Seeing the Woods for the Trees

How wooded was Essex in the early thirteenth century? Writers such as W. G. Hoskins, considered the father of landscape archaeology, state that it was ‘heavily wooded’, at least in the eleventh century; Nicholas Crane mentions the ‘continued existence of woodland’ in the south-east to explain the lack of nucleated villages here when elsewhere the open field system developed; villages and the open field system is a topic I shall return to. Most authoritative is the study of woodland in Oliver Rackham’s ‘classic history of Britain’s landscape, flora and fauna’, The History of the Countryside, which uses East Anglia as one of its main areas of study. Rackham uses information in the Domesday Book to calculate that throughout England in the late eleventh century about 35% of land was arable 15% was woodland, 1% was meadow and probably 30% was pasture. He later suggests that this 15% coverage by woodland had reduced to 10% by 1350 (pp. 16 & 88). The period we are interested in lies in between these two dates.

Of course, what is meant by ‘woodland’ is open to interpretation.

Domesday book was an accounting exercise intended to work out the commercial value of the land that William had conquered. Woodland was sometimes calculated in terms of size, but often (particularly in the counties including Essex which were the first to be recorded) in terms of the number of swine that they supported. This can be paralleled in our present age by the ‘Censuses of Woodlands’ carried out by the Forestry Commission which was primarily concerned with timber species and so ‘underrecorded non-timber species such as lime and hawthorn’ (Rackham, p. 24). In the same way, the entries in Domesday book for woodland that supported swine would not include trees in hedges, small spinneys or the occasional trees scattered through a settlement. ‘Woodland’ may not be the same as ‘wooded’.

Woodland probably means managed woods, which were economically important. As well as supporting swine, they yielded two crops: timber and wood. Rackham explains the difference: timber refers to individual trees felled so that their trunks can be used for beams and planks, mostly in building; wood (referred to when growing as ‘underwood’) comes from trees that are regularly coppiced to provide rods and poles used for fencing and wattles, and for fuel. ‘Underwood was normally the more important product; woods were traditionally regarded as sources of energy’ (Rackham, p. 67). And because trees were coppiced, they were a sustainable, because constantly regrowing, source of wood. Chalkney Wood in Earls Colne is a medieval wood (owned by the de Veres and donated by them to Colne Priory in the twelfth century); it is again being managed in the traditional way by being coppiced. The ‘stools’ (bases of trees which have been cut down again and again) show by their size how old they are, and in an ancient woodland this can be centuries. A new collection of writing on trees, Arboreal, has recently been published and includes a chapter on Chalkney Wood; a review in the Guardian dated 8th February 2017 comments, ‘Simon Leatherdale’s tale of the restoration of Chalkney Wood in Essex is an inspiring example of bringing a famous ancient wood back from the brink of oblivion.’ I haven’t yet seen this book, but I want to read this chapter at least.

The Economic History chapter on Colne Engaine in A History of the County of Essex (that wonderful source of information) suggests that Colne Engaine was ‘presumably heavily wooded in the early Middle Ages’, stating that there was land for 170 swine in 1086. How many pigs could be supported by an acre of woodland? It also indicates that Colne Engaine comprised three manors, and I shall come back to the question of manors at a later stage. I also need to read the entry for Parva Colun in the Domesday book myself. Now, however, my main interest is in seeing the wood for the trees.

The Introduction to Colne Engaine from A History of the County of Essex mentions that, at the beginning of the present century, the parish contains woods of small-leaved lime and hornbeam, while the existence of tyes and greens is evidence of woodland clearance. Ases tye (‘Asteys’), later Buntings Green, was recorded from 1400.

