From the ‘Charter of the Forest’ to the ‘Charter for Trees, Woods and People’

In a previous post I explored the proposed ‘Charter for Trees, Woods and People‘ which is being put forward by several dozen conservation organisations, including the Woodland Trust. It is suggested that the new charter should be signed in 2017, to act in conjunction with the 800th anniversary of the signing of the first ‘Charter of the Forest’, sealed in 1217 by Henry III. In this post I will explore the 1217 charter and assess how it relates (if at all) to the proposed 2017 charter.

England - English Summer Forest

The Charter of the Forest must be seen in the context of the Magna Carta process, initiated with the signing of the settlement between King John and his barons at Runnymede in June 1215. Magna Carta is often seen as a distinctive document that generated immediate historical change. However, in reality it was more of a process than an event, involving many reissues over many decades. Indeed, within 10 weeks of it being first granted, Magna Carta was annulled by the Pope who declared that it was ‘illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people’. The barons and English aristocracy were however determined to assert their rights and the calls for greater royal relinquishment continued. The 1217 charter was in essence a companion document to a new version of Magna Carta, signed by the young King Henry III, who was critically acting under the regency of William the Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who believed strongly in the necessity of freedoms below the crown level. It was not until 1218 that the ‘Magna’ or great charter was referred to as such, distinguishing it from the Forest Charter. In 1225 both charters came together and they were reconfirmed again in 1297 in the ‘Great Charter of 1297’, sealed by Edward I.


It should be made clear that the 1217 and 1225 forest charters were about far more than trees. Indeed, by suggesting an association with the 1217 charter, the proposed modern charter is on rather shaky territory historically since the word ‘forest’ is not the same as ‘woodland’. In medieval England ‘forest’ referred to an area set aside for specific purposes – usually hunting – and could therefore include fields, moorland, heathland or even farms and villages in addition to woodland. At one stage in the 12th century all of Essex was afforested and during John’s reign, roughly 1/3 of all of England was designated Royal Forest.

The 1217 Forest Charter aimed to provide ‘freemen’ with a degree of economic protection against the power of the crown. It protected previously common rights such as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing) and turbary (cutting of turf for fuel) as well as allowing freer access and it rolled back the geographical area of forest to that under the realm of Henry II (Richard and John had declared vast swathes of territory as Royal Forest since this time). Clause 10 of the charter (see below) was particularly significant as it repealed the death penalty for killing venison, although this remained an offence. Deer, to this day on large estates, retain a certain amount of cultural protection as an emblem of aristocratic cultural hegemony.

The key legacy of the Charter of the Forest (and indeed Magna Carta) was to act as an emblem of defiance against royal autocracy. It acted as a statement that freemen would not be subjugated to the extent that their freedoms were fundamentally compromised. This is where I see reflection in the calls for a modern ‘Charter for Trees, Woods and People’. The 2017 charter would make a statement that the trees and wooded areas of this country are valued by British people for a whole host of reasons and greater statutory recognition of this appreciation is demanded.

It is not only the freedoms of the British people or the right of the woodlands and their resident wildlife that need protection but critically a combination of both of these. It is the existence of a peculiar relationship between people and the land that is being highlighted here, something that is not often spoken about at length in the modern age. The call for a new charter suggests that the passion for retaining the historic link between land and people remains tangible. The Verderers Court of the Forest of Dean remains active and protects centuries old rules governing the ways the forest is managed. It acts for continuity and heritage in the modern age. The new charter would reflect this call but will also foster recognition of the distinct benefits woodlands provide in a modern age where environment is too often seen by some as being ‘other’ and on the periphery of modern cultural value.

‘Wild Boar in the Forest of Dean’. Copyright Jeremy Bolwell


Henry, by the grace of God king of England, lord of Ireland, duke of Normandy and of Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to his archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, justiciars, foresters, sheriffs, reeves, ministers, and all his faithful men, greeting. Know that … we have granted and by this present charter have confirmed, for us and our heirs forever, these liberties hereinunder written, to be held in our kingdom of England forever:

