Posts Tagged ‘Enclosures’

In an article titled Walking to London for Justice, I recounted the story of a group of seventeenth century Cumberland farmers in Matterdale who pursued their complaints against the local lord of the manor, Andrew Huddleston, all the way to the House of Lords, and won. These farmers fought for ‘justice and fair play’, but their case was only one part of a longstanding saga with the Huddlestons. I recently discovered more of this history in a 1909 book called The Danes in Lancashire by S. W. Partington. For the time being I’ll just reproduce the relevant section here (pages 93-100). I hope to return to it more at a later date. Partington was discussing the evolution of customary tenancy in the north of England:

The customary tenant is distinguished from the freeholder, and the copyholder, in that he is not seised of his land in fee simple, as is the freeholder, and is not subject to the disabilities of the copyholder, nor are his customary dues considered derogatory to the nobility of his tenure. The customary tenant is therefore between the freeholder and the copyholder, with a number of well defined privileges. The two most important duties of the average tenant in Cumberland and Westmorland were those of warfare and the watching of the forests. The former depended entirely upon the attitude of the other kingdoms, especially Scotland; the latter was a long and laborious service laid upon the tenant until the middle of the XVIth century. The counties of Cumberland and Westmorland were dense forests until long after the Norman Conquest, and the timber for the royal shipyards was grown in these highlands of England. The forests were full of game, and the regulations in connection with the preservation of game and the upkeep of the forests were most exacting upon the people.

From the middle of the XVIth century, however, these ancient laws and services began to lose their force, and a new set of regulations arose to meet the new environment. Slowly but surely the feudal system had passed away. Here and there a relic remained, but it was impossible to ignore the rights of men who could no longer be bought and sold with a tenement. From the first year of the reign of Elizabeth the border service is well defined and the claims of the tenants became fixed. Several years before, Lord Wharton, as Deputy-General of the West Marches, drew up a series of regulations for the protection of that part of the border. In an interesting article by Mr. Graham, we find how the men of Hayton, near Carlisle, turned out every night with their spears, and remained crouched on the river bank in the black darkness or the pouring rain. It is a typical example of borderers engaged upon their regular service. This system had superseded the feudal system. The feudal tenure survived in many instances where a power. Like one of their own tumultuous forces, when once directed into the right stream, they went to form that new product which we call an Englishman. The documents, which were discovered at Penruddock in the township of Hutton Soil — the ”kist” is in the possession of Mr. Wm. Kitchen, Town Head, Penruddock — relate to a struggle between the lord and the tenants of Hutton John, Cumberland, on the subject of tenant right. So far as we are aware these documents are unique. The various authorities on Cumberland history give reference to a number of these disputes but no mention is made of the Hutton John case, so that we have here for the first time a full knowledge of what was probably the most important of all these trials. In addition, while there are no documents relating to the other cases, we have here every paper of the Hutton John case preserved. The story of the discovery is that the writer (the Rev. J. Hay Colligan) was searching for material for a history of the Penruddock Presbyterian Meeting House when he came across a kist, or chest, containing these documents. (A calendar of these documents may be found in the Cumberland and Westmorland Transactions for 1908.) The manor of Hutton John had long been in the possession of the Hutton family when it passed in 1564 to a son of Sir John Hudleston of Millum Castle by his marriage with Mary Hutton. Her brother Thomas had burdened the estate on account of his imprisonment lasting about fifty years. It was the son of this marriage, Joseph by name, who became the first lord of the manor, and most of the manorial rights still remain with the Hudleston family. After Joseph Hudleston came three Andrews — first, 1603-1672; second, 1637- 1706; third, 1669-1724 — and it was with these four lords that the tenants carried on their historical dispute. The death of Thomas Hutton took place sometime after 1620 and was the occasion for raising a number of questions that agitated the manor for almost a century afterwards. It flung the combustible topic of tenure into an atmosphere that was already charged with religious animosity, and the fire in the manor soon was as fierce as the beacon-flare on their own Skiddaw.

