Site of the Norman castle and , later, Fineshade Abbey
A short history of Rockingham Forest
By Jeremy Purseglove
The Forest of Rockingham with its long and vivid history is one of the great royal forests of England and yet, compared to Sherwood, Epping or the New Forest, it is relatively little known. In its heyday in the Middle Ages, bounded by the River Welland to the north-west and the River Nene to the south-east, it extended 33 miles in length from the gates of Stamford to the gates of Northampton. It was very large and must have been very frightening. The woods harboured wolves and outlaws and even today it is easy to get lost in them. A lantern still surviving on Weldon church tower, according to local tradition, guided wandering travellers through the forest and fires were lit through Hazelborough to lead villagers from St Andrew’s Fair at Brackley so that they might ‘be in safety from robbing’. Where highways traversed the forest such as the medieval road between London and Nottingham, which now travels through Rockingham village, woodland was typically cut back to the width of an arrow shot to protect travellers from the likes of Robin Hood
Weldon Church and its lantern
As is the way with ancient woodland where long standing tree cover may relate to the original wildwood, the history of Rockingham Forest reaches further back into the mists of deep time. The Rutland village of Glaston commands views across the Welland valley to the present Rockingham Forest. In 2000 archaeological excavations here exposed rock shelters that had been shared by both humans and hyaenas 40,000 years ago. Many of the animals and plants still present in the forest would have been known to and perhaps even used by these neanderthal people. As we know from the pollen record, small leaved lime was a dominant tree in that early post glacial period, and it remains one of the signature species of Rockingham’s ancient woodlands.
The Welland valley below the Rockingham scarp, so much disproportionately larger than the little River Welland that flows down it, was gouged out by a glacier, which in turn deposited heavy boulder clay on the adjacent Rockingham plateau, making it, even now, relatively unproductive farmland compared to the valley bottoms. In the far northeast an expanse of sandy limestone created an equally inhospitable environment for settlement and agriculture. These are the reasons why the Rockingham Forest is where it is.
The Welland Valley from Gretton
Tanya Dedyukhina, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>,
The Norman kings understood this and that is why they singled out this poor land for hunting, for which they had a passion. It was said of William the Conqueror that ‘he loved the deer as if it were his brother’. In addition to venison, the forest supplied timber for building, wood for fuel and charcoal, coppice for hurdles and fences, willow for baskets, lime bark for rope and grazing for pigs. Heavily managed woodland was divided into small parcels known as ‘sales’, hence some of the local place names such as Thoroughsale Wood.
In 1070 King William I ordered the building of Rockingham Castle, which was extended by his son William Rufus. The adjacent royal forest had taken its name from the king’s castle at Rockingham by 1157. It was subdivided into three bailiwicks managed from and called after the royal manors of Brigstock, King’s Cliffe and Rockingham.
The medieval hunting forest
Rockingham Forest was an area of legal jurisdiction, administered under Forest Law to preserve the king’s hunting rights. Thus, the Forest was not defined in terms of continuous tree cover but simply as a hunting reserve, which included agricultural villages and their fields alongside the woodland. Nonetheless, extensive woodland especially in the northern part of the forest would have provided ample hunting. Alongside deer there were many wild boars, as attested by the abundance of boar tusks still found at Blackmore Thicks south of Apethorpe Palace. King John, Henry II, Richard the Lionheart and Edward III regularly hunted in Rockingham Forest and at Brigstock in 2017 a metal detectorist found a fifteenth century hat jewel, which it is surmised was lost by nobility or even by the king out hunting. It is now one of the treasures displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The king’s servants were charged with defending his property and especially his deer. The Engaine family of Brigstock and Blatherwycke held their lands by the service of chasing wolves from the forest coverts. Their seal showed a running wolf beneath a broken spear. At Benefield west of Oundle, William of Northampton ambushed five poachers ‘one with a cross bow and four with bows and arrows ... (they pursued) the malefactors so vigorously that they turned and fled into the thickness of the wood’.
Richard III with a hat jewel similar to the one found at Brigstock
Starting in the 13th century, landowners
were empowered to enclose parts of the forest where deer could be kept specially for hunting.
Today excellent venison can be bought from the Blatherwycke estate in the forest, but the deer are an increasing problem for trees and ground flora. Britain’s deer numbers now stand at about two million, the highest for a thousand years and a 450% increase since the 1970s.
