Deforestation has always been a worry as wood has always been in such great demand. Timber has been used for house building, warmth, brewing, (the London breweries alone used 20,000 wagon loads of firewood a year) iron working, glass making, lime kilns, ship building, and in just one salt-producing town of Droitwich in Cheshire, there were 360 wood-burning furnaces for evaporating brine to produce salt. Deforestation was so far advanced that in some parts of Northern England, for example in the Forest of Knaresborough and the Forest of Craven which are both in Yorkshire, the extensive iron industries had to close down altogether for lack of fuel, and by 1307 the Forest of Knaresborough could only support a few smithies that were making nails.
Today in Northumberland great areas of bare windswept moors still carry the names of the long-vanished ancient forests of Kielder Forest and Wark Forest. The situation was a little better in the Forest of Dean, probably because it was a royal forest where the king could exert some degree of discipline to the tree felling and he limited logging so there was just enough fuel for the royal forges with charcoal being brought in from woods outside the royal forest. In 1274 the master carpenter in charge of building Norwich Cathedral had to go to Hamburg to buy timber and boards and the situation was similar also in central and southern France.
Four-thousand oak trees were felled to build Windsor Castle and in relation to Robin Hood by the time of King John timber was so scarce that local nobles and entrepreneurs were offering the cash-strapped English king large sums of money for the right to fell royal forests. At Douai, in northern France, the price of wooden coffins became so great that poor families would rent them for the burial service and then the undertaker would dig up the corpse and recycle the coffin.
The Countess of Rutland (or her corrupt managers) made a lot of money by obtaining Royal permission to take timber from Sherwood Forest to repair her castles and mills which she then sold on the black market. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (the Lord Treasurer) wrote to her furious at this “verie foule deceit and abuse toward mee and wrong to hir Majestie, which shall make mee more careful both in granting my warrants hereafter and in seeing them employed to the use they are granted for.”
Because of the lack of timber, from medieval times onwards people had little choice but to burn coal, which was less desirable than wood, and this made the problem worse because more trees had to be chopped down for pit props, barges, wharves, and other ancillary uses. From the earliest times there had always been considerable prejudice against coal because of the black smoke and fumes that coal burning caused and in 1257 Queen Eleanor was driven from Nottingham Castle by the smoke and fumes that rose from the coal fires in the city below (there was a coal mine within a few miles of the city). Also in 1283 and 1288 there were complaints about air quality in London because coal was now being used in the lime-kilns, and in 1307 a Royal Proclamation forbade lime-burners to use coal in parts of south London. (This was the year Edward II came to the throne).
After the time in which our hero Robin Hood lived the final and savage forest-clearing came while England was ruled by the fanatically Protestant revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. Parliament passed “An Act for the Disafforestation, Sale, and Improvement of Royal Forests” in 1653, with Sherwood Forest one of the priorities for sale, along with Ashdown Forest in the Weald. Royal forests were decimated in a few years. Of course, once they were felled and converted to fields and pasture, the great Royal forests never recovered and the forests we have today are nothing like the ancient forests and their decline from the time of Edwards I adds fuel to the argument for an earlier Robin Hood.
By the time of Domesday Book in 1086 William the Conqueror had himself established twenty-one Royal Forests and the Norman Kings continued apace until at one time there were eighty "royal forests" encompassing virtually all of England’s vast wooded areas, which covered a staggering thirty percent of England.
The Royal Forests were so extensive that it was impossible for any monarch to hunt all of the forests during his lifetime even working at it around the clock, so the common belief that the royal forests were established for the pleasure of the kings hunting is incorrect and in most cases the hunting was done by professionals in order to provide meat for feasts and as gifts.
The medieval kings were actually quite poor, and their ability to give presents of venison as rewards to those who served them well, meant much in terms of their authority, and the fact that they were able to make presents of rare timbers large enough to build ships and houses gave them still further influence among their barons.
In reality there were tremendous benefits that accrued to the Crown from extensive afforestation. First, policing of the forests demanded a large network of forest officials who formed what was virtually a private army of the king. (These officials along with the sheriffs and clergy will have been the bane of Robin Hood's life.) Secondly, fines and special forest taxes extracted by this bureaucracy provided a considerable and perpetual source of revenue for the Crown so it is not surprising that the monarchs fought as hard as they did to protect their forest prerogatives and what began as a reasonable idea to reserve some large game to royalty grew into a power base that the monarchs were reluctant to relinquish.
