What Exactly is a Forest, it Doesn’t Mean Trees

In medieval England, the term “forest” denoted a legally defined area of land subject to distinct laws, primarily established for the conservation of game animals for royal hunting and pleasure.

The Normans, led by William I, known as ‘the Conqueror,’ revolutionised England’s landscape with the introduction of the Royal Forest concept, significantly altering the nature of England’s woodlands for generations.

Unlike the scattered hunting reserves of the Saxon monarchs, the Royal Forest brought with it a novel legal framework aimed at safeguarding the wildlife deemed essential for royal hunts. This system was more than a mere designation of protected areas; it established a parallel legal jurisdiction within its bounds, governed by forest law.


Background of the Royal Forest

In medieval England, the term “forest” denoted a legally defined area of land subject to distinct laws, primarily established for the conservation of game animals for royal hunting and pleasure.

William the Conqueror, known for his passion for hunting, significantly expanded the system of royal forests. This expansion was not merely an indulgence in his favourite pastime but also a strategic move to demonstrate and consolidate Norman power over the English landscape and its people.

Roe deer
Roe deer in Islands Thorns Enclosure, New Forest. Just north of here is Studley Castle, the site of a medieval royal hunting lodge. Credit: Jim Champion

These areas were designated as exclusive hunting grounds for the monarchy, severely restricting local rights to hunt, graze livestock, and gather firewood and forage. Such laws underscored the dichotomy between royal prerogatives and the subsistence needs of the common people, embedding a source of enduring conflict within the rural society of the time.

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Moreover, the creation of royal forests played a significant role in the Norman administrative system, reflecting a sophisticated understanding of governance and control.

The imposition of forest law necessitated a complex administrative and judicial framework, with specific officials appointed to oversee the maintenance of the forests, the enforcement of laws, and the administration of justice within these designated areas.

The Forest was for the Royals

This included the roles of foresters, who guarded the forests and enforced the laws, and verderers, who presided over forest courts. The forest courts were instrumental in adjudicating offences against the forest law, highlighting the legal distinctiveness of these areas from the rest of the country.

Rufus Stone: 1100 AD – this spot in the New Forest is now a popular picnic area but 900 years ago a violent death took place, and the mystery has remained unsolved since.
Well may be not for William II. Rufus Stone: 1100 AD – this spot is now a popular picnic area but 900 years ago a violent death took place, and the mystery has remained unsolved since.

The expansion of royal forests across England, which at their zenith covered approximately a quarter of the country, also had significant social and economic implications. For the monarchy, these forests were sources of revenue, not just through the fines levied for breaches of forest law but also through fees for special permissions and the sale of venison and timber.

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However, for the rural populations who lived within or near these forests, the restrictions imposed by forest law meant the loss of traditional rights and sources of livelihood, leading to grievances that occasionally erupted into open defiance.


Before the Norman Conquest, English monarchs enjoyed hunting just as their Norman ‘descendants’ would, yet there’s no record of them asserting exclusive rights to hunt in their subjects’ woodlands. By the reign of Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), a foundational forest administration was in place.

Anglo Saxon Warrior on horseback
The Anglo-Saxons liked to hunt also and hunted across large areas

In contrast to the Anglo-Saxon period, where royal hunting rights were similar to those of other landowners, the forests in the Carolingian Empire (800–888) across western and central Europe were strictly royal domains, with only the king having the authority to designate forested areas.

Here, foresters guarded against illegal hunting, and fines for breaches of forest law were a standard source of income for the royal estate. After the fall of the Carolingian Empire, the Normandy dukes adopted many of these royal prerogatives.

Read More: Medieval Gong Farmers ‘Lived’ in Cesspits

While Anglo-Saxon rulers maintained hunting reserves, it was William the Conqueror who formalised forest jurisdiction in England. The Domesday Book acknowledged woodlands as crucial manorial assets, often valuing them based on their capacity to sustain pigs rather than by their size.