The Economic History chapter also gives more detail of woods in Colne Engaine later in the Middle Ages: ‘The largest area of woodland in the Middle Ages was probably Westhey wood or Westwood (82 a. in 1380) in the south-west corner of the parish.’ This, however, was the demesne wood of Wakes Colne manor. The demesne wood of Colne Engaine manor was Oxney or Oxley wood in the north-west of the parish which comprised about 30 acres in 1323; by comparison, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the manorial demesne had 240 acres of arable – eight times as much. The parish itself now covers 2,478 acres. Oxley wood is still present, as an area of woodland, on the Ordnance Survey map, though the parish border (civil parish that is) now cuts off the far north-west part of it. Tracks run through it, but no right of way. There were other areas of woodland in the parish, and doubtless other individual trees or small groups of trees not included in the acreages for ‘woodland’.

The question of whether or not Colne Engaine was in the forest, however, is quite a different one. As Rackham emphasises, and re-emphasises, ‘the word Forest does not imply woodland’ (p. 130). Rackham is always careful to spell the word Forest in the medieval sense of ‘an unfenced area where deer were kept’ with a capital F, acknowledging the association with trees and the modern sense of forestry ‘as the art of managing plantations’ while reminding readers that ‘the two have little in common but the name’ (p. 65). The important point about the Forest is that it was an area with a different legal system, imposed by the king for his own (hunting) benefit. The remnants of the system are still seen in the Forest courts of the New Forest. Danziger and Gillingham explain the legal implications of the Forest clearly:

By declaring an area of land to be forest, the king created a royal monopoly over the management and distribution of resources previously enjoyed by local lords and tenant farmers. (p. 124)

This had been started by William the  Conqueror for established Forests as game reserves for his own hunting. The land of England that was covered by Forest law reached its maximum extent under Henry II in 1189. Thereafter his son, John, (who had just been succeeded by his young son Henry III at the time we are interested in) deafforested areas in return for hefty fees (see Hoskins, p. 89). The burden of living under Forest law (dealt with to some extent by the Forest Charter, almost contemporary with Magna Carta) made paying for deafforestation worthwhile for landowners.

Danziger and Gillingham give some idea of the restraints Forest dwellers were under:

Hunting without permission was forbidden. Dogs kept in the forest were ‘lawed’: three claws were cut off the fore paw so that they could not chase game. Clearing and cultivating land in the forest could be done only with permission – particularly exasperating in an age of rising population. A perpetual rent had to be paid to the crown for newly cultivated land. . . . The right of local farmers to pasture their animals in the forest was strictly controlled and could be withdrawn at will. . . . A landowner could chop down a tree so long as it was for his own use, and not for sale, but even then he had to be careful not to overstep the mark. pp. 125-6

There were still at least 143 Forests by the time of Magna Carta (Rackham, p. 131) amounting, according to Danziger and Gillingham, to ‘nearly a third of England’ (p. 122). Hoskins states that ‘The whole of Essex lay under forest law’ (p. 87), a statement echoed by Danziger and Gillingham (p. 122) and David Carpenter in his commentary on Magna Carta (p. 176).

The restraints forest dwellers were under – and the harsh punishments they could face for contravening forest laws – gave rise to myths about the ancient liberties of ‘the Greenwood’ and characters such as Robin Hood. The legend that ‘ravening Norman depotism’ annihilated whole villages goes back to medieval writers; Simon Schama quotes Walter Map: ‘the Conqueror took away much land from God and men and converted it for the use of wild beasts and the sport of his dogs for which he demolished thirty-six churches and exterminated the inhabitants’. It was a popular idea at a time when many were smarting under the yoke of new overlords, and seemed to be justified by divine intervention when two of William’s sons, Rufus and Richard, were killed in the New Forest, ‘as was a grandson (also called Richard), his brother Duke Robert died with an arrow in his neck, and his son hanged from an oak by his hair’.

Later research has called into question the accuracy of the medieval writers, but the romanticism of the Greenwood survived into nineteenth-century literature as written by people such as Walter Scott, and twentieth century films and television series.