The position of the parties in the manor may be summed up by saying that Joseph Hudleston insisted that the tenants were tenants-at-will, and the tenants on the other hand claimed tenant right. Whatever may have been the origin of cornage, it is clear that by the XVIIth century it was synonymous with tenant right. The details in the dispute cannot here be treated, but the central point was the subject of a general fine. This fine, frequently called gressome, was the entrance fine which the tenant paid to the lord upon admittance. In some manors it was a two years’ rent, in others three. An unusual form in the manor of Hutton John was a seven years’ gressome, called also a running fine or a town-term. This was the amount of two years’ rent at the end of every seven years. The contention of the tenants was, that as this was a running fine, no general fine was due to the lord of the manor on the death of the previous lord. From this position the tenants never wavered, and for over seventy years they fought the claim of the lord. Upon the death of Thomas Hutton the tenants claiming tenant right refused to pay the general fine to Joseph Hudleston. After wrangling with the tenants for a few years, Joseph brought a Bill against them in 1632. He succeeded in obtaining a report from the law lord, Baron Trevor, which plays an important part in the case unto the end. He apparently disregarded the portion which applied to himself, and pressed the remainder upon the tenants. The tenants thereupon decided to send three of their number with a petition to Charles I. and it was delivered to the king at Newmarket. He ordered his judges to look into the matter. The civil war, however, had begun, and the whole country was about to be filled with smoke and flame. Needless to say the tenants took the side of Parliament, while the lord of the manor, the first Andrew, was described in the records as a Papist in arms. During the civil war the whole county of Cumberland was in action. The manor of Hutton John was mainly for the Parliament. Greystoke Castle, only two miles from the manor, surrendered to the Parliamentary troops. The termination of the civil war in 1651 was the date for the beginning of litigation between the Hudleston family and the Parliament on the subject of the manor. After this was over the struggle between the lord and the tenants began again. In their distress the tenants sent a letter to Lord Howard of Naworth Castle, whose Puritan sympathies were well known. This is a feature of the case that need not be dwelt upon, but without which there can be no complete explanation of the story. The struggle was in fact a religious one. The occasion of it was the entrance into a Cumberland manor of a Lancashire family, and the consequent resentment on the part of the adherents of the manor, who boasted that they had been there “afore the Hudlestons.” The motives which prompted each party were those expressed in the words Puritan v. Papist. The year 1668 was a memorable one in the history of the dispute. In that year the tenants brought a Bill of complaint against the lord at Carlisle Assizes. The judge, at the opening of the court, declared that the differences could be compounded by some gentlemen of the county. All the parties agreed, and the court made an order whereby Sir Philip Musgrave, Kt. and Bart., and Sir John Lowther, Bart., were to settle the case before September 21st. If they could not determine within that time they were to select an umpire within one week, who must make his award before Lady-day. Sir Philip Musgrave and Sir John Lowther accepted the responsibility placed upon them by the court and took great pains to accommodate the differences, but finding themselves unable to furnish the award within the time specified they elected Sir George Fletcher, Bart., to be umpire. Sir George Fletcher made his award on March 3rd, 1668. The original document, written, signed and sealed with his own hand, is here before us. Its tattered edges prove that it has been frequently referred to. Sir George Fletcher’s award was on the whole in favour of the tenants, and especially on the subject of the general fine, which he declared was not payable on the death of the lord. Other important matters were dealt with, including heriots, widows’ estates, the use of quarries on the tenements, the use of timber, the mill rent, together with the subject of boons and services. All the tenants acquiesced in the award, and the lord paid the damages for false imprisonment to several of the tenants.

In the year 1672 Andrew Hudleston the first died, and Andrew the second, 1637-1706, succeeded to the lordship. He immediately began to encroach. He demanded the general fine in addition to rents and services, contrary to the award. The struggle therefore broke out afresh as fiercely as ever, and both parties returned to the old subject of tenure. The matter became a religious one owing to the Restoration and the rigid acts which followed between 1662- 1689. An extraordinary incident occurred at this time in the conversion of the lord to the protestant cause, but this did not affect the dispute between him and the tenants. In 1699 the tenants moved again. They requested the court to put into operation the award of Sir George Fletcher. From that year until 1704 the strife was bitterer than ever, and the kist contains more documents relating to this period than to any other. In the year 1704, after several judgments had previously been made against the third Andrew Hudleston and his late father, the former appealed to the House of Lords, and the case was dismissed in favour of the tenants.

