Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

We often think about areas of protected environment as a modern development. However, as early as the reign of William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, areas of land were granted special protection.

William the Conqueror created Forest Law, a system that operated separately from the common law system, and prohibited the destruction of flora and fauna in protected areas. 

Forest Law

While these may have been laws regarding environmental protection, this was not necessarily the primary inspiration for the creation of the forest laws.


Instead, these laws were more closely tied with William the Conqueror’s love for hunting, and as such, forest laws protected the king’s game in order to provide better hunts.

wild boar
Hunting was tightly controlled, with severe punishments for poaching or killing the king’s game

For the poor and farming communities in Britain that relied upon hunting game and agricultural activities to survive, the establishment of the forest laws often meant people had to choose between breaking these regulations and risking harsh punishments or suffering a fate of starvation. 

Areas that could be declared protected under forest law were, at times, vast swathes of land. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as much as a third of England is thought to have been under forest law protection.


Read More: The Harsh Life of the Medieval Commoner 

In some cases, this could constitute entire counties. Forests did not have to be tree covered areas, but rather were often defined more loosely as areas where ‘beasts of the chase’, commonly wild pigs and deer, lived.

This could include everything from woodland to healthland, meadows, grassland and even bogs. Due to the excessive size of some areas declared  under the forest law system, sometimes whole towns and villages were located within a designated ‘forest’. 

New Forest heathland
The New Forest has the most extensive area of heathland remaining in Europe (over 25,000 acres/10,000ha).

The forest law system was divided into two sections, one regarding vegetation, known as trespass against the vert, and one referencing the killing of game, known as trespass against the venison. 

Protection of Game 

Not every animal in the forest was protected under the forest law system, in fact, when the laws were first established, only a few species were directly protected under these laws. Red deer, boar, hare and wolves were the first to be granted royal protections under forest law.

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Despite these laws being in place,  wild boar would still go on to become extinct in England less than three hundred years later, while wolves had vanished from the English countryside by the end of the fifteenth century. 

Protections for fallow deer, roe deer, fox and marten are thought to have been included later, as are protections for hare, coney, pheasants, and partridge on land protected under forest law. 

Roe deer
Roe deer in Islands Thorns Inclosure, New Forest This is a relatively remote part of the New Forest, easier to stumble across deer. The crisp leaves and twigs underfoot mean that they hear you coming before you can get too close but there are plenty of trees to hide behind. Just north of here is Studley Castle, the site of a medieval royal hunting lodge. Credit: Jim Champion

The protection of animals and habitats under forest law, extended beyond just the illegal hunting of animals. For people that lived on land protected under forest law, keeping dogs was prohibited.

The exception to this was mastiffs that were permitted to be kept as watchdogs, provided their front claws were removed to stop them hunting game. Those living on forest law land were also banned from owning bear hunting weapons.

Protection of Habitats 

The laws regarding the protection of land and flora under forest law were just as extensive as those granted to the protection of animals. These regulations included a ban on felling trees, clearing shrubs and otherwise clearing forests, including for agricultural purposes. These regulations were enforced even on land that was privately owned. 

Remnants of forest law, such as certain legal rights and customs, can still be found in some parts of England

These restrictions also included a ban on constructing fences on land protected under forest law. Rather than out of concern for native animals and plants, this ban was enacted as the construction of fences were seen to negatively impact the hunt.  

A Life of Limitations 

The forest laws were widely unpopular, particularly within the peasant population who gained little benefit from the regulations.

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The forest law system severely limited activities that people had relied on to survive up until the enactment of these new regulations. People no longer had the freedom to hunt for game to supplement their diet, and in a deeply agrarian society, common farming practices could no longer be implemented. 

medieval commoner
Forest law was highly unpopular among the common people

Farmers living in forest law areas could not construct fences to protect their crops from wildlife such as deer and pigs. Similarly restrictions to clearing land meant that crop fields could not be expanded and new fields for livestock could not be created. Restrictions on the felling of trees limited the building of infrastructure as wood could not be easily obtained to build new houses, barns, fences and other structures. 

