Forest Police & Police in the Fifteenth Century

Just as the state of public tranquillity brought about by the wise government of Edward I had been disturbed by the irresponsible and childish behaviour of his pleasure-loving successor, so was the admirable domestic policy of Edward III. robbed of its due reward by the lack of judgement and the want of administrative capacity exhibited by Richard II., whose unhappy reign is thus described by Froissart. “The State generally of all men in England began to murmur and to rise one against another, and ministering of justice was clear stopped up in all courts of England, whereof the valiant men and prelates, who loved rest and peace, and were glad to pay their duties, were greatly abashed ; for there rose in the realm companies in divers routs, keeping the fields and highways, so that merchants durst not ride abroad to exercise their merchandise for doubt of robbing ; and no man knew to whom to complain to do them right, reason, and justice ; which things were right prejudicial and displeasant to the good people of England, for it was contrary to their accustomable usage”.

It would be unjust, however, to attribute the state of affairs as above portrayed solely to Richard’s incapacity : he was still a minor when his grandfather died, and many circumstances conspired to render his task an extremely difficult one. A latent discontent had smouldered amongst the peasantry ever since the oppressive Statute of Labourers had been passed some thirty years before, and the universal poll-tax of one shilling a head, imposed in 1379 to meet the expenses incurred in the interminable wars with France and Scotland, suddenly caused the flame of rebellion to blaze forth with unexampled violence. It has been said that if anything like an adequate police force had been available in 1381, Wat Tyler’s movement might have been arrested before the riots in the Southern Counties had attained the dimensions of a general insurrection. Such may, or may not, be true of this particular rising ; but happily for English liberty there has never existed in this country any police force at the disposal of the central government, powerful enough to coerce the nation at large. Our national police has always been of the people and for the people, and obviously at no time could long be used to oppress those from whom its strength was derived, provided only that one and the same sentiment pervaded a majority of the oppressed.

The attack on villenage was too reasonable to be fruitless, and resistance to the popular demands could be but be temporary. The death of Tyler, and the consequent suppression of the insurrectionary movement which he led, caused the concessions wrung from the King to be revoked, and so delayed the cause of agrarian freedom ; but the ultimate triumph of free tenure and labour was already assured from the moment that unanimity was achieved. 

The constitution of the general police of the country being of such a nature that it was powerless to enforce any universally unpopular measure, a distinct and separate organisation was required to administer the well-hated code of law which had to do with the royal prerogative of hunting. The whole subject of forest law and forest police is of sufficient interest and importance to warrant an account of its main characteristics in some detail. 

The King’s Peace, as we have already seen, was of two kinds- there was the public peace of the realm, and there was the royal or private peace, enjoyed by the Sovereign, and by those closely connected with him. If we examine further these main divisions, we shall find that each is composed of certain sub-divisions, with their own particular laws and customs : thus under the general heading of public peace must be included (I) the peace and privacy to which every man is entitled at his own fireside, securing him against all intrusion as long as he commits no felonious action- (2) the  “peace of the church” as kept by the Ecclesiastical Courts Mand (3) the  “peace of the Sea ” with its court (afterwards known as the Court of Admiralty)  to maintain peace and justice amongst the people, of every nation passing through the sea of “England”

The private peace of the King, besides protecting his person and the precincts of his palaces, extended also over all the Royal Forest land, that is to say, over about a third part of the whole area of England Canute’s law was “I will that every man be entitled to his hunting in wood and field, on his own possession. And let everyone forego my hunting “‘ but there is no evidence to prove that the Danish King enforced his forest law otherwise than by the ordinary law of the land. The system of game preservation that grew up under the Normans, however, was so rigid that it necessitated the creation of special laws, special courts of law, and a special police for the prevention and punishment of illegal hunting. The Norman code was modified somewhat by Magna Carta  and again in 12I1 ; but it continued to oppress the nation through many generations, for wherever the peace of the forest was well maintained, there did the peace of the people suffer. 

