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Medieval deer park

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Title: Medieval deer park  
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Subject: Aarhus, Harmony Society, Dial House, Essex, Framlingham Castle, Castles in Great Britain and Ireland, Deer Park, Richmond Park, Lyme Park, Kenilworth, Enclosure
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Medieval deer park

A medieval deer park was an enclosed area containing deer. It was bounded by a ditch and bank with a wooden park pale on top of the bank. The ditch was typically on the inside.[1] Some parks had deer leeps, where there was an external ramp and the inner ditch was constructed on a grander scale, thus allowing deer to enter the park but preventing them from leaving.[2]


Some deer parks were established in the Anglo-Saxon era and are mentioned in Anglo-Saxon Charters; these were often called hays.[3]

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 William the Conqueror seized existing game reserves. Deer parks flourished and prolifereated under the Normans, forming a forerunner of the deer parks that became popular among England's landed gentry. The Domesday Book of 1086 records 36 of them.

Initially the Norman kings maintained an exclusive right to keep and hunt deer and established forest law for this purpose.[4] In due course they also allowed members of the nobility and senior clergy to maintain deer parks. At their peak at the turn of the 14th century, deer parks may have covered 2% of the land area of England.[5]

James I was an enthusiast for hunting but it became less fashionable and popular after the Civil War. The number of deer parks declined, much to the rise of planting for shipbuilding.[n 1] During the 18th century many deer parks were landscaped, where deer then became optional within larger country parks several of which created or enlarged from wealth from trade and colonisation in the British Empire, while later mostly giving way to profitable agriculture dependent on crop prices, a heavily tied workforce following increasing industrialization creating pressure to divide supplemented by stamp duty and particularly later by Inheritance Tax.[6]

Deer parks are notable landscape features in their own right. However, where they have survived into the 20th century, the lack of ploughing or development has often preserved other features within the park,[7] including barrows (tumuli), roman roads and abandoned villages.


To establish a deer park a Royal licence was required, occasionally called a licence to empark — especially if the park was in or near a royal forest. Because of their cost and exclusivity, deer parks became status symbols. Since deer were almost all kept within exclusive hunting reserves used as aristocratic playgrounds, there was no legitimate market for venison.[8] Thus the ability to eat venison or give it to others was also a status symbol. Consequently, many deer parks were maintained for the supply of venison, rather than hunting the deer.


Deer parks could vary in size from a circumference of many miles down to what amounted to little more than a deer padock.[9] The landscape within a deer park was manipulated to produce a habitat that was both suitable for the deer and also provided space for hunting. "Tree dotted lawns, tree clumps and compact woods" [10] provided "launds" (pasture)[11] over which the deer were hunted and wooded cover for the deer to avoid human contact. The landscape was intended to be visually attractive as well as functional.

Identifying former deer parks

W. G. Hoskins remarked that "the reconstruction of medieval parks and their boundaries is one of the many useful tasks awaiting the field-worker with patience and a good local knowledge".[12] Most deer parks were bounded by significant earthworks topped by a park pale, typically of cleft oak stakes.[13] These boundaries typically have a curving, rounded plan, possibly to economise on the materials and work involved in fencing[13] and ditching.

A few deer parks in areas with plentiful building stone had stone walls instead of a park pale.[13] Examples include Barnsdale in Yorkshire and Burghley on the Cambridgeshire/Lincolnshire border.[13]

Boundary earthworks have survived "in considerable numbers and a good state of preservation".[14] Even where the bank and ditch do not survive, their former course can sometimes still be traced in modern field boundaries.[15] The boundaries of early deer parks often formed parish boundaries. Where the deer park reverted to agriculture, the newly established field system was often rectilinear, clearly contrasting with the system outside the park.


Notes and References


See also

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