Landholding in England/Chapter 11

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CHAPTER XI.—THE TESTIMONY OF THE REFORMERS


MY first witness is Henry Brinklow, a bitter partisan of the Reformation; once a Grey Friar, who left his order, married, and became a furious denouncer of the Pope and all his works. He wrote what he calls the "Complaint of Roderick Mors."[1] It was written about 1542, and is a remonstrance to Parliament. He complains of "the inordinate enhancing of rents and taking of unreasonable fines," by "them to whom the King hath given and sold the lands of those imps of Antichrist, abbeys and nunneries." If the former holders had not "led us in a false faith, it had been more profitable, no doubt, for the commonwealth, that they had remained still in their lands. For why? They never enhanced their lands, nor took so cruel fines as do our temporal tyrants.[2] For they cannot be content to let them at the old price, but raise them up daily, even to the clouds … so that the poor man that laboureth and toileth upon it is not able to live." And if another "rich, covetous earl, who hath too much already, will give anything more than he that dwelleth upon it, out he must, be he never so poor ; though he should become a beggar, and after that a thief, and so at length be hanged, by his outgoing: so little is the law of love regarded; oh, cruel tyrannies! "Brinklow says it is now a common custom that the landlord, for every trifle, even for his friend's pleasure, in case his tenant have not a lease, "shall put him out of his farm," though he is "an honest man, paying his rent, and other duties well and honestly. I think there be no such wicked laws nor customs in the universal world again. What a shame is this to the whole realm, that we say we have received the Gospel of Christ, and yet it is worse now in this matter than it was over fifty or four-score years ago, when we had the Pope's law, wicked as it was." He says that this enhancing of leases will be the decay of the commonwealth. It must needs make all things dear, both for back and belly—all but landed men will suffer. And even they were richer when their lands went at the old price. When the landlord increases his rent, the farmer must ask more for his wool, cattle, and all the victuals, else he too cannot live, Brinklow has a chapter on "the enclosing of parks, forests, and chases." This is no small burden to the commons; the deer destroy the corn and grass. "And what land is your parks?" What but the most "batel and fruitful" ground in England And now by wicked laws, if a man kill a deer that bears the mark of a private person, though it came on his own ground, or devour his corn or grass, he is hanged.[3]

It may seem surprising that Brinklow dared to say this in Henry's lifetime, but he was a vehement supporter of the royal supremacy, and so long as a man supported that, he might compassionate the poor with safety.

My second witness is Thomas Lever, Master of St John's, Cambridge. He preached a sermon before Edward VI., on Septuagesima Sunday, 1550. It is a terrible indictment of the manner in which the abbey lands were used by "those in England which did pretend that besides the abolishing of superstition, with the lands of Abbeys, Colleges, and Chantries, the King should be enriched, learning maintained, poverty relieved, and the commonwealth eased, and by this pretence, purposely have enriched themselves, setting abroad [that is, turning out] cloistered papists, to get their livings by giving them pensions." But "it is a common custom with covetous landlords, to let their housing so decay that the farmer shall be fain for a small reward or none at all, to give up his lease; that they taking the ground to their own hands, may turn all to pasture; so now old farmers, poor widows and young children lie begging in the miry streets. O, merciful Lord, what a number of poor, feeble, halt, Wind, lame, sickly, yea, with idle vagabonds and dissembling knaves mixed among them, he and creep, begging in the miry streets of London and Westminster."

He says that in some towns there used to be six, eight, or a dozen cows, "given unto a stock, for the relief of the poor," so that poor cottagers, who could make any provision for fodder, had the milk at a very small cost; "and then the number of the stock reserved, all manner of vails besides, both the hire of the milk and the prices of the young veals and old fat wares, was disposed to the relief of the poor, these also be sold, taken, and made away."

