By Alan R Phillips

THERE is evidence of stag-hunting in Britain from prehistoric times, and fragments of a red deer antler were found with the other bones in an Arreton Down round barrow.

It was, however, the Normans who introduced fallow deer into England, probably in the 12th century, originally for the supply of venison rather than as hunting preserves. The Domesday Book records the creation of ‘The King’s Park’ at Watchingwell, thereby predating 1086, and one of the oldest known deer parks in England. Situated in the south-west corner of the vastly more extensive Parkhurst Forest, it was separated by the track which later became known as Betty Haunt Lane, most likely meaning ‘between the haunts’, an appropriate name for a lane dividing two ‘deer haunts’. A similar use of the word ‘haunt’ occurs in the name ‘Dogs Ant‘, which is marked on an 1862 map in the north-west corner of Parkhurst Forest. Watchingwell would have been used for the breeding of deer, which were then released into Parkhurst Forest – literally, ‘the wooded hill in the hunting park’ – where the chase took place.
‘Forests’ in their original sense have always been a royal prerogative, and the Isle of Wight was no exception, with the Lords of the Island enjoying from the King the right of free forest and the privilege of taking or driving stags or harts. Three huntsmen sent by Henry III spent eighteen days in Parkhurst Forest until, with twenty hounds and twelve greyhounds, they had caught the hundred deer required to grace the young king’s table with venison. By 1279 Isabella de Fortibus had already claimed from Edward I the liberty of a free chase in the Forest, which was subsequently granted in Edward II’s reign to the royal favourite Piers Gaveston.
Edward III imposed on one John Maltravers that he should, in the season for buck-hunting, attend the king at Carisbrooke Castle; during his reign, in 1333, sundry poachers were prosecuted for entering the king’s park and taking deer, and continual prosecutions followed. Parkhurst annually provided the Lords with thirty bucks and a crop of rabbits, while 150 cattle, forty pigs and a large number of geese were also turned out onto the pastures. Later accounts refer to the grazing of fifty sheep in the Forest. In 1650 Watchingwell Park still contained nine score deer of various sorts. Birchmore in the Arreton/Rookley area also formed part of the hunting ground of the early Lords of the Island, and was another liberty granted to Isabella in 1279.
Old Park within the Undercliff was a sanctuary for wild animals and reserved for hunting from the Late Middle Ages. Early in Edward II’s reign, 1309, a charter was granted to John de Insula and his heirs of free warren, a privilege which had been granted a few years earlier to the De Insulas on the adjoining estates of Bonchurch and Rew. Old Park lay within the medieval parish of Whitwell, and an indenture as late as 1689 recites the manorial rights to the Whitwell estate, reserving the rights of fowling, hawking and hunting – and thereby re-confirming privileges conferred by the charter granted nearly four centuries earlier.
There was certainly a deer park in the Shalfleet area by the later 13th century, for in 1278 Henry Trenchard complained that Amice, Countess of Devon, and her men had taken thirty of his oxen at Chessell and detained them at her manor at Thorley; moreover, they had broken his park of Chessell and “rescued the beasts lawfully impounded therein” and driven off the deer from his park at Shalfleet. In 1441 Lewis and Alice Meux were given licence to create a deer park out of three hundred acres of woodland and pasture in the parishes of Kingston and Shorwell.
Borthwood Forest also served as a breeding-ground for deer, and in 1415 was granted by Henry V to Philippa, Duchess of York, with a small building called the Queen’s Bower in an eminent position, from which she would perhaps view the chase. But there are at least two other claimants to this title. Queen Anne (1702-14) is also said to have had a ‘bower’ or arbour here, when she came at certain seasons for the excellent hawking; an alternative tradition claims that it was Isabella herself who had a hunting-box here as far back as the 13th century, in what was then extensive forest. But there were strict prohibitions in force: Sir John Oglander refers to Borthwood also being stocked with heath-cocks and hens, and in 1585 a certain ‘Old Forder of Newchurch’ was dealt with severely by Sir Edward Horsey for shooting them.

– Alan R Phillips