A herd of about 70 fallow deer in Rockingham Forest.
Very much larger groups than this are frequently seen
Injustices of Forest Law
In the early Middle Ages around a third of England was subject to Forest Law, which under the excuse of protecting hunting, was also a valuable source of revenue for the crown. Those who farmed or lived in towns and villages within the Royal Forests were subject to a whole range of petty tyrannies, which were policed by the king’s officials. They were forbidden to dig ditches or clear land without permission and even to carry an "unslung bow", presumably poised ready to shoot a deer. Every dog had to be ‘lawed’ by having three claws cut from its forepaws so that it could not chase game. One Robert of Sudborough was arrested near Brigstock since ‘he carried in his hand a branch of green oak and an axe’.
Portrait of KIng John hunting from the British Library, [Cotton MS Claudius D II f116]
The royal foresters were sent out to fine anybody they could catch for such petty infringements. Forest laws were like a medieval version of modern parking penalties, only far more unjust and arbitrary. Kings would also extend their forest boundaries at will.
This irked everybody, barons, and villagers alike. Resentment against Forest Law along with other injustices came to a head in the reign of King John, who stayed in Rockingham Castle over fourteen times and for whom the surrounding forest was one of his favourite hunting grounds. In 1215 the barons forced the king to sign Magna Carta or the Great Charter, so named to distinguish it from the important Forest Charter of 1217.
Clause 47 of Magna Carta states that recent expansions of forest boundaries are to be reversed while clause 48, insists that ‘all evil customs of forests, foresters and their servants are to be investigated by twelve sworn knights’. In this way we find that the historic battles for forest justice lie at the heart of Magna Carta itself, revered round the world as a foundation stone of modern freedom
The 13th century: Perambulations and the forest at its greatest
With all these controversies, compounded by the locals’ habit of sneaking extra bits of woodland and the king’s regular seizure of land to sell off as revenue, the forest boundaries were a regular battle ground. Therefore, who owned what had to be proved. In forest terms a perambulation is a legal document precisely identifying a piece of land by defining its boundaries. These were confirmed by boundary markers and verified by an extensive community hike to ‘walk the bounds’, sometimes with participants waving sprigs of Wild Service tree. (see: ‘Wild Service Trees in Rockingham Forest’. Long after this exercise had ceased to have any legal relevance, the church continued the ritual. On 23rd May 1811 the Reverend Bonney of Kings Cliffe sallied out along West Street with his congregation ‘singing the 100th psalm’. In the 1950s the vicar of Kings Cliffe revived this custom again.
The vicar of Kings Cliffe leads a procession to bless the forest boundaries in the 1950s
(Photo courtesy of King's Cliffe Heritage)
Under a willow tree between King’s Cliffe and Blatherwycke stands the White Cross. It is a stone Celtic cross, encrusted with golden lichen, its contours rounded by centuries of rain and frost and is a unique survival of a medieval forest boundary marker. Few people notice it as they drive by in the lane. Leaning slightly drunkenly in the cow parsley it has survived in this quiet field corner for over seven hundred years. It is first mentioned in the perambulation of 1299: ‘between the field of Clive (Kings Cliffe) and the field of Blathewyk as far as Whyteston (White Stone) and then right up to Alneydynge (Alders Farm)’. Boundary markers were often the graves of criminals or suicide victims such as ‘felon’s slope’ at Newnham and ‘Kate’s grave’ at Weldon. The greatest extent of Rockingham Forest was recorded by a perambulation made in the reign of Edward I in 1286.
Four years later his Queen, Eleanor of Castile died at Harby in Nottinghamshire and the grief-stricken king ordered crosses to be built wherever her coffin halted on the way to London, the most famous now being Charing Cross. The funeral cortege wound its way through the forest with the king leading the way from Stamford to Geddington, where England’s most perfectly preserved Eleanor Cross still stands in the middle of the village. This was the zenith of Rockingham Forest as in 1299 the area under forest law was dramatically reduced to the core of woodland and to townships with manors that remained in royal control.
