For almost 500 years Sutton Park was not devoted to the pleasures of local people, but exclusively to deer and their aristocratic hunters.
The park was originally part of the Forest of Cannock, which covered most of the area between the rivers Tame and Trent and had been set up as a royal forest by William the Conqueror; Norman kings set aside vast areas of the country for hunting. Forest law protected deer (fallow, red and roe deer), wild boar and the woodland that sustained them with severe penalties for those caught transgressing. Forests were hunting areas specifically reserved for the king and, by royal invitation, the nobility.
The southern part of the Forest was given in 1126 by Henry I to Roger de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Warwick and his descendants with the right to introduce fallow deer, a species brought to England by King William. Known as Sutton Chase and centred on the town of Sutton Coldfield, it lay north and west of the River Tame extending from Great Barr to Kingsbury.
By 1423 the Earl of Warwick still owned the Chase and feasted on its venison, but by this time he had leased to one of his officers.
Bishop Vesey Takes Over
In 1499, under Henry VII, Edward Plantagenet, 17th Earl of Warwick was executed for treason and the Chase was appropriated by the Crown. But in 1528, thanks to the persuasion of Bishop Vesey, Henry VIII granted ownership of part of the Chase to the newly created Warden and Society of the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield.
Vesey abolished the forest law and had the park fenced so that it could be used by local people for grazing their livestock. It was this area that became what is now Sutton Park. Residents could ‘hunt, fish and fowl there, with dogs, bows and arrows, and with other engines for deer, stags, hares, foxes and other wild beasts.’
Remarkably, if you know where to look, there is still clear evidence on the ground of the banks and ditches built to enclose the deer; deer were too expensive a commodity to be allowed to escape. Inside the present boundary fence, on the north, west and east sides, can be seen banks and ditches originally 5 metres wide, known as the park pale. The enclosure has a perimeter of some 7 miles, the earthworks of which are believed to date from the foundation of the park in 1126.
As deer are able to jump 6 metres horizontally and 3 metres vertically, this had to be a substantial barrier. The bank would be up to 4 metres high and topped with a wooden fence. On the inside would be a steep-sided ditch on a similar scale to the bank. Inside the park, compartments can also still be seen delineated by banks and ditches, areas where deer were kept out to enable coppiced woodland to be cultivated.
The Driffold’s Origins
The medieval deer park is also evidenced by a place name, recalled in the street name ‘The Driffold’. Marked on 19th-century maps, the area east of Wyndley Pool in Sutton Park is named as Driffold.
From Anglo-Saxon times, Sutton manor house stood on top of Manor Hill near the junction of Wyndley Lane and Driffold. Never used by a resident lord as a manor house, it was effectively the hunting lodge of the park. And below it, an enclosure within the park is believed to be a corral dating from the 12th century. Defined by a bank and ditch and semi-circular in shape, it covers an area of approximately 1 square kilometre. Nearby is another similar enclosure dating from the 14th century.
The enclosures are likely to have been ‘drive folds’, corrals into which the deer were driven, from which the name ‘driffold’ derives. Deer were kept for hunting as sport, but they were also kept for food and as high status gifts, and deer may have been kept here for the residents of the manor house. And for hunting purposes the deer may have been rounded up at the driffold and set free as the hunters set out, to give them a better ‘sporting’ chance of a kill.
Although Bishop Vesey abolished the deer park as such in 1528, deer have returned to Sutton Park. However, these are not the medieval species but muntjac, originating from China, an exotic escapee from Woburn Abbey in 1900 which has become naturalised in Britain. Standing less than 50 cm (20ins) at the shoulder and weighing under 20 kg (44lbs), this is a small shy animal, rarely seen but more common even in city areas than might be thought.