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During the Middle Ages vast areas of England were Royal Forest and came under Forest Law, an additional law applying to those living within its jurisdiction. Originally extremely harsh, Henry III granted in 1217 that a man should no longer lose life or limb for taking the King's deer.
Legend has it that Robin Hood hid within the hollow trunk of the tree to escape from the Sheriff of Nottingham's men. Despite the legend, the Major Oak would have only been an acorn at the time of the outlaw, however, he may have hid in a tree of equivalent size at that time. Inside the oak is a hollow which was originally caused by fungi. The Major Oak's vital statistics are impressive 'it weighs around 23 tons, has a girth of ten metres (33ft) and a spread of 28 metres (92ft) - this makes it the biggest oak tree in Britain. In a good year it can produce 150,000 acorns. However, good crops are cyclical. Generally, the tree has a good acorn crop, sometimes known as mast, every 3-4 years, depending on weather in spring and summer and the health of the mother (a local man has permission to collect some of the acorns, and has grown many saplings from the tree). The Major Oak is a Quercus Robur, an English or pedunculate oak. It is debatable how old the Major oak is. Some say 800 years old, while others suggest over 1000 years old. It has been nominated as the one of the top 50 trees in Britain by The National Tree Council. The Major Oak's first recorded name was the Cockpen tree, a reference to its use as a cockerel pen to hold the birds before a cockfight. However, the tree became better known as 'The Major's Oak' after it was described in 1790 by a local historian, Major Hayman Rooke. Throughout the 19th century it was also known as the Queen or Queen's Oak. The branches of the tree today are held up by supports. The original supports have been replaced with more slender posts, and the soil underneath the oak is now protected from the compacting of visitors feet by a perimeter fence, which allows rainwater to get to the trees roots. The famous old tree stands at the heart of 450-acre Sherwood Forest Country Park and Sherwood Forest Visitor Centre, run by Nottinghamshire County Council to provide a tourist attraction and educational site. As a royal forest, many kings have hunted in Sherwood; King Richard I, King (the monarch formerly known as Prince) John, Kings Edward I, II and III, just to name some of the kings whose visits to Sherwood are documented in both Robin Hood stories and historical records. King John was on his way to his favourite hunting grounds, Clipstone in Sherwood, when he died in 1216. (You can still visit the ruins of this lodge.) Sherwood literally meant 'Shire Wood', and in the Middle Ages, Sherwood did cover much of Nottinghamshire, extending beyond into Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Some of the trees in Sherwood included oaks like the Major Oak, beech and silver birch trees, and the area around Sherwood also contained areas of heathland, particularly where the soil was sandy, due to the underlying Bunter sandstone rock. The defining characteristic of a forest is that it was governed by forest laws. There would have been many poachers and outlaws like Robin Hood, and Sherwood was patrolled by foresters who would mete out swift justice to those who broke the forest laws by such acts as killing the king's deer. Today most of the vast spread of medieval hunting forest is gone. Sherwood Forest exists today mainly around Sherwood Forest Country Park, centering on the Major Oak at Edwinstowe, with pockets of woodland ranging from Papplewick in the southwest up to Clipstone and beyond.