Today we think of a forest as an area of dense woodland, but when something was called a forest in medieval times people weren’t describing the vegetation. They were describing the way the land was used. A forest was an area where the animals and their habitat were protected for hunting.
Land that was densely populated was unsuitable for the chase, and there were better ways to use good agricultural land. Land suitable for hunting might be woodland, moorland, heathland, or a mixture. William the Conqueror and his successors demanded access to good hunting, so large areas were declared as Royal Forests. Following the Norman Conquest rights under forest law were eroded. In a Royal Forest the common people would not normally be allowed to collect fallen timber for firewood. They could not harvest berries, cut turf, or put their swine out to pasture. Even the rights of the local baron were restricted. They could only hunt smaller animals. They were not allowed to hunt deer or wild boar. Only the king could hunt “beasts of the chase”.
At the time there were three areas of Royal Forest in Northumberland. One lay to the south of Rothbury and the Coquet, another to the north of Rothbury between the Coquet and the Aln, and a third to the north of the Aln.
These Royal Forests in Northumberland all came within the barony of Eustace de Vescy (1170-1215). Eustace might have felt that, whatever the law said, he was so far from the king’s reach that in practice he was still able to enjoy the use of the forest. However, he became one of the most prominent of the barons who pressed for the king to sign Magna Carta in 1215, and one of the twenty-five barons who was then appointed to monitor the king’s conduct.
Following the signing of Magna Carta, King Henry III applied his seal to the Carta Foresta on 6th November 1217. This summarised elements in the Magna Carta which re-established the rights of free men in the Royal Forest. It obliged the King to to “dissaforest”, or roll-back the boundaries of Royal Forests. Powerful landowners were able to set aside parks to contain deer, and provide a suitable landscape for hunting.
Eustace had been succeeded his son, William de Vescy, who became baron in 1215. William was probably the first to start enclosing the deer parks, around the middle of the 13th century. At the time he would use wooden paling, rather than stone walls. A combination of ditch, bank and wooden paling would allow wild deer from outside to leap into the park, while stopping deer that were already inside the park from leaping out.
William didn’t need all of this land for deer parks. He gave privileges on Alnwick Moor (a.k.a. Haydon Forest) to the burgesses of Alnwick. The Knights Templar are thought to have owned land on the edge of town – around the top of Clayport, and Swansfield Park.
In 1253, William was succeeded by his son, John (1244-1289). King Edward I succeeded to the throne in 1272. By now, forests were no longer governed by Royal Forest Law. Edward’s military campaigns stretched the national finances and they were a potential source of revenue. In 1281 a scheme of disafforestation was drawn up for Northumberland. An annual rental for forests south of the Coquet was set at 17 marks, and the annual rental for forests north of the Coquet was 23 marks.
Until the 14th century there would now be three deer parks around Alnwick: Hulne Park to the north of the River Aln, and West Park next to it, south of the river. Cawledge Park lay to the south-east of the town. In each, deer were contained by wooden palings.
As well as being used for hunting, the parks were a source of timber and bark (for tanning). Some stone was quarried. Cattle were a target for Scottish raiders, so there were enclosures where livestock could be protected. Towers were constructed at Hulne Priory and Heiferlaw. They were used both as watchtowers to defend against raids, and as hunting lodges, with observation platforms so that spectators could follow the hunt.