Early Medieval Period
By the fifth century Saxon / Anglo-Saxon settlements already existed. Saxon indications, apart from some place names, are restricted to a single iron making site which was discovered on Millbrook Hill when a pipe was being laid in 1980.
The Forest, as we know it today, was part of the Andredswald and it was described by Saint Bede the Venerable (c. 672 – 735) as "thick and inaccessible; a place of retreat for large herds of deer and swine". Bear, wolf and wildcat were also present.
The Forest may have been used seasonally for grazing by stockmen from local villages and that these people and their families eventually became "occupiers" (or even landowners) owing rent in the form of labour to the lord. These are the originators of "customary tenancy".
From the Norman conquest of 1066 onwards documentation regarding land and its use rapidly increased and the rate that the Forest changed hands - between royalty, nobility and back again quickened.
Ashdown Forest does not seem to have existed as a distinct entity before the Norman conquest nor is it mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 — the area that was to become known as Ashdown Forest was merely an unidentified part of the much larger Forest of Pevensel, a Norman creation within the Rape of Pevensey that had been carved out from the great Saxon woodland, the Weald. The first recorded reference to Ashdown Forest by name is in 1100-1130 , when Henry I confirmed the right of monks to use a road across the forest of "Essessdone", a right which the monks claimed to have held since the Conquest.
After the Conquest, the Forest area became part of the Rape of Pevensey (Rape being a Sussex term, probably pre-Norman, for a unit of land often subdivided into administrative Hundreds). The Rape boundary approximated to the NW boundary of the Forest, cutting through the Hundreds of East Grinstead, Hartfield, and Rushmonden. The Rape of Pevensey was awarded to Robert, Count of Mortain (half-brother of the Conqueror) along with 549 manors across England (54 in Sussex alone). However, the grant came with two important provisos – that the King could keep the deer and hunt whenever he desired, and, that the inhabitants (later formalised as Commoners) could continue to use it in their customary way.
The name "Ashdown Forest" consists of words from two different languages. Ashdown is of Anglo-Saxon origin. It has no connection with the ash tree, which has never been a common tree in the area given the soil conditions. Instead, it is probably derived from the personal name of an individual or people, Aesca or Aesca's dun— the hill of Aesca. Forest is of Norman origin and denoted land that was subject to forest law, a harsh and much resented supplement to the common law that was designed to protect, for the King's benefit, the beasts of the chase such as deer and wild boar, and the vegetation that provided them with food and cover, and which prescribed severe penalties, particularly in the 11th and 12th centuries, for those who transgressed. Thus it directly due to the Normans that we have confusion today over the term 'Forest'!
Forest land was legally set aside by the Crown for hunting and protected its sovereign right to all wild animals. That said, under forest law Commoners were able to continue - within limits - exercising many of their customary rights, for example, by pasturing their swine or collecting fallen wood; thus in the 13th century, the Commoners of Ashdown were grazing large numbers of swine and cattle alongside the deer that were protected for hunting by the aristocracy. It should be noted that medieval forests like Ashdown were not necessarily heavily wooded; in fact they would typically consist of a mixture of heath, woodland and other habitats in which a variety of game could flourish, and where deer in particular could find both open pasture for browsing and woodland thickets for protective cover.
A contemporary poem, included within the Peterborough Chronicle 1070-1154, known as 'The Rime of King William' describes the indignation of the English people at the introduction of King's forest laws. The author explains, "He loved the wild deer as if he were their father. And he also decreed that the hares should be allowed to run free". Though this may seem harmless, a King was supposed to act as the father of the people, who at this point, were starving. The author points out that William would rather sacrifice the lives of the people in order to allow wild deer to run free for his pleasure. The King protected the animals while condemning his own people to death.
The Forest changed hands numerous times through the medieval period as land was an important gift between monarch and subject. It was often gifted when the solemn oath of fealty was made. The Counts of Mortain were eventually dispossessed by William Rufus (son of the Conqueror and later famously murdered in the New Forest) and the Honour of the Rape was given to Gilbert de Aquila, founder of Michelham Priory and grandson of a knight killed at Hastings.
