John, Henry III


King John sold charters to a number of his barons which freed named woods and manors from the forest law. For example in 1200, Hubert fitzRalph paid 30 marks in respect of his manor and wood of Crich, and William fitz Wakelin 60 marks for his manor of Stainsby, all in Derbyshire. However the financial burden of the war with France forced John to make much more sweeping concessions. In March 1204 the men of Cornwall agreed to pay a fine of 2,000 marks and 20 palfreys worth 10 marks each for the disafforestment of the whole of the county, with the exception of two moors and two woods, and for having a sheriff chosen from their own nominees. Other royal charters freed from the forest law Ryedale Forest in North Yorkshire, Brewood Forest in Shropshire, the New Forest in Staffordshire, and Wyresdale Forest in Lancashire. John’s desperate need for money resulted in substantial sums being ordered to be paid by the ‘collectors of the fine’ directly to the king’s servants and into the king’s chamber.

The forest was prominent among the grievances which the barons presented to John when opposition to his rule came to a head in 1215. In the Great Charter he undertook to put out of the forest ‘at once’ the districts which he himself had afforested, and the rivers he had placed ‘in defence’. But he only promised to ‘do justice’ regarding the forests created by Henry II and Richard I. As a result of Magna Carta or Great Charter, an inquiry was to be made in every county by an elected jury of twelve knights into ‘evil customs’ of forests, warrens and rivers, and these customs were to be abolished within forty days, provided that the king, or, in his absence, the Justiciar, were first informed. A committee of barons was probably about to take control of the central government, which would have led to swift changes. However the king and his advisors persuaded the Archbishops of Canterbury and Dublin and six other bishops to agree to a declaration that the article of the Great Charter regarding ‘evil customs’ was not to be construed as abolishing any customary laws necessary to the continued existence of the forest.

Henry III

The outbreak of civil war and the death of King John meant that the declaration was upheld: when the Great Charter was re-issued on 12 November 1216, after the accession of the infant Henry III, article 48 regarding ‘evil customs’ was one of the ‘difficult and doubtful’ clauses which were omitted and postponed for further consideration. Some concessions were forthcoming, and on 6 November 1217 the Earl Marshal issued the Charter of the Forest in the king’s name. No more death or mutilation for taking the king’s deer, the penalties were now to be limited to amercement, imprisonment or exile. A royal pardon was granted to all men outlawed for such offences before the king’s coronation in 1216, and also for all assarts, purprestures and waste in the forests before then. All lands afforested by Henry II or his sons were to be disafforested. Owners of lands in the forests were now to be allowed to bring them into cultivation and the make mills, fishponds and other constructions outside the covert, to agist their pigs in their woods at their pleasure, and to have all the eyries and honey in them. Forest dwellers were not to be compelled to attend the swanimotes, nor those who lived outside the forest to attend the Forest Eyre, unless they were accused of an offence, or were sureties for someone else. The number of foresters was to be limited under the supervision of the regarders: no warden or local forest officer was to hold pleas of the forest, which were reserved for the Forest Eyre. The dues extracted for unlawed dogs and for cheminage were defined and limited, and the foresters were forbidden henceforth to make scotale or to exact contributions from the forest inhabitants. Bishops and barons were to have the right to take one or two deer when passing through the royal forest.

In July 1218, as a result of the Forest Charter, the Council of Regency ordered twelve law-worthy knights to be chosen in each forest county by the sheriff and four worthy knights. They were to make perambulation, distinguishing between those districts which ought to remain in the forest, and those which ought to be put out. The sheriff was then to send the record to the king. In December 1219 the regents ordered fresh perambulations to be made in all the forest counties. All districts afforested by Henry II and John were to be disafforested after examination of the returns by the Justiciar and the Council of Regency. On 30 October 1221 the regents ordered Hugh de Neville, the Chief Justice of the Forest, to cause the royal forests to be kept by the same metes and bounds as they had been in the time of King John before the war between him and his barons. The perambulating juries contended that only the ‘ancient demesne’ of the Crown should remain subject to the forest law. They relied on oral traditions, and they undoubtedly claimed the disafforestment of districts which had been put out of the forest during the reign of Stephen, and subsequently reclaimed by Henry II. Further gestures of conciliation had to be made in 1224. Louis VIII of France overran Poitou and attacked Gascony, and money was needed to finance Richard of Cornwall’s campaigns to recover and defend these possessions of the English Crown. On 1 February of the following year, the Great Council granted the king an aid of a fifteenth of all moveables, and in return the Charter of the Forest was re-issued. Five days later Hugh de Neville and eight other commissioners were appointed to supervise the making of yet another series of perambulations. They were to be made in each forest county by an elected jury of twelve knights, two or more knights nominated by the Crown, and foresters of fee and verderers. No woods were to be felled or venison taken in the districts claimed to be disafforested until the perambulations had been notified to the council, which would decide what was to be done.

