The most famous Royal Forest is the New Forest in Hampshire created on the orders of William the Conqueror. Orderic Vitalis went so far as to suggest that the deaths of his son William Rufus and grandson Richard were essentially divine punishment for destroying the villages that were there before – William the Conqueror was admittedly dead himself by that point! The Anglo Saxon Chronicle also had something to say on the subject:
….established a great peace for the deer, and laid down laws therefor, that whoever should slay hart or hind should be blinded. He forbade the harts and also the boars to be killed. As greatly did he love the tall deer as if he were their father. He also ordained concerning the hares, that they should go free. His great men bewailed it, and the poor murmured thereat, but he was so obdurate, that he recked not of the hatred of them all, but they must wholly follow the King’s will, if they would live, or have land, or even his peace.’
Like his father and brother, Henry I enjoyed hunting. In 1136 King Stephen issued a charter saying that land which had been designated forest during the reign of Henry I would be returned to the status it had held prior to coming under Forest Law. Essentially whereas William Rufus had clung to the income from vacant bishoprics and abbeys, Henry had effectively increased his domain and taxation potential by turning lands into Forest which then came under the arbitrary control of the monarch.
From the above paragraph it should be evident that forest didn’t necessarily mean trees; it could include moorlands, waste ground and there were even townships that came under forest law. Forest comes from the Latin word “forests” which basically means “outside.” It was unenclosed land.
The key was that anyone living in an area designated as royal forest came under a set of regulations separate from common law and a set of fines and taxes different from elsewhere. if Stephen sought to win support by handing back land it wasn’t something that unduly bothered his successors. By 1189 something like a 1/3 of England came under Forest Law. The king appointed forest officials who seemed to have spent a lot of time collecting fines. There were laws against hunting, enclosing land, taking wood, grazing animals – all of them had penalties which the forest officials exacted on their master’s behalf. At its worst the penalty for hunting a deer or sheltering someone who had hunted a deer was death.
Some of England forests had been designated royal forests during the Saxon period. Edward the Confessor had a forest at Windsor and another in Essex. There were approximately 68 royal forests at the time of the Conquest. However, the laws were not as restrictive as they became after the Conquest.
Essentially William the Conqueror argued that no one owned the deer and the boar so therefore they must belong to the king. If they belonged to the king then if anyone else took them it was theft. He was however willing to grant royal licence to hunt. It also meant that if the king was chasing a deer, for example, it didn’t matter if the deer left the king’s land and fled across ground belonging to someone else. The animal was still the king’s and he had the right to chase it wherever he wanted. It is thought that the king deemed red deer, boar, hares and wolves as his. Later on the range of animals that could be chased only by the king was extended.
Today the Royal Forest that comprised all of Essex by the end of the reign of Henry I is recalled by the fragment that remains as Epping Forest which in turn was part of Waltham Forest. Hatfield Forest remains the only in tact royal hunting forest in Essex. There was also Writtle Forest near Chelmsford and Hainhault Forest which ultimately ended up in the hands of Barking Abbey until the the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
I find it fascinating that only about 20% of Essex was wooded at the time of Domesday but that by 1100 all of it was under Forest Law. King Stephen returned the land but Henry’s grandson also named Henry was swift to reclaim royal forests. In fact, Forest Law was one of the factors leading to Magna Carta.
Young, Charles R. (1979) The Royal Forests of Medieval England