Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The Medieval Forest

Today only fragments of the great forests that surrounded the Staffordshire Moorlands during the Middle Ages remain.  The Peak Forest exists in name only. Delamere is a meagre fragment of what it once was, and Macclesfield was altered massively by the introduction of commercial timber unknown to the medieval verderer. Cannock and Needwood survive but much shrunken by cultivation and encroachment by man. Sherwood, of Robin Hood fame used to cover huge swathes of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. It is much reduced now.

Local place names mark the importance of woods in the landscape with Ashbourne, Oakamoor, Birchall and Westwood marked on modern maps.

In the years after the Conqueror the forests of the King would have stretched as far as the eyes could see. They were protected so that the monarch could indulge their great passion of hunting, and they were determined to protect their interest with punitive laws. King John was famously forced to sign the Magna Carta but alongside the Great Charter he was required to agree to the Forest Charter which enshrined the rights of dwellers in the woods. Both documents were the foundations on which the social structure of England was founded. (The existence of the Forest Charter was used in 2010 by people campaigning against the privatisation of the Forestry Commission)

The forests of the 13th century were the relicts of the primeval woods of oak, beech, ask and hornbeam, etc that covered the country. By that time game that lived in the forest was protected and harsh punishments were meted out to any peasant who succumbed to temptation. As time progressed the King and the aristocracy became more desperate to protect a vanishing heritage when the woods were alive with much game for the enjoyment of the monarch and his supporters.

There were growing pressures on the landscape as people who lived at the fringes of the forest sought to take advantage of it. Extra meat could be had if you were not caught by the King’s representative, honey was for the taking, acorns could be collected to feed the pigs and wood collected for burning on peasant fires. The needs of the common people could often conflict with the law and the person responsible for maintaining the estate, the Chief Forester.

The records of forest proceedings are full of poaching stories such as the occasion when a group killed 3 deer in the Rockingham Forest in 1255.

“They cut off the head of the deer and placed it with a spindle in its mouth that made it gape towards the Sun in contempt of the King and the foresters”.

And sometimes more locally the friction could lead to violence when in Christmas 1325 the Chief Forester of Cannock William Le Wolf was murdered at Hopwas carrying out his duty by Roger de Swynerton.

By the arrival of the Tudors much of the forest had been surrended to the plough. Even today the woods of Anglo Norman England shorn of their dense vegetation and turned into pasture, still speak to the historian of ancient times, the isolated farms, the clumps of trees here or there and the coppice surviving mid field proclaim the primordial forest