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History of Hatfield Forest

The pond near Old Women's Weaver in the northern section of Hatfield Forest, Essex
The pond near Old Women's Weaver at Hatfield Forest | © National Trust Images/David Levenson

Hatfield Forest is the most complete example of a medieval royal hunting forest surviving today. With over 1,000 acres of ancient coppices and wood pasture and a 1,000 years of continuous management, it provides a unique glimpse of how the countryside was shaped in the years following the Norman Conquest.

Hatfield Forest's early history

Stane Street, a Roman road heading towards Colchester, runs along the northern border of the forest.

The Forest contains Portingbury Hills, a ditched enclosure in Beggarshall Coppice, which is shown on maps as an ancient monument. Whilst Iron Age pottery has been found there, suggesting early occupation, the earthworks now visible are thought to be from the medieval period, possibly a farmstead or, due to its location, the original headquarters of the Norman forest.

Early medieval period

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

The royal hunting forest was created by Henry I around 1100 and royal hunting rights remained until 1446. Most of what we see today is medieval in origin, although the coppicing of the woodland and pollarding of trees were introduced by the Normans. These traditional methods of woodland management continue today.

A place for hunting

‘Forest' was defined by the Norman rulers of England as an area where deer were kept for hunting and a special law, Forest Law, was introduced. ‘Forest' did not mean a forest as we might understand today, with densely planted trees. Trees were merely a subsidiary to the main purpose of hunting.

Fallow deer were introduced from Sicily, also under Norman rule. Their DNA can still be found in the Forest's herd today.

Late medieval period

Ownership of the Forest passed through a succession of people, including Robert the Bruce, the Dukes of Buckingham, the Rich family, the Parkers and the Turnors. The local Barrington family, from Hatfield Broad Oak, also held land on the east of the forest.

This was a period of disputes between parties who held rights to different parts and aspects of the forest. Thanks to the territorial nature of each family, the forest boundaries remained remarkably intact.

A rabbit warren was established to provide an important source of meat and fur. The remains of the warren – ‘pillow mounds’ – can still be seen and are now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, together with Portingbury Hills.

Fallow deer in the parkland at Attingham Park, Shropshire
Fallow deer were introduced into Hatfield Forest during the medieval period | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Georgian Hatfield

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

Following the fashion of the period, from about 1746, the family set about developing a detached pleasure ground in the central area, creating more open parkland from old coppice, creating a lake, building the Shell House and planting exotic specimen trees. The straighter ‘rides’ through the coppices were a feature created in this period. The notable shell decoration for the Shell House was designed by Laetitia Houblon, the teenage daughter of Jacob Houblon III.

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

The renowned landscape designer ‘Capability’ Brown provided a plan in 1757 for modifying the original lake by adding long sinuous arms at each end. 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 and entertainments in the Shell House and by the lake.

A view of the Shell House on a sunny summer's day
The Shell House at Hatfield Forest | © National Trust / Chris Connell

The Victorian era

During the 19th century, ownership of the Forest and the various mineral and timber rights were finally consolidated, and the current boundary of the Forest defined. The Enclosure Act only affected a small proportion of the Forest and its margins were straightened in places where land was surrendered, for commoners to take ownership.

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 trees were planted. The fascinating visitors' book in the Shell House describes trips to the Forest in this period by an amazing cross-section of society, rich and poor.

Bequest 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 who began to fell the standard oaks.

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

The Forest at war

During the Second World War, the Forest came under military occupation. Elgins Coppice was used as a concealed storage area for ammunition 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.

Person walking a dog in a field at Hatfield Forest, Essex

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