Monday, September 26, 2011

Hierarchy and Insurrection in the Medieval Forest

John Manwood’s Treatise of the Forest Laws, written at the end of the sixteenth century but describing a legal system that flowered centuries earlier, provides great detail about how those without grants from the king were punished for taking game from, or sometimes just near to, a royal forest. (Most older sources, and the discussion here, use "forest" as meaning a "royal forest," while referring to other wooded areas as "chases," "warrens," "woods," and other terms. Forests in some areas, and some parts of Britain, did not always refer to land under the forest laws.)

I know of no peacetime period in world history where dogs were so brutally caught up in the affairs of men, where the hierarchy of society created such a rigid ordering of dogs that a dog’s life was very much determined by who owned it. A man not assured of a sufficient income or title could not even own a greyhound. A commoner dwelling in a forest could not own a large guard dog unless at least one leg of the animal was sufficiently damaged to prevent it from chasing deer.

Kings had officials responsible for training and caring for their hunting dogs, which were divided by their respective skills. The skill the dog brought to the hunt determined where it would live in the castle keep. The lymers (leashed trackers, thought to be precursors to bloodhounds) and other hounds lived in well-built kennels, where poor people might sleep with them at night to keep themselves warm and retrieve a huntsman or one of his servants if a dog got sick. Greyhounds often had the run of the castle. Small dogs could be owned by commoners, and pampered Maltese (Canis melitensis to Aldrovandus) took fleas from ladies (while giving them back, but there was always a trade-off). The first woodcut is of a lymer from Turbervile; the second a Maltese from Aldrovandus

This rigid separation of dogs, reflecting the layering and boundaries in human society, goes some way toward explaining modern breeds, since this separation of types of dogs discouraged breeding between dogs that served different functions and encouraged breeding like to like. Also, the limited trade and isolation of the middle ages allowed for regional development of types that, in many cases, survived until more formal breed designations and standards began to be established in the nineteenth century, something my father and I recognized but could not sufficiently document when he was writing The Complete Book of Dogs forty years ago.


Restricting a large part of the deer population of England for the pleasure of the king, the purpose of the forest laws, inevitably led to poaching. Manwood’s descriptions suggest that poachers generally operated secretively, often at night, and removed the stag or other game before anyone could see and report the mischief to the foresters or other local authorities. As a typical example, take a case from 1200 (reign of King John) translated from the Latin by G.J. Turner in Select Pleas of the Forest (4-6):

“Thomas Inkel, forester of Cliffe, found in the wood of Siberton a certain place wet with blood, and he traced the blood in the snow as far as the house of Ralph Red of Siberton; and forthwith he sent for the verderers and good men. They searched his house, and in it they found the flesh of a certain doe; and they took Ralph himself and put him in prison at Northampton, where he died. But before his death, when he was in prison, he appealed Robert Sturdi of Siberton and Roger Tock of the same town, because they were evil doers to the forest together with him. And the foresters and verderers searched the house of the aforesaid Robert, and in it found the bones of deer; and they took him and sent him to prison. And in the house of Roger Tock they found ears and bones of wild beasts. And he was taken and imprisoned. Robert Sturdi comes before the justices and says that the dogs of Walter of Preston used to be kenneled at his house. Walter's hunters ate the venison whence came the bones; and Robert vouches the aforesaid Walter to warranty of this ; and let him have him to-morrow. Walter comes and warrants him, saying that his dogs [canes] were kenneled in his house for fifteen days while he was hunting bucks.

“The aforesaid Roger Took comes before the justices and denies everything. And the verderers and foresters witness that the ears and bones found in his' house were those of beasts which the hunters of Walter of Preston took. And because Roger lay for a long time in prison, so that he is nearly dead it is adjudged that he go quit; and let him dwell outside the forest.”

Thus, because the hunters did not cover the blood and tracks they and their dogs made in the snow, one of them died and one lay in prison until he was almost dead, then was required to live outside the forest to reduce his chances of further mischief.

