May 1194 Supplement

Sherwood Forest

Major Oak - Sherwood Forest

Marian Fitzwater describes the Forest of Sherwood,
explains the Forest Laws and warns of the Punishment for Poaching.

A StagSherwood Forest can be a delight and a danger. Stretching 20 miles long and 8 miles wide from Worksop manor to Nottingham, it takes in the Hundreds of Bassetlaw, Broxtowe and Thurgarton. Mighty oak trees, irrepressible silver birches, occasional Scots pine and small-leafed lime make up the forest - have done so for thousands of years.

And lying beneath the mighty oaks is an under-storey of younger birch and oak, holly, hawthorn and occasional wild cherry, almost impenetrable but for the clearings of bracken, bramble and endless varieties of grasses.

The dryness of the soil does not restrict the wild life. The flashing flight of swifts, swallows and collared doves bring life to the upper air and the hovering skylarks provide a merry song. The wood anemone, primrose, bluebell, early purple orchid, wild garlic, yellow archangel, campion and foxglove brighten the greenwood where perchance the sun has pushed its way through the canopy of trees. Even in the poorer sandstone soil the purple heather and ferns reach waist-high.

In abundance are herbs to garnish your dinner or cure your headache, and late in summer you can indulge in various succulent nuts and fruit. A few pennies can be made - poorer people pick the bilberries and sell them throughout the shire.

There is timber for building, for your fire, tools and furniture, though in Thorney Wood the thickly wooded tracks barely give access - the entangled branches so twist together that they scarcely allow you to pass through.

The High Forest of towering oaks and glades of grassland is more accessible and provides grazing for red, roe and fallow deer which come under the protection of the Forest Law. Kings, past and present, have designed these laws to protect the beasts of the chase purely for their princely delight, and so all of Sherwood Forest has been set aside so that they can indulge themselves in the pleasures of hunting.

Forest Laws

What are these Forest Laws? They are designed to protect the wild boar and to prohibit you from hunting and killing the deer. They even prevent you from carrying weapons in the forest - as a traveller you may carry a weapon for self-defence but you have to keep to the highways running through the woods. The most hated Forest Law is the one that lays down that dogs living within the forest should be 'lawed' - three talons cut from the front foot without the pad.

The Forest Law deals with a beast found dead in the forest much the same way as a man found dead - the four neighbouring villages hold a special inquest. You will need royal permission before you can clear any part of the forest for ploughing, erecting buildings or grazing your cattle and swine; and you cannot fell an oak tree unless it is for the reconstruction of a church or for a siege machine.

A royal proclamation can put any part of the forest, whether common land or not, under Forest Law so the King's forest is always expanding. Appointed by the King, the Chief Forester administers the Forest Law. Under him come the wardens, and then come the verderers who are chosen in the shire court - usually four for each forest. They have no pay and their chief work is to attend the forest courts of attachment every six weeks where offences are dealt with. All the work of gamekeeping is done by the forester, either riding or walking.

Punishment for Poaching

HuntingWilliam the Conqeror was ther first king to declare that a piece of rough forest and common land was subject to Forest Law. He put in beasts of the chase to breed and multiply, adding the Forest Law to preserve them for the sole enjoyment of the King.

The king does allow certain privileged persons the right to hunt. The Archbishop of York can hunt 9 days in the year - 3 at Christmas, 3 at Easter, 3 after Whit Sunday with his own foresters and eryes of hawks throughout the whole wood of Blyworth.

And mainly for the purpose of protecting the game, the King allows some of his subjects the privilege of hunting other wild animals that he regards as harmful to the chase, such as the fox, hare, coney, squirrel, wild cat and badger. These hunting rights are known as rights of warren. The Bishop of Lincoln holds these rights in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

There are men who own lands within the Forest Law but cannot hunt on them and have no rights to warren. And if hunters break through the enclosure of a poor cottager abiding within the forest in pursuit of their game and tread down his garden crop, or the only bit of corn he has managed to grow, he is compelled to come out and offer refreshment to his spoilers.

You can buy the King's hunting rights at a price. Before King Richard left on crusade, the knights of Surrey offered 200 marks to free a large area of the county from the Forest Law.

If you hunt in that part of the forest not under the Forest Law known as a chase you are on safer ground as it is only subject to common law.

Not surprisingly, Sherwood Forest is a favourite haunt of outlaws, not least Robin Hood and his band of men. It suits well the wandering and dangerous life of a brigand. Thick set with trees, it affords many secret and impenetrable recesses and numerous rocky caves that serve as hiding places.

PoachingDespite the severe punishments in store for killing the King's deer, you will have to admit there is a certain excitement and bravado in poaching; and if you are not afraid of outlaws, the forest can tempt you with its many delights: honey if you can find it, dead wood for firing, live wood for building, extra meat for the pot, and of course, the sheer thrill of the chase.

With his in-born necessity for finding food every man has the hunting instinct. You have to admit that you thrill to the sport of it, the excitement of the chase and you might ask yourself - why should only the King delight in its pleasure? There are rich pickings for the hungry, or the brave.

People's hatred of the Forest Law makes them unwilling to give away poachers but be advised - it is taking an awful chance. On his return from crusade King Richard has softened the Forest Laws but they still exist. Take my advice - stick to them.

Serwood Times