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The Oldest Map of Medieval Sherwood Forest

Mercian Archaeological Services Community Archaeology The Sherwood Forest Archaeology Project

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The oldest surviving map of Sherwood Forest is owned by the Duke of Rutland and is stored in Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. It is known as the Belvoir map, and has been dated to the late 14th century from the handwriting style.

The details of this map were published by Professor Maurice Barley in 1986.

This map is a parchment which consists of cardinal points, with a few topographic features such as hills drawn on, and a number of key rivers. It depicts the forest within the boundaries from the 13th century onwards (with inclusions of some royal lands just outside of the forest boundary). It therefore tells us something of the administration of the forest, and an indication of where forest law applied.

The map is quite confusing to the modern mind as it works very differently to a modern day map. This confusion is compounded by the fact that the forest from the 13th century onwards was 20 miles long north to south by 8 miles wide. This area is squeezed onto a map with the long axis from east to west meaning that scale is not as it should be. This confusion is added to by the map being orientated with the east to the top (this was common practice in mapping from this period with the medieval world focusing towards Jerusalem. All medieval churches in England have the alter facing east).

The map also depicts a number of buildings: Nottingham Castle, Bestwood Lodge, and Lenton Priory giving us some impression of the historic built environment.

The map also shows the royal deer parks of Clipstone and Bestwood.

Clipstone Park and Bestwood Park are drawn both with their great fences or pales around them and are fairly accurate in shape and relative size to each other.

The map is a fascinating insight into the landscape of the forest, and although at first glance it doesn’t have much geographic reference for the reader; consisting almost entirely of lists of placenames and topographic features, a deeper look reveals much of the historic landscape.

The map works geographically, with lists of places and features running in order of their location. This makes placing unknown features easier by working from known locations, and it is possible to locate most of the features with a high degree of confidence.

These topographic features listed are descriptive of the landscape through the derivation of the name. They include dales, dikes, sekes (streams), clyfs (cliffs), forthes (fords) wodes (woods) Lawndes (lawns), and lyngges ((heather) to name but a few.

These few examples immediately conjure up a rural scene that is the foundation for our understanding of the landscape of the medieval Forest.

Alongside these topographic features are Holy wells and hermitages that give us a glimpse into the lives and beliefs of the people of the forest. Elements such as quarries, closes, crofts, and meadows show something of the way people worked, and used the resources of the landscape.

The map also suggests the presence of a number of Bronze Age barrows or burial mounds visible- and obviously important in the landscape at the time.