MEM22088 - Exmoor Royal Forest (Monument)


The Royal Forest is thought to originate in the Saxon period and was the land legally reserved as hunting grounds for the king.

Please read the Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record .

Type and Period (1)

Protected Status

Full Description

Exmoor became part of the demesne of the Crown at the time of the Norman Conquest and was converted into a forest (in the legal sense). Additions were made in the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John. Early in John's reign the Forest included, in addition to the originaldemesne area, the bordering parishes in Devon and a number of parishesin Somerset. In 1204 John disafforested all land in Devon and in 1316 Edward II confirmed disafforestation of the eastern perlieus in Somerset. There is no evidence of any woodland in the 20000 acres as defined by the post 1400 boundary. There were no enclosures or settlements in the Forest until a farm was enclosed during the Commonwealth and Simonsbath House (MSO7076) was built. The forest of Exmoor was finally disafforested by the enclosure award of 1819. [1-3] Following the Conquest the wardenship of the forest was leased until 1508 when the royal forest itself was also leased. The Aclands held the royal forest from 1769, inheriting the wardenship from the Dykes through marriage. In 1814 the lease (under the tenth baronet, the third Sir Thomas Acland) came up for renewal. It was at this time that the crown decided to sell off the Royal Forest and the estate was put out to tender in 1818. The highest bidder for the crown allotment (less than half of the Royal Forest) was John Knight. Over 3000 acres had been given to Thomas Acland to compensate for the forest tithes. These lands were also then purchased by Knight, who came to own more than three quarters of the royal forest. The boundary, as it was legalised in 1327 surrounded the current parish of Exmoor. [2] A Research Framework was developed for the former Royal Forest in 2012, based upon a seminar in which parties with knowledge of, and interest in, the area participated. [3] The history of the Royal Forest is charted in a Field Guide, from its use as a medieval hunting forest to its transformation in the 19th Century. [4] In the medieval period the boundary of the Royal Forest was marked by river valleys, boundary stones and Bronze Age barrows, later John Knight built a thirty mile long wall around the former forest. Those who had rights to the common land were upset by the enclosure and some walls and banks were destroyed. [5-6] The Norman and Angevin kings imposed the Forest law upon districts where clearing and cultivation had made comparatively slow progress because of the unfavourable terrain. Exmoor was sparsely populated and became a royal forest at this time. In the 13th Century, Exmoor was sometimes known as "the chase of Exmoor." All deer within royal forests were property of the king, even if they strayed outside. At the Somerset Forest Eyre held at Ilchester in 1270 it was presented that a fawn had come out of the Exmoor Forest and had been taken by Henry Boniface, Richard Absalom and Thomas son of Henry of Bossington. They had taken the fawn outside of forest bounds and carried it to their houses in Bossington (at that time within the forest), passing through the forest to get there. As a result, they were sent to prison and fined 10 shillings. There were occasions when Forest wardens could not perform their duties in person. Hereditary wardenships, for example, were from time to time inherited by priests: in 1207 William of Wrotham, Archdeacon of Taunton, received from King John seisin of the lands he held in chief in Somerset, and the wardenship of the forests of Somerset and Exmoor in Devon. The archdeacon in the king's presence appointed his brother Richard to perform the duties of his Forest office in his place, and agreed to be responsible for him. On 20 November 1508 Henry VII leased Exmoor and Neroche Forests to Sir Edmund Carew for life, at an annual rent of £46. 13s. 4d., including allowing him to hunt all deer, stags, bucks and does, providing that at his death there were 100 deer left in the forest of Exmoor and 200 in Neroche. The lease was renewed for 300 years until the final disafforestment and enclosure of these forests. In 1651, during the Commonwealth, Parliament appointed commissioners to sell Exmoor Forest, which was reported to be "mountainous and cold ground, much beclouded with thick fogges and mists and… overgrown with heath and yielding but a poor kind of turf of little value there." This measure, as with a subsequent Act passed in October 1653 "for the Disafforestation, Sale and Improvement of Royal Forests" proved ineffective. Between 1810 and 1855 Acts were passed for the disafforestment of various forests, including Exmoor [25], where commissioners were appointed to "divide, allow and inclose" the open forest wastes. A proportion was allotted to the Crown "in severalty," varying according to the area of the forest wastes in which the property in the soil belonged to the Crown. In Exmoor, the Crown's share was twelve twenty-seconds. These Crown lands were freed from the common rights hitherto exercised over them, in compensation for the extinguishment of royal forest rights. In 1812 it was hoped to use the Crown allotment in Exmoor Forest to provide the Royal Navy with oak timber by enclosing and planting, but after partition the Commissioners decided that it would not in fact be suitable and in 1818 it was sold for £50,000 to Mr Knight, who enclosed it. Exmoor Forest was disafforested in 1815. [7] Centred SS 76 40. EXMOOR FOREST (NAT). [13] Exmoor Royal Forest is centred at SS 76 40. It is as described above. The post inclosure history of the Forest after 1819, is fully set out by [16]. The forest became part of the Knight family estate, and was improved through the 19th Century when much of it was enclosed, drained and converted from moorland to pasture. Most of the farms and buildings within the former Royal Forest can be attributed to the Knight family, and Simonsbath itself developed from a single farm to a small village community. [16-18] This record was enhanced as part of the National Record of the Historic Environment to Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Record data transfer project. [20] The full extent of the contemporary Royal Forest was mapped in 1818. [21,22] A project to reassess 19th century moorland reclamation through palaeological and archive research was undertaken 2020-2022 producing a number of reports. [24] Paleoecological data were analysed in 2020-2022 at five upland peatland sites in the former Royal Forest to understand the ecological effects and long-term ecological context of “agricultural improvement”. In this landscape, 19th century drainage is associated with declines in Sphagnum and non-arboreal taxon richness; over longer timescales burning is associated with enhanced graminoid monocot abundance and grazing with lower taxon richness. The study shows that rate-of-change in moorland vegetation communities during the 19th century is not distinctive in a long-term context: change has been a constant in this landscape, rather than an exception during the 19th century. [23]