The Forest Wasn’t Always Welcomed

By 1086, William I extended forest law well beyond his own lands, a move that led to widespread resentment and opposition. Enforcement was carried out by forest officers, and revenues typically collected by royal manor bailiffs were redirected to the foresters.

Rufus stone in the New Forest
The day didn’t end will for King William II. An old legend says that when William’s corpse was carried to Winchester it left a trail of blood on the forest floor, and every year on the anniversary of his death the king’s ghost returns to follow the bloody trail.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s critical remarks suggest that the establishment of royal forests was contentious from the outset, hinting at potential constitutional disputes. Following William I’s death in 1087 and during the succession conflict, William Rufus sought English support by pledging to relinquish royal claims over woodlands and game, a promise he reportedly failed to keep according to the Chronicle.

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Subsequent monarchs continued to hunt in the royal forests and emphasised their upkeep for this activity, recognising the lucrative potential of penalising those who broke the law. Under Henry I, the enforcement of forest law saw further development, indicating a move towards a more structured and systematic approach.

Forest Law

The inception of Forest Law in medieval England marked a significant evolution in the legal and administrative landscape, particularly concerning the management of vast tracts of land designated as royal forests.

At its core, Forest Law was a set of special regulations devised to protect the game animals and their habitat for the exclusive use of the monarchy, particularly for hunting. This legal framework was distinct from the common law that applied to the rest of the country, representing a dual legal system that underscored the monarch’s absolute authority over these lands and their resources.

The administration of Forest Law required a sophisticated organisational structure, replete with officials at various levels to ensure its enforcement and maintenance.

medieval commoner
The life of a medieval commoner was tough.

Foresters, often drawn from the local gentry or military retainers of the king, were the boots on the ground, tasked with the day-to-day patrol of the forests, ensuring the protection of game and the prevention of illegal activities such as poaching or unauthorised woodcutting.

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Above them were the verderers, who were local notables appointed to oversee the forests in their region. They held court – the Forest Court or Court of Attachment – every forty days to hear and determine minor offences under the forest laws. These courts also served to manage forest resources and adjudicate disputes over rights and privileges within the forest.

The most severe offences were reserved for the Forest Eyre, a periodic circuit court presided over by itinerant justices appointed by the king.

Harsh Forest Penalties

The Forest Eyre had the authority to impose harsh penalties, including fines, imprisonment, and physical punishments, reflecting the serious view taken of transgressions against the king’s game and the royal prerogative over the forests.

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Moreover, the administration of forest law also included the woodwards, responsible for a specific area of woodland within the forest, and agisters, who managed the grazing of livestock in forest pastures.

This detailed administrative system highlights the importance placed on the royal forests and the lengths to which the monarchy went to preserve and manage these resources.

Hunting in a forest was tightly controlled, with severe punishments for poaching or killing the king’s game
Hunting was tightly controlled, with severe punishments for poaching or killing the king’s game

The implementation of Forest Law was not without its controversies and conflicts. The restrictions it imposed on local populations’ traditional rights to hunt, graze livestock, gather firewood, and use the forest resources led to widespread resentment.

This tension between royal authority and common rights often resulted in legal disputes and resistance, reflecting the broader struggle between the crown and its subjects over land and resources.

The imposition of forest law thus played a critical role in shaping the social and political dynamics of medieval England, illustrating the complex interplay between law, environment, and society.

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Despite its rigidity and the harshness of its penalties, Forest Law also reflected a nascent understanding of conservation and the need to manage natural resources sustainably. By controlling access to and use of the forests, these laws aimed to preserve the game populations and forest ecosystems for future generations, albeit primarily for the benefit of the monarchy.

Imposed Obligations

A sophisticated administrative system evolved to enforce forest law across the extensive royal forests in England. The enforcement machinery, including courts and justices specific to forest law, developed independently of the common law system, traceable from the reign of William I and clearly evident by the time of Henry I.

forest map
The map is within a short time period but shows the size and numbers of the forests was vast

The administration itself imposed obligations on the populace, requiring local individuals to serve in roles such as verderers or regarders, with penalties for failure to perform their duties. Landowners within the royal forests had to appoint foresters accountable to the king for both the woodlands and wildlife under their stewardship, facing fines for non-compliance.

