The Swanimote, Courts, Inquests, Regard, and Forest Eyre

The Swanimote

The foresters, verderers and agisters met at a forest assembly to make arrangements for the agistment of the king’s demesne woods. This assembly was called the ‘swanimote or ‘swainmote’, from an Old English word meaning ‘a meeting of swineherds’. The Charter of the forest in 1217 conceded that henceforth swanimotes were to be held in the forest three times a year only.

Attachment Courts

The Charter of the Forest provided in 1217 that the verderers and foresters should meet every forty days throughout the year. The foresters were to present the forest trespasses they had discovered, and the verderers were to record them on their rolls, with the names of the offenders and their sureties or other means of compelling their appearance at a forest court. As the principal business of these courts was the ‘attachment’ of offenders to answer for their trespasses, they were usually called ‘attachment courts’, but sometimes they were confusingly referred to as ‘swanimotes’, and, on one occasion at least, as ‘the forest hundred’. In 1287 the judges sitting at the Nottingham Forest Eyre distinguished ‘small pleas of the vert’, which could be heard and determined at the next attachment court, and major pleas, which had to be remitted to the next Forest Eyre. Anyone discovered cutting wood in the forest without authority was to be compelled to find two trustworthy sureties for his appearance at the next attachment court. If the wood were valued at four pence or less, the offender was to be amerced at the attachment court before the warden of the forest, or his deputy, and the verderers. The amercement was to be paid at the next attachment court, and belonged to the Crown.

Special Inquests of the Venison

If a beast of the forest were found wounded or dead, the foresters and verderers called together the men of the neighbouring townships to make inquiry as to the cause of death or injury, and the identity of anyone suspected of having killed or wounded it. Similar inquests were held as to the identity of those who had committed venison trespasses discovered by or reported to the foresters, the guilt of persons indicted of such offences, and, in one case at least, as to the ownership of greyhounds found running in the forest and suspected to have been brought there to hunt the king’s deer. These forest inquests began to be held at least as early as the reign of King John, and they resembled the coroner’s inquest very closely. The inquiry was usually made by four townships, but sometimes five, six or even seven were summoned for this purpose. It was held soon after the trespass had been discovered, usually at the scene of the trespass or a place nearby. The forest officers, sometimes presided over by the deputy warden of the forest, called the townships before them one by one, and examined them on oath. Sworn evidence was also given by the foresters, verderers, woodwards, and others such as eye-witnesses: suspects also were examined on oath. Those indicted or suspected of venison offences were in most cases compelled to find sureties of appearing at the next Forest Eyre, but in serious cases they were committed to goal. Their chattels were seized and valued by the foresters and verderers and then handed over to men of substance in the neighbourhood, who were bound to answer for their value at the next Forest Eyre. Evidence such as arrows, and snares set for the deer and discovered by the forest officers, and the heads and skins of deer found dead, was handed over to the verderers, or to law-worthy men of the neighbourhood, for production at the Forest Eyre. The flesh of deer found dead or recovered from poachers was given to the lepers, the poor or the sick of the locality. Greyhounds belonging to poachers, or found running after the deer in the forest, were seized for the king, and sent to the forest warden or to the Chief Justice of the Forest.

The Regard

An important part of the proceedings at the Forest Eyre was based upon the regarders rolls, which reported ‘New Assarts’, ‘New Purprestures’ and ‘New Wastes of Woods’ made since the last eyre. Lands and woods concerned were ordered to be seized for the king, but could usually be recovered on payment of a fine. In addition to an amercement for the offence, a further sum had to be paid for any crops grown on the assarted land: twelve pence for every acre sown with winter corn or rye, and six pence an acre for spring corn, oats or beans. The tenants of the land were bound to account at every subsequent eyre for payments on the same scale, which were enrolled as ‘Old Assarts’, or ‘Old Purprestures’. ‘Wasted woods’ had to be enclosed so that animals could not eat the young shoots and so prevent regrowth. The owners paid half a mark at every subsequent eyre until the woods had grown back into their former state; these payments were enrolled as ‘Old Wastes of Woods’. The agisters accounted for revenues received since the last eyre – for the pannage dues for the feeding of pigs upon the mast in the autumn, and for the herbage dues for the pasturing of horses and cattle on Crown pastures, especially in the king’s parks and demesne hays.

The Forest Eyre

Between six weeks and two months before a Forest Eyre was held in any county, a writ was issued from the Chancery ordering the sheriff to see that a regard was made. Then their commissions were issued to the forest justices by royal letters patent, and a writ sent to the sheriff ordering him to summon all those who owed suit at the Forest Eyre to appear before them in the day and place appointed. Those summoned to attend were the archbishop, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights and all of lesser degree who held land in free tenure within the bounds of the king’s forest in that county, together with four men and the reeve from every forest township. The foresters and verderers with their rolls of attachments, the regarders with their rolls – all sealed with their seals – and the agisters with their accounts of the agistment of the king’s demesne woods in the forest were also bound to attend. Until 1215 men dwelling on the outskirts of the forest were also summoned. Magna Carta conceded that ‘men who dwell outside the forest shall not come henceforth before our Justices of the Forest by the common summons, unless they be impleaded, or be pledges of anyone who had been attached for a forest trespass’. This concession was confirmed by the Charter of the Forest in 1217, and seems to have been honoured by the central administration.

