Cranborne Chase

A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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'Cranborne Chase', in A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 4, (London, 1959) pp. 458-460. British History Online [accessed 13 April 2024]


Although Cranborne Chase was not a forest it appears to have acquired by prescription some of the incidents of a forest, (fn. 1) and so merits treatment here. As delimited by the inner bounds, the chase lay wholly within Dorset, south of the 'shire rack', or boundary, which divides that county from Wiltshire. Wiltshire is concerned, however, with what is contained by the so-called outer bounds, which, entering the county north of Fordingbridge (Hants), proceeded by Downton Bridge to 'Aylwardesbrigg' (Harnham Bridge, Salisbury), to Bulbridge, Wilton. Thence they ran to Hurdcott on the Nadder; to the mill at 'Bynington'; to the mill at Tisbury; to 'Wytham' near the junction of the rivers Sem and Nadder; to the source of the Sem and thence to Shaftesbury. (fn. 2)

While within the inner bounds the area was computed to be 40,000 acres, the outer bounds were estimated to inclose 800,000 acres, of which a not inconsiderable portion lay in Wiltshire, contained in the hundreds of Chalke, Dunworth, Downton, Cawdon and Cadworth, and South Damerham. The beasts of the chase were, according to Manwood, the buck, the doe, the fox, and the marten, which were especially numerous in Vernditch (Broad Chalke). (fn. 3) The forest law, applicable to the beasts of the forest, the red deer, fallow deer, roe deer, and wild boar, was enforced in Cranborne Chase. Vernditch and Rushmore (Berwick St. John) were the only deer walks of the chase lying within Wiltshire. That at Vernditch was said to have contained between 1,000 and 1,200 deer in 1650, and not more than 500 some twenty years later. (fn. 4) About the same date there were about 160 deer in Rushmore Walk. (fn. 5) The earliest map of the chase is dated 1618, (fn. 6) and was produced in Salisbury; another of the same date was published in Blandford, (fn. 7) and these two maps seems to have been exhibits in the court case between the Earl of Salisbury and the Earl of Pembroke. Besides the two deer walks, a fringe of coppices from Ashcombe (Berwick St. John) in the west, through Bridmore (Berwick St. John), Norrington (Alvediston), Manwood (Alvediston), to 'Chettel' Wood' (fn. 8) in the east, ran along the Wiltshire side of the county boundary, involving the parishes of Tollard Royal, Berwick St. John, Alvediston, Ebbesborne Wake, and Bower Chalke, where the vert was subject to chase law, and the venison protected by keepers.

The lordship of the chase is thought to have originated with the possessions of Brictric, which at the time of Domesday were held by Matilda, the wife of William I. (fn. 9) On her death the lordship lapsed to the Crown, but was granted by William II to Robert Fitzhamon, from whom it passed to his eldest daughter, Mabel, who married Robert, created Earl of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of Henry I. He was succeeded in 1147 by his son, William, upon whose death in 1183, Henry II kept the honor in his own hands for the following six years, eventually disposing it to William's third daughter, Isabel, (fn. 10) the wife of John Plantagenet, who in 1199 succeeded to the throne. After the divorce of Isabel, the lordship passed, on her remarriage, to her second husband, Geoffrey de Mandeville, and on his death to Isabel's third husband, Hubert de Burgh, who died soon afterwards without issue. It next descended to Almeric d'Evreux, the son of Mabel the eldest daughter of William (see above), who after a short tenure also died without issue. It next descended to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Hertford, the son of Richard de Clare and Amice the second daughter of William, Earl of Gloucester (see above). He was succeeded by his son Richard, in 1230, and by his son Gilbert, the Red Earl, in 1262, and by his son Gilbert, in 1295, who lost his life in 1314 at the battle of Bannockburn, leaving no heirs. The next in succession was his sister Elizabeth, and by her marriage with John de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, the chase passed to their daughter Philippa, the wife of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, and from him to his son Roger, who died in 1398. His daughter Anne married Richard, Earl of Cambridge, from whom the lordship descended to their son Richard, Duke of York, and on his death at the battle of Wakefield in 1460, it became reunited with the Crown in the person of his son, Edward IV. (fn. 11)

Thereafter, the chase remained with the Crown until the reign of James I, when it was granted to Robert, Earl of Salisbury, in 1616. (fn. 12) The third earl conveyed it, together with the manor of Berwick St. John, but exclusive of Vernditch, which had already been alienated, to the Earl of Shaftesbury for the sum of £5,300 in 1671. In 1692 it was sold, but without the manor of Berwick, for £3,500 to Thomas Freke of Shroton (Dors.), who bequeathed it to Thomas Pile and his wife Elizabeth (née Freke) of Baverstock, for their lives, with reversion to George Pitt of Strathfieldsaye (Hants), who entered upon his inheritance in 1714. He was succeeded in 1734 by his son, and in 1745 by his grandson, George Pitt, who was created Baron Rivers. It remained with this family until its disfranchisement in 1828.

