What Does It Mean?

Forests, Chases, Parks & Warrens

by Mike Fitton

Mike Fitton is a resident of Bracebridge and an honorary member of the MPSGG. He is very knowledgeable on English research and has spoken at many of the club meetings.

Robin Hood and his merry men lived in and off Sherwood Forest, which got them into considerable trouble. When the Queen is in the London area, she likes to live at Windsor Great Park, in the castle there. What are forests, chases, parks and warrens?

Each of these words refers to the right to hunt in an area of land, and the obligation to do what is necessary to conserve the animals which are hunted.

The most important was the FOREST. This was not an area of trees as we use the term today, but an area which was the King’s own private hunting ground. At one point, about one-fifth of the land in England was designated as forest. People lived there and farmed there, but they were not allowed to cut down any vegetation (VERT) which provided food or shelter for game, nor were they allowed to hunt or catch any wild animal. There were very severe penalties for breach of forest law, such as heavy fines, forfeiture of all of one’s property, and even death, because stealing the King’s game was treason. There were special law courts outside the ordinary law to enforce forest law, and the local aristocracy provided wardens and foresters and verderers to protect the King’s rights. The forest police were called agisters. Robin Hood was in trouble for robbery, but in worse trouble for poaching the King’s deer.

Land could be made a forest (afforested), or made no longer a forest (disforested). One animal in particular could only be hunted by the King or his guests, the wild boar. It was the personal symbol of Richard III, who enjoyed hunting.

The King could present an area to a person as a private hunting preserve. This was known as a CHASE. It was subject to the ordinary common law and not the strict forest law. The holder had the exclusive right to hunt within its boundaries all of the ususal animals, especially fallow deer, roe deer, foxes, and marten, but not wild boar. People living within the chase were again not allowed to cut vert or hunt animals themselves. As in a forest, a farmer living in a chase could find that a large group of local aristocracy had destroyed the wheatfield or vegetable garden by hunting over it. There was no right to compensation.

Sometimes, the King would allow a favoured subject to erect a fence around a chase, to keep animals in and people out. This was known as a PARK. When the fencing, of wood, metal, stone or earth, was first established, the park was said to be impaled. If the land ceased to be a park, it was dispaled. The park was administered by a parker. Because of the cost of fencing, most parks were quite small, in comparison to forests and chases which might extend over several counties.

Finally, the right to catch small animals on land could be given. This was known as the right of FREE WARREN. In particular, it allowed the hunting of rabbits and hares, pheasants and partridge, but not the larger game animals that could be hunted in a forest or chase.

Ancestors of people named Forest lived in a forest, whereas ancestors of people named Forester administered the applicable law. Similarly Park and Parker; Warren and Warriner. As for Chase and Chaser, I think a chaser is something you get from the bartender.

This article first appeared in the April 2002 newsletter, Volume 18 - Number 1