Harbinger of War by John Belcher

Harbinger of War with John Belcher

Meeting of 13th October 2011

John gave us a fascinatingly detailed account of The Dean Forest Riots of 1631-2. Charles I wanted to make money from his forests, and began enclosing and deforesting. This led to riots across England from 1626-32. Dean was a main target for the King as it was not just a disused hunting forest, but rich in timber and minerals. The King sold off 3,000 acres of Dean, including mineral rights, and commoners were thrown off the land.

At this time, the Forest of Dean had been left to run itself, with no Forest Court for about 300 years and the miners creating their own rules and court. Much of the land was neglected so people had started living there and making money from the timber, iron and coal. Cabiners lived in shelters in the woods, living off the land and making a little money from quarrying etc. About 100 mining families lived in the area; they were very poor, with each miner making around 9 pence a week profit. (Interestingly, at this time there were very few sheep kept, it was mostly cattle and pigs).

In 1624 Sir Edward Villiers got the grant to Mailscott Wood and in 1631 his wife began enclosing it and so removing people from their homes and livelihoods. On March 25th 1631 500 armed men met at English Bicknor and pulled down the enclosures. On April 5th 3,000 men rioted, burning down houses, pulling down fences and filling in mine entrances and even threatening to burn down Speech House. The ringleader was a Bicknor man – John Williams (alias ‘Lady Skimington’).

The King thought this was rioting against him, rather than people defending their livelihoods, and trials were held in London. Many witnesses were called (mostly gentry, as officials did not believe mere foresters could be so organised), but only 55 were arrested and no ring-leaders were caught. The foresters closed ranks – nobody talked and many rioters dressed up to avoid identification. The riots continued for two years, amazingly no one was killed.

Sir John Wintour then persuaded the King to permanently rent him the Forest for £106,000. He stripped the assets, including the oaks that the King had insisted be kept for the Navy, and brought in Welsh miners. Whilst the foresters kept pulling down his fences it took an Act of Parliament to end the destruction, by which time only 400 trees were left. Reforesting then began, with ironworks closed in 1672 to allow woodland regeneration. In 1805 Nelson visited and requested thousands of acorns be planted to provide timber for ships, however, the 1850s development of iron clad ships meant these oaks were never needed. CS