The amount of afforested land varied considerably from time to time. Henry II. possessed 68 forests, 13 chaces and 781 parks, but it was not necessarily those monarchs who were particularly devoted to sport that were the most exacting, a strict enforcement of the forest laws brought much money to the royal exchequer in the shape of fines levied on trespassers and others who were tempted to offend against the arbitrary restrictions imposed. 

“A Forest,” says Manwood  “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 mered and bounded with irremovable marks, meres and boundaries, either known by matter of record or by prescription : and also replenished with wild beasts of venery and chase, and with great coverts of vert, for the succour of the said beasts (to have their abode in) : for the continuance and preservation of the said place, together with the vert and venison,  there are particular officers, laws and privileges belonging to the same, requisite for the purpose, and proper only to a Forest and no other place.” 

In connection with every forest there were four Courts, called respectively the Woodmote Court, the Court of Regard, the Court of Swanimote, and the Court of the Justice Seat. Of these the first was only competent to inquire of offences, and could not proceed to conviction. The Verderers, as the judicial officers of this Court were called, met once in every forty days, and could acquit accused persons, or hold them to bail – in the latter case the attachment had to be by the goods of the offender, unless he was “taken with the Mayneer,” i.e. in fagrante delicto, when the attachment might be by his body. “If any Forester shall find any man attachable for Vert in the Forest, first he shall attach him by two pledges, if they be to be found and if he be afterwards found, he shall attach him by four pledges : and if the third time, he shall be presented before the Verderers, and be put by eight pledges : after the third attachment, his body shall be attached and retained, that he may remember what thing Vert is.

” Coke tells us that there were four degrees of “Mayneer,” viz. :- 

(i.) Dog-draw, or tracking a wounded deer. 

(ii.) Stable-Stand, that is, standing ready to shoot or course, with weapon in hand, or grey- hounds in leash. 

(iii.) Back-bear, or carrying away the venison ; and 

(iv.) Bloody-Hand, or being found in the forest stained with blood.

The second Court, that of “Regard,” was held once in three years, and had for its object the  prevention of unlawful hunting. For this purpose all dogs belonging to dwellers near the forest were registered and divided into three classes ; that is to say (ı) greyhounds, including spaniels and lurchers ; (2) mastiffs, including the various kinds of large and (3) dogs of the smaller breeds. dogs ; restriction was placed on the possession of the last-mentioned class, but whilst greyhounds were not allowed on any pretence, mastiffs might be kept by a man for his own protection, provided that he had them mutilated in such a way that they could not pursue and pull down the game. This operation, called “lawing ” or “expeditation,” consisted in removing the claws of the fore-feet.

The ” Court of Swanimote ” met three times a year, and had the power not only of inquiring into all alleged offences against the forest laws, but, unlike the Woodmote, might also convict. Finally, judgement was given and sentences passed by the chief Justice of the Forest, at the triennial meeting of the Court of the Justice Seat.

Each forest was surrounded by its belt of pasturage, for the deer to graze in. The jurisdiction of the Courts above enumerated extended over both forest and purlieu, and since the two together covered a third part of the kingdom, it will be seen that the police regulations that secured the peace of the forest profoundly affected the daily life of the nation. Many of these regulations pressed very hardly on the people, especially on folk who had the misfortune to live in the purlieu for instance, a man found trespassing by night could be imprisoned, even if he was only in search of strayed cattle, and his beasts might be confiscated. In times of drought, or when grazing was scarce, foresters might lop trees and cut fodder for their charges on the land of any man, whilst tanners and dealers in horn were not permitted to live anywhere in the neighbourhood of a forest, for fear lest their trade should tempt them to become receivers of stolen property. 

When an offence had been committed Hue and Cry might be made by any of the King’s ministers of the forest, but the pursuit had to be “fresh “; that is to say, the offender had to be detected in the act, and the fugitive kept always in sight. Pursuit, on suspicion, was illegal, and Hue and Cry was applicable to Trespass in Venison only, not to Trespass in Vert. If any township or village failed to follow the Hue and Cry they were liable to be amerced at the Justice Seat for the default. 