Although the struggle lasted until the year 1716, the climax was reached in 1704. The historical value of the case is the way in which it illustrates the conditions of tenure in the North- West of England, and at the same time portrays the pertinacity in spite of serious obstacles of the yeoman class in asserting its rights.

Tithe. The subject of Tithe is one that can only be dealt with in a restricted way and from one point of view. It is well known that, through the influence of George Fox in North Lancashire, Quakerism spread with frenzied force through Westmorland and Cumberland. Many of those who had been previously content with Puritan doctrines seceded to the Quakers. The practice of declining to pay the tithe, in the case which the documents before us illustrate, was of a different character. It occurs in the parish of Greystoke, in which the manor of Hutton John was situated. Five years after the award of Sir George Fletcher on the tenure case, the nonconforming section of the tenants of Hutton John raised another question of a tithe called “Bushel Corn.” This had been regularly paid to the Rector of Greystoke from time immemorial. Even the Puritan rectors had received this tithe down to that great Puritan, Richard Gilpin, who was ejected from the Rectory of Greystoke in 1661. The point in dispute was not a deliberate refusal of the tithe, it was a declaration of the parishioners that the measure was an unjust one. The contest was carried on by John Noble, of Penruddock, and Thos. Parsons, the steward of the Countess of Arundel and Surrey, Lady of the Barony of Greystoke. Associated with Parsons was John Robson, a servant and proctor of the rector. Parsons and Robson were farmers of the tithe, but the case had the full consent of the rector, the Rev. Allan Smallwood, D.D.

The immediate cause of the dispute was the question of the customary measure. It resulted in the settlement of a vexatious subject which was as to the size of a bushel. The matter was one of contention throughout the country until standard weights and measures were recognised and adopted. In Cumberland the most acute form was upon the subject of the corn bushel. The deviations in quantity were difficult to suppress, and several law cases upon this matter are on record. In the Parish of Greystoke the case was first begun in 1672. The bushel measure had been gradually increased from sixteen gallons, which amount the parishioners acknowledged and were prepared to pay, until it reached twenty-two gallons. The case passed through the assizes of three counties, being held at Carlisle, Lancaster and Appleby, and a verdict for the parishioners was eventually given.

The documents, apart from their intrinsic worth, have thus an inestimable value, in that they shed light upon and give information in regard to the doings in a Cumberland manor where hitherto there has been but darkness and silence, as far as the records of the people were concerned. We are able now to follow with interest and satisfaction a story that is equal in courage and persistence with the best traditions of English love of justice and fair play…


‘The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.’

English historians, particularly those of the Whig bent, have often portrayed Tudor England as a Golden Age. The centuries-long medieval wars between barons and kings, barons and barons and kings and kings were over, at least for now. Having lost the Hundred Years War, with some minor exceptions, England’s yeoman archers were no longer being dragged to France to fight and die trying to put an English king on the French throne, and England’s French royalty and nobility were finally starting to view themselves as English. England was taking its first tentative steps to greatness. To put it mildly all this is bunk when seen from the perspective of the majority of the people of England. Among many other repressive measures the Tudor monarchy also brought back slavery.

Following the Norman conquest of England, the English were subjugated and dispossessed of their land. Many English thanes and nobles fled abroad (see here for one example). But the vast bulk of the population didn’t have this choice and were reduced to serfdom. Slavery was abolished, in the sense that English people were no longer actually owned by the lords, although it can certainly be argued that the differences between slavery and serfdom were slight.

Wat Tyler - tricked and killed, 1381

Wat Tyler – tricked and killed, 1381

Be that as it may. Yet over a period of nearly 500 years following the Conquest, the English, as opposed to their French overlords, did somehow manage to keep some consciousness of their ‘inalienable right’ to be free. With Norman castles and armed French thugs all around them, they couldn’t do much to reverse their servitude, but they did try. The Peasants Revolt of 1381 and Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 were just two of the more famous but ultimately fruitless attempts to do so.

