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WINDSOR FOREST AND PARK

 

In the Conqueror's time and before, it must have been hard to say what was Windsor Forest, or what was not, on the south side of the middle course of the Thames. After choosing the mound of Windsor for a castle, William enlarged the Forest so that it included a great part of Berkshire, as far west as Hungerford; some of Buckinghamshire, which is on the north side; parts of Middlesex, Oxfordshire, and Hampshire, and in Surrey both banks of the Wey as far as Guildford. The Forest and the river surrounded and isolated the Castle on every side. The Forest was named after Windsor from early times, but was also sometimes called Oakingham or Wokingham Forest. All this wild virgin country of heath, swamp, tangled wood, and high land held many deer for the king's hunting, and fattened many swine. Partly by the number of swine feeding in it the value of a forest was estimated; and the right to send swine among the acorns of Windsor was retained or acquired by many of the dwellers at the edge of the Forest or within it, from the boor to the nuns of Ankerwyke near Datchet.

There were many portions of cultivated land running into the forest or islanded in its midst. Some even of the woods inside the borders, such as Clewer, Bray, Hurley, Bisham, and Finchhampstead, remained under separate ownership, with their own woodwards, though open to admit the king's game. The oaks of the Forest are often mentioned in early records, together with alders, birches, beech, and ash. There are oaks at Cranbourne, and a beech at Smith's Lawn, which are conjectured to have been seedlings at the Conquest, perhaps earlier. Gifts of timber for building were frequently made to religious houses in the neighbourhood and to private men. Six oaks were sent to the Tower in 1276, wherewith to burn lime for the masonry; and the builders of Windsor Castle in William I's, Henry II's, Henry III's, and Edward III's time must have drawn abundantly from the oaks in the clay of the lower lands. The game in the Forest was of many kinds. The red deer was the noblest in appearance, in speed, and in esteem. Fox, otter, badger, wild cat, and hare were also hunted. There were wild cattle as late as 1277, for in that year the Constable of Windsor was ordered to capture and sell them. Among the Forest offences were the carrying away of boughs and felling of trees, the pasturing of sheep, the taking of does with a noose, hunting with greyhounds, hawking at pheasants and partridges. The poachers included labourers, husbandmen, gentlemen, and a rector. A tenth part of the venison, under Henry I, Henry II, and Richard I, was granted to God and St. Mary of Abingdon.

In the reign of Edward I, the Chief Forester was under the orders of the Constable of Windsor. Under Edward III the Constable was also Parker of the Great Park, which had gradually been fenced in out of the larger and vaguer extent of the Forest itself. Yet another enclosure was made in 1467 by Edward IV, namely two hundred acres close to Windsor, which were the origin of the "Home Park", once called the "Little Park". There Henry VII and Philip of Castile killed deer "with their own hands, with their crossbows"; even so early was it a notable thing for a sovereign to do what many a man does without thinking about it. Henry VIII loved the chase, and hunted in Windsor Forest all day, from morning until nightfall. He also shot, hawked, fished, and played tennis, and having killed the deer, watched the men who ate quantities of venison for a wager. Elizabeth hunted at Windsor, attended by half a hundred ladies on hackneys, and once, in 1602, shot a great fat stag, and sent it to Archbishop Parker as a gift. It is supposed to have been in her childhood, in her father's reign, that the events which led to the story of Herne the hunter took place:

 

There is an old tale goes that Herne the hunter,

Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest,

Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight,

Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;

And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,

And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain

In a most hideous and dreadful manner.

  

So speaks Mistress Page in opening her plans for the discomfiture of Falstaff. It is said that a yeoman hanged himself on a tree for fear of the king after hunting in the Forest without leave. The tree was cursed, and a ghostly stag haunted the place and butted at the tree and breathed smoke and fire as it tore the roots. There was also a story that Herne was a keeper and went mad after being gored by a stag. He tied a pair of antlers upon his head, ran naked through the Forest, and hanged himself on the tree, near Shakespeare's Oak in the Home Park, which was called Herne's Oak for centuries, and was blown down in 1863, or, according to another opinion, cut down by George III. Queen Victoria planted the oak which marks the site of the legendary tree.

