BLOGGING THE MAGNA CARTA #24
By Phyllis Irene Radford
Charter of the Forests, 1217
The Magna Carta accomplished many good things and should be taught in Civics classes. Possibly the most important purpose of this document was that it established rule by law for everyone, including the king. But it was essentially a peace treaty between King John and his barons.
What of the common man? Barely mentioned in the great charter.
And yet some of the most egregious acts of greed, vengeance, and lust for power were committed against the everyday people who kept the country fed and running.
King John died of dysentery a year after he signed the Magna Carta. He was succeeded by his very young son Henry III. Because of Henry’s minority William the Marshall, (the only person allowed to bear arms in the presence of the king) Earl of Pembroke ruled as regent in the boy’s name.
Pembroke was well respected by all of the barons for his honor, his loyalty, and his prowess on the battlefield. A younger son, he began his career with nothing, earned wealth through tournaments and rose to prominence without the sponsorship of a higher-ranking landowner. He didn’t owe allegiance to any lord but the king, to whom he swore oaths of fealty. Much of the wise and peace-making governance in the early years of Henry’s reign came through him.
In the 13 century, most of England was rural, dependent upon agriculture to survive and to feed its populace. But, almost 1/3 of the land was tied up in royal preserves called forest. A forest in those days was not just wooded land. It also included lakes, ponds, and streams full of fish and pasturage for all kinds of livestock, primarily pigs. Beginning in 1154 with Henry II (John’s father and Henry III’s grandfather) more and more land was appropriated to the crown as forest preserve. Both nobles and free holders suffered the loss of land. But so did the defenseless peasants who lost the right to fish, pasture, and gather firewood.
The Magna Carta addressed a few of the tangled forestry laws. Legal language is even more tangled and subject to the interpretation of individuals with lots to gain.
So, in 1217, a year after taking the throne, young King Henry III through his regent William the Marshall, re-issued the Magna Carta along with the proclamation of The Charter of the Forest of King Henry III. They were both reissued in 1225 with a few tweaks in language when Henry III came of age and took full control of his government.
Not only does this new charter deforest the lands that were put into reserve since Henry II, it defines more clearly the rights of the peasantry to reclaim the traditional usage of the land. They could gather firewood, fish for their dinner, hunt some of the game, and put their pigs out to pasture–without the label of poaching. And if they did venture into forbidden land then they no longer need fear loss of life or limb as punishment for poaching, but instead they faced hefty fines and/or imprisonment for a year and a day.
This new charter also defines who could exact tolls for traveling the roads, and how much they could charge. No more would travelers and merchants face bankrupting tolls every mile along the way by a different personage, and if their carts and packs were empty on the return trip, they didn’t have to pay again.
The British Constitution is not a single document like the U.S. it is the collective precedents set by numerous charters, acts of Parliament, and judicial decisions. The Charter of the Forests is a part of this.
You can find the full document here in English translation along with links to definitions.
Phyllis Irene Radford is a founding member of the Book View Café. She first became interested in the Magna Carta while researching her master work series “Merlin’s Descendants.” Book View Café is proud to reissue these five volumes in a variety of DRM free e-book formats with links to print versions. The first book in the series, “Guardian of the Balance” can be found here: https://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/book/guardian-of-the-balance/
You can read more about the author on her her BVC bookshelf: https://bookviewcafe.com/bookstore/bvc-author/phyllis-irene-radford/
You can also check out her new historical fantasy novel concerning the wildwood of England during the reign of King John under one of Ms Radford’s many pen names: Rachel Atwood. https://www.penguin.com/search/rachel-atwood?_qry=Rachel%20Atwood