Cranborne Chase

William Seymour describes how a large area of Dorset and Wiltshire, abounding in deer, was hunted by King John and granted to Robert Cecil by James I.

The principle of a chase was similar to that of a forest; both were large areas of land - often only lightly afforested and including lands, parks and woods of independent owners - defined usually by what was called a perambulation, and in which the killing of deer and certain other beasts was strictly controlled.

The difference between the two was that whereas in a royal forest only the King, and those appointed by him, had the right to hunt and offenders were tried under the Forest Law, a chase having been given by the King to a subject was his to hunt exclusively, and offences committed in it were not usually dealt with under Forest Law.

The early history of Cranborne Chase is uncertain. It seems probable that the owner in Edward the Confessor’s reign was a nobleman called Brictric, grandson of the lord Haylward de Meau, who founded a monastery at Cranborne, and that after the Conquest it became a royal preserve. Local historians of the last century disagree about this.

John Hutchins in his monumental History of Dorset doubts the Chase ever having been styled a forest, but Canon Jackson and William West hold that the Honour of Gloucester, which included rights and privileges extending over that county as well as parts of Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire, belonged to the Crown in the Conqueror’s time and that Cranborne was designated ‘The Manor and Forest’. Certainly the Honour of Gloucester descended to William II, for we know that that King gave it to his cousin Robert Fitz-Hamon, and from then on it was a chase.

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