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)."


3. Maria Venner:

"The Charter of the Forest reached the 800th anniversary of its signing and sealing in St. Paul’s church, on Nov. 6, 1217. Besides curbing the power of the monarchy to seize common land and resources for its own use, it asserted and assured free access by all, to the commons, and thus the provisions for life and sustenance. Wikipedia clarifies that “forest” also meant large areas of commons such as heathland, grassland and wetlands, productive of food, grazing and other resources:

"Forest" to the Normans meant an enclosed area where the monarch (or sometimes another aristocrat) had exclusive rights to animals of the chase and the greenery ("vert") on which they fed. Lands became more and more restricted as King Richard and King John designated greater and greater areas as royal forest. At its widest extent, royal forest covered about one-third of the land of southern England. Thus it became an increasing hardship on the common people to try to farm, forage, and otherwise use the land they lived on…According to Guy Standing, the Charter "was not about the rights of the poor, but about the rights of the free. For its time and place, it was a radical assertion of the universality of freedom, its commonality."

The Charter of the Forest was unique in the extent of economic rights it provided to people. Unlike the Magna Carta, pertaining to the rights of barons, the Charter of the Forest addressed the rights of common people; it restricted the amount of land that the king could claim for private use and restored common rights to common natural resources. (, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All, by Peter Linebaugh), enacting what became a longstanding restraint against greed, enclosure, and tyranny by the most powerful.

The Public Trust doctrine dates back to Roman times. The commons – today the air and water, in the US commonly called “waters of the US” and the air – was addressed by US founding fathers over 200 years ago. In 1818, James Madison, who drafted the Fifth Amendment protecting people from deprivation of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, publicly worried about the damage from forests being cut down. Air, water, and healthy land are certainly necessary for life and any reasonable form of liberty. As legal scholars note, “back in 1818, he was speaking to a group of farmers and said that the atmosphere is the breath of life. Deprived of it, we all equally perish, meaning humans, animals, and plants. This is to say that going back to even the early days of our nation, there was very much an understanding that the atmosphere, air, and water were vital to life.” Now it is taking a lot of legal effort, direct action, and citizen resistance to try to get these rights acknowledged again and responsibility assumed by government, with all that has been yielded to corporations and profits for the richest.

We need restoration or retaking of those rights today, as we again today try to “stop royal encroachment of common land and protect the rights of commoners to gain their livelihood from commons resources.” The Charter of the Forest was the first environmental charter, the first to offer a defense of the commons in general. Not only is it a fundamental part of the British Constitution, it stayed on the statute books longer than any other piece of legislation, according to

Plunder of the commons continues, not just through all the land theft that occurred throughout the Americas and colonized lands worldwide (see 1491 by Charles Mann). A recent experience of such theft and domination is recounted in Sarah Augustine’s The Land Is Not Empty. For a spiritual approach to trees and nature, the best book I can recommend is Malidoma Some’s Of Water and Spirit. Malidoma was a great man from Burkina Faso, of great depth in many traditions. His story and experience (including his first traditional initiation experience, seeing a tree) are compelling, as are Augustine’s."

(email, March 2022)

More information

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