Gilbert's son, Richer, forfeited the Rape but it was restored by Henry II. In 1230 the Rape was again fortified this time by Gilbert III and, in 1232, it changed hands yet again, this time being granted to one Peter de Rivalis. Three years later Gilbert Marshall, fourth Earl of Pembroke, was granted the land with the proviso that it would revert to the Crown if his own Normandy estates should ever be recovered. He also used the Forest as surety against a loan from Richard, Count of Poitou and Cornwall, provided that the Count would not sell wood from the Forest. By 1246 the land was transferred to Peter of Savoy, uncle of Queen Eleanor of Provence who in turn inherited the Rape from her uncle. The Forest then begins its long period in the hands of England's Queens.
The reign of Henry III was a turbulent one and in 1254 the Sheriff of Sussex required that the iron industry of the county provide the king with 30,000 horse shoes and 60,000 nails probably for the armies of the King and Prince Edward (who both met with crushing defeat at the hands of Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264).
A survey of Ashdown in 1273 showed that a Master Forester was employed (paid 8d per day for him, his man and his horse). He was assisted by eight 'Serjeants' (or Foresters who may have had to do practical work and were paid one penny per day). There were also 208 customary tenants living on the edge of the Forest, who were allowed to take windfall wood, brushwood, furze and broom for fuel and to graze as much stock as they could winter on their own holdings.
The survey also allowed that "if it be necessary for the improvement of their common pasture they may burn all the aforesaid". Somewhat bizarrely the soil of the Forest was recorded in documents of 1275 as belonging to Queen Eleanor of Provence (widow of Henry III).
It is not known exactly when the Pale was built but there are accounts for its repair and construction of new lengths in 1275. The Pale consisted of a wooden fence built on top of a soil bank; the ditch that provided the material for the bank was always dug on the Forest side of the fence, which gave rise to the idea that deer could jump into, but not out of, the Forest. This may be true but two factors question this; firstly deer only jump when chased and cornered and this would be unlikely outside the hunting ground. Secondly, a fine boned animal like a deer could suffer injury jumping over a fence and into a deep ditch. The bank made it easier to build a fence high enough to restrain deer and the soil had to come from one side or the other. Putting the ditch on the inside simply made the fence a more effective restraint.
The Pale was breached by a number of gates. Those designed for wheeled vehicles, herds of animals or mounted groups were known as "gates"; those for pedestrians only were known as "hatches". Some of these names are still in use for local villages - Chelwood Gate, Chuck Hatch. (The pub, on the A26, near the line of the old Pale is known as the Crow and Gate - surely a corruption of Crowborough Gate.)
Queen Eleanor died in June 1291 and the Forest reverted to her son, the mighty Edward I, known as 'Longshanks', who eventually made it over to his second wife, Margaret of France.
The Forest had been divided into Wards (by 1292), namely Lampol (Southward), Walheath (Westward) and Heselwode (Costley Ward). They met at Three Wards, now on the Pippingford boundary. The wealthier occupants of the Rape of Pevensey are detailed in the Subsidy Rolls of 1296, 1327 and 1332.
Edward I died in July 1307 and the Forest remained with Margaret, now Queen Dowager, who in turn bequeathed it in 1318 to her daughter-in-law Queen Isabella, wife of Edward II. There is a record of her receiving an order to deliver oaks from her Ashdown chase to Pevensey.
By 1335 Queen Philippa of Hainault, the much loved wife of Edward III, held the Forest 'for life by the king's grant' and on her death, in 1369, the Forest reverted back to the crown.
In 1372 the Forest came into the possession of John of Gaunt (or Ghent), 1st Duke of Lancaster. Thus the Forest became known as the 'Great Park of Lancaster'. (The term "park" was generally applied to an enclosed hunting area and "forest" to an open hunting area - "forest" had nothing to do with trees.)
