Pleas of the Forest. Staffordshire.
The severity of the forest laws after the conquest of England by
the Normans, and the intolerable hardships inflicted by them upon
the English inhabitants, have been in all ages a fruitful theme for
much sensational writing. The Saxon writers, to whom we are
principally indebted for the history of the period immediately
succeeding the Conquest, have allowed their prejudices of race to
largely bias their statements respecting their Norman conquerors,
and the modern historian, in place of scrutinizing these chronicles
with care, has for the most part accepted their statements
without discrimination, and in reproducing them has in many
instances even exaggerated their original import.
That the penalties inflicted for breaches of the forest law were
often cruel and barbarous there can be no doubt, but they were
neither severe nor excessive if compared with the penalties
inflicted by the ordinary criminal law for kindred offences, and
their cruelty and barbarity are the characteristics of a rude and
A common method of exaggeration adopted by the early
writers is to represent the heaviest penalty inflicted by these laws,
(viz., that for killing a stag) as the common penalty for hunting in
the royal forests. As a matter of fact, the penalties for hunting
the lesser animals were not excessive, nor when the means
required in men, horses, and dogs, in order to run down and kill
a stag, and the open and rebellious spirit of contempt for the law
which it evinced, are taken into consideration, and when moreover
we compare the penalty for this (the capital offence of the forest)
with those inflicted under the ordinary criminal law of the period,
even the fearful penalty of the deprivation of sight, loses much of
its first aspect of cruelty and vindictiveness. (fn. 1)
The only forest laws in England prior to the Conquest, of
which we have any cognizance, are those of Canute, and the
penalties for their infraction, so far from being increased in
severity by the Conqueror, were to some extent mitigated by him.
The laws of Canute prescribe that "if any freeman chases a
beast of the forest, so that by the swiftness of the course the
beast doth pant for breath, he shall forfeit 10s. to the King, and if
he be not a freeman, he shall pay double, and if he be a bondman,
he shall lose his skin. (fn. 2)
"If a free or unfree man shall kill any beast of the forest, he
shall for the first offence pay double; for the second as much, and
the third time, shall forfeit all he is worth to the King.
"But if either of them, by coursing or hunting, shall force a
Royal beast, which the English call a staggon, to pant and be out
of breath, the freeman shall lose his natural liberty for a year, the
other shall lose his liberty for two years, and if he be a bondman,
he shall be reckoned for an outlaw, which the English call a
"But if any of them shall kill such a Royal beast, the freeman
shall lose his freedom, the other his liberty, and the bondman his
Matthew of Westminster says the Conqueror mutilated, disinherited, and imprisoned men for taking game, and he adds, si
quis ccrvum vel aprum caperet oculis privabatar.
Another assumption of modern writers, for which I can find no
warrant, is that the right of hunting within his own territory
which every freeman enjoyed before the Conquest had been taken
away by the Normans.
The laws of Canute contain the following clause:—
"Volo ut omnis liber homo pro libito suo habeat venerem sive
viridem in planis suis super terras suas, sine chaceâ tamen (fn. 3) et devitent
omnes meam, ubicunque eam habere voluero."
i.e., I will that every freeman have the game and vert upon his
own territory, but without the right of chase, and let all abstain
from mine, where I may wish to have it."
Bracton's Treatise and the It oils show clearly enough that every
freeman had the right of hawking, and the right of chasing and
taking game on his own land, but he could not hunt beasts of
chase on the land of others, nor could he form a preserve for wild
beasts within his own territory without licence from the King.
The liberty of hawking was the great privilege of the commonalty,
and to this fact, no doubt, was owing much of the popularity of this
description of sport in former days. The extension of the restrictions respecting beasts of chase to winged game, by that impolitic
prince King John, was one of the causes of the general discontent
and insurrections of his reign. Clause 13 of the Charta de Forestâ
of 9 H. III. removes this restriction, and provides that every freeman
shall have within his own woods, eyries of Hawks, Falcons, Eagles,
The great grievance of the people in the matter of the forests
was not so much the stringency of the forest laws, to which they
were accustomed, and which was common to all the kingdoms of
Europe, as the rapid and continual extension of the limits of the
forests at the mere will of the sovereign. These extensions
absorbed within the forests all the neighbouring manors, (fn. 4) and were
a real and substantial grievance, and one which it would be difficult
to overestimate, but it is in connection with the extension of a
forest in Hampshire that we find in the Chronicles the greatest
exaggeration of which the early writers have been guilty.
Everyone has heard the story of the New Forest: how the
Conqueror afforested an extensive district in the south of England,
of the number of square miles of arable land withdrawn from
cultivation and converted into a wilderness to form a shelter
for wild beasts and an arena for the diversion of the King.
