Ancient trees, forest law and foresters

Interesting blog from Charter, for trees, woods and people. The job title ‘forester’ isn’t quite what you think, in fact it is a person that had and can have a very varied job for the King no less. In the medieval period a forest wasn’t necessarily a forest as we know it today but rather a royal hunting ground where the forester protected the game but also apportioned the nature resources of a said forest whether or not it actually had trees or not on it. Read on below and enjoy.

Ancient Trees Saved by Ancient Laws

How did the Forest Charter of 1217 save trees for the future? Andrew Dunning, a curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library, explains. Some of the most stunning creations of the Middle Ages are still alive. Think about that for a moment: there are things living today that are over a thousand years old. Britain is dotted with trees planted centuries ago, with over 120,000 listed in the Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory. This didn’t happen by accident. These trees were preserved for us by ancient laws.The creation of the Tree Charter this year harks back to an important medieval document: the Forest Charter, originally issued in the name of King Henry III of England on 6 November 1217. It’s different from how we might write environmental legislation, but like the Tree Charter, it was founded on balancing rights.

The Forest Charter, in the version reissued in 1225, with the great seal of King Henry III.The Forest Charter can be thought of as the younger sibling of Magna Carta. One of its primary aims was to regulate the royal forests created by William the Conqueror. These blanketed around a quarter of England during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Today, we think of forests as areas covered with trees, but royal forests also included pastures and even villages – indeed, almost the entire county of Essex was declared a royal forest. William wasn’t exactly a conservationist seeking to safeguard England’s trees, and had a specific purpose for his conservation effort. He wanted lands for the crown to hunt wild animals and game, particularly deer, and that meant preserving their habitat.

The Savernake Horn at the British Museum, which once belonged to the wardens of Savernake Forest, Wiltshire.


To regulate these vast tracts of land, a special ‘forest law’ was created to promote their use as royal game preserves. Magna Carta originally included several clauses covering these. They were enforced by a small army of foresters, who could impose enormous punishments on offenders, up to capital punishment. But it was easier and more profitable to issue fines, making the forest an important source of income for the crown. Henry II vigorously expanded the forest borders, to the point of creating hardship.

The forest law became a point of contention for barons living under this rule. They drafted the Forest Charter, which sought a new balance of rights, and eliminated the most severe penalties:

Henceforth, no man shall lose his life or suffer the amputation of any of his limbs for killing our deer. If any man is convicted of killing our deer, he shall pay a grievous fine, but if he is poor and has nothing to lose, he shall be imprisoned for a year and a day. After the year and a day expired, if he can find people to vouch for him, he shall be released; if not, he shall be banished from the realm of England. (Translation from the National Archives.)

Most crucially, the charter sought to expand common access to the forests. In this period, people relied on areas of woodland to provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as pasture in which to graze livestock. The charter also rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1154, after which many lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. The Forest Charter had implications for everyone.

Animals romping in the margin of a Gerald of Wales manuscript.


The charter was repeatedly confirmed as part of English law, and was not replaced until the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971. Many copies were made over the years: the British Library’s is a reissue from 1225, which survived only by chance. It was in association with the Forest Charter that the name ‘Magna Carta’ was first used, to distinguish it as the large charter as opposed to its physically smaller sibling.

The Waste Act in the Statute of Marlborough, 1267.


Environmental legislation has been acknowledged as key to the functioning of society nearly as long as law itself has existed. Roman law, for example, designated rivers and their banks as public property. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the oldest piece of law still in force in England deals in part with the environment, celebrating its 750th anniversary this year: the Statute of Marlborough, issued 19 November 1267. A section now known as the Waste Act ensured that the tenants of farms managed their resources responsibly.

The Forest Charter represents a pragmatic attempt to define the value of forests and ensure that they can be accessed as a resource crucial to the everyday functioning of society. This approach can be seen not only in the Tree Charter but in conservation around the world, such as in attempts to calculate the natural capital of forests in economic terms. When it comes to saving the planet and ensuring that future generations will still be able to live with the same richness as we do, we have the proof of centuries that legislation matters.

Find out more

The Legal Sustainability Alliance and the Woodland Trust will be hosting Trees: 800 Years Later at the British Library on 14 September 2017, and the charter will be on display through the autumn in the library’s free Treasures Gallery. Another copy is on permanent display at Lincoln Castle.

The royal forests are the subject of a new book published by the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, Aljos Farjon’s Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape.

Blog by Andrew Dunning


More information can be found on Wiki here


About Sadeik

You may ask why "Sadeik" well it means friend in arabic. Worked in Jordan a lot doing tree surgery you see. I have worked in forestry since I left school with a two years in Telecom. Went back to forestry and tree surgery as it may not have paid as much but was far more interesting and dangerous. Spent a lot of years mountaineering, caving and canoeing too. At 29 I went to Bangor University to study Forestry and soil science then did an MSc in Water engineering all very interesting. By a quirk of fate in 1995 ended up helping sort out the woodland and park at Wimpole, funny thing was then I only intended to stay six months or so, but 18 years later I'm still here learning all the time. That's the best bit, if I wasn't able to learn something new every year I would not have stayed and as you get older you realise that the grass is not so green in the next field after all. In fact my patch is getting greener while much of the rest is getting browner.
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