Our village is several centuries younger than the New Forest itself. Clearly shaped by the Forest setting, what is the early historical background to where we live?

As countryside the Forest doesn’t conform to the comfortable image of rural England. Infertile heath, heavily forested and often boggy, it has never supported a large population. A bit unkempt and scruffy, both pretty and gritty, and decidedly different from its neighbouring countryside.

Few signs of early permanent settlement of any kind have been found within the Forest, with most living on the edges at Hengistbury, Arnsley, Dibden, Beaulieu and so on. The Romano-British had little impact except around the coast, where they built on existing Iron-Age settlements, and where pottery was manufactured e.g. Sloden, or where the odd hoard of coins has been found e.g. Lymington.

By James Frankcom [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
A map of Jutish settlements in Britain c. 575
The earliest “english’ settlers were the Jutes, from Jutland in Denmark, not the Angles or Saxons who migrated in much larger numbers across much of Britain. According to the later Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the ancestors of the royal House of Wessex arrived around the year 500. Cerdic and Cynric landed locally and fought the Welsh. They established their kingdom, later fighting the British at Charford nearby.

The Jutes colonised Kent, the Isle of Wight and Southern Hampshire. As late as the 11th century our locality was called Ytene… the land of the Jutes.

At this time the Forest villages would have been small for there were few areas capable of being farmed to sustain large populations. Most hamlets would have comprised just a few families, swineherds and cowherds whose animals roamed much as they do now.

It is during these early times that most of the place-names came into existence, mainly illustrating the Forest, its activities and inhabitants:

Soils Sloden ( a miry swine-pasture)
River crossings Charford, Landford
Trees Lyndhurst (Limes)
Wildlife Latchmore (leeches!), Foxlease, Stagbury
Plants Minstead (mint)
Woodlands Ibsley, Sopley, Ashurst, Bramshaw
Crops and animals Fawley (hay), Goswell (geese), Milkham etc.

Of local interest, Godshill was probably once a pagan name such as Wodenshill, subsequently changed as Christianity took hold. Purlieu is a name typical of forested areas, and usually on the edge of the main Forest. It derives from the old French word puralee and has nothing to do with lieu-hence the local pronunciation of Hale Purlee?

Woodgreen, of course, is positively modern by comparison and perhaps should not be mentioned here.

The Royal Forest

For our purposes here, a forest is a “preserve”… an area set aside, where different laws would apply so that the king could undertake his hunting pursuits. Apart from being great fun, and providing food for the royal table, the king and his aristocratic chums would maintain their readiness for battle.

Before the Conquest in 1066, the kings of England hunted on their own lands, just like any other landowner. However there is no evidence that Anglo-Saxon kings set aside additional areas, outside of the laws of the land.., which William the Conqueror and his successors certainly did. Interestingly, they didn’t grab additional lands for hunting back in Normandy. This was a new idea and yet another way of annoying the locals. They took the idea of a Royal Forest to a whole new level. Canute, Danish king of England from 1016 to 1035, had based his Law on the previous Anglo-Saxon law and his Forest Law confirms that wild horses roamed our Forest as early as 1016.

Alphonse de Neuville [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Death of William Rufus while out hunting in the New Forest (lithograph by Alphonse de Neuville, 1895)
William and his sons were notorious in their devotion to hunting. The compiler of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle noted that William:

…preserved the harts and boars
And loved the stags as much
As if he were their father.

Some commentators also claim that William had the New Forest cleared of all settlements and demolished many churches. This is now disputed, as few lived in the area anyway, and hamlets were few and far between. Some clearance was likely, but this can be exaggerated. The Domesday book in fact confirms that much of this area was already in royal hands and would probably have been hunted by early English Kings and aristocracy especially when at Winchester, the capital.

The new Norman laws on the other hand  were draconian, and drawn up for the sole preservation of the deer.  All the animals of the Forest were protected: deer, boar, wolves, hare, pheasant, partridge, and so on. The fencing of any privately owned land was prohibited. During the winter months and the summer fence month when the deer were being born, all animals had to be tethered (7 months!) No timber or undergrowth might be cut and if any laws were broken the punishment was extreme.

