The English Royal Forest and the Tale of Gamelyn


Leslie Campbell Rampey

(Author's comment: This is a section of a longer work on Middle English romances. My reason for making it available on the Web is that this particular section deals with the legal entity of the English Royal Forest, a subject about which I have found no other online resources. Please understand that this work, except where noted, belongs entirely to me, and I ask that readers please do not use or reproduce it it any way without my permission. Such requests may be addressed to Comments and suggestions also are welcome.)

I now have all (I hope!) the notes and long quotations opening in pop-up windows, which should make reading this easier for people on phone lines. If you click on a note or quotation, however, you might want to close the pop-up each time.

(Note: All quotations and line references to Gamelyn are from Donald B. Sands, ed., Middle English Verse Romances [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc., 1966].)

Like Athelston, Gamelyn also springs from the East Midlands. The tale’s basic plot, however, is more widely known than that of Athelston, thanks to Shakespeare who adapted Gamelyn (probably through Lodge's Rosalynde or Eupues Golden Legacie) for As You Like It. The plot concerns the plight of a young orphan whose unscrupulous older brother usurps his patrimony and mistreats him. Yet sibling rivalry is merely the superficial theme of Gamelyn, as false friendship is the superficial theme of Athelston. Gamelyn is an allegory of a deep and peculiarly English socio-political concern that originated in the Conquest and grew in the subsequent centuries of Norman-Angevin rule--that is, the Forest Law instituted by William I.

Although there is no direct mention of the Forest Law in Gamelyn, its plot corresponds unmistakably to legal history. The dramatic inpetus to Gamelyn's rebellion against his brother is the latter's misappropriation and mistreatment of the land bequeathed to Gamelyn by their father. This the poet makes clear early in the poem. After the father's death, "Sone the elder brother giled the yonge knave… (lines 70-100). By repeating the situation three times 74-5, 84-7, and 97-9), the poet firmly establishes Gamelyn's motivation: he resents deeply John's usurpation and misuse of his lands, and he wants to recover them.

The situation in which Gamelyn finds himself is not unlike that the Anglo-Saxon population experienced in the two centuries following the Conquest. One of William I.'s first acts as king was to institute the peculiarly Norman and very un-English innovation of Forest Law. Second in infamy only to the Domesday Book is William's making of New Forest, a region situated in the extreme south-central portion of the isle. William's appropriation of this land other regions, ostensibly to reserve game to himself, aroused great resentment and sorrow in the native population. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts:

He made many deer-parks, and he established laws therewith; so that whosoever slew a hart, or a hind, should be deprived of his eyesight. As he forbad men to kill the harts, so also the boars; and he loved the tall deer as if he were their father. Likewise he decreed respecting the hares that they should go free. His rich men bemoaned it, and the poor men shuddered at it. (R. Trevor Davies)

The memory of William’s initial afforestation never died. In the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope recounted the creation of New Forest with even more indignation than did the Chronicler. The following passage from Pope's "Windsor Forest" is worth quoting in full because it highlights well-documented abuses of the royal forest prerogative that are explored allegorically in Gamelyn:

A dreary Desart and a gloomy Waste,
To Savage Beasts and Savage Laws a Prey…

That same outraged sense of rape of the land and the people who inhabit it surfaces in many literary works written in the centuries following the Conquest. It is the sine qua non of the Middle English ballad "Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough and William of Cloudesly" and, of course, of fifteenth century Robin Hood ballads; and vestiges of it may be found in such diverse later works as Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers, D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover, and Roald Dahl's short stories.

Before discussing how William I's innovation and its consequences are relevant to Gamelyn, it is necessary to define precisely what is meant by the word "forest" in this context. (My discussion of the English royal forest is based on material contained in the following sources:…) What few people realize is that the legal term "forest," especially when preceded by the adjective "royal," is not synonymous with the common word "forest" which brings to mind little more than a wide tract of trees. Although the English "royal forests" certainly encompassed virtually all the isle's vast wooded areas, they also included in their boundaries individual residences of both rich and poor, villages, and towns. "Afforestation" is the legal term for a monarch's declaring an area a "royal forest." In a few early cases, such as New Forest, afforestation involved the dispossession of the inhabitants and the razing of their homes and villages, but such drastic actions became impractical as the number of royal forests increased. More often, afforestation simply made the hapless inhabitants of a specified region residents of a "forest."

And it was no great honor to be counted a forest resident; indeed, that status presented grave hardship. The restrictions of Forest Law were uniformly harsh: a forest resident could not cultivate land inside the forest boundaries; not only, of course, could he not hunt the large game which was the possession of the king, but the prohibitions often extended to small game, such as hares; the felling of timber was prohibited, and it is recorded that in some cases inhabitants even were forbidden to gather acorns -- offenses against the "vert." These restrictions gravely limited the livelihoods of the forest residents. Even worse, however, was the burdensome "forest law" to which these residents were subject. Forest Law was a body of law outside the common law of the land, administered by an army of forest officials answerable only to the king. Any legal offense, forest-related or not, was handled by these officials, who were not infrequently corrupt.

The restrictions of the forest and its law fell not only on the poor, but also on the nobility whose lands might be included in a royal forest. Although wealthy men could expect to be granted limited forest privileges by the Crown, they had as much reason to despise the royal practice of afforestation as did the lower classes. This is evident from the Magna Carta to which King John's signature was compelled not by the lower and middle classes but by great barons, for the document includes several articles specifically designed to curb the royal prerogative in regard to extension and jurisdiction of forests. Even so, the matter was not settled overnight but continued to be a legal bone of contention between Crown and subjects well into the fourteenth century. The issue surfaced again in the seventeenth century when Charles I attempted to revive the then ancient royal forest prerogatives with the same sorry results that characterized much of his ill-starred reign.

This brief recital of the practice of afforestation does not do justice to the magnitude of the situation. Every king from William I to Edward I at one time or another was excoriated for his particular brand of extension and jurisdiction of the forest prerogative. The history of the English forest is one of repeated royal abuse followed by royal concessions. Nor does a brief sketch of the situation satisfactorily answer why the forest was the subject of centuries-long legal wrangling. The ostensible answer to that question may be found in William I's initial making of New Forest. The Norman, as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle implies, had an obsessive passion for hunting. As always, William justified his actions by appealing to Anglo-Saxon tradition. It is true that Anglo-Saxon kings apparently also reserved areas for their own hunting. About forty years prior to the Conquest, King Canute in his "Secular Dooms" declared: "And I will that every man be entitled to his hunting in wood and on field, in his own possession. I let every one forego my hunting: take notice where I will have it untrespassed on, under penalty of the full 'wite.’ (William Stubbs…)

It is known also that there existed forest wardens during the reign of Edward the Confessor. No evidence, however, suggests that Anglo-Saxon royal forests ever approached either the extension or jurisdiction of those of the Norman and Angevin rulers. A royal passion for hunting cannot alone account for the fact that in the middle of the thirteenth century those regions declared to be "royal forests" comprised a staggering thirty percent of England--more land than one monarch could hunt on in his lifetime if he worked at it around the clock. And a glance at the map showing these afforestations makes it plain that the Crown had appropriated for itself the most strategic, valuable, and fertile regions of the isle. ( Bazely…)

No, a passion for hunting does not justify either the extent of these lands or the harsh jurisdiction of them. To account for the situation, it is necessary to realize the tremendous benefits that derived to the Crown from extensive afforestation. First, policing of the forests demanded a large network of forest officials who in aggregate comprised what was virtually a private army of the king. Second, fines and special forest taxes extracted by this bureaucracy. provided a considerable and perpetual source of revenue for the Crown. It is little wonder why the monarchs fought as hard as they did to protect their forest prerogatives. Of course, one might make the case that uncontrolled hunting, logging, and cultivation might have denuded England in short order during the tremendous population expansion of the Middle Ages; but it hardly seems likely that the Norman and Angevin kings had posterity in mind when they made their afforestations. Rather, what began as a reasonable idea to reserve some large game to royalty grew into a power base the monarchs were loath to relinquish.

The East Midlands particularly was a forest strong hold, containing what appears to be about one-third to one- half of all the royal forests at the middle of the thirteenth century. The Forest of Essex, the largest single forest of all England, was situated on the north bank of the Thames; an unbroken chain of six or seven forests extended approximately one-hundred miles across the center of the East Midlands; and the famous Sherwood Forest was also located in that region, further north on the north bank of the Trent River. (Ibid.) And many of these lands were not disafforested for at least another century. It is not unreasonable, then, to suppose that the East Midlands author of Gamelyn was intimately acquainted with that legal institution.

The parallel between Gamelyn's situation and forest history is sufficient to establish allegory. Gamelyn was deprived of what should have been his livelihood accruing from his patrimony, just as forest residents were deprived of theirs by Norman and Angevin afforestations. Forest residents suffered helplessly the same results of usurpation of the land as did Gamelyn: buildings destroyed, fertile land made worthless to them, timber misappropriated, and game robbed. Gamelyn suffers also, as did forest residents, the further indignity of being subject to unjust law. Just as forest residents had no recourse from randomly administered forest justice, Gamelyn is at the mercy of the tyranny of his elder brother who at best treats him like a servant and at worst has him beaten and chained. The names of the two characters round out the allegory; Gamelyn is a name of Scandinavian origin ("Gammel-ing [son of the old man]") (Laura Hibbard,…), such as a native of the East Midland indeed might have had, while his brother's name John is one derived from the French (Sands…).

