Medieval forest

Bluebells flowering on the woodland floor

In Norman times the word ‘forest’ did not mean a wooded area, as we understand it today. Instead it meant a separate legal system with its own courts and officers to protect the venison (beasts of the chase) and vert (the green undergrowth they fed on). The 150 square miles of nova foresta was one of 21 areas in England to be placed under forest law by William the Conqueror.

Forest law

Forest law was deeply disliked by the local population. Peasants could no longer hunt for these protected animals for the cooking pot or take wood to build their homes and light their fires. They were not allowed to enclose their land or fence their crops, as such activities restricted hunting. The penalties for contravening forest law were severe.

William Rufus

When William the Conqueror died in 1087, his son William II became King of England. Known as William Rufus because of his ruddy complexion, he took an even harder line than his father against those convicted of interfering with hunting. Anyone who stole venison was sentenced to death. People who shot at a deer had their hands cut off, while disturbance of deer resulted in blinding.  

Ironically, William Rufus died while hunting deer in the Forest in the year 1100. He was killed by an arrow fired by Sir Walter Tyrrell; reports that it was an accident are disputed. The Rufus Stone memorial near Stoney Cross commemorates his death, although it is not believed to be the site where he died.


  1. Medieval forest (you are here)
  2. The Charter of the Forest – common rights restored


image-fade-right image-fade-left