Aves and Woodmote courts were held in the Forest, possibly in each of the Wards. Aves courts took place on the first Tuesday after November 1st and were to collect rents and arbitrate on pannage (the practice of turning out pigs to feed on acorns and beech nuts, known as mast) and agistments (feeding of other men's cattle in the King's forest and the price paid for such feeding); three weeks later Woodmote courts heard more serious offences. Courts Baron, with Homage (a jury), were held every three weeks and were concerned with land use and customary tenants' rights issues.
Pannage is no longer a Common Right and the practice had finished by 1500 which suggests there was no longer sufficient mast to feed animals; it was finally extinguished in 1885 along with Turbary (turf cutting), which was considered damaging to the Forest soil.
There is a record in 'John of Gaunt's Register' of deer being supplied to Katherine Swynford his third wife (and ex-mistress). John of Gaunt is known to have visited the Forest only once, in the autumn of 1381, shortly after he put down the Peasants Revolt. John died in 1399 and Katherine Swynford (who was the sister-in-law of Geoffrey Chaucer) inherited the Forest. On her death the Forest reverted to Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt and Duke of Lancaster. The Forest was still administered by the Duchy of Lancaster via a Master Forester. In 1480 the new Master Forester had to employ a Ranger, a Marshal, a "logge grome", three Ward Foresters and three Foresters of Bailiwicks (the jurisdiction of a bailiff - in this case, the King's officer, the Forester).
It is recorded in 1496 that continental iron-masters (from Pays de Bray, northern France) were employed to operate the second water powered blast furnace in Britain, established at Newbridge.
Late Medieval / Early Modern
A water-powered steel forge was established in Pippingford by 1505. At the Court held in Nutley in 1519, "all the byrche wood between Notlye and Fayrwarp hathe bene felede". Thirty loads of timber had been sold at Lewes by the Rangers "to the grete hurte of the kynge and his tenantes".
Development and expansion of the iron industry put more pressure on the Forest and there were a series of commissions appointed to make surveys. A corn mill was working at Newbridge (but where was all the corn grown?) and "Master Huggett and his man John, they did make the first cannon" (referring to Ralph Hogge, iron master) in 1543 in Buxted.
In the mid 17th century the Sackville family appear in Forest history for the first time. In 1561 Richard Sackville (cousin of Anne Boleyn) became Master Forester, with the 'mastership of the Forest and keepership of the wild beasts therin'. He was a well known and able administrator, steward of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations. His son, Thomas, was created Baron Buckhurst in 1567 and the Earl of Dorset in 1604. Thomas was one of the trusted lords who were selected to convey Mary Queen of Scots to her execution (1587). Sackville acquired a large fortune through property dealings in many counties, as well as his investments in the rapidly developing iron foundry business.
By 1574 there were at least 77 iron furnaces working in the Weald. Tudor bricks and pottery have been found at King's Standing; these are evidence of some sort of hunting lodge where the deer were shot with crossbows (or longbows, though these were more difficult to master and a more proletarian weapon) by waiting nobility and possibly royalty. Throughout the seventeenth century there are Woodmote records (from 1607 onwards) which suggest that the Forest was well regulated until the Civil War (when Edward Sackville was Master Forester.)
Information and records gather pace through the 17th century. Both the Stuart monarchy and during the Interregnum (1649 – 1660), there were repeated proposals to enclose and develop the Forest. Under James I and Charles I parcels of land were sold off piecemeal. In a 1650 survey of crown lands by commissioners showed Ashdown Forest as exempt due to it being held as surety to meet army pay arrears. A detailed report showed the timber to be worth £620 and the deer £312.
During the Interregnum the Forest had fallen into disrepair due to the Master and his Rangers being Royalists and supporting the King's cause. The Pale was no longer maintained ("the Pale resteth" and "the whole forest [is] laid open and made waste"), the deer were hunted out and the Forest was granted to the Parliamentary army as pay.
Attempts to enclose and improve the Forest (for example, by introducing rabbit farming, or sowing crops) were however strongly opposed throughout by the local Commoners, who claimed rights of common on the Forest, having exercised them "from time out of mind", as well as by neighbouring estates who claimed right of pasture there.
