Daniel C. Beaver. Hunting and the Politics of Violence before the English Civil War. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. xii + 173 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-87853-1.
Reviewed by Jasmin L. Johnson
Published on H-War (February, 2010)
Commissioned by Brian G.H. Ditcham
The First Poaching Wars?
If one is to follow the line of Andy Wood (The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England ), the 1549 rebellions (as symbolized by the figure of Robert Kett seated under the "oak of reformation") ended the continuity of peasant rebellions stretching back to Wat Tyler and Jack Straw and nothing further of this sort happened until the outbreak of the civil wars. Daniel C Beaver, in this slim volume examining the nature of the English royal forests and the social symbolism of hunting from the late sixteenth century until the early 1640s perhaps allows us to question this viewpoint.
The author admits that the final product is not the book he originally intended to write. This was to be about aristocratic gifts and gift giving, with the products of hunting, in the form of venison, being an important example of these. Instead, it became a far more detailed study of the ritual of the hunt and the forest law that governed the uses of the royal forests, and how these, in the period of descent toward civil war, offer another example of how royal and aristocratic abuse of privilege could lead to conflict and the collapse of order. This book provides a microcosmic example of a kingdom on the edge of broader civil conflict.
In examining what he terms "the political economy of venison," Beaver sees the royal forests descend into crisis and anarchy (as reflected in a number of assaults on game, forests, property, and persons in the royal forests of southern England), culminating by mid-1642, in what could be seen as a series of poaching wars before the poaching wars of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (p. ix). King Charles's many abuses of royal privilege and political systems are best remembered in his prorogation of successive parliaments, his period of personal rule and particularly through the device of "ship money" and the scandals this taxation caused. While the disturbances in the royal forests may have lacked the national scale of this abuse, it becomes clear that manipulation of the forest law and forest courts, as the king attempted to reestablish forest law to exploit the royal forests for his own profit, produced similar protest and violence, albeit on a smaller scale.
How, then, did local politics and elite power structures become linked to the increasing signs of national unrest apparent during the early 1640s? Beaver examines troubles in four of the royal forests: Stowe Park in Buckinghamshire, Waltham Forest in Essex, Windsor Great Forest in the counties of both Berkshire and Surrey, and finally, Corse Lawn Chase in Gloucestershire.
The violence in Stowe began with difference between the gentry families of Temple and Dayrell and, as was the nature of such disagreements, spread to their servants and culminated in an unseemly brawl over ownership of a newly dead deer. It was not, of course, that simple; the families were already at loggerheads over the building of a deer park with all the threats to property, masculinity, and honor that this implied. This had led to lawsuits in local courts and in Chancery. The enclosure of commons, depopulation, and disafforestation that such emparkment created will sound familiar to students of the poaching wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Further violence and assaults occurred, leading to an accusation of "riotous assemblies" and "threatening speech" by the Dayrell family (p. 48). The goings on in Stowe Park represent, for the most part, gentry attempts to preserve their own rights and honors while impinging upon the rights of commoners and other residents. Not for nothing does the author describe these happenings as a "theatre of honour" and "violent theatre," as to a large extent, theatre is precisely what is involved here (pp. 51-52).
While Stowe appears to be a largely gentry affair with the servants involved as minor players, the occurrences in Waltham Forest in the summer of 1642 appear to be of a different order. In this case, a group described as a "riotous assembly," armed to the teeth and accompanied by dogs, killed numerous deer and when challenged, claimed they could do so with impunity as "there was no law settled at this time" (p. 55). This is an intriguing statement, given that the country was already beginning its inevitable slide into civil war by this date.
It appears that in the case of Waltham, organized poaching gangs had been going about their unlawful business for some months and that there was, at least in some cases, a political aspect to some of this behavior. The local church minister was accused of participation in these affairs and he was a Laudian conformist. One can only wonder at the churchmanship of his accusers! The idea that there was no law settled, the organized mockery of authority and the bands of men going heavily armed are certainly more than a little suggestive of the "clubman" movement that was to appear during the civil wars. As Beaver suggests, this behavior is suggestive of "a political consciousness of the just bases of forest law and the circumstances of its legitimate suspension" (p. 58).
It seems that such disputes had been simmering since the time of King James I, and there is much Star Chamber evidence for cases running through the 1610s up to the 1630s, suggesting a contentiousness in Jacobean forest politics which was unfinished business on the eve of civil war. Plainly some of the participants in the poaching wars were old offenders with form running back into the 1620s, but they would perhaps have seen themselves as attacking royal and gentry vested interests and attempts to enforce by now largely unenforceable forest law. The forest courts appear to have been their own worst enemies, succeeding only in politicizing commoner families where no particular bad may have existed before. The problems in Waltham Forest, as Beaver suggests, only "confirmed this politics of unsettlement" (p. 88).
