By Jane Winters, Institute of Historical Research

Before the Conquest the kings of England enjoyed the right to hunt freely on their own lands, but in this they did not differ significantly from any other landowner.1 It was not a function of kingship, rather the prerogative of the landed. This changed with the arrival of William the Conqueror. In Normandy the strict preservation of game was confined to the ducal demesne, but the conquest of England offered a unique opportunity to extend the sphere of influence. At this stage it seems likely that the protection of hunting rights was still of paramount importance. William the Conqueror and his sons were notorious in their devotion to hunting. The compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that William

.... preserved the harts and boars
And loved the stags as much
As if he were their father.2

In a similar vein Henry of Huntingdon recorded that ‘he loved the beasts of the chase as if he were their father. On account of this, in the woodlands reserved for hunting, which he called the “New Forest”, he had villages rooted out and people removed, and made it a habitation for wild beasts’.3

The evidence is far from clear, but the reign of Henry I seems to have witnessed a development both in the extent and organization of the royal forest. That new land was added to the forest is apparent from Stephen’s charter of 1136, which promised to return acreage added to its extent by his predecessor.4 It had clearly expanded to embrace more than the royal demesne. As far as the organization and administration of the royal forest is concerned the single surviving pipe roll from the reign of Henry I is invaluable. The 1130 pipe roll records revenue that is clearly derived from a general forest visitation. The efforts of the justices were concentrated in the south of England, although the forest of the bishopric of Chester was visited and pleas were heard in Gloucestershire and Huntingdonshire.5 The forest was already becoming more than simply a royal game preserve. It would not be until the second half of the twelfth century that the unique financial potential of the forest began to be exploited systematically, but the change in emphasis had begun.

The development of the royal forest was interrupted by the upheaval of Stephen’s reign, when ‘wild animals ... which before had been most scrupulously preserved in the whole kingdom ... were now molested in every quarter, scattered by chance-comer and fearlessly struck down by all’.6 It was, however, only a short-lived setback. A regard, yielding significant financial returns, was undertaken as early as 11557 and by the mid 1160s the framework that would survive into the next century and beyond was well established. In addition to this development of the forest administration Henry II’s reign saw a vast increase in the total area of the forest. By 1189, between one third and one quarter of England was considered by the king as within the bounds of the royal forest8 and some twenty-nine counties were affected to a greater or lesser degree. Some of the more important forest counties were Essex (the entire county), Hampshire (New Forest and others), Northamptonshire (Rockingham, Salcey and Whittlewood), Nottinghamshire (Sherwood), Wiltshire (numerous) and Yorkshire (Galtres and Pickering).9

The royal forest embraced not only wooded areas, but also large tracts of arable land and even towns and villages. Anyone dwelling or holding land within the forest bounds was subject to a complex set of regulations, implemented by royal officials answerable only to the king. They were prevented from hunting freely but, more importantly, the laws of the vert denied them the right to utilise their land as they saw fit. Amercements were imposed for offences falling into three main categories: waste, assart and purpresture. Waste, as the name implies, occurred when land was cleared. Individuals found guilty of waste were not only burdened with a punitive amercement but also had to pay a sum equivalent to the value of any trees or brushwood that they had cut down. The waste of forest land might be the result of the over-zealous collection of wood for fuel or building, but it was frequently a prelude to assarting, that is the creation of new arable land. As with waste the creation of an assart frequently resulted in a dual financial penalty; an initial amercement could be supplemented by an annual rent for the maintenance of the newly cleared ground. If the assarted land was enclosed or built upon, an additional amercement would be imposed for what was called a purpresture. Finally, there were payments connected with the grazing of livestock, such as pannage.

