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William Connard and the Decline of Feckenham Forest
 

Feckenham Forest was one of England's ancient royal hunting forests and existed for hundreds of years. At the time of Domesday it extended over half of Worcestershire, from Evesham in the south, to Tenbury in the west, Lickey in the north and spilt across into Warwickshire in the east: an area of over 120 square miles. From the late thirteenth century the forest was gradually reduced and by 1500 was centred on the manors of Feckenham and Hanbury, which were royal demesnes.

The forest had traditionally been overseen by the swanimote, an ancient assembly charged with enforcing forest law. As its borders diminished, the Feckenham swanimote began to overlap with the manorial court and by 1591 the forest and manorial administrations had merged into a single body. The lord of the manors of Feckenham and Hanbury was also the Master of the King's Game within the forest whilst the manorial bailiff and woodwards served as the forest keepers. Increasingly, these officers were no longer knights and gentlemen, but local yeomen with personal interests in how the forest was managed.

In 1600 the lord of the manor was Sir Thomas Leighton, who had had the title granted to him by Elizabeth I. As Master of the King's Game, Leighton had the power to appoint the forest ranger, who, through his six keepers, policed all activity in the forest. Leighton initially operated a munificent policy that recognised the needs of both the Crown - as landowner - and the local population. Increasing debts, however, forced him to adopt a more tyrannical approach. In 1610 Leighton appointed an outsider, William Connard, as ranger in place of Humphrey Jennett, a leading forest inhabitant.

Connard was from a minor gentry family that was well known in the area. His grandfather, another William Connard, held land at Crutch, between Droitwich and Elmbridge, in the 1540s. His father, George Connard had married Elizabeth Porter at Claines in February 1571 and William, their third son was born in Droitwich in March 1579. Elizabeth was George's second wife, his first (also called Elizabeth) having died the year before. The couple baptised seven children before Elizabeth's death in July 1590. George then married a third time, to Ann Wakeman, a wealthy widow related to John Wakeman, the last Abbot of Tewkesbury.

strong>A New Regime

William Connard's appointment as ranger signalled a new regime in the management of the forest. Until then forest society had relied on controlled exploitation by and for the local farming population. This exploitation was based on extensive common rights, such as the right to graze sheep within the forest boundary. Connard, at Leighton's behest, began to revert to the previous medieval system, which asserted that the forest should be managed so as to protect the vert (trees, underwood, bracken and grass) and venison (a collective term for beasts of the forest, later applied exclusively to mean red and fallow deer). He fined those found to be grazing sheep within the forest and challenged the inhabitants' common rights. The animosity of the populace towards the ranger and his keepers was further increased by the enclosure of coppices which accounted for a significant proportion of the common pasture.

By 1613 around 150 acres of common coppice had been enclosed for the use of Connard and his friends. The foresters reacted to the restrictions by breaking into three coppices and setting their cattle loose in the enclosures. The opposition was led by William Cookes of Shiltwood, an ally of the jilted Humphrey Jennetts, who would become a fierce critic of Connard. Cookes began to organise lawsuits to protect the foresters' common rights. The case rumbled on for several years, until in 1617 the Attorney-General decided that it was not in the Crown's interests to prosecute.

Sir Thomas Leighton died in 1613 and was succeeded by his grandson, Edward Leighton, as lord of the manors of Feckenham and Hanbury and Master of the King's Game. William Connard, meanwhile, married Sir Thomas' widow, Mary.

'Disafforestation' - the partitioning and selling off of the forest by the Exchequer - was now being mooted as a real possibility. Under the Stuarts, the Exchequer was increasingly disinterested in the Crown's forest lands and disafforestation was considered at numerous sites across the country. The prospect was almost an open invitation to the forest officers to abuse the system and thus Connard and Leighton "embarked on the destruction of the forest for their mutual gain".

From early 1617 the two men lopped trees, felled ancient woodland and enclosed coppices. An ancient woodland called Benford Rough, totalling 40 acres, was felled and sold by Connard to his brother-in-law. The Crown received a derisory 2s per tree while Connard and Leighton shared a substantial profit of at least £450. In Warkwood (probably the modern Walkwood, near Callow Hill), numerous trees were lopped, 400 felled and four coppices cut down. In 1620, Connard built himself a lodge in Feckenham Park, and in 1623 he enclosed the nearby Fishpools for his dairy herd and constructed a wooden conduit to draw water to the ground. To enforce his authority, Connard appointed more keepers who, like him, were men drawn from outside the forest and were not averse to destroying the woodland and game. The deer suffered as a consequence, with the population crashing from around 1,200 in 1617 to a mere 60 by 1627. Meanwhile, sheep were impounded in increasing numbers and fines extracted from their owners.

Disafforestation Becomes Inevitable

Having raised the prospect of relinquishing the forest, for the Crown disafforestation became a foregone conclusion. When Crown Surveyor John Hynd arrived at Whitsun 1626, he found things in a sorry state. Nearly 3000 trees were "headed, topped, lopped and dyvers girdled and cutt in ye middest". Hynd had been sent by the Court of Wards and Liveries, the body charged with surveying the forest, establishing its acreage and sharing out the land between those with relevant claims. In addition to the Crown, the claimants included manorial lords, freeholders, copyholders, and cottagers with 'ancient' rights on forest land. In April 1628 representatives of these 'commoners' - including Edward Leighton and William Connard - were invited to a meeting to begin the process of allotment. Claims were settled in a quite arbitrary way, that favoured the manorial lords over the smaller claimants. Leighton, as lord of the manor, was allotted 360 acres in Feckenham and a further 80 acres in Hanbury, where the Crown retained claim to the majority of the Cleeres and Monkwood, some 550 acres in total. Connard, too, was a major beneficiary, being allotted land in both parishes including 40 acres in Berrow Wood.

In June 1629, Feckenham was decreed to be "freed from forest laws" and the partitioning of the 2,100 acres of Crown lands within the forest was announced. The result of the allotment sparked resentment, which in turn festered into revolt. A group of thirty-two leading inhabitants - including William Cookes - began to oppose the disafforestation settlement by refusing to accept their allocations of common land. They claimed that the procedures adopted were inappropriate and that they had only agreed to them "for fear and by terrible threats". Hanbury inhabitants were particularly vocal in their opposition, owing to the Crown's large claim and Connard's earlier destruction of the parish's woodland.

A complaint to the Court of Exchequer got the issue reopened. However, the Attorney-General threw out the petition, seeing it as an audacious claim brought by newcomers, undertenants, farm labourers and craftsmen. These "new pretenders" were attempting to "encroach unto themselves the whole benefits of the pasture and feeding of the forest by people who had no right to such privileges". In fact, the protestors were a more varied group and represented the widespread and fundamental opposition to disafforestation amongst the farming and cottager population.

The final allotment of common land was announced in November 1630. Whilst not conceding to the pressure of the petitioners, the Exchequer increased the land allocation in Hanbury by 90 acres and reduced the Crown's portion by a similar amount in recognition of the imbalance of the initial partition. This was not enough to appease the populace, however, who rioted soon after the enclosures were put into effect in March 1631. Some 300 rioters armed with spades, bills and pitchforks tore down almost three miles of fencing around the Crown lands. By the end of April, cattle and sheep were grazing throughout the forest as they had done before the enclosure. A further riot followed in March 1632, when masked men were seen carrying pikes and muskets. In both cases there is evidence of the uprising being orchestrated. The ringleaders - Gilbert Smith, Henry Turner, William Steward, John Elvins, Robert Boulton and William Penn - were all Hanbury yeomen who were longstanding opponents of Connard's regime.

Aftermath

William Connard, the forest ranger, did not live to see his spoils. He died in April 1629, just two months before the initial allotment was announced. As he had no children, William's estate was inherited first by a John Connard, believed to be his elder brother, and later by John's son, Burfield. In the years that followed the Connards remained at Berrow Hill on the lands ceded to them under the disafforestation settlement. A court document of 1634 locates Burfield Connard at Upper Berrow Farm, as does his will of 1648. Legal records of the period frequently cite the family alongside (and often in dispute with) the likes of the Vernons of Hanbury Hall and the Bearcrofts of Bean Hall.

Of the other protagonists, Edward Leighton sold the manor of Feckenham to Thomas, Lord Coventry in 1632 and the title remained in the Coventry family for over 300 years. William Cookes' family established a seat at Norgrove Court, Bentley Pauncefote and in 1693 his great-grandson, Sir Thomas Cookes, made a major endowment to Bromsgrove School.

By the beginning of the 1700s, the Connards' wealth was beginning to seep away and the sons had to seek apprenticeships in trade. Edward Connard, Burfield's great-grandson (and my six greats grandfather!), was apprenticed to Benjamin Badson of Tardebigg, needlemaker. He went on to become a master needlemaker within an area that was at the heart of Britain's vitally important needlemaking industry and is commemorated with a plaque in St John's Church. The Connards' association with Feckenham continued until the death of Edward's wife, Elizabeth, in 1770, by which time the family had sought new opportunities in upcoming centres such as Birmingham and Bromsgrove, although they continued to own property in the village until the early nineteenth century.

Feckenham's royal hunting forest, which once covered half of Worcestershire, is now gone forever. To the current residents, I can only apologise for my ancestor's rather mercenary role in its demise.

This article is based on From Swanimote to Dissafforestation: Feckenham Forest in the early seventeenth century”, by Peter Large, a much longer account of the disafforestation of Feckenham Forest published in The Estates of the English Crown, 1558-1640, R.W. Hoyle (ed.), Cambridge University Press, 1992. It is supplemented by my own genealogical research on the Connard family and others.