A medieval Forest

Hunting scene from Livre de Chasse

Hatfield Forest was designated a Forest by Henry I in about 1100. This had a lot to do with hunting deer and very little to do with trees. Falllow deer were introduced to improve the hunting.

A royal hunting forest

Hatfield Forest was designated a Forest in about 1100 by the then King, Henry I.  To increase the sport, fallow deer were introduced.  These had originally come from Sicily.  

There is little evidence to suggest that the Henry and his successors spent much time hunting in the Forest.  It did however provide venison for the Royal table.  In addition, the King would allow his favourites to hunt in the Forest, as a reward for loyal service.

The King surrendered ownership of the land in 1238, but retained hunting rights for a further 200 years, until 1446.

Fallow deer

Fallow deer were introduced about this time, to supplement the native red deer.  They had originally come from the island of Sicily.  This was then a Norman province, so the family link may have helped.

Forest Lodge

This building lies just off the main plain, towards the southern end, and dates from about 1570.  It was traditionally the home of the Head Keeper.  It is believed that at once stage it included a small tower at one end which would be used to view the progress of the hunt, especially by ladies of the party.

Forest Law

Confusingly to modern minds, the designation of the area as a Forest (with a capital “F”) had very little to do with trees.  It meant the area was reserved for hunting and within this area, a special law, Forest Law, applied.  

Whilst popular folklore such as the Tales of Robin Hood might suggest harsh punishments being handed out for poaching royal game, there is little evidence in the local court records to suggest that this was so in Hatfield Forest.

Forest Rights

Life in the Forest was complicated because different people could own different rights, such as hunting, grazing, timber and mineral rights.  This led to a series of disputes over the centuries, pitting different land owning families against each other, as well as landowners against commoners.

Royal Forests and Hunting Rights

Thus, the King could own the rights to hunt and the right to keep deer without actually owning the land over which he might hunt.  At the height of the Forest system, in around 1200, under King John, the King held hunting rights in over 140 forests, although he owned only 53.

A single owner of all rights, at long last

It was not until 1857 that all rights in Hatfield Forest where brought under a single ownership, when the last remaining Commoners rights were bought out by John Archer Houblon, using powers under the Enclosures Act.