A perambulation of the chase in the 12th century, when John was Earl of Gloucester, was in later times claimed to have supplied a title to the outer bounds. (fn. 13) It was imputed to him that, acting as though he were king, he had appropriated to the chase certain adjacent areas outside the chase, amongst which was the manor of Damerham. (fn. 14) In 1215, as king, John ordered a perambulation to be made to ascertain 'what is our chase, and what is the chase of Geoffrey de Mandeville, that is to say, the chase which William, Earl of Gloucester, formerly held, that Geoffrey should be granted the same chases which the Earl of Gloucester had held'. (fn. 15)

An inquisition held by the Bishop of Salisbury, the Bishop of Bath, and William Longspée in 1220 was later frequently recited in support of the limita tion of the chase to the inner bounds, (fn. 16) but it has not survived. In 1245 at an inquisition to determine in what manner King John had held the chase, and how far it extended otherwise than by the usurpation of the king, (fn. 17) the jury unanimously affirmed the outer bounds as far as the River Nadder. (fn. 18) In 1255 before the justices in Eyre it was submitted that the Earl of Gloucester had his cursus into Wiltshire, where he had no tenement, but only a percursus as far as the Nadder and the Avon, but by reason of his percursus outside his chase (percursus forensicus) he had converted the whole country into a forest. (fn. 19) In 1279 a perambulation, presided over by Walter Scammell, Dean of Salisbury, and Matthew de Columbers, decided in favour of the inner bounds, and recommended that 'Chettel Wood' and Vernditch and all the country as far as the Nadder be disafforested as contravening the Charter of the Forests, but no evidence was adduced to show that any part of the chase had been afforested in the reigns of Henry II, Richard I or John, so as to bring it within the terms of the Charter. (fn. 20)

In 1280 Gilbert de Clare was required to show by what right he had appropriated the country intervening between the inner and outer bounds. (fn. 21) On behalf of the Crown it was argued that the inner bounds, as defined by the perambulation of Dean Scammell the previous year, were, in fact, the legal and historic limits of the chase. The earl relied upon the 12th-century perambulation made when King John was Earl of Gloucester and upon that of 1245. The boundaries both of the inner and outer bounds were described from point to point with great particularity.

The grievances which had precipitated the Pleas de Quo Warranto came from every hundred in Wiltshire, south of the Nadder and West of the Avon, as far as Salisbury. As early as 1250 the Abbess of Wilton had remonstrated that she was not permitted to take reasonable estover in her woods at Vernditch and Chettel, nor her men to take housebote and hayebote. (fn. 22) These woods were stated to be in the percursus of the earl. An accumulation of evidence is preserved in the Hundred Rolls of 1275. (fn. 23) Certain presentments were common to all or nearly all the hundreds: that, for instance, the earl had converted all the country as far as the Nadder into a forest; that he had posted seven foresters in that area; that they made attachments of vert and venison; that they imposed cheminage in the fence month; that they captured villagers on any pretext, took them to Cranborne and there detained them pending payment of money; that their actions contravened the perambulation of the two bishops in 1220.

From most hundreds, however, the jury also preferred some specific complaint. From Downton, then belonging to the Bishop of Winchester, the foresters collected a toll from the bishop's men driving carts of dead wood and seasoned timber from the New Forest to Salisbury market. (fn. 24) At Britford, then said to be in the hundred of Cawdon, they used arms against the crowds assembled at the fair on 1 August. (fn. 25) In the hundred of South Damerham they captured a man at Martin, (fn. 26) and without reason hanged him at Cranborne, thereafter impounding some cattle in a herd at Bridmore (Berwick St. John) on the plea that they belonged to the hanged man, and annexed a horse, a silver mark, and a silver buckle. (fn. 27) In the hundred of Chalke they were accused of collecting sheaves of corn in the autumn for the brewing of their scotales, of compelling the villagers to drink the scotales, and of extorting hens, lambs, and fleeces for Christmas. (fn. 28) At Bishopstone, another manor held of the Bishopric of Winchester, they captured a cart loaded with thorns belonging to the rector, the horses and a nag, which a groom was riding to water in the middle of the royal way in the village, detaining them until the rector paid a fine of half a mark. (fn. 29)

