The Decline of the Forest 1377-1485

The power of the Crown was diminished by lavish grants to the great magnates during the century following the death of Edward III. Many of the royal forests were granted to them to hold in fee. Thomas, Duke of Gloucester, Edward, Duke of Albermarle, and the Earl of March, were some of the recipients. The principal forest offices were held by the great barons as life appointments. In the north the Nevilles established a strong claim to the Justiceship of the forests north of the Trent. In 1331 Ralph Neville was appointed to that office, and several of his descendants secured a like appointment, culminating in the grant in 1443 to Richard Neville, Earl of Gloucester, of the northern forest justiceship. During the Wars of the Roses each party appointed leading magnates to the principal forest offices during their periods of ascendancy. The Lancastarians appointed Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, to be Justice of the northern forests in 1459 and again in 1471, and William FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel to be Justice of the southern forests. Both these appointments were expressed to be rewards ‘for assistance against the rebels’. Yorkist appointments included John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, in 1461, and Henry Bourchier, Earl of Essex, in 1462, successively as Justices of the Forests south of Trent, and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the future Richard III, in 1472 as Justice of the northern forests.

The strife between the barons and the weakness of the Crown plunged England into anarchy. ‘Riots, robberies and forcible entries were prevalent’ and ‘the enforcement of law under such conditions was scarcely attempted’. During this period control of the Crown over what remained of the forest administration dwindled away. Writs for the holding of the regard in forests such as Sherwood, Galtres, Pickering, Inglewood and Rutland continued to be sent out from the Chancery during the fifteenth century, but the Forest Eyre, which would have punished offences revealed by the regard, had now almost fallen into disuse. Commissions of oyer et terminer for forest pleas were rarely issued at this time. On his accession in 1461 Edward IV was determined to restore the forest. The authority of the verderers, like that of the coroners, had ended with the previous reign, so the king sent out orders to the sheriffs to make arrangements for the election of ‘as many verderers as there ought to be and used to be’ in nineteen forests south of Trent, and in Sherwood Forest north of it, ‘as no verderer is as yet elected therein by command of the King’. Despite this the forest fell into the background of national history.

As the power of the king declined, so the privileges of substantial landowners increased. At the Parliament of 1389 the gentry complained that ‘Artificers and Labourers kept greyhounds and other dogs, and destroyed the game in their parks and warrens. As a result the right of hunting and taking game was reserved by statute for the upper classes. Laymen who did not hold land worth forty shillings a year, and clerks who did not have a benefice worth ten pounds a year, were forbidden to keep a greyhound or other dog, on pain of one years imprisonment. The rebel peasants of Essex in 1381 demanded the abolition of the hunting privileges of the landowners, but made no mention of the forest laws of the Crown.