New Forest

Latin, Nova Foresta

With the Isle of Wight, the New Forest was a accorded separate section at the end of the Domesday account of Hampshire. In the case of the New Forest, this was presumably because of the creation, or considerable enlargement, of the royal forest there.

In Norman England, forest did not necessarily imply dense woodland but simply that an area was under forest law and outside normal administrative arrangements and the common law. Probably for this reason, references to forests are scanty, and no forest area other than the New Forest is described in detail in Domesday Book.

As its name implies, the New Forest had been created, or greatly enlarged, by the Conqueror. It is first recorded in Domesday Book. Chroniclers in the following century denounced the substantial destruction of churches and villages which accompanied this act for which, it was observed, the king was punished by the death of two of his children and one of his grandchildren in hunting accidents in the New Forest. The most colourful account is provided by Ordericus Vitalis:

Now, reader, let me explain why the forest ... is called 'new'. That part of the country had been populous in earlier days, and was scattered with hamlets providing support for settlers. Indeed a dense population thoroughly tilled the county of Hampshire, so that the southern district provided the city of Winchester with all kinds of country produce. But after William I conquered the realm of England, so great was his love of woods that he laid waste more than 60 parishes, forced the peasants to move to other places, and replaced the men with beasts of the forest so that he might hunt to his heart's content. There he lost two sons, Richard and William Rufus, and his grandson Richard ... by which the Lord plainly showed his anger (Ecclesiastical history, edited by Marjorie Chibnall, vol. 5, page 285).

Most modern historians have been inclined to view such accounts as greatly exaggerated. Undoubtedly, there is a degree of hyperbole in the chroniclers' accounts; but Domesday Book unmistakably shows some 30 to 40 vills were without ploughs, peasants or value in 1086, and a further 40 or so partially included within the forest and therefore presumably with reduced resources and populations. Perhaps scepticism has been taken too far. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, after all, recorded that the Conqueror 'loved stags so very much, as if he were their father'.

For more detail, see J.H. Round, 'Introduction to the Hampshire Domesday', Victoria History of the county of Hampshire, vol. 1, edited by H.A. Doubleday (1900), pages 399-447; F.H. Baring, Domesday tables for the counties of Surrey, Berkshire, Middlesex, Hertford, Buckingham and Bedford and the New Forest (1909); H.C. Darby and R. Welldon Finn (ed.). Domesday geography of south-west England (1967); and R. Welldon Finn, The Norman Conquest and its effects on the economy, 1066-1086 (1971).

See also falconer, forester, and hunter.