All Around The Wrekin
The Royal Forest
The woodland on and around the slopes of The Wrekin was designated as a Royal Forest before the 11th Century, when it extended over a distance of four square miles, from ‘Clerkenbrugge’ (a small bridge in the grounds of modern day Orleton Park) to Huntington, north of Little Wenlock. The forest also included Wellington Hay, an enclosure where deer were hunted, which ran alongside Watling Street and back towards The Ercall Hill.
The Norman Forest
By the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086, William I had created 21 new forests, a figure which had risen to 80 by the end of Henry II’s reign in 1154. Both Henry and Richard I made huge additions to the Wrekin Forest (which was renamed as the Royal Forest of Mount Gilbert – in honour of a local hermit!) so that it covered an area of about 120 square miles by the 12th Century. Many of the forests created by the Normans contained large areas with no woodland cover at all, often including whole towns, villages and land previously used for agriculture. In this sense, the forest became much more than just a source of food, timber and hunting for the Crown and served as an independent power base where the King could weald his personal authority and make money in an age before taxation.
The Normans introduced a new set of laws that all inhabitants living within ‘afforested’ areas were forced to obey. By the 13th Century, the whole of Wellington Parish lay within the forest jurisdiction of Mount Gilbert, at a time when up to one third of the population of England was subject to ‘forest law’. Harsh rules and punishments were established to deal with any offences against the ‘venison and vert’ (Wild Boar, Deer and their habitat) and severe restrictions were placed on anything that might interfere with the wild game, from the felling of trees and laying of hedges to gathering firewood and acorns. Those found guilty of illegally hunting venison, for instance, could expect to be outlawed and, in the very worst cases, might even receive the death penalty.
Policing The Forest
A system of courts existed to enforce forest law, the highest of which was the Forest Eyre, presided over by the Chief of Justice. However, there were only two of these courts in England, serving the forests to the north and south of the River Trent. Minor offences against the venison and vert were dealt with locally, at the Woodmote, the medieval equivalent of a modern Magistrates Court, while those cases requiring a jury were sent to the Swainmote. The officer presiding over the Woodmote and Swainmote was the Verderer and each Royal forest had at least four of them. They were usually appointed for life and drawn from the ranks of the local landed gentry. From at least the end of the 12th Century, the Forester family were the hereditary wardens of Mount Gilbert and as a reward for services rendered, the King granted them half a virgate of land (roughly 30 acres) in Wellington Hay, within the vicinity of the family’s home at Old Hall.
Hugh Le Scot
Hugh Le Scot fell foul of the law in the Wrekin Forest when he was reported at the Forest Assizes of 1209, after the County Sergeants found Venison in his house. Le Scot fled to a local Church, where he was later questioned by forest officials and admitted to killing a doe (with the assistance of another man, Roger de Wellinton). After seeking refuge for one month, Le Scot disguised himself as a woman and promptly escaped! At the time of the trial, both men were still at large and faced the prospect of being outlawed for their misdemeanours.
The Reality of Forest Law
In spite of the harsh restrictions, many people still depended on the forest for their livelihoods, whether grazing cattle on Wellington Hay or pasturing pigs in the surrounding woodland. The Crown’s constant need for money meant that most prohibited practices were legally licensed by the local courts and, in return for a small fee, offences such as ‘imbladements’ (sewing crops on forest land) and ‘waste’ (cutting down woodland) were overlooked. However, the licensing of illegal practices led to widespread abuses of power by many officials, to the extent that measures were enshrined in the Magna Carta to curtail their ‘evil customs’. In fact, Norman forest law proved so unpopular with many landowners that a separate Charter of the Forest was drawn up two years later in 1217, which permitted the removal of many recent additions to the forests.
The decline of the Wrekin Forest was well under way by the mid 13th Century and many local settlements, including Wellington, were exempted from the jurisdiction of forest at the local Assizes of 1250. Only Wellington Hay remained as Crown land by 1300 and the Norman forest effectively ceased to exist from that date forward. Over the next 200 years, rapid deforestation followed and when the Tudor Antiquary John Leland wrote of The Wrekin being ‘entirely bare of trees’ in 1530, the wooded area had shrunk to roughly the size it is today. By the 17th Century, the combined need for agricultural land and charcoal for local industries meant the forest had very nearly disappeared altogether.