At the Restoration, in 1660, Richard, 5th Earl of Dorset, was granted the post of Keeper of the Forest without being given an absolute grant. This in turn passed, in 1662 to one of Charles II's closest allies, George Digby, Earl of Bristol, who was given a 99 year lease with right to disafforest and enclose to allow Bristol a free hand to improve it. His attempts to do so were however frustrated "by the crossness of the neighbourhood"; the fences he erected were thrown down and the crops he sowed were trampled by cattle. In 1664 there a was a dispute between the Earls of Dorset and Bristol due to their unresolved roles regarding the Forest. Dorset renounced his interest for a lump sum payment and a rent from Bristol. Bristol (a notorious high-liver and spendthrift) failed to develop the Forest and defaulted on his payments to the Crown and to Dorset and left.
Compromise proposals were made to divide up the Forest that would leave sufficient common land to meet the needs of commoners, while giving the rest up for improvement.
In 1673 the Forest was leased to the daughters of a Colonel Washington. They too failed to make money and their lease was assigned to Sir Thomas Williams. (There of numerous Williams Baronetcies so it is not possible to identify Sir Thomas with any accuracy. However a possible candidate is the Williams Baronetcy, of Elham in Kent, created in the 'Baronetage of England' on 12 November 1674 for one Thomas Williams, Physician to Charles I and James II. His son, the second Baronet was High Sheriff of Kent in 1668. The title became either extinct or dormant in 1804. This would be an interesting area of research!) Subsequent Lords of the Manor suffered similar opposition from the Commoners and failed to make money.
Tension between landowner and Commoner came to a head when, in 1689, the 'Master of the Forest', Charles Sackville, 6th Earl of Dorset, brought a legal suit against 133 Commoners in the court of the Duchy of Lancaster. The court appointed commissioners to divide up the Forest's 13,991 acres (5,662 ha) in a way that would meet the needs of both defendants and plaintiffs. The commissioners made their award on 9 July 1693. They set aside 6,400 acres (2,590 ha), mostly in the vicinity of farms and villages, as common land, where the Commoners were granted sole right of pasturage and the right to cut birch, alder and willow (but no other trees). The commoners were however excluded forever from the rest of the Forest, about 55 per cent of its area, which was assigned for "inclosure and improvement". Commoners remaining on the enclosures were stripped of their rights.
An Interlocutory Decree (1691) instigated by the Earl of Dorset and the commissioners Williams, Fell and Staples recognised that enclosure was possible while still allowing sufficient land for the use of the Commoners. The commissioners appointed by the Interlocutory Decree found that, in 1693, 6,000 acres would provide adequate pasture and herbage. This formed the basis for the Duchy Decree of this year. After the Decree, the private interests were partitioned between Staples, Holland and one Lechmere, the last named taking the Lordship of the Manor of Duddleswell and all the Crown rights to the soil of the open Forest. Much of the enclosed land was used for intensive rabbit farming, which explains why the name "warren" is so common (Broadstone, Hindleap, Press Ridge, Crowborough). The land award of 1693 still largely dictates the map of Ashdown Forest today. The common land is highly fragmented and irregular in shape, broken up by many private enclosures, large and small. Other large enclosures have acquired interesting uses: Pippingford Park, in the centre of the Forest, has become an important military training area.
Although the 1693 land award spoke of enclosure and improvement, the land it placed in private hands has in fact largely remained uncultivated, helping the Forest to retain the appearance of being an extensive area of wild country. That said, there is a visible contrast between the areas of common land, maintained by the Conservators, which are predominantly heathland, and the extensive privately-held lands, which are generally either quite heavily wooded or cleared for pasture.
1717 saw the end of iron working in the Weald. In 1730 the Manor of Duddleswell was sold to Charles Sackville, second Duke of Dorset. There was, in 1793, a response to the activities of Napoleon, a Great Muster of troops at what is now called Camp Hill. Horse lines and field kitchens are still just visible. Charles was succeeded by his nephew, John Sackville, third Duke of Dorset who tried to control turfing, litter collection and encroachment. He died in 1799 and the estate was settled on the Duchess for life.
