Regency Bicentennial:   The Disafforestation of Exmoor Forest

Two hundred years ago, this coming Monday, the disafforestation of the Royal Forest of Exmoor culminated in the sale of large tracts of Crown land to a private citizen. However, due to the ideosyncracies of English law, this did not mean that Exmoor, which had never had many trees, was completely logged off and the land left bare. Rather, it was a change in the designation of the property which allowed the new owner to put it to uses which had not been attempted there in several centuries. This significant change in the status of the land was to have various ramifications for both people and animals living in the vicinity of Exmoor, any of which might serve the plot of a Regency romance set in the area at that time.

The disafforestion of the Royal Forest of Exmoor . . .

First, it is important to understand some of the history and the legal meaning of the term "forest" under English law, in regard to Crown land. The common understanding of a forest today is simply a tract of land which is covered with trees and brush. And such was the basic meaning of the word in Britain through the Anglo-Saxon period. However, when William, Duke of Normandy, seized the English throne after the Battle of Hastings, in 1066, he soon began to apply the term as he understood it, based on the Frankish legal system, founded by the Carolingian and Merovingian monarchs of medieval Europe. In that sense, a forest was a tract of land, often wooded, which had the meaning of a land preserve, with little significance given to the composition or terrain of the property. These "royal forests" were hunting preserves, set aside by the king for his personal use, and perhaps that of a few loyal courtiers. Though the Anglo-Saxon kings had been avid hunters, they never set official restrictions against their subjects on the use of the land over which they hunted. However, William the Conqueror, and the Norman kings who succeeded him, did just that.

It is believed that the word "forest" has its roots in the Latin term foris, meaning outside or beyond, in this case, outside or beyond the traditional Common Law of the land. Thus, when a Norman king "afforested" a tract of land in England, he prohibited his subjects from using it, restricting the rights of that land, and the flora and fauna upon it, to himself and the Crown. These tracts of land, regardless of the range of plant life which grew there, then became known as royal forests. This practice continued right though the medieval period and it is estimated that at the height of the Norman practice of afforestation in Britain, in the thirteenth century, at least one third of the land in southern England had been designated as royal forest.

It is recorded that Exmoor was one of the first five royal forests set aside in Somerset, by William the Conqueror himself. It is located a couple of miles inland from the south shore of the Bristol Channel, covering land in both Somerset and Devon counties. Much of the Royal Forest of Exmoor consisted of open and treeless moorland, though there were also a few stands of ancient woodlands, as well as a number of substantial peat bogs. Initially, this area provided habitats for the "noble" animals the king and his courtiers most liked to hunt, including the roe, red and fallow deer, along with wild boar. It must be noted that all the wild boar in Exmoor Forest had been killed off by the sixteenth century. More than one species of grouse once inhabited Exmoor, and, though they were not ranked with the "noble" animals which the king and his courtiers liked to hunt, they were widely hunted over the centuries and are now extinct on Exmoor. Two large rivers, the Exe, for which the moor was named, and the River Barle, along with the many tributaries which flowed into them, were noted for the trout which swam there. In addition to the game, in many royal forests, the Crown also claimed the right to all of the trees which grew there. In the case of oak trees, in particular, the Crown reserved the best and largest of the oaks in royal forests for use in building the ships of the Royal Navy. This became increasingly common in the seventeenth century. In fact, by then, many royal forests were maintained solely as a source of oak timber for the nation’s ships.

Like many royal forests, farmers in the Exmoor area were able to obtain licenses allowing them to graze their cows or sheep, and/or allow their pigs to root on land in the royal forest. Though the farmers usually had to pay for the privilege, grazing and rooting animals actually helped to improve the land. Grazing animals, like sheep, cows and even horses, helped to control and maintain the natural variety of plant life, while their droppings returned important nutrients back to the soil. Rooting pigs were also important in maintaining a balance on the land. Even better than the hooves of grazing animals, rooting pigs helped to more deeply break up the soil. This action prevented it from packing down, thereby keeping it hospitable for effective seed deposit, as well as for successful plant growth. This was due primarily to deeper absorption of water and more complete release of the nutrients contained in the soil. In addition, when rooting in oak forests, pigs can successfully tolerate large quantities of acorns in their diet, though similar quantities can be quite poisonous to cattle and horses.

