A traveller in the eleventh century stood on Kerridge Hill in east Cheshire would have looked westward to a landscape remarkably different to the one seen today. The twin forests of La Mara and Mondrem would have been visible in the distance, standing mystically and supporting a cornucopia of wildlife. Mondrem, a mixture of open spaces and dense woodland, was part of the lifeblood of Cheshire, particularly during the Norman times.
In a Norman context, the term ‘forest’ would have been jurisdictional, meaning we should detach ourselves from the preconception that a forest was a strictly wooded place. Large areas of open heathland, grassland and mossland existed within La Mara and Mondrem. Meres and mosses were dominant features of the forests and would have been present since the end of the last Ice Age. This is because a glacial ice sheet retreated north, leaving in its wake the perfect conditions for their formation.
Clearly, Mondrem was a vibrant area and this is why William the Conqueror enforced stringent forest laws in order to protect forest land. William did not want the English forests to deteriorate and this included Mondrem, which was by name and nature a place of happiness. William was not afraid to ask difficult questions. He challenged the inhabitants of forests across England to revolutionise their patterns of behaviour in order to foster growth and renewal. This meant that William was not a popular figure. But his rigorous protections enabled forests like Mondrem to survive and the forest remained part of the rich tapestry of Cheshire.Embed from Getty Images
A forest filled with birdsong and an Old English word with connotations of joy, humanity and happiness, Mondrem translates directly to “man-dream.” It is fitting, then, that Mondrem was often described as a place of relief for those situated within and on the peripheries. In 1656, historian William Webb outlined the importance of the Cheshire forests as, “a great relief to the neighbouring borders and townships round about it.”
Hugh d’Avranches, the first Norman earl of Chester, was gifted the forests of La Mara and Mondrem because his father had contributed sixty ships to William the Conqueror’s fleet. Hugh forged personal bonds with land holders in the forest, allowing cohesion to be achieved. Notions of reciprocity were integral in the Middle Ages and important when it came to achieving harmony. But, the Earl of Chester did not rule over La Mara and Mondrem singlehandedly. The master forester was often at the centre stage of forest life, ensuring that forest laws remained unbroken. Four main families controlled La Mara and Mondrem – the Kingsleys of Kingsley, the Grosvenors of Budworth, the Wevers of Wever and the Mertons of Merton or Marton. A priority for these families would have been to ensure that land was not wrongfully cultivated. It was important that the wildlife was able to prosper, free from the destructive forces of profit-hungry landholders.
When Mondrem fell into royal hands in 1237 due to the annexation of the earldom, testing times ensued for a forest which began a steady decline. Earl Ranulph III in his Magna Carter gave many of Mondrem’s inhabitants, including free tenants, increased liberties which allowed them to exploit the natural landscape. This defied the promises of King Henry III, who called for the protection of forest land. Yet, there was to be a partial revival in the fortunes of Mondrem. In 1351, Edward the Black Prince, who was now the Earl of Chester, attempted to prevent the destruction of the Cheshire forests through a series of amercements. Unfortunately, such attempts came to no avail. With limited knowledge of conservation and a forest economy preoccupied with timber and agriculture, La Mara and Mondrem were stripped of their beauty. So much so, that Mondrem ceased to exist in the seventeenth century. The Middleton Commission of 1786 described an unfortunate state of affairs, as forest land which was once abundant with deer and ancient trees now lay desolate and bare.Embed from Getty Images
Over time, the ancient forest boundaries have contracted, leaving us with the area known today as Delamere forest. Ultimately, this is why drawing a map of Mondrem is an arduous task. Legal and narrative evidence is scant, meaning the boundaries are difficult to ascertain. No evidence of the Cheshire forests can be found before the Norman conquest and the forests are not referred to by name in what is one of the richest sources of medieval history, the Domesday Book. However, there is one vital resource that does account for La Mara and Mondrem and this resource is the main reference point for cartographers and scholars alike.
The Harleian Collection of manuscripts contains a list of the settlements that were within the boundaries of La Mara and Mondrem, providing a wonderful insight into the extent of the twin forests. At least, Mondrem stretched as far south as the Nantwich area. At most, as geographer Dorothy Sylvester points out, the forest may well have reached near Malpas. The dividing line between La Mara and Mondrem is widely considered to be a Saxon public highway known as ‘Peytefynsty’. This dividing line exists to this day in the form of the A49, albeit with a number of alterations.
Thankfully, conservation efforts have gained prominence in recent times, giving the area a new lease of life. As Margaret Nixon writes in A Happy Place: The History of a Cheshire Parish, regardless of the circumstances in which the forest existed, it continued to thrive as a place of happiness. Even though Mondrem may no longer exist, its name lives on in the village of Aston juxta Mondrum. Its legacy also lives on through the work we do; creating and nurturing places of happiness.
Our thanks to Keele University’s Academic English Programme Director, Russell Clark, for sharing his knowledge about the Mondrem name. We also extend our thanks to the Weaverham Historical Society for their insight and invaluable guidance.
Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon dictionary.
Middle English Compendium, University of Michigan (2018) https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary/MED12573/track?counter=1&search_id=2976904
Old English Translator, https://www.oldenglishtranslator.co.uk/
C. R. Elrington (ed.), The Victoria History of the Counties of England (The University of London Institute of Historical Research: The University of Oxford Press, 1979)
Frank Latham (ed.), Acton (Near Nantwich) The History of a Cheshire Parish and its seventeen townships (Whitchurch: Local History Group, 1995)
Frank Latham (ed.), Delamere: The History of a Cheshire Parish (Whitchurch: Local History Group, 1991)
George, C., ‘The Forest of the Meres’, Issue 38 (2016)
Green, J., ‘Forest laws in England and Normandy in the twelfth century’, Historical Research, 86 (2013), pp. 416-431.
History of Weaverham, Weaverham History Society, http://history.weaverham.org.uk/history/
Husain, B. M. C., ‘Delamere Forest in the Late Medieval Times’ (1952)
Langton, J., ‘Forests and chases in Wales and the Welsh Marches: an exploration of their origins and characteristics’, Journal of Historical Geography, 37 (2011), pp. 263-272.
Nakamura, A., The Earls of Chester and Their Family in Normandy and England: From the Early Eleventh Century Until 1120 (University of Glasgow, 1997)
Sylvester, D., A History of Cheshire (Chichester: Phillimore & Co. LTD., 1971)
Christopher Saxton’s map of Cheshire (1579) http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/unvbrit/c/001map00000c7c1u00026000.html
Delamere Forest Plan of 2016, Forestry Commission England, https://www.forestryengland.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Delamere%20Forest%20Plan%202016%20Location%20Survey%20Attribute%20Maps.pdf
Dorothy Sylvester and Geoffrey Nulty (eds), The Historical Atlas of Cheshire (Chester: Cheshire Community Council, 1958)
Ordnance Survey Map of Cheshire, https://osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/52.67363,-1.63417,8
Sketch map of the forests of Mara and Mondrem (at a date between 1277 & 1536) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forests_of_Mara_and_Mondrem#/media/File:Mara_and_Mondrem.png