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By the 12th and early 13th centuries, the forest administration was overseen by a Chief Justice responsible for all of England’s royal forests. In 1238, England was divided into two administrative regions for forest management, separated by the River Trent, each with its appointed Justice of the Forest.

Keeper of the Wardrobe

The Justice of the Forest played a key role in managing the economic interests of the Crown within the forests, including the leasing of cleared lands and waste areas, and overseeing the sale of timber and underbrush.

They also managed the Crown’s mineral rights, such as the operation of iron mines and smelters in the Forests of Chippenham and Dean, and lead ore mining in the Forest of the Peak. Typically, the Justice of the Forest led the panel of judges in the forest eyre and often presided over the proceedings in person.

Measures were introduced through the Forest Charter of 1217. The Charter stipulated charges for the removal of wood and charcoal from the Royal Forests, amounting to 2d per cart and half d per packhorse per year.

Generally, these justices were prominent figures with extensive responsibilities beyond forest management. For instance, in 1232, Henry III appointed Peter des Rivaux as Chief Justice of Forest for life, who, at the time, was also the Keeper of the Wardrobe, Chamber, and Treasury of the royal household, and became Treasurer of the Exchequer in 1233, illustrating the multifaceted roles held by administrators within the royal forest system.


Violations under forest law were classified into two main types: those against the vert (forest vegetation) and those against the venison (wildlife). According to Manwood, (Justice in Eyre for the New Forest during the reign of Elizabeth I of England) the law protected five specific forest animals: the hart and hind (male and female red deer), boar, hare, and wolf.

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By the 13th century, wild boars had disappeared from England, and wolves followed by the end of the 15th century. Legal protection extended further to chase animals, including the buck and doe (fallow deer), fox, marten, and roe deer, as well as certain hunted birds and animals like hares, coneys (rabbits), pheasants, and partridges.

From armour piercing, to pinning a Knight to his horse. Medieval arrowheads
Medieval arrowheads, from armour piercing, to pinning a Knight to his horse.

Forest dwellers were also restricted from carrying hunting weapons and from having dogs in the forest, except for mastiffs used as guard dogs, which were required to be declawed at the front to prevent them from hunting.

‘Caught Red handed’

Violations involving the vert encompassed a range of activities, including illegal encroachment (purpresture), creating clearings (assarting), converting forest land for farming, and unauthorised cutting of trees or shrubbery. These regulations were enforced over all lands within the forest boundaries, regardless of ownership.

However, the Charter of the Forest of 1217 recognised the rights of agistment (grazing) and pannage (pig feeding on acorns) for all free landowners within the forest. In terms of venison violations, the “bloody hand” rule was invoked when someone was caught with blood on their hands or clothing, implying they had killed deer, regardless of whether they were caught in the act of hunting.

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Areas at the forest’s edge that were disafforested, known as purlieus, allowed for agricultural practices. Deer that wandered into these areas could legally be killed if they caused damage, marking a delineation in the enforcement of forest laws between the inner forest and its periphery.

Assarting was not Forest Friendly

Assarting refers to the practice of clearing forest lands to repurpose them for agriculture or other uses. Under English land law, carrying out assarting within a royal forest without official authorisation constituted a major violation, considered even more severe than simple waste.

While waste pertains to the cutting down of trees and shrubs—which can eventually regrow—assarting signifies the complete removal of all trees, essentially eradicating the forested area entirely.

Medieval forest scene
Medieval forest scene, from the Livre de chasse (1387)

The word “assart” also denotes the specific piece of land that has been cleared in this manner. Assart rents were payments made to the British Crown for the right to clear and utilise these forest lands. Originating from the French “essarter,” the term means to clear or grub out woodland, and in northern England, it is known as “ridding.”

