Sunday, March 25, 2012

Forest of Dean: Part I

As stated previously, the Forest of Dean is located in the southwestern area of England, in Gloucestershire (or Gloucester) (see the figure below). The Forest is generally bounded by the River Severn and River Wye (portions of which form the border with Wales). I highlighted the two principal towns from whence our Whittington ancestors lived; ­Ruardean and Bicknor. The River Wye divides the historic town of Bicknor; consequently, there are now two distinct communities: English Bicknor and Welsh Bicknor.

The cultural history of England spans several millennia. Stonehenge is perhaps the most popular monument in the country. Located on the Salisbury Plain, about 85 miles south and west of the Forest of Dean, this ancient structure appears to have been constructed in at least four phases spanning the period of BC 3,200 - ­1,100. Within the Forest itself, a number of sites have been documented that date to the Neolithic period. Ruins of a hillside fort have also been documented that pre-date Roman occupation (ca. AD 43 - ­410). Iron ore was mined in the Forest by the Romans, though settlement does not appear to have been nearly as extensive as other areas of the island. In the subsequent post-Roman period (ca. AD 410­ - 650), England witnessed a barrage of intruders, including the Irish, Picts, Angles, and Saxons. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (compiled ca. AD 890) wrote that in the year 577: “Cuthwine and Ceawlin fought against the Britons and slew three kings….and they captured three cities, Gloucester, Cirencester, and Bath.”At this time (at least from what I’ve read), the Forest of Dean was not included in what would become the county of Gloucestershire.

The Forest of Dean was first mentioned in the Domesday book; a census, so to speak, commissioned by William the Bastard (aka William the Conqueror). The book was prepared in AD 1085 and includes information on several communities in the Forest, including Ruardean (sp. Ruuirdin in the book). The county of Gloucestershire under Norman rule (William and several generations of successive Kings were Norman) consisted of numerous small towns and settlements, as well as land holdings. It was the Normans who initiated the concept of Royal Forests, which were established by the monarchy to reserve the game and trees for use by the Crown. One of the area's historic landmarks is St. Briavel's Castle, which was constructed around 1209 as a protectorate of the Royal Forest of Dean. Residents born and residing within protected Royal Forests were given limited rights to land development, including rights to pasture and mining; however, outsiders could not develop within their boundaries. We all remember how Robin of Loxley became a “Hood.”

In these early centuries of Norman rule, the main industry was forestry. Timber was used by the Crown, especially for the construction of ships. Over the course of many centuries, settlement increased in the Forest, mainly by encroachment by outsiders, which was illegal. By the early 19th century, a number of small settlements and communities had developed in the Forest as a result of these illegal activities. Rather than just kick them all out, the government decided to grant legal status to these lands; from this point on, further encroachment was strongly resisted.

Internet links for the curious: