The New Forest is a uniquely precious and beautiful natural environment, however it only appears the way it does today because of a rich, tumultuous and sometimes violent human history. From royal hunting ground to a much-treasured local resource, the historic and cultural heritage – including 621 listed buildings - of the New Forest is vast.
The Establishment of the New Forest
The New Forest has existed as woodland since the end of the last Ice Age, and its heaths were first cleared and cultivated in the Bronze Age. There are still many barrows and mounds from the Forest’s prehistoric era visible today, but it was only with the Norman Conquest in the 11th century that the area started to take on something of its current shape.
The area was previously known as ‘Ytene’, the land of the Jutes (an Anglo-Saxon tribe), and it was grouped together as a ‘new’ forest by William the Conqueror in the 1079. ‘Nova foresta,’ as it was originally known, did not refer to a forest in the sense of a wooded area, but rather to a protected royal hunting ground, to which specific, often harsh laws applied.
The Rights to Common
Later, in 1217, the Charter of the Forest restored some of the locals’ rights, repealing the death penalty for the theft of venison. The laws of the Forest were protected by Verderers, and included common rights, some of which still exist today: the right to turn out livestock and sheep to pasture, to turn out pigs to forage, and rights to the area’s natural resources, including turbary (use of the Forest’s peat for fuel), which has now been overturned to protect the natural environment.
The New Forest in Tudor Times
When Henry VIII broke with Rome and established the Church of England, the New Forest’s Beaulieu Abbey was almost entirely demolished in order to build castles and fortifications to protect the area, in its strategic South Coast location, from French or Spanish invasion. At this time (1537), too, the new Order and Rules of the New Forest were introduced for dealing with forest law and those who broke it. Their court at Lyndhurst is open to the public today.
There is lots more to this ancient landscape left to discover: