Two years ago, we heard a great deal of hoopla on the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, celebrating it as the landmark advance for the rule of law and limits on the power of the sovereign. Far less attention was given to a companion document, the Charter of the Forest, which guaranteed the customary rights of commoners to access the forests that were so vital to their livelihoods.
These rights were secured after a long civil war against the King, who had relentlessly expanded his claims of exclusive control of the forest, punishing violators with fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. So it is fitting that we pause a moment and recall that 800 years ago, on November 6, 1217, King Henry III granted the Charter of the Forest, formally recognizing in writing the customary rights of commoners to have access to the things essential to their everyday lives.
Commoners depended on the forest for nearly everything. It provided wood for their fires and houses, pastures for sheep and cattle, and wild game for food. The forest had mushrooms, hazelnuts, berries, dandelion leaves, and countless herbs. The forests were a source of acorns and beech mast for pigs; brush with which to make brooms; and medicinal plants for all sorts of illnesses and diseases.
“More than any other kind of landscape,” wrote English naturalist Richard Mabey, “[the English forests of the 13th Century] are communal places, with generations of shared natural and human history inscribed in their structures.”
How is it that the Charter of the Forest has been nearly forgotten? Historian Peter Linebaugh explains in his wonderful book The Magna Carta Manifesto that the two charters of liberty were often publicly linked. Indeed, the very term Magna Carta was used to distinguish the Great Charter of 1215 with the “lesser” one issued two years later, the Charter of the Forest.
It wasn’t until 1297 that King Edward I directed that the two be treated as the single law of the land. In 1369, King Edward III issued a law that incorporated the two into a single statute, with the Charter of the Forest becoming chapter 7 of the Magna Carta. Over the centuries, the Charter of the Forest, seen as a minor subset of the Great Charter, was largely forgotten.
The Medieval manuscripts blog maintained by the British Library has a nice post on “how our ancient trees connect us to the past,” which mentions the Charter of the Forest and provides a rarely seen image of it. (Thanks to Juan Carlos de Martin and Ugo Mattei for alerting me to this.) The post noted that there are over 120,000 trees listed in the British Woodland Trust’s Ancient Tree Inventory, some of which are over 1,000 years old and were around at the time that the Charter was issued.
The blog post discusses how the Charter of the Forest “rolled back the area of the forests to their boundaries at the beginning of the rule of King Henry II in 1152, where lands could be shown to have been taken wrongfully. (Henry II had vigorously expanded the forest borders to the point of creating hardship.)” An early case of reclaiming the commons, one might say.
But what does the Charter mean for commoners today?
Two years ago, at an event celebrating the Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, I gave a talk at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, called “Who May use the King’s Forest: The Meaning of the Magna Carta, Commons, and Law in Our Time.” My focus was on the functional legal significance of Magna Carta (i.e., the Charter of the Forest) in meeting people’s everyday survival needs and in fulfilling human rights.
The document is significant because it assured that everyone may access the common wealth that we all inherit as human beings – or as I put it, Who may use the King’s forests? The commoners of the early 1200s had a ready answer to this question: “What do you mean, ‘The King’s forests’? They belong to us! They’ve been ours for centuries!”
This is the forgotten legacy of Magna Carta: its frank acknowledgment that commoners have rights to the things essential to human life: the right to use the forest, the right to self-organize their own governance rules, and civil liberties and protections against the sovereign’s arbitrary abuses of power. All of these preceded the very idea of written law. They were considered human rights based on fundamental needs and long-standing traditions.
It is fascinating to realize that, with the rise of the modern nation-state and capitalism, these rights have been steadily pared back and in many cases eliminated. There is no longer any broad enforceable right of access to resources essential to human survival, for example — although Italian legal scholar Stefano Rodota worked hard to try to resurrect this principle.
The struggle to resurrect a law for the commons in modern times is barely underway. But it is becoming clear that commoners must reclaim from reckless market/states their right to act as stewards of the planet’s ecosystems. Let us raise a toast to the Charter of the Forest and remember what it stands for. We will be needing inspiration and instruction for it in the years ahead.