Medieval manuscripts blog

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09 May 2015

Magna Carta and the King's Forests

In medieval England, forest wardens were an important part of the administration of the kingdom, especially since hunting was a favourite royal pastime. According to Richard fitz Nigel, royal treasurer during the reign of Henry II (r. 1154-1189):

... in the forests are the kings’ retreats and their greatest delights. For they go there to hunt, leaving their cares behind, to refresh themselves with a little rest. There, setting aside the turmoil of serious matters intrinsic to the court, they breathe fresh air freely for a little while; and that is why people who violate the forest are punished solely at the king’s will.

(Dialogue of the Exchequer, trans. E. Amt)

Although regularly depicted enthroned, you may be familiar with this famous image of King John from the early 14th century showing him out hunting on horseback in the forest. The crowned king sits on a grey horse.  His pack of hounds pursues a stag, while a number of rabbits bolt into their holes and several birds watch the hunt from the safety of the trees.

Miniature of King John hunting from a fourteenth-century London manuscript (he probably needed the break!) (London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius D II, f. 116r)

A comprehensive body of laws and administrative machinery protected the royal forests where kings could enjoy this recreation. And in individual forests wardens were nominated by the king and directly answerable to him. The sign of their office was a hunting horn which they carried and sounded while attending the king during a hunt.

BM-Savernake Horn
The Savernake Horn, an ivory hunting horn that belonged to the forest’s warden (courtesy of the British Museum)

This magnificent hunting horn, on loan from the British Museum, appears in our Magna Carta exhibition. It belonged to the Wardens of Savernake Forest in Wiltshire and was made in Italy of elephant ivory and later embellished in England with intricate silver and enamelled bands. The upper band near the mouth of the horn, thought to be the oldest, is probably 14th century, maybe from London and includes a representation of a king and bishop, each with a hand raised, while a forester blows his horn. Today, Savernake Forest is a conservation zone and a herd of 7 white park cattle are allowed to graze on the land to help maintain the woodland!

A white park steer in Savernake Forest (from the Grazing Advice Partnership)

Herds of this rare and ancient breed of cattle were enclosed in parks across Britain following the removal of many forest areas from the protection of the Forest Laws under the Forest Charter of King Henry III (r. 1216-1272).

C13550-78 - Copy
The Forest Charter, 11 February 1225 (British Library Additional Charter 24712)

This example of the 1225 Forest Charter, one of three surviving originals, also appears in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy. In 1217, Henry III issued, alongside his new version of Magna Carta, a charter to deal specifically with the royal forest. It was in a February 1218 proclamation that the name ‘Magna Carta’ is first used to distinguish the Forest Charter from the longer and more comprehensive Great Charter.

Magna Carta, as originally issued by King John in 1215, had contained several clauses (44, 47–48 and 53) to reform the application of forest law and the forests themselves, promising to disafforest the forests John had created to extend his hunting privileges and unenclose the riverbanks he had enclosed to extend his fishing privileges. During his reign, the royal forest accounted for roughly a third of the kingdom and the penalties imposed for forest offences were a major source of revenue for the king. John was addressing long standing grievances which went back to the Norman Conquest in 1066 when King William I (r. 1066-1087) designated large swathes of land as special royal forests for the first time. As the Peterborough Chronicle put it:


He made great protection for the game

And imposed laws for the same,

that who so slew hart or hind

Should be made blind.


He preserved the harts and boars

And loved the stags as much

As if he were their father.

Moreover, for the hares did he decree that they should go free.

Powerful men complained of it and poor men lamented it,

But so fierce was he that he cared not for the rancour of them all,

But they had to follow out the king’s will entirely

if they wished to live or hold their land,

Property or estate, or his favour great.

(Peterborough Chronicle/Anglo-Saxon Chronicle E, 1087; trans. D. Whitelock)

This changed royal hunting rights from an extension of what any landowner could do on their land to a specifically royal institution, established by arbitrary decrees. The royal forests continued to expand with each successive reign, and while the land enclosed did include infertile and uninhabited areas, it also covered large regions of sparsely populated land where people lived under onerous restrictions to things like the cutting down of trees for buildings or creating farmland and breaches of forest law were punished severely.

While there were some efforts to curtail the effects of forest law or the extent of the royal forests, any successes were temporary and this continued to be a contentious issue. As mentioned above, clauses for forest reform made their way into the 1215 text of Magna Carta. In 1216, the issue of ‘forests and foresters, warrens and warreners’ was important enough to be deferred for fuller considered at a later date before finally being addressed with the Forest Charter of 1217. The strenuous efforts by local communities subsequently to implement the reductions in the size of the forest promised in Henry III’s Forest Charter show how important this document was thought to be.


Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy, the largest and most significant exhibition ever devoted to Magna Carta, is on display at the British Library until 1 September 2015

Katherine Har


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