The Ancient Forest




For much of the middle ages Kingswood Forest was a lot larger than the area later known as Kingswood or The King's Chase. It stretched from the River Severn at Berkeley and Kingswood, near Wotton-Under-Edge to Filwood, south of the River Avon and it was probably a hunting ground for Anglo-Saxon kings before the Norman conquest.


I'll go more into this later but here are some relevant dates:


948 - King Edmund I is killed in a fight in his lodge at Pucklechurch. This seems to show that the royalty were using the place for hunting by then.


1228 - Henry III sells all the land, apart from the King's Chase, for £150. This therefore just leaves about 3500 acres in the king's ownership.


1550's - Edward VI sells the area of Barton Regis (between Bristol and Kingswood). Subsequent owners of this land start to claim that Kingswood was part of the deal as well.


1614 - All the landowners around are claiming bits of the forest for themselves.


1642-48 - The English Civil War. The lawless times give those with claims a chance to move in.


1653 - Oliver Cromwell gives official permission to the landowners to use the land as long as they don't cut down the trees. The forest is divided up into sections called "Liberties". There are already 300 cottages in the forest at the time, probably nearly all built in the last 10 years.


1670 - An attempt is made to re-stock the forest with 5000 deer. This causes riots in protest from the new residents and all those who had been mining, quarrying and chopping down the woodlands.


1718 - The trees are gone and the land seems to be firmly in the hands of the local gentry, who are renting it out for mines, industry and cottages. Kingswood is no longer a wood!




Below: Rodway Common.


It's tempting to think that Rodway Common hasn't changed much since medieval times, but on the 1902 Ordnance Survey maps there aren't really many trees there. It was a golf course then and when it was my playground as a kid in the 1960's, the slopes were covered in ferns, rather than the woods of today.



I've taken this from the 1881 book by the Revd. Henry Thomas Elllacombe "The history of the parish of Bitton, in the county of Gloucestershire." The book is essential reading for those interested in the history of Kingswood, as well as Bitton. It's available free online.


There were many disputes over the ownership of the forest and several court cases. This one gives a flavour of how the area looked in those days.



"In 1629 (5th Charles I) another trial was held between the Attorney General v. Berkeley, Chester, Newton and Player defendants.


Among the special depositions of the witnesses there is much relating to the history of the chase, therefore I will extract a few.


Thomas Walter says it was sometimes called a forest, sometimes a chase, and sometimes a heath; that deer have been there for forty years past, and that James Dwyer is the ranger; also four deer-keepers, viz.: William Tucker, William Gregory, Nicholas Reed, and Richard Prosser, each has forty shillings a piece per annum, besides "Vails," that the wages are paid by the sheriff of Bristol. An old house in the middle of Kingswood is called a Lodge, but he never knew or heard of any keeper dwelling there; that thirty years ago (that would be 1599) several "Meerstones" were set up to mark the liberties claimed by the Lords of the Manors adjoining.


Thomas Fido of Oldland, clerk, aged sixty-eight, has known the forest about forty-eight years, that the king has now and ever had deer there, and that the Earl of Arundel has now the custody of the forest and the deer; that the liberties which are claimed meet at a place called Oldwyfe's Cross alias Old Down Cross, about the middle of the forest. The claimants maintain that the soil belongs to them, and that only the feeding and browse belong to the king's deer; cannot say when the boundaries of the liberties were set up, as it was done before he can remember. About twenty cottages have been set up in Geemore, towards Jefferies Hill, and ten more towards Oldland and Hanham sides, to which garden plots have been enclosed within the last ten years. Richard Prosser's walk in Oldland and Hanham extended from Conham to Siston Brook, while William Gregory's is from Siston Brook to Mangotsfield Mill, William Tucker's extends from Mangotsfield Mill to Stapleton Sides, and Nicholas Reed rom Stapleton Sides to Conham; these keepers have walked their said several walks without contradiction. They have also cut browse for the king's deer from time to time and have taken monies at Lafford's (sic) Gate, and sometimes at Breach Gate, at S. Jame's-tide and Paul's-tide, and at the end of Keynsham Bridge in Gloucestershire at S. Lawrence-tide of some strangers coming by with pack-saddles marking the same, but whether for chimenage or not he cannot say. He knows August Causway in the forest near Dungeons Cross, Gossnell near the lodge, Golden Kaye and Broad Arrowhead Oak within the forest, also Gillard's Inn near the lodge.


Giles Musley of Barton Regis, yeoman, aged fifty, knows the heath of Kingswood and "New Pools", near Stapleton. Deer belonging to the king and queen have always been in Kingswood. Mr. James Dyer is the ranger, and has supervision over four keepers. There is a lodge, but never a ranger or dwelling keeper there; his evidence is on other points the same.


Richard Prosser of Hanham, aged sixty, yeoman, gave similar evidence; his grandfather was a keeper, and has heard that the deer first came out of Filwood, and in consequence of the wood being very thick in Kingswood the deer could not be destroyed. The keeper's wages are sometimes paid by the sheriff of Bristol, and lately by Lord Chaworth, then Sir George Chaworth, who had the custody of the deer; he has heard the lodge was built by Lord Berkeley, who was lieutenant of the forest, for the keepers to meet in. The keepers have walked in these liberties without hindrance and have lopped holly trees for the deer, and have taken money as chimenage at certain times, as the other witnesses have stated. All passengers passing Roegate and Dungeon's Cross with wains, carts, and pack-saddles, viz., a penny for every pack-saddle and fourpence for every wain and cart, marking them with an iron mark.


