The Medieval English Forest

The Medieval English Forest

By Jean R. Birrell

Journal of Forest History, Vol.24:2 (1980)

Introduction: England was still a well-wooded country in the Middle Ages, despite a long history of expanding settlement and agriculture at the expense of woodland cover. By 1086, the date of Domesday Book, a surprisingly high proportion of modern settlements were already in existence, and it has been claimed that over much of the country a traveler would probably never be more than half-a-day’s walk from an English home. But settlements were typically small, and there remained innumerable islands of woodland in settled farming areas and numerous large stretches of woodland covering many square miles of country. Together these accounted for a significant proportion of the total area. Some medieval forests have famous names and survive today, though in reduced size. An example is Sherwood Forest, best known as the site of many exploits of the legendary Robin Hood and still a prominent feature of the Nottinghamshire countryside. As late as the early fourteenth century, more than seventy distinct, named forests can be identified. A glimpse of how they appeared to contemporaries is perhaps contained in a twelfth-century description of Enfield Chase, in Middlesex, as “a great forest with wooded glades and lairs of wild beasts, deer both red and fallow, wild boars and bulls.”

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