The Tudors

Henry VII had the task of restoring the reign of law in the forests and elsewhere. It was enacted that offenders were to be brought before a member of the King’s Council or a Justice of the Peace for examination; hunting in disguise or by night, and wilful concealment of such offences were to be punished as felonies, by death and forfeiture of property. The forest courts were revived or given a new spirit of severity. ‘Swainmotes’ or ‘swanimotes’ were held in a number of southern forests including Gillingham, Bernwood and Waltham. The local gentry and others were presented for taking the deer, and other presentments concerned the felling of trees and cutting of branches in the forest coppices, and the overburdening of the forest pastures with unauthorised numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs. To give judgement upon these presentments, the ancient machinery of the Forest Eyre was once more set in motion after a long period of general disuse. Between 1488 and 1490 eyres were held in the Berkshire and Surrey divisions of Windsor Forest, in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Northamptonshire, Essex, Buckinghamshire and Huntingdonshire. The court rolls show that the forest law had been generally disregarded, and that the king’s deer had been hunted and the forest timber felled on a large scale. Claims by the forest landowners and inhabitants to various rights and privileges within the forest were also investigated at the Forest Eyre.

Extensive districts had secured their freedom from the forest law since the time of Edward III, however it still applied in some measure to the purlieus, the outlying districts which had been put out of the forest during the fourteenth century- although in some parts of the country the authority of the Forest Officers was disputed there. The machinery of the ancient forest courts was found at this time to be cumbrous and ineffective. The comprehensive Forest Eyre of 1488-90 was not repeated until nearly 150 years later, as a desperate expedient of the last decade of Charles I’s personal rule. Henry VII supplemented the eyre with judicial proceedings of other kinds, such as the judicial inquiry in 1494 into offences in Pickering Forest, which revealed extensive destruction of vert and venison. The Tudors also turned to the common law courts to enforce their forest rights. An act of 1485 had already made hunting in disguise or by night of felony; it was re-enacted several times so that forest offenders could be prosecuted at Quarter Sessions or at Assizes. However by the end of his reign Henry VII had decided that some of his remoter forests were unprofitable assets.

Henry VIII hunted the deer with as much enthusiasm as his Norman and Angevin predecessors. He was the last king of England to attempt to create a new royal forest- the forest of the honour of Hampton Court, established in 1539 near his new palace of Nonsuch near Epsom. However it did not long survive him. By this time the Crown was assessing the royal forests, not so much as a hunting ground but as sources of timber, especially for ship-building. In 1547 Henry decreed the appointment of two Masters and two Surveyors of the Woods, one each for either side of the Trent, as officers of the Court of Augmentations. The court was absorbed in the Exchequer in 1554, that part of the Crown revenues was managed by ‘Surveyors-General of Woods, Forests, Parks and Chases’ responsible to the Exchequer. The authority of the Justices of the Forest thereafter declined. Crown woods were sold by Exchequer warrants, and forest offenders were prosecuted in the Court of Exchequer Chamber, instead of the Forest Eyre.

After Henry VIII’s death and the accession of the nine-year-old Edward VI his subjects hoped for some relaxation of the forest law. However the Council of Regency in 1548 ordained that anyone hunting the deer in his ancient forest of Waltham, Essex without royal licence was to pay a fine and suffer three years imprisonment. If after that he could not find sureties for his future good behaviour, he was to be banished. The deer were not to be fenced out of enclosures in the forest with ‘unreasonable hedges and ditches’, unless ‘the greater part of the enclosure be sown with corn’.

During the next two reigns the decline of the forest administration continued, despite the fact that Elizabeth I was herself an ardent follower of the chase. In Staffordshire the forest of Cannock had virtually ceased to exist by the end of her reign, and in Kinver Forest only Iverley Hay remained in the hands of the Crown, and even there the deer had disappeared, and the woods for the most part had been cut down. In the Forest of Dean the verderers sat with the deputy Constable of St Briavels to hold attachment courts at Kensley every six weeks; fines were imposed for hunting with long bows, and for offences against the vert such as cutting great branches, rooting up hollies, hawthorn and hazels, and collecting ‘Oke-cornes’. Despite this there was widespread destruction of the woods by local landowners and by the charcoal-burners who produced the fuel necessary for the manufacture of iron- despite Acts of 1559 and 1570 prohibiting them for using timber-trees needed to build ships. Elizabeth followed precedents set by her ancestors in selling Crown rights in some forests for ready money.  In 1592 a proposal received consideration: an unnamed individual offered to farm all the queen’s woods for twenty thousand pound a year. The Lord Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, who later became Chief Justice of the Forest south of Trent, was consulted, and stated his objections to the scheme. There was he said, 180 parks, forests and chases belonging to the queen, and the rights proposed to be leases in them were worth far more than forth thousand pound a year. Leasing the herbage and pannage would disturb the deer in their lairs and deprive them of their pasture. The lease would be used as a pretext for the wholesale felling of timber, which even then was in short supply for building and repairing ‘your Majesty’s shyps, wych are the Jewells of your kingdom’. The suggestion that disputes should be referred to the Lord Treasurer, the Chancellor and the Court of Exchequer was an unwarrantable encroachment upon the jurisdiction of the Forest Justices in Eyre. Lord Howard’s objections prevailed, but the queen’s entertainment of the proposal shows that the forest had become low in importance.