Poachers vs. Hunters

An account from 1251 (reign of Henry III) in Turner’s Select Pleas shows that hunters with permission to use a forest could get into fights with poachers, who in this case had numbers on their side:

“It happened on the Wednesday next after the feast of St. Michael [end of September] in the same year that James of Thurlbear, Thomas of Spain, and Robert of Wick, the hunters of Sir Geoffrey of Laugley, the justice of the forest, and others with them went into the Farming wood of Brigstock after dinner and met certain persons doing evil in the forest with bows and arrows [arcubus et sagittis], estimated at the number of twelve. And they led three dogs in a leash, of which one was black, a second red with ears erect, and the third ticked with white and black [tres canes in lieno quorum vuus fuit niger et alter ruffus cum auribus stantinis et tercius tetchelatus albedine et nigredine]. And the huntsmen forthwith hailed them; and they shot arrows at one another. And two of the evil doers came out of their band and seized Robert of Wick, as he stood at his tree; and when the hunters could not resist them on account of their number, they went away.”

Dogs were often described with particularity because poachers sometimes wore masks or remained in the cover of brush, making identification difficult, but dogs could be well known in the area where their owners lived. The following occurred in 1248:

"William le Rus and Geoffrey of Pilton, walking foresters of Weybridge, were going towards midnight to Weybridge to lie in watch over their bailiwick, so that ... towards Alconbury they met a certain red greyhound worrying a doe. And they called the said greyhound and took it. Afterwards twelve men came following the greyhound, one of whom carried an axe in his hand, and another a certain long stick, and the others ten bows and arrows, and they led three greyhounds in a leash, of which one was white, and another ticked with white and black ; and of what colour the third was they knew not. And the foresters called the men, who shot six arrows at the foresters, three barbed and three 'genderated.' And the foresters shot at the men who entered the wood. And on account of the thickness of the wood and the darkness of the night the foresters knew not what became of them."

It has been suggested that sagitta genderata derives from the French cendrée and means that there was a ball of lead at the end of the arrow to prevent too much penetration into the deer (review of Select Pleas appearing in The Athenaeum, No. 3878, p. 234, February 22, 1902; the reviewer considers it also possible that the term refers to some mechanism for removing an arrow).


Most accounts indicate that the perpetrators were unlucky to have been caught, though perhaps somewhat deserving of their fates because of sloppiness in their criminal endeavor. But on page 214 of his Treatise, Manwood writes a long sentence about an incident that took place in the reign of Edward III in 1334:

“One Nicholas Melvill, and several others, were indicted for that they, with Bows and Arrows and Dogs, had killed 43 Stags and Hinds in the Forest, and had set their Heads on Stakes; they were committed and grievously fined, and according to the Charter of the Forest, were bound to their Good Behaviour; and so they must have been if they had been pardoned.”

Forty-three stags, their heads on stakes! No subtlety here.
Yet they are only fined and let go on their good behavior? What is going on? Did the forest laws receive any respect at all? More will be said about this incident below, but it is necessary first to put the forest laws in the context of a broader English history.

What is a Forest?

Manwood defines a forest as follows:

“A Forest is a certain Territory of woody Grounds and fruitful Pastures, privileged for wild Beasts and Fowls of Forest, Chase, and Warren, to rest and abide there in the safe Protection of the King, for his Delight and Pleasure; which Territory of Ground so privileged is meered and bounded with unremoveable Marks, Meers and Boundaries, either known by Matter of Record or by Prescription; and also replenished with wild Beasts of Venery or Chase, and with great Coverts of Vert, for the Succour of the said Beasts there to abide; for the Preservation and Continuance of which said Place, together with the Vert and Venison, there are particular Officers, Laws, and Privileges belonging to the same, requisite for that purpose, and proper only to a Forest, and to no other Place.” (Manwood, 143)

In sum, a forest to Manwood must have four things: vert (green plants and trees), venison (game, particularly deer), special laws, and special officers to enforce them. Wood in a forest was protected as was its game, and grazing was limited to animals that would not hurt the game or eat what the game wanted to eat (at least for some part of the year). These aspects, not involving dogs, will only be alluded to here. More can be found on the protection of vegetation in the excellent books on the forest laws by Young and Grant listed in my sources at the end of this blog.

