The New Forest is a National Park that covers approximately 150 square miles, and lies in the county of Hampshire. It was created as a royal hunting ground by William the Conqueror (William I) at the end of the eleventh century (c.1079), at the cost of the local population that included 36 Parishes. The area of the New Forest was formerly known as Ytene, meaning ‘of the Jutes’. The Jutes were a tribe of Anglo Saxons that inhabited the southern part of Hampshire.
The New Forest was originally called ‘nova foresta’ (Domesday Book 1086), and had a completely different meaning in Norman times. ‘Forest’ was a separate legal system with courts and officers (Verderers) that protected ‘beasts of the chase’ (deer) and ‘vert’ (the green undergrowth that the deer fed on). The New Forest was one of 21 areas placed under Forest Law by William the Conqueror.
The local population detested the Forest Law as it prohibited them from hunting the animals and collecting wood to build homes and make fires. They also lost ‘Commoner’s Rights’, which allowed their livestock and domestic animals to graze on the forest.
The punishments for breaking the law were severe, and became even harsher under the reign of King Rufus (William II), William the Conqueror’s son. If you killed a deer, then the sentence was death, shooting at a deer would cost you your hands, and just disturbing the deer resulted in losing your eyesight.
William Rufus (William II) died in the New Forest in 1100 due to a hunting accident. He was shot with an arrow by Sir Walter Tyrell, and there was a lot of controversy as to whether it really was an accident or not. His death was commemorated by the Rufus Stone memorial near Stony Cross, although the memorial does not mark the place of his death.
In 1217 the Commoner’s Rights were restored in the Charter of the Forest (carta de foresta) under King Henry III, which repealed the death penalty for killing deer and abolished the punishment of bodily mutilation for lesser crimes.
Common rights are still in existence today, attached to property or land, and are protected by the law. People that have these rights are known as ‘Commoners’. Verderers are the guardians of the commoners, common rights and forest landscape, and employ a team of agisters to assist in the management of the commoner’s livestock. There are approximately 500 commoners today with around 7000 livestock. Constant grazing keeps the New Forest a beautiful and unique landscape.
The New Forest has been used as a source of timber by the Royal Navy, with plantations that were created in the 18th century. Buckler’s Hard, lying on the Beaulieu River in the New Forest was used by the Royal Navy to construct ships from the 1740s. Ships for Admiral Nelson’s fleet were built from New Forest timber, including HMS Euryalus, HMS Agamemnon and HMS Swiftsure, which served in the Battle of Trafalgar.
The New Forest is visited by millions of tourists every year, of which 13.5 million are day visitors. Tourism provides approximately 8000 jobs for the local community and generates nearly £400 million in tourist expenditure.