Developing a social history

While the Magna Carta of 1215 is now much more famous, the Charter of the Forest of 1217 at the time was certainly as important, maybe more so, because it gave commoners rights, privileges and protection against the abuses of the king, his sheriffs and the encroaching aristocracy.

Crucially it allowed people to subsist and have access to the commonwealth, in the forests, chases and heaths.It prevented the king and his agents from continuously enclosing the common land.More than that, it required King Henry III to give up the parts of the royal forest lands that had been seized by the previous kings Richard and John.From the time of William the Conqueror, the Norman kings had enclosed more and more land, for hunting and for levying tax receipts and fines for war. Huge tracts of land were turned into Royal Forest, including most of Essex.

The Charter of the Forest also put an end to cruel and unusual punishments and arbitrary fines.Before the agreement, hunting for deer was punishable by death or castration and poachers were blinded.The Robin Hood legends are set in this period and tell of feasting on the venison in the Greenwood, and of evading the Sheriff of Nottingham in the Royal Forest.These are tales of brave resistance in a brutal time — a folklore history that attests to rebel heroes resisting the arbitrary authority of the king’s agents.One of the clauses of the Magna Carta, which gave rise to the Charter of the Forest, removed from office the Sheriff of Nottingham and his family.The Charter of the Forest established the rule of law within the Royal Forests. Special Verderers Courts were set up in the forests to enforce the laws of the charter, and this enabled common people to seek justice.

One of the major conflicts that raged throughout the 13th century and beyond resulted from the continued enclosure of land.Successive kings, with early support from the Pope, either reneged on the Magna Carta and Charter of the Forest agreements, or simply ignored their provisions. Kings continued to seize land, in part to raise taxes to fund the Crusades.This fuelled ongoing conflict and the repeated barons’ wars. As a result both the charters were revised and reissued several times throughout the 13th century, as peace treaties to settle civil war. Copies were distributed throughout the kingdom, to be read aloud in churches.Finally both charters were incorporated into statute in 1297. Legal research indicates it was conflicts over access to the land, and the prevention of enclosures in particular, that drove demands for justice and for both the charters to be accepted by kings, barons and the church.

The Charter of the Forest guaranteed access to the land for common people to forage, graze their animals, farm and gather wood for fuel, building and industry. At a time when the royal forests were the most important source of food, fuel and wood for the production of craft items, it guaranteed rights to herbage (gathering berries and herbs), pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (wood to build homes, make tools and for firewood), agistment (grazing), turbary (cutting of turf for fuel), and the collecting of honey.The charter also granted smallholders rights to farm: “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.”People were given limited ownership of the means of production and laid down a system of governance for the common stewardship of shared resources, which has lasted for centuries.

The introduction of these statutes into law brought about an era of prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries, however conflict over land ownership, rights and usage has continued down the centuries as kings and landowners have continued to land-grab.During the civil war the Diggers took to occupying waste land, growing vegetables and living communally.Forest law featured in the discussions undertaken during the Putney Debates between Levellers in the New Model Army and Cromwell and his generals towards the end of the civil war, in an attempt to reconcile the differences between the victorious capitalist class and the empowered commoners.

The fight for commons continued in following centuries, and it is certain that London, for example, would not still have large open spaces but for the combination of direct action, community organisation and legal action taken by thousands of local people mobilising during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to stop the plans of rich families like the Spencers in Wandsworth from selling off chunks of land for housing and other developments.Richmond Park, originally enclosed by Charles I by seizing common land from various parishes, had become by the 18th century a resort of the nobility and royalty, who had keys to get in. Commoners were excluded. The park was full of deer, rabbits and hares, and poaching was a local way of life.A war was fought to stop this by the king’s agents, with ladders over the walls being replaced by man-traps.Epping Forest was saved in the late 1800s from the local lords of the manor seeking to enclose portions they governed for private profit.The insistence of local commoners on practicing their lopping rights were instrumental in this struggle. “Lopping” was the ancient practice of cutting or lopping the boughs and branches of trees by commoners for use as fuel during winter.Wimbledon Common, Wandsworth Common and countless other open spaces have been preserved, or part-preserved only as a result of actions by the people, frequently using existing rights of common on these lands, which have enabled successful legal challenges.

These kinds of battles over land, of course, are not confined to London, or even to Britain but happen all over the world in different ways.When the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government tried to privatise the Forestry Commission millions of people mobilised to stop this happening, aided by the National Trust which noted the importance of the Charter of the Forest and the opportunities for new types of commoning to enrich local connections to the land and to promote ecology.In Detroit a community food-growing revolution has transformed the parts of the city abandoned by industry and bankrupt city authorities.Worldwide, people are developing food forests, using the principles of commoning and of permaculture.La Via Campesina, the International Peasant Movement, embodies many of the principles of commoning in its call for food sovereignty, which is being heeded by policy makers from the UN and beyond.

The anniversary of the Charter of the Forest is an opportunity to get a clearer understanding of the charter, of its development, and its contemporary relevance.The emphasis will be on examining the social history of the charter, the subsequent social movements, the importance of our folk history in our self-understanding and the role of mass movements in securing rights for common people.

A timeline has been produced mapping out the social history of the Charter, from the beginning of London until both the Charter of the Forest and the Magna Carta entered statue at the end of the 13th Century. A further timeline is in development to take us to the present day to mark the 800th anniversary.

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