Norman and early medieval kings had vast tracts of forest in Dorset. The Royal Forest of Blackmore was set aside for the king’s use, including hunting deer & wild boar. The Latin word ‘foris’ meant ‘outside’ – the forests were outside common law. Blackmore forest once the largest in Dorset – originally joined Gillingham Forest & Cranborne Chase.
Despite the name, these areas were not all woodland. Vast tracts of heathland, quarries, a mixture of arable, pastoral land, meadows and even common land were characteristic throughout Dorset.
Forest Laws were strictly enforced by special officials – no one could take timber, hunt or enclose or improve the land without licence. King Cnut set vast fines on anyone caught hunting and Edward the Confessor  had forest wardens.
Forest deer include the red, roe & fallow species and the largest bucks and harts were most hunted between June – September when they were well fed.
Cycling passed the deer grazing in Stock Gaylard Park today and turning to the village of King’s Stag, it’s difficult to escape the sense of being in an ancient, royal hunting ground. The white hart, a creature whose rarity and beauty has attracted, in legend, a wealth of mystical and royal associations are also linked with other parts of the country. However, Thomas Hardy makes the claim for this Dorset locality when in Tess of the D’Urbervilles he considers the view across Blackmore Vale from high up at Shaftesbury:
“The Vale was known in former times as the Forest of White Hart, from a curious legend of King Henry III’s reign, in which the killing by a certain Sir Thomas de la Lynd of a beautiful white hart which the king had run down and spared, was made the occasion of a heavy fine.” And he also notes that characteristics of the original landscape were still evident: “traces of its earlier condition are to be found in the old oak copses and irregular belts of timber that yet survive upon its slopes.” When walking local woodland areas today, the woodland plants like Wood Anemone, Wild Garlic and Golden Saxifrage indicate the remnants of the ancient woodland.
King’s Stag bridge still crosses the River Lydden near Pulham and according to stories is the location of the killing. The fine was a tax on the land around the area, known as White Hart Silver which the family had to pay to the Crown.
The White Hart (“hart” being an archaic word for a mature stag) was the personal badge of Richard II, who probably derived it from the arms of his mother, Joan “The Fair Maid of Kent”, heiress of Edmund of Woodstock. The Wilton Diptych portrait of Richard II in the National Gallery, London is the earliest authentic contemporary portrait of an English king, wearing a gold and enamelled white hart jewel, and even the angels surrounding the Virgin Mary all wear white hart badges.
Today, there remain many inns and pubs across England that sport a sign of the white hart, the fifth most popular name for a pub. Inside the ancient church at Holwell, north Dorset, the story of the white hart of Blackmoor is told through a series of pictorial tiles – well worth a visit for the inquisitive type of explorer.
Despite strong opposition, the tradition of hunting remains in the area. Hunting became popular with the Victorian ‘gentry’ and from the 1860’s the railway attracted guests from London and beyond. The Blackmore Vale Hunt dates from 1826, and the country hunt has existed since 1831, when the Rev Harry Farr Yeatman hunted hare, fox or roe deer. Today, the sight of a hunt chasing across the landscape, no longer for deer or live animals, can evoke thoughts of long ago. For some, a hunt provides interest, a thrill and excitement to see well groomed riders and horses leaping hedges and crossing fields following a pack of hounds. For others, this activity represents animal cruelty and should be abolished. A very controversial topic but one with ancient roots across the Blackmore.
Whatever we think, the Vale retains very strong links to an ancient medieval anachronism and offers a unique ‘sense of place’..
By: Paul Birbeck, Sherborne Walks & Blue Badge Tour Guide