Gamelyn's first major act of rebellion against brother is to throw a great feast at which he makes very free hospitality with John's stores. For seven days Gamelyn and his friends revel while the helpless John hides and fumes in a turret (327-9). When Gamelyn's friends depart on the morning of the eighth day, John finally emerges and has Gamelyn seized and bound. John harshly remonstrates with him about squandering the goods to which John feels Gamelyn has no right. Gamelyn justifies his act by declaring that they are mere interest owed to him: ("Brother, " saide Gamelyn,…" 355-62). Gamelyn's plaint reiterates the ones he makes in the first confrontation with his brother (quoted earlier). Again he emphasizes very specifically that what he resents is the misappropriation of his land and its products. His reveling in his brother's hall is a symbolic gesture toward recovering what is his, just as the forest feasts over which Robin Hood presides are a symbolic way of subverting royal forest authority. And Gamelyn's wild party prefigures the outlaws' forest feast into which Gamelyn and Adam stumble later in the poem.

The episode immediately subsequent to Gamelyn's feast involves John's hosting a party of ecclesiastics. It is also relevant to the forest theme. It can be no accident that of the three ecclesiastical guests who speak rudely to Gamelyn and taunt him two are abbots and one is a prior (479-83). The Crown often granted to houses of holy orders forest rights that were forbidden ordinary forest residents. It is recorded that members of holy orders whose houses were within a forest could, according to their charters, hunt small game and sometimes large game, and they could keep hounds for that purpose (Poole). That last privilege must have been especially galling to ordinary forest residents whose own dogs were required by Forest Law to be "lawed"--that is, their front claws mutilated so as to pose no threat to game (Doris Mary Stenton). Since Gamelyn several times has already made very clear that his quarrel with this brother is based on John's usurpation and misuse of Gamelyn's lands, abbots and priors are not unlikely figures to show up at this point in the narrative. Although there is no suggestion in the text that John's ecclesiastical guests are responsible for the misuse of Gamelyn's land, in the poem’s context the connection was probably plain to an audience of a heavily afforested region. Nothing else in the plot accounts for their presence at John's banquet (his guests otherwise might as well have been other gentry or local officials) or for the violent anti-ecclesiasticism that characterizes both this scene and Gamelyn's later forest activities (780-3).

After Gamelyn, with the help of Adam, wreaks physical vengeance on John and his ecclesiastical guests, Gamelyn and Adam flee into the forest where they join a band of outlaws. Laura Hibbard maintains that "the outlaw incident in Gamelyn is frankly incidental to the disinheritance theme" (Hibbard). Yet when we take into account forest history, Gamelyn's greenwood adventure is indeed the natural response to his brother's usurpation of his lands.

The archetypal setting of outlaw legends is the forest (Gertrude Jobes). Robin Hood's base of operations in the royal forest of Sherwood is the most familiar example of such a setting. Yet there is an apparent paradox here: why should the forest, the stronghold of harsh legalism, be also the traditional setting of outlaw tales? The answer may be found in Maurice Keen's assertion that outlaw legends were the popular response to legal vexations (Maurice Keen), such as the Forest Law surely provided in abundance. Under such a harsh law, the norm was disobedience rather than compliance . As Doris Mary Stenton observes, "All classes hunted in the forests despite the law" (Doris Mary Stenton). The forest, then, provides a unique psychological setting in which most satisfactorily to "thumb one's nose" at authority. Robin Hood did just that; his perpetual offense, after all, was poaching--stealing the king's deer. Unlike Sherwood Forest, the greenwood in which Gamelyn takes up temporary residence is not specified as part of a royal forest. Yet if it were a thickly wooded tract in the East Midlands where deer were readily available (674), the implication indeed is that Gamelyn was on royal land. Further evidence of this implication is in the denouement of the tale in which Gamelyn is made the chief justice of the forest lands in which he recently dwelled (891-2).

Gamelyn's final vengeance against his brother and his recovery of his patrimony round out the poem's superficial sibling rivalry and disinheritance themes, but his further victory of being named the chief justice of the forest is the culmination of the forest allegory. One who knows what it is to be deprived of the benefits of the land that is his by right is elevated to authority of that land. An East Midlands audience, well-acquainted with the royal practice of afforestation, must have felt no little satisfaction at the end of this tale. As in Athelston, a post-Conquest legal innovation is happily redressed in the fiction of Gamelyn.

These two romances, then, are the most English of the Matter of England. Not only are their native reputations unsullied by earlier Anglo-Norman versions or Continental romance conventions, but their themes address post-Conquest concerns that are fictionally remedied by harking back to Anglo-Saxon traditions. Although other Matter of England romances (especially Havelok) also contain elements that can be identified as pre-Conquest interests and influence, there is none in which those elements are so completely blended in plot and treatment as they are in Atheiston and Gamelyn These two "romances," then, may be considered the core of the Matter of England, and the other romances of that group must be considered in comparison to Athelston's and Gamelyn's high degree of nativeness until the point where such a comparison logically falls apart.

Background graphic courtesy of
J. O. D.'s Old Fashioned B&W Clip Art Collection