Although the proceedings were inconclusive, from that date the grievances in Wiltshire declined, and the Earl of Gloucester on his side adopted a more conciliatory attitude. This was evinced the following year at a meeting between the earl and the Abbot of Glastonbury at Sherborne (Dors.), when the former surrendered all claims to 'Boulsbury Highwood' (fn. 30) in the hundred of South Damerham, then belonging to Glastonbury, and conceded to the abbot the right to ditch and fence against deer. 'Thereafter no forester dared enter upon the crops of the villeins.' (fn. 31)

Two factors conduced towards more harmonious relations between the owners of the chase and the owners of the land. In the first place, the chase from this time was held by persons closely connected with the Crown, until under Edward IV it became vested in the sovereign. And secondly, the title to the outer bounds became largely invalidated by concessions granted within them. Free warren—the right to hunt ferae naturae on uninclosed land, usually demesne— was granted in 1294 to the Abbess of Shaftesbury in her demesne lands at Tisbury and Donhead. (fn. 32) In 1303 the same concession was allowed to John Hussy at Bridmore, and in 1330 to the Abbot of Glastonbury in his manor of Damerham and Martin. (fn. 33) Moreover parks were inclosed in course of time at Wilton, Wardour, and Faulston (Bishopstone) (fn. 34) in Wiltshire, and the Dorsetshire park at Blagdon was enlarged to include part of the Damerham hundred in 1483. (fn. 35)

During these centuries the controversy concerning the boundaries of the chase subsided. The rolls of the chase court at Cranborne reveal minor breaches of forest law. (fn. 36) Thus presentments were made in Chalke for destroying underwood (1468), for permitting hedges to lie open a year after being cut, and for grazing sheep within the chase (1523); at Ebbesborne for not repairing hedges (1548); at Alvediston for permitting coppice to stand longer than the prescribed period (1443), and for pasturing 300 sheep in Manwood (Alvediston) (1475); at Rushmore for allowing unringed pigs to pannage within the chase (1550). Sporadic interference with deer also occurred, as hunting them with hounds at Eastcomb (Ebbesborne Wake) (1469) and the capture of deer in Chalke Field and in Vernditch (1475), but neither the offence nor its punishment excited the protests that had been the feature of the 13th century.

From the fact that these infringements of chase law occurred without exception in the hundred of Chalke, in parishes contiguous with the Dorset border (Tollard Royal, Berwick St. John, Alvediston, Ebbesborne Wake, and Bower Chalke) it may be inferred that the claim to a boundary at the Nadder and the Avon had by this time been withdrawn. But £2 a year was paid in lieu of cheminage at the bridges at Harnham and Wilton in 1412–13, (fn. 37) and George Penruddock was under an obligation to pay the chief forester a subsidy of 1 quarter of barley and 6 bushels of wheat in respect of his land in the Chalke valley in 1570. (fn. 38)

In 1616 the 'whole chase, free chase and free warren in the Chase of Cranborne, and all privileges, jurisdiction and liberties in the counties of Dorset, Wiltshire and Southampton' were granted to Robert, Earl of Salisbury, (fn. 39) who lost no time in advancing his claims to the outer bounds in their fullest implications. Actions were brought against the Earl of Pembroke in Chancery and against Lord Arundell in the Court of Common Pleas. In a subordinate cause, judgement was given against the keeper of the Earl of Salisbury, and the earl surrendered his grant and procured a new one, (fn. 40) which, however, did not define the boundaries of the chase. The familiar arguments were repeated and no new ones adduced. Judgement in the case of Lord Arundell, delivered in 1619, allowed the Earl of Salisbury certain areas in Tollard Royal, and against a Mr. Gawen certain areas at Norrington, both of which amounted to the privilege of purlieu. (fn. 41) The earl did not proceed further against Lord Pembroke, but sold him Vernditch, the best stocked walk and the main source of controversy, in 1620.

During the tenure of the chase by the Earl of Shaftesbury, who acquired it in 1671, amicable relations obtained between lord and tenants; presents of deer were frequently made. In 1672 a deer was given to the tenants of Berwick St. John, another killed in 'Cobley Walk', to Lord Arundell, another to Mr. Bennett of Pythouse, Tisbury; others were divided among persons living near the chase. (fn. 42)

The vogue of the gentlemen hunters, 'now called deer stealers,' (fn. 43) began about 1700 and terminated in 1736 when the making a second offence a felony, punishable by transportation, put a period to their pastime. They sprang from some of the best families in the confines of the chase, and, attired in 'cap and jack' were prepared to pay the £30 fine in consideration for their diversions, when detected by the keepers. Although there were some gruesome encounters, amicable relations subsisted between them, according to a good authority. (fn. 44) The most notorious, and certainly the most original of this coterie, was Harry Goode of Bower Chalke whose portrait by Byng forms the frontispiece of Chafin's history of the chase. The scene of their exploits was that line of coppices in Wiltshire, north of the Dorset boundary, of which mention has been made.