As to hunting, Manwood is specific:

“Hunting in Forests is Sport for Kings and Princes, and therefore not to be used by every common Person, but only by such of the Nobility and others who have Authority from the King, or from his Justice in Eyre, or other Officers of the Forest, or by such who have some good and lawful Authority so to do, and no other may hunt there.” (Manwood, 184)

Manwood may be exaggerating slightly in this statement. A number of the laws he himself refers to speak of the rights of “owners,” not just the king. Liebermann notes that Blount’s Law Dictionary (1717) states that a king could grant a forest, though this seems to have been uncommon.

It is also to be noted that not all hunting was prohibited to commoners. Although harts and boars were generally forbidden to any but the king, Manwood (182) states the king might grant residents of a forest “Liberty to hunt Vermin of Chase, fiz. Foxes, Wild Cats, Pole-cats or Squirrels.”

Royal Forests and the Royal Treasury

The rights of kings over forest property can be traced to the early medieval period. Chris Wickham, describing the increasing militarization of elite culture following the collapse of the Roman Empire, describes how by the eighth century kings “put their palaces beside woodland regions that were easy to reach for hunting; the Frankish and Lombard kings began to see some of these regions as ‘forest’, royal reserves, in which only they could hunt.”

Forests were not under the king’s control because they were wooded, but rather because they had been marked out as forests by a process of afforestation. Afforestation, as Professor Emma Griffin notes in Blood Sport, “involved not wholesale eviction of the local inhabitants but the imposition of a new code of law upon them.” Similarly, the same area could lose its forest status by a procedure called disafforestation.

Griffin acknowledges the importance of the sport to the Anglo-Saxon kings, but attributes the land policies that eventually reserved hunting rights over much of England to the crown to William the Conqueror and his early descendants. Christopher Brooke describes the situation before and after the Conquest succinctly:

“Like Edward the Confessor, the Norman kings were all passionately fond of hunting. They added substantially to the area of forest, which means, not continuous woodland, but space in which special laws operated, special punishments were enforced, intended to ensure the safe-keeping of game, especially deer and boar. In these areas beasts were more precious than men. It is well known that the early Normans created, or rather extended the New Forest; less well known that they could ride from Windsor, through the New Forest, to the sea without leaving territory subject to the forest laws; that the whole country of Essex was forest; that only three English counties were entirely free from forest law; and that there was probably no part of England more than fifty miles from a forest.”

The New Forest is shown about 1575 in Christopher Saxton's map of Hampshire. (Double click for larger image.)

The purpose of the forest laws was to assure that deer populations would remain high in areas where the king enjoyed hunting them, which meant that only he, and those few on whom he bestowed the right, could hunt in such places. Bestowing the right generally came with a price, and when the king needed money, he could get it by including more nobles within the privileged circle of hunters. This was often not enough—particularly if a major war had to be financed—and the best solution was to “disafforest” broad sections of previously designated royal forest. This took the land out of the royal forest and gave it to the noble who paid the price. For several centuries following the Conquest, the ebb and flow of forest lands, afforestation followed by disafforestation followed again by afforestation, reflected the needs of the kings to fill the coffers. As summarized by Helen M. Jewell:

“The history of the royal forest can almost be read as a commentary on the relative positions of the crown and its critics in the middle ages, for the kings when strong increased the area of forest, and when weak yielded to pressures for deforesetment.”

Henry II (1154-1189) pushed the royal forests to their greatest extent. His son, Richard I, known as the Lionheart, spent very little time in England, needed capital for wars and a crusade, and disafforested much of the land his predecessors had put under the forest law. Richard’s brother John continued to policy of disafforesting various areas, but became assiduous in enforcing the forest laws against poachers and those who otherwise violated the remaining lands. This may explain John’s negative portrayal in the Robin Hood legend.

