Essex was once a wild larder for all of us.
Then the Norman arrived. And made ‘wild’ illegal.
The Roman had gatecrashed the party first. Colchester is the oldest recorded town in Britain and was the capital of Roman Britain. The name Colchester comes from the Latin colonia, a phrase that meant equal rights, equivalent to those of Roman citizens.
Essex county got its name a bit later; the Old English phrase Ēastseaxe (East Saxons) taken from the Anglo-Saxon invaders who controlled most of the Eastern Kingdom, including Middlesex, Sussex and Wessex.
Earliest references to Essex come from AD 527 when the county was defined as a mass of thickly vegetated, green woodland north of the River Thames.
The Normans invaded in 1066. Things were just fine before then. The Saxons had extended common rights to peasants. But the Normans wanted Essex as a strategic location to control the rest of the British kingdoms.
Norman barons evicted thousands of Saxon landholders and tenants to secure estates for their exclusive use. To justify this criminal removal and long term occupation, the Normans defined the entire area of Essex as ‘forest’ under martial law.
Forest is a French/Latin (foris) legal phrase. It literally means in English ‘outside’ of the law of the land…
…For a modern day equivalent, think Guantánamo Bay.
The Norman aristocracy justified their removal of pre-existing Saxon common laws and rights by claiming they needed to ‘protect’ the wild vegetation and creatures, known as the vert and venison, in newly created ‘forest parks’.
By the 12th Century all of Essex had been declared ‘forest’. It became an exclusive territory for the elites to hunt game across land defined as private.
Castles were built to defend the stolen land, including those at Saffron Walden, Pleshey, Rayleigh and Castle Hedingham.
Market towns were founded by successive Norman Bishops of London who wanted to capitalise on the land and manors they were given by the Crown.
Cressing Temple was part of a vast estate manor handed to the French Knights Templar (the architects of London’s financial services industry) in a strategic location between Colchester and London. Cressing was placed first in a detailed list drafted in 1185 of the Knights Templar’s vast holdings.
Meanwhile, hungry ‘trespassers’ who needed to live off the land they were evicited from faced death or terrible injury as punishment…
…Think Hunger Games.
Anyone living off the ‘larder of the land’ was defined as a criminal. Starving and homeless families continued to source food by foraging, fishing or hunting. They risked having their eyes removed or hands and feet cut off if caught. Some were beheaded. The severity of martial law in Essex resulted in bands of protesters rising up to challenge the laws and harsh taxes the Norman Lords exerted over the land.
More than 100 years of riots eventually forced King John (pictured below) to sign the Magna Carta on the River Thames in June 1215 at the request of his own Norman barons. The aristocracy had become frustrated that The Crown’s land laws – intended to control public dissent – were restricting profit and trade by tide, waterway and land.
The Magna Carta enshrined a partial return of some freedoms, but this was mainly to facilitate business.
It was a contract between Crown and freeman, and it established an important return of common rights: an absolute right to travel freely on tidal waters. A right to fish. And a right to dig up the bait used to catch the fish. The return of these rights was very good news for Essex. Because its foreshore is uniquely intricate, with the thousands of acres of shallow creek, oyster bed, tidal river and salt marsh.
But many of the civil rights that peasants had enjoyed under Saxon law were never reinstated, and Norman barons continued to treat protesters harshly. Revolt didn’t end. Stories of the most heroic Saxon rebels passed over into folklore.
The legend of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest is an example of a fictitious tale that has survived. Real life activists are not so well remembered, although a new park in Basildon, Essex, on the banks of the River Thames, is named after one of the most infamous: Wat Tyler.
Tyler led the Peasants’ Revolt, in 1381, against increased taxes imposed by The Crown on the poor. He lived in Kent at the time, but was originally from Essex’s Fobbing marshes (next to Wat Tyler Country Park) where peasant sheep farmers had begun protesting.
Rebels from Kent and Essex marched together on London to demand King Richard II grant communities the self rule they had previously enjoyed. Hundreds of rebels hunted down the legislators within the capital who they considered responsible for drafting and enforcing unjust land laws.
There were many deaths on both sides before Tyler was caught and beheaded during a meeting with the King (see images above and below). Over the following months many more rebels and leaders were themselves tracked down and killed, with 31 executions in Chelmsford alone.
The Peasant’s Revolt had been the culmination of almost 300 years of opposition to Norman rule. Although riots continued and sometimes resulted in concessions, these successes were soon rolled back by cleverer and more complex laws contrived by later administrators of the Crown. The most brutal aspects of ‘forest law’ were eventually outlawed, as agreed under the Magna Cart. But its underlying raison d’être – keeping the land for exclusive use of the elites – was upheld by new Enclosure laws that set aside land exclusively for grazing and crops.
The inclosure and enclosure Acts began in the 16th Century and continued for 400 years. These Acts were designed to finally end all claims of ‘common right’ to the land. They worked. Closure of the Essex countryside was complete: defining the look and appearance of the entire British landscape. William Morris (pictured below) – the Essex poet and novelist – based his 19th Century writings on the county’s private status. He campaigned without success for the return of a ‘common ownership‘ land system.
