Magna Carta, established on 15 June 1215, is one of the most famous documents in the world. This royal charter of rights set out key legal principles, and is widely recognised as one of the most important constitutional documents of all time, crucial to the rise of democracy and human rights.
However, despite its significance, Magna Carta primarily originated as a list of grievances from a small number of high-ranking nobles that, almost accidentally, offered a small benefit to other people. Of far more importance to contemporaries was the Charter of the Forest, issued by King Henry III’s regency council just two years later on 6 November 1217.
The Charter of the Forest (a revised version of the original Forest Charter of 1215 – a companion document to the Magna Carta) represented an equally crucial yet often overlooked development in the relationship between the monarchy and its subjects.
Forest use before the Charter
After the Normal Conquest of 1066, William the Conqueror introduced the French tradition of ‘Royal Forests’ to England. Large areas of land were seized and designated exclusively as royal hunting grounds, encroaching on established rights and traditional livelihoods. This didn’t only mean wooded areas, but included fields, heaths and other open spaces. Royal Forest, in this context, simply meant an enclosed area of land reserved for the king, mainly for hunting.
Under William the Conqueror and his sons, this area had become much larger across England. By 1086 approximately 25 Royal Forests had been created (such as Sherwood Forest), and the practice was continued by successive monarchs including Henry II, Richard I and King John. By the 13th century, roughly a third of England had been turned into Royal Forests.
Inevitably this transformation to forest land caused frustration among both barons and common people. Barons and landholders faced restrictions on land development without royal permission, limiting what they could do. Common people, who had traditionally relied on forests to sustain themselves, could no longer cut trees or bushes for firewood or for construction, gather water from streams, forage for food, hunt fish or game, or indeed graze their animals.
Penalties for rule-breakers
Those who lived in these forests were subject to Forest Law, designed to protect the animals and habitats designated for the king’s hunting. Severe penalties were imposed on anyone found using the land in ways that disrupted its suitability as a hunting ground.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King William I prohibited the killing of deer and boar in his hunting grounds, decreeing anyone who killed a deer would be ‘deprived of his eyesight’. Richard the Lionheart maintained this strict stance, with those committing such a crime also being mutilated as well as blinded – despite his infrequent presence in England during his reign and the fact he rarely went hunting.
Fines were also imposed on rule-breakers, and if a particular individual could not be identified or tracked down, the Royal Foresters (responsible for enforcing Forest Law) could sometimes impose fines on entire communities. Such penalties were a major source of revenue for King John.
What did the Charter of the Forest achieve?
In 1217, all four of the rules contained in the 1215 version of Magna Carta that related to the forest were expanded upon and put into a separate charter – the Charter of the Forest, issued on behalf of King Henry III (England’s 10 year old monarch). Whilst the Magna Carta was mainly aimed at the problems for the elites in society, crucially the Charter of the Forest directly impacted normal people.
The Charter sought to claw back some of the vast increases in land designated as royal forest – curbing the monarchy’s power over England’s forests and reasserting the rights of ordinary citizens.
Comprising 17 clauses, the Charter reset the extent of the Royal Forest to what its status had been under Henry II, especially if the land was not legally part of royal estates. Crucially the forests’ status was reinstated as being common land, accessible and able to be used by the common people. Clause 9 of the Charter restored the right to collect wood, graze pigs, and to leave pigs overnight within Royal Forest lands.
The charter also introduced important reforms regarding the legal procedures within the forests. It established a system of ‘regarders’ who were local officials tasked with periodically inspecting the forests and ensuring that the forest law was not being abused. This oversight aimed to prevent the unchecked authority of the forest officials and the often arbitrary enforcement of forest law, which had been a source of discontent among the common people.
The Charter of the Forest also lessened the severity of punishments – Clause 10 removed the death penalty for poachers and replaced it with a fine, or a one-year prison term if the fine was unpaid. This reopened access to land for grazing and foraging that had been diminishing for 150 years.
The Charter also emphasised the distinction between “afforested” and “disafforested” lands, acknowledging that not all lands historically designated as royal forests were inherently suited for the purposes of hunting and recreation. It allowed for the designation of certain areas as “disafforested,” meaning that they were exempt from the stringent forest laws. This recognition of the diverse nature of the landscape and the different needs of various regions represented a more nuanced understanding of land use.
However, like Magna Carta, the Charter of the Forest expressly applied only to free men – around half the population of England at the time. Serfs were excluded.
Impact and legacy
The Charter of the Forest marked a pivotal shift in England’s history by transferring power from the king to the people who lived and worked in the forests. This was a watershed moment in England’s history: rights had been granted to the nobility and clergy before, but never to the common people.
The Charter’s creation demonstrated a willingness on the part of the monarchy to respond to the grievances of its subjects and marked a step towards a more balanced and accountable system of governance. In addition to its substantive changes, the Charter also contributed to the broader evolution of English legal and constitutional history by reinforcing the idea (and explicitly stating) that the King, like any other authority, was subject to the law.
The Charter established mechanisms for the redress of grievances against the abuses of royal power, setting a precedent for the idea that even the King had to govern within the bounds of established laws and that the interests and rights of the people needed to be considered.
Originally issued in 1217, The Charter of the Forest underwent some minor adjustments before its definitive reissue on 11 February 1225, at the same time Henry III issued his final and definitive version of Magna Carta. Thereafter ‘the Charters’, as they were called, were always linked together.
Despite several reissues, the Charter of the Forest remained on the statute books until 1971 (when it was succeeded by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act), making it the longest piece of legislation to remain in force in English history.
This story is featured in History Hit’s Miscellany: Facts, Figures and Fascinating Finds, published by Hodder & Stoughton, on sale now.