Although kings in the Anglo-Saxon period are nown to have hunted in the the woodlands of Northamptonshire, the royal forests were only established after the Norman Conquest of 1066. They were not simply tracts of woodland, but rather areas of legal jurisdiction where special laws applied to preserve the king’s hunting rights. Though a forest is recorded here in William the Conqueror’s great survey, the Domesday Book of 1086, it was not until 1157 that it is first called the ‘Foresta de Rockingham’.
Norman cavalry depicted on a capital in the church at Wakerley
The area under forest law grew in the late 11th and 12th centuries to encompass a vast tract of both woodland and agricultural villages with their fields. It reached its greatest extent in the 12th century when Rockingham forest covered over a third of Northamptonshire. Maps were not made before the late 15th century and so the boundaries in the medieval period were recorded and preserved by local people walking them. Hence the terms ‘perambulations’ and ‘beating the bounds’. The bounds of the forest were subject to almost continual change due to the granting out of hunting rights and the sale of woodland. This led to disputes over land and the rights of owners and commoners within it. Part of the problem was caused by the nature of some of the perambulation markers. They might include boundary stones, hedges, trees and woods that could be removed or changed.
Many features such as streams, roads and distinctive trees were followed or used as markers along the forest boundary. The White Stone at Blatherwycke is the only medieval boundary cross to survive on the Rockingham Forest perambulation.
The earliest surviving perambulation is of 1286, when the forest stretched from the walls of Northampton, along the north bank of the Nene to Wansford and up Ermine Street to Stamford, then along the Welland to Market Harborough and so along the road via Maidwell and back to the walls of the town. But already the forest was in decline. Medieval population levels were rising rapidly and this had led to the clearance of large areas for agriculture while the crown had made many grants of hunting and other rights to various landowners. By 1299 another perambulation had to be made, covering a dramatically reduced area, better reflecting the contemporary distribution of woodland. But the area under forest law continued to shrink over the next 300 years, gradually eroded as yet more lands were sold, various right granted and land cleared for agriculture.
The varying extent of the forest through the medieval and early modern periods
In 1637 Charles I, in his endless quest for revenue, attempted to re-impose the perambulation of 1286 and thus retrospectively extract heavy fines from landowners who had infringed the law. Similar high handed actions by Charles in other spheres of taxation and matters of religion finally led to the Civil War. But the dispute over the forest was resolved before that. Because of the great discontent of landowners, great and small, Charles backed down and re-affirmed the boundaries that had existed in 1622-23 under his father, James I. Under Cromwell the forest continued to be managed but in a manner considered to be ‘less offensive to the people and for the good of the commonwealth’. At the Restoration, in 1660, there was no attempt to re-impose earlier jurisdiction as forests were now being seen more as valuable resources for timber rather than royal pleasure grounds.
By 1792 most of the woodlands within the forest were in private hands and the commissioners appointed to establish the value to the Crown concluded that so little right to the timber was left the forest that it could contribute little to either the ‘amusement of the king’ nor ‘ the dignity or profit of the crown’. This was the death knell of the royal forest and in 1795, 1796 and 1816 Acts were passed allowing the sale of crown rights over the timber to the private owners of the forest and the sale of the remaining crown owned land. A further Act was passed in 1817 abolishing the offices of warden and justices of the forest. In effect Rockingham no longer existed as a forest in its original sense.
Only fragments now survive of the great tract of medieval woodland, even in the heart of the forest as here between Lyveden and Brigstock
With the loss of the protection that Forest law had afforded enclosure followed swiftly and this was accompanied by large scale clearance. The former Rockingham and Cliffe bailiwicks had lost much of their woodland by the 1880s. Brigstock bailiwick fared better, and the best surviving remains of large tracts of former forest woodland is to be found in Fermyn Woods and Geddington chase, just to the north east and north west of Brigstock. Westhay once part of the Cliffe bailiwick is also a large surviving wood but represents only a fraction of what was the former bailiwick. The ancient woods surviving today are little changed from their extent in 1880, but they represent the scattered and fragmentary remnants of what had existed.