Eleanor Cross at Geddington
Part of John Spede’s map of Northamptonshire, 1610
Over the centuries the forest continued to shrink apart from a brief attempt by Charles I to revive the old boundaries in the 1630s as a means of revenue raising. The first enclosures in Rockingham Forest were made in 1492 at Thorpe Underwood and by the late 16th century they were well underway. These led to the removal of woodland, common land and open fields, being driven by a shift from arable to the all-profitable sheep farming, and by the creation of parks round the great aristocratic houses.
‘The Forest of Rokingham after the olde perambulation is about a 20 miles yn length, and in bredthe 5 or 4 miles in sum places, and in sum lesse. There be dyvers lodges for keepers of the fallow dere yn it. And withyn the precincte of it is good corne and pasture and a plentie of woodde.’
John Leland 1546
Rockingham Forest in the Elizabethan Age
In 1562 a handsome young Northamptonshire gentleman called Christopher Hatton caught the eye of Queen Elizabeth I by his skill in dancing. He soon achieved high office and great riches and was known as ‘the dancing chancellor’. In 1575 he bought and extended Kirby Hall, which lay immediately south of a great extent of forest between Gretton and Laxton. By 1585 he had enclosed and removed much of the adjacent village for his fine renaissance gardens now restored beside his great house, which survives as one of the most romantic Elizabethan ruins in England.
It is said that when Queen Elizabeth was progressing from Kirby Hall to Rockingham Castle, she was lost in the forest and as thanks to the villagers of Corby for guiding her to safety, she granted them a charter of valuable rights. This event is still enacted in the Corby Pole Fair but sadly it seems to be no more than a charming legend since the Queen never did stay at Kirby and, in her time, Rockingham was probably too decayed to entertain royalty. What is certain is that she granted Corby a charter in 1575 no doubt at the request of Hatton, who was Corby’s lord of the manor.
A decade later the Forest of Rockingham was the setting for a rather more momentous royal event. In the autumn of 1586, Elizabeth’s arch enemy, Mary Queen of Scots, after 19 years of imprisonment, was escorted through the forest to Fotheringhay. Her jewels and horses were said to have been stolen and taken to Geddington Woods. In February 1587 in the great hall of Fotheringhay Castle, wearing a crimson dress the colour of martyrdom, she lay down and submitted to the executioner’s axe. Catholic Europe was outraged and in revenge Philip of Spain launched the Spanish Armada.
Kirby Hall today
Still guarding its powerful memories, the quiet forest village of Fotheringhay with its farms, flowery motte and peaceful river lies forgotten, as in the words of T.S. Eliot:
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Fotheringhay with motte mound on the right
The Midlands Rebellion
In the reign of Mary’s son, James I, voracious enclosure of common land and reduction of the forest continued but not without conflict. In 1605 Francis Tresham of Newton le Willows enclosed and depopulated common land, which had been part of Rockingham Forest. In 1607 over a thousand men, women and children assembled at Newton led by John Reynolds, a Northamptonshire tinker also known as Captain Pouch. He claimed authority from the King and Lord of Heaven to destroy enclosures and promised to protect protestors with the contents of his pouch, carried by his side, which would keep them from harm. On the 8th June, the king’s proclamation was read out, and the gentry and their forces charged the assembled rioters. Around fifty were killed in the pitched battle and the rebel leaders were hanged and quartered. John Reynold’s pouch was discovered after he was captured and found to contain only a piece of green cheese. He was hanged without mercy. The little church of Newton still stands alone among its willows and water meadows.
Corby in the 19th and 20th centuries
Ironstone is an unusual sedimentary rock but common within the Jurassic oolitic limestones of England including the Rockingham Forest. The origin of these peculiar rocks is not fully understood but they were formed in warm shallow seas, where the influx of iron perhaps came from exposed lateritic red rocks. Iron ore was worked by the Romans in Bedford Purlieus and medieval charcoal-smelting took place in Rockingham Forest with woodland timber providing the fuel.
The Victorians rediscovered the ironstone, which was exhibited in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and railway cuttings in the forest revealed its wide extent. By the 1880s iron quarrying in Corby was the most extensive in the country. Initially dug by hand, steam engines then enabled ever deeper quarrying. This was the driver for the new steel industry which had its golden age in Corby between 1930 and1950 under the aegis of Stewarts and Lloyds from Glasgow. In World War II the steelworks had become essential to the war effort and in 1942 over 4,000 workers were employed there.
