The Charter of the Forest, issued with the revised Magna Carta by Henry III in 1217, re-established rights of access to the forest for free men that had been eroded by a succession of kings. Many of its provisions were in force for centuries afterwards
Why were forests important?
The word 'forest' in medieval times didn't have today's meaning of a 'densely wooded area'; it referred essentially to a managed hunting ground, often rich in deer, which could be heath, moor or grassland, and even fields, villages or towns within the area.
England's forests had once given the common people somewhere to forage for food and firewood and space for their animals to feed. But by the era of King John, in the early 1200s, successive kings had claimed much of this land as their own, and exploited many areas to make money.
How did the Laws of Forests come about?
Magna Carta, the 'Great Charter', gained its name when it was reissued in 1217 with another lesser charter known as the Charter of the Forest. While Magna Carta spoke mainly of the rights of the barons, the new Charter also addressed the rights of ordinary people.
The Charter of the Forest restored the traditional rights of the people, where the land had once been held in common, and restrained landowners from inflicting harsh punishments on them. It granted free men access to the forest (though at this time only about 10 per cent of the population was free; the rest were locked into some sort of service to a local landowner, some of them little more than slaves).
Free men could enjoy such rights as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing), or turbary (cutting of turf for fuel). The death penalty was removed for anyone stealing venison, though they were still subject to fines or imprisonment.
This document recording Forest Law was written on 11 February 1225.
What happened to Forest Law?
Special Verderers' Courts were set up within the forests to enforce the laws. By Tudor times, most of the Laws of Forests had ceased to be relevant, and served mainly to protect the timber in royal forests. Widespread logging for the construction of buildings and ships reduced England's forest cover (in the modern sense of densely wooded area) during the 1500s, so little remains. However, some clauses in the Laws of Forests remained in force until the 1970s, and the special courts still exist today in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean.
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