The Royal Forest of Dartmoor in Mediaeval Times

On Royal Forests, Forest Law, Lydford Law, and the 1240 Perambulation of Dartmoor

Royal Forests

King Canute shown in an initial of a mediaeval mansucript
King Canute shown in old manuscript

Contrary to the usual meaning of a forest as a large area covered mainly with trees, in early Mediaeval England from before the Norman Conquest forest had a different connotation. Royal Forests were tracts of land set aside for use by the monarch for hunting game. Such forests and the game therein were protected by an increasingly punitive legal code, the Forest Law, whose observance was overseen by designated officers of the crown.

The first known record of such Forest Laws - the Constitutiones de Foresta - dates from the reign of King Canute (1016-1035), though its authenticity has been challengednote1. The penalties for minor infringements under this code were fines for those with the wherewithal to pay, whereas serfs could be outlawed. The severest penalties were reserved for the killing of the most supreme royal beast - a stag - within the forest bounds: these were loss of liberty for a freeman, and death for a serf or bondman.

William the Conqueror was a keen huntsman, and with each successive Norman king ever more of the country was declared a Royal Forest, and the penalties for breaking the Forest Laws became more severe. Even during the Conqueror's reign punishments for taking Royal game involved mutilation, including the gouging out of eyes and removal of testicles. In wasn't until the Forest Charter enacted by the Regency of the boy-king Henry III in 1217 that a more liberal penal code was introduced; this charter declared that No man from henceforth shall lose either life nor member for killing our deer. Fines were reintroduced, with imprisonment for a year and a day for non-paymentnote2.

Manwood, in his Treatise of the Forest Laws first published in 1598 gives this definition of a Royal Forest:

A Forest is a certain territory of woody grounds and fruitful pastures, privileged for wild beasts and fowls of forest, chase, and warren, to rest and abide there in the safe protection of the King, for his delight and pleasure; which territory of ground so privileged is meered and bounded with unremovable marks, meers and boundaries, either known by matter of record, or by prescription; and also replenished with wild beasts of venery or chase, and with great coverts of vert, for the succour of the said beasts there to abide; for the preservation and continuance of which said place, together with the vert and venison, there are particular officers, laws, and privileges belonging to the same, requisite for that purpose, and proper only to a forest, and to no other place. [Manwood[1], p143]

As Manwood mentions, in addition to protecting the vert, the Forest Law offered strict protection for the wild beasts and fowl of the forest, chase, and warren. The beasts of the forest were the hart, the hind, the hare, the wild boar and the wolf. The beasts of the chase were the buck, the doe, the marten, the roe deer, and the fox, while the beasts and fowl of the warren were the cony, the pheasant and the partridge. Manwood tells us that, though the same five animals where known as beasts of the forest at the time, King Canute's forest laws made an exception of the wolf owing to its dangerous and hurtful nature. Killing a wolf in a Royal Forest was regarded as no more serious that killing a beast of the chase and was punishable by a modest fine. [Manwood[1], p161]

Though they were not enclosed in the physical sense, it was important that the forest boundaries were clearly delineated because the statutes of the Forest Law could only be applied to those guilty of trespass on forest land.

'Tis necessary that every forest should be bounded, for 'tis very requisite that the boundaries should be generally known, especially by those who are Officers of the Forest; for if a man is presented for killing a beast it is very material that it should be distinctly known where the same was killed; for though it might be a wild beast of the forest, yet if it was killed out of the limits thereof, it may be no offence against the Forest Laws. [Manwood[1], p39]

Dartmoor Forest

Afforestation became ever more widespread under the Norman kings, and several counties in their entirety, including Devon, were designated as forests. Enforcing the Forest Law over such a vast area was impractical, but, even though the penalties for transgression were harsh, what really made it such a deeply unpopular statute was the restrictions on enclosing, felling trees, and cultivation that it imposed on the freeholders owning land within the forest. It was eventually scaled back in Devon following a petition to King John, who in 1204 signed a charter for its disafforestation up to the borders of Dartmoor and Exmoor, as they were known at the time of King Henry I, in return for a total payment of 5,000 marks (or £3333) by the common people of the county.

