A Brief History of Hatfield Forest

Hatfield Forest is a rare surviving example of a medieval royal hunting Forest, with over 1,000 acres of coppices and wood pasture. It has a rich and varied history stretching back over 2000 years through to the present day.

Early History

The Roman road, Stane Street, going towards Colchester, runs along the present northern border of the Forest.  The Forest contains Portingbury Hills, a ditched enclosure in Beggarshall Coppice, shown on maps as an ancient monument.  It was thought to have been an Iron Age settlement, but is now believed more likely to be of medieval origin.  

Early Medieval History

Immediately prior to the Norman Conquest, in 1066, Hatfield Forest was owned by the King, Harold, and passed to William, after his victory at the Battle of Hastings.  It is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086.

The royal hunting Forest was created by Henry I around 1100 - royal hunting rights remained until 1446.

“Forest” defined an area where deer were kept for hunting, and a special law, Forest Law, applied.  The word was introduced by the Norman rulers of England as a legal term denoting an uncultivated area legally set aside for hunting by feudal nobility.

It did not mean a forest as we might understand today, with densely planted trees.  Trees were merely co-incidental, subsidary to the main purpose of hunting.

Fallow deer, originally from Sicily, also under Norman rule, were introduced.  Their DNA can be found in the present day herd.

The Medieval period

Ownership passed through a succession of owners, including Robert the Bruce, the Dukes of Buckingham, the Rich family, the Parkers and the Turnors. This was a period of disputes between parties who held rights to different parts and aspects of the Forest.

A rabbit warren was established, to provide an important source of meat.  Remains of the Warren can still be seen.

The Georgian period

In 1729, the Houblon family bought the Hallingbury estate, including Hatfield Forest, for their heir, Jacob Houblon III.  The Houblons were welathy City merchants, originally from the Flaners, who had made their fortune trading with Spain and Portugal.  Sir John was the founding Governor of the Bank of England, in 1694, and was commemorated in a £50 note in circulation from 1994 to 2011.

Following the fashion of the period, the family set about developping a detached pleasure ground in the central area, creating a lake in 1747, building the Shell House and planting exotic specimen trees.  The notable shell decoartion for the Shell House was designed by Laetitia Houblon, then 15 years old, and the daughter of Jacob Houblon.

The renowned landscape designer Lancelot Capability Brown provided a plan in 1757 for modifying the original lake.  This was only partially implemented, in the form of what is now the Decoy Lake, at the end of the main lake.

The Forest was treated by the family as an extension to Hallingbury Place and they would ride out to enjoy picnics in the Shell House and dance by the lake. 

The Victorian period

During the 19th century, ownership of the whole area of the Forest and outstanding mineral and timber rights were consolidated and the present day boundary of the forest defined.  Under the benign stewardship of John Archer Houblon, the Forest was drained, and protected from conversion to agricultural use, a fate awaiting adjacent forest areas in Hainault and Epping.  Further exotic specimen trees were planted.

The Forest is bequeathed to the National Trust 

In 1923, the Hallingbury estate was broken up and sold off at auction. Hatfield Forest was bought by a timber merchant and he began to fell the standard oaks

The Forest was however saved from further destruction by the intervention of the pioneering conservationist Edward North Buxton.  He was able to begin the purchase of the Forest but he died before this was finished.  The process was however completed by his family and, following his wishes, they bequeathed the Forest to the National Trust.  It was opened to the public in May 1924.  

World War II

During World War II, Elgins Coppice was used as a storage area for ammunitions, for use at nearby airfields, including Stansted. The foundations of several huts can still be seen from the road, poking out through the fallen leaves.