When the royal forests were created, it was common for the king to appoint a Warden for each royal forest. The Warden was the king’s representative and the chief official in charge of administering the business of that particular forest. He supervised the other staff, such as foresters, woodwards, verderers and rangers, all of whom not only managed the routine operations of the royal forest, but also enforced the Forest Law which protected it. In most cases, the Warden of a royal forest was an important and powerful aristocrat who lived nearby, and he often engaged a deputy to exercise the bulk of his more mundane responsibilities. In addition, as part of the perquisites of his office, the Warden typically had the right to use the forest for hunting and other activities which were officially reserved to the king. Over the course of the following centuries, the position of warden of a royal forest had become essentially hereditary, and the leases were routinely renewed by the Crown to the current leaseholder or his heir, if the previous leaseholder was deceased. Such was the case with the position of the warden of Exmoor Forest by the seventeenth century. In addition, The Warden of the Royal Forest of Exmoor had also come to hold the position of the Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, which was one of the oldest English packs. The origins of this pack are believed to be a large pack of stag hounds gathered and hunted by Sir Hugh Pollard, Esq., the chief ranger of Exmoor Forest during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Some believe that Elizabeth herself may have hunted stag over Exmoor at least once with that original pack. Over the centuries, the hound pack was maintained and managed by various officials of the royal forest, until the right and responsibility for the pack eventually went to the Warden of Exmoor.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the men of the Acland family had become the hereditary wardens of the Royal Forest of Exmoor, having inherited the position through marriage into the Dyke family. In 1785, upon the death of his father, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, the ninth baronet, became the Warden of Exmoor Forest and Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds. Like his father, he was an avid stag hunter, and it is recorded that between 1785, and his death, in 1794, Sir Thomas killed at least 101 stags. There were many who thought that he was a stern and demanding employer, with little patience for mistakes. The story is told that when his pack of stag hounds got out of their kennel and killed several sheep, probably the property of his own tenants, Sir Thomas is said to have ordered his huntsman, who managed the pack, "to hang himself and the whole pack." There is, happily, however, no proof that this order was ever carried out.

In 1794, when the elder Sir Thomas died, he was succeeded as baronet, Warden of Exmoor Forest, and Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds, by his eldest son, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, the tenth baronet. Despite the fact that he had become the master of the regional stag hound pack, fortunately for the stags in the area, this younger Sir Thomas had little interest in stag hunting. Instead, he focused his interests initially on politics and later, on philanthropical pursuits. As a young man, the tenth baronet was educated at Harrow, and then at Oxford, where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1808 and a Master of Arts degree in 1814. Sir Thomas Acland, the younger, was a member of the Tory party and he served as the Member of Parliament from Devonshire between 1812 and 1818. He returned to Parliament, again for Devonshire, from 1820 to 1831.

As it happened, Sir Thomas Dyke Acland, the 10th baronet, would be the last Warden of the Royal Forest of Exmoor. In 1814, the current lease on Exmoor Forest was set to expire. The government, in almost perpetual need of funds to finance the Napoleonic Wars, reviewed the lease, and the extensive land it covered. Exmoor was less true forest than it was moorland, which meant it was not a steady or reliable source of oak and other timber for the construction of Royal Navy ships. The income derived from the lease was not significant, the annual fee being a little over £ 296. Another, though minor consideration, was that it had been well over a century since any member of the royal family had hunted over Exmoor. The current king was suffering a debilitating mental illness and his ageing and apathetic eldest son no longer had any interest in field sports. Only the local residents and a few avid sportsmen derived any real benefit from this valuable Crown land. Therefore, it seemed that it was in the best interests of Crown and country to remove its designation as a royal forest and sell the land outright.

