The New International Encyclopædia/Forest Laws

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FOREST LAWS (in England). Laws for the government of the forests in the King's possession. Such forests were vast tracts of country, containing not only woodland, but pastures and even villages, which might belong to other individuals than the King. Smaller tracts of woodland were called chases, or, if inclosed, parks, and might be included in a royal forest. The forests varied in number and extent at different times and were situated in different parts of the kingdom. Among the best known were New Forest, in Hampshire, Windsor Forest, and Epping Forest.

Most of them, indeed, dated from the Anglo-Saxon period, and having their origin in the uninclosed woodlands which had been national property, became royal demesne in the eleventh century. But all the Norman and early Plantagenet kings attempted, with varying success, to increase the forest area by afforestment, a summary proceeding, which consisted in simply proclaiming the desired tract a forest, after it had been inclosed with metes and bounds by royal commission. Sometimes the people were allowed to remain, but subject to the strict forest law; often they were ruthlessly driven away. The increase of the forest area was not only attempted by such high-handed monarchs as William I. and his sons. Until the fourteenth century it was a recurring source of complaint against the kings. Such wise kings as Henry II. and Edward I. were guilty of the same practice, and it was not until 1301 that the latter finally yielded to the wishes of his people, and permanently put an end to afforestment by force. When Henry VIII. created Hampton Court Forest, he was obliged to pay the freeholders for the lands of which he deprived them, and even Charles I. is said to have followed a like course when he created Richmond Park.

We have no means of determining the state of the law at the time of the Conquest. A series of enactments attributed to Canute is of such uncertain authority as to have been rejected by Coke in 1548, and Dr. Liebermann has recently shown that it is a forgery of about 1184. All that we know of his legislation on this subject is that he permitted every man to hunt in his own wood, but forbade trespassing in the King's forest.

The terrible severities of the Norman period are usually said to have been introduced under Henry I., but in his charter of liberties Henry professes merely to retain the forests as his father had held them. His law claimed supreme jurisdiction over private forests as well as over his own, and prescribed terrible penalties for the killing of game, among which were death, blinding, and emasculation. The Assize of the Forest, issued by Henry II. in 1184, retains these punishments, but mitigates others and prescribes the limits of the jurisdiction of forest courts. The extreme rigor with which this otherwise just King enforced the forest law gave cause for great complaint. In the Great Charter John renounced his afforestments, promised reform of all bad customs, and excused from attendance on the forest courts those not living in the forest. The Charter of the Forests, issued by the Earl Marshal for Henry III. in 1217, was a still more liberal document, greatly diminishing the punishments, the severest of which is now imprisonment for a year and a day. Besides confirming the provisions of Magna Charta, it permits freemen to exercise many other rights, such as those to mills, fish-ponds, marl-pits, arable land, falcons, etc., on their own land, within the forest. Renewed by Edward I., and supplemented by another ordinance in 1306, it remained the basis of the forest laws of the kingdom.

In general, the inhabitants of the forest folds were subject to the royal rights of forestry. These were both of vert, that is, to every kind of tree and brush in the forest, and venison, that is to say, to every wild beast of the forest. They were not allowed to hunt or cut wood or brush on their own land without license of the royal official. They, indeed, retained, some rights of pasture for commonable beasts (excluding sheep, goats, geese, and swine), but they might not use as much as would deprive the King's beasts of food.

The officers of the forest were numerous and important. The master forester seems to have been independent even of the justiciar. There were two justices in eyre, one for this side of Trent and the other for beyond. The verderers were chosen in pursuance of royal writ by the freeholders of the forest from their own number to maintain the law. Besides the foresters, who were freemen sworn to preserve vert and venison in their respective bailiwicks, there were other minor officials.

The forest courts were three in number, running parallel with the ordinary courts of justice. There was the woodmote, or court of attachments, held before the verderers every forty days. It tried minor trespasses only, and could not convict. The swanmote was held three times a year by the same officials, all freeholders of the forest being bound to attend. Presentments were made by a jury which tried and convicted, but did not pass judgment. This was reserved for the justices in eyre, who every third year held the court of justice seat, a supreme court of civil and criminal jurisdiction over all offenses committed in a forest, whether against the forest law or not.

The last important general forest legislation was passed by the Long Parliament in 1640. Charles I. had been exacting fines for alleged encroachments on his forests, and Parliament replied with an act for the ‘certainty of forests,’ exempting from prosecution any alleged encroachments which were considered valid in the second year of James I. Since that act the laws of the forest have practically ceased. The Crown still retains ancient forestal rights over private lands in Dean Forest and in New Forest, but such rights survive as curious legal anomalies. During Queen Victoria's reign three of the royal forests, viz. Hainault, Whittlewood, and Wichwood, were disafforested by act of Parliament. It would be better, however, if the remainder, and particularly such as are near large cities, could be held as national parks and recreation grounds. This has recently been done in the case of Epping Forest near London, and seems to be the probable destiny of others as well.

The royal forests of Scotland were nearly as numerous as those of England, and their area was larger in proportion to that of the country. As in England, there was a special code for them. Indeed, this code is so much like the English that it seems to have been derived from it. The penalties, however, are not so severe, nor did afforestation play such a prominent part in the Scotch constitutional struggle as in the English. The best edition of the Scotch forest code is in the Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1844).

Bibliography. Most of the laws of the forest are given in convenient form by Stubbs, Select Charters (Oxford, 1895), as cited above; they are published in full in the Statutes of the Realm, Record Commission, vol. i. (1810); Coke's Fourth Institute of the Laws of England (London, 1548) is the earliest legal authority, and the most complete is Manwood's Treatise of the Laws of the Forests (London, 1598). For good brief modern descriptions, consult: Stubbs, Constitutional History, i. (Oxford. 1891); and “Forest Laws,” in the Encyclopædia of the Laws of England, ed. by Ranton (London, 1895-98).