 


Virginia Water

 

In Elizabeth's reign the first systematic planting was begun by Lord Burleigh. Thirteen acres near Cranbourne Tower were sown with oaks which were never pollarded, like most other trees in the Forest, to provide browsing for the deer. This planting in 1580 was to supply the navy, especially in case the Spaniards should destroy the oaks of the Forest of Dean, as they had planned to do. Since that date a more or less contemporary record of successive plantings has been made, and where the planter has been a royal or distinguished personage, his or her name is attached to the recording plate.

James I hunted in the Forest, closed the Little Park against the public, and turned out some wild pigs, of which a few are still left. In his time the circumference of the unenclosed Forest on the Berkshire side of the river measured seventy-seven miles and a half, and here ran the red deer. The Home Park of two hundred and eighty acres held two hundred and forty fallow deer, and the Great Park of three thousand six hundred and fifty acres held eighteen hundred. Charles I also hunted there, and at the beginning of the Civil War deer were lawlessly killed and the pales of the Park destroyed. Bulstrode Whitelocke was Constable of the Castle and Keeper of the Forest under the Commonwealth, but could not keep down the poaching. Charles II and William III planted the Long Walk.

Queen Anne hunted in a chaise, and Swift, in 1711, says that she was hunting until four in the afternoon, and covered more than forty miles. She planted with oaks the ride known by her name. Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was Ranger for many years, and has to be gratefully remembered for protecting the trees against Walpole when he was in need of money. Though the first two Georges did nothing for the Castle except by neglecting it, in their reigns there were several plantings of trees. The avenue of lime trees east of Cumberland Lodge was made under George I. Under George II were formed some of the plantations round about the heathery Smith's Lawn at the south end of the Park: these were the first to be shaped according to the lines of the ground, and not circular or in parallelograms as before; and it is said that some of this work was given, for lack of anything else, to soldiers raised against the Rebellion of 1745. In the time of George II thirteen-hundred red deer ran in the Forest. By 1806 they numbered only three hundred, though as late as 1813 the Forest was fifty-six miles and a half in circumference, and included Wokingham and a great part of Bagshot Heath. The Forest was still unenclosed, but squatters had been steadily enlarging their pieces of land by carrying forward their ditches at the time of scouring them, while parishes within the boundaries had raised money by allowing persons to enclose and acquire portions of the common land. In 1817 awards were given, settling the claims of various occupants, and the Forest, or every tract of it which retained that title, was enclosed and the deer driven into the Great Park. This is now eighteen hundred acres in extent, and holds a thousand fallow deer and a hundred red deer, Cranbourne Park holding a small herd of white deer.

Though crossed by public footpaths and roads, it is at most times and places clear that the Park is the front garden of Windsor Castle. There is even a sense of privacy unintentionally disturbed at spots here and there where the family grief or rejoicing of royalty has been celebrated by planting a tree as when Queen Victoria planted an oak to mark the place where the Prince Consort finished his last day's shooting, November 23, 1861. Yet the Park is about six miles in length from the Castle southward to Virginia Water, and at most points from two to three miles wide. Considering this extent, it has no great effect of space. This is due to the lack of any great quality of art or nature in the Park. Its outline has no natural wholeness, and the boundaries, marked by fences and walls and several lodges, are not easily forgotten. The eighteen hundred acres have little grace of undulation or natural variety; and they are made up of a number of separate but not integral parts, so that it is not one but many. Curiosity, admiration, respect, and surprise follow one another too rapidly for any but the first and last to be satisfied. There are a thousand excellent or notable things some due to chance and antiquity, some to deliberation and design but the Park as a whole has no supremacy over others of the same or even less extent. I have no sooner admired the exquisite giant birches, or the craggy vast oaks, or the perfectly formed younger ones, than I come to lines of rhododendrons, the symbols of very modern riches, or to lines of venerable stately trees which are not satisfying except on the rare occasions when they overhang some human stateliness or splendour. The Park was grand and stern under Plantagenets or Tudors, when the poet could say of it

 

No Forest, of them all, so fit as she doth stand,

When Princes, for their sports, her pleasures will command,

No Wood-nymph as herself such troops hath ever seen,

Nor can such quarries boast as have in Windsor been;

 

it was sweet and gallant under Stuarts and early Hanoverians. But the charm is faded and the grandeur confounded, and the Park should either be artistically treated as a whole, or allowed a century of nature and wise neglect, if these qualities are to return in a measure worthy of its repute and history.

 


copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2004

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