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 by proclaiming them forests and protecting them with harsh laws. Henry II’s Assize of the Forest, however, was the first legal document solely focused on regulating the forest (Danziger and Gillingham 2005; Knight and Ohlgren 2000, note for line 1429). 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 as a result the strict enforcement of the king’s interests by foresters and sheriffs denying noblemen and commoners alike from accessing the wealth of the land led to deep discontent at both ends of the societal spectrum, now preserved in law codes and literature (Douglass and Greenaway 1981, 450). One of the earliest surviving sources to mention Robin Hood, the romantic ballad, A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450), glorifies violations of such laws in narratives sourcing from lower in the social hierarchy as 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 the Magna Carta provides a framework to better comprehend the interplay between the Assize and the Gest. How do the 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 the 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, how can the concept of yeomanry, both as a social rank and a household station, as presented in the Gest, inform 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, the Magna Carta provides the context required to understand how and its lower class audience responded to elements of forest law.
Funderburg, Kathryn, "Barons and Yeomen, Venison and Vert: A Comparative Analysis of the Magna Carta and A Gest of Robyn Hode in the Context of Forest Law" (2016). Undergraduate Student Research Awards. 30.