The Charter of the Forest: your guide to the 13th-century law
Two years after the issuing of Magna Carta, another piece of landmark legislation that curbed the monarchy's power received royal approval. Rhiannon Davies explores how the Charter of the Forest came about, what it changed, and why its legacy can still be felt to this day...
What was the Charter of the Forest?
The Charter of the Forest was a piece of legislation issued in 1217 on behalf of King Henry III, England’s 10-year-old monarch. The Charter curbed the unbridled power of the monarchy over England’s forests and reasserted the rights of the common people.
Since the Norman Conquest of 1066, England’s kings had been able to seize swathes of forest and turn them into hunting grounds, or Royal Forests, meant exclusively for their use. (It’s worth noting that at this time, a ‘forest’ was not quite what we would think of today – it could also refer to heaths, moorland, fields and even villages and towns in rural areas.) This had deeply frustrated the barons, who were unable to develop land unless the king granted them the right to do so.
It also caused great misery for the common folk, who had traditionally used the forests to sustain themselves – cutting down trees for firewood and to build their huts; gathering water from streams; foraging for vegetables, fruits and nuts; and hunting the game that darted through the undergrowth.
What changes did the Charter of the Forest herald?
The Charter contained 17 clauses, which were all centred around issues connected to forest land. It drastically reduced the amount of Royal Forest, by vowing that all land that had been claimed as royal hunting grounds by Henry II, King John and Richard the Lionheart would be “disafforested” if it was not legally part of their estates. It also reinstated the forest’s status as common land, meant for the use of the community.
According to the Charter, “every free man” could gather firewood there and was entitled to “conduct his pigs through our… wood freely and without impediment”. Moreover, every person that resided in the forest was allowed to “make in his wood or in land he has in the forest a mill, a preserve, a pond, a marl-pit, a ditch, or arable outside the covert in arable land, on condition that it does not harm any neighbour.”
Thus, the Charter took power out of the hands of the king and returned it to the people who lived and worked in the forests. This was a watershed moment in England’s history: rights had been granted to the nobility and clergy before, but never to the common people.
How is the Charter of the Forest linked to Magna Carta?
In 1215, when Magna Carta (then called the ‘Charter of Liberties’) was sealed by King John, it included four clauses related to the Royal Forests: as well as signalling improvements to the enforcing of Forest Law, there was also a vow to turn the Royal Forests John had created back into common land, as well as the riverbanks he had claimed for his own.
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However, the document was quickly repealed, and in 1217 the new boy king – Henry III – issued a fresh version. This time, though, there was one major change. All four clauses relating to the forest were removed from the original document, expanded upon and put into a new charter: the Charter of the Forest.
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At the time, this newly created charter was seen as just as important as Magna Carta. While Magna Carta was largely devoted to the problems that affected society’s elites, the Charter of the Forest was more useful to everyday people – most of all for those whose homes were in, or close to, a Royal Forest.
How did the Normans change the use of forests in England?
In 1066, William the Conqueror and his Norman followers totally transformed England’s forests. William brought the French tradition of Royal Forests – land that was marked out as royal hunting grounds, where the monarch could come to shoot deer and spear fish – to his newly conquered territory. These Royal Forests sprung up all over England: by 1086, around 25 of them had been created, including Sherwood Forest and the New Forest.
The kings who succeeded William continued this practice, with each monarch creating more Royal Forests. Henry II in particular claimed huge swathes of land, as he apparently found great solace in his monumental hunting grounds. His royal treasurer, Richard fitz Nigel, commented: “In the forests are the kings’ retreats and their greatest delights. For they go there to hunt, leaving their cares behind, to refresh themselves with a little rest.”
William the Conqueror brought the French tradition of Royal Forests to his newly conquered territory. These sprung up all over England
By the early 13th century, approximately one-third of southern England had been turned into Royal Forests – and those who lived in them had to adhere to the onerous Forest Law. This law was meant to protect the royal hunting ground – from the animals living there that the king would wish to hunt, to the trees that game would shelter below. Therefore, according to Forest Law, no one living on land that was designated a Royal Forest could impinge on its suitability as a hunting ground.
People were prohibited from constructing buildings, hunting animals or fish, cutting down trees or bushes, and putting their animals out to pasture. The Peterborough Chronicle stated of the Forest Law: “Powerful men complained of it and poor men lamented it.” Royal foresters were tasked with making sure that these strict regulations were followed – and those who broke Forest Law often faced serious consequences.
What were the punishments for breaking Forest Law?
Punishments were often extreme: according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King William I decreed that the killing of deer and boar in his hunting grounds was strictly forbidden, and anyone who slew a deer “should be deprived of his eyesight”. And during Richard the Lionheart’s rule, anyone who killed a deer would be blinded and mutilated – although Richard was only in England for a handful of months throughout his entire reign, and he rarely went on hunts when he was in the country.
As well as corporal punishment, fines were often imposed on those who broke Forest Law. If a royal forester couldn’t track down the individual who had flouted Forest Law, they could fine the whole community. These hefty fiscal penalties went straight into the royal coffers: John, for example, received a large portion of his income from them.
The Charter of the Forest lessened the severity of punishments, although the killing of deer was still deemed illegal, as they all belonged to the monarch. As the tenth clause of the Charter stated: “No one shall henceforth lose life or limb because of our venison, but if anyone has been arrested and convicted of taking venison he shall be fined heavily if he has the means; and if he has not the means, he shall lie in our prison for a year and a day.”
How long did the Charter of the Forest remain part of English law?
The Charter has the accolade of being the longest-standing statute in England’s history. On 11 February 1225 Henry III issued his final version of Magna Carta – along with a revised version of the Charter of the Forest, which is now regarded as the definitive version.
It was reissued numerous times after this, including in 1297, when Edward I reconfirmed it and Magna Carta in the Confirmation of the Charters. He declared that the two documents would become England’s common law, and twice a year they both should be read out loud in every cathedral in the land.
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In 1642, the Charter was still part of law and relatively well-known, although in later centuries it faded into obscurity. The 16th/17th-century jurist and politician Sir Edward Coke reflected on the Charters: “It is called Magna Charta, not that it is great in quantity… nor comparatively in respect that it is greater than Charta de Foresta, but in respect of the great importance, and weightiness of the matter, as hereafter shall appeare: and likewise for the same cause Charta de Foresta is called Magna Charta de Foresta, and both of them are called Magnae Chartae Libertatum Angliae [Great Charters of English Liberties].”
The Charter of the Forest was only repealed in 1971, when the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act took its place. As part of this act, the monarchy lost its claim over “wild creatures… together with any prerogative right to set aside land or water for the breeding, support or taking of wild creatures; and any franchises of forest, free chase, park or free warren.”
What is the legacy of the Charter of the Forests today?
Even though the Charter of the Forest no longer remains part of English law, it has continued to have a huge impact – in Britain and beyond. In 2015, for instance, the UK Forestry Commission was embroiled in a case about whether sheep could graze freely in the Forest of Dean, as claimants argued that this right had been given to them by the Charter of the Forest.
And in the US, the Charter has influenced laws relating to the regulation of forests and natural resources. Forests are viewed as common lands, which can be used by all who live there – this concept perhaps finds its best expression in the country’s National Parks, which are meant to be enjoyed by all citizens. Centuries on, the Charter of the Forest continues to shape how we use our land, all over the world.
This article was first published in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed