French Renaissance Paleography


England, ca. 1600
Lectures on the Charter of the Forests, Reissued by Henry III in 1225
Washington, D.C., Folger Shakespeare Library, MS V.b.170


This manuscript contains sixteen lectures on law – specifically, on the topic of the Charter of the Forests, a document of major economic, political, and environmental concern in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Following the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century, the Normans and early Plantagenets claimed forests in England as personal hunting grounds. Areas designated as hunting preserves already existed, but the conquerors expanded them and also protected their claims through greater legal measures. During the reign of King John (1188-1199), friction between some barons (particularly in the north) and the Crown motivated the barons to formulate complaints about the forests as specific demands for reform. The negotiations resulted in the “Charter of the Forests,” brought forth in 1217 along with the reissued Magna Carta, a document that established forest courts and the appointment of officers.

Now a Lord Warden was designated to oversee each forest, to prevent abuses of the area. Administrators working under him also were charged with maintaining the welfare of the forests and the animals. Additional legal changes enacted by the Charter included forgiving individuals who had committed forest offenses in the past and promising the removal of certain lands from the royal forests. By bringing the royal forests under the rule of law the Charter ensured that those lands would no longer be subject exclusively to the will of the king or the aristocracy; commoners now gained legal rights and privileges to work the land (which included heaths as well as wooded areas) in certain ways.

In 1225 King Henry III, sorely in need of revenue due to a recent civil war, reissued the Charter and the Magna Carta. This was a way of bargaining with his subjects – extracting taxes from them while confirming these legal documents. The versions of 1225 are the ones still on the Statute Book in the United Kingdom today.