The legal boundary of a royal forest was frequently much larger than that of the woodland contained within it, so in the case of Sherwood the actual boundary of the forest may have been much larger than the wooded area itself. The boundaries of the forests were set by the king's surveyors and were periodically renewed in people's memories by people actually walking round the boundaries.
The royal forests occupied strategic positions, and unfortunately the history of the forests during the reigns of William I to Edward I is one of repeated royal abuse which affected the lives of the villagers and townsfolk who lived within the forest boundary whether they were rich or poor. The forests were fertile, they were a valuable resource and every Norman king from William I to Edward I was at one time or another condemned for his particular brand of jurisdiction in relation to the royal forests but even so the kings sought to extend their boundaries by whatever means possible in order to impose their forest prerogative.
The East Midlands particularly was a forest strong hold and it contained what appears to be about one-third to one-half of all the royal forests. The Forest of Essex, which was the largest single forest of all England, was situated on the north bank of the Thames and there was an unbroken chain of six or seven forests, which extended for approximately one-hundred miles across the centre of the East Midlands extending to Sherwood Forest on the north bank of the River Trent.
A forest for the Normans and their successors was an area of unenclosed countryside, consisting of a highly variable mixture of woodland, heathland, scrub, and agricultural land. Its purpose was to raise deer, which needed a variety of land, i.e. woodland to rest and hide in during the day, and more open land in which to feed at night. It does not necessarily denote a wooded area in the modern meaning. Even in William's time a lot of what was called Forest was actually heath. It was a place for the keeping of deer and certain other animals. In 1598, Manwood in his Treatise of the Laws of the Forest defined a Forest thus: "A forest is a certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of the forest, chase, and warren, to rest and abide there in the safe protection of the King for his delight and pleasure. “The four beasts of the forest were red deer, fallow deer, roe, and wild pig, which together were called "the venison”.
The origin of the word forest comes from the Latin phrase forestis silva, where silva meant “woodland” and forestis meant “outside.” The word "afforestation" is a legal term and means outside or “beyond the main central area of administration, or outside the common law” and although in time the phrase became shortened to forest it still retained a sense of separateness and exclusion and it was this sense that the Normans brought with them when they invaded England in 1066. In common with other large areas within the country, Forest Law imposed a kingdom within a kingdom, where the inhabitants were subjected to draconian laws to preserve, increase and protect game of all species and in this context a Forest, is land subject to special laws designed to protect deer and other animals of the hunt which the king reserved for his own right to hunt for himself and those he authorised.
Within afforested areas, Forest Law was applied in addition to Common Law, it was a distinct legal system with its own courts and officers and the sole aim of forest law was to preserve the venison and vert (green undergrowth for feeding the venison) for the King's pleasure and Royal edicts were administered by Crown officials, with no appeal or redress. The primary purpose was the supply of venison; it is likely that it was professional hunters, not the monarch who did most of the hunting.
William the Conqueror said in his defence that the Saxon Kings had always applied forest law, but that is untrue, it is a fact that Cnut claimed hunting rights in his own woods, but only his own woods and trespassers and poachers were punished by Common Law, not a Forest Law. Forest Law was a Norman institution imported from the continent and in English eyes it was an unprecedented tyranny.
EFFECT ON THE PEOPLE
In a few early cases, for example when William the Conqueror created the New Forest, which technically is called afforestation it meant that the inhabitants were disposed of their homes and whole villages and churches were demolished, but such drastic actions became impractical as the number of royal forests increased, simply because there was nowhere else for people to go, so they had to stay where they were, which meant that they became “residents” of a forest, and that caused them tremendous hardship because of the additional laws and regulations that were imposed on forest dwellers.
The restrictions of Forest Law were very harsh, a forest resident could not cultivate land, he could not hunt the large game which was the possession of the king, and very often neither could he hunt the small game, such as hares, also the felling of timber was prohibited, and it is recorded that in some cases inhabitants were even forbidden to gather acorns which was deemed as offences against the "vert" and this control of the under-wood by the Crown meant they had no wood to burn for fuel. Neither could they cultivate the ground nor enclose their land to keep the deer out, and as modern farmers will confirm deer can be very destructive. In effect, the imposition of a royal forest was a burdensome tax on its inhabitants which cost them dearly in terms of inconvenience and loss of crops, so that the king's own crop, i.e. the deer could thrive. To compensate for the restrictions on enclosure of land so that it didn’t interfere with the run of the deer, the forest dwellers were permitted to turn their stock out into the waste, which is a privilege that continues to this day as a legal right (common land) and was something that had always been allowed before afforestation was imposed, but this custom was regularized in new laws which imposed additional restrictions at certain times of the year, such as winter, to preserve the browse for the deer and other common practices such as cutting peat for fuel were also regulated.
