By Timothy R. Jones
On 6th November 1217, a document was validated at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The contents are often overlooked by the document it enforces, the Magna Carta, and it is rarely cited as much as its illustrious predecessor, although the two are almost always cited and displayed together. This is because together, they tell the story of conflicts fought and liberty gained. The document is the Charter of the Forest – ‘Carta Foresta’ – and whilst it may lack the recognition it deserves, it was the first major expression of the rulings of Magna Carta in a practical sense.
The Norman definition of Forest extended beyond wooded areas and was used to describe any rural area that contained useful natural resources such as wood or peat, or where animals that provided game for sport and meat for aristocratic tables resided. These areas were often enclosed and became the exclusive property of the Angevin royal family. This state of affairs existed as a result of a perversion of the Norman forest laws that had been imported by William the Conqueror and applied to his new Kingdom of England in 1066.
Following the conqueror’s death in 1087, his son William II (1087-1100) had extended the ‘royal parks’, as the forests became known, and introduced harsh penalties for anyone who intruded upon his newly enclosed forests. Any person who was caught poaching the King’s deer or felling a tree for firewood could expect the amputation of a limb as a best-case scenario, and execution as another likely outcome. William II’s arrangement existed largely unaltered in the reigns of his successors and only increased under Richard I (1089-1099), who required all the resources he could muster for his persistent need to crusade. His brother John (1199-1216), continued this legacy out of a penchant for administering the King’s justice, an overriding desire to control the nations resources for his own gain, and a general need to operate out of extreme spite.
John’s abrasive style of leadership brought him into conflict with his Baron’s, who demanded their liberties and a release from total royal oversight in what eventually became the demands of Magna Carta. John’s death the next year placed his nine-year old son as King Henry III in charge of a volatile kingdom, which was violently reconciling the idea of strong central monarchy with that of aristocratic privileges and the rights of the individual. King Henry was fortunate enough to have as his advisor the formidably loyal and pragmatic William the Marshall, a seasoned diplomat who was dedicated to preserving the kingdom and the monarchy. At the Marshall’s urging, and that of other advisors, Henry acknowledged that the monarch needed to be seen to break with the absolutist tradition of his ancestors if he wished to avoid another rebellion from disaffected nobles. The transition from royal domination of all aspects of life towards a kingdom in which individual rights were protected necessitated concession from the monarch that signalled the old system was to be corrected with the new ideals of Magna Carta enshrined at the heart of a new system.
It was in this context that the Charter of the Forest was validated as a piece of legislature that complimented the rulings of Magna Carta and demonstrated this by inducing real practical changes that would be instantly visible to the nation. Whereas previously, entering and taking from a royal forest park would have seen a person maimed or killed with impunity, they were now subject to newly established ‘Verderers’ courts, which addressed issues of trespass and poaching. Significantly, these courts did not have the power to maim or extinguish life in a fashion as arbitrary as their royal predecessors. Instead, they accessed the act and could impose a fine that reflected the severity of the crime.
The charter also had the effect of restricting the amount of land that the monarchy could enclose and have exclusive control over at any one time. At the height of royal dominion in the late twelfth-century, nearly one third of the land of England was designated as royal forest and access for the people was denied. The significance of this to medieval England in the years immediately after Magna Carta is that it constituted a very public expression of contrition of the part of the King.
It also showed a recognition of and willingness to work with the principles espoused by the Barons against King John. Whilst the Magna Carta had given a platform to the eloquent ideals surrounding liberty and rights, it is likely that this had made little to no impact upon the lives of the peasants, with no property to lose or court to enforce their new-found freedoms. The Forest Charter addressed this issue by enforcing the Magna Carta in a practical way that was palpable and visible to the vast majority of the citizenry of England. The Angevins Kings were seen to bow before the knowledge of the rights of their citizens and change their policies accordingly. This was a showpiece that offered physical change and that made no secret that it drew its authority from the Magna Carta. It is a testament to the success of the document and its perceived importance by the ruling class that when Magna Carta was reissued in 1225, the Charter of the Forest was also re-confirmed by Henry, with minimal changes to the wording. Such was the significance placed on this initial piece of legislature in a post-Magna Carta England.
The working relationship between the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest is also evident in the references to each other found in the re-issues and re-drafting of each document in the years surrounding the Baron’s rebellion of 1215. In 1217, the year that the Forest charter was passed, the Magna Carta was re-issued by Henry in an attempt to pacify any remaining Baronial discontent. The new version was similar to the previous one, with the addition to clause 20 of ‘no riverbank shall be made a preserve’ with the exception of those established during the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). This clearly shows that the King’s advisors had decided that legislation to apply Magna Carta was required and that the issues surrounding forestry were an ideal conduit to demonstrate the new order.
This new addition to Magna Carta clearly reflects the onus placed on the Forest charter being a success as it further elaborates on the former Magna Carta stance of the previous year, which only removed the royal forest areas that has been established by King John since 1199. Again it is clear that the government was aware of the parity between the ideal of Magna Carta and their applicability to the nation’s forestry situation and that the Forest Charter served as their remedy for this. Henry was attempting to be seen as attempting to expand on the liberties granted and displaying a knowledge that the actions of his predecessors had been detrimental to the people of England. This was a clear message to those who opposed his father and may well oppose him, in that it declared that he would not operate in the unpopular manner favoured by his father and that they would have no reason to take up arms against him. Instead, he was signalling that he was open to a system whereby the King and his nobles could work on a respectful basis that would not result in bloodshed on either side.
Timothy R. Jones is a graduate student in Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln. Click here to read more articles by Timothy