Bestwood probably had no existence before the Conquest


Bestwood Lodge, c.1905.
Bestwood Lodge, c.1905.

THE Bestwood of to-day is in such striking contrast with its old aspect that it is difficult to realise that during the greater part of its history it formed a notable portion of Sherwood Forest and that in its great park monarchs have constantly hunted and maintained a hunting seat that was for centuries honoured with their presence and sometimes accommodated their queens.

In later days this mansion became the abode of noble lords, and romance came to it when Charles II bestowed it upon his young natural son by "pretty, witty, Nell Gwynn," the orange girl who became a "star" of the Restoration stage, of whom the "Merrie Monarch" exclaimed almost with his latest breath, "Don't let poor Nelly starve." It is, of course, from that lady that the Dukes of St. Albans have descended, and, with that ducal house the fortunes of Bestwood have been closely concerned for more than 200 years.

No very early records.

According to the Place-Name Society this is one of the Notts, villages which probably derive their name from the old English "beos," which, means a place in which bent grass grew, but the Scandinavian "Buskr," a thicket, stakes a claim for consideration and receives some support from the fact that the time-honoured spelling is Beskwood, the comparatively modern substitution of "t" for "k" being perhaps due to the idea that the name was really Beastwood—a now abandoned theory.

The existence of man here some 5,000 years ago is attested by the discovery of Neolithic remains, including the ring-stone of a fishing-net, and geologists have observed in the local gravels volcanic rock brought down by the melting ice from the Lake District. A coin of the time of Constantine, found on Sunrise Hill, was perhaps a casual dropping of a Roman passing between the camps and stations about Arnold and Woodborough, but nothing is known of pre-Norman Bestwood. Perhaps there was no settlement there in those times: it is not recorded in Domesday and when the Normans came they doubtless saw it as merely a part of the enormous forest that extended from the Trent northward into Yorkshire.

Royal hunting ground.

Until 1066 this great expanse of forest was. in all probability a common hunting ground, but under the Normans it underwent a drastic change. The earliest specific mention of Sherwood Forest was in 1154, when the Peverel Fee, of which it formed a part, escheated to the Crown, but enclosures had been made prior to then. The Norman kings, like their Plantagenet successors, were mighty hunters; they established great royal manors with far-flung rights, about the forest at Mansfield and Bothamsall, and it may be that the Conqueror, who formed the New Forest had also something to do with the making of the royal forest of Sherwood. It has been stated that Henry I had a hunting lodge at Bestwood, but the first known authentic reference to Bestwood Lodge does not occur until 1286, when Edward I commanded the sheriff to pay Roger de Tybtot, "keeper of the forest of Bescewod, ten marks to complete a lodge in the forest that he lately began by the king's order." At the same time a dwelling was erected for the keeper of the Hay of Bestwood, whose emoluments were "£10 from the issue of ferns and the agistment of the herbage of the Hay."

From that time onwards there has always been a Bestwood Lodge. Edward II had it renovated and enlarged by the addition of a hall and two chambers, and he re-paled the park and when these operations were completed in 1363 he paid a somewhat protracted visit to this forest home, marking the occasion by interesting grants. One gave the Carthusians of Beauvale a tun of Gascon wine yearly, which they had to convey from the port of Hull; another gave land in Linby to the canons at Newstead; a third made provision for daily prayers for himself by the Dale Abbey monks, and among others was the grant of an annuity of 100s. for his barber.

Queen's "Bower."

