Until the reign of the Viking, Cnut, in the early 11th century, freemen could hunt anywhere, restricted only by the exclusive right to hunt associated with land ownership ("ratione soli".) During the reign of Cnut, the king withdrew certain lands from free common access and reserved them for his own use, maintaining them primarily for exclusive royal hunting purposes or "chases." Hunting in the Forest provided a substantial share of meat, nuts berries and wild edibles for the king, the nobility and their retainers.

In later reigns, it became a practice for kings to "forest" occupied areas. By virtue of "sovereign ownership" of all land, kings claimed the right to assert exclusive hunting privileges. Essentially, these were severed as a separate estate in the land and retained or granted severally. At one time, it has been estimated that almost one-third of the country had been converted into "royal forest." by royal proclamation. Regulation of the hunting of game rested upon the theory of the Crown's "sovereign ownership" of land and resources associated with it.

The Latin term "foris" actually referred to exclusion from the application of the ordinary law and not to a wooded land. A separate system of "Forest Laws" and enforcement mechanisms were introduced by the Normans, which set forth permitted use and dealt savagely with violators. English common law, equity and associated rights did not apply to crimes committed in relation to "forested" lands.

The forest laws included such harsh penalties as execution or blinding for interference with the king's beasts, especially deer and wild boar. The harshness of these laws and the enlargement of "forested" areas became one of the issues dealt with in the Magna Carta, limiting forest jurisdiction to lands as had existed in 1199 and denying the king the right to extend the borders. Forest provisions later became separated into the Parva Carta (Little Charter) or Forest Charter.

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