On December 16, 1780, two opposing groups of men carrying an assortment of wooden staves and heavily loaded flails met in thick woodland in southern England. Following the clash one man died and several others were badly injured and the episode has entered local history as ‘The Battle of the Bloody Shard Gate’.
One group were ‘keepers’ of the Cranborne Chase in the county of Dorset who were enforcing laws existing when it was the favoured hunting location of King John ( 1199-1216).
The ‘chase’ was a designated hunting area for the exclusive pleasure of the monarch; today we might call such an area a high-security zone, even a ‘Green Zone’, which in the case of the Cranborne Chase was later expanded to an 80 mile perimeter, with patrols by a specialist counter-insurgency force of ‘keepers’. The ‘chase’ laws were called ‘vert and venison’, the former referring to the timber and the latter to the deer, wild boar and other edible wildlife.
Over time the monarchs came to view the land and forests more as a major resource than for pleasure: royal coffers were always low thanks to continuous warfare so both the ‘vert and venison’ were sold to the internal markets while special concessions, today’s franchises, were sold to royal favourites as patronage which also bound these often powerful nobles even closer to the monarch. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 woodland cover in England was estimated to be around 15 per cent and this is reckoned to have halved in the following 300 years.
Poachers caught illegally transgressing ‘vert and venison’ could expect harsh sentences: not only the coffers of the Crown had to be protected but also its dignity.
For the poachers, mostly local people making a subsistence living, the timber and wildlife represented major commodities that could be sold, bartered or taken home, and so it was worth risking being captured or getting into a fight.
Therefore the conflict mechanism was not over the key resource which was the land, such as took place between France and Britain during the Hundred Years War, but was over the control of commodities contained within the resource. Jasper Humphreys, The Marjan Centre