Robin Hood and Robert Grosseteste

Excerpted from Carta de Foresta and Letter 126

Introduction by Max Etchemendy

The Hated Royal Forest System
Although the Magna Carta was very important to the members of the upper class, we cannot forget that medieval England was an agricultural society. Everyday life was dominated by tasks such as growing food, caring for livestock, and gathering firewood. This is why folks lower in the social hierarchy might well care even more about the protections established in the Charter of the Forest, sealed in 1217 by John’s successor, King Henry III.

In order to understand the significance of this document, it is necessary to know a bit about the royal forest system. After the Normans conquered Anglo-Saxon England in 1066, the new kings declared certain areas to be royal forests. In these forests, a special set of laws applied, designed to protect the king’s exclusive hunting rights.

This meant that no one could hunt (or even carry weapons appropriate for hunting) in the forests without permission. Even heavier restrictions were put in place in order to protect the game animals’ habitat (or “vert”). These laws limited ordinary people’s freedom to take firewood, graze animals, and even enclose crops.

The penalties for disobedience could include fines, corporal punishment, or death. Matthew of Paris reports a royal bailiff who brought even noble families to financial ruin for taking a single deer without permission. Forest wardens were also famously corrupt, sometimes extorting illegally from forest dwellers.

Champions of Protest Against the Forest System
It is no wonder that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that rich and poor alike bitterly hated the forest system. Nor is it a surprise that Robin Hood, the folkloric outlaw and champion of the people, is often portrayed as violating the forest law and protecting those who would be punished for doing the same. It is easy to imagine that common people in the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries sympathized with outlaws who thumbed their noses at the king’s foresters.

Robert Grosseteste’s letter gives you a sense of the anger people felt against the forest system. He refused to install the royal forester Robert Passelewe to a clerical living at the church of Northampton, because his “illicit function” disqualified him to provide pastoral care. Passelewe was (predictably) hated for his zealous service as a forester, but Grosseteste seems especially upset that he had punished both clerics and laypersons indiscriminately.

Reforms Introduced by the Charter of the Forest
Naturally the barons who forced the Great Charter (Magna Carta) upon King John took the opportunity to make the king limit the severity of the forest law. The Charter of the Forest, sealed after John’s death by his son (who was still a child at the time, though king), banned corporal or capital punishment for killing deer in the forest without permission. Those who owned land in the forests were allowed more freedom to build and cultivate. Protections were put in place to prevent the foresters’ abuses. And the Charter also removed some lands from the royal forests.

Of course, the Charter of the Forest hardly ended the ongoing tension over the forest system (Grosseteste’s letter, for example, comes decades after the Charter went into effect), but it did allow some additional freedoms to the forest dwellers.


Raymond Grant.  The Royal Forests of England.  Wolfeboro Falls, NH: Alan Sutton, 1991.


Unusquisque liber homo agistet boscum suum in foresta pro voluntate sua et habeat pannagium suum. Concedimus etiam quod unusquisque liber homo possit ducere porcos suos per dominicum boscum nostrum, libere et sine impedimento, ad agistandum eos in boscis suis propriis, vel alibi ubi voluerit. Et si porci alicuius liberi hominis una nocte pernoctaverint in foresta nostra, non inde occasionetur ita quod aliquid de suo perdat.

Every freeman shall at his own pleasure graze cattle on his own woodland, and have the right to allow his pigs to feed. We also grant that every freeman may freely and without interference drive his swine through our royal woodland in order to graze them in his own woods or wherever else he pleases. And if the swine of any freeman spend one night in our forest, that shall not be made the excuse for taking anything of his away from him.


Nullus de cetero amittat vitam vel membra pro venatione nostra; sed, si aliquis captus fuerit et convictus de captione venationis, graviter redimatur, si habeat unde redimi possit; et si non habeat unde redimi possit, iaceat in prisona nostra per unum annum et unum diem; et, si post unum annum et unum diem plegios invenire possit, exeat a prisona; sin autem, abiuret regnum Angliae.

Henceforth no one shall lose life or limbs on account of our hunting rights; but if any one is arrested and convicted of taking our venison, let him redeem himself by a heavy payment, if he has anything with which to redeem himself. And if he has nothing with which to redeem himself, let him lie in our prison for a year and a day. And if, after the year and the day, he can find sureties, let him be freed from prison; but if he cannot, let him abjure the realm of England.


Quicumque archiepiscopus, episcopus, comes vel baro transierit per forestam nostram, liceat ei capere unam vel duas bestias per visum forestarii, si praesens fuerit; sin autem, faciat cornari, ne videatur furtive hoc facere.

Any archbishop, bishop, earl, or baron who crosses our forest may take one or two beasts by view of the forester, if he is present; if not, let a horn be blown so that this [hunting] may not appear to be carried on furtively.


Unusquisque liber homo decetero sine occasione faciat in bosco suo, vel in terra sua quam habeat in foresta, molendinum, vivarium, stagnum, marleram, fossatum, vel terram arabilem extra cooperatum in terra arabili, ita quod non sit ad nocumentum alicuius vicini.

Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.


Unusquisque liber homo habeat in boscis suis aereas, ancipitrum et spervariorum et falconum, aquilarum, et de heyrinis et habeat similiter mel quod inventum fuerit in boscis suis.

Every freeman may in his own woods have eyries of hawks, sparrow-hawks, falcons, eagles, and herons; and he may also have honey that is found in his woods.


Etymology Exercise I

1.  He was surprised to find that bacon is a form of pork.
2.  I will concede if you give me indisputable truth. 
3.  His fear of heights was the one remaining impediment.
4.  Bats are nocturnal, which is why you hardly ever see them in daylight. 
5.  Be sure that you are adequately prepared before wandering too deep into the forest

Etymology Exericse II

1.  convict: convictus
2.  annual: annum
3.  vital: vitam
4.  prison: prisona
5.  invent: invenire

Grammar I: Adverbs

1.  carus: care
2.  bella: belle
3.  castum: caste
4.  beatus: beate
5.  trista: triste

Grammar II: Nominative Case

Identify the nominative case.

1.  Homo hoc fecit. 
2.  Marcus multos libros habet.
3.  Ego forestam vidi. 
4.  Episcopus hoc facere potest. 
5.  Ille me monet. 

Grammar III: The Preposition in

Determine whether in is taking the ablative or accusative.

1.  ablative
2.  accusative
3.  accusative
4.  ablative
5.  accusative