From the existence in Bestwood Park of an arbour bearing the time-honoured name of "The Queen's Bower," and of "The King's Well," it may reasonably be inferred that the Lodge was resorted to not only by the monarch, but also his queen, and the building must, have been large enough to accommodate their retinue. Mr. H. M. Leman by a study of the Duke of Rutland's 14th century map and by personal explorations at Bestwood, found the sites of the bower and the well, and described them in the "Weekly Guardian" of August 28th, 1936, but was unable to decide whether the queen thus commemorated was Eleanor, the beloved wife of Edward I (whd died not far away at Harby in 1290), or Philippa, the spouse of the third Edward, who is said to have spared, at her request, the lives of the burghers of Calais who, with halters round their necks, surrendered the keys of their town, to him in 1347. One likes to think that the grief stricken king who, in 1290, caused a cross to be erected at every place where his wife's dead body rested overnight on its way from Harby for interment at Westminster, was the monarch who made the Bower for her pleasaunce, but this is mere conjecture.

The priories of Lenton and Newstead each obtained grants here as parts of their foundation gifts, the former receiving from Wm. Peverel the mill of Blaccliff (near the site of the present railway station), and the latter "the meadow of Bestwood in length as it runs by the Leen," by gift of Henry II, with power to enclose it within ditches, hedges and fences, but the ditches were not to be too broad nor the fences or hedges too high for the king's deer to jump. About the middle of the 13th century Bestwood was "a hay or park of our Lord the king wherein no man commons," but in 1227 it was found that "the men of Bulwell had common of pasture in the wood of Beskewood, to the great street," by right of an earlier grant, the "street" being the ancient main highway that came from Nottingham, passed by Papplewick, and proceeded by Newstead to Mansfield and the north.

In the 13th and 14th centuries Bestwood was yielding much timber and firewood for royal and other uses. Many fine oaks went to the repair of the palace fortress at Nottingham. Twenty were granted by Henry III to the Grey Friars of Nottingham for making their chapter house and dormitory, and later six towards the building of their church, while in 1289 no less than 60 were given for the rebuilding of Westacres Priory, which had been burnt down. Lenton Priory and others restored their churches by timber granted from Bestwood Park; several religious houses enjoyed the right to have carts there collecting dead wood and heather for firing; before the use of coal became common much of the Castle wood fuel came from this source, and the hospital for lepers in the town was warmed with Bestwood fuel, while leafless stumps were sent for a like service to the "keepers of the King's horses at Lenton." In 1334 Bestwood was described as a "mighty great park," and it is curious to read that its herbage was farmed out for the King's profit, and that when trees were felled the branches were sold off, much being made into charcoal on the spot.

The King's Ranger.

The forester or ranger of the king's lands here was repaid for his services by the tenancy during his term of office of two bovates of land here and 80a. at Bulwell. He had to see that the forest laws were observed; to keep stray cattle out and bring defaulters to justice. In 1178 Sampson de Strelley was fined for the escape of some of his beasts into the park, and trespasses or vert and venison—stealing wood and deer—were common. Smaller offenders were imprisoned or fined, some on account of poverty were pardoned, and those who fled were outlawed, but some of the delinquents were of high degree. In 1255 the Prior of Lenton laid an information against Robt. le Vavasour, who for some years had been sheriff of the county, accusing him of defrauding the king in his charges for repairs at Nottingham Castle and in his expenses for the Hay of Bestwood; the case was sent for trial, but Vavasour died ere the investigations were completed. In 1334 the son of Lord Grey of Codnor was found with greyhounds chasing a herd of hinds, with two of the deer slain, and in 1363, when Edward III came to the newly finished Lodge, he had just dismissed Rd. de Strelley from his keepership for making false returns as to trees and timber and concealment of inroads upon the deer.

In the early part of the 15th century the Lodge and Park were held by Joan, Queen of Henry IV, who probably the bustle and smoke of Nottingham, but the palmy days of Bestwood were over. Like Nottingham Castle and the "palace" at Clipstone the Lodge was constantly undergoing repairs, or perhaps extensions, but the stormy reigns of the Lancastrian kings afforded small opportunity for the chase, least of all during the long Wars of the Roses, but when the Yorkists triumphed Bestwood had another period of splendour. Masons, carpenters, glaziers and others were sent by Edward IV to fit the Lodge for his occupation, and the glades reverberated again with the sounds of royal sport.