The process was begun by an Act of Parliament, enacted on 4 July 1815, which directed that the entire forest be surveyed and the title and right to the land be definitively determined by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. The Act also empowered the commissioners to sell the King’s allotment of the land once it had been surveyed. Exmoor was a wild and rugged region and one of the few royal forests which had not been fully enclosed by boundary walls. This had left its boundaries somewhat vague over the centuries, but the extent of the royal forest was estimated at about 22,400 acres. During the course of the title investigation and land survey, it was discovered that a few people had illegally enclosed small tracts of royal forest land. Some even went so far as to then fraudulently sell those enclosed tracts. Other improprieties and irregularities with regard to both land use and occupation were also discovered as the official governmental review of Exmoor progressed. In the end, it took nearly three years to survey all of Exmoor Forest, negotiate with abutters and secure clear title to the ownership of the land within its boundaries. By early 1818, the size of the forest was found to be 18,810 acres. Just over fifty percent of that land was apportioned to ownership by the Crown, or about 10,262 1/4 acres. One eighth of the total acreage, about 3298 acres, was assigned to Sir Thomas Acland, in lieu of the forest pasturage tithes he would lose upon the sale of the land. Smaller parcels of the remaining acreage were assigned to owners of adjoining estates or to farmers and others living on the forest boundaries who claimed various rights, in order to obtain clear title to the Crown acreage.

Some of those smaller parcels were made over to men who were royal forest officials and had regularly served at the Exmoor Swainmote Court. This was a court which administered Forest Law and met three times a year, a fortnight before the Feast of St. Michael, on the first business day near the Feast of St. Martin, and a fortnight before the Feast of John the Baptist. The Warden, the verderers, the woodwards and the foresters were all required to be in attendance, for which most received some payment. Most of them were allotted a small parcel of the Exmoor land in compensation for the loss of future payments, since the Exmoor Swainmote Court would be abolished once Exmoor lost its designation as a royal forest. Others who received small parcels of land were those who had been granted rights to fish in the streams and rivers, and/or to cut some quantity of heath, turf or fern on royal forest land for their personal use. Since they would lose those rights when the land was disafforested, they were given parcels of land which they could either continue to use for the same purpose, or sell and use the proceeds to acquire what they needed by other means.

Finally, in June of 1818, the official review and survey of the land was complete and the sale of the Crown acreage was ready to proceed. The First Commissioner of His Majesty’s Office of Woods and Forests at the time was William Huskisson, a dedicated civil servant and a man recognized as one of the most able financiers of the age. Huskisson, like his fellow commissioners, was eager to see the sale completed, but they also wished to obtain the highest possible price for the land. Therefore, the Crown acreage allotment of Exmoor Forest was offered for sale by the following announcement, which was placed in the Taunton Courier, of Thursday, 18 June 1818:

By Order of the Commissioners of H. M. Woods, Forests, and Land Revenues


Such Persons as are desirous of purchasing an extensive Tract of Waste Land are hereby informed that the Allotment made to His Majesty on the Forest of Exmoor, in the counties of Somerset and Devon, consisting of about 10, 262 Acres; together with an inclosed Farm of 108a[cres]. or 2p[erches]., will be DISPOSED OF BY PUBLIC TENDER for the Highest Price offered for the same, above a certain sum to be previously named, and deposited under a sealed cover, to be opened at the same time with such Tenders as may be received: and persons who may be desirous of becoming purchases of the Lands in question, are requested to send in their Tenders to the said Commissioners on or before the 23rd day of July next, sealed up, and endorsed, Tenders for purchasing the Exmoor Allotment, and stating in words at length the sum they are willing to give.

The Tenders will be opened at the office of the Commissioners of Woods, &c., in Whitehall Place, on the said 23rd of July, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, in the presences of the parties who may have delivered Tenders, and who are requested to attend, by themselves or agents. A Map of the estate may be seen and further particulars known, on application at the Office of Woods, &c., of Richard Hawkins, Esq., Quay House, Kingsbridge; Richard Strong, Tiverton; and Mr. Lock, Lynmouth.

[Author’s Note:   At this time, "waste land" meant land that was uninhabited, or only sparsely inhabited. It was also a term used for land that was not under cultivation.]   Similar announcements were placed in other regional newspapers, as well as in the London papers, in order to attract the greatest number of bidders.

