Royal Forests of America

He made great protection for the game
And imposed laws for the same.[1]

-The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in reference to William the Conqueror

Medieval kings of England loved to hunt. In the 11th century, William the Conqueror designated certain English forests as his hunting preserves. At a time of large-scale deforestation and land clearance for sheep-grazing, these preserves shielded trees and wildlife from destruction. This ancient method of safeguarding habitat endures in the United States as American hunters play a vital role in the protection of nature.

Contemporary hunters are not very different from their medieval ancestors. Hunting was a way of life. It was both a form of recreation and a way to put food on the table. There were even medieval bird dogs. The Livre de chasse is a book about hunting written in the 1380s by a French nobleman known as Phoebus. Over forty manuscripts survive today and contain richly drawn depictions of 14th century hunting. Like many bird dog handlers, Phoebus was opinionated about hunting dog breeds. The Morgan Library & Museum’s website contains scanned images of the Livre de chasse and provides the following synopsis of the section devoted to hunting dogs:

“Phoebus referred to these dogs as bird-dogs (chien d’oiseau) or spaniels (espaignolz), because the breed originated in Spain. They excelled in flushing out birds, especially partridge and quail, as well as other small game, such as rabbits…Phoebus complained that spaniels lacked discipline, barked too much, and had so many other faults …”[2]

Phoebus might as well have been talking about my French Brittany Spaniel.

Regulated hunting in England, the mother country of our common law system, goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror, a French-speaking warrior who seized the English throne in 1066 when he defeated King Harold at the battle of Hastings. After William’s victory, he imposed a Norman system of laws and governance on the Anglo-Saxon kingdom and added his own personal touch. William was an inveterate hunter. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he “set aside a vast deer preserve and imposed laws concerning it, so that whoever slew a hart or hind was to be blinded.”[3] An Englishman protective of his eyesight did well to keep away from the king’s quarry in the newly created royal forests.

William’s grandson, Henry II, expanded and entrenched the laws that governed royal forests. Henry was even more fond of hunting than William. According to a chronicle written in 1179, Henry traveled frequently throughout the kingdom and would take refuge in his preserves by “laying aside [his] cares now and then, to hunt, as a rest and recreation.”[4] Royal forests, “a safe abode for wild animals,”[5] were policed by king-appointed forest wardens, a medieval version of Fish and Wildlife agents or state DNR game wardens. These royal agents protected both wildlife and the trees from illegal harvesting. The wardens would arrest any subject found hunting without permission from the king – the equivalent of a modern-day hunting permit. It was a dangerous job, as poaching was prevalent. The indirect result of protecting the king’s forests from unregulated hunting and logging was a prototypical conservation movement that preserved forests and game from reckless ruin.

Theodore Roosevelt is the American, democratic counterpart to William the Conqueror and Henry II. Roosevelt was instrumental in setting aside 230 million acres of land in the United States for public ownership, the concept of which is similar to the royal forests of medieval England. Roosevelt was arguably the first, and perhaps the only, conservationist to serve as President of the United States. His land ethic was derived from a deep love and appreciation for the wilderness and hunting. In 1905, President Roosevelt wrote, “All hunters should be nature lovers. It is to be hoped that the days of mere wasteful, boastful slaughter, are past, and that from now on the hunter will stand foremost in working for the preservation and perpetuation of the wild life, whether big or little.”[6] Like William the Conqueror and Henry II, Roosevelt wanted to protect the wilderness because he was a nature-loving hunter. Hunters, by definition, require game, and game requires habitat. Were it not for his devotion to hunting, public lands in America might not exist.

The genius of American public land lies in the fact that it is preserved for the benefit and use of “we the people” and our descendants, rather than a solitary king and his royal heirs. Just as the old English kings jealously protected their royal forests and the animals in them, we are responsible for defending our public lands from poachers and polluters.

In his 1908 state of the union address, Roosevelt said, “If there is any one duty which more than another we owe it to our children and our children’s children to perform at once, it is to save the forests of this country, for they constitute the first and most important element in the conservation of the natural resources of the country.”[7] I’d pay a king’s ransom if you brought me a law-abiding grouse hunter who wouldn’t mourn the loss of land to walk on while armed with a shotgun and in the presence of a bird dog and old friends.

Every hunter who buys a shotgun pays a tax that goes directly to conservation efforts. When the cool mornings of late summer arrive and you catch a faint scent of decay in the leaves, it’s almost time to pay for this season’s hunting permit, which contributes to protecting habitat. When you wake up at midnight, stirred by dreams of hot coffee in cold blinds as ducks fly overhead, it’s nearly time to buy a new duck stamp and contribute to conservation in this country. As Roosevelt said, “In a civilized and cultivated country, wild animals only continue to exist at all when preserved by sportsmen.”[8] Keep hunting, and remember that we are the kings and queens of our public lands. Let’s protect our kingdom.

Anthony Giattino is a law enforcement officer based in Westchester County, NY. He can be reached at agiattino1@gmail.com.

1) David C. Douglas, ed., English Historical Documents, Volume II (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1953), 164.

2) https://www.themorgan.org/collection/livre-de-la-chasse/42

3) Joseph and Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle (New York: HarperCollins, 1974), 135.

4) Charles R. Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), 22.

5) Ibid., 22.

5) Theodore Roosevelt, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons), 340.

5) https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/eighth-annual-message-4

6) Roosevelt, Outdoor Pastimes of an American Hunter, 272.


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