Charter of the Forest

In our topsy-turvy, contemporary society, have you ever stopped to wonder about your turbary rights? What about your pannage, estover and agistment rights? In this post, we turn to the cutting edge legal document of 1217, ‘The Charter of the Forest’ or ‘Carta de Foresta’. You might know the Magna Carta as a document that started to establish human rights as we know them today, but the Charter of the Forest arguably did more for the common man; and as is the case with these kinds of things, helps inform our view of planning law and land rights today. Who owns the land, why and what are they allowed to do with it?

image - St Johns College Oxford
image – St Johns College Oxford

First of all, what were those words again? Turbary (cutting turf for fuel), Pannage (pasture for pigs), Estover (collecting firewood) and Agistment (grazing). Certainly paints a picture of a different time and its  Rolling back the clock to the Norman Invasion (1066), The Domesday book (1086) reported the proportion of woodland in the UK at around 15%. (it dropped to under 5% about 10 years ago and has rocketed up to 10% now- I imagine a lot of this is new, not old or ancient woodland of course , but it’s something)

It is worth mentioning that the meaning of “forest” in this case didn’t neccesarily mean wooded areas but could refer to various types of land and settlements. Prior to William the Conqueror, it seems that English kings were not too dissimilar to other landowners. However the incoming royals were (for one thing) very keen of hunting, and generally speaking the extent of lands and the laws that applied to them grew greatly. (more detail here)

So, in short, the barons and local boy (!) Simon De Montfort (1208-1265) started to harass the royalty into sharing things out and being a little more democratic now and again (Magna Carta in 1215, Charter of the Forest 1217 – also the Robin Hood stuff kicks off potentially around the 1220s). These documents established and protected the rights of the common man*; which, given that most people lived off the land at the time, had land rights at their core. From the wikipedia page:

“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.”

* – Actually only ‘free men’ which was still only 10% of the population of the time.

The laws established here were not significantly updated for nearly 500 years until the joining of England and Scotland. I’m not saying we should roll back the clock (Black death anyone? Actually that was later, 1300ish) but the concept of being allowed to (generally speaking) freely build providing no harm came to others is a powerful one, that I hope we can keep alive in one form or the other.

Finally here is Dr David Martin giving a quick explanation in video:

Is your landlord prohibiting YOUR rights to let pigs graze on acorns or to burn turf? Don’t forget to subscribe for updates on this and other cutting edge, 800 year old legal debates. ;)

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