From the  “Carta de foresta” we learn that the officers originally appointed to each forest were fifty-two in number, and consisted of four Primarii or Chiefs of the forest, sixteen Mediocres homines, or Yoongmen, and thirty-two Minuti homines.  This organisation did not long continue, however, and was quite extinct at the accession of Henry II. The four Primarii were superseded by four Verderers ; the sixteen Yoongmen gave place to twelve Regarders ; and instead of thirty- two Tine-men we find a staff of Foresters, with their underlings, called Walkers or Rangers. The number of Foresters and Rangers employed was not arbitrarily fixed, but varied with the size of the forest, and in accordance with the exigencies of time and place. The ministers of the forest appear to have been very numerous in the days of the Plantagenets, and the functions of the different grades were clearly defined : thus, the Verderers were judicial officers, roughly corresponding to Justices of the Peace ; the Agisters were officers whose business it was to look after the pasturage of the purlieu ; the Regarders were responsible for the lawing of dogs ; whilst the Foresters and Rangers were sworn to preserve the wild beasts and timber respectively in their several bailiwicks. The precautions taken to preserve the peace of the forest were doubled during the Month of Fence, or breeding season, at which time the officers were ordered to be more than usually vigilant, and offences were punished with increased severity.

In the last chapter reference was made to the oath which every male over fifteen years of age had to take in furtherance of the general scheme of peace-maintenance. Similarly, under forest law, an oath was required from all the inhabitants of the forest, that they would not disturb the peace of the wild beasts therein. Manwood says that this oath was anciently administered in doggerel verse, in some such words as these

“You shall true Liege-man be, 

Unto the King’s Majestie 

Unto the beasts of the Forest you shall no hurt do

Nor anything that doth belong thereunto 

The offences of others you shall not conceal, 

But to the utmost of your power you shall them reveal, 

Unto the officers of the Forest, 

Or to them who may see them redrest 

All these things you shall see done, 

So help you GOD at his Holy Doom.” 

Such then in brief were the salient features of the police arrangements by which the prerogative of hunting was secured to the Sovereign, arrangements which, it will be seen, were closely allied to the general scheme of peace maintenance then in vogue throughout the realm. A fuller description of Forest Law, together with an interesting map of the Forest lands, may be found in Mr Inderwick’s “The King’s Peace “: the present enquiry, however, must not extend beyond this slight survey of the machinery by which the laws in question were enforced, and may conclude with a glance at the influence that such legislation exerted over the country at large. The severity of the law coupled with the inadequacy of the executive government produced their natural result. The people resented the harsh treatment they were subjected to, and broke the unpopular regulations or evaded the irk- some restrictions whenever they could, which was many who under a wiser régime would have remained good citizens became outlaws merely out of a spirit of opposition, and in consequence, these huge tracts of forest, whose recesses were hardly ever visited even by the forest officers, and whose boundaries were hardly known to anyone else, became the stronghold of the lawless and disaffected, as well as the refuge of the unfortunate.

To return, however, from the digression into which the consideration of forest law has led, to the more general theme of the police system of the Statute of Winchester, it is to be observed that the terms “Watch” and “Ward,” though commonly used in conjunction to express a single idea, are not really synonymous. Blackstone says that the ward was set by day, and the watch by night, and that the one begins only when the other ends. Without making too much of the distinction between the two, we must remember that the population was almost entirely an agricultural one, and was occupied throughout the day in the fields ; consequently every man could protect his own property and, if necessary, raise the hue and cry against any who came to despoil him. Household belongings were few, and apparently of such little account that not only were they always left unprotected in the daytime, but it was even thought unnecessary to employ a nightly police except during the summer and autumn months, when the crops were ripening in the fields, the Statute only requiring the watch to be “set from the day of the Ascension until the day of St Michael.”

