The First Two Stuarts

James I

The last attempt to re-establish the full forest administration was made under the first two Stuarts. The amount of land under forest law was still considerable at the accession of James I. Much of it had been enclosed, and pasture farming was the main form of agriculture. At this time the forests system was considered to be out of date and unprofitable. They were mainly a source of timber for the Royal Navy, but with no effective forestry policy of conservation and production, the yields were small. James was determined to restore the forest system as a source of revenue as well as of pleasure in his favourite sport of hunting. In a proclamation made soon after he took the throne, he declared his intention to enforce the forest laws ‘which are as ancient and authentic as the Great Charter’. He sometimes took a personal interest in the apprehension and punishment of poachers who took his deer, and his Attorney General took proceedings in the Star Chamber against offenders in the Wiltshire forests. The local forest courts had fallen into disuse, and James ordained that these courts should be revived. In Braydon Forests the free tenants and village representatives were reluctant to attend, and in the Forest of Dean the attachment court, by now called the ‘speech court’, was ineffective in the face of large-scale destruction of the vert by the ironmasters.

Due to James’s increasing financial difficulties he took desperate measures. Timber was still required in large quantities for the Royal Navy; a warrant was issued in November 1611 for felling 1,800 oaks in the New Forest and in Shotover, Stowood and Bernwood Forests for this purpose. A profitable source of wood and timber, especially for sale to the ironworks, came from the Crown woods in the Forest of Dean, but there was no effective policy of conservation. Enclosure of open forest wastes after felling, to protect the young shoots from grazing deer and cattle were needed, but this aroused violent opposition from commoners and ‘free miners’. From 1604 onwards, Otho Nicholson and other commissioners inquired into ‘assart lands’ which had been brought into cultivation within the ancient forest bounds laid down in 1300. The king now claimed these lands as his ‘proper soil’ and tenants were forced to pay fines to the Crown and an annual rent thereafter. By 1616 the commissioners had raised over twenty five thousand pound by the enforcement of obsolescent Crown rights within the forest. However by 1613 even more desperate measures were in contemplation. The Spanish ambassador was reporting to his sovereign that James was ‘five millions in debt’, and intended to ‘raise three millions by the sale of the Royal woods and of deer’. The inquiries of Crown agents found that some of the royal forests, such as Morfe, had become valueless as hunting grounds through long neglect. A jury declared that there was little timber left in Pickering Forest, and that ‘for every redd deare in the fforest, there are 5,000 sheepe’. The king therefore sought to raise money by leasing the soil to ‘improvers’. Melchet Forest was leased to Sir Lawrence Hyde in 1614, and in the same year John Waller and Thomas Purcell received a grant of Pamber Forest, ‘consisting of the soil only, the woods being sold away and the deer gone’. In 1622 there was special commission to Lord Cranfield and others ‘to disforest and lease Bernwood Forest, Berkshire, Feckenham Forest, Worcestershire, and other forests and moors’. Unfortunately the enclosure of the forest wastes by these ‘improvers’ deprived the forest inhabitants of their rights of common there. By 1623 the disafforestment and sale of the woods and wastes of Chippenham and Melksham Forests had been accomplished: Bowood Park alone was reserved to the Crown in that part of Wiltshire.

