Sherwood Forest in medieval times was an area of land subject to Forest Law.

The Forest Law protected Beasts of the chase (primarily deer) from being hunted, by anyone except the king unless he gave them permission.

It also protected the Woodland and habitat in which they lived.

It was therefore illegal to hunt deer or to chop down trees and underwood within a Forest.

The Forest law was another layer of administration that people had to obey.

The first surviving legal texts relating to the forest laws come from 1100. This is at the very start of the reign of Henry I


Offences included:

Clearing of land

Cutting of wood

Burning

Hunting,

Carrying of bows and spears in the forest

Loosing of livestock


There were also rules regarding:

The hambling of dogs

Discovery of hide or flesh


*Hambling of dogs meant the removal of claws to prevent the dog from hunting.


Law Enforcement:


Every forest in England was overseen by a Keeper.

This person was appointed directly by the king.

In Sherwood Forest the Keepership of the Forest was hereditary.

The De Caux and through marriage the D'Everingham families were hereditary keepers of the Forests of Nottinghamshire until 1286.

Following this the keepership was granted at the kings pleasure, and was usually given along with Stewardship of Nottingham Castle.

The keepers of the forest were responsible for policing the forest: they hired Foresters and agisters to act as a police force.

Foresters had the power to arrest people for infringements on the forest law. They patrolled the forest on horseback and on foot.

Agisters were tax collectors who administered rents and checked quotas relating to the grazing of animals (agistment) in the woods of the forest.

When someone had broken the law, a system of courts was required to punish the assailant.


Courts of the Forest:


There were a number of courts in the forest these included a small fines court - ‘The Attachment Court’ responsible for the day to day running of the forest.

The Attachment court was where judgment was passed on small cases of trespass on the vert (literally the ‘greenery’ - damage to, or illegal chopping down of timber trees) and fines were issued.

In Sherwood Forest there were four such courts:

Linby,

Calverton,

Mansfield,

and Edwinstowe

They met every 40 days at these locations, and were sometimes called the 40 day courts.

The Attachment court officials were known as ‘Verderers’.

This was a Privileged role- held for life at the kings pleasure.

Verderers had to be landowners within the forest to qualify for the position.

There were usually 4 per forest, but in Sherwood there were 6.

The roll of the 1292-93 attachment court shows example fines:

green oak was usually valued at 6d     

a dry oak at 4d

a sapling from 1d to 3d

and stubb, or dry trunk of a pollard tree at 2d.


Forest Eyre:


The largest and most serious court of the Forest was known as the ‘Forest Eyre Court’. This was a major affair and was held less frequently than the aforementioned Attachment court.

The Forest Eyres Courts oversaw the exacting of justice on larger and more serious breaches.

These included poaching, as well as larger breaches against the vert (literally the greenery - ie chopping down timber).

The Forest Eyres were attended by itinerant justices, who were sent around the country from Westminster to ensure forest Law was upheld correctly in the Shires.

This is where the name ‘Eyre’ comes from: it is a Middle English term derived from the Old French word ‘eire’, which itself comes from Latin word ’iter’ meaning ‘journey’.
(from ‘A Law Dictionary: Or the Interpreter of Words and Terms: Used ... in the Common Or Statute Laws ... with an Appendix Containing ... the Antient Names of Places ... and ... Surnames …’‘ (Cowell, 1772))

In other words the court judges were itinerant and the court ‘journeyed’ around the country.

The courts were often named after the justices themselves,

So the 1187 forest Eyre was known as the Eyre of Geoffrey Fitzpeter.

The Eyre dealt with extracting fines and levies from larger breaches of the Forest law.

         eg. In 1267 the Abbot of Rufford was charged with felling 483 oaks, for building purposes since the last Eyre.


The records for two of Sherwood Forests Eyre Courts survive in full. These are for 1287 and 1334.

There were two jurisdictions for the justices in Eyre for the country- one for south of the River Trent known as 'this side Trent' and one for the north known as 'Yon side Trent'. (An element of southern bias here!).

The Forest Eyre for Sherwood Forest was therefore administered by 'the Kings Justices in Eyre Yon side Trent'.


The 1287 Sherwood Forest Eyre Court


Medieval Court


















The 1287 Sherwood Forest Eyre Court took place on the morning of the feast of St Hilary (January 13th) in Nottingham.

Pleas of the Forest were heard before Sirs William De Vescy, Thomas de Normanvillle, and Richard de Creeping- Justices in Eyre of the Lord King for pleas in Sherwood Forest.

They were also heard before the Verders (viridarios) of the Forest:

Richard de Jort, William of Colwick, John of Annesley, Henry of Tinsley, William of Bevercotes and Ralph the Clerk of Mansfield (clericum de Mammesfeld).

And Foresters (forestarios):

Robert D’Everingham forester in fee (forestarium feodi)- Keeper of the Forest, and under him Richard of Coningeston, his attourney, Robert the Tailor, Hugh Flambard, William the fisher (Willelmum Piscarium), Willialm of Durham, Adam of York (Ebor- from Latin Eboracum – York), Robert de Strelley, William be Blakeburn, the sworn foresters of Robert D’Everingham.

Walter of Winkburn the attourney of the justice of the forest , and under him William of Hastings, William de Sheffield (Schaffeud), William the Welshman (Waleys), Robert of Linby, Bate of Linby, Hugh of Mansfield and Henry son of Richard of Clipstone.

The court opened and heard a number of cases of trespass against the venison- poaching deer:  

Including an offence committed in Sherwood Forest in 1279 'on the Friday next before Ascension Day in the seventh year of the reign of King Edward...'