Holwell Tor with Haytor seen in the background
Holwell Tor with Haytor seen in the background

The Forest of Dartmoor with its treeless wilderness and granite outcrops hardly fits Manwood's description of a forest, but the absence of enclosures was a Royal Forest's essential characteristic:

The presence of trees, I need hardly say, is not required to make a forest in this sense. The great mark of it is the absence of enclosures. Dartmoor is a forest, and (but for modern plantations) trees grow on it only in a few sheltered hollows. [Pollock[2], p40]

It is possible that in the Middle Ages Dartmoor had more woodland than can be seen today, though how much more is a matter of conjecture. However the 19th century topographers J Brooking Rowe and William Crossing opined that the extent of tree cover on the high moor was unlikely to have been significantly greater before their time.

...It is indeed probable, that formerly there existed more wood on Dartmoor than is now to be found, and that the tinners, who certainly were allowed to supply themselves with fuel for the fusion of the ore they obtained, have laid waste the surface, but it is not likely that the granite table-land was ever covered to any extent, with anything entitled to the name of timber. [Brooking Rowe[3], p5]
Wistman's Wood, near Two Bridges, is often spoken of as a relic of the ancient forest of Dartmoor, as though at one time the district was clothed with trees. It is altogether a mistake to suppose anything of the sort. That in its more sheltered valleys groves similar to Wistman's Wood were once to be seen there is no doubt, in fact there are still such on the West Ockment and on the Erme, but nothing can be more certain than that Dartmoor was never a wooded district. [Crossing[4], p20]

Lydford Law

From its establishment after the Norman Conquest, The Dartmoor Forest was attached to the manor or parish of Lydford, one of the four Saxon boroughs in Devon along with Exeter, Barnstaple and Totnes.

Alleged transgressions against the Forest Law were adjudicated using a multi-tiered court system. Offences occurring within Dartmoor Forest were processed in this way by courts sitting at Lydford. The lowest court was the Court of Attachment which convened every forty days. The function of this court was to make presentments to the Court of Swainmote which met three times a year, and whose jurors were normally drawn from the forest freeholders. If the indictment brought by the forest officers were proved the verdict was sealed, but sentence could only be passed by the Court of Justice Seat which convened once every three years.

Lydford Castle was subsequently appointed as the prison for felons convicted under the similarly harsh Stannary Laws, by which time Lydford had gained wide notoriety as the home of the barbaric form of justice known colloquially as Lydford Law, or 'hang first and try after', which was immortalized in a 1644 poem by William Browne of Tavistock, The Lydford Journey, which begins:

  • I oft have heard of Lydford law,
  • How in the morn they hang and draw,
  • And sit in judgement after.
  • At first I wondered at it much,
  • But now I find their reason such,
  • That it deserves no laughter.

The court system used to administer the Forest Law, with the deferral of sentencing following conviction, provided an incentive for the application of Lydford Law: some writers have gone so far as to suggest that as the eventual sentence was a foregone conclusion it was expeditious for the Chief Warden to hang the convicted offender without further ado, rather than detain him for up to three years for the next sitting of the Court of Justice Seat to determine his fate.

The lowest Forest Court was the Court of Attachments, held every forty days by the verderers, and part of their business was to make presentments to the Court of Swainmote, which was held three times a year. A presentment concerning any offender against the forest laws would there be delivered to a jury composed of forest freeholders, and if they found it true the indictment was sealed. Sentence, however, could only be passed by the Court of Justice Seat, held once in three years. But as there was very little doubt about what this would be, it was frequently anticipated, and the offender straightway hanged. Later on, when the Court of Justice Seat met, his case would come before it, and sentence be passed. [Crossing[4], p90]

This illustrates the propensity of earlier historians to exaggerate the severity of the penalties imposed under Forest Law, with an implicit assumption that all transgressions were punished by the same sentence as the only capital offence, namely the hunting and killing of a stag within the forest. In fact the penalties for hunting other beasts of the forest or for despoiling the vert were much less harsh, and were not out of kilter with the penal codes of the time.

