III The Bounds
Windsor Forest in the 12th century contained a host of manors. As well as those belonging to the Abbey of Abingdon, the Abbeys of Winchester, Waltham, Chertsey, Stratford, Westminster, Reading and Bromhall all had interests in the forest which were recorded in the Domesday Survey, and others were continually being created.
Since very early times the country had been divided into hundreds, that is a subdivision of a county or shire with its own court. These hundreds were in turn divided into manors. Manors, or estates, normally granted as a reward to someone who had found favour with, or done service for the King. They could be divided and subdivided, 'bought' and 'sold', left to wives or children in wills, or indeed repossessed by the Crown.
The lord of the manor owned a large part of the land from which he maintained his wealth and power. Some land was in the hands of free men who paid a fixed rent. The rest was held by villeins who, in return for a plot of land, were obliged to render services and fulfil duties required of them by the lord. A bailiff would be used to hire the poorer villeins as labourers to cultivate the land for the lord of the manor.
The residential steward at Whistley would not only have been responsible for the running of the fishery and the mill but for sending produce down the river to the Abbey. He would also have been responsible for sorting out local disputes over land and property, and for holding court sessions, thus giving Whistley Court its name. Buildings for that purpose must have stood on the banks of the river Loddon at Whistley since Saxon times.
The Abingdon Abbey Chronicle for the second half of the 12th century gives in detail the duties and privileges of the Abbot and his senior staff. Several pages are devoted to the cook and his duties. One of his responsibilities was to receive the rents from the land at Whistley. Eels were for many centuries a substantial part of the diet of people who relied on locally produced food. One requirement of the large religious houses was for fish, especially during Lent, and the eels which flourished in the Loddon were sent in large numbers from Whistley to the Abbot's kitchens, and were highly prized.
Hinton, the 5th century fortified enclosure, was not mentioned in the Domesday Book but, by the year 1166. Patrick de Evreux, Earl of Salisbury, was holding rights to a manor there. He had been given the title by Matilda, Lady of English, mother of Henry II. Hinton, which included much of Twyford and the manor of Ashridge, formed part of the hundred of Ashridge. This hundred was held by the Earl of Salisbury whose main interests lay some distance away in Wiltshire where he held the hundred court of Amesbury. So for legal reasons, to ensure that matters concerning his land at Hinton and Ashridge could go through his court at Amesbury, the Earl regarded them to be in Wiltshire, not in Berkshire. This peculiar situation lasted for nearly 700 years.
Left: Saxon's map, 17th century. Centre: Cary's map, 1793,
Right: Nordon's map, 17th century.
Most of Twyford along with Hinton, Ashridge and the northern limits of Wokingham were always placed in Wiltshire, and some maps show Ruscombe to be included too, but old maps do not agree on the positioning of the county boundaries. Saxon and Speed who made maps of Berkshire in the late 16th and early 17th centuries put the area to the west of Hurst, but later maps show it more to the east. These maps can be inaccurate of course. John Nordon, who made a 17th century map of Windsor Forest, actually put Sandford Mill on the Emm brook instead of the Loddon, and later map makers copied his example. But he did write on his map that Lea Heath was one of the areas that 'are in Wiltshire yet far from Wiltshire'. If he was correct in that statement, and one can understand him drawing a mill in the wrong place, but surely not making a written mistake about a county boundary, then in 1607 the Wiltshire part of the district was more extensive than the more accurate later maps suggest.
The result of this old boundary can be seen in the churchyard where many tombs tell us that their occupants once lived in Wiltshire. There is a Wiltshire Street in Wokingham, and a stone now standing in Rose Street has Berks written on one side and Wilts on the other. Originally it was sited in Cross Street where it marked the boundary between the two counties.
Berks & Wilts boundary stone, at the junction of
There were numerous royal forests scattered throughout England in the medieval period, all administered by officers who were responsible to the Crown for the protection of the trees and the wild life. Many laws were passed which related particularly to the forests, and courts were held at regular intervals where offenders were tried, disputes over boundaries were settled, and sale or exchange of ownership of land was recorded.
Timber from the royal forests brought in much revenue for the Crown. An instruction from Henry III in 1238 told Reginald the forester to permit the Abbot of Abingdon to take, 'without impediment', 14 oaks for making choir stalls from the forest at Whistley. Two years later the Abbot was allowed another 20 oaks. Henry de Mara, who held the manor of Hinton after the Earl of Salisbury, was allowed 'without hindrance' to extract timber out of the wood at Hinton in 1255. In 1299 there was an order permitting the Carmelite Friars of London to 'fell thirteen oaks fit for timber' at Ashridge which is 'within the bounds of the Kings wood of Wyndesorer'
Hunting rights were normally kept by the Crown on the portions of land that were given to private owners, and the King's deer were not allowed to be impeded. Henry de Mara, while he was in Rome attending to the King's business in May 1256, was, 'for good services', granted a licence:
Out of his demense lands of his manor of Heynton within the forest of Windlesorer to assart and bring into cultivation 240 acres of land... and to approve and enclose them with a dyke and hedge according to assize of the forest, so that the deer have free ingress and egress and that he and his heirs shall hold the said land so enclosed for ever.
In 1281 an enquiry was held as to whether the Earl of Lincoln could grub out part of the great wood of Ashridge to make it arable. The request was turned down on the grounds that it would interfere too much with one of the sovereign's favourite hunting grounds.
Hunting and tree felling in Medieval times.
By the year 1300 the forest had been reduced in size. This becomes clear from the result of a dispute between the Bishop of Salisbury and Edward I. The Bishop had always claimed 'free chase' at Bearwood, and the row between the Bishop and the Crown had continued for some years. His claim was that his predecessors and local people had always enjoyed free chase, but the King disagreed with this. So to prove that the disputed area was inside the royal forest, the bounds were set out:
Whatsoever is on the east side of the Lodona in the co Berks is the kings forest as the following boundaries show being where the Lodona falls into the Thames below the park of Sonnyngg along the Thames to Lodelakeshache, thence to the park of Windsor thence to Heytle as the boundaries between the counties of Berks and Surrey extend, and from Heytele to Bredeford along the river of Dodebrok as far as it goes between the counties of Berkshire and Southampton up to Swalewe and thence to Rysle as metes and bounds extend between the counties of Berks and Southampton, and thence to Stanford at Stratford Say as the metes and bounds extend between the said counties, and thence along the Lodona to the place where the Lodona falls in the Thames.
It is difficult to trace those bounds precisely now, but the description undoubtedly includes the land to the east of the Loddon river, between Stratfield Saye and Sonning, putting Newland, Bearwood, Sindlesham, Winnersh, Hurst, Twyford and Ruscombe, well within the royal forest.
One of the main entry points into the forest from the west was at Loddon Bridge. The bridge was important enough to feature on Saxon's map of Berkshire in the 16th century. But it achieved importance long before that. In 1191 Prince John, the brother of Richard I, who was absent on a Crusade, summoned a meeting at Loddon Bridge of all the great men of the nation to consider the poor state of the nation. On October 5 the Prince and his barons took up a position on the west of the Loddon and awaited the arrival of William Longchamp, the King's representative. Afraid of the consequences, Longchamp refused to attend and sent the Earls of Arundel, Warren and Norfolk in his place. John was subsequently confirmed as Richard's heir and succeeded him in May 1199.