Our history : Jail the Lawyer! – Philip de Marmion and the right to hunt

One of the favourite stories told at Middleton Hall concerns Philip de Marmion. He owned Middleton Hall from 1241 to 1291. This story focuses on something known as the right of free warren. Before you ask, no this is nothing to do with the right of rabbits to run free. It is the right to hunt. The story ends with Philip’s lawyer doing hard time …

In fact our story must actually begin over a century before Philip was born with a Lord called Henry de Newburgh (family name Beaumont) who was the 1st Earl of Warwick. He only owned the Middleton estate for about a year, from 1118 until he died in 1119. In 1088, Henry had quelled a rebellion in the Midlands on behalf of King William Rufus and received many lands including Kingsbury, Arden, Rutland and, most importantly to our tale, Sutton Chase. He was also given the full right of free warren for Sutton Chase. Although Middleton is not part of Sutton Coldfield, its woods (and it was a much wooded area at the time) were part of the Chase.

Moving forward a few decades we come to Robert II de Marmion, 1st Baron Marmion of Tamworth. He owned Middleton from 1130 to 1143. In 1130 he was granted a charter by King Henry I that confirmed on Robert the right of free warren in all his lands in Warwickshire, particularly in Tamworth, just as his father had enjoyed. At that time, Tamworth was half in Warwickshire and half in Staffordshire but Middleton was, as it has always been, in Warwickshire. This apparently gave the de Marmions the right to hunt at Middleton. That is certainly what Philip de Marmion believed.

One hundred years later these two conflicting charters were to cause a massive and long running feud between Philip de Marmion and Ela, Countess of Warwick. The first known court proceeding was in 1247 and by 1249 King Henry III had been asked to make a decision concerning the conflicting charters. However, the court cases continued for at least another 40 years.

Ela accused Philip of trespassing, of having no right at all to be within the forest of Sutton Chase even if that did include land on the Middleton Estate. Philip countered by saying that the de Marmions had by the charter of 1130 always had the right to hunt in the forest at Middleton. The judgment sort of went against both of them. Philip did have some rights within the forest at Middleton but he did not have the right of free warren. That belonged to Ela.

It appears that Philip did not abide by the judgement and so Ela regularly brought Philip to court. In fact, Philip went a stage further and constructed a saltatorium, or deer avenues, within Middleton Park.

The avenues were constructed in an area to the north of Middleton Pool. There was a central clump of trees enclosed by an embanked circle about 90 metres across from which radiated six avenues. The avenues were about 18 metres wide and extended to the outer boundary. One avenue contained a leap 10 metres wide with a trench that was three metres wide. The original forest trees between the avenues were also replaced with willow and hazel. It is said that in one avenue Philip constructed a shed to provide shelter for the deer.

However, in no shape or form was the saltatorium anything but for hunting. Men, and women, would position themselves along the avenues with bows and shoot at the deer as they were chased towards the central clump. The trenches created an obstacle course for the deer.

So much is known about this because the earthworks from the obstacles were still present in the 20th century. In fact the deer avenues, although it is believed that they were straightened and landscaped in the 18th century, are still visible in aerial photographs.

The fact that they remained so visible confirms that Philip did not demolish the deer avenues as he had been instructed to do when Ela had taken him yet again to court. He was therefore brought to court on a further occasion. However, on this occasion it is known that Philip did not attend in person. Instead, he sent his legal representative on his behalf. As was common for the time, the punishment was carried out on whoever attended and therefore Philip’s lawyer was imprisoned on his behalf!

In some respects the lawyer was lucky to just be imprisoned. The common penalty at that time for hunting deer illegally was castration …!

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian