Under the Norman kings, the royal forest grew steadily, probably reaching its greatest extent under Henry II when around 30 per cent of the country was set aside for royal sport. The object of the forest laws was the protection of ‘the beasts of the forest’ (red, roe, and fallow deer, and wild boar) and the trees and undergrowth which afforded them shelter, known as the vert. Kings frequently granted their tenants the right to take smaller game, such as hares and pheasants, and more extensive hunting privileges were occasionally granted to especially favoured subjects, but generally none but the king and his foresters might hunt the deer or boar. The definitive form to forest law occurred during Henry II
's reign, most notably in the Assize of the Forest (also known as the Assize of Woodstock
) in 1184. Its clauses reveal the harsh restrictions which the forest officials enforced. None could carry bows and arrows in the royal forest, and dogs had to have their toes clipped to prevent them pursuing game. Savage penalties for any infringements were often imposed and in 1198 Richard I declared that those guilty of killing deer were to lose their eyes and testicles. But under Henry II
and his sons imprisonment and the exaction of heavy fines were the norm. Discontent with the laws, and the extortions and petty tyranny of forest officials, ensured that the forest became a major political issue in John's reign. It culminated in the Charter of the Forest (1217) which sought to remedy many of the grievances. Its clauses provided the framework of forest law throughout the 13th cent., but only in the 14th cent., when large areas were disafforested, did the political issue subside.
S. D. Lloyd