In another sermon, preached at Paul's Cross, and dedicated to the Lords of the Council, he says: "Be we in better case than we have been afore time because papistry among us is kept under, or else worse than ever we were because covetousness reigneth at liberty? … And hath not God given unto us … by the suppressing of abbeys exceeding abundance of all manner of lands, riches and treasures? And now where is it all become? … Here I, naming no man, do mean almost every man; for every man hath some treasure of the lord's to dispose." He is extremely severe on the reforming clergy: "Why do you take and keep some four or five men's livings? … Woe be unto you, dumb dogs, choked with benefices," so that you cannot open your mouths against any abuse. At last, he turns to the laity. "You of the laity, when ye see these small motes in the eyes of the clergy take heed to the great beams that be in your own eyes. But, alas! I fear lest you have no eyes at all. For as hypocrisy and superstitions do blear the eyes: so covetousness and ambition do put the eyes clean out. For if ye were not stark blind ye would see and be ashamed that where fifty tun-bellied monks given to gluttony filled their paunches, kept up their house, and relieved the whole country round about them, there one of your greedy guts devouring the whole house and making great pillage throughout the country, cannot be satisfied. The King is disappointed that both the poor be despoiled, all maintenance of learning decayed, and you only enriched."

He then charges them with direct robbery of the University of Cambridge. There used to be 200 students of divinity in houses belonging to the university—"now all clean gone, house and man, young toward scholars, and old fatherly doctors, not one of them left." Then the many grammar schools in the country, "founded of a godly intent to bring up poor men's sons in learning and virtue, now taken away by the greedy covetousness of you that were put in trust by God and the King. Look into the Acts of Parliament—there ye shall find that the Nobles and Commons give, and the King takes the Abbeys, Colleges, and Chantries for erecting of Grammar Schools. But what is found in your practice ? Surely the pulling down of Grammar Schools, the devilish drowning of youth in ignorance, the utter decay of the Universities, and most uncharitable spoil of provision that was made for the poor." Moreover, the laity take the best lands, and leave only "evil impropriations" to the clergy.

Then, perhaps remembering the many risings, he seems to fear he has gone too far, so he tells them "that be of the commonalty" that when they feel that those in authority are plaguing them, they are to know that they do it not of themselves, " but be moved and stirred of God, to work his wrath upon them." For their sins, God has ordained "that England should be spoiled with greedy covetous officers." What spoiled England? This covetousness. What made them covetous? The indignation of God. What kindled God's indignation? The sins of the people. And what was the sin of the people? Blaspheming God's Word, "calling it new learning and heretical doctrine. Therefore is the wrath of the Lord kindled. And now you cry that you are robbed and spoiled of all you have. Then quench the indignation of God, embrace His Holy Word as set forth by the King's Majesty's gracious proceedings." And if you keep "this great swelling in your heart," there is more "stiff-necked stubbornness, devilish disobedience, and greedy covetousness" in one of you, "than in ten of the worst of them that being in office and authority have many occasions to open and shew themselves what they be. They do it not of themselves, but moved and stirred by God, to work his wrath upon you." It does not seem to occur to him that the poor dispossessed people, when they rise, are perhaps "moved and stirred" by God, to work His wrath on the rich robbers. He returns to "leasemongers." He has heard of a gentleman near London who used to let his ground by lease to poor honest men, at 2s. 4d. an acre. "Then cometh a leasemonger, a thief, and extortioner, deceiving the tenants, buyeth their leases, turns them out, and makes them that have it back from him pay 9s., or as I heard, 19s., but I am ashamed to name so much."

One passage in his sermon is true for all time.

"Nothing can make a realm wealthy, if the inhabitants thereof be covetous: for if lands and goods could have made a realm happy notwithstanding men's covetousness, then should not this realm so unhappily have decayed, when as by the suppression of Abbeys, Colleges and Chantries, innumerable lands and goods were gotten."

