Editor’s note: Locking up forests and thereby depriving those who live in and around them of their livelihoods has a very long history in our Anglo-American story — as the following post illustrates.
In the mid-’70s the British rock group Ace sang their hit, “How Long Has This Been Going On?” Somehow, it struck me as a good theme song for this post.
The story this post tells happened almost a thousand years ago.
In 1066, William I or William the Conqueror (1028-1087) won the Battle of Hastings and, by Christmas of that same year, had installed himself as King of England. In 1079, he used his royal authority to declare a 150-square-mile area as an exclusive hunting preserve for himself and his friends. It was named the “New Forest” — and it still exists even today. William I’s act, wrote 12th century historian William of Malmesbury,
…desolating the towns and destroying the churches for more than thirty miles, had appropriated for the nurture and refuge of wild beasts; a dreadful spectacle, indeed, that where before had existed human intercourse and the worship of God, there deer, and goats, and other animals of that kind, should now range unrestrained, and these not subjected to the general service of mankind.
Medieval historians excoriated the new Norman king for his self-serving act. They also took meaning from the ill fortune William’s family suffered in the New Forest. Most well known of the untoward events was the untimely death of William II, William the Conqueror’s third son and successor to his father’s throne upon William I’s death. William II, who was better known as William Rufus for his red hair and ruddy complexion, was shot dead in the forest on August 2nd, 1100 by an arrow launched by his companion hunter that glanced off a tree and into his chest. Florence of Worcester wrote as follows about Rufus’s death and the cause that occasioned it:
Then, on the second day of August…William the younger, king of England, while hunting in the New Forest, was struck by an arrow aimed carelessly by a certain Norman, Walter Tirell, and died….Doubtless, as common report has it, this was verily the righteous vengeance of God. For in the days of old, that is, in the days of King Edward and other kings of England before him, that land flourished plentifully with country-folk, with worshipers of God and with churches; but at the bidding of King William the elder, men were driven away, their houses thrown down, their churches destroyed, and the land kept as an abiding-place for beasts of the chase: and thence, it is believed, was the cause of the mischance. (quoted in Parker, 1912, p.27)
At least a quarter-century earlier, William the Conqueror’s second son, Richard of Normandy, also had died in the same forest after contracting what Malmesbury described as “a disorder from a stream of infected air.” There was yet a third unlikely death in the New Forest. Another Richard, the illegitimate son of a William the Conqueror’s eldest son, Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy, perished in 1099 in a hunting accident. This death, according to Malmesbury, was caused “by a wound in the neck, or as some say, from being suspended by the jaws on the branch of a tree, as his horse passed beneath it.”
These three untimely deaths were widely regarded in the middle ages — and by many even today — as acts of an unhappy and displeased God who was punishing William I for his appropriation of the New Forest for his own entertainment, thus depriving its commoner residents of their homes, villages, churches, and livelihoods. More recent historical scholarship, however, has questioned the traditional story of the New Forest’s creation, its effects on locals, and the impacts of the Crown’s Forest Laws. “Though the verdict of history has condemned William I for his forest policy, and in particular for the creation of the New Forest,” wrote historian F.H.M. Parker in a 1912 article, “the evidence on which that verdict was based has been greatly discredited.” New ideas have also been examined regarding the likely manner of William Rufus’s death as well, including the possibility of premeditated murder. Yet, the folkloric or mythic understanding of these unhappy events still, even today, routinely invokes William the Conqueror’s selfishness and cruelty in creating the New Forest — and, as well, the Divine displeasure and retribution visited upon him with the deaths of two of his sons and a grandson.
In other words, almost a thousand years of intervening history has not erased the memory of the deep injustice felt by the English people when the Crown declared forest lands off-limits for their traditional use and enjoyment.