Forest law is a curious artifact in British legal history. It's a long-since defunct legal system intended to allow the aristocracy to get drunk in peace, which inadvertently became one of the first organised attempts at ecological conservation in Britain. Incidentally, it's also part of the reason why only the Queen is allowed to eat swans.

...perhaps I should start at the beginning. In this case, the beginning is the Norman conquest of England. See, the Normans were big on hunting, much more so than their Anglo-Saxon predecessors. William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, was no exception, and he took exception to people interfering with his hunting, to the extent that he created an entire system of law to let him get on with it. Forest law was based on royal prerogative, the ipse-dixit 'because I say so' of British law. As such, it stood apart; you had common law, canon law for the Church, and forest law. Essentially, the idea was that the Crown could designate an area of land as a royal forest; it didn't actually have to be a forest, but once it was designated as such, messing with it in any way, shape or form made you the King's bitch. So to speak.

There are two main categories of offences in forest law, offences against the vert, and offences against the venison. In other words, interfering with the plants, or the animals being hunted, most usually deer and hares, sometimes boars or wolves. This is all very practical if you want to keep an area for hunting; it forbids anyone from poaching your game, or screwing with the plants they eat to survive. Ideally, you thereby keep your game from being hunted to extinction. Not that this worked perfectly, which is why there aren't any wild boar or wolves left in Britain these days.

Of course, the problem with forest law is that it was something of a power grab. For one, it cuts off a (usually pretty substantial) area to peasants for whom poaching was a vital source of food and income. As such, it wasn't popular, but no-one wanted to get William too exercised about it, given his temper. For another, once it was in place, the law kept broadening, as the aristocracy started finding new things to hunt, like foxes, and new things to ban, like cutting down trees. In addition, extending the right to declare an area a royal forest became something of a reward the crown could use for nobility. Between the King and local lords, at its height, forest law was applied to around a third of the south of England's land area.

Needless to say, this rankled people, and their bitching about it shows up in The Rime of King William, a verse in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that serves as an obituary of sorts:

He was fallen into covetousness, and greediness he loved withal. He made many
deer-parks; and he established laws therewith; so that whosoever
slew a hart, or a hind, should be deprived of his eyesight. As
he forbade men to kill the harts, so also the boars; and he loved
the tall deer as if he were their father. Likewise he decreed by
the hares, that they should go free. His rich men bemoaned it,
and the poor men shuddered at it. But he was so stern, that he
recked not the hatred of them all; for they must follow withal
the king's will, if they would live, or have land, or
possessions, or even his peace. Alas! that any man should
presume so to puff himself up, and boast o'er all men. May the
Almighty God show mercy to his soul, and grant him forgiveness of
his sins!


I wasn't joking about the 'King's bitch' thing earlier. Kill a deer? You're getting blinded. It wasn't informally draconian, either; forest law was a fully developed system of law, with separate courts, magistrates, an organised system of gamekeepers that you could make the case was one of the first legally-enshrined police forces in British history, and a whole bureaucracy dedicated to preserving the forests for hunting. Forest law had a distinctly commercial aspect, too; the Crown could - and did - licence the right to fell trees, or build pastures, or extract any kind of natural resources from a royal forest, which could be highly lucrative business. In effect, this was a monopoly on huge swathes of southern England. In fact, it was sufficiently reviled that a fairly decent part of the Magna Carta is a restriction on just how far and how unfairly the King can enforce it.

By the 14th century, forest law was pretty much out of fashion, but like all kinds of anachronisms, it got dragged out every now and then when convenient. It's now long since gone, forestry in Britain having been managed by government agencies and royal commissions for the last couple of centuries. Still, its most enduring consequences have been beneficial, and utterly accidental. By legally walling off huge areas from the general public, forest law prevented development from encroaching upon them - a number of royal forests have survived to the present pretty much intact, and are now in the commons. The New Forest and the Forest of Dean were both royal forests, and the system of law underpinning their survival also set the ball rolling on public parks - Richmond Park in London still has deer in it to this day. Which brings me back, finally, to the swans. The Crown lays claim to ownership of all mute swans on the river Thames. This is mostly a formality; one of these strange things that hang on in English law years past their expiration date, like the death penalty for arson in the Royal Dockyards. Still, if you ever find yourself by the Thames of an evening, feeling a bit peckish... remember the whole getting-your-eyes-put-out thing, and leave the swans alone.

Forest Law was an 18th century writer, inventor, abolitionist, and, oddly enough, pirate. One of the unsung greats of the time period, his actual birthdate, as is the case with many people of common stock from the time, is unknown, but he claimed to have been 88 years old as of his death in 1792.

He was born to a blacksmith, Jacobius Law, and a Judith Law, a "common woman", the euphemism for a prostitute in what was, at the time, a Royal Colony - the Province of New Jersey. In what would be the first of many unusual aspects of his life, though born to a prostitute he was not a bastard child. His parents were in fact married before he was born, and his mother continued taking clients with the full knowledge of his father. She was the period's equivalent of a "high class" escort, charging exorbitant amounts of money and accepting only upper class clients. This has led to certain historians speculating that Forest may have in fact been of noble blood, though his mother's diary indicates that she was sure the child was Jacobius', as she had been "sure of (her) condition", and had not slept with any clients, before becoming pregnant.

Forest was to never know his mother. She was strangled to death by the first client she took after giving birth, the youngest son of one of her regular clients, who, though never named in her diaries, is suspected to have been landed and titled. Forest's father, when he realized who had done it, approached the boy two weeks later in the street and, according to surviving court records, "extinguished" the boy with a 2 stone (28 lb) sledge.

