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"It is allowed to our sovereign lord the king, in respect of his continual care, and labour, for the preservation of the whole realm, among other privileges, this prerogative, to have his places of recreation and pastime, whatsoever he will appoint. For as it is at the liberty, and the pleasure of his to the reserve the wild beast, and the game to himself, for his only delight and pleasure, so he may also at his will and pleasure, make a forest for them to abide in."
Manwood (16th century), quoted in William Gilpin, 1791. "Remarks on Forest Scenery", Book III, p 9
In an era prior to the Norman conquest, the area had been called Ytene. It was an infertile heathland, with heavily thicketed low-land, interspersed with areas of bog - a backwater with uncultivatable soils that supported a sparse population.
Artefacts of the pre-Norman period discovered within the Forest are principally Bronze Age and Romano-British. Bronze Age field enclosures indicate early cultivation of the soils on a limited scale. The Forest has about 200 round barrows (ancient burial mounds), and about 100 boiling mounds. Prior to the use of heat-resistant vessels, boiling mounds were used to heat water - flints were heated and then placed in water. The mounds arose from piles of used flints.
A large number of pottery kilns have been excavated in the north of the Forest - particularly in Amberwood, Islands Thorns and Sloden Inclosures. They date from Romano-British times, around the 3rd and 4th centuries. The scale of the industry and the size of associated settlements is not known but there are fragments of banks close to the sites indicating the keeping of livestock and cultivation of crops on a small scale.
Duke William of Normandy invaded England on 28 Sep 1066. He defeated the king of England, Harold Godwinesson, at the Battle of Hastings and was crowned in Westminster Abbey, London on Christmas Day.
Duke William of Normandy
(William the Conqueror) depicted
in the Bayeux Tapestry
In this context, a Forest is land subject to special laws designed to protect deer and other animals of the hunt; the king reserved the right to hunt for himself, and those he authorised. It does not necessarily denote a wooded area in the modern meaning. Even in William's time about half of the Forest was 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, together called "the venison".
Within afforested areas, Forest Law applied in parallel to Common Law. Forest Law was a distinct legal system with its own courts and officers - the sole aim was to preserve the venison and vert (green undergrowth for feeding the venison) for the King's pleasure. The primary purpose was the supply of venison; it is likely that most hunting was performed by professionals, not the monarch. Royal edicts were administered by Crown officials, with no appeal or redress.
William justified the severity of his laws by producing a document - a Charter of Cnut - apparently declaring that the exclusive rights of the chase were vested in the king (this document is now discredited). It was used to support the tradition that the Forests were for the pleasure of the king.
An account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (translated by Anne Savage) recounts that William:
"....set many deer free, and laid a law upon it, that whoever slew hart or hind should be blinded. As he forbade the killing of harts he forbade the killing of boars, and he loved the stags as if he were their father. He decreed also that hares must go free. The rich complained, the poor lamented; but he was so hard he set their hate at naught..."In fact, there is no evidence that sovereigns before William claimed the royal prerogative for hunting in the wood of their subjects. Cnut claimed hunting rights in his own woods. Trespassers and poachers were punished by Common Law, not a Forest Law. Forest Law was a Norman institution imported from the continent. In English eyes it was an unprecedented tyranny.
Afforestation had a profound effect on the sparse local population. It prohibited enclosure of pasture and cultivation of land, and any interference with the vert. The control of the underwood by the Crown constrained the availability of fuel. Thus, agricultural development with the Forest was curtailed; it also had indirect effects by stimulating cultivation and hunting outside the Forest. Some depopulation (by eviction) did occur, but not on the scale that unsympathetic chroniclers alleged.
To compensate for the restrictions on enclosure of land lest it interfere with the run of the deer, the common inhabitants of the Forest were permitted to turn their stock out into the waste - privileges that continue to this day, but now as legal rights. It regulated what was a common practice prior to afforestation, but it also imposed restrictions at certain times of the year, such as winter, to preserve the browse for the deer. Other common practices such as cutting peat for fuel were also regulated.
|William Rufus is supposed to have increased the severity of penalties for flouting Forest Law - death and mutilation apparently the penalties for interference with the King's deer.
Stricknage Wood, close to the
supposed site of Rufus' murder -
Killing a deer was punishable by death. Those that shot at a deer had their hands cut off and blinding was the penalty for disturbing the deer. This apparent barbarity of Forest Law has undoubtedly been exaggerated in subsequent accounts.
|1100||Rufus was killed in the Forest by an arrow; he was probably murdered. The Rufus Stone marking the spot is in Canterton Glen. Modern research indicates that Rufus could have died at another place - "Thorougham" - the present site of Park Farm, 3 miles south of Beaulieu.|
|1100-1135 Henry I||At his coronation Henry I 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. He granted rights of warren for those under Forest Law (hunting of fox, wolf, cat, hare, rabbit, badger & squirrel). He also protected a small number of cultivated enclosures within the Forest. Henry may have introduced fallow deer into England.|
|1154-1189 Henry II||Henry II extended the boundaries of the Forest, thus putting pressure on surrounding cultivated land. At the end of his reign, the Forests in England were at their largest extent. Henry was rather more merciful regarding breaches of Forest Law - trespassers were committed to prison.|