Henry III, John’s son and heir, accepted the pressure of the nobles to codify the forest laws in the Charta de Foresta, upon which Manwood bases much of his Treatise.

Margaret Ley Bazeley included a map of the royal forests of England in her 1921 article on the extent of the royal forests. The shaded areas of the map indicate areas designated as forests in the thirteenth century.

Dogs in the Forest Laws

Manwood mentions greyhounds, spaniels (Canis hispanicus, because of the belief they came from Spain), mastiffs and little dogs. Greyhounds and spaniels “are generally forbid, that is, they are not to be kept in a Forest, but only by a Grant from the King.” (Manwood, 110) Manwood asserts the antiquity of the prohibition on greyhounds:

“And even from the very beginning of the Forest Laws, it appears, That it was unlawful to keep Greyhounds there; for, by the 31st of the Laws of Canutus, tis ordain’d, Quod nullus medioctis habebit, nec custodiet Canes quos Angli Greyhounds appellant.” (Manwood, 111) The third plate above shows a greyhound from Aldrovandus, while the fourth shows his depiction of a spaniel.

There were penalties for keeping greyhounds in violation of these laws. If the owner were an “Artificer, Labourer, or other Layman, who hath not Lands of the Value of 40 s. per Annum, or any Priest or Clerk who hath not a Living to the Value of 10 £. a Year, will have or keep any Greyhound, Hound or other Dog to hunt, or Ferrets, Hays, Nets, Hare-pipes, Cords, or other Engines, to take or destroy Deer, Hares, Conies or other Game, he shall be committed for a Year.” For one whose station was higher, however, there could be a fine rather than imprisonment:

“All Persons, except such who are seised in their own Right, or in the Right of their Wives, of Lands or Tenements of Inheritance to the Value of 10 £. by the Year, or of 30 £. for Life, or possessed of Goods or Chattels to the Value of 200 £. or the Son of a Knight or Baron, or of higher Degree, or the Son and Heir apparent of an Esquire, and who shall have or keep any Greyhound to course Deer or Hare, shall be committed to the common Gaol for three Months without Bail, except he forthwith pay 40 s. to the Churchwardens of the Parish where the Offence was committed….” (Manwood, 124)

On the other hand, the following could keep a greyhound:

1. He must either be Owner of a Free Warren.
2. A Lord of a Manor.
3. Or he must have an Estate of Inheritance of 100 £. per Annum, either in his own Right, or the Right of his Wife, or for Life.
4. Or must have a Lease for 99 Years, of 150 £. per Annum.
5. Or must be the Son and Heir of an Esquire, or one of higher Degree. (Manwood, 124-5)

Greyhounds were not named for their color. Cox, in describing forest records, mentions greyhounds that were black, black spotted, tawny (teyngre), tiger-marked or brindled (tigrus), red (ruffus or rubens), and red with black muzzle (cum nigro mussel).

Turton, in his edition of the Pickering Forest records, mentions men owning many hounds, as many as seven, but even an abbot might not have authority to hunt:

“Thomas Wryel, William son of William Moye, and Prester John, on Trinity Eve [1324?], came with hounds of the Abbot of Whitby with his knowledge to Stayrigg and laid them on and took a hind ; Thomas, William and the Abbot fined, Prester John outlawed.”

A record from 1102 in the reign of Henry I, however, gave an abbot authority to “keep leporarii to hunt hares.” (Davis, Regesta, # 577; 1873 “hares and foxes, 1129-33).

Dogs could be fed by receiving part of what was poached, as can be gleaned from the following in Turton:

“Peter Mauley, John son of Malkin, William son of Thomas son of Stephen, William of Haverdale, and many others unknown, on Saturday, 14 April, 1313, took two harts in Wheeldale Rigg and Wheeldale Beck with gazehounds, bows and arrows ; one was eaten by Peter's hounds and the other was carried to his house. Peter fined as above, the rest outlawed.”