Charles I

Charles I’s quarrels with his Parliament and his inept foreign policy led him to continue with the disafforesting and leasing of the soil of various other forests. On 13 June 1627 Sir Miles Fleetwood reported to Secretary Conway that he had completed the dissafforestment of the forest of Leicestershire. On 27 June the Attorney-General sent to the Duke of Buckingham warrants for the sale of Neroche, Selwood and Feckenham Forests, and the disafforestment of Braydon was begun at about the same time. It was hoped to raise twenty thousand pound by the sale of the first two forests ‘to supply a necessary service on the return of the fleet’ from the expedition against the island of Rhe. The several wastes and commonable lands’ within Selwood Forest were to be divided: one-third to the Crown, one-third to the forest landowners, and one-third to those who had rights of common of pasture. In July 1627 Buckingham embarked upon his ill-fated expedition, which further increased Charles’s financial embarrassment. To escape them the king in 1629, granted the Forest of Galtres to his creditors in fee-farm, in consideration of a fine of twenty thousand pound.  Similar arrangements were made for the disafforestment of the Forest of the Peak in 1639. The survey was completed in 1640 and the deer destroyed, but the planned disafforestment and partition was not carried out because of the outbreak of the Civil War. Schemes of the same kind were drawn up for the forests of Chute, Pickering and Knaresborough, and in the soke of Somersham within the forest of Huntingdon, which the Attorney General reported ‘had not been in use for a long time past’. Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, was appointed Chief justice of the southern forests in 1631, and he applied Charles’s policy of raising money by reviving the ancient forest administration. Under Holland’s direction the forest courts were again revived, and once again an attempt was made to fill an empty Treasury with forest fines and amercements. The swanimotes were revived and large numbers of offenders, mainly poor people, were presented for forest offences. After a lapse of more than a century, the forest justices were once again sent out on eyre in the southern forests. The first session was opened at Stratford Langthorne, in Waltham Forest, on 21 September 1630. After his appoint as Chief justice of the southern forests in 1631, the Earl of Holland took over the direction of the Forest Eyre, and presided at subsequent Justice Seats. All felt the weight of the Forest law, and a number of offenders were arrested and committed to prison. In November 1638 John Elliot was in prison, having been fined for carrying venison stolen in Windsor Forest to London, ‘contrary to the laws of the forest’. He petitioned the Chief Justice of the Forest to ‘remit his fine and order his enlargement’ on the grounds that he was ‘a very poor man with many children . . . and is altogether unable to pay the said fine.’ Elliott was ordered to be released on payment of a reduced fine of 40s., and on giving a bond for his future good behaviour. By this time the law relating to the protection of the king’s deer within the ‘purlieus’ or forest outskirts had become more clearly defined. The rangers of Waltham Forest exercised their office in the purlieus as well as within the forest itself. It was within their duty to drive back with their hounds all deer which wandered out of the forest into their purlieus, and to present all offences against the venison, whether committed in the forest or in the purlieus, at the next attachment court or swanimote. Only those who held land in freehold within the purlieus might hunt the deer there, and even they might not hunt by night, or on Sunday. Presentments for breaches of these purlieu laws were from time to time made at the Essex swanimotes in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Charles’s forest policy caused alarm throughout England, especially with the all-important class of landowners. Speaking in the Short Parliament in April 1640, John Pym aired the grievances of the king’s subjects. A committee of the Commons a week later complained among many other ‘grievances in the civil government’, of ‘forest fines, which of late have been too far enlarged’. Discontent continued after the dissolution of the Short Parliament, and in the next year there was a riot at Windsor where many deer were killed. The rioters threatened to pull down the palings of the park, so that the Earl of Holland, as Chief Justice of the Forest, obtained authority for the sheriff of Berkshire to raise the power of the county to apprehend the rioters. Charles realized that he must abandon the attempt to re-assert the forest rights enjoyed by his medieval predecessors. In March 1641 the Earl of Holland told the House of Lords ‘That His Majesty, understanding that the Forest Laws are grievous to the Subjects of this Kingdom . . . out of his Grace and Goodness to his people, is willing to lay down all the new Bounds of his Forests . . . reduced to the same Condition as they were before the late Justices Seat held’. In July Charles himself declared, ‘I have bounded the forests, not according to my right, but according to late customs’. In the same year an Act was passed declaring that from henceforth the boundaries of all the royal forests should be taken to extend no further than those ‘commonly reputed, used or taken in the twentieth year of the reign of James I (1622-23)’. No places were to be taken to be within the forest if no forest courts had been held, verderers elected or regards made in them since 1565. Commissioners nominated by the Lords and Commons were to ascertain the proper bounds of the forests by means of local inquiries, the perambulations returned into the Court of Chancery, and all places beyond the certified bounds were to be absolutely free from the forest law, with the proviso that the owners and occupiers of land left out of the forest were to retain ‘such rights of common as anciently or accustomably they had enjoyed’. Accordingly, a perambulation of the forest of Essex was made in August 1641, and the boundaries laid down followed fairly closely those of the perambulation of 1300. Some districts which had been forest in 1300 were however excluded in 1641. These were the liberty of Havering, including Hornchurch, Romford and Havering, with Havering Park, and part of the townships of Barking and Dagenham. The forest was restricted to the south-western corner of the county, and these limits remained until the final disappearance of the forest in the nineteenth century. Similar perambulations were made in August and September 1641 for the Forests of Windsor, Wychwood, Shotover, and Stowood, Rockingham, Brigstock and King’s Cliffe. This ended a dispute between the Crown and its subjects which had gone on intermittently for more than four hundred years.

The Civil War started in 1642 when Charles I raised his royal standard in Nottingham. As a consequence, Stuart schemes for felling timber and enclosing the forest wastes were interrupted. The forest law was temporarily set aside. The Commonwealth, the government set up by the victorious army led by Oliver Cromwell, took power in 1649 following the execution of Charles I. Under the Commonwealth, money was desperately needed to pay for soldiers, and the forests were once again used as a source of income. In 1651 Parliament appointed commissioners to sell Exmoor Forest, but this measure, like a subsequent Act passed in 1653 ‘for the Disafforestation, Sale and Improvement of Royal Forests’, proved ineffective. By the Instrument of Government, Cromwell was made lord protector of the Commonwealth in 1653. The subsequent government is usually known as the Protectorate though the Commonwealth formally continued until the Restoration in 1660, when Parliament invited Charles II to take the throne.