Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Forest Eyre Justices in the Reign of Henry III (1216-1272)

Academic journal article The William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal

Forest Eyre Justices in the Reign of Henry III (1216-1272)

Article excerpt


Without the Charter of the Forest there would literally be no Magna Carta. The charter acceded to by King John in 1215 was simply known as the Charter of Runnymede.1 It was not until February 1218-one year after the clauses related to forest law in the Charter of Runnymede (articles 44, 47, 53) were excised, added to and reissued as a separate, smaller charter in 1217 named the Carta de Foresta- that we have evidence for contemporaries calling the 1217 reissuance of the Charter of Runnymede 'Magna Carta' (large charter) to distinguish it from its smaller companion charter.2 On reaching his majority in 1225, Henry III reissued Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest as companion charters in exchange for "a tax of one-fifteenth of all movable goods."3 Later, in 1297, Edward I also confirmed both charters (Conformatio Cartarum) in order to access monies from his subjects to support military campaigns in Scotland and on the continent.4 And from the end of the thirteenth century, the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest can be found as the first two statutes in the royal statute rolls and in many of the lawyer's statute books that remain from around that time.5

But compared to Magna Carta, its more diminutive sibling, the Charter of the Forest, has languished in relative obscurity. This is largely due to the fact that unlike the common law, which continued to survive and adapt, forest law became largely extinct in England around the same time as the flightless Dodo bird in the second half of the seventeenth century.6 By the eighteenth century, the forest law was already regarded as an "unprofitable anachronism."7 Forest law's demise centuries ago may explain why itinerant royal forest eyre justices have received almost no prosopographical attention compared to justices, sergeants, and clerks of the central royal courts, as well as the itinerant royal justices in general eyre, the majority of whom have been identified and examined in numerous monographs, articles, lists, and potted biographies.8 In fact, there is only one published article that attempts to identify and catalogue some portion of forest eyre justices, but it is over a century old and woefully incomplete.9 This Article will begin to reclaim some of these forest eyre justices from the oblivion of obscurity by taking the initial step of identifying, listing, and analyzing all forest eyre justices during the reign of Henry III (1216-1272).

Some may contend that there is minimal merit in learning about justices from a largely obsolete, archaic legal system. This Article will reveal, however, that forest eyre justices were closely related to, and in many cases indivisible from, common law justices, thus providing us another lens through which to view the development of the nascent common law and its courts in the thirteenth century. From a more granular, human perspective, despite the eventual decline of forest law, it is arguable whether Magna Carta or the Charter of the Forest had a more significant impact on the dayto-day lives of thirteenth-century contemporaries, particularly poor forest dwellers.10 Before proceeding to an examination of the forest eyre justices, it is necessary to offer a brief description of what forest law is, its jurisdictional and geographic extent, and the structure of the courts administering it, including the forest eyre.

I. Forest Law in General

Medieval English forest law is only loosely tethered to modem connotations of the word 'forest' meaning simply a wooded area. Richard Fitz-Nigel, a long-time Exchequer official in the reign of Henry II, provided the first known definition of the English royal forest in the late 1170s, complete with a delightful, if inaccurate, etymological observation on the word 'forest':

The King's forest is a safe abode for wild animals, not all of them but only the woodland ones, and not everywhere, but in particular places suitable for the purpose. That is why it is called 'forest' (foresta), as though the e offeresta (i. …

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