Set up by William the Conqueror after his successful invasion of England, Royal Forests are areas of land, not necessarily even forested, that are preserved for the enjoyment of monarchs and the aristocracy.
The enjoyment that the monarchs and aristocracy normally took from the area involved hunting. Red deer, fallow deer and roe deer, were hunted, along with boars, hares, wolves, rabbits, martens, foxes, pheasants and partridges. In a Royal Forest, only those permitted by the monarch could hunt these animals. Offenses against these animals, such as trapping or hunting them, came under the category of ‘trespass against the venison’.
To preserve the land for these animals, there was the other category of ‘trespass against the vert’. This category made it an offence to enclose land for grazing or arable use, build structures within the area declared a Royal Forest, clear land for agricultural use, cut down trees, or clear areas of the forest of undergrowth. All this applied to all the land within the Royal Forest, even if it was already owned by somebody else.
This meant that any villages or settlements within the Royal Forest suddenly found they could no longer develop new land to feed themselves, nor could they take advantage of the game in the forest to get them through bad harvests. They weren’t allowed to own weapons that could be used for hunting, and the only dogs that were permitted were de-clawed mastiffs for use as watchdogs.
Penalties for going against these laws were harsh, especially for hunting. When first enacted, anybody caught hunting a deer in a Royal Forest was to be blinded. Later, even harsher punishments were brought in, including further maiming and death.
The lumber from the forests all belonged to the crown as well, and people living in or near the forest could no longer fell trees or take fallen branches for fire wood. Later on, this was used to supply oak for shipbuilding or sell charcoal for the monarch, but originally it was in place to preserve the woodland for hunting. Later on, this was adjusted so that local villagers could keep any fallen wood if they could cart it more than an axe throw from where they found it before the forester, one of the people tasked with maintaining the Royal Forests, arrived.
When these areas were first created, they were solely for the use of the king and his hunting parties, but, as time went on, the potential for profit was realised, and nearby nobles were granted access to the land in return for a fee.
Over the centuries, the Royal Forests lost their importance, and people living on them were granted more and more rights. Though they sometimes had brief resurgences, they ultimately became purely preservation-focussed, being kept for everybody, rather than just monarchs and aristocracy.