Forest laws in England and Normandy in the twelfth century


  • This comparison, announced as long ago as 1988 in a paper at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians, ‘Unity and disunity in the Anglo-Norman state’, Hist. Research, lxiii (1989), 123–7, has benefited from much helpful advice, especially from David Crook, John Hudson, John Maddicott, Christophe Maneuvrier and Nicholas Vincent. When the paper was delivered in Glasgow at a meeting of the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Stuart Airlie and John Gilbert raised interesting points of discussion, especially about the desirability of comparing the forest laws introduced into medieval Scotland not with England but with Normandy.


One of the oldest ideas about the Norman conquest is that William the Conqueror introduced into England from Normandy the legal concept of ‘foresta’, land where hunting and the environment in which it took place were protected by draconian laws. The laws were not imposed on a blank canvas, and a combination of different factors, such as earlier extensive royal hunting rights, the king's will, the application of forest law to land ‘outside’ that organized in manors and assessed for geld, and the status of escheated land as temporary royal demesne, all worked towards a great expansion of the afforested area. In England a great deal of non-royal demesne was under forest law, whereas in Normandy ducal forests were broadly speaking ducal demesne. In England the competing interests of royal sport and revenue and those of the political elite combined with population pressure to make the forests a toxic political issue in a way not paralleled in Normandy.