On the first day of the Forest Eyre all those who owed suit had to appear. Defaulters were amerced according to their means. The foresters and verderers, regarders and agisters had also to appear on the first day and produce their rolls, on pain of amercement. If they had died, their heirs were bound to produce their rolls in their places. The owners of woods were bound to present their woodwards before the justices, to take an oath to perform their duties faithfully, and it is likely that this was done on the first day. Trespassers attached to appear at the Forest Eyre also had to be produced by their sureties on the first day, when the justice’s clerks entered their names of the court record. Failure to do so entailed amercement for the sureties, even though the accused persons appeared later on during the eyre. ‘Essoins’ or valid excuses for non – appearance, were also made on the first day. Men engaged elsewhere on the king’s business obtained a royal warrant for their non-appearance, directed to the forest justices, and the Barons of the Exchequer issued similar writs of warranty to men engaged in business at the Exchequer.

If an accused person failed to appear at the Forest Eyre, and was not ‘essoined’, the sheriff of the county in which he had lands and chattels was ordered to distrain him to appear later on during the sitting, or at a subsequent Forest Eyre in a neighbouring county. Failure to do this entailed a penalty for the sheriff himself. In other cases distraint was levied upon those legally responsible for the offenders, to compel their production. If the offender had no lands or chattels by which he might be distrained, and no one was willing to act as his surety, the sheriff was ordered to cause him to be ‘exacted’, or called in the county court on five days in succession. If he did not then appear, he could be adjudged an outlaw; he was thereby deprived of civil rights and his property was forfeited to the Crown. Just as all franchise holders were bound to appear at the General Eyre to make good their claims to liberties, so subjects who claimed privileges in the forest had to substantiate them before the forest judges. A royal charter was usually produced: by the latter part of the thirteenth century it had become the practice for it to be transcribed upon the Forest Eyre rolls. Other claimants at this Forest Eyre could produce no royal charter, and claimed to exercise their liberties by prescriptive right: some of them sought the verdict of a jury on their claims.

The most important category of pleas, which yielded the greatest revenue to the Crown, was that of the ‘Pleas of the Venison’. Presentments were usually made by the foresters and verderers jointly, but in some cases by a jury of presentment of twelve or twenty-four, and by neighbouring townships, numbering from four to ten. ‘Pleas of the Vert’, for offences of cutting wood in the forest of more than a certain value were remitted to the Forest Eyre. If the offender failed to appear, his sureties were amerced. The usual penalty for the vert offence itself was twelve pence, but important offenders had to pay much more.

Vert and venison were protected within the bounds of the forest by a code of forest law enforced by forest courts, but ordinary civil and criminal pleas arising within most forests were dealt with, there as elsewhere, by the ordinary courts of the land, administering the common law of England. Crimes such as robbery, rape, theft and homicide committed within the forest were usually tried in the common law courts in the ordinary way.

The clerical privilegium fori, the claim of the clergy to be tried only in ecclesiastical courts – was during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries one of the most hotly contested of clerical privileges. Henry II attempted by the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164 to make criminous clerks punishable in his courts, he was forced to abandon the attempt after the murder of Thomas a Becket in 1170. However Henry was determined that the clergy should remain subject to the jurisdiction of the forest courts. In 1175 he made an agreement with the Papal Legate that clerical privilege should not extend to forest offences, an agreement resented by the English clergy. This decree was repeated by Richard I’s Forest Assize of 1198. During the following century the foresters carried out these edicts by arresting clerks and monks of forest offences, and handing them over to the sheriff for imprisonment.

Many of the itinerant justices appointed to go on circuit to hear and determine forest pleas were common law judges. William de l’ Isle and John of Birkin went of circuit between 1221 and 1223. Forest wardens sometimes sat at the Forest Eyre, and some forest judges were secular clergy, such as Walter Mauclerc, later Bishop of Carlisle, who went on circuit in 1221 with Brian de l, Isle. The itinerant forest justices usually sat at the county town, and heard pleas of all the royal forests within the county. From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the intervals between successive Forest Eyres grew longer. There were similar developments in the common law. During Edward I’s reign of thirty-five years there were only two Forest Eyres south of the Trent, and one north of it. The decline of the Forest Eyre, like that of the General Eyre, was due partly to the ‘lack of governance’ in Edward II’s reign, but partly also to the development of new forms of revenue-raising, and of new and less cumbrous machinery for the enforcement of Crown rights and the supervision of local officials.