The issue of commoners rights arises here. It is almost certain that such rights predate the Conquest, and were in use across England to help the ordinary folk survive where there was common land. The restrictions imposed here were such that while no fences were allowed, the domestic animals were not allowed to roam. Nor was it possible to collect forage. How unreasonable is that? Surely this is the origin of commoners rights in the Forest as some form of compromise between the King to hunt and his local subjects to live a basic life?

Common rights were in use across the land as an everyday part of rural life and at some point the following rights became recognised here:

  • Pasture: grazing your animals on the open Forest
  • Mast: releasing pigs to graze in the Autumn (pannage)
  • Turbary: right to cut turf for fuel
  • Marl: right to dig clay as a fertiliser or building material
  • Estovers: right to collect fuelwood

The Forest Charter

Around the time of Henry I in the early 1100s a significant change took place across all Royal Forests and it is unlikely that the New Forest would have been treated differently. Forests were becoming more than simply a royal game preserve. Successive Kings began to systematically exploit their unique financial potential given that the law of the forest, in contrast to the common law, depended on the arbitrary will of the king alone.

In addition Henry II’s reign saw a vast increase in the total area of forest. By 1189, between 1/4 and 1/3 of England was considered as within the bounds of the Royal Forest, affecting 29 counties in all. The whole of Essex was so designated, and Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Wiltshire and Yorkshire were badly affected. Lands owned by bishops, abbots, earls, barons, knights and free tenants were all included.

In these areas, whether they were wooded, farmed or even towns and villages, all were subject to Forest Law, implemented by royal officials and answerable only to the King. They were not only prevented from hunting but were also denied the right to utilise their own land as they saw fit. Thus land clearance for agricultural purposes or building was penalised, as was the collection of wood for fuel or building. Land enclosure was not only fined but an annual rent charged thereafter. Even grazing could incur monetary penalties.

“ the whole organisation of the forests, the punishment, pecuniary or corporal, and solely dependent on the decision of the King, or of some officer specially appointed by him. The forest has its own laws, based…not on the Common Law of the Realm, but on the arbitrary legislation of the King”…Richard fitz Nigel (1176).

Such law was enforced by a complex network of courts and officials…chief foresters supported by agisters, verderers and regarders. The great bulk of forest revenue was derived from fines and regular payments, and the range of penalties was huge…from a few shillings to hundreds of pounds!

These amercements, or fines and penalties, rapidly increased, not because of general law breaking, but because of increasingly zealous enforcement:

  • 1201 to 1206 average £487 pa.
  • 1207 to 1212 average £1648 pa
  • 1212 alone raised £5,504.

King John, arguably the worst King of England, exploited the forest to a greater degree than ever before and by the end of his reign the revenue raising exercises, called Eyres, were taking place annually.

Abuses were increasingly common. The Abbot of St. Albans was fined 300 marks ( a mark was 13s.4d), for failing to answer the summons of the judges in the Yorkshire eyre. He had no land in Yorkshire !

James William Edmund Doyle [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A romanticised 19th-century recreation of King John signing Magna Carta
Matters came to such a head, at the time of the Great Charter Magna Carta, that a separate charter was drawn up solely to redress the ills of Forest Law and its spread. Also dated 1215 it became the focus  for ongoing grievance. Deforestation of the lands added by Henry II, Richard I and John, and the reduction of the number of forest officials and their worst excesses were demanded. In later years, in moments of strife, opponents of the Crown turned to Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest as a matter of course, demanding their confirmation and enforcement.

Following the death of John in 1216, the Magna Carta was re-issued by his successor Henry III and his Regent, Earl Marshall, this time accompanied by a quite separate Forest Charter. Over a number of years there followed a substantial reduction in the area of the royal forest across England, and the courts trod more carefully.

Of course the New Forest remained, much as it had always been. Kings and Queens continued to hunt up to Tudor times, and commoners commoned. Gradually the Forest became increasingly important as a source of timber for ship building and, after all the turbulence of these early years, most of the Forest remains in Royal hands, and with its own legal peculiarities.

Article contributed by David Mussell