No examination of medieval hunting would be complete without a more thorough discussion of forest law.
To say nothing for the corresponding legend – one that lives on to this day – that grew up surrounding it.
As mentioned in my first post about medieval hunting, forest law stipulated such matters as who was permitted to hunt what and when, what the punishment for poachers would be, and even how many talons were permitted on dogs that lived in households and villages within a royal forest.
According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle, forest law was brought over to England from France by William the Conqueror, who was a great lover of hunting and sought to preserve the English forests for his own use. They go on to explain that,
By the thirteenth century, forest law was even more strictly enforced in England than on the Continent, where there were fewer royal forests and more grants of hunting rights. (p. 137)
This remained the case despite the fact that while the Conqueror and his successors did all that they could to expand the total area of royal forests, King Richard the Lionheart and King John frequently “disafforested” large portions of forest, making them available to local lords for a fee when in need of money.
Laying down the (forest) law
The enforcement of forest law, once left largely to king’s sole discretion, underwent a dramatic change in 1217 with the introduction of the Forest Charter. The Forest Charter was an amendment made to Magna Carta, which King John had signed two years earlier to placate his rebellious, disaffected barons.
The Forest Charter put the enforcement of forest law in the hands of the courts. These courts included, as the Gieses explain,
Local courts that met every six weeks, special forest inquisitions called to deal with serious trespasses, and the royal forest eyre (circuit court) that had ultimate jurisdiction. (pp. 137-8)
Each of these three courts had their own distinct role in the administration of forest law.
The local courts dealt with minor infractions related to the “vert” (the forest vegetation), such as cutting and clearing trees, the grazing of cattle or pigs, and the gathering of products from the forest like deadwood and nuts.
The special inquisition dealt with more serious infractions related to the “venison” – the right, or lack thereof, to hunt deer.
During the inquisition any evidence of the crime (e.g. bows and arrows, deerskins, antlers, hunting dogs) would be confiscated by forest officials and the accused either imprisoned or attached to appear before the circuit court.
(Unlike our modern judicial practice, a sentence of imprisonment by the special inquisition was not itself the punishment for the crime. Rather, it served as an assurance that the accused would appear before the circuit court. If another person pledged to ensure the appearance at the appointed time, the accused would be released.)
Finally, the circuit court was responsible for ruling upon the special inquisitions. The Gieses describe the process as follows:
Every seven years the forest eyre, made up of four barons and knights appointed by the king, traveled from county to county hearing the accumulated forest cases. Trespassers were brought from prison or produced by the sheriff; the foresters and other officers presented their exhibits and the record of the special inquisition. The record was usually accepted as proof of the facts without any further hearing or evidence, and the prisoner was sentenced to prison for a year and a day – again not as punishment but against the payment of a ransom or fine. Usually the fine was in proportion to the prisoner’s condition, and sometimes trespassers were pardoned because they were poor. If a man had spent much time in jail waiting to be tried, he was released[.…] On the other hand, if he failed to appear, the trespasser was outlawed. (p. 138)
All the king’s men (of the woods)
The enforcement of forest law also involved a body of twelve knights known as regarders, whose job it was to inspect the royal forests every three years for any signs of encroachment onto the king’s forest land by his vassals.
Such encroachment could include a mill or fish pond, the enlargement of a clearing, an unlicensed enclosure of land, or illegal cutting of wood.
In addition to the regarders, the hierarchy of forest officials, from highest to lowest ranked, included the following:
- The forest justice – directed forest administration in all of England
- Wardens (also known as stewards, bailiffs, or chief foresters) – responsible for the management of a single forest or group of forests
- Verderers – knights or landed gentry responsible for the day-to-day administration of the vert
- Foresters – acted as gamekeepers; appointed by and subordinate to the wardens
- Agisters – responsible for collecting fees for the pasturing of cattle and pigs in the king’s forest lands; usually four men, also appointed by the wardens
- Woodwards – private foresters employed by vassals within royal forests
Whenever the king granted a forest to one of his barons, this suspended the royal forest justice’s enforcement of forest law, instead placing it in the hands of the vassal himself.
This gave the baron the right to arrest poachers, although only if they were caught “with the mainour” – that is, caught in the act with the stolen animal. If this occurred, the guilty party was put in prison until he paid a fine to the baron.
Another privilege afforded to barons under the Forest Charter – regardless of whether they’d been granted forest rights by the king or not – was the right to take a deer or two for his party when travelling through a royal forest.
This had to occur either in the presence of a forester or by the baron first blowing his hunting horn to prove he wasn’t a poacher. Deer taken in such a manner were carefully recorded in the rolls of the special forest inquisition under headings such as “venison taken without warrant” or “venison given by the lord king”.
The birth of a legend
Foresters were, according to the Gieses, usually the sons of knights or freeholders, who,
[O]ften abused their powers for gain – felling trees, grazing their own cattle, embezzling, taking bribes, extorting “sheaves, cats, corn, lambs and little pigs” from the people at harvest time (although specifically forbidden to do so by the Forest Charter), and killing the very deer they were supposed to protect. Not only the people who lived within the royal forests, but the nobles suffered. (p. 143)
Because of this, foresters were a generally hated class, and frequently failed to obtain cooperation when pursuing violations of forest law.
Whenever a forest crime was in progress, villagers within the area were supposed to raise the “hue and cry” – that is to shout out and chase down the assailant with weapons. More often, however, the villagers felt greater sympathy for the poachers than the foresters.
The legend of Robin Hood – a heroic outlaw living in Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, known for stealing from the rich and giving to the poor with his band of Merry Men – is intimately connected to medieval forest law. According to the Gies,
Many of the accounts of the forest inquests have the ring of Robin Hood, whose legend, significantly, sprang up in the thirteenth century. (p. 144)
They go on to quote a special forest inquisition record from 1246 involving foresters from Rockingham Forest in Northampton and a group of poachers:
[T]hey lay in ambush and saw five poachers in the lord king’s demesne of Wydehawe, one with a crossbow and four with bows and arrows, standing at their trees. And when the foresters perceived the, they hailed and pursued them.
And the aforesaid malefactors, standing at their trees, turned in defense and shot arrows at the foresters so that they wounded Matthew … so that it was despaired of the life of the said Matthew. And the foresters pursued the aforesaid malefactors so vigorously that they turned and fled into the thickness of the wood. And the foresters on account of the darkness of the night could follow them no more. (pp. 144-5)