'It is presented by Adam D'Everingham (hereditary keeper of Sherwood Forest) that Alan of Leverton, clericus foreste de Schirewod (the clerk of Sherwood Forest) with Robillard his page took a doe in the park of Clipston(e)... with a laparario ruffo (red greyhound)...'


Medieval hunting scene













Picture: Medieval hunting scene


The doe was eaten by the pigs in the park because it was taken so late at night it was too dark to find it…

A common problem presumably for illicit poachers!

Following his crime which along with killing the king's deer, must have included failing to 'hamble' his hound (removing of claws- a requirement under Forest Law) Alan was brought before the justices and sent to prison...

Maybe he spent time under the custody of 'William the Gaoler' who was one of the gaolers at Nottingham Castle around that time?

Maybe not though as he wasn't in gaol for too long receiving a ransom of half a mark sometime after...

His page Robillard did not show up and appears to have gone on the run

He was then exacted (his belongings seized- usually before outlawing)...

The interesting fact here is that these men were not peasants struggling for food in the forest to avoid starvation. Many of the people caught poaching or caught chopping down trees were ordinary folk.

In this instance they were members of the Forest Administration itself! They were in the employment of the keeper of the Forest Adam D'Everingham.

Understanding their motives is a little harder.

Even harder still is to understand the motives of Robert D'Everingham - son of Adam D'Everingham who within a few years of receiving the keepership of Sherwood Forest from his father, was stripped of his position and himself imprisoned within ten years of this incident...

... for poaching the King's deer!


The entry does at least show us that Forest Law affected people at all levels of society. The fact that people were willing to infringe upon these laws despite the risks, shows us the allure of hunting and poaching to people in medieval Sherwood Forest.


The court then proceeded to set out the following points:

1. The Verderers of Sherwood are to hold their court every 40 days into the small infringements against the vert (cutting down trees) and small pleas – as stated in the Charter of the Forest (the great charter of Magna Carta was first signed in 1215, it was followed by a separate Charter of the Forest in 1217). They were to present their findings on two court rolls to the Eyre- one for Vert and one for venison).

It seems that the Justices in Eyre, and the King, believed that the local justices (verderers) were failing in their duties in upholding Forest Law.


The Charter of the Forest












Picture: the 1217 Charter of the Forest


2. All the demesne woods of the lord king (bosci domini regis - woods owned by the crown) and his enclosures and parks (haye et parci) were to be guarded as to the vert, that if anyone who lives in the forest is found felling a green oak he is to be forced to attend the said verderers court and there provide enough pledges till the next forest eyre (a person had to find somebody who could guarantee that they would attend by pledging money if they didn’t – that person would then force the attendance of the accused if necessary to guarantee their presence).

His Mainour (that which he stole) is to be appraised by the foresters and verderers and he is to pay the amount it was worth to the verderers.

If a person is caught a second time trespassing against the vert- the same will happen.

If a person is caught a third time they will be locked up safely in the prison of the lord King at Nottingham until they can be brought before the justices in Eyre.

Being locked up was no relaxing time- medieval prisons were harsh places with no food provided (a person relied on food brought from outside) and very poor sanitation- well often no sanitation.

The Forest Eyres were not exactly regular so a wait at his majesty’s pleasure was not exactly pleasurable- and you could be in for a long wait!!

This may seem bad enough- but at least if you lived in the forest you had three strikes before you were sent to gaol.

It was different for those living outside:

3. Anyone dwelling outside the forest caught felling trees in the demesne woods of the lord King also had to pay the amount it was deemed to be worth

His body was then to be submitted to prison (corpus suum committatur prisone) until he can be brought before the justices of the forest.

Strike one- Prison.

If he is found a second time then the same will happen.

If he is found trespassing against the vert for a third time he is to lose his horses with his cart, or his oxen with his wagon, or their price; and that price must be paid in full at the next verderers court  or to the neighbouring township for the use of the lord king , so that the verderer or his heirs or the township may answer therefore to the lord king before the justices in Eyre.

Presumably losing a horse and cart or an oxen and wagon was almost terminal for your average medieval peasant!

4. If a person who lived in the forest was found taking small sapplings below the value of four pence they were to be tried before the verderes- over four pence they were to be sent to the forest Eyre.

This entry lists ‘cutting saplings, branches or dry wood from oaks or hazels or thorns or a lime or an alder or a holly or such like trees...’

There are not many references to the types of trees available to peasants on the ground in the forest- different woods burn at different intensities either slow or fast and would be needed for different kinds of cooking and heating, they also had different properties for building houses and hedges- this gives us a glimpse of some of the trees and sapplings being used, and we can begin to think about their uses for the medieval peasant.

Entries 5 and 7 discuss the fines for escaping beasts of the plough (escapia aueriorium) which ended up in the woods of the king causing damage there.

Entry 6 states that ‘it is provided that no man in the future carry bows and arrows (arcus vel sagittas) in the forest outside the king’s highway, unless he is a sworn forester (forestarius iuratus).

The remaining entries list responsibilities of the regarders (those who check the boundaries) and foresters with regard to trespass in wood not belonging to the crown.

The forest Eyre of 1287 then, gives us a great insight into the adminsitration of Sherwood Forest and the application of Forest Law and its impact on the lives of the people in and around Medieval Sherwood Forest.


Pleas taken from: Turner G.J., 1901. Select Pleas of the Forest. Seldon Society.



(Andy Gaunt, first published 11/02/2012- updated 12/05/2020)



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