The extensive control of English forests by a king can be traced back to the Norman Conquest and William the Conqueror’s establishment of a royal monopoly over resource-rich lands, which he proclaimed forests and protected with harsh laws. Henry II’s Assize of the Forest, however, was the first legal document focused solely on regulating the forest. Legislated in 1184, the Assize of the Forest affirmed the king’s absolute power over the lands he claimed as his forests and the natural resources, such as timber and game, within them. The forests covered a significant portion of the kingdom and served as an “integral part of the social and economic structure of the country,” and the strict enforcement of the king’s interests by foresters and sheriffs, who denied noblemen and commoners alike from accessing the wealth of the land, led to deep discontent at both ends of the societal spectrum, now reflected in law codes and literature. One of the earliest surviving sources to mention Robin Hood, the romantic ballad entitled A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450), glorifies violations of such laws in a narrative derived from lower in the social hierarchy, embodied by the yeoman status of the titular character. Although markedly different in origin and audience, the barons’ attempt to overthrow the king’s control of the forest in Magna Carta provides a framework to better comprehend the interplay between the Assize and the Gest. How do Magna Carta and A Gest of Robyn Hode portray and respond to forest law, and what role does social class play in shaping those reactions? What does a comparison of Magna Carta and the Gest in the context of forest law reveal about the similarities and differences in class structure between the time periods of the two texts? Additionally, what can the concept of yeomanry, both as a social rank and a household station, as presented in the Gest, tell us about society during the time of its composition and the changes in societal hierarchy from the time of Magna Carta? Despite being separated by approximately two centuries and representing differing forms of composition, Magna Carta provides the context required to understand how the Gest and its lower-class audience responded to elements of forest law.
Funderburg, K. (2017). Barons and yeomen, venison and vert: A comparative analysis of Magna Carta and A gest of Robyn Hode in the context of forest law. The Expositor: A Journal of Undergraduate Research in the Humanities, 13, 7-15.
The Expositor: A Journal of Undergraduate Research in the Humanities