Throughout this time the English people were forced to give up most of their surplus (and some) to the Norman French kings and barons. The extracted money helped them fight their countless wars with each other and overseas; wars into which generations of ordinary people were also conscripted. Yet for all this most Englishmen and women were at least able to farm a little land and raise their families, the price of which was rent plus countless other feudal services due to their lords. Of course this was when they weren’t being decimated by famine, plague and rapacious armed knights. They dreamt of a ‘commonwealth’, they dreamt of being free of the Norman yoke, but they never had the power to achieve any of this.

And so we arrive at the Tudors. The fifteenth century Wars of the Roses were a series of fights between various baronial factions for the Crown. Eventually after a bloody game of royal musical chairs: Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III (not to forget the brief Edward  V), and much material for Shakespeare, Henry Tudor gained the throne as Henry VII. The ‘Golden Age’ had arrived.

Actually among the interminable list of brutal and stupid kings of England over the last thousand years, Henry VII was one of the better ones. In his 24 year reign (1485-1509) he avoided wars, improved the house-keeping of government and at his death was able to bequeath his son Henry a huge royal fortune. Such kings are however not usually the stuff of national myth and good story-telling. Shakespeare wrote plays about almost all of Henry’s predecessors of the last hundred years and about his megalomaniac tyrant son Henry VIII, but nothing about Henry VII, a trend that continues with television drama to this day.

Kirkham - One dissolved monastery

Kirkham – One dissolved monastery

Henry VIII was, as I guess we all know, a tyrant and a megalomaniac and probably a misogynist to boot. When he wanted to be rid of his first wife Katherine of Aragon and marry plain Ann Boleyn, the Pope wouldn’t give him a divorce. So Henry broke with Rome, divorced Katherine and married Ann. This didn’t make him a Protestant; Henry remained a Catholic in all other respects than adherence to Rome until his dying day. Having taken this step and needing more money, as all monarchs always do, Henry’s eye fell on the wealth of the Church in England. The Church and all its abbeys and monasteries still owned about a third of the whole land and wealth of the country. Henry set about stealing it. He started to dissolve (and demolish) the monasteries, cart away their movable wealth and seize their land. Much of the land he then sold on at knock-down prices to his favourite nobles and supporters.

The vast majority of English people remained deeply attached to the Catholic Church despite its long role in their own subjugation. Discontent and protest followed. Henry put these down with the usual royal brutality; the most famous (but not only) example being the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 (see here).

Medieval English fields

Medieval English fields

But the dissolution of the monasteries and Henry’s land-grab and on-sale of huge swathes of the country had massive social and economic consequences as well. Landlords all over the country had benefitted by acquiring former Church land. They discovered that it was much more profitable for them to raise large flocks of sheep and herds of cattle on huge consolidated blocks of land than it was to continue to allow the rural peasantry to cultivate the medieval ridge and furrow fields and make use of the commons and moors to supplement their meagre livelihoods. As E. P. Cheney wrote in Social Changes in England in the Sixteenth Century:

A new conception of the ownership of land was rising by which it came to be looked upon, quite in contrast with the feudal or communal notion of the Middle Ages, as subject to the same completeness of control and use as any kind of personal property.

Professor Pollard in his England under Protector Somerset wrote that under the old view,

Land was regarded not as a source of wealth but as a source of men…  and it was more important for the lord to have men to defend him than for him to increase his wealth by extracting as much rent as he could from his tenants.



The landlords started to consolidate their various pieces of land, a process known as ‘engrossing’. They also started to ‘enclose’ these lands in a more aggressive manner; i.e. erecting hedges and fences to keep the peasants out. In earlier times the lords had wanted many peasant farmers on their land, both for the extraction of rents, to work on the lords’ ‘home farms’ and as a ‘stock’ to take with them in their squabbles and wars. They often made this explicit. In distant Cumberland in the fifteenth century, a local lord, Lancelot Threlkeld, said that he had three manors:

One at Crosby Ravensworth for pleasure, where he had a park full of deer; one at Yanwath for comfort and warmth, wherein to reside in winter; and one at Threlkeld, well stocked with tenants, to go with him to the wars.