The specific "particulars" of the Crown land sale, including the lowest acceptable bid amount, could be acquired from the men noted at the end of the announcement. All of them had offices in the general area of southern England where Exmoor Forest was located. It is not clear if the same information could be had from the Office of Woods and Forests, in London, though it seems likely that it was. Those planning to bid had five week’s notice from the day the announcement appeared, before their sealed bid must be received in London. Though bidders could get the details they needed in order to place their bids in the Exmoor area, those who did submit a sealed bid would have to be present in London, or send an agent to represent them, when the bids were opened. Not just anyone could bid for this large allotment of Crown property. In order to submit a legitimate bid, the bidder must have a certificate for the full purchase price which proved that they had the full amount and that it was " . . . enrolled in the Office of the Auditor of Land Revenue." Essentially, this certified that they had the full purchase price on deposit with their bank. In addition, the winning bidder would be expected to pay the full sum of the purchase price to the government account at the Bank of England within a specified period of time. Failure to do so would result in the termination of the sale agreement.

The opening of the sealed bids took place at His Majesty’s Office of Woods and Forests, at 1 – 2 Whitehall Place, London, on Thursday, 23 July 1818, at two o’clock in the afternoon. The high bidder, who did have his certificate proving that his full bid amount was enrolled with the Land Revenue Auditor, was John Knight, the son of a wealthy iron master, of Wolverly, in Worcestershire. Though he had been born and raised in Wolverly, Knight had a number of family connections in the Exmoor area. Knight’s winning bid was £50,122, an amount which seems to have been well above that submitted by any other bidder. In order to acquire the necessary funds, Knight had sold his family’s estate, Lea Castle, at Wolverly, along with some other small holdings. In addition, soon after he won the bid for the Crown land allotment at Exmoor, John Knight also purchased a number of the small parcels of land which had been granted to forest officials and abutters. Eventually, John Knight was able to purchase nearly three-quarters of the land which had constituted the original Royal Forest of Exmoor.

Unlike the kings and queens who had held that land in the past, Knight had no interest in hunting there. Instead, he had grand plans for land reclamation by which much of Exmoor was to be put to the plow. Though sheep had grazed on Exmoor for centuries, Knight wanted to help expand and strengthen the production of both wool and meat for local farmers. It is for that reason that he introduced Cheviot sheep to the area. In addition, there had been a mine on Exmoor, in the mid-sixteenth century, probably for silver or copper. Knight had plans to establish a mine on the land again, in an area which was not suitable for agriculture. One of the first things he did once he took possession of the property, was to build a boundary wall around his new estate. This caused a great deal of friction with many of the locals, who has previously walked over Exmoor when and where they chose. However, Knight did not have any choice in the matter, since part of the purchase agreement obligated him to enclose the property. Knight continued with various reclamation and improvement projects on his new estate for many years, all with varying degrees of success. When he retired, in 1841, his eldest son, Frederick Winn Knight, took over the reclamation and improvement work on the Exmoor land.

Another part of his purchase agreement had obligated John Knight to bear the responsibility of building a parish church in the western village of Simonsbath, should the population there ever expand to require one. In the end, that last obligation did not have to be met until 1845, four years after John Knight had retired and moved to Italy. Therefore, when eighteen residents of the village petitioned for a church, Frederick Knight had the Church of St. Luke built, about a half mile to the east of his own home, Simonsbath House. In addition, he donated twelve acres there to form the churchyard for the parish. Frederick Knight, his wife and son are all buried in that churchyard.

Once the sale of the former Royal Forest of Exmoor was complete, Sir Thomas Acland no longer held the position of Warden, since it had been abolished with the disafforestation. However, he did retain the post of Master of the Devon and Somerset Staghounds for several more years. Though John Knight continued to maintain and protect the deer which roamed his new property, once Knight had enclosed his estate, there were fewer and fewer opportunities for stag hunting in the area around Exmoor. The stag hound pack maintained by Sir Thomas Acland seldom had the opportunity to take to the field for a real stag hunt. Therefore, in 1825, Sir Thomas sold what was believed to be the last thoroughbred pack of English stag hounds in all of Britain, to a German baron. The entire pack, comprising over thirty dogs, was shipped to Germany, leaving Exmoor without a stag hound pack for the first time in more than three hundred years. Many hunters across the country were quite dismayed by this turn of events. In fact, the story was also picked up by several newspapers and sporting journals in Britain, but by then, the stag hounds were gone and there was no way to get them back.