  1. In the first place, all the forests which Henry, our grandfather, afforested shall be visited by good and lawful men; and if he afforested any woodland other than that of his own demesne to the damage of him to whom the woodland belonged, let it be disafforested. And if he afforested his own proper woodland, let it remain forest, saving common of herbage and other things in the same forest to those who were accustomed to have them before.
  2. Men dwelling outside the forest shall no longer, in consequence of a general summons, come before our justices of the forest, unless they are [involved] in a plea [of the forest] or are sureties of some person or persons who have been arrested for [offences against] the forest.
  3. All forests, however, which were afforested by King Richard, our uncle, or by King John, our father, down to the time of our first coronation, shall at once be disafforested, excepting our own demesne woodland.
  4. Archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, and [other] freeholders, who have woodlands of theirs in the forests, shall have their woodlands as they had them at the time of the first coronation of the aforesaid King Henry, our grandfather; so that they shall forever be quit of all purprestures, wastes, and assarts made in those woodlands from that time down to the beginning of the second year of our coronation. And whoever henceforth makes any waste, purpresture, or assart in those [woods] without our licence shall be responsible for such wastes and assarts.
  5. Our regardors shall go through the forests for making their regard as was customarily done in the time of the first coronation of the said Henry, our grandfather, and not otherwise.
  6. The investigation or view of the lawing of dogs living within the forest shall henceforth be carried out whenever the regard should be made, namely, every three years; and then it should be made by the view and testimony of lawful men and not otherwise. And he whose dog is then found not to be lawed shall give as amercement 3s., and henceforth no ox shall be taken for [default of such] lawing. Moreover, the lawing shall be carried out by common assize as follows: three toes shall be cut off a forefoot without [injuring] the ball [of the foot]; nor shall dogs henceforth be lawed except in the places where they were customarily lawed at the time of the first coronation of King Henry, our grandfather.
  7. No forester or beadle shall henceforth levy scotale, or collect sheaves or oats or any grain or lambs or pigs; nor shall he take up any kind of collection. And by the view and oath of twelve regardors, when they make their regard, as many foresters shall be appointed to keep the forests as reasonably appear sufficient for keeping them.
  8. No swainmote shall henceforth be held in our kingdom oftener than three times a year: namely, at the beginning of the fortnight before the feast of St. Michael, when the agistors meet for the agistment of our demesne woodlands; and about the feast of St. Martin, when our agistors ought to receive our pannage — at which two swainmotes are to assemble the foresters, verderers, and agistors, but no one else by compulsion. And the third swainmote shall be held at the beginning of the fortnight before the feast of St. John the Baptist, for the fawning of our beasts; and for holding that swainmote the foresters and verderers shall assemble, but no others by compulsion. And the verderers and foresters shall also meet every forty days throughout the year to inspect attachments for [offences in] the forest concerning both vert and venison, through presentment by the same foresters and in the presence of those attached. The aforesaid swainmotes, however, are to be held only in the counties where they have been customarily held.
  9. Every freeman shall at his own pleasure provide agistment for his woodland in the forest and have his pannage. We also grant that every freeman may freely and without interference drive his swine through our demesne woodland in order to agist them in his own woods or wherever else he pleases. And if the swine of any freeman spend one night in our forest, that shall not be made the excuse for taking anything of his away from him.
  10. Henceforth no one shall lose life or limbs on account of our hunting rights; but if any one is arrested and convicted of taking our venison, let him redeem himself by a heavy payment, if he has anything with which to redeem himself. And if he has nothing with which to redeem himself, let him lie in our prison for a year and a day. And if, after the year and the day, he can find sureties, let him be freed from prison; but if he cannot, let him abjure the realm of England.
  11. Any archbishop, bishop, earl, or baron who crosses our forest may take one or two beasts by view of the forester, if he is present; if not, let a horn be blown so that this [hunting] may not appear to be carried on furtively.
  12. Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.
  13. Every freeman may in his own woods have eyries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, eagles, and herons; and he may also have honey that is found in his woods.
  14. Hereafter no forester who does not hold in fee, rendering to us a farm for his bailiwick, shall levy any road-tax (chiminagium) in his bailiwick. A forester, however, who holds in fee, rendering to us a farm for his bailiwick, may levy road-tax: namely, 2d. on a cart for a half-year, and 2d. for the other half-year; ½d. on a horse that carries loads for a half-year, and ½d. for the other half-year — and this only on those who, from outside his bailiwick, come by his licence into his bailiwick as merchants, to buy wood, timber, bark, or charcoal, and to carry it elsewhere to sell where they please. And road-tax shall not be levied on any other cart or pack-horse. And road-tax shall be taken only in the places where it has been anciently accustomed and owed. Moreover, those men who carry on their backs wood, bark, or charcoal for sale, although they may therefrom make their living, shall henceforth pay no road-tax. Moreover, no road-tax shall be paid to our foresters from the woods of other men, but only from our demesne woods.
  15. All men outlawed merely for [offences against] the forest, from the time of King Henry, our grandfather, to our first coronation, may without interference return to our peace and provide good sureties that hereafter they will commit no offence with regard to our forest.
  16. No castellan or other man [of the locality] shall hold pleas of the forest, concerning either vert or venison; but every forester holding in fee shall make attachments for pleas of the forest, concerning both vert and venison, and shall present them to the verderers of the provinces; and when they have been enrolled and closed under the seals of the verderers, they shall be presented to our chief forester when he comes into those parts to hold the pleas of the forest; and they shall be brought to conclusion before him.
  17. Now these liberties with regard to the forest we have granted to all, saving to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, earls, barons, knights, and other persons both ecclesiastical and lay, [also] to the Templars and the Hospitallers, the liberties and free customs in forests and outside them, in warrens and in other things, that they earlier had. Moreover, all these aforesaid liberties and customs, which we have granted to be observed, in so far as concerns us, toward our men, all persons of our kingdom, both clergy and laity, shall, in so far as concerns them, observe toward their men.

Since indeed we as yet have no seal, we have had the present charter sealed with the seal of our venerable father the lord Gualo, cardinal priest of the title of St. Martin’s and legate of the Apostolic See, and that of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, rector of us and of our kingdom. By the witness of the aforesaid men and many others. Given by the hand of the aforesaid lord legate and of William Marshal at St. Paul’s, London, November 6, in the second year of our reign.

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