Most of the court records were either burned or hidden, because testimony at the trial regarding Judith would have been scandalous to the victim's father. The end result was that Jacobius spent eight years in prison, while Forest was taken in by the local church. Eventually Forest was able to save (and likely steal) enough hard coin to bribe his father out of prison.

Miraculously, the two were able to reclaim the smithy and house, which had been put under care of the local church as well, and resume their lives.

It is here that the record gets murky. What is known is that for the next twelve years, Jacobius apprenticed Forest as a blacksmith. Forest had learned to read and write English and Latin during his early life in the church under the individual tutelage of two priests, and so took over many of the functions that his mother had filled, namely the keeping of records, stores, and contracts, as well as becoming a locally renowned smith in his own right.

At some time between 1724 and 1726, he developed several improvements to the basic anvil and drawing plate that allowed him to produce drawn and shaped items, such as common nails, with what he and his father agreed was an increase in efficiency of 20-25%. The "Law Anvil" never saw wide use, likely due to the shrewd and conscious decision to maintain secrecy and therefore competitive edge, and the smithy flourished. They eventually took two apprentices, who bought the smithy outright and rented the attached house from Forest after Jacobius' death in 1726 from illness.

Forest, pockets lined with the profits of years of profitable work as well as a reasonable sum from the sale of the smithy, decided to do some traveling across the colonies. He was acquainted with several newspapers of the day, and saw opportunity in the newly-made Royal Colony of North Carolina in 1730. King Edward II had purchased all of the shares of the original proprietary colony from the Lords Proprietor, and Forest realized that in the following restructuring there would likely be a chance to buy a significant amount of land.

He ended up settling for a large plot in a large settlement town in the Albermarle Sound, on which he built a smithy nearly identical to his father's, and a considerable house and garden. The very marginal records available of this time indicate that his smithy was a resounding success. He sold tools and nails to people heading out into what was then still one of the largest wild frontiers in the colonies, and his axe heads in particular became minor celebrities of their own accord. Accounts of their cutting edge indicate that the design differed radically from what was common at the time. Forest's diary makes some mentions of the trial and error process he used, as well as some records of his reasoning and testing at each revision.

In fact, these portions of his diary very strongly resemble a purposeful application of the scientific method, though he had absolutely no prior knowledge of it, simply referring to it as a "method of improvement", the same method he would later use when reverse engineering a printing press.

There is only one surviving example of his axe head design, likely due to the fact that they were used and passed down until they were no longer usable as anything but doorstops or anchor weights. It looks very much like a modern single-faced timber axe, with a heavy, acute wedge and a rounded, hollow ground edge.

He later took two apprentices, the two sons of the dry goods merchant in town, and made some small forays into other businesses. As early as 1745, he had assembled a printing press in an outbuilding on his property, his diary indicating that he had struck up a friendship with the printer in town after repairing a broken "bracket of poor quality (pig iron), needing to be welded with a delicate hand to maintain the original dimensions" on short notice. He had been fascinated by the press, and used every social visit with the printer to observe the press. It took him two years to build a mostly functional approximation, and two more years of on and off tinkering to get it working to his satisfaction.

Forest himself observed, "It is a crude thing, and will likely never approach the elegance of one built by an expert of the trade. Now, though, I can content myself for having produced through wit and labor the most powerful machine devised today, save perhaps the sail or the cannon".

He would later use it to print both revolutionary and abolitionist pamphlets with complete anonymity, being supportive of the former and a ferocious ally of the latter movement.

Records are scarce, to include information from his diaries, but it is known that he supplied rebels throughout the war with horseshoes, smithing services, and a not inconsiderable amount of money. He even attempted to send the older of the brothers to an unnamed gunsmith to learn, in order to produce weapons for the revolution, but ordered him back upon learning that the gunsmith was a loyalist.

There is some evidence that he was counted among the trusted advisors of local rebel groups, which is likely the source of the information that led him to his brief foray into piracy.

It would come during the American backlash towards the Intolerable Acts of 1774. Long retired from active smithing and having given over the daily management and running of his shop to his two apprentices, now journeymen in their own right, he purchased a 40-foot sloop from a nearby shipyard, armed it with a small cannon of his own design, and attempted to board and set fire to the HMS Portland, a 50-gun ship of the line of the Royal Navy, which he had heard from "certain sources" would be in the area.

Not in the least bit an able seaman, he was accompanied by four rebels who were responsible for sailing and navigating. The plan was to stealthily board the ship under cover of darkness, set fire to the rigging, then retreat to the sloop and fire on it while sailing away.

They got as far as approaching the enemy ship before the plan went awry. Being mistaken for either a coastal smuggler or a messenger, they were pursued for a small distance by the Portland whereupon, in "a fit of most ill-advised excitement" Forest fired their crude cannon, prompting a full salvo in response. They escaped "by no small Miracle" and scuttled the ship for fear that it may be later identified.

He thereafter constrained himself to supplying local militias and clandestine printing. Though largely simple copies of popular propaganda with which he agreed, he did anonymously pen several pieces himself, particularly in the cause of abolition. Though not as well read as the luminaries of the time, he was very familiar with the bible and the works of John Locke. He rooted most of his arguments in these, and achieved modest circulation and reprinting.

He was politically active up until the day of his death, and the last entry in his diary reads,

"I regret now that perhaps my hands were too little soiled of powder, and hope that the stains of ink may tell instead of my devotion to the causes which I believe to be True."



Diaries and Records of Forest Law, G. Houston/Forest Law Society, 1944 (private printing)
Unsung Heroes of the Revolution, J. Taggart, ISBN 978-0143035442
Minor Names, Major Effects: A look at the bit players of early America, L. Burton, ISBN 978-1563892523

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