The Charter of the Forest: Influential partner of historic Magna Carta
PUBLISHED: 06:00 15 March 2015
The charter opened up the forest’s to the common man
When a rare early edition of one of the British constitution’s keystones, the Magna Carta, was found nestled amid old documents in a Maidstone library, it catapulted the county into the global spotlight.
The rare document, dating back to 1300 and created by King Edward I, was believed to be worth a remarkable £10 million.
But it was found by accident after a researcher at the Kent History and Library Centre had been sent on a mission to find an equally as ancient document - the intriguingly titled Charter of the Forest.
While the Magna Carta’s purpose and historical position is well known, the Charter of the Forest has, perhaps, an equally as fascinating background. Its role was hugely significant - opening up forests to the common man and enshrining it in law after the king tried to exert complete control over the land.
So what exactly is the Charter of the Forest?
Kent County Council community history officer Mark Bateson, who found the Magna Carta, explained. He told KoS: “It was created initially by King Henry III in 1217,
“At that point the Magna Carta was re-issued as well as this new charter, which is particularly concerned with what’s been happening in the royal forests throughout the realm.”
The king was required to “disafforest” the royal forests, meaning that it became available to common people.
Roughly a third of the country was royal forest at the time. The word meant something very different to what we describe as a forest today, and it could actually include areas containing trees, moors or fields.
Before the Charter of the Forest was re-issued, the king had a monopoly over all of these and tenants were forbidden to change or develop their land without the permission of the reigning monarch.
This made it very difficult for the common people who were trying to farm and use the land that they lived on.
Ray Harlow, honorary curator at Sandwich Guildhall museum and archive, said: “A companion document to the Magna Carta, redressing some applications of the Anglo-Norman Forest Law that had been extended and abused by William Rufus, the charter re-established rights of access to the royal forest for free men that had been eroded by the conqueror and his heirs.
“Many of its provisions were in force for centuries afterwards.”
Dr Bateson added: “The forest charter is doing what Magna Carta did for more general rights, but for the forests. There’s cross relation between the two documents.
“They are doing similar things and usually get issued together.
“When the pair that we have in Sandwich Borough Archives were issued it was seen as a pair and there are two other known pairs of the 1300 Magna Carta. It’s a rare combination.”
The king was required to give up possession of forest land, which meant that it provided a common right for anyone to use it.
One aim of the charter was to reduce the area of royal forest by removing everything which Henry II, who was largely blamed for its vast extent, had put in it.
Mr Harlow said: “In contrast to Magna Carta, which dealt with the rights of barons, it provided some real rights, privileges and protections for the common man against the abuses of the encroaching aristocracy.”
It also exempted the people who had woods within the forests from fines for either creating new land or erecting buildings.
Dr Bateson explained: “We are probably well used to thinking of the Middle Ages as a time where people could be brutally punished for what we might think are quite minor misdemeanours, but the Charter of the Forest did do some quite egalitarian things.
“It said things like in chapter two, ‘men who live outside the forest’.
“That first word, men, is quite important in that it doesn’t say knights, or archbishops, or heralded people.
“That means anybody. In its time it was a very progressive thing to say.
“That covers anybody, the most humble, and people who wouldn’t be able to afford to pay a fine, so if they were going to be punished they would have to be put in prison or forced to suffer corporal punishment.”
The penalties imposed for any forest offences would provide a major source of revenue for the king in power at the time.
Permission from the chief forester was required before forest land could be cleared and cultivated.
The right to pasture animals in the forest was also controlled and it could be revoked, and farmers were only allowed to chop down trees for their own use if the removal of a tree didn’t create waste.
These clauses were not to be taken lightly. If an individual offender couldn’t be identified in the forest courts then the chief forester could impose a fine on their whole community.
Interestingly, the charter did ban severe punishments for forest offences including poaching and hunting protected deer. It also banned mutilation, as a ‘less harsh’ punishment. A clause in chapter ten says that people will not be punished by “life or limb” for taking a deer or hunting one in the forest.
That’s not to say that they still weren’t reprimanded though.
The chapter reads: “But, if anyone has been arrested or convicted of taking venison he should be fined heavily if he has the means.
“If he has not the means to pay these funds he will lie in our prison for a year and a day.”
After that, if they were able to find someone to pledge the funds for them they were allowed out of prison, but if they didn’t then they would have to leave the country.
Dr Bateson added: “Those people, when they were visiting the forest, could take a couple of animals while they were on the way through, as long as one of the foresters was there with them and if not they had to blow their horn.
“That allowed them to hunt. Maybe they could take one or two beasts under the supervision of the forester.”
■ Anyone interested in finding out more about the Magna Carta and its historic links to the county can attend the Magna Carta Rediscovered exhibition at the Alexander Centre in Faversham. It runs from May 23.