But what are the real facts?
The forest existed before the Conquest; (fn. 5) the whole district
consists of a well known geological feature of which the Aldershot
and Bagshot sands form a part, and on which nothing but heather
and pines will grow; and the only origin of the story seems to be
the name by which the forest came to be known after the afforestation of the district by the Conqueror, and the premature deaths
of two of the Conqueror's sons whilst in the actual enjoyment of
the chase within its bounds. This latter circumstance strongly
affected the superstitious feelings of the age, and was too good an
opportunity for the monkish historians to let slip; yet it is on such
slight foundations as these that has been built up the sensational
story of the expulsion of the inhabitants, the burning of the
villages and churches, and all the other incidents of an assumed
act of despotism which brought down upon its authors the
vengeance of Heaven.
A forest (fn. 6) is an extensive territory of uncultivated ground
maintained for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren,
the meers or boundaries of which are fixed, and known by
matter of record or prescription, and to which are attached particular
officers and laws. The latter clause is essential to make a forest,
without it such a territory would be a chace only. The so-called
deer forests now existing in Scotland are properly speaking chaces;
and on the other hand Cannock Chase in Staffordshire was a Royal
forest. (fn. 7) A forest included within its metes not only the King's
lands, which were known as the King's demesne woods, but also
many manors belonging to private lords. These lords of manors
within a forest could not convert their land from pasture into
arable, nor could they cut down their woods, or make any
enclosures against the assize of the forest; i.e., they could not make
an enclosure which would not admit the larger game to pass freely in
or out of the land. As some mitigation of these hardships and
disabilities their cattle had the right of pasture within the forest.
A forest was the highest franchise known in ancient days; next
in degree came the chace, which the great Barons mostly possessed.
After that came the park, which was always enclosed; lastly the
free warren. These last two franchises were held by most lords of
manors after the thirteenth century whose lands were not within
the metes of a forest, but they could be held only by special favour
and grant of the Crown. The charter of free warren always
contained the clause, "dum tamen terræ illæ non sint infra metas
The old legal writers were of opinion that all wild beasts and fowls
of chase and warren belonged to the King. Bracton says
Habet etiam Rex de jure gentium in manu suâ, quæ de jure naturali
deberent csse communia, sicut feras bestias, et ares non dumestieas;" and
for this reason "it was not lawful for any man to make a chase,
park, or warren in his own freehold, or elsewhere, to preserve such
beasts, without the King's grant or warrant to do so, although men
may kill such beasts or fowls while they are wild and found out
of any forest, chase, park, or warren; yet as no man has any property
in them until they have killed them, they may be said to be in
manu Domini Regis whilst in their wild state."
The King only could make a forest, but a subject can be seised
of a forest, by grant of the Crown or by prescription, and the Earls
of Lancaster had a forest and executed the forest laws within it as
fully as the King himself. The Duke of Gloucester, temp. Ric. II.,
likewise held the Forest of Dean by special grant.
It was held however by the judges in the case of Sir Richard
Cromwell that although a subject could hold a forest and have
courts of attachment and swanimote, he could not hold a justice
seat to punish offenders without a special commission from the
King; he must bring an action of trespass at common law and indict
Officers of the Forest.
1. The Steward or Chief Forester.
2. The Foresters.
3. The Verderers.
4. The Reguarders.
5. The Agisters.
6. The Woodwards.
The Steward, Seneschallus, Chief Warder, Custos, Chief Forester,
Capitalis Forestarius, for he is described by all these titles on the
Records, held an office of great honour and authority. It was
always held in fee by grant of the Crown.
The Foresters were of various classes: the foresters in fee,
Forestarii de feodo, held an hereditary office, and were mostly of
knightly rank. Besides these there was the Forestarius equitans,
Ryder or Ranger. These appear to have been appointed by the
King, and held their office for life (fn. 8) or during pleasure. Under
the foresters in fee were an inferior class of forester whose duties
corresponded to those of the modern gamekeeper. All these offices
were ministerial, and had no judicial functions.
The Verderer, Viridarius, was a judicial officer of the forest
chosen by the freeholders of the county in full county court in
the same manner as a coroner. He was sworn to maintain the
laws of the forest, and to receive and enroll the attachments and
presentments of all manner of trespass within the forest, whether
of vert or of venison.
The Reguarders were officers of the forest appointed by the
King or by the Chief Justice in Eyre of the forest, and were always
twelve in number. In the event of vacancies occurring by death,
the Sheriff was ordered to cause others to be elected in the county
The duties of the Reguarders was to keep a roll on which was
written all the ancient assarts, wastes, and purprestures; and on
another roll, such as had been newly made since the last Regard of
the forest. Accompanied by the foresters, they surveyed all the
old and new purprestures made within the forest, valued them, and
wrote them down on their rolls; they also surveyed the King's
demesne lands and woods, and the waste in them by felling of
timber, or by destruction of underwood; also all fences, and whether
they were according to the law of the forest.
They also inspected eyries of hawks within the forest, inquired
in whose woods they were maintained, and whether the owners
were entitled to them by the law of the forest.
They also inquired who kept bows and arrows, cross-bows,
hounds, or nets or any engines to destroy game, or mastiffs unexpeditated within the forest.
The roll thus made up was taken by them to the Swanimote,
and affirmed by the Reguarders under their hand and seal, and they
presented the same to the Justices in Eyre of the forest at their
Speaking generally, the Reguarders appear to have taken cognizance of every matter which was prejudicial to the forest, with the
exception of trespasses against the wild beasts. The Eeguard of the
forest was made at intervals of four years.
The Agisters were officers of the forest who received and
accounted for the money paid for the herbage and pannage of the
King's demesne lands and woods within the forest. Agistment was
of two kinds: 1st, the herbage of the woods and pastures, and 2ndly
of the mast of trees; the latter was called pannage. The Agistors
also presented trespasses done by cattle, and, assisted by the
foresters, they agisted the King's woods and lands, i.e., they made
the agreements with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, by
which the number of the swine to be fed, and the sums to be paid
for them, were settled. As regards the ordinary pasturage, no man
could agist his beasts within the King's forest but one who was
an inhabitant of the forest, and had common appendant or appurtenant, by reason of his land lying within the forest.
According to the Charta de Forestâ, every freeman holding land
within the forest could agist his own woods and lands, and take the
pannage, but he could not agist goats without special license, as
they injured the herbage. The time for agisting commonable
beasts for herbage began fifteen days before Midsummer Day, and
ended on Holyrood Day, i.e., fifteen days before Michaelmas Day.
At Holyrood Day began the agistment of swine to feed on the
mast. This lasted till the Feast of St. Martin; the money received
for this agistment was called Pannagium, a word which is used
both for the feeding of the hogs and the money produced by it.
A Woodward (Wodewardus) was an officer of the forest, whose
name denotes his duties: his charge was to look after the woods
and vert. His insignia was a hatchet, which when called, he
presented to the Chief Justice in Eyre of the forests. All the
officers of the forest, including the woodward, had the power of
arresting malefactors, secundum posse suum.
The Court of Attachment, the primary court of the forest, was
held at intervals of forty days, whence it came to be called the
Forty Days' Court. It dates from a very early period, for the Charta
de Forestâ of 9 Hen. III. says, "Preterea singulis quadraginta
diebus per totutn annum conveniant forestarii et viridarii ad
videndum attachiamenta de forestâ tam de viridi quam de venatione."
The object of this court was to receive the attachments of the
foresters and woodwards, and to enter them on the rolls of the
The attachments of the forest were the same as those of the
common law. A man might be attached either by his goods and
chattels, or by pledges and mainprize, or by his body.
The usual proceeding appears to have been, that if the foresters
found any man trespassing on the vert of the forest, they might
attach him by his body, and then cause him to find two pledges to
appear at the next Court of Attachments. Upon his appearance at
this court, he was mainprized until the next General Sessions or
Iter of the Forest Justices. If he was found offending a second
time, he had to find four pledges; if a third time, eight pledges; and
if found offending a fourth time, he was detained in custody without bail or mainprize till the coming of the Justices.
If a man was taken killing the deer or carrying it away, which
was called being taken with the manner (fn. 9) he could be attached by
his body, and imprisoned until delivered by the command of the
King, or the Chief Justice in Eyre of the Forest, or by the Chief
Warden of the forest; but no other officer of lower degree than the
Chief Warden could set him free or admit him to bail in these
The Court of Swanimote.
This court was the court of freeholders living within the forest,
and was very similar in its constitution to the Hundred Court.
