Royal Forest

When the Normans invaded England in the 11th century they brought with them a love of the hunt. The Royal Forest was an area of land where rights were awarded to the monarch or the aristocracy. The principal aim - hunting, usually for deer or boar.

It is a mistake to think of the Royal Forest as a wooded area. They were more commonly large areas of heath, grassland or wetland; basically anywhere that supported wildlife which could be hunted.

Any area that was designated as the Royal Forest would then become subject to Forest Law. This would cause great resentment for the people living there as it would curtail their rights to hunt and farm the land.

Forest Law was established by William the Conqueror. It was separate to Common Law and was designed to protect game animals and their forest habitat from destruction.

Offences under Forest Law were divided into two categories:
1. Protection for the animals
2. Protection for the habitat

Animals which were protected under Forest Law were:
1. Red Deer
2. Boar
3. Hare
4. Wolf

It is believed the protection was also extended to animals which could be chased:
1. Fox
2. Marten
3. Roe deer
4. Coney
5. Pheasant
6. Partridge

An offence against the habitat could include:
1. Enclosing or fencing.
2. Erection of any buildings
3. Felling of trees

People who lived on the Royal Forest were forbidden to carry hunting weapons and dogs were also banned. However it is worth noting that mastiffs were permitted as watchdogs as long as they had their front claws removed.

The rights and privileges attaching to a Royal Forest could be granted to local nobles and clerics. This was a useful way for the monarch to raise income.

The Royal Forest would be administered by its officers. The most senior of these would be known as the warden.

Forest Law would be administered through special courts:

1. Court of Attachment. This was held every 40 days. It was designed to deal with people who committed crimes against Forest Law. However it could not try these people, they would be set aside to go to the Swainmote.

2. Court of Regard. This was held every third year to enforce the law regarding the declawing of dogs within the forest.

3. Swainmote. This was held three times a year. Two of these meetings would regulate how the forest was managed and the third meeting would be to deal with individuals who had been dealt with under the Court of Attachment ( see point 1 above).

4. Court of Justice-Seat. This was the highest of the forest courts and was held every three years. Its principal purpose was to pass sentence on offenders. In practice these four distinctions were not always observed and there were times when the courts would be merged together.