James Catron

In 1066, a Frenchy-fied Viking named William the Bastard assembled an army on the coast of Normandy and invaded England. At Hastings, near Stonehenge they met the Danes, Jutes, Saxons, and Angles led by King Harold. One of William's men put an arrow through Harold's eye into his brain, and William the Bastard became William the Conqueror.

William completely dispossessed the Anglo-Saxons, as they had previously dispossessed the Celts. William made himself the absolute ruler of England, answering to no one, not even the Church of Rome. Every lord had to swear personal allegiance to him, as the overlord. He was an utter tyrant and a despot. He laid to waste any county that resisted him and the wealth of England declined precipitously during his reign.

The chief reason for the economic disaster he wrought was the proclamation of his despotic Forest Laws. He seized and devastated huge tracts of land and reserved them for the use of the elite only. For example, in Hampshire, he depopulated and seized 60,000 acres and named it the New Forest. As with our modern American use of the word wilderness, the term forest did not mean a region covered with woods, but simply a section of country, partially wooded and suitable for game habitat, set apart as a royal park or hunting ground.

William was a keen lover of the outdoors, and the great forest reservations and his strict game laws became the principal grievances against him. "The rich complained, and the poor murmured, but he was so sturdy that he recked not of them; they must will all that the king willed, if they would live, or would keep their lands, or would hold their possessions."

William and his successors ordered the destruction of hedges and ditches in the royal forests to facilitate their enjoyment of nature, but the ditches and hedges had been constructed to protect crops from wild animals. Crops were devastated, and people starved, but the animals were untouchable because the Conqueror's Forest Laws made the life of a stag of greater worth than the life of a man, and decreed that anyone found hunting deer would have both eyes torn out.

These savage laws weighed upon barons and peasants alike as William's children and grandchildren continually increased the royal forests. These monarchs were hated and detested by all classes, but they brutally repressed the commoners and held the aristocracy's children as hostages. As the number of those who felt the weight of their tyranny grew, the monarchs were increasingly able to rule only through fear and mercenaries.

Finally, in 1215, a revolt of barons against the infamous King John brought limits to the Norman monarchy in the form of the Great Charter, the Magna Carta. One of the evils specifically reformed by the Magna Carta was the abuse of the Forest Laws. More generally, the Charter promised that "No freeman shall be arrested and imprisoned, or dispossessed (of land), or outlawed, or banished, or in any way molested; nor will we set forth against him, nor send against him, unless by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land."

When will they ever learn?