According to its own legends, the Foresters began in medieval times in the royal forests of England, and admitted men of other professions as early as 1840. This looks, however, very likely a pietist attempt to claim parity with the Freemasons. In any case, the suppression of many secret societies in England in the wake of the French Revolution means that such claims cannot easily be checked. There are still several varieties of Foresters today, but there were many more in the past. Their talent for schism amounted almost to genius.

The Royal Order of Foresters was the first to be legally constituted, in 1813. An intriguing part of their early rituals was initiation by combat with cudgels, which was apparently abandoned in about 1843.

In 1832 a schism took place and most of the members joined the newly formed Ancient Order of Foresters. In 1880 the Subsidiary High Court of the Netherlands and Belgium was formed. The AOF also went to the U.S., but has since then nearly disappeared. In England and in the Netherlands it still exists. In the Netherlands the AOF has four local courts and not more than 150 (most elderly) members.
Besides this order, there is a small order in Rotterdam with members of Surinam origins.

The largest order nowadays is the Independent Order of Foresters, which was formed after a schism form the AOF in 1879. It functions as a fraternal benefit insurance society in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. It admits adults of both sexes and had approximately 1.4 million members in 1994.