The Royal Forest of Mount Gilbert

or The Wrekin Forest

The Anglo-Saxon term -ley in Stirchley's placename signified a clearing in woodland. Most of Shropshire would have been extensively wooded in Anglo-Saxon times and significant areas of uncleared woodland survived well into the medieval period. So origianlly Stirchley was a probably not much more than a farmstead set up in a clearing in this heavily wooded country. The clearing may have been a natural one or a one previously cleared by earlier people. Or it may have been settlement set up on land cleared by the founder of the farm.


The woodland around the Wrekin was a designated (royal) forest before the Norman Conquest, covering an area of some four square miles. By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, William the Conqueror had created 21 new royal forests, a figure rising to 80 by the end of Henry II's reign in 1154. Both Henry II and Richard I made huge additions to the area under Royal Forest law around the Wrekin. It was then known as the Royal Forest of Mount Gilbert and covered an area of some 120 square miles, a swathe stretching from north of Shrewsbury to east of modern Telford. The forest area eventually became so large that it had to be separated into three ‘regards’, known as the Bailiwicks of Haughmond, Wombridge and Mount Gilbert itself. Stirchley lay near the eastern edge of Wombridge.


In 1232 the lord of the manor, Osbert of Stirchley gave the manor to Buildwas Abbey which continued to hold it until its dissolution under Henry VIII in 1536. In 1277 the monks of Buildwas were licensed to assart 60 acres in Stirchley, when they were establishing Stirchley Grange. Their need for building timber and for agricultural land led to a further major reduction of the wooded area of Stirchley.


The royal forests were set up for the hunting pleasure of the king and strict rules and punishments were put in place to deal with anything that might interfere with the wild game. Courts existed to enforce the law presided over by royal officials known as Verderers. The Forester family were the hereditary wardens of Mount Gilbert and it was their duty to ‘walk the forest early and late’, to watch the venison (deer and wild boar) and vert (the forest), and to present trespassers to the local forest court.


Click the thumbnail to see an enlarged image on British History Online
Click the thumbnail to see an enlarged image on British History Online

However, life went on. People lived and farmed and worked in the forest. Even in the deer enclosure Wellington Hay, which ran from Watling Street to the Ercall, local people could graze their cattle for most of the year in payment of a fee. At Wellington it cost 2 pence to graze a yearling swine and 1 penny for a six-month-old pig.


The Crown’s constant need for money ensured that many illegal practices, such as pourprestures (erecting buildings) and assarting (clearing the forest for farming) were legally licensed. However, many officials abused their powers for their own gain, and by 1217 Forest Law had become so unpopular that a charter was drawn up to remove many of the more recent additions to the royal forests. During the reign of Henry II one third of Shropshire may have been under forest law but after 1217 the amount decreased sharply.


At the forest assizes of 1250 many local settlements, including Wellington, Hadley and Dawley, were exempted from the ‘regard’ of the Wrekin Forest. These exemptions were often preceded by an official survey, known as a ‘perambulation’, where several officials walked the forest to determine its extent. After the ‘Great Perambulation’ of June 1300 the Norman forest practically ceased to exist and only Wellington Hay remained as a royal demesne, surviving until the 15th century.


Stirchley lay within the Royal Forest until 1300 when the forest law ceased to exist. By this time the woodland of Stirchley lay in the north-east along the boundary with Shifnal. In the mid-13th century individuals cleared more woodland to bring new land into cultivation. The names Brands ('land cleared by burning') and Stockings ('a clearing with stumps') near Holmer derive from this period.