Oulun yliopiston
historiatieteiden julkaisu

A forest without deer
Change in the Royal Forests of England

Andrew Pattison

Published 23.3.2009

‘And surely at this time it is a thing lamentable to behold and see, what stately and princely forests (that in the times past were accounted ornamets unto a kingdome) are now cleane destroyed and spoiled.’
            –A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest, John Manwood

Perhaps if the language of this quotation were presented in standard modern English it would look shockingly familiar to a reader today even though it was written over 400 years ago. The theme of ‘stately’, ‘princely’ forests of the past which are now completely destroyed is a theme that is sadly all too common in our newspapers and other media today. But the fact of the matter is that these words were written in 1598 by a gamekeeper of Royal Waltham Forest named John Manwood in response to what he saw as a threat to the forests of Elizabethan England.

In Manwood’s day the very essence of forests in England was changing. Since the times of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 – and before – the forests of England were the domain of the English royalty. The forests existed primarily for the king and his aristocratic retinue to enjoy as hunting grounds. In Norman England hunting was an important princely pastime and for the nobility partaking in the hunt was a symbol of status and being in the king’s favor. The most sought after game of all were the prestigious roe and red deer, and hence the forest laws of this era focused on maintaining the royal forests in a manner which supported deer populations.

By Manwood’s time however the role of the deer in the forest in England was changing as the material resources of the forest, such as building timber etc., began to outweigh the prestige of deer hunting. The lessening of the prestige of hunting led to a two-fold attack on the royal forests. On one hand the local nobility who were the administrators of the forests began to use their offices to exploit the ever more valuable material resources of the forest to their own benefit. And as the administration became less and less rigid, illegal hunting became more and more the norm.

Manwood clearly abhors this. In A Treatise he deplores:

‘How lamentable a thing is it to see two great huge stags in one morning to bee hunted … into the hart of the forest, and there killed spoyled and carried away by meane men of no accompt, without any punishment for the same…’

His wording perhaps betrays the fact that he is abhorred more as a human being than as a royal gamekeeper, and in a way we can read Manwood’s commentary as a plea for conservation that is all too familiar in our modern times.

Take for example his pondering the fate of the deer:

‘Yea, the like facts in effect are almost usual and common, for, it seemeth the pourallee men [legally entitled hunters] with their adherents have consented together to destroy the Forest by colour of pourallee hunting, which they have almost brought to passe in the forest of Waltham, or at leastwise, they will do in short time, if their hunting be suffered, as it is now used.’

That Manwood was disturbed by the present state of the forests cannot be misconstrued. The fate of the forests deer was not all that weighed upon Manwood’s mind. To him the increasing need for resources which resulted in forests being illegally cut or converted to arable land was also something disturbing:

‘So likewise, if the Vert [vegetation] of the forest bee cut downe and destroied, the want of it doth in short time make a Forest to be no Forest.’

‘there is nothing that doth so much deface and disgrace a forest, as to cut downe and destroy the covert, which is the Vert of the forest.’

In Manwood’s commentary we can clearly see that he savors waxing poetic about the forest and is obviously attached to it. He lovingly describes it as a place where a man may

‘lay aside all cares, to the end that they might there bee refreshed with some quiet, being wearied with the continuall businesse …, they might, as it were, breath a while, for the refreshing of their free libertie.’

As Manwood was a gamekeeper it was his duty to maintain the forest in a manner that allowed the deer to flourish. But he also seems concerned with the preservation of the forests for their intrinsic aesthetic beauty as well:

’… cause of the preservation of the Vert of the forest, is, Propter decorum, that is for the comlinesse and beauty of the same in a Forest, for the very sight and beholding of the goodly greene and pleasant woods in Forest, is no lesse pleasant and delightful in the eye of a Prince, then the view of the wild beasts of Forest and Chase, and therefore the grace of a Forest is, to bee decked and trimmed up with store of pleasant greene coverts, as if it were greene Arbors of pleasure…’

But lest we clap Mr. Manwood on the back for being an early voice of reason in our deplorable history of exploiting our environment we should keep in mind a few things. First, that Manwood was a royal gamekeeper for Waltham Forest and also a justice in New Forest. Both of these royal forests were situated near London and were important hunting grounds for Queen Elizabeth. Thus to procure such high appointments Manwood must have been close to the Queen and hence in writing his A Treatise he reflects opinions which would benefit a royal patronage of the forest. Indeed, to Manwood the Queen’s ‘pleasure and delight’ is the sole purpose of the forest and the forest laws.

Nonetheless Manwood allows us an insider’s view of the changes that were occurring in the forests as a result of an increased need for resources that was common across Europe at the time. He also prods us to ponder the results of such changes. What would a forest without deer be? Or a forest without trees? Perhaps that is the most poignant aspect of A Treatise, that the reader is forced to pause and reflect on the results of our actions on our environment. Poignant indeed for the 16th century.


Manwood, John, A Treatise on the Lawes of the Forest. Previously published: The Societie of Stationers, London 1615. William S. Hein & Co., Inc., Buffalo 2003.

Bechmann, Roland, Trees and Man: the Forest in the Middle Ages. Translated by Katharyn Dunham. Paragon House, New York 1990.

Manning, Roger B., Swordsmen: The Martial Ethos in the Three Kingdoms. Oxford University Press Inc., New York 2003.


Imange 1: Title page of A Treatise of the Lawes of the Forest (1615) by John Manwood

Julkaisu: Havina
Numero: 1/2009
Julkaisupäivämäärä: 23.3.2009
Julkaisija: Oulun yliopisto, Historiatieteet
Päätoimittajat: Reija Satokangas
ISSN: 1798-1530
URL: http://www.oulu.fi/hutk/historia/opiskelu/Havina/