History: 2 - Medieval

portrait of Henry I, statue of Robert the Bruce and stone effigy of Eleanor de Brohun

Hatfield Forest was a royal possession before the Norman Conquest in 1066 when it passed to William I as one of the spoils of victory. It was designated a (Royal Hunting) Forest in about 1100, probably by Henry I. Ownership but not Forest rights were surrendered in 1238 and Forest rights in 1446. During this period, the Forest was owned by a succession of eminent families, important players on the national stage, as part of much large holdings of land throughout the country.

Before 1066 

Immediately before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the area of the Forest was owned by King Harold. Following his defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, the estate passed to the Norman invader, William the Conqueror / William I. 

Domesday Book 

Hatfield is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a thriving community with a population of approximately 600 people, scattered in townships.

There is no mention of Hatfield having a separate forest. The woodland area in the Estate had commoner’s rights, which we believe preserved Hatfield from being grubbed out, as were the great woods and forest, which adjoined Hatfield.

An entry in the survey refers to 800 swine on the estate and would therefore suggest a forest area of approximately 1000 acres, roughly the same size as today. 

A Royal Hunting Forest established 

The area was designated a Royal Hunting Forest in about 1100, by Henry I. This was followed by the introduction of fallow deer, for hunting, and the establishment of a rabbit warren, for meat and fur.

The fallow deer were imported from the island of Sicily which was then also ruled by a Norman lord.  Recent DNA analysis has shown that the present herd are descended from this original stock.  They are also distinguished by darker fur, compared with deer imported at a later date.

In 1238, the King surrendered ownership of the Forest, whilst retaining hunting rights. 

No longer a Royal Forest 

In 1238, ownership was passed to Isabel, widow of Robert de Bruys and the estate then descended in the de Bruys / Bruce family. In 1304, the estate was inherited by a later Robert (the Bruce), Earl of Carick, and he is known to have visited Hatfield Forest in this year.

In 1306, Robert claimed the throne of Scotland, as Robert I. In retaliation, his English estates were confiscated by the King of England, Edward I. 

The de Bohun connection 

After death of King Edward I in 1307, his successor, Edward II, granted the estate to his sister, Elizabeth, wife of Sir Humphrey be Bohun, earl of Hereford and Essex (d 1322). The estate then passed with the earldoms until the death of a later Humphrey de Bohun, in 1373.

In the absence of any sons, custody of his estate was the granted to his widow, Joan, until her death in 1419, when it was divided between his two daughters, Eleanor and Mary de Bohun. Eleanor inherited the Forest. 

The Stafford connection 

Eleanor married Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, and youngest son of Edward III, in 1376. Their daughter, Anne of Gloucester, thus had Royal blood from both sides of her family. She married first Thomas Stafford, 3rd Earl of Stafford, in about 1390, and then, six years after his death in 1392, his younger brother Edmund, 5th Earl.

Their son was Humphrey Stafford, born in 1402. On his mother’s death in 1438 he received his mother’s share of the de Bohun inheritance, including the estate of Hatfield. 

The Duke of Buckingham 

Humphrey Stafford rose in Royal favour and was created Duke of Buckingham, by the King, Henry VI, in 1444. In 1446, perhaps as a mark of this continuing favour, the King surrendered the last remaining Royal rights in the Forest, the hunting rights, to the Duke.  

Hatfield was one of many estates owned by the Duke of Buckingham across the country.