East & West Molesey

A Dictionary of Local History

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1972


In June 1525 Cardinal Wolsey surrendered his majestic palace to Henry the Eighth, "the most magnificent gift ever made by a subject to his sovereign". Henry set about embellishing it and improving the parks which he stocked with game. The parks, however, offered little convenience for his favourite sport of stag-hunting which, now that he was growing old and stout, he wished to enjoy close at hand. He secured Acts enabling him to acquire the manors adjoining Hampton Court with a view to enlarging the parks still further. These included the two manors of Molesey, which he exchanged with their previous owners for ex-monastic properties elsewhere. In addition he secured or already held the manors of Hampton, Hanworth, Kempton, Feltham, and Teddington in Middlesex, and Sandon, Imber, Weston, Esher, the Waltons, Oatlands, and Byfleet in Surrey. These he combined into an "Honour", i.e. a group of manors, subject to the capital manor of Hampton Court. A further Act in 1539 confirming this enabled him to convert the "lordships, manors, towns and villages" lying south of the Thames to be erected into a forest or chase, to be known as the Hampton Court Chase, for the "nourishing, generation, and feeding of beasts of venery, and fowls of warren", to be reserved specifically for the king's sport and pleasure. A wooden fence reinforced with a ditch was constructed around the chase, within which the ancient and severe forest laws prevailed.

Although the rights of the tenants were technically safeguarded by the Act, the new conditions caused great distress. Crops were so seriously damaged by deer that land was left uncultivated, people left the district and cottages were allowed to fall into ruin. The king in his old age was a dangerous man against whom to raise complaints, but by 1545 "certayne men of Molsay and other townes in the chase besides Hampton Court" were driven by desperation to complain of their sufferings to the Privy Council. No redress, however, was offered while Henry lived. Directly he died in 1547 the distraught men of Molesey and the adjoining manors complained again. This time a Commission of Enquiry was set up by the Privy Council. It recommended the disparking of the chase and the removal of the deer to Windsor. The recommendation seems to have been made less to relieve local distress than to improve the situation caused by the loss of rents and avoid the cost of renewing the park fence which was fast falling down.

The Act setting up the Chase has never been rescinded so that the area remains to this day technically a royal forest. A Bill, however, has recently been introduced into Parliament with a view to effecting its repeal (Wild Creatures and Forest Laws Bill, 1971).

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