Perhaps the most telling description of the royal forest is offered by Richard fitz Nigel in his Dialogus de Scaccario (1176). He states that:

the whole organisation of the forests, the punishment, pecuniary or corporal, of forest offences, is outside the jurisdiction of the other courts, and solely dependent on the decision of the King, or of some officer specially appointed by him. The forest has its own laws, based ... not on the Common Law of the realm, but on the arbitrary legislation of the King.10

This ‘arbitrary legislation’ was enforced by a complicated network of courts and officials. At the most basic level each forest was patrolled by a number of riding and walking foresters, responsible for the day-to-day implementation of the forest law. They served under foresters-in-fee who in turn served under a warden or keeper. These men, and sometimes women,11 were supported by agisters, verderers and regarders.12 The verderers and regarders differed from their fellows in that they received no remuneration. They were often men of some local standing, who were elected in the county court. Overseeing the whole was the chief justice of the forest.13

The administration within which these officials operated was similarly complicated. Of greatest significance locally was the attachment court, presided over by the verderers. The foresters presented information as to the wrongdoing that they had uncovered since the last meeting14 and offenders were generally attached to appear before the justices in eyre when they next visited the county. The verderers had no power to deal with those who had committed offences against the venison, but they could impose fines for minor offences against the vert. The usual procedure was for the inhabitants of the four nearest townships to be summoned and examined on oath as to what had happened in a particular case. The last tier of the local administration was the triennial regard, effectively a review of the state of the vert. The twelve regarders were furnished with certain articles or questions to which they had to provide answers.15 They provided a complete record of wastes, assarts and purprestures which was subsequently presented at the forest eyre.

The eyre, usually presided over by the chief justice, was fundamental to the running of the royal forest and, more importantly, to its successful financial exploitation. Revenue derived from regular payments, such as pannage, could be collected independently and local forest courts could deal with minor infringements against the vert, but anything of a more serious nature had to be dealt with by the justices in eyre. The local administration could function on a daily basis without central interference, but regular visitations were essential in the long term. The great bulk of forest revenue was derived from fines and amercements imposed in the course of the eyre. The range of these financial penalties was huge, depending on the severity of the offence and the ability of the individual to pay. Minor offences against the vert commonly resulted in an amercement of a few shillings, but those guilty of more serious wastes or offences against the venison could find themselves owing hundreds of pounds.16 Physical penalties could be and were handed down – the occasional ‘suspensus est’ noted in the margin of an eyre roll – but the burden of the forest law was primarily a financial one.

Despite its obvious significance there is considerable uncertainty as to the development of the eyre in the twelfth century and beyond, an uncertainty which extends even to the number of eyres that took place.17 The main problem lies in the ambiguous nature of the early pipe roll evidence.18 The information does not readily break down into discrete eyres. Payments are often spread over several years and it is frequently unclear to which visitation they belong. There does, however, seem to have been some concept of a general forest eyre, during which the majority of forest counties would be visited. Obvious examples of this are the visitations of 1169–71 and 1175–6, when pleas were heard in twenty-three and twenty-two counties respectively. This pattern of visitations continued well into the thirteenth century but began to break down under Edward I, when it was not uncommon for counties to be visited singly.

While the 1175–6 visitation remained the single most profitable of the twelfth century, King John exploited the forest to a greater degree than ever before and by the end of his reign forest eyres were taking place on an almost annual basis. Between 1207 and 1212 a total revenue of almost £11,500 was assessed.19 In the light of this it is not difficult to see why the forest was thought to warrant a separate charter in 1217.20 In the immediate aftermath of the 1212 visitation, John was forced to promise an investigation of the forest administration, with a view to curbing the worst excesses of the forest officials.21 This was not, however, enough to satisfy his opponents and grievances came to a head in 1215. The Unknown Charter, probably dating from spring 1215, stated that all land added to the royal forest by Henry II, Richard I and John should be deforested.22 Magna Carta itself adopted a more conciliatory approach; land afforested by John was to be removed from the royal forest immediately, but the king was granted the crusader’s respite with regard to the areas afforested by his father and brother. In 1217 there was a return to the original, more radical position, with the proviso that the afforestations of Henry II should only be reversed after investigation by ‘good and law-worthy men’.23 In all cases, however, there was no question of abolishing the forest altogether, or indeed of implementing substantial changes in practice; it was enough to reduce the physical area of the forest.

