Feature: Ever hear about the Charter of the Forest?

Apparently, most of the British elite that formed the early governing bodies of the colonies hadn’t heard of it either. At least it could have been the case. The other possibility is that when they brought British law with them to the “New World” they saw the obvious benefits of simply ignoring its existence. Why? Because the meat of that manuscript protected the common rights of every free man. That would include “Indians”.

A paper written by Dr. Guy Standing sheds some light on the subject. Dr. Standing is a Professorial Research Associate, SOAS University of London, Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences, and co-founder and honorary co-president of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). Subjects of recent books include basic income, rentier capitalism and the growing precariat.

He writes that it is curious why this Charter, which was not only contemporary to the Magna Carta but considered a part 2, has been all but forgotten to history—but not completely. Very recently the American Bar Association suggested the Charter of the Forest had been a foundation of the American Constitution and that it was more important now than ever before. Although repealed by the Tory government of England in 1971 and replaced with a more “modern” interpretation of its statutes, Standing says, “The Charter has the distinction of having been on the statute books for longer than any other piece of legislation,” having been in place for 745 years.

So what is in that manuscript that the British “founders” of British North America did not want to remember?

“The Charter has 17 articles,” says Standing, “which assert the eternal right of free men and women to work on their own volition in ways that would yield all elements of subsistence on the commons, including such basics as the right to pick fruit, the right to gather wood for buildings and other purposes, the right to dig and use clay for utensils and housing, the right to pasture animals, the right to fish, the right to take peat for fuel, the right to water, and even the right to take honey.”

According to Wikipedia and other historic sources, “The first chapter of the Charter protected common pasture in the forest for all those “accustomed to it”, and chapter nine provided for “every man to agist (gather) his wood in the forest as he wishes”. It added “Henceforth every freeman, in his wood or on his land that he has in the forest, may with impunity make a mill, fish-preserve, pond, marl-pit, ditch, or arable in cultivated land outside coverts, provided that no injury is thereby given to any neighbour.”. The Charter restored the area classified as “forest” to that of Henry II’s time.

Clause 10 repealed the death penalty (and mutilation as a lesser punishment) for capturing deer (venison), though transgressors were still subject to fines or imprisonment. Special Verderers’ Courts were set up within the forests to enforce the laws of the Charter.

Although revered in Britain as a cornerstone of its own Common Law, on par with the Magna Carta, when it came to the Native people they were “colonizing” it was left on the shelf.

The Charter of the Forest was sealed in St.Paul’s Church on November 6, 1217.

Standing continues, “The enclosure act of 1845 was another mass landgrab, mocking the pretensions of private property rights. Between 1760 and 1870, over 4,000 acts of Parliament, instituted by a landowning elite, confiscated seven million acres of commons, (in England alone). It is no exaggeration to say that the land ownership structure of Britain today is the result of organised theft.” And it might be added, so is the land of the Six Nations.

These same thefts were standard fair for the British elite, opportunists and speculators, who were often the same person.

Although originally not intended to root the underlying policies of British colonization, it easily could have, and as history tells us, should have, been applied to governance in the “New World”.

But it was much easier to pretend these rights did not exist for the colonized or their land.

The Charter protected the right to roam and the right to use public spaces for law-abiding purposes. The Charter was intended as a permanent law limiting enclosure of the commons.

And what exactly are “the commons”? The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit. Characteristically, this involves a variety of informal norms and values (social practice) employed for a governance mechanism.

The catch is, much of the land thefts and genocidal policies were brought to British North America  and applied, denying what they already declared be the rights of the common man. It soon became the political and legal reason Indians were not considered “people” under British law. If so, they would have fallen under the protection of both the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest.


Editor’s note: Many thanks to Graham Porter for bringing attention to this story.

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