Corby steelworks in 1980
Francis Tresham was a member of the Catholic dynasty of Treshams after which Tresham College in Kettering is named. He was born at Rushton Hall in Northants, the eldest of eleven children. As well as helping to provoke the Midlands Rebellion, Francis was embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot.
Corby was among the first generation of new towns established through the 1946 New Towns Act and the first Master Plan of 1950-1952 laid important emphasis on public open space. This was partly achieved because of the prohibitive cost of residential development on land reclaimed after ironstone extraction, and partly through the lucky survival within the urban area of old woodlands, which had originally formed part of the Rockingham Forest. In the master plan Thoroughsale and Hazel Woods, comprising 222 acres of ancient woodland, were specifically excluded from development and are now seen as part of the strategy for Corby’s regeneration.
Forest clearance in the 19th and 20th centuries
In the wider forest, which had been disafforested in 1795-96, woodland clearance continued throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A case in point is the Bedford Purlieus, the remains of which now comprise a National Nature Reserve and perhaps the jewel in the crown of the forest ecosystem. This had been acquired by the Earl of Bedford in 1639 as a distant outlier to his Woburn estate. In 1862-68 his successors had half the Purlieus grubbed up and in 1904 a later Duke of Bedford sold his Wansford estate to Earl Fitzwilliam, who in turn sold 600 acres of woodland to a timber merchant for felling in 1913. The former central track in the old woodland now forms its outer western boundary.
An article in the Peterborough Advertiser of December 7th ,1912 quoted two old men from Nassington, who remembered the woodland in its glory days: ‘An old lady used to wander all night in the Purlieus … foxes and badgers running around her … in the evening the air would be filled with the hooting of owls … Foxes practically swarmed in the Purlieus’.
A new beginning
Now a new chapter may be opening in the long history of Rockingham Forest as increasing interest in restoration of woodland links and forest management is driven by grants from government and lottery and by close community involvement. The Rockingham Forest Vision was formed on 22nd July 2020 and in August 2022 won a bid from The National Lottery Heritage Fund to kick start the project, with a launch date fixed for November 2022: another historic date for the forest.
Whenever we step out of the sunlight into the cool forest, we enter a world that has hardly changed through the centuries as evoked by Louis MacNeice in his poem ‘Woods’:
For me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate
Into a woodland planting, into a dark
But gentle ambush, was an alluring eye;
Within was a kingdom, free from time and sky,
Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,
And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark
How important then that we conserve and restore this ancient historic landscape for yet more generations to come.
Glenn Foard, David Hall and Tracey Partida: Rockingham Forest. An Atlas of the medieval and early modern landscape (Northamptonshire Record Society, 2009).
John M. Steane: The Northamptonshire Landscape (Hodder and Stoughton, 1974)
Victoria Ortenberg: Corby Past and Present (Northamptonshire Victoria County History Trust, 2008)
Juliet Smith: A Shell Guide to Northamptonshire (Faber and Faber, 1968)
D.S.Sutherland: Northamptonshire Stone (The Dovecote Press, 2003)
Simon Thurley: Kirby Hall (English Heritage, 2020)
Hilary Clare: Blatherwycke. The History of a Northamptonshire village (Ashridge Press, 2021)
G.F. Peterken and R.C.Welch: Bedford Purlieus: its History, Ecology and Management (Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, 1975)
Oliver Rackham: Ancient Woodland: its history, vegetation and uses in England (Castlepoint Press, 2003)
Thomas Hinde: Forests of Britain (Victor Gollancz, 1985)
Nick Ashton: Early Humans (William Collins, 2017)
R.Bellamy: The Rockingham Forest Perambulation of 1299 (Translation from the latin, Northamptonshire Past and Present, Vol VI)
H.K.Bonney: An Account of the Perambulation of Kings Cliffe made in 1811 (A transcription of the original ms. is in the Kings Cliffe Heritage Centre)
Philip A.J. Pettit: The Royal Forests of Northamptonshire: a study of their economy 1558-1714. (Copy in Oundle Museum)
About Jeremy Purseglove
Working as an environmentalist in the water industry, Jeremy helped pioneer a new approach to reducing floods and in 1986 wrote the influential book, Taming the Flood. In 2019 his second book was published: Working with Nature: Saving and Using the World's Wild Places.
He is a now a member of Rockingham Forest Vision's Core Team.