Carta de Foresta: The Charter of the Forest Turns 800

Date01 November 2017
Carta de Foresta: The Charter
of the Forest Turns 800
by Daniel Magraw and Natalie omure
Daniel Magraw is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins
University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and President Emeritus of the Center for International
Environmental Law (CIEL). Natalie omure has an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics
from SAIS and a B.A. in International Studies and History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
November 6, 2017, marks the 800th anniversary of
an extraordinary, but almost unknown, piece of
environmental legislation: Carta de Foresta, also
known as the Forest Charter, Charter of the Forest, or
Charter of the Commons.1 e Forest Charter is one of the
world’s rst pieces of environmental and natural resources
legislation and the earliest example of democratic environ-
mental governance.
e Forest Char ter radically changed rights relating to
Royal Forests in 13th century England, a nd in so doing
signicantly diminished the power of the k ing relating to
forests, improved the system of forest courts that provided
justice from then until modern times, converted parts of
the Royal Forests into commons, returned other parts to
private owners, served to mediate forest-related conicts,
and thus helped ensure sustainable forest use until the pres-
ent day. e Forest Charter was also centra l to the vitality
of Magna Carta over time. Writing in the 18th century, Sir
William Blackstone declared that the Forest Charter was
equally important as Magna Carta, referring to them both
as “sacred charters.”2
Given the vast disparity between the notoriety and rev-
erence accorded Magna Carta and the essential anonymity
of the Forest Charter, several questions arise. How did the
Forest Charter come about, what did it accomplish, why
did Blackstone give it equal billing to Magna Carta, why is
Magna Carta now so widely cited and celebrated in coun-
tries around the world while the Forest Charter is not, and
1. Forest Charter, in 1 S   R Nos. 10 and 12 (London,
Record Commission 1810) (Nicholas Robinson trans., 2013). e English
translation of the Carta de Foresta used in this Comment is from R
T, A H E   M C  K J
329 (London, John Major 1829). Another translation is at: Nicholas
Robinson, Forest Charter, in M C   R  L 421
(Daniel Barstow Magraw et al. eds., ABA 2014) [hereinafter M C
  R  L]. See also Nicholas A. Robinson, e Charter of the
Forest: Evolving Human Rights in Nature (Sept. 23, 2017), available at https://
2. W B, T G C  C   F,
 W I P  H   C vliv (Oxford,
Clarendon Press 1759).
why does the Forest Charter matter today? Put dierently,
why is this a ncient one-page vellum document written in
abbreviated Latin worth thinking about today? We address
these questions below.
I. Forests and the 1215 Magna Carta
e 1215 Magna Carta dealt with many dierent types of
abuse of power, including not only of the barons who forced
King John to agree to it, but also of widows, knights, clergy,
business people, and forest users. Four of its 63 chapters
related to forests, reecting the importance of forests to the
king, commoners, and others at that time and the extent
of King John’s and his forbears’ abuses of power relating to
forests. It also reected the fact that barons, knights, the
clergy, and others had been making serious eorts to stop or
circumvent those injustices in the decades preceding 1215,
including by paying the King to disaorest (i.e., remove
their status as Royal Forest) specic parcels of Royal Forest.
One of those chapters— Chapter 48—required that 12
knights be chosen in each county by “upright men” of the
same county, with t he mandate to investigate “all the evil
customs relating to forests and . .. foresters,” which were
to be abolished within 40 days of t he investigation. e
other three provided protection to non-forest dwellers from
being called before forest justices (Chapter 44), returned
forests that had been declared Royal Forests by King John
to their earlier status (disaorestation, Chapter 47), and
provided respite to King John during his time on Crusade,
if any, with respect to doing justice concerning the disa f-
forestation or retention of forests that King Henry II or
Richard the Lionheart had aorested (Chapter 53).
e original version of Magna Ca rta was short-lived,
however. It was a greed to on June 15, 1215, but 10 weeks
later on Au gust 24, Pope Innoc ent III a nnulled it on the
ground that King Joh n had been forced to enter into it
under coercion.3 e pope had what might be loosely
3. M C   R  L, supra note 1, at 5; the papal bull is
reproduced in id. at 401.
Copyright © 2017 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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