Forest Laws in the Middle Ages - Sarah Woodbury

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  In the case of forest laws, Norman law superseded the prior Anglo-Saxon laws in which rights to the forest (not necessarily just woods, but also heath, moorland, and wetlands) were not exclusive to the king or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.”