In the same way as the chief bailiff of the Hundred presided over
the Hundred Court, so the Chief Warden of the forest or his deputy
presided in the Swanimote. A swein is Saxon for a free tenant, and
mote in the same language signifies a court; thus the Halimote
was the manorial court, the Folkmote the burgess court, and the
Portmote that of the port or haven. But the Chief Warden, although
he presided at this court, was not the judge of it. The judges were
the verderers, who were elected in full county; and associated
with them, and acting in fact as a jury, were the Reeves, and four
men of the townships contiguous to the scene of the trespass complained of. In fact, it may be said that the whole body of
freeholders living within the forest were the judges, as in the case
of the other courts of Saxon origin, (fn. 10) the fundamental principle of
the Saxon jurisdiction being, as already explained in the introduction to the Plea Rolls in these Collections, that the whole body of
freeholders attending a court were the judges of it. An idea is
prevalent that the forest laws were introduced by the Normans
into this country, but this is clearly disproved by the name and
constitution of the Swanimote, both of which are purely Saxon.
The Charta de Forestâ ordains that the Swanimote should not
be held oftener than three times in the year, "Nullum Swanimotum de cetero tencatur in regnonostro,nisi ter in anno;" the dates
were likewise fixed by the same charter. The first Swanimote was
held fifteen days before Midsummer Day, when the agisters met
together to fawn the deer; the second court was held fifteen days
before Michaelmas, when the agistment of the woods began; and
the third court on the Feast of St. Martin in November, when the
agisters met to receive the pannage. All the officers of the forest
had to appear at these courts, including the verderers, reguarders,
agisters, woodwards, and "de quâlibet villatâ quatuor homines et
All forest offences were presented and tried at the Swanimote
but no judgment was given there, nor sentences awarded. This was
reserved for the Justices of the forest at the next Iter.
Justices in Eyre of the Forest.
All the pleas of the forest were heard and determined before
Justices specially assigned to hear the same by the King's commission. These Justices issued their warrants to the Sheriff of the
county and the Chief Wardens of the forests to summon before
them on a certain day named everybody who held land within the
forest, whether laymen or clerics, and four men and the provost of
every vill within the forest, and from every town within the same,
twelve loyal and honest men, together with all foresters, verderers,
reguarders, woodwards, or other officials of the forest. The Sheriff
was likewise to make proclamation in all fairs, markets, or other
public places, that everyone who held franchises within the forests
should appear on the same day to claim them, together with all
those who had been attached for trespasses against vert and
venison since the last Iter of the Justices, with their pledges and
manucaptors; and finally the Sheriff was ordered to be present in
person on the same day with all his bailiffs to execute the process
of the Court, &c.
The function of the Chief Justice in Eyre was not so much to
try offenders against the Forest Laws, as to fix the fines and
punishments of those who had been previously convicted at the
Swanimotes. At the Forest Pleas of 14 E. I., William de
Wrottesley, who had been convicted by the Kinver Swanimote of
taking venison fourteen years before, viz., in 56 H. III., obtained
another trial on the payment of a fine of 20s. (see page); but this
is the only instance of the rehearing of a case before the Justice in
Eyre of the Forests which I have met with on the Staffordshire
Vert and Venison.
Vert, called in Latin Viridis, is every tree, underwood or bush,
growing in a forest and bearing green leaves which may cover or
feed deer. It is of two sorts, the over vert, or haut bois, and the
nether vert, or sous bois. Fern and heather were not accounted vert.
Trees which bore fruit, such as oaks and beech, were accounted as
special vert, and these could not be felled in any man's freehold
within the limits of a Royal forest except by view of the foresters
and verderers. By the Ordinances of the Forest of the 6th year of
Edward I., freeholders dwelling within a forest could not cut housebotenor haybote within their own woods without the view of the
Venison, in Latin venatio, has a general signification on the
Forest Rolls, and means the flesh of any animal taken in hunting;
but as among the common people nothing was accounted venison
but the flesh of red and fallow deer, it gradually obtained its present
special signification. Budœus, the Monkish historian of the Art of
Hunting, gives this old distich respecting venison:—
"Non est inquirendum, unde venit venison
Nam si forte furto sit, sola fides sufficit." (fn. 11)
The monks were great receivers of stolen venison in old days.
The beasts of forest were originally five in number, viz., the
hart, the hind, the hare, the boar, and the wolf. The latter beast,
however, was so destructive, it was excepted in the forest laws of
Canute, and permission was given to kill them anywhere but in
the Royal forests; if killed within a Royal forest, the offender
was subject to a light fine, as a trespasser on the Royal chase, but
to no other penalty. "Vulpes et lupi, nec forestæ, nec vencris habentur,
et proinde eorum interfectio nulli emendatione subjacet; si tamen
infra limites occiduntur, fractio sit regalis chaseæ et mitius emendatur." The story of all the wolves in England having been
destroyed by King Edgar is obviously fictitious, for they are
mentioned in the records for many centuries after the death of
The beasts of chase were also five in number, viz., the buck,
the doe, the fox, the martin, and the roe. The male and female
both of the red deer and of the fallow deer were accounted as
different beasts in venery, owing to their having entirely different
seasons: the season of the hind and doe beginning when that of the
hart and the buck ends.
