The Charter of the Forest

A medieval forest, from Livre de chasse (1387) by Gaston III, Count of Foix.

Today (6th November) marks the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest signed by Henry III in 1217. The charter served to complement Magna Carta and served for the first time to restore some rights and privileges to the common man.

‘Royal Forests’ held by the Crown, did not simply mean a wooded area, but could include agricultural land, moorland and settlements. They were tightly regulated with the monarch holding exclusive rights over animals and vegetation. By the reign of Henry III it is thought that a third of England was designated as Forest.

In the South Pennines this would have included the Forest of Sowerbyshire, the Forest of Rossendale, the Forest of Blackburn and the Forest of Trawden.

The Charter of the Forest served to protect common rights of pasture (agistment) in the forest, allowing individuals with livestock to graze within woodlands; to collect firewood (estover) and to graze pigs (pannage). The charter also repealed the death penalty and mutilation for the capturing and slaughtering of deer, although transgressors were still subject to fines or imprisonment. Special Verderers’ Courts were set up within the forests to enforce the laws of the Charter.

Whereas Magna Carta secured the rights of barons and aristocracy under the Crown, the Charter of the Forest was the first instance under Norman rule that common-folk received protections and rights in law.

The 1217 Charter of the Forest 1217 housed at Lincoln Cathedral