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The royal forests seem to have existed before the Norman conquest of 1066 but feature little in the Saxon history of England. William the Conqueror is said to have "loved the tall deer as though he were their father" and established the "New Forest" in Hampshire. His Norman successors were just as fond of the chase and William II ("Rufus"), his son, was killed by a stray arrow (by accident or foul deed, we know not which) in the New Forest while hunting.

The very fact that The Conqueror's New Forest in hampshire was so named suggests to us that the other royal forests of the south of England (and Wiltshire alone had nine) predate the Norman conquest by a considerable period. The forests were not only a source of sport for the Norman kings, but also of considerable revenue and they steadily encroached on the surrounding lands and estates to the ire of magnate and borderer alike and caused much contention between the crown and its subjects in latter years.

The early Norman kings ruled England from the twin capitals of London and Winchester as the latter offered them easy access to their French possessions in Normandy. This led to their possessing many castles and forests in the south.  

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Contrary to popular conception, the medieval "forest" was not necessarily a wooded or wholly wooded place. It was;-

"an area of land which had been requisitioned by the Crown and which was administered under the Sovereign's direct authority; used for the purpose of a game reserve"
  - The Marquess of Ailesbury, A History of Savernake Forest

...the forest might consist of woodland, rough grass, heath and scrub or any combination.

The borderers, those who lived around the forest, would have traditional rights of grazing and pannage in the royal forests.

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The royal forests produced a valuable income for the crown at the revenues of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire were used by The Conqueror to provide the jointure (the provision made by a husband for the support of his wife after his death) of his queen and an income for his sons.

Medieval hygeine left much to be desired and there were litle or no drainage or other sanitary provisions even at royal castles other than possibly a garderobe over the moat. After a few weeks' occupation a castle would become rank. The monarch possessed many royal castle and, when any castle became unliveable, the roayl court would remove to another while it was cleaned out. As the court descended on the various castle, so the monarch and his courtiers would hunt in the local forests and would expect fresh meat on the banquet table.

The farming techniques of the time made it impossible to grow sufficient fodder to last livestock through the five months of winter and all animals which would not be required for breeding would be butchered in the autumn and preserved by the only available method - salting. The royal forests were as valuable a source of fresh meat in the winter as they were of royal sport.

He was fallen into covetousness, and greediness he loved withal. He made many deer-parks; and he established laws therewith; so that whosoever slew a hart, or a hind, should be deprived of his eyesight. As he forbade men to kill the harts, so also the boars; and he loved the tall deer as if he were their father. Likewise he decreed by the hares, that they should go free. His rich men bemoaned it, and the poor men shuddered at it. But he was so stern, that he recked not the hatred of them all; for they must follow withal the king's will, if they would live, or have land, or possessions, or even his peace.

- the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of William the Conqueror (it should, however, be remebered that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was not a pro-Norman document)


A lot of people were involved in the management of the forests. The forest were under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch and his justices at Westminster. At Savernake, William the Conqueror appointed a warden who had fought with him at Senlac, Richard Esturmy. Below the Warden were Foresters of Fee responcible for the outer bailiwicks, Lieutenants responsible to the Warden with Rangers beneath them. The position of Verderers was honorific and the next class of foresters were the Woodwards. Beneath them were the regarders (whose status is somewhat doubtful) and the deer-keepers or Under-Foresters.

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Forest Laws

The Forest Laws were the excercise of the kings' rule by "Devine Right" - quite peculiar to and subjugated all considerations to the protection of the king's "vert and venison". Penalties where harsh to the point of barbarity and even minor infringements could render the offender liable to mutilation or execution.

Borderers, those living on the fringes of the forest, were subject to the Forest Laws and had no protection from the Common Law.

Those who dwelt in the forest were forbidden to erect any fencing to protect their cultivated land - the king's deer having first call on their produce. If they wished to keep a dog, its paws had to be maimed so as to render it incapable of chasing the all-important deer.

Movement through the forests rendered the traveller liable to questioning at the least and during the Fence Month in midsummer the forests were "défendu" - completely forbidden in order that the does and new-born fawns should be free from any disturbance.  

In an apparently magnanamous gesture, the weak King Stephen repealed all prohibitions against hunting and many of Henry I's unjust forest laws. Game had become so depleted in the kingdom within a year that Stephen found himself having to re-invoke the old laws.

By the reign of King John, when the magnates of the realm forced the monarch to set his seal to a purported redress of their grievances, they were influenced by the knights and squires who's lands surrounded the royal forests and the Magna Carta, the Great Charter, contains two clauses which are now seldom remebered; "all forests which have been afforested in our time shall be forthwith disafforested" and "justice should likewise be done in respect of those areas which Henry our father or Richard our brother afforested".

King John had no intention of honouring the charter extracted from him at Runnymede in 1215 although the young boy king Henry III (1216-72) who succeeded him reiterated his father's pledges.

In 1224, the slaying of one of the king's deer ceased to be a capital offence and it was not unheard of for the local vicar to avail himself of some of the king's venison for the table with a bow and arrow.

A fine of �10 was decreed in an English statute of 1495 for the poaching pheasants and partridges on royal land.

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1136Stephen repeals the forest laws, provides for immediate elections of bishops and abolishes the Danegeld
1217Charter of the Forests was issued at Bristol deforesting recently created forests and repealing the harsh laws of Henry II
1495English statute decrees a �10 fine for poaching pheasants and partridges on royal land

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  New Forest

had no less than nine royal forests; Braydon, Chippenham, Chute, Clarendon, Grovely, Melchet, Savernake and Selwood.

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Recommend a Book for this Page

A History of Savernake Forest
  by the Marquess of Ailesbury (29th hereditary Warden of Savernake)

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