The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans: how hunting turned to poaching

If you read enough English history, you’ll start to wonder how life in England changed once the Normans conquered the place.

Or you will if you’re me, anyway. Which admittedly, you’re probably not.

Be grateful. It’s strange in here.

Let’s look at one change: hunting and access to the woods. I’m working in part from The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium, an Englishman’s World, by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger. It’s a book–one of those odd things involving paper and ink. I just love them, but then I’m several hundred years old. To me, they’re still an exciting new technology.

Irrelevant photo: Camellia blossoms. They weren’t here when the Anglo-Saxons and Normans were running around–they were a much later import.

One important change involved hunting. Before the Normans invaded and seized the place, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy hunted with expensive dogs and birds and horses but any free-born Anglo-Saxon had the right to hunt.

Notice the restriction there. Anglo-Saxon England  had slavery, and wars were fought in part to capture slaves. What percent of the population was enslaved? Dunno. But however many people were involved, you can take that group of people and set them outside the freedoms the rest of the inhabitants had.

Don’t forget they’re there. It’ll keep you from romanticizing things.

The forest was as important and productive a part of free people’s world as their fields were. They didn’t just use them for hunting, they gathered wood and turned their animals out to forage in them. How did that coexist with private ownership of woodlands? I’m not sure. My best guess–and I haven’t been able to verify this–is that we’re talking about local people’s access to local woodland. In other words, to woods owned by a lord they had some sort of relationship with.

As a whole, the population ate well. Lacey and Danziger argue that the people of that time were as tall as people living today. Where recent generations have grown taller than their ancestors, it’s because during the intervening generations their ancestors were overcrowded and underfed.

The Normans–somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 of them–barged into this well-fed country, and William made himself the owner of the whole shebang. Under him were 180 chief tenants, who owed him military service. And under them? More tenants, who owed military service through the people above them. The top lords were all or almost all Normans, and they replaced the entire upper crust of Anglo-Saxon society.

And to make sure he’d have a matching set, William did the same with administrators and church officials: He replaced them with Norman versions.

William kept a fair bit of Anglo-Saxon administrative organization–it was efficient and, for its time, centralized–but (among many other things) dramatically changed people’s rights to use the forest. The right to hunt was now reserved for the top one percent of the one percent. Maybe I should add another “of the one percent” there, but forget the numbers: It was reserved for the aristocracy–the landowners, that thin (and Norman) top layer of the population. Anyone else was poaching–stealing the lord’s game.

This was codified into the forest law, which protected the animals so the king could hunt them and also protected everything the animals fed on. Common people not just lost their right to hunt, but to fish, to gather fruit and wood, to dig peat and clay, to pasture their animals. It was a disaster for a people whose living had depended in part on the forest.

What happened if they broke the law? The punishments ranged from fines to death, and in the early years after the conquest the law was enforced with a heavy hand. Hunting had gone from being something any free man might do to something reserved for the aristocracy.

But what was this about pasturing their animals in a forest?

Under Norman law, forest didn’t mean forest as in a place with lots of trees. It could mean woods, but it could also mean pastures and even villages. It meant a place the king might want to hunt and it meant anything that fell within that place he might want to hunt. If he designated it a forest, it was a forest, and you wouldn’t want to stand there arguing about its lack of trees. If you happened to live inside what he said was a forest, you not only couldn’t hunt or cut wood or do any of those other things, you couldn’t use a fence or a hedge to protect your crops because it might get in the way of the hunt.

At the time of the Domesday Book–William’s massive, nitpicking survey of the land he’d conquered–there were 25 royal forests, but forest law applied not just to royal forests but also to forests owned by major lords of various flavors.

Norman forest law led to a lot of confusion over land ownership. Since all land belonged to the king and was granted downward from there–and since it could, if the king got mad at you, be un-granted–ownership had some murky edges. The law was muddled enough that it was possible to own part of a forest but not have the right to hunt in it or cut trees.

All of this is what made the 1217 Charter of the Forest so important: It gave free men certain rights in royal forests–and by then there were 143 royal forests. Commoners could gather wood, honey, and fruit; dig clay; fish; cut peat; and pasture animals. The charter laid the groundwork for rights that held (and were fought over) throughout the medieval period and for the rights of commoners today on some 500 surviving commons.

On the other hand, only about 10 percent of the population was free. Serfs weren’t slaves but they weren’t in any realistic or legal way free. So although the charter was important, both in practical terms and in terms of the precedent it set, but it was also limited.

