Deforestation has always been a worry as wood has always been in such great demand. Timber has been used for house building, warmth, brewing, (the London breweries alone used 20,000 wagon loads of firewood a year) iron working, glass making, lime kilns, ship building, and in just one salt-producing town of Droitwich in Cheshire, there were 360 wood-burning furnaces for evaporating brine to produce salt. Deforestation was so far advanced that in some parts of Northern England, for example in the Forest of Knaresborough and the Forest of Craven which are both in Yorkshire, the extensive iron industries had to close down altogether for lack of fuel, and by 1307 the Forest of Knaresborough could only support a few smithies that were making nails.
Today in Northumberland great areas of bare windswept moors still carry the names of the long-vanished ancient forests of Kielder Forest and Wark Forest. The situation was a little better in the Forest of Dean, probably because it was a royal forest where the king could exert some degree of discipline to the tree felling and he limited logging so there was just enough fuel for the royal forges with charcoal being brought in from woods outside the royal forest. In 1274 the master carpenter in charge of building Norwich Cathedral had to go to Hamburg to buy timber and boards and the situation was similar also in central and southern France.
Four-thousand oak trees were felled to build Windsor Castle and in relation to Robin Hood by the time of King John timber was so scarce that local nobles and entrepreneurs were offering the cash-strapped English king large sums of money for the right to fell royal forests. At Douai, in northern France, the price of wooden coffins became so great that poor families would rent them for the burial service and then the undertaker would dig up the corpse and recycle the coffin.
The Countess of Rutland (or her corrupt managers) made a lot of money by obtaining Royal permission to take timber from Sherwood Forest to repair her castles and mills which she then sold on the black market. William Cecil, Lord Burghley (the Lord Treasurer) wrote to her furious at this “verie foule deceit and abuse toward mee and wrong to hir Majestie, which shall make mee more careful both in granting my warrants hereafter and in seeing them employed to the use they are granted for.”
Because of the lack of timber, from medieval times onwards people had little choice but to burn coal, which was less desirable than wood, and this made the problem worse because more trees had to be chopped down for pit props, barges, wharves, and other ancillary uses. From the earliest times there had always been considerable prejudice against coal because of the black smoke and fumes that coal burning caused and in 1257 Queen Eleanor was driven from Nottingham Castle by the smoke and fumes that rose from the coal fires in the city below (there was a coal mine within a few miles of the city). Also in 1283 and 1288 there were complaints about air quality in London because coal was now being used in the lime-kilns, and in 1307 a Royal Proclamation forbade lime-burners to use coal in parts of south London. (This was the year Edward II came to the throne).
After the time in which our hero Robin Hood lived the final and savage forest-clearing came while England was ruled by the fanatically Protestant revolutionary government of Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Between the execution of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. Parliament passed “An Act for the Disafforestation, Sale, and Improvement of Royal Forests” in 1653, with Sherwood Forest one of the priorities for sale, along with Ashdown Forest in the Weald. Royal forests were decimated in a few years. Of course, once they were felled and converted to fields and pasture, the great Royal forests never recovered and the forests we have today a