William II, Henry I, Stephen and Matilda

William II

The succession to the throne was in dispute at the Conqueror’s death in 1087, and his son William Rufus (King William II) was forced to enlist the aid of the English. He promised to surrender Crown rights over vert and venison in the woods of subjects, but when the danger to his crown was past he forgot his promises. According to William of Malmesbury, he put to death those who took his deer in his forests, rich and poor alike. Other chroniclers assert that his foresters exercised supervision over the woods of subjects, to protect the deer and prevent the felling and clearing, and amerced those whom they found guilty of forest offences. In some cases at least, forest offenders were committed to trial by ordeal, a procedure by which it was difficult to get a conviction. Eamer, a monk of Christchurch, Canterbury, told how fifty Englishmen were arrested and accused of having taken and eaten the king’s deer. They denied the charge, and were immediately subjected to the ordeal of the hot iron. On the third day, when their hands were examined, they were found to be unburned, so that their innocence was considered proved.

Henry I

At his coronation in 1100 Henry I issued a Charter of Liberties promising to abolish or modify oppressive abuses of power, a forerunner to the Magna Carta. However he was determined to keep the forest system founded by his father the Conqueror-‘I have kept the forests in my hands as my father had them, by the common consent of my barons.’ He also created new forests – in Rutland and Leicestershire, in Bedfordshire and in Yorkshire; by the end of his reign the whole of the county of Essex seems to have been subject to the forest law. Breaches of the forest laws were punished with severity. A chronicler says that Henry ‘wished to see little or no distinction between the public punishment of those who slew men, and those who slew the deer’, i.e., by hanging. Oppressive restrictions were imposed upon forest landowners and inhabitants. Waste land which had been cleared in the forest and brought into cultivation without authority (‘assarts’) was taken, together with other property of the offenders, and hefty fines extracted for their recovery. Henry I’s charters show that forest landowners who took wood in their own woods without royal licence were guilty of the forest trespass of ‘waste’; their dogs had to be ‘lawed’. The unauthorized erection of buildings and enclosures within the forest constituted the offence of ‘purpresture’, and bows and arrows and other weapons were forbidden to be carried there.

From time to time Henry sent out professional administrators like Geoffrey de Clinton and Ralph Bassett to hear pleas of the forest at special Forest Eyres. Accounts rendered at the Exchequer at Michaelmas 1130 for fines and amercements levied by them in fourteen counties show that the forest had become an important source of royal revenue. The Earl of Warwick, for example, owed the king seventy- two pound, six shillings, and eight pence, and two chargers for taking a stag, Walter Espec had been amerced in 200 marks on a similar count, and Baldwin de Redvers in 500 marks for a ‘forest offence’. Foresters were called to account for oppressive and dishonest conduct. Walter Croc, the forester of Warwickshire, had been convicted of taking two hundred pigs in the forest which did not belong to him, and of unlawfully taking 30 shillings for which had had not accounted. His bailiwick was forfeited and he had to pay a fine of 3 marks of gold for its recovery. The clergy were also subject to the jurisdiction of the forest judges. The Abbot of Westminster was amerced in 20 marks, one of his canons in 10 marks, and a Wiltshire priest 7 marks, for various forest offences. The efficiency of the forest system was therefore increased and it became more and more important to the Crown as an instrument of financial extraction. This in turn made the system increasingly unpopular and more of a burden in the eyes of the English people.

By the twelfth century the King’s Court (Curia Regis) had established its jurisdiction over a long list of ‘pleas of the Crown’, among which ‘pleas of the Forest’ were included by the ‘Laws of Henry I’. Pleas heard ‘before the King’ (coram rege) were usually decided by the small body of judges, learned in the law, who accompanied him on his progresses through the realm. It was this body which in the thirteenth century developed into the Court of King’s Bench. From the twelfth century onwards, these judges were sent out on circuit, to hear and determine ‘all pleas of the Crown’ at the General Eyre, or ‘pleas of the Forest’ at the Forest Eyre, however the Curia Regis retained its competence to hear Forest Pleas.

Stephen and Matilda

Stephen’s right to the throne was dubious, and he was forced to purchase support by promising concessions. By his second charter, issued in March or April 1136, he promised to give up all forests created by Henry I, reserving to the Crown only those which had existed under William I and William II. But his success in putting down the rebellion of Hugh Bigod and his party during the summer led his to break his promises. When he came to hunt at Brompton near Huntingdon, he held a forest court and imposed many punishments for forest offences. On the outbreak of civil war in 1139 between Stephen and Matilda, the power of the Crown to enforce the forest laws, like the other laws of the land, was reduced to zero. When Matilda arrived in England she bought the support of powerful nobles such as Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, and Aubrey de Vere, Earl of Oxford, with charters acquitting them of forest offences committed up to the time they came over to her. They were not to be answerable to the forest law for timber cut in their woods, and were given licence to plough up assarts or forest clearings and bring them into cultivation without penalty. Matilda granted the Forest of Dean and the castle of St. Briavels in fee to a powerful supporter in the West Country, Miles of Gloucester, the Constable, who became Earl of Hereford in 1141: on his death in 1143 they were inherited by his son Roger of Hereford. Stephen probably made similar concessions, and in any case was powerless to revoke those made by Matilda. With the death of Stephen in 1154, the enormous administrative system built up by the Conqueror and his sons for the protection of vert and venison had been in suspension for more than a decade.