Residents of the forest below the ranks in the list above could only have two types of dogs: “Mastiffs expeditated, and little Dogs may be kept in a Forest; but no other Dogs, without a good Claim, by virtue of a Grant from the King, or the Owner of the Forest.” I discussed expeditation at length in a prior blog. A mastiff of the sort that was at risk of expeditation was illustrated by Konrad Gessner in the next plate below.

Opposition to the crippling of mastiffs did not just come from the lowly forest dwellers. An inquisition regarding the practices of foresters in Somerset was issued in 1278 or 1279, reproduced in Turner’s Select Pleas, contains the following passage:

“Although the charter says that view of the lawing of dogs ought to be made every third year, when the regard is made, and then by view of loyal men and good, and not otherwise, yet the foresters come through the towns blowing horns and make a nuisance with much noise to cause the mastiffs [mastins] to come out to bark at them ; and so they attach the good folk every year for their mastiffs if the three toes be not cut and a little piece from the ball of the right foot, although the charter says that the three toes are to be cut but not the ball of the fore foot.”

This inquisition shows that even those close to the king might occasionally acknowledge excesses in enforcement by the king’s agents.

Correlating Terms with Breeds

Terms such as leporarius in Latin, or greyhound in English, probably encompassed a range of breeds. (Leporarius originally meant "hare hound" from the Latin for hare, lepus.) Turton, in his editing of the Pickering Forest records, translated leporarius as gazehound, but acknowledges that it “is probable that the word leporarius included a large variety of breeds, some rough like the old Scotch deerhound, and some smooth like the modern greyhound.” Running-hounds, according to Turton, could have encompassed dogs that were like foxhounds, but also like bloodhounds. The long haired leporarius depicted by Aldrovandus below fits this description.

Hunting Rights of Those Living Adjacent to the Forest

Those living adjacent to the royal forest could hunt on their own lands as long as they did not stray into the forest itself. It was not expected that such hunters would gallop through woods with the same elegance and entourage that attended a king’s hunt. In fact, these local hunters might expect their dogs to do much of the work and the attachment of the dogs to a deer might give such a hunter the right to pursue quarry into the forest itself. As described by Manwood:

“But yet, in some Cases, a Purlieu Man may lawfully pursue his Chase, and hunt and kill a Deer in the Forest, for if he find such Deer in his Purlieu, and in hunting it towards the Forest, the Dogs fasten on it before ‘tis within the Bounds thereof, and the Dogs still hanging on, are drawn by the Force of the Deer into the Forest, and ‘tis killed there; in this Case, by reason of the first Property which he had, ratione soli [according to the soil, i.e., by reason of the purlieu man’s property rights], and also by the Pursuit and Possession thereof by his Dogs, before the Deer entered the Forest, he may lawfully follow his Chase there, and take and carry away the Deer, because he was actually possessed thereof by his Dogs (which are his Servants) before it entered the Forest.” (Manwood, 197-8)

Thus, the attachment of the dogs creates ownership in the hunter which is not abrogated if the beast enters the royal forest. If the beast reaches the brink of the forest before the dogs fasten, then it cannot be brought down as the property of the hunter. Stated differently, “a Purlieu Man hath a Property in the Beasts, ratione soli, against every Man but the King.” (Manwood, 294) This only applies if the hunter was on his own property, however, as indicated by a case from the time of Henry VIII:

“In the aforesaid Case, 12 H. 8. it appeareth, That if a Purlieu-Man doth begin to hunt in another Man’s Grounds in the Purlieu, and not in his own; this being an Injury to the Owner of those Grounds, if his Dogs fasten on a Wild Beast before it recovers the Bounds of the Forest, and are drawn in by Force, and then they kill the Deer there, the Owner of the Dogs must not enter into the Forest, nor take the Best so killed, because the first Hunting and Pursuit began by Wrong; for he never had any Property in the Beast, ratione soli; and therefore, though he doth not come himself into the Forest, yet he shall be a Trespasser of the Forest, because his Dogs enter’d it and killed a Wild Beast, in which he never had any manner of Property.”

