Good Stewardship and the Challenges of Managing the Stuart Royal Forests in England, 1603-1714

By Morrison, Sara | Journal of Markets & Morality, Fall 2014 | Go to article overview

Good Stewardship and the Challenges of Managing the Stuart Royal Forests in England, 1603-1714


Morrison, Sara, Journal of Markets & Morality


This article explores some practical difficulties of environmental stewardship through an examination of the complexity of competing interests in the English royal forests in the seventeenth century. Various human, animal, and other environmental interests often came into conflict in ways that defied any easy solution. While some instances of poor stewardship came from intentional exploitation of the forests for short-term gain, others were the unintended consequences of well-intended policies and practices. The ambiguity of the most prudent course of action led many to experiment, leaving behind a whole body of literature--some more helpful than others--on the right practices of good stewardship of forests. In the end, the sustainability of the forests required a near-impossible balancing act between multiple stakeholders and care for the environment that went beyond mere good intentions.

Introduction

The stewardship of the English royal forests was a challenge from the outset. The first difficulty was protecting deer and trees simultaneously when the deer often damaged trees by stripping bark and eating new growth. The other challenge was managing these resources within a space containing many different interests and claims: the Crown and other landowners, their tenants--those with commons rights of use and access; forest officers; and, increasingly, industrial interests from iron masters, colliers, and tanners. The multiple use of the royal forests meant that while they were subject to laws designed to protect resources of deer and trees for the Crown's use, there were private landlords, villagers, and farmers relying on the same space for their survival as pastures for sheltered grazing and forage for pigs and cattle. The story of the royal forests demonstrates how good stewardship in the midst of multiple stakeholders can require a near-impossible balancing act of interests, complicated by the need to avoid unintended consequences that could endanger the long-term survival of such an essential resource.

The Origins and Development of the Royal Forests

Designated as royal hunting forests by Norman kings soon after 1066, the royal forests were handed down as part of the Crown estate and survived into the medieval and early modern periods. (1) The royal forests were governed by special laws to protect deer and trees--venison and vert--for the king's pleasure and were overseen by forest officers appointed to protect these resources. (2) Royal forest meant the area within the forest bounds that was subject to forest law, whereas royal woods were those woods owned by the Crown. In England, forest law took precedent over common law in territories designated as a royal forest; all use of lands within the bounds of a royal forest was subject to these laws.

The English royal forests were territories containing woods and pastures with wild beasts (mostly deer and some hare) and fowls that were safely protected for kingly delight and pleasure. Forests were bounded and guarded by forest officers, replenished with wild beasts, and managed to keep "great Coverts of Vert" for deer to find shelter and to browse. The venison and vert in the forests were protected by special laws, privileges, and forest officers. These officers answered to the forest courts "for the Preservation and Continuance" of the forest with its deer and trees. Each forest had various forest officers to maintain the venison and vert: a steward; verderers, who protected both deer and trees; foresters; regarders, who regulated the bounds; agistors, who managed the number of animals pastured in the forest; and woodwards. (3)

The English royal forests were wood pastures that were similar to a modern park with grass lawns and thickets of bushes and stands of trees. The early modern forests were not continuous blankets of wood cover like modern plantations because it was impossible to hunt safely in very dense woods. …

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