But now landlords could make more money turning peasant cultivated land into pasture for their sheep and so they didn’t need all their peasant ‘stock’. How to get rid of them? The strategy was twofold: First, they racked up rents to extortionate levels that both peasant farmers and even yeoman could not afford. Second, by enclosing the fields and commons with hedges and fences and by enforcing brutal penalties against any who wanted to continue to exercise their common rights.

Joseph Clayton commented in his wonderful Robert Kett and the Norfolk Rising:

The new view naturally prevailed. There was no power strong enough to withstand the landlords (always the real rulers of an agricultural nation), when, in pursuit of wealth, they got rid of the people from the land and proceeded to bring in more and more sheep.

Engrossing and enclosing land weren’t new things in England; they went back to at least the thirteenth century. But Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries and subsequent land redistribution did give the process a massive boost.

During the period, which may be roughly defined as from 1450 to 1550, enclosure meant to a large extent the actual dispossession of the tenants by their manorial lords. This took place either in the form of the violent ousting of the sitting tenant, or of a refusal on the death of one tenant to admit the son, who in earlier centuries would have been treated as his natural successor. Proofs abound. W. J. Ashley, Economic History.

The landlords’ strategy worked. All over England hundreds of thousands of poor English farmers and husbandmen were evicted from the land their ancestors had cultivated for centuries. The landlords then demolished their houses and cottages.

Lord Protector Somerset

Lord Protector Somerset

The upshot was that many of these evicted people became ‘unemployed’, a word that was used at the time. Another frequent name for them was ‘vagabonds’. Countless thousands could no longer support themselves or their families through the sweat of their own brow. They squatted where they could; they roamed the villages and towns of England looking for work or begging for charity; they migrated to the squalor of London; and, when they were desperate, they resorted to petty theft to survive.

This was all too much for the king, the nobles and the landlords. There was, they said, an ‘unemployed’ or ‘vagabond’ problem. The response was that these unemployed vagabonds needed to be punished and, if they continued to be a problem, they were to be killed. Eventually when even these draconic measures didn’t work the government of Henry’s young son King Edward VI resorted to the reintroduction of slavery in England.

Joseph Clayton summarised all this very well:

Parliament in Henry VIII’s reign brought in the lash and the gallows to solve the “unemployed problem” Punishment seemed the right thing for people, homeless and landless, for peasants dispossessed of holdings, for soldiers broken in the French Wars.

In 1531 an Act of Parliament allowed licences for begging to be granted to the impotent, and ordered a whipping for all other mendicants.  Five years later, in the year of the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Parliament, finding the unemployed still alive, decided to deal more radically with the problem. So on the first conviction of unemployment all vagrants, men, and women alike, were to be whipped; for the second offence they were to be mutilated; and on the third conviction they were to be hanged as felons. This Act of 1536 was rigidly enforced and thousands of unemployed men and women suffered the full penalty of the law. And still the “unemployed problem” remained unsolved, so that it was said that only by sterner measures and greater severity could the question be settled.

Therefore, in 1547, the first year of Edward VI., an Act was passed selling the unemployed into slavery. For a first conviction branding and two years of slavery was ordered for the unemployed vagrant; the “slave” was to be beaten and chained by his master, and for running away he was to be further branded and adjudged a “slave” for ever. Death as a felon was the penalty for a third conviction.

Branding and slavery in Tudor England

Branding and slavery in Tudor England

Let us be quite clear what was happening here. Under the 1547 Vagrancy Act introduced by the Protector of England, the Duke of Somerset, not only would the unemployed by branded with a V on their foreheads, but they would be made a slave for two years – for a first offence. The words slave and slavery were repeatedly used in the Act. If they continued to be unemployed they could be enslaved forever. Slavery recognised by the law had been reintroduced to England.

