Saturday, 1 December 2012

Daily life in Medieval Sherwood Forest- Peasant Rights


Medieval society and the medieval landscape were for the common person predominantly rural and agricultural in nature.

Very little of the landscape was not utilised, and in some areas such as the ‘Champion’ (from the French champ- for field) landscapes of the Midlands, almost every inch was turned over to arable- especially in the boom years of population expanse during the 13th century.

In Sherwood Forest it was similar, in that almost every resource was used.



Every village had its great open fields, where crops were rotated through the season, and the people farmed strips of land spread throughout them. Each year one field stood fallow to recover for the following years crops.

This fallow field was fertilized by the animals of the village. Pigs and sheep would be concentrated at night into temporary pens to ‘focus’ their fertilization efforts.

Between these times it was necessary to graze animals away from the open fields.

No matter how much an animal fertilizes a field it will always take more nutrients than it returns, if it grazes exclusively from the same field that it fertilizes, as it requires nutrients to grow.

An external source of nutrients and energy was therefore required, and in Sherwood Forest this came from the great heaths and Lyngges ( Old Scandinavian for heather- see There’s Vikings in the Heather entry).

Shepherds and swineherds would tend their flocks and herds on these vast swathes of lowland heath around Sherwood Forest that stretched for mile after mile across the open countryside. Vast areas such as ‘Basforde Lyngges’, the heaths of Rufford Abbey Lordship, ‘Budby Oute Fieldes’ and the ‘Moor of Kirby’, would be dotted with these herds, and the sight of flocks and shepherds would have been common to the traveller passing through the forest.

Each parish had their own areas of woodland, usually at their edges.

In the more populated southern ‘Thorneywood’ area they occupied the high ground between parishes, such as on the ridges between the villages of Lambley, Woodborough and Calverton.

These woods often joined together to form giant woods that could cover miles, but they each had names reflecting to whom they belonged. Carleton Wode, Gedling Wode, Basforde Wode (named after villages) Kettulbarne Haw, Fox Swaht, Prior Stobyn, Samson Wode (after landscape features or owners past and present).

In the ‘High Forest’, (the northern part of Sherwood Forest) these woods were sometimes vast such as the great Maunsfelde (Mansfield) Wode, Sutton Wode, Blidworth Wood and Hay Wode, as well as the great crown woods of the Hay of Birklands, Bilhaugh and Lyndhurst Wood (see Lyndhurst Wood- the chief wood of Sherwood entry).

It is worth reminding that nobody could actually cut down the tress in these woods for timber because it was forbidden by Forest Law (see Forest Law page). However the rights to the woods were heavily guarded by the people, because they had other kinds of rights within them.

As well as the rights to pasture on the great heaths and commons peasants had the right to graze their animals in woodland at certain times of the year. One such time was the ‘Pannage’ season (just after the acorns fell) when peasant could graze their pigs on acorns in the woods of the forest.

Picutre: A peasant beating acorns from the tree for his pigs

These rights to access woods were strictly controlled under Forest Law with ‘Agisters’ acting as tax collectors to control quotas and extract fines (see Forest Law Page)

Peasants also had the right to take some smaller timber from the woods for ‘Haybote’ (hedge repair) and ‘Husbote’ (house repair).

These rights were often jealously guarded!

An Inquisition Post Mortem into the rights of the people of Clipstone Manor, dated 20th April 1327 early in the reign of Edward III shows some of the rights of the peasant to the resources of their land.

The Inquisition was presented in front of John De Crombwell Keeper of the Kings Forest beyond Trent, by the oath of John de Annesley; Philip de Caltoft, knight; Thomas Whaton; Richard Russell; Richard Ingam; John de Holm; Richard de Bestewod (Bestwood); Thomas de Lyndeby; Simon de Lameley; John le Warde of Crathethopre; William Basage; and john Moigne of Carleton…

‘The King’s tenants of his manor of Clypston in Shirwod (Sherwood), which is of ancient demesne of the crown of England, and their ancestors, tenants of the same manor, from time immemorial have been accustomed to have all ferns growing in a place which is now called the park of Clypston, for thirteen shillings and six pence, to be rendered yearly to the King’s ancestors by the hands of the justice of the Forest; and to collect the leaves fallen from the trees in the same place for manuring their lands, without rendering anything therefor; and to have pasture for all kinds of beasts in the same, doing in return the custody of the vert and venison in the same place by two of the tenants’.

This shows how the peasants had customary rights to access the ‘park’ for livestock grazing, and to gather ferns and leaves for fertilizer, (in exchange for looking after the deer and timber for the King)

It also shows that they were empowered enough to appeal through the court system to protect those rights.

The reason for the inquest is that Edward II had closed off access to the park, preventing them from their customary rights. The newly crowned Edward III was being petitioned by the men of Clipstone to have their rights returned. They also informed the King that he was losing the money they would normally pay for their rights!!!

Presumably he would be more likely to listen if his wallet was affected.

The men also pointed out that they could not get sufficient pasture outside of the park for their needs- as stated earlier nutrients for flocks and open fields needed to come from somewhere other than the fields themselves.

So as can be seen the landscape of Sherwood Forest provided opportunities for people to make their living from agriculture and from accessing the resources that the Forest provided around them. It was also the case that people would guard these rights vigorously, petitioning through the courts and to the legal system.

The laws of the land prevented many people from having many things, but they also enshrined rights over generations and the law could be called upon to protect those rights if they were threatened.

(More on farming practices in Medieval Sherwood Forest including the ‘Breck System’, and more on the courts and laws of everyday medieval life coming soon).

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