Enclosure finally established the spirit of ‘forest law’: elevating the rights of the 0.1% – the land owning classes – over the rights of the rest – the ‘peasants’. It is why England has one of most biased land ownership systems in the world, with less than 1% owning almost 70%. The masses were almost entirely evicted from the countryside by the mid 20th century. Bundled into the reservations and workhouses known as towns.
The same system remains in place today, skilfully maintained by establishment propaganda (Out of Town/Countryfile). Britain has one of the lowest rural-based population in the EU. Just 1.1% live in areas defined as countryside, or as the ONS calls it, settlements in ‘sparse rural’.
Because we mostly live in towns and cities, our access to the countryside should be the best in the world. But it isn’t. Citizens living outside of Britain (not Scotland) in the 21st Century enjoy many civil rights that don’t exist here: public access to forest, public access to the foreshore (rather than just passage over it), canoeing or kayaking on non tidal rivers, public right to fish on a freshwater river or lake without need for a payment (a fishing license) to The Crown. These things are considered ‘rights’ in other countries, not optional privileges as they are in Britain.
More than 70% of British forest remains privately owned by the elites, with no public access; an anomaly considered unacceptable in many other parts of the world. The small proportion of surviving trees in Essex are a glimpse of what the county looked like before the Normans cleared the woodland to either replace with Royal hunting lodges, chases and deer parks, or to build new towns. The ‘forests’ that retained their trees still bear the ‘Royal’ title. Royal Epping Forest, in Essex, is an example.
The destruction of trees in Essex over the last 1,000 years is another story. Maybe less human than the evictions, but almost as sad. More than 80% of indigenous woodland has been cut down, removed and ploughed since the 11th century, to justify the Enclosures Acts. It’s devastating irony bearing in mind what most people believe ‘forest’ really means.
Perhaps there is an upside. The destruction of the county’s woodland makes for an open landscape. There is much to see. And not all is Enclosed, especially around the coast.
While Norman England has become the most populated nation in the EU; the East of England the most populated region in England; Essex the most populated county in the East of England; the Essex foreshore is the wildest, most unexplored 450 miles of riverbank in Europe. This is because it is mostly ‘common foreshore’.
A tidal kibbutz. Because ‘common’ doesn’t mean anarchy, loss or ruin. More often it means the very opposite. Essex’s salt marshes, creeks and inlets are unique in terms of tidal flow and ecology. They are rarer still in the scale of their breadth, depth and expanse. A spaghetti junction of soft, swirling, mud channels alive with shrimps, bass, grey mullet and colonies of fat seals. The air full of salt, terns, long tailed tits, blue butterflies and a silence that hasn’t been visited since the Thames sailing barges stopped servicing Essex’s farmsteads 50 years ago. And there’s the magic. A redundant agro/industrial scape that nature has taken back.
Our generation has a chance to explore and forage over a wild, tidal outback that is quieter and safer than it has been for centuries. We can even ‘trespass’ without fear of losing limb or life. But there’s really no need. Because the shallowest creeks merge into 3,959 miles of footpath and trail. Ancient routes carved out and left behind by successive invaders who arrived to exploit the land, oysters, shellfish, fish, salt, and a warm and temperate micro-climate. But now they’ve gone. Moved on to the next venture. Leaving the sunshine and salty wilderness to the ramblers, backpackers and kayakers.
The destructive march of the invaders continues. Not all bad in a human sense. The most recent into Essex are tastier than their predecessors. North American signal crayfish have begun to thrive in our rivers; Japanese knotweed is spreading with triffid-like speed over the land. Both species are considered alien pests that need to be destroyed and removed. Conveniently, both are delicious. It’s no longer an offence to forage and eat the wild. Especially invaders. Funny ol’ world. What goes around comes around. Recipes and forage locations will follow.
Muntjac deer is another invasive species worth looking out for all over Essex. Not to eat. Just to go watch. I take a Canon 5D Mark III and a waterproof Panasonic Lumix DMC-FT5. Muntjac are best photographed at dusk and dawn; from the valleys around Blatches Farm, Rochford, in the south, to the Stour in the north, to the forests around Epping and Hainault and the M25 London fringes.
Take a sleeping bag, a hammock or bivvie and stay out after dark. Wild camping means more time for great photos in the outdoors. Nearly as wild as it was a thousand years ago. It just looks different. Nothing stays the same. But the law may now be on our side.
And then there’s civic duty. A lot of crayfish and knotweed to eat.
Stephen Neale – October 16, 2014
Talks, workshops and Essex tours
Workshops for schools, scouts, guides, community groups or businesses. Learn how to wild camp and forage, or where to hike, canoe and cycle in Essex. Also, talks on the unique history of land ownership in Essex, and how to enjoy the outdoors by understanding all the laws of access.
Phone – 07947 160007
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