The Free Men of the Wolds!
This year heralds the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Charter of the Forest, which was of much more importance to the general population of England than the now famous Magna Carta signed two years previously, in 1215.
To begin with, royal forest meant an enclosed area where the monarch, or sometimes another aristocrat, had exclusive rights to animals of the chase and the greenery on which they fed. It was not only forest or woodland but included large areas of heathland, grassland and wetlands which produced food, grazing and other resources. At its widest extent, royal forest covered about one-third of the land of southern England and was continually being designated and extended by the King and other aristocracy. Thus it became an increasing hardship on the common people to try to farm, forage, and otherwise use the land they lived on.
The Charter of the Forest gave commoners rights, privileges and protection against the abuses of the king, his sheriffs and the encroaching aristocracy. Crucially it allowed people to subsist and have access to the commonwealth, in the forests, chases and heaths. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, the Charter of the Forest guaranteed rights to:
• herbage (gathering berries and herbs)
• pannage (pasture for pigs),
• estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood)
• agistment (grazing)
• turbary (cutting of turf for fuel)
• marl (digging for clay, chalk, sand or other mineral)
• and the collecting of honey.
The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: "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."
From numerous Commons, Forests and Environmental Acts over the centuries, the protection and enhancement of our countryside that we enjoy today could be said to have started from the Charter of the Forest 800 years ago.
We are very privileged that we can see both the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta at Lincoln Castle, the only place in the world where you can see original copies in one place.