Much of this land he then gifted to his supporters under ‘feudal tenure, as we have seen. However quite a lot was kept for himself. This was the royal demesne.
Demesne is the name for land which a lord keeps for his own use, rather than sublet out to tenants.
So what did the King keep for himself and how did he use it? Mostly the land consisted of royal manors and royal forests
These were generally managed by royal stewards. The income went to the Exchequer and financed the royal administration. In the days before taxation, it comprised most if not all of the kings income.
I will be looking at manors generally later.
In England in Norman times (and later) a forest was an area where Forest Law prevailed. This was very harsh and was designed to protect the species hunted by the King – chiefly venison, but also boar, hare and wolf (although boar and wolf later became extinct in England), along with foxes, rabbits, pheasant and partridge. It also protected the vegetation which supported these species, ie the forest.
It is believed that at one stage about 1/3 of Southern England was designated as Forest.
Forest land also often included villages, and there was huge resentment at the time by the inhabitants at the imposition on them of this Norman (foreign!) forest law. The new laws affected their rights over local common land, which they had had before the conquest, and their livelihood.
The national feeling was expressed in the contemporary Rime of King William (Peterborough Chronicle 1087) which was not, apparently, very complementary (I have not been able to find a translation online sadly).
The ‘common people’ must therefore have been quite pleased when William the Conqueror’s son, William (Rufas) II “hateful to almost all his people and odious to God” was killed by an arrow in the New Forest, apparently by accident. Hmm.
Incidentally, all of the royal hunting party apparently skeddadled, once it was clear he was dead, to secure their estates, because the law and order of the kingdom died with the king.
It was left to a local charcoal-burner named Purkis (according to the Rufus stone erected on the site) to take the king’s body to Winchester Cathedral on his cart.
You can get a good sense of how Forest law worked in practice (albeit at a later time – during the Civil war) from reading Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat.
The royal desmene today
During the reign of George III most of the royal desmene was taken by Parliament in exchange for the Civil list. Apparently the only part of the original desmene from 1066 still owned by the Queen is the royal estate of Windsor.