Edward I, Edward II

Edward I

The forest law was enforced with a heavy hand by Edward I who also sat in judgement upon offenders against the venison. The intervals between successive Forest Eyres became longer, but fines and amercements grew in number and amount. Under Edward’s forest judges, juries in Essex, Hampshire, Gloucestershire, Derby, Staffordshire, Huntingdonshire and Northampton restated the bounds of the forests in their counties at their widest extent. In November 1286 Robert of Everingham, hereditary warden of Sherwood Forest, and ten others were released on bail from prison in Nottingham where they had been committed for venison offences. At the Forest Eyre in January the judges deprived Robert of his wardenship, which was to be at the disposal of the Crown. As early as 1277 the king did offer some concessions, on 1 March he published his intention of observing the Charter of the Forest in all its articles. Perambulations were to be made by juries of twelve law-worthy men in each county, in the presence of the commissioners and the foresters and verderers. However no steps were to be taken to put them into effect until they had been communicated to the king, who would decide what was to be done when he had satisfied himself they had been done without prejudice. In most cases, the perambulations made between 1277 and 1279 came to nothing. Hostility to the forest system grew rapidly in the next twenty years. The king sailed for Flanders in 1297 to conduct the war with France. In his absence the regents made concessions to the magnates in return for grants of taxes in aid of the war with Scotland. The Charters were once again confirmed. Copies were to be sent to all sheriffs, who were to publish them to the people; others were to be kept in all cathedral churches and read twice a year. Sentence of excommunication was once again to be pronounced against those who violated then. Yet another series of perambulations was ordered to be made.

Edward remained unwilling to surrender the forest rights of his crown. In 1301 he met his Parliament at Lincoln, which had been summoned to consider the reports of the commissioners for disafforestment, and asked from the magnates a declaration that he could ratify the perambulations without injuring the Crown or violating this coronation oath. They refused, and by the threat of armed rebellion they extorted from him once again the conformation of the Charters, and the ratification of the perambulations made in 1299 and 1300. In 1305 Edward issued an Ordinance of the Forest recognizing the disafforestments already carried out, but he declared that the inhabitants of such districts had forfeited their rights of common within the forest, and that the royal demesne should be kept in statu quo. In December Pope Clement V was persuaded to issue a Bull, declaring that the concessions Edward had made had been unjustly extorted from him by force, and were incompatible with his coronation oath to defend the honour and rights of the Crown, and were therefore null and void. Another Ordinance of the Forest was promulgated by Edward in 1306, revoking the disafforestments. He recognized that there was a general resentment of his oppressive conduct of the forest officers, and made provision for regular inquiries into it, and for presentment of forest offences to be made at the attachment courts, as a procedure preliminary to the Forest Eyre. Edward’s subjects had little faith in these often repeated promises of reform: they continued to regard disafforestment as the only effective action for their grievances. There was once again disappointment. The royal demesne vills, fields and woods in Sherwood Forest, for example, which had been put out of the forest by the perambulation of 1300, were now ‘entirely put back into the forests by the said King Edward’.

Edward II

Under Edward II’s extravagant and oppressive rule, his unpopular favourites were placed at the head of the forest administration. Hugh Despenser the Elder was re-appointed Justice of the Forests south of Trent in March 1308, and shortly after the king went north in September 1310 to escape the Lords Ordainers, he appointed Piers Gaveston to be Justice of the northern forests for life, with wide powers to enclose and arrent the forest wastes and audit the agister’s accounts, and authority to remove verderers and appoint his own men in their places. Edward was compelled to accept the famous Ordinances in October 1311 which once again denounced the oppressive conduct of forest officials who obtained the conviction of innocent persons by means of irregular and unlawful procedures. It was decreed that they were all to be suspended from their duties: commissioners were to hear complaints against them, and those found guilty were to be permanently removed from office. The Forest Charter of 1217 and the Forest Ordinance of 1306 were to be strictly observed. The Lord Ordainers removed Gaveston and Despenser from their forest offices, and replaced them with members of the baronial opposition. Gaveston departed, but early in 1312 he was back again in the north of England, and in the king’s company. Edward had no intention of keeping the promises which had been extorted from him. In January 1312, as soon as he felt himself to be beyond the reach of the barons, the favourites were restored. On 3 April Gaveston was again appointed Justice of the northern forests. Five of the earls, Lancaster, Pembroke, Hereford, Arundel, and Warwick, joined by Warenne, who was not one of the Ordainers, took up arms to enforce the Ordinances of the previous year and to hunt down Gaveston. None took the king’s side. Gaveston surrendered to Pembroke and Warrene, under promise of protection; his fate was to be submitted to the decision of parliament. But while Gaveston was travelling south in Pembroke’s custody, Warwick captured him, and in conjunction with Lancaster, Here­ford, and Arundel, cut off his head on Blacklow Hill. He was replaced by an adherent of the Lords Ordainers. The elder Despenser was however re-appointed in June 1312 as Justice of the southern forests, and took part in the efforts by the king and his advisors to have the Ordinances set aside as invalid and illegal.

