Charter of the Forest

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1. David Bollier:

"The Charter of the Forest was adopted in 1217, two years after Magna Carta, by King Henry III, the son and successor of King John (1166-1216). The Charter of the Forest formally recognized the vernacular traditions and practices (“laws”) of English commoners – that is, their traditional rights of access to and use of royal lands and forests. The document enumerates specific subsistence rights to the forest such as pannage (pasture for pigs), agistment (grazing of cattle), estover (collecting of firewood), and turbary (cutting of turf), all of which were considered elemental, traditional entitlements of commoners. The Charter of the Forest was later incorporated into Magna Carta and considered an integral part of it."

2. Via Tadit Anderson:

Provides a historical context for the the principle of the commons:

"The charter was designed to complement Magna Carta, which had been signed in 1215 by Henry’s predecessor and father, King John, in which he promised his subjects that England would be governed, and his barons dealt with, according to the customs of feudal law. Almost immediately, Magna Carta was nullified by Pope Innocent III, who agreed with John that the agreement had been extorted by force. The barons rebelled (see Barons’ War), and in October 1216 John died and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Henry. A council of barons loyal to John, and led by William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, was created to rule on Henry’s behalf. To end the rebellion, it decided to reissue Magna Carta. This document had never satisfactorily dealt with the issue of forest law, which was a cause of widespread resentment." (


1. Peter Linebaugh:

"The Norman Conquest in 1066 disrupted the customs of the forest which had prevailed for centuries. William and his Norman conquerors (“a French bastard with his armed banditti,” said Paine) brought innovations in eating utensils (the fork), a new language (law French), new people (the Normans, the Jews), and different animals (wild boar and deer, the royal game). The forest became a legal rather than a physical entity. The king reserved it exclusively for sport.

The forest became the supreme status symbol of the king, from which he could give presents of timber and game. Henry III sent his old nurse, Helen of Winchester, underwood for her fire. From the Forest of Dean the king took minerals, underwood, timber, and red and fallow deer. A haunch of venison was a gift that money could not buy. Henry III for Christmas dinner in 1251 had 430 red deer, 200 fallow deer, 200 roe deer, 1300 hares, 450 rabbits, 2100 partridges, 290 pheasants, 395 swans, 115 cranes, 400 tame pigs, 70 pork brawns, 7000 hens, 120 peafowl, 80 salmon, and lampreys without number.

In July 1203, at the height of the crisis in Normandy, King John instructed his chief forester, Hugh de Neville, to sell forest privileges “to make our profit by selling woods and demising assarts.” The king wanted to reward followers with endowments, lands “to raise men from the dust.” The mounted knight was a powerful unit of war, terrifying, expensive, and ubiquitous. Thus the growth of state power, the ability to make war, and complaints against the monarchy arose from the enclosing of land, or afforestation.

J. R. Madicott writes that the principal grievances behind the Magna Carta were two: “the malpractices of the sheriff and the extent of the forest. . . . Most physical Forests were also commons and had common-rights dating from before they had been declared Forests.” In 1215 there were 143 forests in England. Hence, the demand to disafforest in chapter 47 of the Magna Carta. After 1216 few forests were enclosed.

How was the extent of afforestation known? How was the Magna Carta’s disafforestation to be accomplished? There were no cartographers, no global positioning system, apart from the tramp of human feet in solemn perambulations. They perambulated their constitution by walking the boundaries, observing each stone, each tree. How was this struggle lost to history? We can trace today’s myth of the Magna Carta to the English Revolution." (

2. Giles Lane:

"November 6th 2017 is the 800th anniversary of The Charter of The Forest – a landmark document in English law which guaranteed common people access to royal lands to forage, graze their animals, gather wood for fuel and building and to conduct small scale farming. Coming two years after the Magna Carta whose benefits were limited to a small number of barons, the Charter of the Forest set out a “a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources”, an early understanding of the importance of mutuality and reciprocity between people and living natural systems. Since England was covered by roughly two thirds forest – much of which was “royal” land, this was the equivalent of guaranteeing that the poorest people would be able to subsist off the land without fear of the harsh punishments that had been imposed in the late 1080s by King William II (“Rufus”) and later by King Henry II.

The Charter of the Forest, like Magna Carta, was incorporated into English Statute Law in 1297 and has the distinction of remaining law until revoked in 1971 (its key provisions having been incorporated into subsequent Acts of Parliament over the centuries and finally into the Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Act 1971). One of its effects was to constrain monarchs and landowners from enclosing ‘common’ land by default, although in later periods this was circumvented by the passing of individual Acts of Parliament – most notably in the 18th Century when huge areas were sequestered by the nobility and the wealthy for their own personal gain at the expense of local communities.

“The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it 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), and the collecting of honey.” (Julie Timbrell)

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.” In this respect, the charter’s guarantees may have provided inspiration for critical thinkers such as Thomas Paine, whose books Common Sense, Rights of Man and Agrarian Justice set out key concepts of liberty, governance and equitable access to the commonwealth (such as a universal basic income)." (

More information

See for further details: Peter Linebaugh. The Secret History of the Magna Carta,” Boston Review. [1]

More Information