My third witness is Bishop Latimer. He preached before Edward VI. on 8th March 1549, upon the duties of a king, with a special view to the fact that England now had a king of the reformed faith. God, he says, will not allow a king "too much." Nor will He allow a subject too much. "You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you steplords, you unnatural lords, you have already too much." For that which heretofore "went for £20 or £40 by the year (which is an honest portion to be had gratis in one Lordship of another man's sweat and labour), now it is let for £50 or £100 by year," so unreasonably are things enhanced. "And I think verily, that if it thus continue, we shall at length be constrained to pay for a pig a pound." … "Then these grasiers, inclosers, and rent-rearers are hinderers of the King's honour. For whereas have been a great many of house-holders and inhabitants, there is now but a shepherd and his dog. … My lords and masters, I say also that all such proceedings … do intend plainly to make the yeomanry slavery and the clergy slavery. … We of the clergy had too much, but that is taken away, and now we have too little." He gives an example of the vicar of a great market town, with divers hamlets, who has only twelve or thirteen marks a year—not enough to buy books, or give his neighbour drink. And then comes the famous passage about his father:

"My father was a yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of £3 or £4 by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for 100 sheep, and my mother milked 30 kine. He was able and did find the King an harness, with himself and his horse, while he came to the place that he should receive the King's wages. I can remember that I buckled his harness, when he went unto Blackheath field.[4] He kept me to school, or else I had not been able to have preached before the King's Majesty now. He married my sisters with £5 or 20 nobles a piece, so that he brought them up in godliness, and fear of God. He kept hospitality for his poor neighbours. And some alms he gave to the poor, and all this did he of the said farm. Where he that now hath it, payeth £16 by year or more, and is not able to do anything for his Prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the poor. Thus all the enhancing and rearing goeth to your private commodity and wealth."

He speaks of the "good statutes" made touching enclosures, "but in the end there cometh nothing forth." But this is the devil's work, and I know his intent. It is by destroying the yeomen to destroy the faith of Christ. "For by yeomen's sons the faith of Christ is and hath been maintained chiefly." Two things comfort me, or I should despair of redress in these matters. One is that when the King comes of age he will redress us, "giving example by letting down his own lands first, and then enjoin his subjects to follow him. The second hope I have is, I believe that the general accounting day is at hand, the dreadful day of judgment, I mean, which shall make an end of all these calamities and miseries."

I pass over the accusations against the monasteries. I will only repeat that the Act for dissolving the small houses expressly says that the "great solemn" monasteries are well managed. The great houses were discovered to be sinks of iniquity only when they were to be robbed. The opinion the robber has of his victim must always be suspect—an ancient fable says that the wolf has a very bad opinion of the lamb. My object here is to show how the change affected the English peasantry and landholding in general.

Spoliation did not stop at the religious houses. Every kind of charitable foundation was confiscated, under pretence of "superstitious uses"—the burning of a lamp was enough.[5] The Act for the Dissolution of Colleges (last year of Henry VIII.) was amplified by the first Parliament of Edward VI., and made to include all moneys devoted by "any manner of corporations, gilds, fraternities, companies, or fellowships, or mysteries or crafts," to any religious use now forbidden by law.

The English Gilds were more ancient than the kings of England. They are referred to as institutions by the laws of Ina, King of Mercia, of Alfred and Athelstan, Kings of All England, of Henry I., after the Conquest. They were of two kinds—"Religious" or "Social," and "Craft" or "Mystery" gilds. But of whichever kind they were, they were all lay societies, existing for lay purposes. If a priest belonged to one of them, it was in his private capacity as a man. Woraen as well as men belonged to the gilds. We can see what sort of persons composed them—Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims were members of a gild; he calls it "a solempne and grete fraternite." The Gilds were emphatically brotherhoods — the members are spoken of as "brethren and sustern." They were neighbourly unions, benefit societies, sick clubs, all in one. They assisted the outside poor when able. Sometimes they maintained grammar schools. They were eminently social and public-spirited societies, and their rules breathe the very spirit of brotherly kindness. They often had a chaplain—so has the Lord Mayor of London, but this does not make the city companies "superstitious" foundations. They also sometimes founded a chantry if the parish church was too far off; but their composition was always lay, and not "religious." The Craft Gilds were the first trades-unions. The first Parliament of Edward VI. gave to the Crown the possessions of all "Colleges, Free-Chapels, Chantries, Hospitals, Fraternities, Brotherhoods, and Gilds." And the Crown took all, "except what could creep out as being trading Gilds (which saved the London Gilds)."[6] The Merchant Gilds were too powerful to be meddled with. Bishop Burnet, a great apologist of the Reformation, says that this Act was obtained by a direct fraud. The whole House of Commons was "much set against that part of the Bill for the Guild-Lands. Therefore, those who managed that House for the Court, took these off by an assurance that their Guild-Lands should be restored to them." He also says that Somerset made good this promise, but it was not so, as the records prove. Mr Toulmin Smith, who wrote on English Gilds, left a note, in which he says: "For the abolition of monasteries there was some colour. … But in case of Gilds (much wider) no pretence of inquiry, or of mischief. … A case of pure, wholesale robbery, done by an unscrupulous faction to satisfy their greed, under a cover of law. No more gross case of wanton plunder is to be found in the history of all Europe. No page so black in English history." This indignant note expresses the conviction left on Toulmin Smith's mind, after his laborious researches into a bundle of documents in the Record Office, almost entirely overlooked until the task of overhauling them was committed to him.