Windsor Great Forest has to be seen as different. It was huge and described as "that supremest place of the great English kings" (p. 89). King Charles, as his father before him, had placed hunting as one of the foremost symbols of royalty and gentility, and Sir Thomas Cockayne's myth creation relating to the ancientness and gentility of the sport had done much to forward this view. Indeed, the social and political context of William Shakespeare's play "The Merry Wives of Windsor" places the forest centrally in its action.
Unlike the first two examples, Stow and Waltham, Windsor's forest court, the Swanimote, was still effective and still enforced forest law. That being said, there were signs of unrest even here: complaints of tree felling and turf (that is, peat) cutting and the inevitable poaching. Described "chance kills" one can only wonder how "accidental” some of these kills actually were (p. 97)! Some can be linked to the servants and hangers-on of the local gentry families anxious to obtain some of the honor of the hunt and not averse to bribery and corruption to attempt to get others to take the risks involved for them. Others were more likely assuaging the simple needs of hunger in increasingly hard times. Even in Windsor some of the most egregious cases can be seen as stemming from a failure by the forest court to protect ancient custom from gentry greed and depredation.
Here in Windsor, it is intriguing to note that women (or in some cases, men disguised as women) played a part in the disturbances. It was considered (quite correctly) that the forest court would deal with women less harshly if it punished them at all. The conflicts in the forest intensified during the 1640s, taking on a political aspect as the local gentry families began to choose sides. As the list of grievances grew, so did the problems in the forest.
Receiving a warrant to appear before the justices, in another foretaste of later "clubman" attitudes, one group stated: "they cared neither for king nor for parliament, nor would obey his warrant" (p. 122). The issues in Windsor are perhaps summed up in the person of the wonderfully named Hercules Trew. Imprisoned for crimes against forest law, he broke prison, headed to Windsor Castle (by then under parliamentarian control) and joined the Parliamentarian army under the command of Colonel John Venn (p. 124).
Corse Lawn in Gloucestershire perhaps sums up the descent into chaos best of all with a massacre (it can only be described in those terms), in the autumn of 1642, of six hundred deer, butchered in a theatrical act in the most gruesome way imaginable, devoid of any hunting etiquette or honor. This was an entirely deliberate and planned political act including deliberate destruction of forest, enclosures, and buildings. It was jacquerie, peasant rebellion at its most obvious and it was aimed against the unpopular and absentee Earl of Middlesex. The earl had used gifts of venison to construct kinship and social bonds so it is hardly a surprise that this attack was against what the author terms "the hunt and its related notions of nobility and honour" (p. 128).
As in Windsor, there had been issues of poaching, woodcutting, and low level violence for some years before the final act. Middlesex seems to have been something of a genius in alienating the local gentry families, the middling sort, and the commoners; and was accused of popery and "arbitrary and tyrannical government" (p. 151). It cost him his good name, his honor, and his property. And is it perhaps no accident that this jacquerie, this deer massacre, was led by another member of the local gentry?
The slow decline of royal forests and forest law during this period is suggestive of the woes of the nation as a whole. In this respect, Beaver has added a sylvan dimension to the work of David Cressy (England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-42 ) pointing to the widespread collapse of government and administration in the years 1640-42, which preceded the formal opening of the Civil War (and arguably helped to make it inevitable by creating a Royalist party out of those scared by the disorder they saw around them). However, it is interesting to note that both those who tried to enforce forest law and to protect the forests from poaching and other forms of depredation and those undertaking the illegal activities tried to justify their positions and actions on the basis of forest law rather than denying its validity altogether.
Beaver has written an intriguing volume and one worth serious study by anyone who wishes to understand the issues that led England to civil war. It certainly demonstrates that the last word on the causes of the revolution has not yet been written. In this context, it is perhaps unfortunate that he stops his account more or less at the point when open military conflict began. It would be interesting to know whether the local conflicts that he analyzes in such detail affected alignments during the war and indeed what happened in the woodlands he has studied in that period. It is, for instance, hard to believe that the king's deer would have been left to graze peaceably in a Windsor Park overseen by a regiment with Trew among its ranks! Perhaps we can hope for a sequel at some future date?
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Jasmin L. Johnson. Review of Beaver, Daniel C., Hunting and the Politics of Violence before the English Civil War.
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