Ancient Forest

During the Middle Ages, land that was cleared typically started as common land but was privatised following assarting. This clearance could be executed in various ways. Often, a single farmer would carve out a clearing, surrounding it with a hedge to form a field.

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In other cases, groups of people or entire villages undertook the clearing, subsequently dividing the cleared land into strips for shared use among tenant farmers.

Monastic groups, especially the Cistercians, and local lords were also known to engage in assarting. The resultant cleared area frequently features an assart hedge, characterised by a high density of woodland species like the small-leafed lime or wild service and species like hazel, which are less common in intentionally planted hedges.

forest Robin hood statue
Sherwood Forest became a royal hunting ground during the medieval period. English kings, including Richard the Lionheart and King John, used the forest for hunting deer and other game. They established laws to protect the wildlife and punish poachers.

Notable examples include Dorset, where there’s a noticeable difference in hedges between the west and east; Hatfield Broad Oak in Essex, where contemporary hedges still trace the outlines of an ancient forest; and Shelley in Suffolk, home to an unusually long coppiced lime tree hedge, a legacy of nineteenth-century woodland clearance.

Justices of the Forest 


Verderers are officials in England tasked with overseeing common lands within specific areas that were historically royal hunting grounds and remain under the Crown’s ownership.

This role originated in the Middle Ages to enforce forest law for the King, including investigating minor infractions like poaching and unauthorised deforestation, as well as managing routine forest governance.

Read More: Forest Law Was Hated by the Medieval Commoner

Today, verderers continue to operate in places like the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, and Epping Forest. Their modern duties involve safeguarding rights to common land use, as well as preserving the area’s natural landscape and wildlife.

Forest does not mean trees. Half of the forests were not wooded. Many forests were on moorlands and heathlands.
Forest does not mean trees. Half of the forests were not wooded. Many forests were on moorlands and heathlands.

Originally, verderers formed an integral part of the old judicial and administrative system governing the extensive English and Royal Forests, which William the Conqueror designated for hunting purposes. The term “verderer” is derived from the Norman word ‘vert,’ meaning green, a nod to their association with woodlands.

These forests were segmented into regions, each overseen by a Chief Justice who would travel within their circuit to address major violations. Verderers were responsible for investigating and documenting less severe infractions, in addition to managing the everyday administrative tasks of the forest.

Justices in Eyre 

In English legal history, the justices in eyre were among the highest-ranking judges, overseeing the court of justice-seat.

This court, convened every three years, was tasked with punishing violations of forest law, as well as inspecting the condition of the forests and their management. The term “eyre,” meaning “circuit,” refers to the court’s practice of moving among the various royal forests.

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These justices were technically distinguished as citra and ultra Trent, indicating their jurisdiction either on the same side as or across the River Trent, relative to the location of the royal court at any given time. However, they are more commonly identified by their geographical regions, north and south.

Ancient woodland
Ancient woodland can supply the majority of your needs.

Initially, they were known as “justice of the forest” until Henry VIII’s reign, when the designation “justice in eyre” became more prevalent.

This title was briefly replaced by “warden of the forest” from 1311 to 1397, but they were referred to as “justices in eyre” especially in the context of the Treason Act of 1351, which made it high treason to harm them while they were performing their duties.

Position of Justice

Henry de Bracton noted that these justices would often retreat to deliberate with the busones of the county, a term referring to influential local figures involved in the commissions of gaol delivery, oyer, and terminer. These individuals would later evolve into the justices of the peace, playing a significant role in local governance.

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As forest law declined and the court of justice-seat became less relevant, the position of justice in eyre turned into a ceremonial role without active duties. A law enacted in 1817 (57 Geo. 3 c. 61) formally abolished the position following the death of its then-current incumbents.

Impact of the Forest on the Locals

The imposition of Forest Law and the creation of royal forests across medieval England had profound social implications that reverberated through the fabric of rural communities. These laws, while aimed at preserving game for royal hunts, curtailed the rights of local populations, fundamentally altering their relationship with the land and its resources.

The transformation of common lands into royal forests restricted access to essential resources such as wood for fuel and construction, grazing land for livestock, and the right to hunt for food.

This not only impacted the economic well-being of local communities but also challenged their traditional rights and customs, embedding a source of conflict and resentment that would occasionally flare into open defiance against royal authority.

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The social fabric of communities living in and around the royal forests was strained as traditional practices that had sustained them for generations were now deemed illegal. For many, the forests had been a communal resource, integral to their way of life, providing food, fuel, and fodder.

The strict enforcement of forest laws disrupted these practices, imposing a new order that prioritised the leisure and privileges of the nobility over the survival needs of common people. The penalties for violating forest laws were severe, ranging from fines to physical punishment and imprisonment, further exacerbating the hardships faced by these communities.

Creating Divisions Within Rural Societies

Moreover, the administration of forest laws often favoured the wealthy and the powerful, who could afford the fines or secure special hunting rights and privileges within the forests. This exacerbated social inequalities, creating divisions within rural societies between those who could navigate the new legal landscape to their advantage and those who found themselves increasingly marginalised.

The Charter of the Forest, issued in 1217, sought to address some of these grievances by reinstating certain rights to the common people, such as the allowance for grazing livestock and collecting firewood. While this charter represented a concession to public pressure and an attempt to mitigate the most egregious impacts of forest law, it did not fully restore the traditional rights of local populations.

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The enduring legacy of forest law in shaping the social landscape of medieval England is evident in the continued struggle for rights and access to land and resources, a theme that resonates through English history.

The creation of royal forests under forest law thus had lasting implications for the social dynamics of medieval England. It not only reshaped the physical landscape but also the social order, embedding deep-seated tensions between the crown and the countryside.

These tensions would simmer beneath the surface of rural society, occasionally erupting into conflict and shaping the course of English social and political development for centuries to come. Even to this day, there are many restrictions within forests but this is more to do with protecting the environment more than the game.

Forest Economics and Environmental Aspects

Forests were not merely reserves for royal hunting; they were crucial to the economic make up of medieval society, providing resources that sustained various industries and livelihoods.

Economically, forests offered an abundance of resources. Timber, a critical resource, was used in building constructions, shipbuilding, and as fuel. The demand for wood for heating and cooking was universal, making access to forests crucial for survival.

Beyond timber, forests provided forage for livestock, an essential component of the rural economy, supporting both agriculture and transportation.

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The sale of wood and the right to graze animals in forest pastures were significant sources of income for those with access rights, directly linking the health of forest ecosystems to the prosperity of local communities.

Moreover, forests were a source of less visible but equally vital resources. They offered hunting grounds for game, which was an important food source for those with the right to hunt.

For the majority who did not possess such rights, forests still provided nuts, berries, and honey, as well as herbs and plants used in medicinal and culinary practices. The collection of these resources was often regulated by forest law, underscoring their economic value and the need to manage them sustainably.

From an environmental perspective, medieval forests were biodiverse ecosystems that played crucial roles in maintaining ecological balance. They were home to a wide array of flora and fauna, with complex food webs and ecological processes. Forests influenced local climates, moderated water cycles, and provided natural barriers against erosion.

Exploitation of Forest Resources

The deep-rooted understanding that forests needed to be preserved, albeit for the crown’s benefit, can be seen as an early form of environmental awareness, acknowledging the finite nature of these resources and the need for their sustainable management. Today, we are thankful for such forms of management as we are blessed with the forest we have.

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However, the economic exploitation of forest resources often led to environmental degradation. The clearance of forest land for agriculture, driven by the need to feed a growing population, resulted in habitat loss and reduced biodiversity.

The demand for timber for construction and fuel is often accused of deforestation, altering landscapes and ecosystems. Timber production was managed very well, if that wasn’t the case then we would have no forests today. There is no evidence of major timber shortages.

