The Royal Forests
Forest Law was directly connected with the king throughout the early Middle Ages and the Wirral forests were part of the extensive Royal hunting grounds which by the end of the 12th century covered a third of England. From the time of William the Conqueror, provisions had been laid down which had stated that no person should transgress against the king's hunting rights in his forest and so bows and arrows and hunting dogs were prohibited; these were offences against the venison. The king's deer were sacred!
Offences against the deer's pasture or the vert dictated that no person should cause waste by giving or selling anything beyond his own needs from his own woods that lay within the forest, for men other than the king sometimes had woods there. But the flexible and less defined approach of the 11th and 12th centuries was changed by the Forest Charter of 1217, which along with Magna Carta became part of the law of the land and whenever disputes over rights arose, this charter was cited as a fixed body of law.
The Wirral Forest and Mollington Woods
Forest Law in the 13th Century
In earlier times when anyone had been caught breaking the forest law he could be condemned to trial by ordeal, but after the dictates of the Forest Charter, it was agree that "no man shall lose life or member for his transfressions". FOrest please were heard in forest courts and the criminal or civil please were heard in common law courts. Hunting offences were considered relatively less important than those offences involving use of forest land for purposes forbidden by the assize of the forest. But there was still a temptation for timber to be taken from royal forests without authorisation to be sold, even at the risk of being amerced (in medieval records, a fine agreed between the court and the guilty party to replace another punishment) for having committed waste.
In forest proceedings alleged violators were presented to the justices by witnesses ("regarders") who had seen the violations. Men who fled rather than appear in the local forest courts had their chattels confiscated and placed in the hands of local men.
Royal foresters had the responsibility to oversee the royal forests and were sometimes killed or wounded when attempting arrests of violators. There were also vererers who helped with the pilicing of the forests - usually four in each forest - and who were elected by the county court. When a man was caught felling an oak, the verderers and the foresters apraised the value of the oak and the verderers collected the amount and made certain that the violator had made pledges to ensure his appearance at the next forest court meeting. For lesser transgressions, against the vert, the warden and the verderers simply collected the fine for the king.
Three relevant extracts from the Wirral Forest Court Roll of 1286 (held at the P.R.O. Kew). THe Pleas of Vert were held before Reginald Grey and the Abbot of Vale Royal, assigned as justices for this purpose. In the text, "assart" means to clear land of trees, etc, in order to plough it up. The king referred to in the text was Edward 1.
- The foresters present that John Thorold cut down five oaks in 1276-7 in Great Mollington wood, of which he gave two to the Abbot of Chester and three to Sir Roger Lestrange and, in time, destroyed the whole wood with the help of Hamo and Adam, his tenants. When the foresters came to distrain him for the new ploughing, made to the forest's great harm, he would not let justice be done but rebuffed them with force and arms, so that they raised the hue and cry.
- John came and could not deny the rebuff. He is adjudged to prison for contempt (pledges Adam Backford and Roger Pensby).
- As for the oaks, he said that he had every right to cut them down for building, or to give them to his neighbours for that purpose, and that he gave no more nor did he make any other destruction. THe sheriff is ordered to summon a jury.
Adam de Backford occurs in other documents, too. Ormerod mentions that he was granted land in Backford in 1305, and was probably an ancestor of the Lee family who tenanted the Manor of Lea from St. Werburgh's Abbey.
Wirral was deforested in 1384, ironically because the woodland which had formed across the Forest was supporting more criminals than ever. After deforestation Wirral was subject to normal laws, and soon became a desirable place to live.