The resulting verdicts amounted, once again, to a demand for the abolition of the forest jurisdiction outside the king’s demesnes. In April 1225 the Huntingdonshire jurors exactly repeated the earlier perambulations of 1218 and 1219. In Surrey, Staffordshire, Sussex, Liecestershire, Rutland, Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Dorset the jurors declared that all the forests there had been established since the accession of Henry II, and that only those lands and woods held by him in demesne -the ‘ancient demesnes of Crown’ – could, according to the Charter of the Forest, remain in the forest. Such verdicts caused controversy and bitter ill will between the people and the forest officers, however the regents were compelled to accept these and other verdicts for the time being. In August 1225 they ordered the disafforestment of the whole of the forest of Rutland, with the exception of the royal demesne woods of Oakham and Ridlington, and confirmed the perambulations in Surrey, Staffordshire and Sussex. Private chases created by tenants-in-chief since 1154 outside their own demesnes were likewise abrogated, in accordance with the provisions of the Forest Charter. Roger of Wendover says that the inhabitants of the disafforested districts made full use of their newly acquired liberties, by cutting and selling timber from their woods, making assarts and bringing suitable waste land into cultivation, and hunting deer. ‘The very dogs’, he says, ‘who had formerly been used to have their paws cut, rejoiced in their freedom’. It was not to last: on 26 October 1226, the king’s advisors ordered the sheriffs of Shropshire, Hampshire, Yorkshire and Huntingdonshire to make public proclamations forbidding anyone to make waste, sales or gifts of wood, assarts or purprestures in their woods within the royal forest by reason of the perambulations, until further orders.

Henry III declared himself to be of full age on 9 January 1227, and he began measures to reclaim the forest rights of his crown. On the very next day, orders were sent out to the sheriffs of Shropshire, Rutland, Nottingham, Leicester, Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxford, Huntingdon, Surry and Warwick. The foresters of fee were to be summoned to appear before the king to show by what warrant they held their bailiwicks, and anyone who had assumed any liberty in the forest since 1217, had to produce his authority. The jurors who had made the perambulations in 1225 were summoned to explain why they had put out of the forest districts which had been forest before 1154, and also royal demesnes. Lands disafforested during the reign of the usurper Stephen and subsequently reclaimed by Henry II were not within the terms of the Charter of the Forest. The jurors appeared before the king, and were induced to acknowledge their error and to modify their perambulations; they then received the king’s pardon. The revised perambulations did however make extensive concessions in Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Wiltshire. The men of Leicestershire gave the king 100 pound to have another perambulation, and in 1235 he conceded that the county should be put out of the forest with the exception of the manor of Withcote, which was ancient demesne of the Crown. To gain freedom from the forest law the people of the districts disafforested in Nottingham paid 20 marks in 1228 for exemption from suit at the forest courts.

Due to shortages of money, Henry was forced to follow the practice of Richard I and John, by selling charters of disafforestment. In July 1232 the king confirmed a perambulation which substantially reduced the extent of Sherwood Forest; the extent of royal forest was also diminished by his grants to members of his family. Despite the various concessions, the hated system was enforced after 1227 over a large part of England. Henry’s interpretation of the Charter of the Forest was rejected by his subjects. Roger of Wendover wrote that at the Council of Oxford in 1227, ‘the King caused to be cancelled and annulled all the charters of liberties of the forest, although they had already been in force in the whole realm for two years’: the earls who rebelled in July were said to have compelled the king to restore the charters by the threat of armed force. It was the policy of Henry to dislodge ecclesiastical and lay magnates from the great offices of state, and replace them with household officials, which would make the central administration more agreeable to his will.

Grievances relating to the forests were prominent in the ‘Petitions of the Barons’ brought forward at the Parliament of Oxford in June 1258. One complaint was that Henry had re-afforested woods and lands which had been put out of the forest by the perambulations of 1225. When the barons took over power from the king, the ‘magnates of the Council’ in September 1259 appointed Thomas Gresley, a reformer baron, as Justice of the southern forests, and later confirmed John d’ Eyville also a reformer baron, as Justice of the northern forests. During the war between Henry and Simon de Montfort from 1263 until 1265, the forest laws were unable to be enforced, and the forest inhabitants were able to take deer and cut wood. However after the defeat and death of de Montfort at the battle of Evesham, the Justices of the Forest were once more sent out on eyre to hear pleas of the forest, and to re-establish the forest system in any districts which had been lost. The policy of appointing household officials to the highest forest offices was abandoned, and henceforth the Justices of the Forest were for the most part great barons, who often held extensive estates in or near the forests they administered.