The beasts and fowls of warren were the hare, the coney or
rabbit, the pheasant, and the partridge. As the words in a grant
of free warren are, "ita quod nullus intret terras illas, ad fugandum
in eis vel aliquod capiendum quod ad warrennam pertinct," a charter
of free warren would be rendered uncertain if it had not been laid
down what were beasts and fowls of warren.
The hart or stag is the fera regalis or royal beast of the forest,
and the penalty for killing it was originally very heavy, extending
to the loss of life or members, until the reign of Henry II. That
monarch substituted the penalties of fine and imprisonment for the
barbarous enactments of his predecessors, and the Charta de Forestâ
of Hen. III. ordained that "no man shall henceforth lose life or limb
for killing the King's deer."
In the language of the forest, a stag of the first year is called a
The second year a brocket.
The third year a spayard.
The fourth year a staggard.
The fifth year a stag or hart.
A hart Royal is a hart which has been hunted by the King and
A hart Royal proclaimed, is a hart which has been driven out of
the forest in hunting so far that he is not likely to return of
himself, and because he has given such sport, the King causes
proclamation to be made in all the towns and villages of the
vicinity that no person shall kill or hunt him, and appoints men
to look after him till he returns, or is driven back to the forest.
The season of the hart began at Midsummer Day, and lasted till
Holyrood, i.e., the 14th September.
Foresters call the round roll of the horn next the head the bur
the main horn is called the beam, the lowest antler is called the
brow-antler or bezantler, the next is called the royal, the next above
the sur-royal, and then the top.
The season of the hind began at Holyrood Day, and lasted till
Candlemas, i.e., from the 14th September to the 2nd February.
The season of the buck is the same as that of the stag. A buck
of the first year is called a fawn.
The second year a pricket.
The third year a sorel.
The fourth year a sore.
The fifth year a buck.
The season of the roebuck began at Easter, and lasted till
Michaelmas. The season of the roe began at Michaelmas, and lasted
till the Purification or Candlemas Day, 2nd February. The season
of the boar began at Christmas Day, and lasted till Candlemas.
Assarts, Purprestures, and Waste.
An assart was a clearance made in woods, by which trees and
bushes were eradicated, and the ground brought to tillage. Those
who assarted lands within a forest paid a fine at every Forest Iter,
which was calculated on the value of the crops grown on the land
since the preceding Iter. Some of the assarts were allowed on the
payment of this fine, in other cases they were ordered to be reduced
again to forest.
A purpresture was any encroachment to the detriment of the
forest, or which was hurtful to the vert or venison. It seems to be
derived from the French pourpris.
Waste (wasta) is the spoil and destruction in the coverts or
pastures of a forest by the cutting down of trees or lopping of them,
or by ploughing any meadow or grass land.
All offenders who made assarts, purprestures, or waste, were
fined, and if the land was their own freehold, it was taken into the
King's hands until the fine was paid.
Dogs in a Forest.
Every freeholder or farmer dwelling within a forest might keep
a mastiff for the security of his house and goods, but such mastiff
must be expeditated, i.e., it must be mutilated by the removal of
some of the claws of the fore foot. Greyhounds could not be kept
within a forest except by special warrant.
called in Latin, the tempus vetitum, was the period of fawning
("fænationis") of the deer. It began at fifteen days before
Midsummer Day, and ended on St. Cyril's Day, fifteen days after
Midsummer Day. During this month no kind of dog was allowed
to go at large in the forest, and the driving of cattle or any other
proceeding tending to disturb the deer was also forbidden.
Enclosures in a Forest.
An enclosure in a forest must be formed, according to the assize
of the forest, i.e., parvo fossato ct bassâ haiâ, secundum assisam
forestæ. The assize of the forest was ruled to be in general terms
that no man might enclose ground within the forest ad nocumentum
ferarum. A man, however, may have a park within a forest by
prescription or by grant of the King, but such a park must be so
enclosed that the beasts of the forest cannot enter it, otherwise it is
a forfeiture of the park. It is also a forfeiture if he makes a
saltatorium or deer-leap, for the nature of a park is to be completely
and securely enclosed, and if it be so slightly enclosed that deer
can get in, the owner of a forest may enter and take the deer.
The saltatorium or deer-leap seems to have been a fence so
constructed that the deer could pass in, but could not get back.
These were absolutely forbidden within the Regard of a Royal forest,
and it will be observed in the Pleas which follow that when the
Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry claimed the right by prescription
within Cannok Forest, it was disallowed.