As Marvin (2006) notes, the king did not own the animals as to which he had an exclusive right to hunt.  This is indicated by the fact that if the dogs fasten to a deer before it enters royal forest, it becomes the hunter's possession, having been caught.  

Paintings and drawings of medieval hunting rarely show dogs affixed to deer, this not being considered a noble way to hunt. In one of the plates from Gaston Phoebus, a larger dog, perhaps an alaunt, is shown grasping the back of a deer that is falling from the wound of an arrow.

Hart Royal

There was one instance where a purlieu man could not take a hart on his property, which is when the king proclaimed a “hart royal,” which Manwood describes as follows:

“For, at six Years old, he is called a Hart and if afterwards he is hunted by the King, and escapes alive, he is called a Hart Royal, and if, in hunting, he is driven out of the Forest so , that he is not likely to return of himself, and the King giveth over hunting him, then because he has made such sport, the King causeth a Proclamation to be made in all the Towns and Villages near the Place to which he was pursued and hunted, that no Person should kill, hurt or hunt him, and appoint certain Foresters to look after him till he returns to the Forest, and afterwards he is called a Hart-Royal proclaim’d; and by Budaeas, Eximius Cervus, that is, a goodly Hart.” (Manwood, 179-80)

King Richard made such a proclamation in 1194 regarding a hart that he chased out of Sherwood Forest into Barnesdale in Yorkshire. (Manwood, 180)

Methods of Hunting in the Time of the Forest Laws

In addition to letting the dogs bring the deer down, Robert Bell Turton, in his collection of documents from Pickering Forest, suggests that the most common form of hunting involved the retainers and the hounds driving the stag “and their master stood with his bow and arrow at some likely spot to shoot him as he came past.” Turton also refers to Ellis’s introduction to the Domesday Book, which describes stabilitio venationis, a hunting term meaning, “To drive the Deer and other Game from all quarters to the centre of a gradually contracted circle where they were compelled to stand.” (Ellis, 111-2)

The 43 Stags

The incident of the 43 stags and the heads on stakes would remain hard to put in any context were it not that a more complete description can be found in the records of the forest of Pickering, edited by Robert Bell Turton. Turton summarizes the case:

“The list of the indictments opens with an account of a hunt which, as it took place on the 23rd of March [1334] preceding the King's [Edward III] visit, may well have been the ground on which the Earl based his request for a commission. The meet, if my conjecture is correct, was not far from Saltergate Inn, and I doubt whether, when Captain Johnstone meets there with his hounds, he ever finds the neighbouring landowners so well represented as they were on this occasion, and all for the sole purpose of poaching. From Whorlton Castle came Nicholas de Menill [sometimes spelled Meynell in the documents]; from Coket Nook, in the parish of Egton, came Peter de Mauley the younger, heir to Mulgrave, and he brought William his Parker with him; from Kildale came a large party, John de Percy, with William his brother, William his cousin, heir to Sneaton, and Redheaded John his groom (the garcio, or groom, appears to have been the lad who attended on the huntsman and led the hounds, as, for instance, the lymer where a lymer was used.) Then there was a Wyvill, a Coleville of Arnecliffe, representatives and forefathers of the sporting family of Petch; indeed it would require the pen of Brooksby to do justice to all that were there. The sport, too, was of no ordinary kind; not one stag taken, or perhaps two, but no less than forty-three harts and hinds were accounted for. Finally, to show their contempt for the manner in which the Earl of Lancaster preserved his game, they cut off nine heads and fixed them on stakes in the Moor. The Earl's foresters could not be expected to lie quiet under this insult.”

