797 years ago today, a royal charter was issued that could be interpreted as the first ever piece of environmental legislation.
The Charter of the Forest, sealed on 6 November 1217, was a spin-off from Magna Carta, the great charter of liberties originally agreed by King John in 1215. Magna Carta was a failure from the outset, since John reneged on its terms not long afterwards, leading him into direct war with his barons.
John’s successor, Henry III, reissued Magna Carta as a peace offering on his coronation in 1216, and it was reissued again the following year. The Charter of the Forest was separated out from the main Magna Carta in 1217 in order to provide more detail on what the monarch promised in relation to forest lands. Indeed, it was the separation of the two documents that led to Magna Carta being known as the ‘great charter’, to differentiate it from its shorter companion document. But what did the Forest Charter actually say?
As in the original Charter of Liberties, the clauses relating to forests represented a massive climb down for the king. Whereas John and his predecessors had extended the boundaries of royal forests, Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest offered some measure of royal retreat. No more would the king claim the authority of Forest Law over such a wide area of land.
No more would the pre-existing freedoms of people living in those forests – the freedom to gather firewood, to hunt animals, to erect mills on rivers and streams – be trampled on by the demands of the royal forest courts. Forests, after all, were a legal as much as physical entities – they were areas of land over which forest law prevailed, often wooded but not necessarily (since some heaths and much open wood-pasture was also classified as ‘forest’).
"all woods which were afforested by King Richard ... or... King John ...shall forthwith be disafforested"
"Every free man shall agist his own wood in the forest as he wishes and have his pannage."
"No man henceforth shall lose life or limb for taking our venison"
The Woodland Trust has recently called for a new Charter forTrees Woods and People, to draw attention to the importance of trees and woods in our everyday lives. The work of 797 years ago continues to inspire new ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world.
The full text of the Charter of the Forest can be seen here: http://www.bsswebsite.me.uk/History/MagnaCarta/forestcharter-1217.htm