The second half of the 18th century was marked by that controversy which developed with acerbity between Lord Rivers and the group of landed gentry, who came to be known as the Proprietors, for the disfranchisement of the chase. They included the Earl of Buckingham, the Earl of Shaftesbury, Lord Arundell of Wardour, and Anthony Chapman, who was appointed secretary. (fn. 45) While Lord Rivers did not recede from his claim to the outer bounds, the proprietors based their argument upon moral grounds. They claimed that the chase was conducive to poaching, stealing, and smuggling, with their consequences, the idleness and profligacy of the rural population, (fn. 46) and was therefore prejudicial to society. Their advocacy for disfranchisement, however, coincided with the phase of inclosure all over England. The offer of £200 a year, free of tax, was indignantly rejected, and £1,000 a year with a park at Rushmore demanded. (fn. 47) The crux in the negotiations was the determination of a fair basis of valuation. While the proprietors maintained that the basis should be the value of the chase accruing to Lord Rivers, the latter argued that the value should be the measure of advantage accruing to the proprietors from disfranchisement. As to the inclusion of Wiltshire in the disfranchisement, it was maintained by the landowners that Wiltshire had never at any time formed part of the chase. (fn. 48) The committee of proprietors was formed in 1787 after a meeting at Woodyates Inn, and at a second meeting in 1790, a subscription list was opened. But while the annual deer-hunt at Tollard, which for generations had succeeded the session of the Chase Court and the deer-hunt at Handley which traditionally terminated the sitting of the manorial court had been suppressed, it was not until 1829 that Cranborne Chase was disfranchised.


  • 1. Sel. Pleas of Forest (Selden Soc. xiii), p. cix.
  • 2. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 185. 'Bynington' is presumably Dinton.
  • 3. Aubrey, Nat. Hist. of Wilts. ed. Britton, 58.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. [Smart] A Chronicle of Cranborne (1841), 315.
  • 6. E 178/4739 map removed to MR/260.
  • 7. W.A.M. xxii, facing p. 149.
  • 8. See P.N. Wilts. (E.P.N.S.), 204 Chettle Head Copse.
  • 9. Dugd. Mon. ii. 60.
  • 10. Ibid. 61.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1611–18, 412.
  • 13. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 184b.
  • 14. Hoare, Mod. Wilts., S. Damerham hundred, 26.
  • 15. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), 216.
  • 16. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 245, 248 passim.
  • 17. Hoare, Mod. Wilts., S. Damerham hundred, 26.
  • 18. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 184.
  • 19. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com.), ii. 233a.
  • 20. Hutchins, Dorset (3rd edn.), iii. 409. W. Chafin, Anecdotes and Hist. of Cranborne Chase (1818), 62.
  • 21. Plac. de Quo Warr. (Rec. Com.), 184b.
  • 22. W. West, Hist. of Forest or Chace, known by name of Cranborne Chace (1816), 44.
  • 23. Rot. Hund. (Rec. Com) ii. 242 sqq.
  • 24. Ibid. 257a.
  • 25. Ibid. 248b.
  • 26. Martin transferred to Hants 1895.
  • 27. Ibid. 253b.
  • 28. Ibid. 249b.
  • 29. Ibid. 257b.
  • 30. See P.N. Wilts. (E.P.N.S.), 400. Boulsbury Farm in Damerham.
  • 31. Adam of Damerham, Historia de rebus Glastoniensibus, ed. Hearne (1727), ii. 572.
  • 32. W. West, Hist. Cranborne Chace (1816), 87.
  • 33. Cal. Chart. R. 1327–41, 169.
  • 34. West, op. cit. 94.
  • 35. Cal. Pat. 1476–85, 336.
  • 36. [Smart] Chron. of Cranborne (1841), 252–68.
  • 37. J. C. Cox, 'Royal Forests of Wilts. and Cranbourne Chase', Memorials of Old Wiltshire, ed. A. Dryden, 88.
  • 38. First Pembroke Survey, ed. Straton, i. 69.
  • 39. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1611–18, 412.
  • 40. Ibid. 452.
  • 41. W. Chafin, Anecdotes and Hist. of Cranborne Chase (1818), 116.
  • 42. [Smart] Chron. of Cranborne (1841), 253–6.
  • 43. W.A.M. xxxiii. 289, quoting a letter from Dr. Goode of Broad Chalke, dated 1794.
  • 44. Chafin, op. cit. 18. Chafin's uncle had been a Gentleman Hunter.
  • 45. Rivers, An authentic Account of a late negotiation for the purpose of obtaining the disfranchisement of Cranborne Chase (1791), 10.
  • 46. Ibid. 85.
  • 47. Ibid. 22.
  • 48. Ibid. 14.