During the medieval period the religious life of Nottinghamshire and Sherwood Forest was influenced by the many religious houses and churches, spread throughout the landscape.

Southwell Minster

Picture: Southwell Minster

The church was intrinsic to everyday life, its festivals and feast days followed the seasons of the year, its saint days were used to document the meetings of the courts and administration of the land, and the church protected and legitimised the role of the monarchy itself.

The church in England was until the reformation of the 16th century part of the great Catholic Church under the control of the papacy in Rome.

The leader of the church in medieval England was the Archbishop of Canterbury, who held the office of St Augustine, since the 6th century.

In the north of England however it was the Archbishop of York who held sway over the lives and souls of the people.

In Nottinghamshire the Archbishop held a great amount of power both spiritually and temporally.

In Domesday he is listed as having full jurisdiction and market rights and the King’s customary dues of two pence over his manors.

The Archbishop is the fifth landowner listed in Domesday for Nottinghamshire behind the King and a small number of Counts and Earls.

The Domesday Possessions of the Archbishop include the Manors of Cropwell (Bishop), Laneham, South Muskham, Blidworth, Oxton, Norwell and Sutton with its outliers of Lound and Srooby, and in the great Manor of Southwell in central Nottinghamshire. The Archbishop also held land in other places including Woodborough (Morris 1977).

Blidworth and Woodborough were both within the boundaries of Sherwood Forest.

The rest of the Archbishops properties were outside the 13th century boundary of Sherwood Forest, but the Archbishop was subject to forest law in many of his lands. His influence may even have affected the forest boundaries over time.

Sutton, Scrooby and Lound in north Nottinghamshire were granted by charter to the Archbishop, then called Oskytell, by King Edgar of England in the year 958 (Davies T.GT. 1983).

Interestingly this charter mentions a ‘scirwuda’ (shire wood) as part of the boundary perambulation of the estate. This is often cited as the earliest reference to Sherwood Forest, but sadly it cannot be directly linked to the Forest  of Sherwood, due to its location, and a separation of nearly 300 years in the use of the name.

Scrooby was also incidentally later the home of William Brewster a leader of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed to America on the Mayflower.

In a charter in 956 two years before Sutton, Lound and Scrooby were granted to the Archbishop Oskytell, King Edgar's brother the preceeding King Eadwig had granted the Manor of Southwell to the Archbishop.

Southwell became the heart of the Archbishop’s power in the county.

With all its outliers the Manor of Southwell became an incredibly well defined area of power belonging to the Archbishop .

At the centre of this estate was the Minster church of Southwell.

Southwell Minster operated as a collegiate of secular canons.

This was effectively a collection of religious brothers similar to a monastery- the term secular means they were not tied to one of the religious orders of the day.

Each of these canons provided religious service to surrounding communities known as ‘Prebeneds’ in exchange for land and money.

By the 1290’s Southwell had acquired 16 Prebends in the surrounding area some of them in lands they had possessed since Domesday and some acquired overtime.

These were at The Sacrists' prebend, Normanton, Woodborough, North Muskham,South Muskham, Dunham, Beckingham, Halloughton, Rampton, Eaton, and North Leverton, three Prebends at Norwell, and two at Oxton (Page 1910 Victoria County History).

The dominion and jurisdiction the Archbishop had over the lands around Southwell resulted in it being known as the ‘Southwell Peculiar’.

The above is a short introduction to the relationship of the Archbishopric to the land and people of Nottinghamshire.

So what does this all have to do with Sherwood Forest?

The Archbishop of York held the manor of Blidworth, and the Prebend of Woodborough, both in Sherwood Forest as defined by the 13th century perambulations.

At Blidworth he was confirmed in an inquisition of 1155/6 as having the right to ‘hunt in his wood of Blidworth for nine days a year, three each at Christmas, Easter and Pentecost. There he, his canons and his men had all their easements without waste, their own foresters, honey, eyries of sparrowhawks and hawks and pannage’ (Crook 1994).

Also as a leader of the church his lands were protected with regard to  trespass against the forest law by threat of excommunication (see Mutilation and Damnation entry)

In 1300 the forest boundary was perambulated at the order of Edward I. The boundary was altered to allow the Archbishops wood at Blidworth to be exempt from the forest law (Boulton 1964). This wood was known as ‘ye Bischopes Wode’ in the 1400’s, and sat at the northern boundary of Blidworth against the lordship of the Abbots of Rufford (see A journey through Sherwood Forest: Newstead Priory to King John's Palace).

The remainder of the Archbishop’s lands were outside the boundary of Sherwood Forest at this time.

There were however many issues regarding the Archbishop and the forest.

An inquest in 1155/6 at the start of the reign of Henry II (1154-1189) into the rights of the Archbishop of York in relation to the forest law in Nottinghamshire in the reign of his grandfather Henry I (1100-1135) gives us our earliest known boundary of the forest in  Nottinghamshire.

This ‘Old Forest’ as the inquest calls it, in the time of Henry I, stretched all the way up the western half of the county. The documents refer to this forest as the 'Forest of Nottingham'.

