This article challenges readings of seventeenth-century English ‘improvement’ that are confined to a literate, elite sphere and thereby take printed claims of ‘economic betterment’ at face value, bestowing brief mention on ‘losers’ as a regrettable, but necessary, consequence of progress. Through examining Charles I's ‘disafforestation’ of the western royal forests of Gillingham, in Dorset, and Braydon, in Wiltshire, this article contends that improvement was not simply a triumphal narrative of material advancement articulated in print, but rather was forged in active conflicts situated within the landscape. Disafforestation was one of the Stuart crown's first major forays into enclosure and ‘improvement’, facilitated by surveyors applying newly geometric techniques to inscribe exclusive ownership so that each might ‘know and have their own’. Resulting riots reveal the contestation of empirical perspectives, improving ideals, and exclusive boundaries by commoners defending customary ways of seeing and using the forest commons rooted in collective memory, practice, and the landscape itself. Via the framing concept of ‘epistemologies’, improvement is examined as a spatial process in which different ways of knowing and using the landscape became pivotal to the production, contestation, and reconfiguration of social relations mapped across royal forests.