John's Charter to Radulf FitzStephen and Mathilda de Caux

This document must date from between 1189, when John assumed the title Count of Mortain, and April 1194, when King Richard stripped him of his lands, including Nottinghamshire, at the Great Council held in Nottingham. The Latin text may be found in HE Boulton, The Sherwood Forest Book (Thoroton Society, Nottingham, 1962). The English translation is mine, and is a little shaky.

The charter basically appoints Radulf and Matilda, and their descendants, chief foresters for all the forests of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. It was a powerful position, and one their descendants held until well into the 14th century.

Click to enlarge - 720kb PNGDuring the 1190s there were three forests in Nottinghamshire. Sherwood stretched from Nottingham to the River Meden, and from Mansfield to Wellow. Hatfield Forest lay to the north, around Worksop, and the Forest of the Clay lay between them and the River Trent. The forests included all the open heathland, villages and fields within their boundaries, not just the woods. The word 'forest', in its medieval sense, is a legal one and does not refer only to woodlands.

Sherwood was first mentioned as a forest in 1154, but is probably older. Under the terms of the Magna Carta (1216) King John disafforested forests created since the death Henry I in 1135 (ie, he removed them from the jurisdiction of the Forest Law). Sherwood survived; Hatfield and The Clay did not. The earliest record of Sherwood’s boundaries dates from 1218, after the widescale disafforestation prompted by Magna Carta. It may have been more extensive during Richard's reign. The boundaries of Hatfield and The Clay are unknown. It is probably safe to assume that, at the time this charter was written, most of Nottinghamshire north and west of the Trent is subject to the Forest Law, though the Borough of Nottingham itself is exempt.

The primary forest in Derbyshire was the Forest of the High Peak, an area of high mountain moorlands and dales.

Boulton notes that the charter is 'confirming' the couple's rights, and suggests that this means they held them some years previously. They may well have done so, but I'm less sure about her reasoning - the phrase 'I have granted and by this my present charter confirm...' is a formulaic thing in this type of document, and I believe it indicates that the grant is a personal thing, made between two individuals, and that the charter is merely a record, not the contract itself (the opposite of the way we do things now - we might make an agreement on a handshake, but the important legal part is the signing of the written contract).

The charter

John, Count of Mortain, to all his friends and faithful men, ministers and bailiffs, greetings.

Know that I have granted and by this my present charter confirm Radulf FitzStephen and Matilda de Caux, his wife, and their heirs all liberties and customs in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire wholly as the predecessors of the aforesaid Matilda had them, namely all the forests of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, with all fees of lands within the boundaries of the aforesaid forests, and they may have dogs to chase hare, fox, cat and squirrel throughout the aforenamed forest[1], and if anyone goes hunting or makes private enclosures the plea in respect thereof is theirs.

Furthermore I grant them all the fallen wood in the aforesaid forests, or that which was blown down by the wind, in my demesne woods outside my hedged enclosures or private yards, and that they may have the lop of the trees[2], and that they may hold court, and that they have one skep[3] from every cartload of salt which is transported through the forest, and half a skep from a small cartload, and rerepannage[4] throughout the whole forest.

And if a robber or poacher is caught within the forest by them or their servants all his chattels go to them, but the body of the thief or poacher shall be handed over to my judge to make my justice.

Furthermore I grant then the right to have one park at Lexington[5] where they may hunt beasts and do what pleases them[6] and 70 acres of assart at Lexington and Gedelling, and the receipts of forest dues and 'regards'.

Furthermore I grant them all pleas of dogs which are not hambled[7] in the aforesaid forest, unless they are wild. All this I grant and by this charter confirm to the aforesaid Radulf and Matilda his wife and their heirs in perpetuity for their homage and service, and 40 silver marks and one destrier and one palfrey which they have given me, to hold of me and my heirs rightly and honourably, with all liberties and fees, rights and customs as their predecessors held them.

Witnessed by: Earl David, brother of the King of Scots; Galfrido FitzPeter; Hugh Bardolf; Walter of Dunstanvill'; Radulf of Meidnill Waryn; Roger of Newburgh; Robert of Morton; Engelram of Pratell; Radulf Murdac[8]; William FitzWalkelin; Roger of Amunudville; Theobald Walter; Hubert FitzRadulf; Robert of Heris.

At Derby.


[1] This is the 'right of free warren', the right to hunt sporting beasts, but not game animals.

[2] The word used to describe this is 'courpeones', which is not in any medieval Latin reference at my disposal. It could be 'cooperage' (doesn't make sense), 'the crop and lop of trees' (which I've gone for), or 'barking trees'. The Victoria Country History says they had the right to 'the valuable inner back of lime trees', presumably based on the translation of this word. I think my translation is more appropriate, but I'm almost having to guess the word, so I wouldn't stake my life on it.

[3] A dry measure of uncertain quantity.

[4] Pannage is the right to fatten pigs on fallen beechmast and acorns in the woodlands in the weeks before Michaelmas. Rerepannage (after-pannage) allows them to do so after Michaelmas.

[5] An old name for Laxton, Nottinghamshire. The earthworks of Radulf and Mathilda's castle can still be seen in Laxton, which is the last open-field village in England.

[6] The Victoria County History suggests this meant they could hunt deer and other 'venison' beasts within this park (and within this park alone) whereas they could take hare, fox, etc. throughout the forest.

[7] Hambling, or lawing, involved mutilating the feet of dogs by amputating two toes from the front feet so they were unable to chase game. It was very unpopular.

[8] Radulf Murdac was Sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire c. 1190-1194.