Edward’s humiliating defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, once again placed him in the hands of the baronial opposition. A general parliament was held from January to March 1315: Hugh Despenser was removed from the Council, and replaced as Justice of the southern forests by Ralph de Monthermer, Earl of Gloucester, one of the Ordainers. Parliament granted taxes in return for the king’s promise to grant the ‘requests of the Commons’ for the observance of the Charters and the Ordinances, and the appointment of commissioners to make perambulations of the forests. On 20 April the sheriffs were ordered to make proclamation that the king intended to fulfil his promises, and that he had already appointed the commissioners. On 10 May Edward appointed five commissions of judges  to make forest perambulations in twenty-three counties ‘pursuant to the Ordinances, so that the Charter of the Forest may be observed’. However his subjects seem to have doubted his good faith, for in June the tax collectors in Staffordshire and Shropshire were resisted on the ground that the king had not carried out his promises regarding the forest.

At the Lincoln Parliament in January 1316 the baronial opposition led by Thomas Earl of Lancaster, the king’s cousin, seized control of the central government, and Edward was compelled to agree that the forest perambulations made in his father’s reign should be enforced in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the Forest, with certain conditions. Commissions to make new perambulations were appointed, but during this period of weakness and confusion the inhabitants of large districts cast off the forest law. By June 1318 the forest of Selwood in Wiltshire had been so much reduced in size that the warden’s farm of ten pound a year could no longer be paid, and the forest of Dean had been reduced by a quarter before the end of the reign.

In October 1321 the king took up arms to restore his personal authority. On 11 February 1322 he recalled his favourites; on 14 February he called upon Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, Justice of the Forest south of Trent, to arm a ‘suitable number’ of foresters and bring them to Coventry. They had probably played their part in the overthrow of Thomas of Lancaster and the Lords Ordainers at the battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March. After his victory Edward appointed the elder Dispenser as Justice of the Forest south of Trent for life, he repealed the Ordinances, but republished the Ordinance of the Forest of 1306. He soon turned his attention to the districts which had been put out of the forest earlier in the reign. In 1323 the Justices of the Forest were ordered to recall all the royal demesne woods which had been disafforested contrary to the Charter of the Forest. The King himself took a hand in the vigorous re-enforcement of the Forest Law. He was at Pickering castle from 8 to 22 August 1323 where an inquiry was held regarding venison trespasses in Pickering Forest. Over a hundred offenders, including Northern magnates like Sir John Fauconberg and Sir Robert Capon, were indicted by the sworn evidence of the forest officers and other jurors. The king instructed the sheriff to arrest them, and they were to be kept in prison until further orders. This renewed severity was bitterly resented by the king’s subjects, and numerous disputes arose between the forest officers and the owners of lands and woods they had re-afforested.

After the downfall and deaths of Edward and the Despensers, Queen Isabella and Mortimer tried to gain popular support with a conciliatory policy regarding the forest. At the first parliament of Edward III, in February and March 1327, charges were brought against William of Claydon, the elder Despenser’s deputy as Justice of the southern forests. He had, in breach of the Charter of the Forest, amerced men living outside the forest for not attending the Forest Eyre. Parliament further complained that Edward II’s conformation in August of 1316 of the forest perambulations made in the previous reign had never been carried into effect. To remedy these grievances it was enacted that the Charter of the Forest was to be kept in all its articles, that the perambulations made in the time of Edward I were to be observed, that those perambulations which still remained to be made should be made as quickly as possible, and that the forest boundaries in each county should be confirmed by royal charters, as laid down in the perambulations. There were delays, and once more the inhabitants of the northern forests showed their impatience. In the ‘free chase’ of Knaresborough, which had been assigned to Queen Isabella for life, they made an unauthorized perambulation and acted upon it by felling trees, planting hedges, and hunting deer without warrant.

Pursuant to the promises made to Parliament, four commissioners were appointed on 30 March 1327, and sat at Chertsey to decide the fate of the Surry part of Windsor Forest. After repeated petitions by ‘the commonalty of the county’, charters confirming the disafforestment of Surry were finally granted on 26 December 1327. On 5 April 1329 Isabella and Mortimer appointed Sir John Maltravers as Justice of the Forest south of Trent. He had been one of the gaolers, and probably one of the murderers of Edward II. When Edward III assumed personal authority in the following year, Maltravers saved himself by flight to France. Isabella a Mortimer persisted in their policy of concession until the end. On 12 July 1330, during the last months of their rule, the perambulations made during the reigns of Edward I and Edward II were ordered to be observed in every particular, and the forest officers in Shropshire were forbidden to take any action against the owners of lands within the disafforested districts who had taken the deer or cut timber there.