The method of setting the watch was by houserow, that is to say, a list of the dwellings in every parish and township was prepared, and as his turn came round each householder or some one lodging under his roof was required to keep a watch : if any such “contemptuously refused ” to obey the summons of the constable, that officer might set him in the stocks for his contempt. The liability to watch by roster attached equally to all the male inhabitants ; when, however, it happened that it came to a woman’s turn, she was allowed to find a substitute, but there is no evidence to show whether the substituted service was rendered gratuitously or whether she had to pay for the accommodation. Watchmen were expected to be able-bodied and sufficiently armed, a “pitchfork was not held to be an adequate weapon!” but within reasonable limits a man might arm and accoutre himself as he pleased, and it was not until comparatively recent times that expense. the watch were provided with arms at the parish

The police regulations for the government of London, as introduced in 1285, had become very minute and exacting by the latter half of the fifteenth century, many restrictions being placed on the enjoyment of personal liberty. The use of coal was prohibited, Sunday trading was forbidden, and, amongst other rules for the control of the wheeled traffic, a maximum width between wheels for vehicles was laid down which might on no account be exceeded. Ordinances also were promulgated against tradesmen who should attempt to advertise their callings in an objectionable manner, such as, for instance, the display of a basin of blood by barbers anxious to let people know that phlebotomy was included in the list of their accomplishments. The provisions of the before-quoted Statuta Civitatis (London), touching the control of leprous persons continued in force, and about this time special officers were appointed to prevent such as were infected with the plague from associating with those who were whole. The employment of a “police des moeurs” was a novel feature of the administration. 

A register containing the names of all women of ill-fame was kept by the police, and such women were not allowed to reside within the city walls ; a certain promenade, known as the “Stews of Southwark,” was assigned to them, where they were kept under the vigilant eyes of the City Sergeants, who, in consideration of the extra work thus thrown upon them, might confiscate and retain as a perquisite any “minever fur or cendale silk” that a courtesan might presume to wear. The inhabitants of the Surrey suburb were probably not consulted as to the desirability or otherwise of this arrangement, Edward III. having granted the town and borough of Southwark in perpetuo to the citizens of London. This he did in answer to their complaint that the peace of the city was continually being placed in jeopardy by the facility with which thieves and felons could make good their escape over the river and take refuge in Southwark, a place with no recognised privilege of sheltering runaways. The official sanctuaries were of course on a different footing, and in the fifteenth century were rendered less dangerous to society, than had formerly been the case, by an ordinance which required those who lived hard by the sanctuary to watch all avenues of escape by day and night until the refugee surrendered himself, a fine of five pounds being levied against the responsible ward if he succeeded in getting away. 

The general scope of the responsibilities and powers proper to these old-time city constables is clearly defined in the oath that they were required to take before entering upon the duties of their office. “You shall swear, that you shall keep the Peace of our Lord the King well and lawfully according to your power, and shall arrest all those who shall make any contest, riot, debate or affray, in breaking of the said peace, and shall bring them unto the house or Compter of one of the Sheriffs. And if you shall be withstood by strength of such misdoers, you shall raise upon them hue and cry (and) shall follow them from street to street, and from ward to ward until they are arrested. also you shall search at all times when you shall be required by Scavenger or Bedel, for the common nuisances of the ward ; until they are arrested. And also if there be anything done within your bailiwick contrary to the Ordinances of the City. And the faults you shall find, you shall present them unto the Mayor and to the Officers of the said City. And if you should be withstood by any person, or persons, that you cannot duly do your office, you shall certify unto the Mayor and Council of the said City the name and names of such person or persons who trouble you. And this you shall not fail to do. So God you help and the Saints.” 

When the decennary societies ceased to exist, the connection between the peace officer and the particular group which he represented underwent a change, but the alteration was one of degree rather than one of kind. The fifteenth century constable was taught to look for the support of his fellow-citizens in case of need, though not to the same  extent, perhaps, as the headborough was wont to rely on the members of his tything. The great principle of mutual responsibility remained, and was kept alive by insisting that all freemen should enter into a solemn obligation to keep the peace, a compact which, modified to suit more modern requirements, had its origin in the ancient oath of allegiance. The form of oath varied in different places ; in London it was as follows “You shall swear that you shall be good and true unto the King of England and to his heirs, Kings and the King’s Peace you shall keep ; and unto the Officers of the city you shall be obedient, and at all times that shall be needful, you shall be ready to aid the officers in arresting misdoers, and those disobedient to the King’s Peace, as well denizens as strangers. And you shall be ready, at the warning of the Constables and Bedels, to make the watches and (to bear) the other charges for the safeguard of the peace, and all the points in this wardmote shown, according to your power you shall well and lawfully keep- -and if you know any evil covin within the ward or the city, you shall withstand the same, or to your alderman make it known. So help you God and the Saints.” 

