Chief Justice, Wardens, and Foresters

Chief Justice of the Forest

In the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the forest administration was headed by a single official – the ‘Chief Justice of all the royal forests of England’, who was sometimes called the ‘Chief Forester of England’. The task proved to be too much for one man, so in 1236 the forests were divided under two justices. The river Trent was chosen as the dividing line: the two officers were called ‘Justice of the Forest this side Trent’ and ‘Justice of the Forest beyond Trent’, according to where the king was at that particular time. These two Forest Justiceships continued until they were abolished by an Act of 1817. Such was the importance of the Forest Eyre that the Justices of the Forest almost always headed the commission of judges, and usually sat in person. However as the intervals between successive Forest Eyres lengthened, special commissions of oyer et terminer were issued to the Justices of the Forest and others. The Forest Justices were responsible for the enforcement of the forest law throughout their Justiceships. For this purpose they appointed a staff of foresters to serve under them, carrying bows and arrows, for whom they were personally responsible, and who maintained themselves by levying contributions from the forest inhabitants. The Justices had power to seize for the king the bailiwicks of forest wardens and foresters of fee who were guilty of misconduct in office, and on occasion removed unpaid forest officers such as the verderers. Their general responsibility for arresting vagabonds and suspected poachers in the forest sometimes involved organizing and leading an armed expedition.

The officer usually styled ‘Warden’ or less frequently ‘Steward’ or ‘Bailiff’ of his bailiwick, was at the head of the administration of each royal forest or group of forests. He might have the custody of a single royal forest, or a group of forests.

Wardens Appointed by Letters Patent Under the Great Seal

Royal forests such as Windsor, Clarendon, Feckenham, Galtres, the Forest of Dean and the Forest of the Peak in Derbyshire, were administered by wardens who were appointed by royal letters patent, usually to hold office during the king’s pleasure, although sometimes for a term of years, and occasionally, as a special mark of royal favour, for life. Their offices were lucrative, and the king often used them to make provision for those who had a claim upon his bounty. Members of the royal family were provided for in this way. In May 1269 Queen Eleanor, Edward and Edmund the king’s sons, and Guy de Lusignan, the king’s half-brother, persuaded Henry III to appoint his nephew Henry of Almain to be constable of Rockingham Castle and warden of the forests between Oxford and Stamford bridges, as a return for expenses incurred by him in the king’s service, and for debts owed by the king to him. The appointment was to be for the life of his father, Richard Earl of Cornwall, the king’s brother, with reversion to the Crown. Henry of Almain was to take the profits of the forests and castle for himself, subject only to the duty of maintaining the castle. Some months after the murder of Henry of Almain at Viterbo  in 1271, his father was appointed to the same office for a term of three years.

Henry III and Edward I made provisions for a number of royal servants. Among the dozen or so ‘King’s yeomen’ and ‘King’s serjeants’ appointed to forest wardenships were Robert of Stopham, one of the king’s huntsmen, who became warden of the forests of Clarendon and Groveley 1249-59, and Master Walter of Durham, ‘the King’s serjeant and painter’, appointed in 1271 to keep the forest of  Galtres, along with John of York, another royal serjeant.

Other forest wardens were of a higher rank. Geoffrey Giffard, the curialist Bishop of Worcester, was in 1270 appointed to keep the royal forest and manor of Feckenham for a term of five years, and Ebulo de Montibus, a Steward of the King’s Household, held the office of constable and warden of Windsor castle and forest from 1266 until his death in 1268. After the Baron’s War, a number of feudal magnates with great local estates were appointed as forest wardens. Philip Basset, the Justiciar, head of a great baronial family, was constable of Devizes castle and warden of Chippenham and Melksham forests, 1263-4 and from 1265 until his death in 1271. Even women could secure such an appointment: Isabel Countess of Arundel kept the castle and forest of Bere Porchester in Hampshire from 1268 until 1272.

Hereditary Wardens

The Norman and Angevin kings established part of the local forest administration on a hereditary and territorial basis; the holding of land from the Crown in return for some kind of service was the basis of feudal society and government. Robert of Everingham was hereditary warden of Sherwood Forest from 1281 until 1287. Henry III rewarded his servants on occasion with offices of this kind: in 1265 he granted the wardeship of Cannock forest to his surgeon, Master Thomas of Wesehan, to hold in fee. Hereditary wardenships of royal forests were grand sejeanties, and therefore subject to the usual feudal incidents of relief, wardeship and marriage. King John exacted large fines from the heirs to these serjeanties for confirming them in their lands and offices. Excessive fines and reliefs headed the list of grievances which the barons presented to John in 1215, and Magna Carta made concessions in this respect. The hereditary forest wardenships was sometimes inherited by women; in July 1221 the sisters and co-heiresses of Philip of Oldcoates, hereditary warden of the forest of Northumberland, paid the Crown a fine of eighty marks for seisin of their inheritance – the wardenship of the forest and the lands at Nafferton and Matfen which were appurtenant thereto. John sold the marriages of such heiresses to the highest bidder. When the heir to a forest wardenship was a minor, large fines were also paid for the profitable grant of his wardenship and marriage. It was laid down by a judgement of the King’s Court in 1205 that ‘No one ought or is able to divide up or in any way to alienate a serjeanty’. A hereditary forest warden had therefore to seek royal confirmation if he wished to grant away his bailiwick.

Deputy Wardens 

Many forest wardens could not have performed their duties in person. Hereditary wardenships were from time to time inherited by priests, and occasionally by women. Also many of the wardens appointed by royal letters patent would have devoted little time to their forest offices. Great lay and ecclesiastical magnates, important officers of the king’s court and household, busy judges, women of high rank – all appointed deputy wardens to keep the forests on their behalf. Between 1246 and 1255 the forests between Oxford and Stamford were kept by deputy wardens – by William of Northampton was ‘baliff of the forest’ from 1246 until 1249, and Hugh of Goldingham who was ‘steward’ from 1250 until 1255. It was William and Hugh who led the foresters and verderers to search the houses of suspects for evidence and arrest offenders, and they presided at special inquests on forest offences, and at the local forest courts.

Foresters of Fee

Many of the forest wardens had under them forest officers who held their office by hereditary right – the foresters of fee. They performed their duties within wards of subdivisions of the forest. They were subject to the warden’s authority, and in some forests swore fealty to him. By the reign of Henry III their offices were of considerable antiquity. A jury swore in 1266 that John son of Nigel and his ancestors had been foresters of fee of Bernwood Forest ‘from the Conquest of England’. William of Dean, one of the foresters of fee of the Forest of Dean, held in chief in Great Dean two carucates of land and 6 marks of rent, and paid to the king and annual farm of 10s. He was bound to provide at his own cost one riding forester and two walking foresters to keep his bailiwick, and to perform the military service of ‘going in the army at the King’s cost wherever the King goes’. Foresters of fee usually paid a farm to the warden of the forest. By the terms of their appointment many foresters of fee were supposed to provide under foresters at their own expense, but in practice some took money from them for their appointment. These hereditary forest offices were subject to the usual feudal incidents of wardeship, relief and marriage, which involved periodic payments of fines to the Crown. Foresterships of fee might be inherited by women: in such cases the duties of the office were usually performed by their guardians, husbands or sons. A commission appointed in 1246 found that a number of foresters of fee had disposed of all or part of the lands they held by service of keeping their forest bailiwicks. Foresters of fee who held no land of the king relied on the dues they extracted from the forest inhabitants as their recompense for guarding vert and venison: the temptation to extortion was great. The foresters of fee usually had the right to take ‘cablish’ – that is, dead and dry wood, and trees or branches blown down by the wind within their bailiwicks. They also had rights of pannage and common of pasture in the forest for themselves and their men, and some took the nuts gathered in the king’s demesne woods. They exacted various dues from the forest inhabitants, such as cheminage, pannage or afterpannage, and the dues for having dogs unlawed in the forest. The main duty of the foresters of fee was of course the safe keeping of vert and venison: the forest rolls show them searching for, arresting and attaching offenders, and indicting them at the Forest Eyre.

Riding and Walking Foresters

Some subordinate foresters appointed by the king were paid wages. The Chief Justices of the Forest, the wardens and the foresters of fee also appointed subordinate keepers, called ‘riding foresters’, ‘walking foresters’ or ‘serjeants’. In the forest of Essex towards the end of the thirteenth century there were six riding foresters, all appointed by the warden, and removable at his pleasure. Each had a defined territorial bailiwick or ward. Each riding forester had under him two or three walking foresters, who made annual payments to him, equal to the amount of the farm, which he paid to the warden. All foresters had to take an oath in the local forest court, in the presence of the verderers, to perform their duties conscientiously, to keep the forest law, and not to oppress the forest landowners and the other inhabitants of the forest. No attachment might be made except by a sworn forester. In the execution of their duties the foresters often had to contend with armed bands of desperate men, in many cases they were beaten and even killed when attempting to arrest forest offenders. When foresters raised the hue and cry, the men of the neighbouring townships were bound to come and help them.


All subjects who had demesne woods within the royal forest were bound to appoint sworn woodwards to keep vert and venison in them. The owners of the woods were bound to present their woodwards to the Justice of the Forest on their appointment, and at every subsequent Forest Eyre, to take an oath to perform their duties faithfully. If the Justice of the Forest discovered that a wood was without a woodward, or that a woodward had not taken the oath or had not appeared at the Forest Eyre to be sworn, or neglected his duty, or committed trespasses in the forest, the wood in question was seized for the king, but the owner was usually allowed to recover it on payment of a fine. The woods kept by the woodwards were as a general rule also subject to the authority of the king’s foresters. Only sworn foresters of the king were allowed to carry bows and arrows in the forest: woodwards, according to a fourteenth- century judgement of the Court of the King’s Bench, ‘ought . . . to carry an axe . . . in order to make presentments regarding the vert and the venison’. However in 1259 Roger de Merlay interpreted his charter to mean that his woodwards might carry bows and arrows within their bailiwicks, and he obtained judgement in his favour on appeal to the king.