south||Surrey||1191||South of the Guildford Road|
|Treville||Herefordshire||1230||Granted to John of Monmouth|
|Waltham Forest||Essex||Last remnant of Forest of Essex|
|Windsor Forest||Berkshire, Surrey and negligibly Hampshire||1813||||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Forest of Wirral||Cheshire||1376|||
|Whittlewood Forest||Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire||Clay soils, woodlands|
|Woolmer Forest||Hampshire||1855||||Sandy, gravelly acid soils; dry oak, birch wood|
|Wrekin Forest||Shropshire||(more strictly Mount Gilbert Forest) (including Wellington and Wombridge) and the associated Forest of Haughmond||Midland clay plain, woodlands|
|Wychwood Forest||Oxfordshire||1853||||Heavy clay soils, dense oak forest|
|Wyre Forest||Worcestershire and Shropshire||Strictly only a chase|
Only one royal forest is known to have been formed in the Lordship of Ireland.
|Name of forest||County||Disafforestation date||Notes||Soil or landscape|
|Glencree||Wicklow||c. 1315||In 1244 sixty does and twenty bucks were ordered to be "taken alive in the king's parks nearest to the port of Chester to be sent to the port of Dalkey, Ireland, and delivered to the king's Treasurer in Dublin to stock the king's Park of Glencry." It is last mentioned in the reign of Edward I and is believed to have been destroyed during the Bruce campaign in Ireland (1315–18).||Podzol, oak trees|
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article "Forest Laws".|