Charter of the Forest

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The Charter of the Forest (Carta de Foresta) is a charter originally sealed in England by the young King Henry III, acting under the regency of William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke.[1] Redressing some applications of the Anglo-Norman Forest Law that had been extended and abused by William Rufus, the charter re-established rights of access to the royal forest for free men that had been eroded by the Conqueror and his heirs. Many of its provisions were in force for centuries afterwards.[2]

It was first issued in 1217[3] as a complementary charter to the Magna Carta from which it had evolved. It was reissued in 1225[4] with a number of minor changes to wording, and then was joined with Magna Carta in the Confirmation of Charters in 1297.[5]

In contrast to Magna Carta, which dealt with the rights of barons, it provided some real rights, privileges and protections for the common man against the abuses of the encroaching aristocracy.[6]

At a time when the royal forests were the most important potential source of fuel for cooking, heating and industries such as charcoal burning, and such hotly defended rights as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing), or turbary (cutting of turf for fuel),[7] this charter was almost unique in providing a degree of economic protection for free men, who also used the forest to forage for food and to graze their animals.

The Charter provided a right of common access to (royal) private lands that would wait until the Union of England and Scotland in 1707 to be equaled within the realm. It also rolled back the area encompassed by the designation "forest" to that of Henry II's time, essentially freeing up lands that had become more and more restricted as King Richard and King John designated greater and greater areas of land to become royal forest. Since "forest" in this context didn't necessarily mean treed areas, but could include fields, moor or even farms and villages, it became an increasing hardship on the common people to try to farm, forage, and otherwise use the land they lived on. The Charter specifically states that "Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour."

It repealed the death penalty for stealing venison, though transgressors were still subject to fines or imprisonment for the offense; it also abolished mutilation as a lesser punishment. Special Verderers' Courts were set up within the forests to enforce the laws of the Charter. By Tudor times, most of the laws served mainly to protect the timber in royal forests. However, some clauses in the Laws of Forests remained in force until the 1970s, and the special courts still exist today in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean. In this respect, the Charter was the statute that remained longest in force in England (from 1217 to 1971), being finally superseded by the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971.


  1. ^ "d William Marshal earl of Pembroke, ruler of us and of our kingdom" is mentioned by name.
  2. ^ Henry III's Charter of the Forest: facsimile and translation
  3. ^ Rothwell, Harry English Historical Documents 1189-1327 (1995) p337
  4. ^ Rothwell, Harry English Historical Documents 1189-1327 (1995) p347
  5. ^ Rothwell, Harry English Historical Documents 1189-1327 (1995) p485
  6. ^ "Forests and Chases: Henry III's Charter of the Forest". St John's College Oxford. Retrieved 7 May 2010. 
  7. ^ George C. Homans, English Villagers of the Thirteenth Century, 1941.

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