The Charter of the Forest, sealed on 6th November 1217, is an incredibly important medieval document with a history woven into the city of Lincoln.
When the “Charter of Liberties”, sealed by King John in 1215, failed to stop civil war, rebel Barons asked Prince Louis of France to become king. At just nine years old, Henry III succeeded John when he died at Newark in 1216 and, with the help of the knight William Marshal, finally defeated Louis and the rebel Barons at a major battle in the streets of Lincoln in May 1217.
As part of the peace process afterwards the 1215 charter was rewritten and an accompanying document called the Charter of the Forest was issued in the name of King Henry III on 6th November 1217.
To clarify which was which, the larger document began to be referred to as The Big Charter, hence its nickname in Latin ‘Magna Carta’. Whilst Magna Carta was mainly about issues affecting the nobles, the Charter of the Forest was more helpful to the common man - especially if you lived in or near a Royal Forest.
Royal Forests were special hunting grounds with their own laws, and varied from heaths to grasslands, wetlands, and indeed woods of trees. William the Conqueror had introduced Forest Law to England and people resented the cruel punishments forest courts gave out to those who broke the rules. For example in Lincolnshire, the fens north of Bourne and Spalding were a Royal Forest - the Forest of Kesteven - and there were strict rules about who could graze their cattle or hunt there.
The 1217 Charter of the Forest reduced the size of Royal Forests which were eventually reclaimed to become the farmland we know today – including the Forest of Kesteven. The population of England was increasing and towns were growing, people needed to turn waste land into to productive farmland.
As with Magna Carta in 1215, the Bishops’ scribes helped to write of the Charter of the Forest and delivered a copy to each of the Bishops in the diocese across the country. At the time, Lincoln Cathedral was the seat of the largest diocese in England, stretching from the Humber to the Thames, so it’s no wonder that a copy was sent there.
Only two original 1217 copies survive today; one of which is Lincoln’s.
You can see original copies of both the 1215 Magna Carta and the 1217 Charter of the Forest for yourself in Lincoln Castle’s subterranean David P J Ross Magna Carta Vault. Lincoln is the only place in the world where an original copy of both of these documents can be seen together.
Please note: at certain times during the year Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest are at rest and unavailable. Please see the Lincoln Castle website for details of which documents are on display and when. Check ahead before visiting.
Thanks to historian Erik Grigg for these words.