In 1807, Arabella Diana, Dowager Duchess of Dorset (later Lady Whitworth), attempted to restrict litter cutting by everyone (Commoner or not) and to make enclosures. This was opposed by Charles Abbott (later Baron Colchester), Speaker of the House of Commons who lived at Kidbrooke. He managed to obtain a favourable ruling from the Solicitor General.
During 1816 the Commoners in Nutley agreed to restrict litter cutting but continued to throw down enclosures erected by the Lord (and his Lady). In the same year notices were erected saying that trespassers on the Forest cutting bushes, turf, peat, heath, fern, furze or grass, or mining stone or mineral, would be prosecuted.
During the early part of the nineteenth century there were complicated dynastic changes in the local aristocracy – in 1815 the fourth Duke of Dorset, George John Frederick, died suddenly after a fall from his horse whilst out hunting. Lady Elizabeth Sackville, his sister and co-heir, inherited his estates at Knole. Elizabeth Sackville had, in 1813, married George Sackville-West, the fifth Earl De La Warr. The title of 5th Duke of Dorset passed to a cousin Charles Sackville-Germaine, (who had also inherited the title of Viscount Sackville in 1775). From 1776 to 1815 he acted as Receiver-General of Jamaica and he was later a Privy Councillor, Master of the Horse and noted courtier. He died unmarried, childless and the last of the line. All his titles became extinct.
William Cobbett, on one of his Rural Rides in 1822, visited the Forest and declared it "verily the most villainously ugly spot I ever saw in England" possibly the most famous quote about Ashdown Forest!
Arabella Diana, Lady Whitworth, died in 1825 and the Forest passed into the hands of Elizabeth, Countess De La Warr (the sister of the fourth Duke and youngest daughter of the third). Countess De La Warr's inheritance included Ashdown Forest and the Manor of Duddleswell.
It was Elizabeth who planted the Forest Clumps as landscape features; many of the trees were actually destroyed by objectors
In 1830 George Sackville-West, fifth Earl De La Warr, drew up plans for better Forest management. He formed a committee of four Commoners, a nominee of the Lord of the Manor and four employed 'Lookers' to enforce regulation. This was financed by a levy on the Commoners of 7d per acre.
The Victorian period
Both the fifth Earl and Lady Elizabeth had died by 1870 and the Manor passed to Charles Richard Sackville, Viscount Cantelupe, sixth Earl De La Warr; however, his tenure was short and the title passed to Reginald Windsor, seventh Earl De La Warr. No attempt was made to interfere with the Commoners but non-Commoner activity was restricted.
In 1875 De La Warr and his steward challenged whether or not the Commoners had any rights other than estovers and "herbage by bite of mouth". This challenge to Commoners' rights, which became known as the Ashdown Forest Dispute, led directly to today's framework of forest governance. On 13 October 1877 John Miles a tenant at Possingford Farm was seen cutting litter on behalf of his landlord Bernard Hale, a commoner, by a keeper Joseph Pilbeam employed by the Lord of the Manor, the Earl De La Warr thus challenging the Earl's instructions that Commoners should stop that activity. In a test case the Earl challenged the right of Hale and Miles to cut and take away litter, claiming that it could only be taken away from the forest in the stomachs of their animals. Despite a well laid defence full of detailed historical research by WA Raper, a Hastings solicitor, the commoners lost the action.
An appeal in 1881 failed to establish a right of common for Hale but did allow he had a Right by Usage (a prescriptive right). In an attempt to protect the rights of all commoners the committee prepared a case against the Earl. He capitulated and under the Common Lands Regulation (Ashdown Forest) Provisional Order Confirmation Act of 1885 established a Board of Conservators with powers to regulate the common land usage and protect the rights of the Commoners. The minute books from this period are now available on this site.
The Victorian passion for the rugged and romantic is reflected in the comments of Mr AE Knox in 1849:
"Nothing can exceed the picturesque beauty of certain portions of this district, eminences clothed with heather and gorse, and crowned with Scotch fir and holly, enclose valleys intersected by clear running brooks, whose course, here rapid and noisy, rushes over rocks and ridges of sandstone."