William Tucker of Stapleton, a baker, aged fifty-five; he was a keeper of the deer twenty years; he speaks of the boundaries of the chase; his grandfather was a keeper, and his father and mother told him that when he died there were 1600 deer in Kingswood.


James Dyer is the ranger under the Earl of Arundell, he is paid £3 8s, 1 1/2d, and the keepers 40s. each per annum in wages; he knew the Lodge, and also another lodge near the pound and Downings. Has heard that the keepers have formerly cut oak and ash for browse. He speaks of the tolls collected, and that it is called "conducting" money or chiminage or wheelage. Conceives the money is paid for aiding travellers and strangers through and over Kingswood, if they happen to be out of the way or crave assistance; he knows Conham, Stanshall Oak in Kingswood, Derridge adjoining Kingswood, the Rudges near Hanham, the "Hounge Splotts" near to Broad Faulte, Pigg's Green, &c.


Edward Woolie speaks of the Lords of the Manors holding cetain parts ever since it was bought by one of the Dennys who purchased the same from the king. When the said manors were entire in the king's hands or his farmers, the same parts in Kingswood were undivided and open, and that the marks and meers which now divide the same one from another were set up since the same were bought from the King, and by direction of the persons who bought them from Dennys.


William Gregory, one of the keepers, aged sixty, in stating the boundaries speaks of Deveridge and Dungeon's Cross; he knows Kingswood Lodge; never knew a ranger or keeper dwell there; the keepers generally use it as an ale house and to shelter or warm themselves.


Richard Haynes says that the Lords of Barton, Bitton, Hannam and others have been reputed owners of these liberties in Kingswood; has never known any division of the liberties. There were very ancient marks and meers when he first knew Kingswood, but about twenty years ago new marks and stones were set up in somne of the ancient bounds by direction of Mr. Richard Barkley and Mr. Chester.


All the above witnesses in behalf of the defendants from special depositions. Glouc.5th Charles I (1629) 1 Mic. No. 191.


John Harding of Bitton, yeoman, aged seventy-eight. He knows that those who have been Lords of the Manor of Bitton dig coals and stone and cut down trees within their manors; that Mr. Rob: Weekes who preceded Sir Theodore Newton about fifty years ago cut down one hundred loads of wood on that part of Kingswood for his own use, and not long after Mr. Coulthurst, who bought that part of Mr. Weekes', cut down a great quantity at a place called Golden Caye, and made charcoal of it, and then enclosed the ground; but two or three years after the poor people pulled it all down, and it has been open ever since. The Westons, who have lands in Bitton, have done the same, and so has Lord Stafford in Oldland. All the lords and owners of the waste of Kingswood have, as long as he can remember, done the same in their several liberties, and leased coal works, which have been quietly enjoyed.


John Marne, of Barton Regis, yeoman, aged seventy, deposed that the lands of Newton, Berkeley, and Chester called their "Liberties", and the land held by Wm. Player, and called the liberty of Henry Billingsley, Esq., all lie upon. It is well known how far each liberty extends by ancient meers, &c.


John Ball, yeoman, of Mangotsfield, aged eighty, stated that about twenty years ago new stones were set up where ancient trees before stood to divide the lands. By strangers, Kingswood is called a forest, but the usual name among neighbours is Kingswood Heath, but his father used to call it Kingswood Heath Chase to the forest of Filwood.


John Noble of Bitton, collier, aged 70, deposed that he knew the manor of Bitton belonging to Lord Berkeley and Sir Theodore Newton, and the grounds which divide it from the Manors of Barton Regis, which begin at Conham, by Stradbrook, Elder's Cross, Garratt's Mead, and so to Brimbles, the Lords of the Manor usually made their drift beginning at these place, and so drove to Bitton and Oldland to his knowledge for sixty years.


Thomas George of Barton Regis, aged eighty three, deposed that the Manor of Bitton extends unto and through and beyond the waste or common of Kingswood northwards, and is well known by ancient marks on each side. Other depositions are recorded, but they do not contain anything of particular interest. What the issue of this writ was, cannot be found.


It may be worth while to observe that in the Survey by Norden 1616 he says a good deal about the liberties, though in the old map of Kingswood, dated 1610, they are not laid down nor marked in any way.


That map is copied from the original in the possession of S.W. Chester Master, Esq., of Knole Park and Cirencester Abbey; on its margin is noted, "This mapp of Kingeswoodd as it is now fynished (excepting the trewe placing of the lodge and the addinge of the Bordering to the same), was received the twentiethe of September 1610, by U. Cox, Esq., ye persons whose names are subscribed to vppon and examined.

Fitzherbert Warre, Anno Dom'i, 1610."


Many of the spots mentioned in the foregoing depositions will be found in it; the map was discovered among the archives of the late Mr. Chester of Knole and Cirencester Abbey, in whose family the Barton regis property has been held from the time Mr. Chester purchased it in the reign of Elizabeth.