Marvin explains that the setting an animal's head on a pole and pointing it in a particular direction is a particularly ritualistic type of contempt.  This was true even two centuries later. Griffin relates one night in 1524 when a group of about 15, including a parish priest, broke into Sir John More’s close and killed a number of deer, setting a buck’s head with a stick in his mouth pointing towards the knight’s mansion.

As to the incident in 1334, note that some came from castles, and some were listed as heirs of estates of sufficient size to have names (Mulgrave, Sneaton), and that some have French names. The original record is in Latin and refers to the use of arcurbus et sagittis et leporariis, i.e, crossbow, arrows, and greyhounds. Two months later, some of these individuals were caught red-handed (“bloody-hand”), imprisoned but released on payment of fines as follows:

1. Nicholas Meynell at £13 6s 8d
2. Peter de Maulay junior, £10 (mentioned elsewhere as an owner of gazehounds)
3. William Wyvill, £10
4. Robert Coleville, £6
5. Robert Staynton, £1
6. William Willardby, 10s
7. Robert Wymark, 10s
8. William Woodman, 6s 8d
9. William Eston, 6s 8d
10. William Touchprick, 10 s
11. William Haggerston, 13s 4d
12. William Broughton, 13s 4d
13. Thomas Dale, 13s 4d
14. Robert Petch, 13s 4d
15. William Usher, 13s 4d
16. William Parker, 13s 4d
17. Alan Petch junior, 13s 4d
18. Robert Seton, 13s 4d
19. Geoffrey Langdon, 10s
20. Robert Bald, 6s 8d
21. William Wyles, 6s 8d
22. Robert Lealhol, 6s 8d
23. Adam Lonsdale, 6s 8d
24. Thomas Mauley, £1
25. William Chapell, 5s
26. Roger Hull, £1
27. Walter Davidson, 13s 4d
28. Henry Moubray, 10s
29. John Lealholm, 13s 4d

I have already notified one friend of his outlaw ancestry but am hesitating as to another whose sense of humor I am less sure about. There were five others who were arrested later and posted bail, though some more did not appear and were declared outlaws. Turton’s commentary states that the fines were “very heavy, having regard to the value of money in those days.”

It appears that perhaps forty people were willing to band together to obtain meat, despite the laws. That would have amounted to a significant part of the population of an area, and certainly qualifies as at least a minor revolt. Given the titles and positions, this was not a peasant revolt, but rather a revolt of landowners who believed their ancient hunting privileges had been taken away (perhaps centuries earlier) for the pleasure of the crown and a few higher nobles.

The possibility that some of those participating were desperate because of starvation cannot be ruled out.  As Floud et al. (2011) noted regarding France in the 18th century, at least 10% (but perhaps as high as 30%) of the population in a more advanced age was getting insufficient nourishment for baseline maintenance and was thus starving to death, sometimes rapidly.  The risks that individuals living in and near the forests took can in many cases best be explained by assuming that poaching provided one of the few sources of nourishment. Unlike livestock rustling, no organized group was necessary, at least for the occasional opportunistic situation where a deer was found in a place where bringing it down involved minimal risk.  

Poachers could be violent. Charles R. Young summarizes a case from the 13th century where a poacher had the upper hand:

“In one case the information was given that although a forester failed to arrest some men he caught hunting deer, he did manage to capture two of their greyhounds, which he left with another man for safekeeping until the meeting of a forest court. Not to be outdone, Robert de Gernon, the apparent lawbreaker in the case, retaliated by kidnapping the forester and throwing him into a dovecot until he paid two shillings eleven pence for his release. Meanwhile Robert also regained the greyhounds by forcing them from the man who had them in his custody and entered the forest again with them to kill two deer.”

The End of the Forests

Royal forests did not end for several centuries, but hunting was increasingly carried out in deer parks, confined spaces in which the deer had ultimately little chance to escape the arrows of the privileged hunters who shot from perches and walls. Griffin says that by “the sixteenth century, deer were private property, enclosed in parks and rigorously protected by the long reach of the law.” In order not to deplete limited stocks, however, deer coursing, in which dogs competed in their ability to chase deer along a course but without the object of a kill, became a sport in itself, something like a sheep dog trial.