Wasn’t the Tudor period such a Golden Age?

Of course all this doesn’t make as good television as King Henry jumping in an out of the beds of his numerous wives and mistresses, so we never hear about it. Another reason for this lack of knowledge is that the 1547 ‘slavery’ Act was soon repealed. Not only were common people appalled by the reappearance of slavery in England ‘the land of the free’, but many in positions of power were too, or at least they saw it wasn’t working.

Even this measure, drastic as it was, failed to rid the country of the unemployed. Moreover, people were found in that first year of Edward VI. to dislike the enslavement of free-born men and women. Government it seemed had got rid of papal authority only to bring back slavery to England.

So in 1549 the Act of 1547 was repealed, and the (still brutal) Act of 1531 was once more the law of the land.

Robert Kett leading the  revolt

Robert Kett leading the revolt

Yet all the engrossing, enclosing and evicting went on. Protests and sometimes rebellions broke out in different parts of the country. The most famous was Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549. I won’t tell this story here; the rather anodyne Wikipedia page will give you some idea. But Norfolk landowner Robert Kett would surely be on my list of Top Ten Englishmen.

At the very start of Kett’s Rebellion, a ‘Rebels’ Complaint’ was issued, probably written by Kett himself:


The pride of great men is now intolerable, but our condition miserable.

These abound in delights; and compassed with the fullness of all things, and consumed with vain pleasures, thirst only after gain, inflamed with the burning delights of their desires.

But ourselves, almost killed with labour and watching, do nothing all our life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. Which things, though they seem miserable and base (as they are indeed most miserable), yet might be borne howsoever, if they which are drowned in the boiling seas of evil delights did not pursue the calamities and miseries of other men with too much insolent hatred. But now both we and our miserable condition is a laughing stock to these most proud and insolent men who are consumed with ease and idleness. Which thing (as it may) grieveth us so sore and inflicteth such a stain of evil report, so that nothing is more grievous for us to remember, nor more unjust to suffer.

The present condition of possessing land seemeth miserable and slavish holding it all at the pleasure of great men; not freely, but by prescription, and, as it were, at the will and pleasure of the lord. For as soon as any man offend any of these gorgeous gentlemen he is put out, deprived, and thrust from all his goods.

How long shall we suffer so great oppression to go unrevenged?

For so far are they, the gentlemen, now gone in cruelty and covetousness, that they are not content only to take all by violence away from us, and to consume in riot and effeminate delights what they get by force and villainy, but they must also suck in a manner our blood and marrow out of our veins and bones.

The common pastures left by our predecessors for our relief and our children are taken away.

The lands which in the memory of our fathers were common, those are ditched and hedged in and made several; the pastures are enclosed, and we shut out. Whatsoever fowls of the air or fishes of the water, and increase of the earth all these do they devour, consume, and swallow up; yea, nature doth not suffice to satisfy their lusts, but they seek out new devices, and, as it were, forms of pleasures to embalm and perfume themselves, to abound in pleasant smells, to pour in sweet things to sweet things. Finally they seek from all places all things for their desire and the provocation of lust. While we in the meantime eat herbs and roots, and languish with continual labour, and yet are envied that we live, breathe, and enjoy common air!

Shall they, as they have brought hedges about common pastures, enclose with their intolerable lusts also all the commodities and pleasures of this life, which Nature, the parent of us all, would have common, and bringeth forth every day, for us, as well as for them?

We can no longer bear so much, so great, and so cruel injury; neither can we with quiet minds behold so great covetousness, excess, and pride of the nobility. We will rather take arms, and mix Heaven and earth together, than endure so great cruelty.

Nature hath provided for us, as well as for them; hath given us a body and a soul, and hath not envied us other things. While we have the same form, and the same condition of birth together with them, why should they have a life so unlike unto ours, and differ so far from us in calling?

We see that things have now come to extremities, and we will prove the extremity. We will rend down the hedges, fill up ditches, and make a way for every man into the common pasture. Finally, we will lay all even with the ground, which they, no less wickedly than cruelly and covetously, have enclosed. Neither will we suffer ourselves any more to be pressed with such burdens against our wills, nor endure so great shame, since living out our days under such inconveniences we should leave the commonwealth unto our posterity mourning, and miserable, and much worse than we received it of our fathers.