Even worse, was the burdensome "forest law" which was stricter than the common law of England and was administered by an army of forest officials who were often corrupt and were only answerable to the king. (The setting for Robin Hood) This was not only unpopular with the poor but also with the nobility whose lands might also be included in a royal forest, and although the wealthy could expect to be granted limited forest privileges by the Crown, they had as much reason to despise the royal practice of afforestation as did the lower classes. This is evident from the Magna Charta to which King John's signature was compelled not by the lower and middle classes but by great barons, who required that the royal prerogative in regard to the extension and jurisdiction of the forests should be curbed.
William II (Rufus) (1087-1100) increased the severity of penalties for flouting Forest Law. For killing the King's deer the punishment was death and for other offences the punishment was mutilation. Those that shot at a deer had their hands cut off and blinding was the penalty for disturbing the deer.
Henry I (1100-1135) at his coronation issued a Charter promising to modify or abolish the excesses of Forest Law. In fact he maintained the system and increased its efficiency. He used it to his pecuniary advantage by extracting financial penalties for misdemeanours. But he did grant rights of warren for those under Forest Law (hunting of fox, wolf, cat, hare, rabbit, badger & squirrel) and he also protected a small number of cultivated enclosures within the Forest and he may also have introduced fallow deer into England.
Henry II (1135-1154) extended the boundaries of the Forest, thereby increasing pressure on the surrounding cultivated land but he was rather more merciful regarding breaches of Forest Law, trespassers were committed to prison, although by the end of his reign the forests in England had been increased to their largest extent. THE FOREST ADMINISTRATORS
The word PUTURE was applied to the allowance of meat and drink given to foresters and their attendants; ASSARTS were areas of forest grubbed up for arable use; AGISTERS controlled the letting of cattle into the forest to feed and a DRIVE was the process of collecting together these cattle to count them; a LODGE was temporary housing in a forest during the hunting season and a STANDING was an observation point where the hunter stood; the official name for a forest controlled by a magnate other than the king was a CHASE and there was a panoply of rites for those involved in formal hunts which included the ceremony of presenting the FEWMETS (faeces or droppings) of the deer to the presiding magnate to show the quality of the stag pursued, and the ceremonial GRALLOCHING or EVISCERATION of the deer after the kill.
The forests had an army of staff to look after them: SENESCHALS, JUSTICIARS, REGARDERS and VERDERES administered the forest laws (of these, only the verderers now survive as a titled office, and that only in one place - the New Forest, one of William the Conqueror's original first forests). The courts that heard offences were either COURTS OF EYRE (travelling courts to hear serious offences, from the Latin iterare, 'to travel', which also gives us words like 'ITERATION'), or of SWAINMOTE (a court held three times a year principally to control the pasturage of pigs in the forest; this word comes from Old English and literally means 'a meeting of swineherds' - The LARDINERS (sometimes important magnates) stored the carcasses of the deer; foresters cared for the animals and vegetation.
A BAILIFF is the Sheriff’s officer: a legal officer who serves under a sheriff and is empowered to take possession of a debtor’s property, forcibly if necessary, to serve writs, and to make arrests. A FORESTER is an officer of a forest (not a woodsman as some think) who works for the King (or another landowner) and he is sworn to preserve the Vert and Venison of the same forest, and to attend upon the wild beasts within his Bailiwick, and to attack offenders there, and the same to present at the courts of the same forest. The VERT was the medieval name for the growing things in the forest, especially the timber trees used for construction and the underbrush cut for firewood; venison here means the live animals of the chase, not necessarily deer. The foresters were assisted by under-officers called variously wardens, rangers, underkeepers, bow-bearers, and under-foresters (Chaucer was once one, as a sinecure, another way the medieval kings could use the mechanism of their royal forests to reward people). An example of the sort of petty bureaucracy forest-dwellers had to put up with was LAWING, or EXPEDITIAN, in which the claws of mastiffs and hounds belonging to local people were removed to prevent them from attacking the royal deer; the only excepted animals were those small enough to wriggle through a specially-sized iron stirrup.
TOP PICTURE-Ecclesall Woods, Sheffield.
MIDDLE PICTURE-Wyming Brook, about one mile from Loxley Common.
BOTTOM PICTURE: Woodland near Loxley.