While forest law aimed to protect game animals and their habitats, its focus was narrow, often overlooking the broader environmental impacts of forest management practices.

The environmental and economic aspects of medieval forests highlight a complex relationship between humans and the natural world, where the exploitation of natural resources for economic gain had to be balanced with the need for conservation.

This delicate balance shaped the management of forests, influencing decisions that had lasting impacts on both the economy and the environment of medieval England.


Pannage refers to the traditional practice of allowing pigs to roam in forests, where they forage for acorns, beechmast, chestnuts, and other nuts.

This practice, historically a right or privilege extended to local inhabitants for their livestock on common lands or within royal forests.

Commoners' pigs are only permitted to be out on the open Forest during the pannage season
Commoners’ pigs are only permitted to be out on the open Forest during the pannage season

The practice served dual beneficial roles during the Middle Ages: as pigs searched for nuts, they also aerated the soil by rooting, thus preventing soil compaction and enhancing nutrient availability for plants. Additionally, this activity contributed to fattening the pigs before their slaughter.

In certain English eastern counties, pannage held such economic significance that it was used as a unit of measurement, as evident in the Domesday Book of 1086.

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Typically, the practice involved compensating the lord of the manor with a pig for every set number of pigs allowed to feed in the forest, a practice documented as de herbagio. For example, Edward Hasted references the Domesday Survey’s mention of “Wood for the pannage of forty hogs” in Norton, Kent.

While pannage has largely ceased in modern times, it persists in England’s New Forest, where it’s also referred to as the common of mast. Remaining a critical aspect of the forest’s ecology, it aids in managing the diet of New Forest livestock; pigs can consume acorns safely in large quantities, unlike ponies and cattle, for which excessive acorn consumption can be toxic.

End of the Royal Forests

The once vast and imposing landscapes began to recede as the medieval period waned, succumbing to the inexorable forces of agricultural expansion, industrialisation, and changing social norms.

Over time, the monarchy’s interest in maintaining vast tracts of land for hunting declined. The costs associated with the upkeep of royal forests and the administration of forest law became less justifiable, especially as the financial and political benefits of converting forest land for agricultural use or selling it off became more apparent.

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Furthermore, changes in royal pastimes and the rise of other forms of leisure reduced the centrality of hunting in royal culture.

As the population of England grew, the demand for agricultural land intensified. The forests, which had been preserved under the strictures of forest law primarily for hunting, began to be cleared to make way for crop cultivation and livestock grazing.

This transformation was driven not only by the need to feed a growing population but also by the increasing profitability of agriculture as England’s economy began to evolve. The enclosure movement, which gained momentum in the late medieval period and continued into the modern era, saw common lands and forests enclosed and converted into private property, further accelerating the loss of forested areas.

New Forest, Sherwood Forest, and the Forest of Dean

The advent of the Industrial Revolution marked another turning point in the relationship between England and its forests. The burgeoning industries required vast quantities of timber for construction and fuel, leading to significant deforestation.

The development of coal as a primary energy source partially mitigated this demand but did not halt the degradation and loss of forest habitats. Moreover, the expansion of road and rail networks through forested areas facilitated access to previously remote woodlands, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.

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Despite this decline, the legacy of England’s medieval forests is profound, influencing the country’s cultural, legal, and environmental consciousness.

The remnants of these forests, such as the New Forest, Sherwood Forest, and the Forest of Dean, are cherished parts of the national heritage, embodying the mythic past and serving as tangible links to the medieval landscape. They continue to be sites of recreation and conservation, offering refuge for the country’s native flora and fauna and spaces for public enjoyment and education.

Legally, the Charter of the Forest of 1217, which sought to mitigate the impact of forest law on common rights, remains a symbol of the struggle for and recognition of common rights against the backdrop of royal and state power. This charter, and the history of forest law more broadly, has left a lasting imprint on the English legal system and notions of public access to land.