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For the everyday person in medieval Britain, the introduction of the forest law system severely and drastically limited how they could live their everyday life. The discontent people in Britain had with the forest laws was reflected by the fact that many people were unwilling to share information about who unlawfully collected firewood from the forests, viewing these laws and their subsequent punishments as deeply unjust. 

Rights in the Forest

While forest law created a wide array of restrictions, for those living within the bounds of a forest, there were some allowed exceptions to the rules. While it was somewhat dependent on the specific forest area, there were allowances for taking firewood, allowing animals to graze, and cutting turf for fuel granted to those living on forest land. 

map of royal forests
Royal Forests, 1327–1336 (locations and names).

The wealthy nobility were also, at times, granted special permissions to hunt on designated forest land. These permissions were often granted for a fee, adding a lucrative revenue stream for the royalty and upper classes of society. 

Punishment Under Forest Law 

For those found in violation of forest law regulations, punishment could be severe. This new system of laws came with the establishment of its own enforcement and judicial system. Different levels of the forest law judiciary system would hear cases depending on severity, decide on a verdict and, if necessary, punishment for the accused.

Operating separately from the common law system, the forest law judicial system was unnecessarily complicated and often inefficient in dealing with suspected tresspasses against the forest law regulations. This made the entire system one that was susceptible to neglect and abuse of power. 

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For those that were found guilty of breaking forest law, the punishment awaiting them could range from hefty fines to execution. Disturbing a deer could end with a hand being cut off or blinding, while killing a deer, regardless of circumstances, could lead to execution. Meanwhile, felling a tree could lead to the amputation of a limb. 

When William the Conqueror’s son, William II, became king, the severity of punishment for breaking forest law increased. 

William Rufus

Those accused of breaking forest law would likely go through a series of courts, the most frequently held of these was the Court of Attachment. This court met every forty days, however it did not hold the power to convict people, and as such, cases were often passed further up the court system.

Swainmote and the Court of Justice-Seat were the higher levels of court in the forest law judicial system, with the Court of Justice-Seat, which met once every three years, holding the most judicial power. 

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Under the forest law system, there was also the Court of Regard. This court had a far more limited purpose, meeting once every three years to ensure that dogs within the forest area were declawed. Forest law enforcement also included a group called serjeants-in-free.

These people were responsible for patrolling the forest and apprehending anyone found to be breaking forest law. In return for their service, they were granted small estates. Surveyors were also a part of the system, these were people who had the job of determining forest boundaries. 

Caught Red Handed 

By 1217, political changes and developments, including the signing of the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest, led to the severity of the forest laws abating somewhat.

Poaching no longer held the death penalty. Enforcement officers also had their power limited when it came to the circumstances under which they could arrest someone for breaking forest law. Arrests could only take place under what was known as ‘Stable stand, Dog draw, Back bear or Bloody hand’.

If someone was arrested on Stable stand, it meant that an individual had been caught hunting with a bow drawn back, or with hounds ready to be released. Dog draw was when an individual had already wounded a game animal and was using dogs to track and kill the animal. 

From armour piercing, to pinning a Knight to his horse. Medieval arrowheads. The English Longbow of Legend. It took years of practice to become a truly effective archer. The training being actively encouraged from the age of 8 years old. Master bowmen were highly prized and to this end King Edward III made practicing archery compulsory on Sundays after church and on Feast days.

Alternatively, Back bear was when someone was caught carrying away a game animal they had hunted and killed.

Bloody hand was when an individual was found in a protected forest with their hands quite literally covered in blood from an illegal hunt. In any of these instances, officers enforcing forest law were permitted to arrest suspects and they were subject to a trial. 

Environmentalism vs Hunting Rights 

While there are still restrictions on activities that people are able to engage in on public land, they are almost incomparable to the harsh forest laws of the past. The environmental laws today are primarily concerned with protecting the environment and public safety.

The forest laws were a more self-centred approach to reserve the best hunting opportunities for the royalty and upper classes as well as a means of controlling the British population after the take-over of a foreign king. In effect across much of England, the harsh forest laws imposed extreme restrictions on activities that people in historic Britain relied upon to survive.

They also sowed seeds of discontent between the British population and the monarchy. While these laws did eventually fall out of practice, they impacted the very ways by which the British population could live their everyday lives.

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