An examination of the oaths administered to constables and freemen respectively reveals to us in a concise form the motives which directed the mediæval machinery for maintaining the peace. We see how a compromise was arrived at between the ancient system of frankpledge and the more modern plan of employing a professional class of peace officers, and how, by means of the combined action of police and public, domestic tranquillity was assured. Had it been possible to have made this co-operation complete and thorough, the resulting security would have left little to be desired but, as was only to be expected, discord not infrequently took the place of harmony, and freemen sometimes forgot what was due to the oath they had taken. Let the events of a certain night in Canterbury serve as an illustration. Some watchmen, it appears, challenged a man whom they found abroad “out of due time ” and inquired his business, but (to continue the story verbatim) “the suspect person gave none answer, but ran from thence into St Austin’s liberty, and before the door of one John Short they took him. And the same John Short came out of his house with other misknown persons and took from the said watchmen their weapons, and there menaced them for to beat, contrary to the oath of a true and faithful freeman.” 

According to the strict letter of the law it was a constable’s duty, immediately after making arrest, to deliver his prisoner to the sheriff; but, as a matter of fact, this was seldom done, and the sheriff had little or nothing to do with accused persons until after their conviction. In the absence of proper lock-ups the village stocks were commonly used by the parish constable to secure his man until he could conveniently bring him before a magistrate but, as time went on, confinement in the stocks became the normal mode of punishment for minor offences, and it was no rare thing for a constable to keep a troublesome parishioner in this uncomfortable custody for a space, on his own initiative and responsibility. 

Prisons had existed in some form or other from the earliest times. The first dungeon was doubtless coeval with the first fortress, and London’s great jail at Newgate dated back to the twelfth century. But it was not then a penal establishment in our sense of the term, in so far that imprisonment was hardly as yet the recognised punishment for the ordinary run of criminals; such places were rather convenient strongholds in which to confine debtors till they paid their dues, suspected persons till they confessed their crimes, and generally for the safe-guarding of political opponents or private enemies whom it was desirable to keep under lock and key. It was not until the fifteenth century that we find a regularly graduated connection between punishment by imprisonment and punishment by fine ; the penalty for drawing a sword in the City of London, for example, was then half a mark or fifteen days, for inflicting a wound with the same, twenty shillings or forty days, and so on.

The pillory was a more serious affair, and its pains were beyond the power of a constable to inflict ; it was generally resorted to in cases where the offender had been guilty of practices which rendered him particularly obnoxious to the people, so that the punishment he received at their hands was proportioned to the degree of unpopularity he had earned for himself. The baker who gave short weight, or the dairyman who watered his milk, received such a lesson at the hands of his customers that he was little likely to repeat his offence. It was customary, moreover, in sentencing a man to the pillory, to make the punishment fit the crime as much as possible, and to compel the culprit to advertise his guilt in some personally unpleasant fashion; thus, the man who had stolen a cart was forced to pull it through the streets to the place of punishment, and an offending vintner had to drink a full draught of the sour wine that had disagreed with the frequenters of his shop. 

Englishmen are proverbially interested in what they eat and drink, and this public concern for good victualling explains why, when life and property were as yet but moderately secure, safeguards against the adulteration of human food were notably complete. The chief legislative authority upon which police action, directed against dishonest purveyors, rested, was the “Judicium Pillorie,” or, as it is commonly called, “The Statute of the Pillory and Tumbrel”  This Act belonged to the same period as the Statute of Winchester (both dating from the latter half of the thirteenth century), and like its more famous contemporary had a long career of practical usefulness in the public service. From 1266, the year of its enactment, until 1710, the date of its repeal, the Judicium Pillorie did much for English food, by maintaining a high standard in the quality of our meat and bread, and in the soundness of our ale.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *