The Magna Carta, one of the world’s most influential documents, was signed in a field near the English town of Runnymede in 1215 by King John. After a bitter dispute with his barons over rising taxes, John was forced to sign a charter calling for more rights for the noble class. This was the first time that the divine right of a king had been challenged and John had no intention of following its authority. The Pope sided with the king and had the original version of the Magna Carta annulled.
While the king and the barons bickered, common folk were suffering from a different type of royal excess. Their rights to the fair use of forests were being abused, making life very difficult for the poor.
A forest in medieval terms was any land officially set aside for hunting purposes. This could include fields, villages and heathland as well as woodland. During the reigns of Henry II and his sons Richard and John, royal forests were greatly expanded. They took up nearly 1/3 of the land in England with a large population of the country living within them. People who needed access to these forests faced strict regulations with penalties including heavy fines or even death. In a time when use of the land was vital for daily survival, forest laws were oppressive.
A year after the death of King John, his son Henry III signed a new version of the Magna Carta. This one was accompanied by a second smaller document, The Forest Charter. While the Magna Carta was for the benefit of the barons, the Forest Charter held up the rights of the land for all other freemen. The two documents would forever be linked in English Law.
The Forest Charter was made up of sixteen articles, far fewer than the 63 in the Magna Carta. However, its rules eased the living conditions of a much larger percentage of the population. It put the boundaries of royal forests back to where they were before Henry II, freeing many people from any regulations for land use. It also allowed people to farm pigs, collect timber or charcoal, build structures such as mills and hunt on the land. Most importantly, the penalties for poaching were reduced. After the Forest Charter, poaching was no longer punishable by death.
Over the centuries, The Forest Charter was ignored by some kings and used for political advantage by others. Early Parliaments used the Charter to set up private game parks and aid in the production of timber. In the 20th century, as the country moved away from an agricultural economy, the public used The Forest Charter as a right to use the countryside for recreational purposes.
The Forest Charter was repealed in the 1970’s. By then, most of its original articles were imbedded in different aspects of English Law, a testament to the importance of public access to the countryside. Today, societies such as The Woodland Trust are calling for a new Forest Charter as a means to protect the environment.
The Forest Charter gives us a glimpse into the lives of Medieval commoners. For people who survived by living off the land, the countryside served a vital purpose. Henry II, Richard and John had put many lives at risk by taking away their right to use the land freely. Their misuse of such an important resource sparked a countryside revolution with the implications lasting centuries.
If you’d like to see an original copy of The Magna Carta and The Forest Charter, take a trip to Lincoln Castle. You can find out more information at https://www.lincolncastle.com
Outside of the UK, the best place to see these documents is on The British Library’s website https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-forest-charter-of-1225