The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Forest Laws

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Edition of 1920. See also Royal forest on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

FOREST LAWS, in English law, legal restrictions regarding forests of the king. Forest laws applied not only to the royal forests of England but to Scotland as well.

The area subject to the jurisdiction of these courts in England included not only woodland but often pastures and villages. Some of these forests dated from the Anglo-Saxon period. Up to the time of Edward I their area was constantly added to by various kings by a summary proceeding known as afforestment. This consisted of a proclamation made by the king to the effect that any tract of land he desired, without compensation to the owner, was to be constituted a forest, after observing certain formalities, a right which it seems he had by common law. All offenders in such forests were punished by forest law and not by common law. There were three forests courts: woodmote, swainmote and justice seat. The woodmote was a court of attachment and had jurisdiction over minor offenses only, but could not convict. This court was presided over by verderers, officers chosen by freeholders of the forest. The swainmote had power to try and convict, but no power to pass judgment. It was presided over by the verderers, and all freeholders were obliged to attend. The court of justice seat had jurisdiction over all civil and criminal offenses committed in a forest. This court sat every third year and was presided over by the justices in eyre.

Under some of the kings of England the penalties for violations of the forest laws were inordinately severe, blinding and even death being the penalty for killing game during the reign of Henry I. These laws were mitigated by King John, but only under compulsion. Edward I finally abolished afforestment by force, yielding to the earnest desires of his subjects.

There were many royal forests in Scotland, but the code to which they were subject contained no such severe penalties as that of England, although otherwise the codes are very similar.

During the latter half of the 19th century Parliament disafforested, under the plea of public necessity, three royal forests, those of Whittlewood, Wichwood and Hainault. Epping Forest, which forms part of the ancient Waltham Forest was the subject of legislation by Parliament in 1871, and as a result was declared open to the public by Queen Victoria in 1882, the ancient court of verderers being revived. There are still royal forests in England and the Crown has certain rights in private forests in a limited number of places to this day.