55 thoughts on “The Anglo-Saxons and the Normans: how hunting turned to poaching

  1. Tough times for all but a few. Quite a different history to North America. Of course, the Europeans simply stole the land from the First Nations and then put them onto enclosed reservations. Thanks for another informative history lesson.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Two conquests, two thefts, but very different forms. I hadn’t thought about the parallels and differences until you brought that up, but the Normans had known the Anglo-Saxons and looked for many ways to cast themselves as the successors to their line of kings, including adopting some Anglo-Saxon saints, some Anglo-Saxon organizational structures, and of course insisting that William was the proper successor to Whoosit the Childless. They were brutal, but in a different way. I’d be tempted to say they considered themselves equals, but of course they didn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I was reading a BBC History article the other day about King Richard 1, born about 100 years after the Norman conquest. At that point, they suggested, about 50% of England was in the hands of the Anglo-French nobility with the remainder split between the Crown and the Church. The we’re saying that we still have, in English, the hangover from this time. The animals farmed, herded, slaughtered etc by the Anglo-Saxon peasantry are known by their Anglo-Saxon names – swine, calf, sheep – but when they are on the table of the Anglo-French nobility (the only people who were allowed to eat them) they become the French pork, veal, mutton

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Just goes to show that, when people complain about the top 1% of the 1% owning pretty much everything, they are not describing anything new – just the way it always was. The only difference being that, since the industrial revolution, a few upstarts have found ways of muscling in – folks like Bezos and Musk, for example, in the present generation, although there were, of course, others in prior generations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There was a brief period when the distribution was slightly less unbalanced in developed countries. Unions were stronger, the economy was stronger (I’ll leave it to economists to argue over whether those two are linked and if so which is the cause and which is the effect), Keynesiansim was still riding high, and the Soviet Union etc. needed to be counter-balanced by the belief that capitalism brought prosperity to all. I grew up thinking that was a permanent change, which goes to show you what I knew. Now it looks like a brief historical blip.


  4. Those dratted Normans have a lot to answer for, including Schwarzkopf of the storming variety, Mailer (the postal delinquent), Wisdom of the funny bone, one-hit-wonder Greenbaum and, of course, our own Greg (Choker) Norman. In times of old when knights were bold and days were even saucier, it would seem the world was divided between the pheasantry and the peasantry.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. So, what are things like now? Allowed to hunt, fish, and gather wherever?

    My daughter has gotten into some PBS series imported from England. The people all seem so nice and happy, living wonderful lives in their enormous stone houses, with happy servants and townsfolk. I’m starting to question some of your tales, certainly the BBC couldn’t be biased, so it must be you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is me. Everyone lives in enormous stone houses with happy servants (who also live in enormous stone houses with happy servants, who also and so on into infinity, like seeing yourself reflected in mirrors that face each other, with each house and set of servants getting smaller as the images recede).

      I don’t know what the rules are. I don’t hunt and I don’t fish. I do pick blackberries, and no one objects if you take them from the public side of a hedge or from the bushes alongside a footpath, but then if they were left to their own devices blackberries would take over the entire island and run all the people out, so the competition for them isn’t fierce. It probably once was, back when food was scarcer, in which case picking would’ve been regulated and I’d probably have been hung. Or burned as a witch.

      FYI: They’re not the juicy, lush kind you see in the stores. They’re smaller and seedier.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I figured it must be you. People were much happier back then, no traffic jams, didn’t worry about the stock market and their retirement funds, no CV19. Life was good.

        Yeah I know the kind, I run across them when I’m hiking. Like wild strawberries, they’re about the size of a grape and mostly white, no where near as sweet.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The ones here are different–black, for one thing, and they take joy from snagging your clothes (or even better, flesh) and hanging on so that when you run into them, you stay. The only possible revenge is to eat as many as possible.

          They’re not bad, especially if you’re on a walk and thirsty, but they’re far from my favorite fruit. I just happen to like harvesting things, so I can’t help myself. I’d much rather find wild blueberries or raspberries, but I’ve never seen either here.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Ellen. Sorry I blinked whist I was looking for my bottle of reading sauce. Was it 143 royal forests or 143 free men. And does that mean there were no free women ? Or do we not have time for all that today ? Cheers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What, you’re going to ask me to go back and read that all over again? With a memory like mine, it’s always a gamble when I answer questions without rereading, but I’m going to guess it was 143 royal forests, no women truly free for many a century, and four bottles of hot sauce, of which I’m taking one home with me, so make that three.

      What were we talking about?

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting bit of history.

    I took two required world history courses in college which I liked. Then I took a course in medieval English history. Professor and class were totally boring and a total waste.

    Since retiring I have been reading a lot if history. Very interesting and important with the right approach.

    History of land ownership is a long and convoluted story. As is class history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Long, convoluted, and central. In the assorted history books I gather, I find some that are badly written and I find it really hard to dig the story out of the deluge of detail. But a well-written one? That’s golden. A shame about your medieval history class. It could, you’d think, be fascinating.


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