More reading on woods and forests

Since writing on Seeing the Woods for the Trees, I have read Charles R. Young’s paper on ‘The Royal Forests of Medieval England’, which takes a very different approach from Rackham’s book.  Young’s Introduction, in particular, concentrates on textual approaches to the Forest, and mentions the ‘ancient woods’ and ‘darkness and gloom’ which met the Norman invaders (p. 1). He largely associates forest with areas of woodland, but acknowledges the importance of the imposition of Forest law and mentions the ‘harsh reality of the royal forest law introduced by the Normans’ (p. 1) and quotes from Dorothy Whitelock’s edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: ‘Powerful men complained of it and poor men lamented it’ (p. 3; p. 165 in Whitelock ed). Forests were also, however, places of refuge, mentioned even in Beowulf and while Gawain faced perils in the forest (in Gawain and the Green Knight) Chaucer described ‘pleasant forest places’. According to Young, the forest as the refuge of the hero Robin Hood is ‘fully understandable only in reference to the royal forest laws which they daily flouted by killing the King’s deer’ (p. 2).

While forests tended to be established in areas of woodland, they included areas with villages and open spaces. 

While the king, or anyone to whom he alienated the rights,  owned the forest, he did not necessarily own the land of which it comprised: ‘Other persons might possess lands within the bounds of a forest, bt were not allowed the right of hunting or of cutting trees in them at their own will’ (p. 4, quoting  G. J. Turner’s Introduction to Select Pleas of the Forest). The point is that the ‘beasts’ of the forest took precedence over the people who dwelt there.

Young refers to Margaret Bazeley’s 1921 paper on ‘The extent of the English Forest in the Thirteenth Century’ to show that in the thirteenth century the royal forest was worked out to have covered approximately a quarter of the land area of England, including the whole of Essex, although the extent had been greater in the previous century under the reign of Henry II. Young refers to ‘the Essex forest’ rather than any of the individually named Forests which Rackham showed on his map, which are largely to the west of the county and, indeed, correspond with the area of most densely wooded land in 1086 identified by J. Horace Round in his chapter ‘Domesday Survey’ in VCH Essex: west of a line from Haverhill to Tilbury (though he also mentions quite dense woodland in the uplads between the Blackwater and the  Colne) (p. 376; his figures are based on the number of swine the woods supported per acre of the manor).

The texts Young is concerned with are not only, or even primarily, literary, but include the examination of entries in the Pipe Rolls etc. Chapter Five, on ‘The Forest System at Its Height’ deals with the law and administration of the  Forests following the Charter of the Forest of 1217, which addressed demands for reform that had survived the compromises of Magna Carta (p. 64). Young explains the importance, not only of the Charter itself, but of its administration:

The Charter of the  Forest provided the framework for the administration of the forests and the application of forest law in the thirteenth century, but what the royal forests meant in practice for the subjects of Henry III and Edward I depended equally upon the royal officials who applied the forest law. (p. 74)

The imposition of forest law, however, did not impede economic development, and may even have aided it; economic life continued and prospered in Essex, even if all of it was under forest law (p. 5. I’m not entirely convinced yet that it was all under forest law, and have not found any reference to cases brought before any courts which would suggest the imposition of the law – but then such cases are few and far between in the written record). The forests were themselves important economically and in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries this importance changed as the forests were

drawn more directly into the agricultural and industrial life of the country, with land being put under cultivation by assarting and the renting of wastes. . . . During the thirteenth century, the royal forests were not exempt from the expanding economic activities in England; on the contrary, they were closely absorved as an integral part of the agrarian life of the time. (p. 134)


Charles R. Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England (n.p.: Leicester University Press, 1979)

J. Horace Round, ‘Domesday Survey’ in Victoria County History Essex, Vol. 1 (1903; rep. University of London, Institute of Historical Research, 1977), pp. 333-426

mentioned by Young:

Dorothy Whitelock, ed. and trans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1961)

G. J. Turner, ed. Select Pleas of the Forest, Selden Society, vol. 13 (London, 1901)

Margaret Bazeley, ‘Extent of the English forest in the thirteenth century’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 4 (1921), 140-72

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