As deer populations and hunting grounds declined, interest in hunting animals such as foxes, once regarded as vermin that could be left to the peasants, increased, and eventually became the activity by which something of medieval courtly hunting ritual continued into modern times.

Thanks to Richard Hawkins of Fern Hill Scottish Deerhounds for many helpful suggestions, and for saving me from my own speculative idiocy regarding the term "genderated."

  1. Bazeley, M.L. (1921). The Extent of the English Forest in the Thirteenth Century. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fourth Series, vol. 4, 140-172.
  2. Brooke, C. (1963). The Saxon and Norman Kings (3rd ed.). Blackwell, Oxford.
  3. Cox, J.C. (1905). The Royal Forests of England. Methuen & Co. London.
  4. Davis, H.W.C. (1956 reprint), Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum, 1066-1154, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  5. Ellis, H. (1833. A General Introduction to Domesday Book, printed on command of King William IV (1833).
  6. Floud, R., Fogel, R.W., Harris, B., and Hong, S.C. (2011). The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition, and Human Development in the Western World since 1700. Cambridge University Press, New York. 
  7. Grant. R. (1991). The Royal Forests of England. Sutton, Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire (including an appendix listing all forests and when disafforestation or alienation occurred).
  8. Griffin, E. (2007). Blood Sport: Hunting in Britain Since 1066. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven (p. 59 on extinction of wild boar by 15th century).
  9. Jewell, H.M. (1972). English Local Administration in the Middle Ages. David & Charles, Newton Abbot (providing extensive detail regarding charges kings imposed to deforest various areas).
  10. Liebermann, F. (1893). On the Instituta Cnuti Aliorumque Regum Aglorum. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, VII, 77-107. Longmans, Green, & Co., London (arguing that works attributed to the time of Cnut included material from later periods and were compiled and probably written after the Norman Conquest; Cnut’s supposed forest law was a forgery (“the fabricator of the Forest-law who speaks under Cnut’s mask”)).
  11. Manning, R.B. (1994). Unlawful Hunting in England, 1500-1640. Forest & Conservation History, 38(1), 16-23 (describing resentment to hunting restrictions under the game laws in later periods).
  12. Marvin, W.P. (2006). Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature.  D.S. Brewer, Cambridge.
  13. North Riding Record Society (1893). North Riding of the County of York, II: The Honor and Forest of Pickering (Robert Bell Turton, ed.).  Woodfall and Kinder, London.
  14. Stenton, F. (1971). Anglo-Saxon England (3rd ed.) Oxford Clarendon Press, Oxford & New York (“The French origin of the Anglo-Norman forest law has been placed beyond dispute, and the Conqueror’s severity towards those who broke the peace of his deer is recorded by one who had known him (Chronicle, under 1087). That he enlarged the borders of King Edward’s forests is certain, and there is no need to doubt the early tradition that the New Forest was converted into a royal preserve by his orders, to the destruction of many peasants who were struggling for existence in that unfriendly land. Nevertheless even within the forest sphere there was no absolute break with the past. The idea of a royal forest, jealously preserved had been familiar to Englishmen for forty years at least before the Conquest. Cnut had laid a heavy fine on anyone who hunted in a district which he had set apart for his own pleasure. Forest wardens had been maintained by Edward the Confessor. It is more important that the new forest legislation, which was intended for the protection of the king’s deer, never interrupted the operation of the common law. The forest courts brought the peasant within their jurisdiction under a new surveillance in the interests of the king’s sport, but left him in all other matters to the familiar justice of shire and hundred.”).
  15. Turner, G.J. (1901). Select Please of the Forest. Bernard Quaritch, London.
  16. Wickham, C. (2009). The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400-1000. Penguin Books, London (p. 189).
  17. Young, C.R. (1979). The Royal Forests of Medieval England. U. Penn. Press (describing the case of Robert de Gernon at p. 81).

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