The forest continued to have the potential to serve as a focus for grievance beyond our period. In moments of political strife opponents of the crown turned to Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest as a matter of course, demanding their confirmation and enforcement.


  1. 1. ^ The most important general works on the royal forest are R. Grant, The Royal Forests of England (1991); the introduction to Select Pleas of the Forest, ed. G. J. Turner (Selden Soc., xiii, 1899); C. Petit-Dutaillis and G. Lefebvre, Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs’ Constitutional History (Manchester, 1930); and C. R. Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England (Pennsylvania, 1979).
  2. 2. ^ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a Revised Translation, ed. D. Whitelock and others(1961), p. 165.
  3. 3. ^ Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, The History of the English People, ed. and trans. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), p. 405.
  4. 4. ^ Select Charters and other Illustrations of English Constitutional History, from the Earliest Times to the Reign of Edward I, ed. W. Stubbs, 9th edn., rev. H. W. C. Davies (Oxford, 1921), pp. 143-4; Petit-Dutaillis and Lefebvre, p. 179; Grant, p. 3. It should be noted that there was no question of disafforesting land placed within the forest by William I and William II.
  5. 5. ^ H. A. Cronne, ‘The royal forest in the reign of Henry I’, in Essays in British and Irish History in Honour of James Eadie Todd, ed. H. A. Cronne and others (1949), p. 22.
  6. 6. ^ Gesta Stephani, ed. and trans. K. R. Potter (Oxford, 1976), p. 3.
  7. 7. ^ E. Amt, ‘The forest regard of 1155’, Journal of the Haskins Society: Studies in Medieval History, ii (1990), 189.
  8. 8. ^ J. A. Green, ‘Unity and disunity in the Anglo-Norman state’, Historical Research, lxii (1989), 124.
  9. 9. ^ For a breakdown of the royal forests in the mid 13th century see M. Bazeley, 'The extent of the English forest in the 13th century', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th ser., iv (1921), 160–3.
  10. 10. ^ De Necessariis Observantiis Scaccarii Dialogus qui vulgo dicitur Dialogus de Scaccario, ed. and trans. C. Johnson (Oxford, 1983), pp. 59–60.
  11. 11. ^ Avicia de Columbers, for example, was warden of Chute forest in Hampshire.
  12. 12. ^ See below for details of their responsibilities.
  13. 13. ^ There was usually a single chief justice, but for a short period in the reign of Henry III two chief justices, operating north and south of the Trent, were appointed.
  14. 14. ^ The interval between meetings was fixed at 40 days by cap. 8 of the 1217 Charter of the Forest (Stubbs, p. 346).
  15. 15. ^ For the Articles of the Regard, see PR, 1225–32, pp. 286–7.
  16. 16. ^ Pipe Roll 1176 has many examples of £100 amercements (see, e.g., pp. 22, 112, 116 and 159). The largest amercements, however, were reserved for forest officials guilty of contributing to the deterioration of the royal forest.
  17. 17. ^ A degree of consistency might be expected for the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John, where most of the sources are printed. Unfortunately this is not the case. To take one example Young records only six eyres during this period (Young, p. 39), while Grant notes 10 (Grant, p. 67).
  18. 18. ^ Apart from the occasional chronicle reference, the pipe rolls are the only source for the forest eyre before the 13th century.
  19. 19. ^ For these eyres, and the forest generally in John’s reign, see particularly J. C. Holt, The Northerners (Oxford, 1961), pp. 157–63.
  20. 20. ^ The issue of the forest was broached in 1215, but in 1216 was among those questions temporarily left on one side because ‘important yet doubtful’ (cap. 42, Stubbs, p. 339).
  21. 21. ^ See Memoriale fratris Walteri de Coventria, ed. W. Stubbs (2 vols., Rolls ser., 1872–3), ii. 207, for the contemporary reaction to this measure.
  22. 22. ^ J. C. Holt, Magna Carta (2nd edn., Cambridge, 1992), p. 428.
  23. 23. ^ Caps. 1 and 3 (Stubbs, p. 345).