The Archbishop’s lands were exempt from the forest law to the east of this line in the time of Henry I because they were outside of the forest.

In the reign of Henry I’s grandson, Henry II (1154-1189), and his sons, Richard I (1189-1199) and King John (1199-1216) all of Nottinghamshire north and west of the Trent was subject to forest law.

This meant that all of the Archbishop’s lands in the area to the east of the 'old forest' were subject to forest law.

As forest law gradually engulfed all of Nottinghamshire north and west of the Trent during the reign Henry II, Richard I and John, the area to the east of the Forest of Nottingham came under forest law. This area seems to have gone by the name ‘Forest of Clay’

The boundary between the two forests was defined by the boundary of the ‘Old Forest’ of Henry I, and reflects mainly the geology and soils of the region (see Forest of Clay entry). But effectively the crown administered this huge area as one forest.

The crown enforced forest law in the Forest of Clay as it did in the Forest of Nottingham throughout the later 12th and early 13th century:

In 1167 the Canons of Southwell and the collegiate church were fined by Henry II ‘the men of Norwell “of the part of Master Viacrius’ paid half a mark as a result of the forest Eyre of Alain de Neville”’ (Crook 1994)

This seems to relate to one of the Prebends of Southwell in Norwell in the Forest  of Clay.

In 1185 Vicarius was ‘charged with 40s for waste of his wood and trespass against the assize, in the forest eyre of Geoffrey Fitzpeter’ (ibid.) along with Andrew the canon charged 100s, Geoffrey the canon 2 marks, and Master Gilbert 2 marks- most likely all canons of Southwell.

‘Two years later, in another Eyre by Geoffrey Fitzpeter, Andrew canon of Southwell was amerced the enormous sum of 40 marks for receiving venison and removing it contrary to the assize. At the same time Master Vicarius was again charged with 2 marks for trespass against the assize, canons Gilbert and Laurence 40s each for the same offence and for default…

...it was probably the 1187 forest eyre which led Hugh of Avalon, the saintly bishop of Lincoln to excommunicate Geoffrey Fitzpeter for enforcing the forest law’ against the Archbishops men (Crook 1994).

In the time of Richard I (1189-99) it seemed that things had got better for the Archbishop, when in 1189 Richard granted the Archbishop ‘disaforestment of all the lands of the church of York in Nottinghamshire, both those held in demesne and those in the prebends. They were quit of all wastes and assarts and pleas of the forest, and of the regard, and no forester or other bailiff was to interfere with them’ (Crook 1994).

However the archbishop's men still got fined or bought their way out of fines in 1198 and 1209 at the forest eyres, suggesting that the charter of Richard meant little.

The fact that they were being directly fined for forest infringements suggests that royal forest law applied over all of Nottinghamshire north and West of the Trent, and the Archbishops land at Southwell in the Forest of Clay.

When King John was in control of Nottinghamshire as Count of Mortain between 1189 and 1194 he confirmed that Maud de Caux was keeper of the Forests of Nottingham and Derbyshire (see Women Keepers of Sherwood Forest).

In 1222 Maud de Caux was referred to as the keeper of the Forests of Nottingham and of Clay’ (Crook 1979).

Also Brian De Lisle as Chief Justice of the Forest was ordered to allow Walter de Evermue to take timber from Clay as well as Sherwood to repair his houses (ibid).

This suggest that the crown continued to have jurisdiction over the Forest of Clay into the 13th century, possibly up until the boundaries of the forest were finally agreed in 1227.

The crown seems then to have maintained control over the forest of Clay in the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John up until 1227 in the reign of Henry III, with the Archbishop’s men being some of the victims of this policy.

The boundaries of the Sherwood Forest were reduced following Magna Carta and the subsequent Forest Charter.

This new area removed the Forest of Clay from the equation, as the forest retreated into an area that may or may not have been the original forest (see Castles and Sherwood Forest entry), which may have fallen within the jurisdiction of Nottingham Castle.

This meant that the problems the Archbishop of York had had regarding the forest had been finally resolved.

As previously stated the condition improved further when the boundary was altered by Edward I in 1300 to allow his forest at Blidworth to be exempt too.

It could be that the area of jurisdiction that the Archbishop of York had around Southwell was one of the reasons for the strange shape of Sherwood Forest from the 13th century when it retreated into a boundary from an earlier time.

Perhaps the Doverbeck River provided a natural boundary between the jurisdiction of the castle of Nottingham (and therefore the original boundary of the forest) and the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York to the east of it.

It is not possible to know for sure if this was the case, with the evidence known at the moment.

But it is clear that the Archbishop of York was an important figure in the lives of the people of the time, and that he held significant authority in the county. It is clear that the Archbishops' faced the authority of the forest law as did everyone else- often despite their exemptions from it. It seems that over time they eventually managed to remove the majority of their lands from under forest law, and it is also possible that their influence even helped shape the original boundary of Medieval Sherwood Forest.

Andy Gaunt, first published 01/02/2012)

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