Rackham gives more detail about the Forests in Essex, though he is most interested in wooded Forests. He mentions two Essex Forests in some detail, Epping and Hatfield (pp. 147-151) and also provides a map of Hatfield Forest, marking present tree cover (p. 137). The picture is complicated, and I am going to quote from Rackham at some length:

Epping, anciently Waltham Forest, was uncompartmented, full of pollard trees, and had several hundred acres of heath and grassland. . . . By the Middle Ages the Forest appears to have had beech on the upper slopes, hornbeam on the lower ground, and a narrow zone of oak between; there were also hollies, crab-trees, services, and so on. Beech, oak, and hornbeam were pollarded. The Forest had many landowners and several hundred commoners. . . . The area of the Forest, the balance between trees, grass, and heath, and the composition of the trees were remarkbaly stable for at least 700 years. p. 147

Maps of Epping Forest from 1772-4 and 1871 (with very interesting notes) seem to bear out this last statement. Of Hatfield he claims that it is the ‘best-preserved of all Forests’:

There are still deer, cattle, coppice-woods, seven species of pollards, scrub, timber trees, grassland, fen, and a seventeenth-century lodge and rabbit warren. It is a unique survival in England and possibly in the world: here alone (and in the twin Forest of Writtle, which has lost is plains but still has a hermitage site) one can step back into the Middle Ages to see what a Forest looked like in use. p. 150

Writtle Forest is not discussed any more than this by Rackham (at least in this book), but the Essex Walks website describes it as ‘a truly medieval landscape’ its woodlands being ‘largely healthy and ancient, with a variety of truly ancient trees dispersed amongs areas of coppiced woodland and wetter Birch and Alder carr woodland’.

There are also ‘medieval clay pits, for the making of pots and vessels’.  This website gives a brief and helpful description of medieval Forests: they ‘consisted of a mixture of heath, woodland and other habitats in which a variety of game could flourish, and where deer in particular could find both open pasture for browsing and woodland thickets for protective cover. Commoners were alowed to graze their pigs and cattle in open areas, but sheep were kept in enclosed areas called ‘lawns’ because their grazing made the grass too short for deer to co-exist’. The site also mentions the Hermitage, ‘set up at the behest of King Stephen in the 12th century’ which made provision for two monks to always pray for the salvation of the living king and the souls of dead kings.

Does this provide us with an image of the landscape of Essex in the thirteenth century?


CARR: Wet ground; marshy copse esp. of alders

COPPICING: Cutting of underwood trees to near ground level every few years and then allowing them to grow again from the stool [permanent base of a coppiced tree]. See Rackham

POLLARDING: Cutting trees at 8-12 feet above goudn and loowing them to grow again to produce successive crops of wood. See Rackham

TYE: Comes from the Old English ‘teag’ and came to mean an enclosed piece of land, an enclosure or close, as well as a more extensive area of common pasture or a large common See Online Oxford English Dictionary accessed via Essex Libraries


Works mentioned in order in which they occur in the text.

W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (1955; Toller Fratrum: Little Toller Books, 2013)

Nicholas Crane, The Making of the British Landscape (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016)

Oliver Rackham, The History of the Countryside: The classic history of Britain’s landscape, flora and fauna (1986; London: Orion publishing, 2000)

Arboreal: A Collection of New Woodland Writing ed. Adrian Cooper, (Wimborne Minster: Little Toller Books, 2017); review available at [accessed 20.iii.2017]

‘Colne Engaine: Economic history’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10, Lexden Hundred (Part) Including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe, ed. Janet Cooper (London, 2001), pp. 110-113. British History Online [accessed 16 March 2017]

‘Colne Engaine: Introduction’, in A History of the County of Essex: Volume 10, Lexden Hundred (Part) Including Dedham, Earls Colne and Wivenhoe, ed. Janet Cooper (London, 2001), pp. 104-107. British History Online [accessed 16 March 2017]

David Carpenter, Magna Carta (London: Penguin, 2015)

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (London: HarperCollins, 1995; pbk 1996)

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