Forest Laws in the Middle Ages

One of the hallmarks of the feudal system that William of Normandy imposed on England after 1066 were laws.  In the case of forest laws, Norman law superseded the prior Anglo-Saxon laws in which rights to the forest (not necessarily just woods, but also heath, moorland, and wetlands) were not exclusive to the king or nobles, but were shared among the people.  Feudal forest laws, in contrast, were harsh, forbidding not only the hunting of game with in the forest, but even the cutting of wood or the collection of fallen timber, berries, or anything growing within the forest.

The New Forest was set aside by King William in 1079 as his right, primarily for hunting deer.  “‘Forest'” in a medieval sense was a legally defined area  . . . where the “beasts of the chase” (deer & wild pig) and their food were protected for the pleasure of the monarch. It was not necessarily a wooded area in the modern meaning – nearly half the New Forest is open heath, grassland and bog.

The laws enacted to preserve the deer for the royal pleasure were the Forest Laws. The odious penalties of Forest Law for interference with the king’s deer and its food (“browse”) became less severe over the centuries, but remnants of the legal structure that policed the area for the Crown are still present in the New Forest as the Verderers’ Court.”

The height of enforcement of the forest laws were the 12th and 13th centuries, where up to 1/3 of England, including whole counties, were subject to them.   The king subsequently  charged a fee for certain uses of the forest, bringing him substantial income, which he increased by setting aside more expansive tracts of land.

Wales was never conquered by William and was thus not subject to this change in husbandry.  The people of Wales also were not Anglo-Saxon, and held to the laws of Hywel Dda, codified around 950 AD.  These laws were extensive and are considered by historians to be ‘laws of the people’, lacking stress on royal power, as opposed to the Anglo-Norman ‘laws of the King’ which were imposed by the state.

Forest laws in Wales, then, only existed in respect to the infringement upon the right of ownership by one landowner to another.  And unlike the English kings, the princes of Wales did not claim all the land in their country for themselves, which they then parceled out to those who pleased them.

The English forest laws, on the other hand, “were set up to protect the beasts of the chase and their habitats including  the vert. They precluded poaching and taking wood from the forest. The punishments for breaking these laws were severe and ranged from fines to, in the most severe cases, death.

Because of these forest laws the local peasants who lived on the land faced severe restrictions on their lifestyles. They were banned from enclosing their land by fencing or other means as this restricted the hunt. The forest laws were therefore extremely unpopular with the local population, who were unable to continue in their way of life that had existed up until the Norman rule. They were not allowed to protect their crops by fencing, they could not use the timber from the woodland for building houses and they were not allowed to hunt game to provide food for their families. As the ‘underwood’ was also protected they also faced a severe restriction on the availability of fuel.”

The Wildwood — the lost forest of the UK

Imagine all of the UK covered in a thickly wooded landscape, much like portions of the western United States. 

I just spent the last 1/2 an hour looking up native plants in Wales, trying to come up with a couple that would have reliably flourished in Gwynedd in the 13th century.  My sister-in-law is a botanist, and she agreed that agrimony and juniper would good choices.  What has been difficult to determine, as with the Roman and ancient roads, is what the landscape looked like in the Middle Ages.  England was mostly denuded of trees by then, but it is possible that wasn’t the case in Wales.  So when we see these broad lanscapes in the uplands with no trees, was that what they looked like eight hundred years ago?  How do we find that out?

According to scientists, only 1% of The Wildwood, the vast expanse of forest that once covered Britain, remains today.  “‘The Wildwood’ is the scholarly though dramatic name introduced by Oliver Rackham, author of the History Of The Countryside, and today used by historical geographers to refer to Britain’s dominant type of landscape when there were as yet no separate, named (and soon to be ‘managed’) pockets of ‘greenwood’ like Robin Hood’s refuge, Sherwood Forest. There was only one great uncultivated, completely wild mass of trees and bushes, stretching almost from coast to coast, which was, in a famous historian’s remark, enveloped in a silence broken only by the singing of innumerable birds.”

“By the time the Romans disembarked on these shores, their predecessors had cleared perhaps half of the forest and many of the hills and Downs were as bare as they are now.”

Most of the forests in Wales have been planted within the last century, but given that the trees grow, it’s possible that at one time, the forests grew across the entire region where there is now only moorland.  The question remains, when were they cut down?  Gerald of Wales makes two comments:  “It is a country very strongly defended by high mountains, deep valleys, extensive woods, rivers, and marshes;” and  “North Wales is better defended by nature, is more productive of men distinguished for bodily strength, and more fertile in the nature of its soil; for, as the mountains of Eryri (Snowdon) could supply pasturage for all the herds of cattle in Wales, if collected together . . .”

Edward I, in his conquest of Wales, had teams of hired laborers and soldiers clear a path for him across Wales so that he could not be ambushed from the trees by archers.

A similar practice occurred in Scotland:  “The Wildwood was deliberately broken up and burnt off also to get rid of outlaws and wolves. The very last known British wolf was killed in Scotland in 1745, about the time of Culloden. All forest cover has disappeared from vast areas due to clearance projects done for one reason or another, as in the Highland Clearances, in which the woods were first burnt off to drive out wolf and outlaw alike, the land unable to return to forest because of the Great Cheviot Sheep and later the deer herds kept for stag-shooting.”

This has prompted the Carrifan project, begun because of a 6000 year old yew bow found in a bog.  It’s discovery prompted a quest to determine the biodiversity of the area in the past.   The mission now is to:  “re-create in the Southern Uplands of Scotland an extensive tract of mainly forested wilderness, with most of the rich diversity of native species present in the area before human activities became dominant.”