Henry II, Richard I

Henry II

On his accession in 1154, Henry II repudiated the concessions extorted from Stephen, The whole county of Essex for example, was treated as royal forest, and during the years 1155 and 1156 had to pay a total of over two hundred and thirty five pound for assarts or unauthorized forest clearings. The Forest of Dean and the castle of St Briavels, granted away by Matilda, were reserved to the Crown when in 1155 the king confirmed the various possessions inherited by Roger, Earl of Hereford. Alan de Neville, Chief Justice of the Forest from 1165 until 1177, enforced the forest law with vigour and determination at Forest Eyres in twenty-eight counties. He did not hesitate to lay hands upon the clergy who took the king’s deer, and in 1168 he was excommunicated by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, because he had kept the archbishop’s chaplain in chains.

Monks and clergy were the chroniclers of the times, and the violation of clerical privilege by forest officers led to severe criticism. John of Salisbury was Becket’s confidential adviser, and he dedicated his Policraticus to him in 1159. He says that kings of England ‘have not feared to execute men, whom God redeemed by his blood, for offences against the game. In their audacity they have dared to claim for themselves animals which are wild by nature and are made by right for those who can take them . . . What is more astounding, decrees have made it a crime to prepare snares for birds . . . or to catch them by any kind of trap, punishable by confiscation of goods or by mutilation.’ St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, denounced the oppression of the poor by the royal foresters to Henry’s face; and in 1187 he aroused the furious anger of the king by excommunicating Geoffrey fitzPeter, then Chief Justice of the Forest, for enforcing the forest law against clerical offenders.

In 1184 Henry initiated a plan of forest re-organization. The so-called Assize of Woodstock, was announced partly at least in that year, and in the first of what is now sixteen articles, Henry threatened to revive the brutal penalties for forest offences inflicted by his grandfather Henry I. Articles which appear to be new required owners of woods in the royal forest to appoint woodwards to keep the vert and venison in them, and to find sureties for the faithful discharge of their duties. In every forest county, four knights (the ‘agisters’) were to be appointed to make the arrangements for feeding the swine in the king’s demesne woods between 15th September and 13 October, and to receive and account for the ‘pannage’ dues. No one was permitted to ‘agist’ his woods in the forest before the king. Twelve other knights were to be appointed to have general responsibility for the safe keeping of vert and venison. These unpaid officers were to be an important and characteristic feature of the English royal forest. As William of Newburgh says, Henry II ‘loved the joys of the chase as much as his grandfather, but was more . . . merciful in punishing trespassers against the law established for the protection of the deer.’ He ‘committed trespassers of this kind to prison, or to exile for a time.’

The object of the Forest Eyres was profit rather than punishment. Remission of traditional methods of trial could be bought off by payment. At the Wiltshire Forest Eyre of 1166 Ailric of Studley was accused by Matthew Croc, warden of Chippenham Forest, of cutting oaks at night time in the forest. He was adjudged to trial by battle against Matthew, but bought himself off by a fine of 40 marks. In the reign of Rufus, which has been mentioned, forest offenders were put to trial by the ordeal, but by the reign of John, they were paying fines to be excused from this procedure. At times of crisis Henry was forced to promise concessions regarding this detested institution. In 1173 and 1174 the Angevin empire was threatened by enemies at home and abroad. Henry, in a desperate attempt to deprive his rebellious English barons of popular support, promised to abolish the entire forest system. However as soon as the rebellion was suppressed, the king enforced the forest law with vigour and severity. He was in great need of money to pay his mercenary troops and to meet the expenses of the war of 1173-4: the great Forest Visitation he personally carried out in 1175 was a means to this end. On 1 June he held court at Reading, and by 1 August he was at Nottingham, and on 11 August he heard pleas of the forest at York. By Michaelmas 1176 long lists of ‘the king’s amercements for (offences concerning) his forest’ in twenty-seven counties were presented at the Exchequer. All classes of his subjects felt the weight of the forest law. The heaviest penalties naturally fell upon the land holding nobility. In Hampshire Herbert fitzHerbert and William de Cahaignes were adjudged to pay 500 marks each, and even loyalty to the king during the rebellion of 1173-4 did not save barons who had taken the king’s deer: Everard de Ros and Adam and Robert de Brus, northern nobles who had been among Henry II’s most notable supporters, were heavily amerced. Over eleven hundred forest amercements were separately enrolled on the 1176 Pipe Roll, ranging from five shillings to 500 marks, besides small amounts for which the sheriffs accounted in lump sums. They totalled nearly thirteen thousand pound, of which four thousand six hundred and fifty pound was paid into the Exchequer in 1176 and five thousand two hundred and thirty four pound in 1177. This was a substantial addition to the royal revenue, and many of the sums due were ordered to be paid directly to the Jews, which gives an indication of the king’s financial problems. By the end of Henry’s reign the royal forests of England had probably reached their widest extent.

Richard I

After the death of Henry II in 1189 there was a respite. The ministers who ruled England during the absence of Richard I on Crusade seem for a decade to have made concessions. However in 1198 the king’s needed money for his war in Normandy, so resort was made once again to the Forests. The General Eyre of 1198 in the northern counties, which according to Hoveden ‘reduced the whole country from coast to coast to beggary’ – was followed by a Forest Eyre, which he describes as ‘another kind of torment for the confusion of the men of the realm’. In each forest county the judges read out at the Forest Eyre an ordinance which repeated the provisions of the Assize of Woodstock with certain modifications and additions. The pasturing of pigs in the forest, and the passage of carts along the forest roads were prohibited during the ‘fence month’, the time of fawning – i.e., form 10 June until 8 July. The different offences against the vert, such as the cutting of branches and underwood, the digging of turves, and the construction of hedges, ditches, sheepfolds or houses within the forest were enumerated and declared to be punishable by very heavy amercements. The forest judges also gave detailed instructions for the viewing and assessment of assarts by means of the triennial regard. By the end of the twelfth century the main features of the English forest system had been established.