Historic Sherwood Forest
"There he will behold around him, on every side, an assemblage of venerable oaks, some indeed retaining much of their pristine vigour and comeliness, but more with their heads dead and blanched, their ample boles hollowed, and shewing every stage of decripitude and decay, and giving plain indications of extreme antiquity."
— Rev. J. Stacey, M.A.
Home to Robin Hood and favoured hunting ground of British kings, Sherwood Forest is possibly the best-known named woodland in the world. "Ancient Sherwood" is the name used by many historians, and ancient it is indeed. The Coritani, a powerful Celtic tribe, lived in the Midlands of England (an area encompassed by the modern counties of Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Rutland, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and Lincolnshire) prior to Roman occupation, and the forest covered much of their land, providing them with both food (hunting) and shelter.
Roman camps have been unearthed in many parts, required to keep the hostile natives at bay. It was under the Romans that the process of deforestation began, as they cleared vast tracts of it to provide for their roads, buildings and defence. Hunting continued under Roman rule, of wild boar and venison especially.
We move next into the English period, and the settlement of the Midlands. Under the first English kings, a little more clearance was carried out, and villages and towns sprang up throughout the whole of the Midlands region. Woodland management became the order of the day, as local communities recognised the value of the forest. By 1066 there were small industries springing up in and around "Sherwode", especially in the new towns of Mansfield, Edwinstowe, Warsop, Clune, Carburton, Clumber, Budby and Thoresby, all towns mentioned in the Domesday Book as belonging to Edward the Confessor.
It was Henry II who appears to have taken Sherwood in hand, appointing one William Peverel to be caretaker of what was now officially, a Royal Forest. From 1154, no commoner was permitted to hunt in the forests, and there were restrictions on owning dogs, hawks and other animals which might be used to track or kill game. The extract below from Robert White's "The Ancient History of Sherwood Forest" illustrates how the privilege was viewed, and some of the levies and penalties applied:
"In point of regulation it was ordained that regarders or rangers should go through the forest to make their regard or range, as was the usage before the first coronation of Henry II. The inquisition or view for the lawing or expeditation of dogs was to be had when the range was made, i.e. from three years to three years; and then it was to be done by the view and testimony of lawful men, and not otherwise. A person whose dog was found not lawed was to pay three shillings. No ox was to be taken for hawing, as had been before customary, but the old law on this point of expeditation was to be observed, namely, that three claws of the fore foot should be cut off by the skin; and after all, this expeditation was to be performed only in such places where it had been customary, before the first coronation of Henry II.
It was ordained that no forester or bedel should make scotal, or gather gerbe, oats, or any corn whatever, nor any lambs or pigs, nor make any gathering at all, but upon view and oath of the rangers, when they were making their range. Such a number of foresters was to be assigned as should be thought necessary for keeping the forest. It was permitted to every freeman to agist his own wood, and to take his pannage within the king’s forest, and for that purpose he might freely drive his swine through the king’s demesne woods, and if they should lie one night in the forest, it should be no pretence for exacting, on that account, any thing from the owner. Besides the above use of their own woods, freemen were permitted to make in their woods, land, or water within the forest, mills, springs, pools, marlpits, dikes, or arable grounds, so as they did not enclose such arable ground, nor cause a nuisance to any of their neighbours; they might also have ayries of hawks, sparrow hawks, falcons, eagles and herons; as likewise the honey found in their own woods..."
The privilege of rank held sway. These were feudal times, lordship and position were everything. Some local constables went so far as to beat or imprison even widows who collected faggots of wood within the bounds of the forest. Although the laws were relaxed (by the time of Edward I, no-one was to be executed for hunting deer), it was still considered the monarch's right to deny a living from the woods if he or she so desired. Hunting in Sherwood was at its most popular in the 11th century, and the area was a particular favourite of King John.
The Forest today
Following the death of King Charles I, much of the forest was sold off, and much of the hardwood (mostly oak) was cut down and used for charcoal, housing and ship-building. Much of the forest was cleared, and by the 19th century, over 80% of the oaks had gone, to be replaced with grazing land and pine plantations.
The forest, which once stretched from the Trent to the Humber, with an area of over 100,000 acres (c. 40,000 hectares), is now a shadow of its former self. The oldest parts are now preserved around Bestwood Country Park (the name Bestwood being drawn from King John's time, when it was the 'best' hunting woodland area), and the Sherwood Forest Country Park (the remaining woodland being protected as a SSSI, or Site of Special Scientific Interest). The Major Oak, (the oldest tree in Sherwood) is in the heart of the old forest, near Edwinstowe in Nottinghamshire.
Despite the ravages of land clearance, there are over 1000 acres of woodland left, with the highest concentration of truly ancient oak trees in England (some 900 trees being over 500 years old). Grant money is available to local farmers to plant trees on their land, although the new National Forest (a government-sponsored planting program), surprisingly, does not cover the older, eastern area of the forest.
Robin Hood, Nottinghamshire's greatest legend, is supposed to have lived and 'worked' in Sherwood, and there are hundreds of tales which place him here, many of which are told around the world. It is said of Robin that he "stole from the rich, gave to the poor", and whatever the truth of the stories, he has done much to put the Forest on the world map.
Most of the tales place him in the area during the late 12th century, and some attempts have been made to pin his presence here down to the years 1193-4. It is said of him that he once hid in the Major Oak whilst fleeing from the King's men. Whatever the truth of these tales, his notoriety has brought Sherwood Forest to life again in the 20th century, and hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year. Whether he was a simple thief, poacher, common villain or folk hero, it is Robin who is associated with this great forest in the minds of many.