Sources/Archives (25)

  • <1> Monograph: MacDermot, E.T.. 1973. The History of the Forest of Exmoor. David and Charles Limited. Revised Edition. 1-180.
  • <2> Monograph: Page, W. (editor). 1911. The Victoria History of the County of Somerset. Archibald Constable and Company, Limited (London). 2. 563-566.
  • <3> Serial: Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 1851-. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Volume 122 (1978), pp 38-39.
  • <4> Monograph: Eardley-Wilmot, H.. 1990. Yesterday's Exmoor. Exmoor Books. 3, 6, 144-146.
  • <5> Report: Balmond, F.. 2012. Royal Forest, Exmoor: Research framework for the Royal Forest. Exmoor National Park Authority.
  • <6> Monograph: Siraut, M.. 2013. A Field Guide to The Royal Forest of Exmoor. Exmoor National Park Authority.
  • <7> Leaflet: 2013. Badgworthy, Exmoor: Exmoor moorland archaeology walks series. Exmoor National Park Authority.
  • <8> Leaflet: 2013. Hoaroak Valley, Exmoor: Exmoor moorland archaeology walks series. Exmoor National Park Authority.
  • <9> Monograph: Grant, R.. 1991. The Royal Forests of England. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited. 1. 5, 30-1, 56, 98, 119, 137, 155, 158, 183, 203, 210, 211, 224.
  • <10> Serial: Exmoor Society. 1959-present. Exmoor Review. Volume 35 (1994), "Boundary marks of the Royal Forest", p40-43 (R Greenland and B Underwood).
  • <11> Report: Bonvoisin, P.. 2013. The boundary of the Royal Forest of Exmoor: An archaeological survey.
  • <12> Article in serial: Rawle, E.J.. 1894. Final Perambulation of Exmoor Forest. Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. 40. 171-178. 171-178.
  • <13> Map: Ordnance Survey. Various. Ordnance Survey Map (Scale / Date) . 1:50,000 / 1982.
  • <14> Monograph: Rawle, E.J.. 1893. Annals of the Ancient Royal Forest of Exmoor. Barnicott and Pearce.
  • <15> Monograph: the Rev William H P Greswell. 1905. The forests and deer parks of the County of Somerset . 170-201.
  • <16> Monograph: Burton, R.A.. 1989. The Heritage of Exmoor. Roger A. Burton.
  • <17> Monograph: Orwin, C.S.. 1929. The Reclamation of Exmoor Forest. Oxford University Press. 1st Edition.
  • <18> Unpublished document: Wilson-North, R.. Various. Field Investigators Comments. RCHME Field Investigation, 9 August 1994.
  • <19>XY Monograph: Siraut, M.. 2009. Exmoor: The Making of an English Upland. Phillimore & Co. Ltd. 1st Edition. [Mapped feature: #39308 ]
  • <20> Digital archive: Historic England. Various. National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) entry. 35307, Extant 16 June 2021.
  • <21> Map: Kelsey, F.J.. 1818. The Map Referred to in the annexed Award [Exmoor Inclosure Award]. 4 inches : 1 mile. Pen and Ink.
  • <22> Map: Kelsey, F.J.. 1818. A Map of Exmoor Forest Referred to by the annexed Award. 4 inches : 1 mile. Pen and Ink.
  • <23> Article in serial: Rowney, F.M.; Fyfe, R.M.; Baker, L.; French, F.; Koot, M.B.; Ombashi, H.; Timms, R.G.O.;. 2023. Historical anthropogenic disturbances explain long-term moorland vegetation dynamics. Ecology and Evolution. Vol 13, issue 3.
  • <24> Article in serial: Baker, L., Rowney F.M., French, H., Fyfe, R.M.. 2023. Revolution and continuity? Reassessing nineteenth-century moorland reclamation through palaeoecological and archival research. Landscape Research.
  • <25> Article in monograph: Unknown. Unknown. Anno Quinquagesimo Quinto Georgii III. Regis: C A P CXXXVIII. An Act for vesting in his Majesty certain Parts of the Forest of Exmoor otherwise Exmore, in the Counties of Somerset and Devon; and for inclosing the said Forest. Unknown. Unknown. Unknown.

External Links (1)

Other Statuses/References

  • Exmoor National Park HER Number (now deleted): MSO6832
  • Local Heritage List Status (Unassessed)
  • National Monuments Record reference: SS 74 SE40
  • NRHE HOB UID (Pastscape): 35307



Grid reference Centred SS 277 138 (12190m by 11858m) c.1300 boundary
Map sheet SS21SE

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Record last edited

Sep 19 2023 2:10PM


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