Wherefore we will try all means; neither will we ever rest until we have brought things to our own liking.

We desire liberty, and an indifferent (or equal) use of all things. This will we have. Otherwise these tumults and our lives shall only be ended together.

Robert Kett under the Oak of Reformation

Robert Kett under the Oak of Reformation

As Joseph Clayton put it in 1912:

In these plain and downright phrases the Norfolk peasants flung out their banner of revolt, and called their neighbours to the fray. Nor did they call in vain. Kett moved his camp to Eaton Wood hard by and hither came crowds of poor men on l0th July, while word of the rising was spread throughout the county. For good or for evil, for victory or defeat, for loss or gain, the countryside was rising against the enclosures, and no man could foretell the issue.

Of course we can guess the ‘issue’. During Kett’s Rebellion several thousand English people were killed by an army of (mostly foreign) mercenaries sent by the young king’s ministers to crush them. Many more were hanged in revenge afterwards, including Robert Kett himself who was hanged from the walls of Norwich Castle on the 7th December 1549.

In a recent article  I touched on the issue of the Enclosure of the Commonsboth in France and Britain. In Britain enclosure was a brutal affair that stretched over many centuries. George Orwell once put it thus:

Stop to consider how the so-called owners of the land got hold of it. They simply seized it by force, afterwards hiring lawyers to provide them with title-deeds. In the case of the enclosure of the common lands, which was going on from about 1600 to 1850, the land-grabbers did not even have the excuse of being foreign conquerors; they were quite frankly taking the heritage of their own countrymen, upon no sort of pretext except that they had the power to do so.

In the previous century Karl Marx had already summed up what the enclosures were all about:

We have seen how the forcible seizure of the common lands, accompanied for the most part by the transformation of arable into pasture, began in the fifteenth century and lasted on into the sixteenth […] The advance that has been made in the eighteenth century is shown in this, that the law itself now became the instrument by which the theft of the people’s land was achieved, although the great farmers continued to use their petty private methods in addition. The parliamentary form of this robbery was to pass Acts for the enclosure of commons; in other words, decrees whereby the great landowners made a present to themselves of the people’s land, which thus became their own private property […] a systematic seizure of communal landed property helped, side by side with the theft of the State domains, to swell the size of those great farms which, in the eighteenth century, were called ‘capital farms’ or ‘merchant farms’, and ‘to set the country folk at liberty’ as a proletariat for the uses of industry.

The 17th Century Diggers were just one of numerous protests against the Enclosures

To be sure there was much protest, resistance and even rebellion at both the local and national levels. We can find numerous court reports, aristocratic complaints about resistance and rebellion, as well as pamphlets and writings from, for example, the Levelers and Diggers of the 17th century. E. P. Thompson and many other historians and economists have consistently tried ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan ….. from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ Yet much of the evidence regarding what actually happened, and what the people affected by the Enclosures felt, does not come directly and unmediated from the ‘common’ people themselves. It doesn’t come from those whose livelihood was being taken away, from those who were being forced into the horror of the Poor House or into the equally brutal squalor of the urban factory.

I always find it humbling and moving when we can hear the actual words of those being oppressed; even more so when the testimony comes in poetic form. I would like to share two poems that do just this. The first in from the 17th century and is called The Goose and the Commons. We don’t know who wrote it, but it is an early and rare eye-witness account of the English enclosures:

                 The Goose and the Commons

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

John Clare – The Peasant-Poet

The common people may be mute in much of written history, but when they speak, as in this poem, we find that they were in no way unaware of what was happening to them and who was really responsible, even though their horizons might have only been local.