Naturalists of the time recorded clouds of black grouse on the heaths (but they had gone by 1870) and the late 19th century saw middle class Londoners seeking a rural idyll and escape in the Weald.
By the early years of the 20th century Crowborough hotels were extolling the area as "Scotland in Sussex", the invention of the motor-engine brought charabancs, day-trippers and picnickers and with them fFires, litter and illegal parking. AA Milne, having moved to nearby Hartfield, put the Forest on the international map with Winnie-the-Pooh. In the stories, the three dominant plants of heathland, heather, bracken and gorse, are mentioned more than any others but the tree most common now, birch, does not appear at all.
The Forest had a long tradition of military usage, from the Militia musters of the Napoleonic era through to the First World War. The Board's minute books refer to military activities such as firing ranges and trench digging as well as the efforts of the War Office to repair the not inconsiderable damage to the Forest.
The Modern Age
The Forest played its part again during World War II with the 'Aspidistra' radio station, based at Kingstanding. It was used for black propaganda against Nazi Germany and named for the popular foliage houseplant, as mentioned in the song "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World" (sung by Gracie Fields). The transmitter was the largest off-the shelf unit Britain could buy from the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Starting in 1943, Aspidistra was used to disrupt German night fighter operations against Allied bombers over Germany. As part of their strategies to misdirect the German fighters, German-speaking RAF operators impersonated German ground control operators, sending fake instructions. They directed the aircraft to land or to move to the wrong sectors.
It was WWII that really impacted on how the Forest looks today. The Forest was heavily used for military exercises throughout the War – with emergency landing strips being constructed, slit trenches dug and tank manoeuvres. Allied troops, particularly Canadians, were stationed here. It was the Canadians who constructed the emergency airstrip that can still be seen from Long car park. It was used only once.
After the War steps were taken to strengthen the powers of the Conservators to enforce the new byelaws drawn up in 1935, especially in respect of digging up plants and litter cutting. The Ashdown Forest Act 1949 formalised and also regulated the use of the Forest for post-war army training
The Society of Friends of Ashdown Forest was formed in 1961.
The Ashdown Forest Act of 1974 was drawn up and still remains the primary legislation governing the Forest.
The 1974 Act introduced free public access for the first time to the whole of the commonland. It also gave the Board other powers including: woodland management, such as the planting, felling, cutting and lopping of trees and shrubs; the conservation of flora and fauna and those parts of the Forest which are of historical, archaeological and physiographical interest; the improvement of grazing; and the protection of any part of the Forest, for which purpose they can erect fencing to enclose up to 100 acres.
In the 1980s the Lord of the Manor, the 10th Earl de la Warr, offered Ashdown Forest for sale direct to the local authority, East Sussex County Council, if they would buy it; otherwise he would probably sell the Forest piecemeal on the open market. On 25 November 1988 this threat to split up the Forest was averted when, with the benefit of donations from many sources, including the proceeds of a public appeal supported by Christopher Robin Milne that raised £175,000, East Sussex County Council purchased the freehold of Ashdown Forest (including the Lordship of the Manor of Duddleswell) from the executors of the Earl, who had died the previous February. The freehold was then vested by the council in a newly-created charitable trust, the Ashdown Forest Trust.
In the early 1980s the Board of Conservators established the Forest Centre, having previously been based in Forest Row.
Sixty-nine acres of woodland garden at Chelwood Vachery were purchased in 1994.
The Forest was designated a Special Protection Area, improving protection for wildlife, in 1996 and the years 1996-8 saw phased fencing and the re-introduction of grazing to 1300 acres on the south and west chases. The conservation of the Forest was truly on its way. The Forest was designated a Special Area of Conservation in 2001 to help conserve vulnerable habitats and, dramatically, the Forest was entirely closed for six weeks due to Foot and Mouth Disease precautions.
The Board works with Natural England on the restoration of heathland and was given, in 2006, a ten year contract to bring it into "Favourable Condition".