That the penalties inflicted for breaches of the forest law were often cruel and barbarous there can be no doubt, but they were neither severe nor excessive if compared with the penalties inflicted by the ordinary criminal law for kindred offences, and their cruelty and barbarity are the characteristics of a rude and uncivilized age. note3

The first perambulation of Dartmoor

King Henry III
King Henry III

In 1239 King Henry III decided to make a gift of the Forest of Dartmoor and Manor of Lydford to his brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Once the King had transferred ownership, according to law a forest should have become a chase, nevertheless it remains known as Dartmoor Forest to this day.

In 1240, to clarify the boundaries between the Forest and the commons of neighbouring landowners (who had more than once been in dispute as to their rights with the Forest officials ), the Sheriff of Devon in person, accompanied by twelve 'lawful knights of the county' perambulated the Forest and recorded its bounds. [Somers Cocks[5], p96]
There are several copies of the return to the writ ordering this perambulation, and though they do not agree exactly it is possible to identify most of the objects named as bond marks with those recorded at a later date, and which are regarded as the bounds at present. [Crossing[4], p27]

Route of the 1240 perambulation

Crossing gives the original names of the bounds (as recorded by the perambulators in their return) as:

Hogam de Cossdonne, Parva Hundetorre, Thurlestone Wotesbrokelakesfote, Heighestone, Langestone, Turbariam de Alberysheved, Wallebroke, Furnum Regis, Wallebrokeshede. Wallebroke usque cadit in Dertam, per Dertam usque ad aliam Dertam per aliam Dertam ascendendo usque, Okebrokysfote, ascendendo Okebroke, usque ad la Dryeworks, Dryfeld Ford, Battyshull, Caput de Wester Wellabroke, Wester Wellabroke usque cadit in Avenam, Ester Whyteburghe, Redelake, Grymsgrove, Elysburghe, Crucem Sywardi, Ysfother, aliam Ysfother, Mystor, Mewyburghe, Lullingesfote, Rakernesbrokysfote, la Westsolle, Ernestorre, vadum proximum in orientali parte capelle Sancti Michaelis de Halgestoke, Hogam de Cossdonne (the starting point).

In the following Ordnance Survey map the bound markers are positioned according to the grid references given in Legendary Dartmoor. The penultimate bound, Chapel of St. Michael de Halgestoke, is not shown because its precise location is unknown. Hover on the marker to see an equivalent modern-day name for the each location.

Since 1982 Ian Kirkpatrick has acted as coordinator for teams wishing to undertake the challenge of completing the route of this perambulation. A certificate is awarded to those who succeed. The names of the 1200 people who have achieved this (up to December 2011), together with extracts from their reports can be found on Ian's website.


The authenticity of the Constitutiones de Foresta has been cast in doubt by Felix Libermann [Über Pseudo-Cnuts Constitutiones de foresta, Felix Libermann, Halle, 1894] who showed it was almost certainly a forgery, perhaps written in the time of Henry II (1154-1189) in an attempt to make it appear that there was a precedent for the punitive Forest Laws in force from the reign of William the Conqueror. [return]
See page 14 of [The Forest of Dean by Arthur O Cooke, Dutton, 1913] for a brief account of the changes in Forest Law sentencing practices through the Norman era up to the time of Henry III. [return]
Taken from [Staffordshire Forest Pleas: Introduction, Staffordshire Historical Collections, vol. 5 part 1 (1884), pp. 123-135, (Date accessed: 31 July 2012)]. This reference gives a good overview of Royal Forests and Forest Law, and includes a list of the sentences applicable under the Constitutiones de Foresta. [return]


Manwood's Treatise of the Forest Laws Fourth Edition edited by William Nelson, London, 1717.
The Land Laws by Sir Frederick Pollock, Macmillan, 1883. [return]
A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor by Samuel Rowe, Third edition edited by J Brooking Rowe, Exeter, 1896. [return]
Guide to Dartmoor by William Crossing, Third Edition, Exeter, 1914.
"Saxon and Early Mediaeval Times" by J Somers Cocks, in Dartmoor A New Study edited by Crispin Gill, David & Charles, 1970. [return]


The deer marker used in the perambulation map comes from Nicholas Mollet's Map Icons Collection, copied under the terms of the Creative Commons 3.0 BY-SA license.