The other poem is from two hundred years later and comes from the ‘peasant-poet’ John Clare. Clare described his writings as ‘the voice of a poor man’.  As the historian of the Commons J. F. C. Harrison points out: ‘John Clare, the peasant-poet and son of a cottage farmer in Helpstone, Northamptonshire, is perhaps the only voice of an actual victim of enclosure. Helpstone was enclosed by an Act of 1809 when Clare was sixteen.’ The poem is called The Mores (‘Moors’):

                 The Mores

Far spread the moorey ground a level scene
Bespread with rush and one eternal green
That never felt the rage of blundering plough
Though centurys wreathed spring’s blossoms on its brow

Still meeting plains that stretched them far away
In uncheckt shadows of green brown, and grey
Unbounded freedom ruled the wandering scene
Nor fence of ownership crept in between

To hide the prospect of the following eye
Its only bondage was the circling sky
One mighty flat undwarfed by bush and tree
Spread its faint shadow of immensity

And lost itself, which seemed to eke its bounds
In the blue mist the horizon’s edge surrounds
Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers

Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
And hath been once, no more shall ever be
Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave

And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
Is both the shadow and the substance now
The sheep and cows were free to range as then
Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men

Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
To the wild pasture as their common right
And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won

Tracked the red fallow field and heath and plain
Then met the brook and drank and roamed again
The brook that dribbled on as clear as glass
Beneath the roots they hid among the grass

While the glad shepherd traced their tracks along
Free as the lark and happy as her song
But now all’s fled and flats of many a dye
That seemed to lengthen with the following eye

Moors, loosing from the sight, far, smooth, and blea
Where swopt the plover in its pleasure free
Are vanished now with commons wild and gay
As poet’s visions of life’s early day

Mulberry-bushes where the boy would run
To fill his hands with fruit are grubbed and done
And hedgrow-briars – flower-lovers overjoyed
Came and got flower-pots – these are all destroyed

And sky-bound mores in mangled garbs are left
Like mighty giants of their limbs bereft
Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds
Of field and meadow large as garden grounds

In little parcels little minds to please
With men and flocks imprisoned ill at ease
Each little path that led its pleasant way
As sweet as morning leading night astray

Where little flowers bloomed round a varied host
That travel felt delighted to be lost
Nor grudged the steps that he had ta-en as vain
When right roads traced his journeys and again –

Nay, on a broken tree he’d sit awhile
To see the mores and fields and meadows smile
Sometimes with cowslaps smothered – then all white
With daiseys – then the summer’s splendid sight

Of cornfields crimson o’er the headache bloomd
Like splendid armys for the battle plumed
He gazed upon them with wild fancy’s eye
As fallen landscapes from an evening sky

These paths are stopt – the rude philistine’s thrall
Is laid upon them and destroyed them all
Each little tyrant with his little sign
Shows where man claims earth glows no more divine

But paths to freedom and to childhood dear
A board sticks up to notice ‘no road here’
And on the tree with ivy overhung
The hated sign by vulgar taste is hung

As tho’ the very birds should learn to know
When they go there they must no further go
Thus, with the poor, scared freedom bade goodbye
And much they feel it in the smothered sigh

And birds and trees and flowers without a name
All sighed when lawless law’s enclosure came
And dreams of plunder in such rebel schemes
Have found too truly that they were but dreams.

I will not offer a close reading of this poem, I leave that to you. Of course the poem is about the impact of the enclosures on both people and the countryside, but it also is quite clear regarding who gained. A reader of the poem once observed that ‘privatization of the common land appears in itself as unnatural, as a crime against the animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers, rivers and streams themselves.’ Clare was indeed an early ecologist; he even called his works a ‘language that is ever green’. I leave the final word yet again to E. P. Thompson:

Clare may be described, without hindsight, as a poet of ecological protest: he was not writing about man here and nature there, but lamenting a threatened equilibrium in which both were involved.


John Clare, A Champion for the Poor: Political Verse and Prose. Manchester, Carcanet Press, 2000;  George Orwell, As I Please, Tribune, 18 August, 1944; Karl Marx, Capital. Volume 1, London, Everyman’s Library, 1974;  J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People: A History from the Norman Conquest to the Present, London: Flamingo, 1984; E. P.Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1975 ; Ronald Paul, A language that is ever green, Moderna Sprak, 2011.