Though the Exmoor stag hound pack was eventually lost to the area, there was another species of creature which had thrived in the ancient land of the former royal forest for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. That creature was the famous Exmoor pony, believed to be one of the oldest horse breeds in all of Britain. These special ponies had run free on Exmoor for many centuries. Over the years, some of them had been caught and domesticated for use as plow or cart horses, as well as pit ponies. When the Exmoor land was sold, the last Warden, Sir Thomas Acland, concerned for the future of the breed, took a herd of purebred ponies from the former Exmoor Forest to his property in Winsford Hill, west of John Knight’s new estate. The number of ponies which Sir Thomas acquired varies in the records, from thirty to four hundred horses. It seems likely that he took at least one hundred ponies to Winsford Hill. Some of the other ponies were eventually rounded up and sold, probably to make way for the agricultural improvements Knight had planned. However, there were a few horse breeders in the area who fancied the small but sturdy Exmoor ponies and they acquired a number of these usually bay horses with light buff markings for breeding purposes.

Soon after he took them to Winsford Hill, Sir Thomas Acland began a regular breeding program with the Exmoor ponies he had acquired. In time, that herd became known as the Anchor herd, since they represented the most direct descendants of the once wild Exmoor ponies. Between 1820 and about 1860, some of the breeders with Exmoor ponies used them to develop cross-bred horses. These cross-bred horses were fairly successful, but few of them had the truly hardy traits of purebred Exmoor ponies, traits which would enable them to survive a winter living wild in the open on Exmoor. Today, most of the ponies which once again roam Exmoor are descendants of Sir Thomas Acland’s Anchor herd, or from some of the ponies which other breeders had acquired after the Exmoor Forest land was sold. Much of the old Royal Forest of Exmoor has now become a national park, and many Exmoor ponies now have the freedom of the land. The current herds of Exmoor ponies, like the deer, sheep and cattle which grazed there in centuries past, make a significant contribution to the health and conservation of the land over which they range. However, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the UK considers the Exmoor pony breed to be endangered, since there are thought to be less than 500 Exmoor ponies in the country.

Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning a new romance for which you require a community which undergoes a significant disruption, might the disafforestion of the Royal Forest of Exmoor suit your purposes? Those gentlemen who had regularly hunted in the area would have been barred from the former Crown land, once John Knight erected his boundary walls. There would also be the inevitable loss of the famous stag hound pack, which were sold to a German baron just a few years after the disafforestion was complete. The men who had worked for Sir Thomas Acland as foresters, woodwards, verderers or rangers, would all lose those jobs and the compensation that came with the positions. Those who had walked the moorland all their lives would be forced to find alternate, quite possibly longer, and maybe less scenic, routes. Those who had the right to fish the rivers and streams of the forest, or cut heath or ferns there, would lose those valuable privileges. Farmers who had grazed sheep, cows or pigs on forest land would lose their pasturage and would then either have to find alternate pasture, or maybe even give up their livestock, if they could not find suitable, and affordable, grazing land. Nor should the sturdy little Exmoor ponies be forgotten. They were put off the land once John Knight took possession, being acquired by local horse-lovers and breeders who hoped to ensure the survival of this ancient English breed of horse. Are there other aspects of the disafforestion of the Royal Forest of Exmoor which might enrich the plot of an upcoming Regency romance?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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14 Responses to Regency Bicentennial:   The Disafforestation of Exmoor Forest

  1. I can see a poor, but gently-bred heroine making her way to see a curmudgeonly but horse-loving landowner, to beg his help in saving the Exmoor ponies, and the shared love of animals melting his crusty exterior with respect to one small, determined little person

  2. bother, now I’ve been diverted from the WIP to write it

  3. I will email it to you; it wants to be a short story I think!

  4. elfahearn says:

    My first novel, A Rogue in Sheep’s Clothing, takes place in Devon near Exeter. The villain walls in the land, turning the locals against him. I took many liberties with the facts around the transfer of the property, making it a gift from the Regent to the villain for information leading to the defeat of Napoleon.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, it does not sound like the villain was all bad, if he helped to defeat Napoleon. Unless he really didn’t and took credit for something someone else had done. Of course, you would have had to take liberties with the facts, since the disafforestation of Exmoor did not take place until some years after Napoleon was defeated. Even so, it sounds like a good story. If it is still in print, you are welcome to post a link to a purchasing page here.

      Regards,

      Kat

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