November 6th, 2017 marked 800 years since the Charter of the Forest was issued. This extraordinary document granted some protection to common people against the whims of the Crown, and parts of it are still in force even today. Never heard of it? Nor had we! Thankfully the Woodland Trust has, and marked the occasion by issuing a brand new charter that reflects our relationship with trees and woods today.
Two extraordinary charters
While the Charter of the Forest may be unfamiliar, we’ll bet that you’ve heard of its sister; the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta set out the rights of the barons and limited the powers of the Crown. It was signed in 1215 by the hated King John, after he was pretty much forced to by his militant barons.
While the Magna Carta dealt almost entirely with the rights of barons, a lesser-known sister charter was signed just a few years later, which set out the rights and protections not of the nobility, but of the common man. This ‘Charter of the Forest’ was first issued on 6th November 1217 by King Henry III, and became joined with the Magna Carta in about 80 years later.
In the Middle Ages, much of England was covered with forest and heathland, and as the years went by successive kings and aristocrats appropriated more and more of it, slowly squeezing common people into smaller and smaller areas. Kings John and Richard I even began encroaching on farmland, moors and villages, making it increasingly difficult for commoners to eke out their livelihoods and gather fuel, food, and graze their animals.
The Charter of the Forest re-established the rights of common people to use royal land for various activities, including pannage (pasture for pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing) and turbary (cutting turf for fuel).
This picture shows the one and only, original Charter of the Forest, signed in 1217 by King Richard III:
Here is an excerpt from the original Charter:
"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."
The King was required to ‘disafforest’ (give up) some lands and allow commoners use of the land once more. The Charter of the Forest was an extraordinary and almost unique document granting some economic protection for common men against the whims of vengeful (or just greedy) kings.
Believe it or not, some of these original Laws of Forests were part of the law of the land until the 1970s, and some are still active today in the New forest and Forest of Dean. Ever wondered why ponies graze freely in the New Forest? That’s because Rights of Common Pasture still apply, allowing ordinary people to graze their animals on land that is still largely owned by the Crown.
A modern charter for modern times
To mark 800 years since the Charter of the Forest, the Woodland trust and over 70 other organisations have launched a brand new charter; the Charter for Trees, Woods and People (‘The Tree Charter’), which reflects today’s relationship with UK trees and woods. These organisations believe that UK people have a right to the benefits brought by trees and woods, and the new charter will recognise, celebrate and protect this right.
Trees matter: they provide clean air, natural flood defences, noise control, habitats for wildlife, and even absorb pollution. That’s not to mention the health and mental wellbeing we can discover by being among them and away from our computer screens. Tragically, our beautiful trees and woods are under threat from all angles. There is pressure to chop them down to make way for new roads and houses, and new diseases are always emerging that threaten some of our most majestic species. Coupled with the lack of legal protection for our ancient woodlands, declining interest in forestry education among young people, and failure to plant new trees to replace those that die of old age, the future seems bleak.
The new charter aims to build a future in which trees and people stand stronger together. People from around the country have submitted more than 50,000 tree stories, and the themes have helped guide the ten principles of the new charter:
- Thriving habitats for diverse species
- Planting for the future
- Celebrating the cultural impact of trees
- A thriving forestry sector that delivers for the UK
- Better protection for important trees and woods
- Enhancing new developments with trees
- Understanding and using the natural health benefits of trees
- Access to trees for everyone
- Addressing threats to woods and trees through good management
- Strengthening landscapes with woods and trees
We have all signed – have you?
The Tree Charter will draw its strength from its signatories: so far, almost 140,000 people from around the UK have signed; each of whom are contributing to the protection of trees and woods, and our enjoyment of them, that will hopefully last for another 800 years to come.
You can sign the charter and learn more by visiting the Tree Charter Website. A new tree will be planted for every person that signs: what better way to show your support and gratitude for the UK’s beautiful countryside?
If you're interested in learning more about trees, take a peek at our About Trees Nature Activity Kit - tailored, as always, to our young, budding arborists!