The Gild of the Palmers at Ludlow is a fair example of the spirit of these old Fraternities. "Any brother or sister" who bears the name of this gild, and has been brought to want, shall be helped "once, twice, and thrice, but not a fourth time"—a proviso which ought to recommend the gild to those who teach us that help demoralises. This gild drew a distinction in sickness. "If any of our poorer brethren or sisters fall into grievous sickness," they shall be helped till they are well again. And if any become a leper, or blind, or maimed, or incurable, "we wish that the goods of the gild shall be largely bestowed on him."

In the last year of Henry, there was a Commission to report on the possessions of the Gilds, with the direct intention of confiscating as much of their property as possible. So chantries were confused with gilds, and chantry foundations with chapels wherein masses were allowed to be said for the benefit of parishioners who lived too far from the parish church to attend it. The reports of the Commissioners form the chief part of Mr Toulmin Smith's work on English Gilds. Beyond the facts that a light is kept burning, or that mass is said in a chantry, there is no accusation of any kind. The Commissioners report of the School of the Gild of St Nicholas, Worcester, "This is no Schole of any purpose, as is credibly said," and there is another in the town of the King's foundation. But the King's school was for only 40 scholars, the gild school taught more than 100. It was a free school, kept "time out of mind" in the hall of the gild. For four or five years "last past," however, the gild had taken the money paid to the schoolmaster for the repair of the great stone bridge over the Severn, and of the walls, houses, tenements and cottages that "were in great decay." Surely to repair the city bridge was a work of great public utility. And at the time of the report, the school was restored, and "one John Oliver, bachelor of Arte," was teaching above 100 scholars.


  1. In all these quotations I have modernised the spelling, for the convenience of readers not accustomed to the clumsy and uncertain spelling of the time.
  2. In France the difference between secular and ecclesiastical landlords was more marked even than in England. Pierre le Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, the friend and protector of Abelard, writing in the twelfth century, said: "It is known to all to what an extent the lay lords oppress their peasants, and their male and female serfs. Not content with the obligations imposed by custom, they claim goods with persons, persons with goods. Besides the usual tax, they pillage at their pleasure, three, four times in the year; they crush the people by innumerable services, and heavy and insupportable charges, till most of them are compelled to abandon the land which belongs to them, and take refuge with strangers. And what is worse still, they are not afraid to sell for vile money those whom Christ redeemed with His precious blood. … The monks do not act like this. They demand of the peasants only what is lawfully due; they do not vex them by exactions, they do not lay on intolerable taxes; when they are in need, they feed them. As for the serfs, they regard them as their brothers and sisters."
  3. The Parliament of the Dissolution made it felony to take a fish out of a stew-pond.
  4. In 1497, when the Cornish men rebelled against a subsidy, and marched into Kent, as "the freest part of England."
  5. "There were nunneries, where the nuns were nurses and midwives; and even now the ruins of these houses contain living record of the ancient practices of their inmates in the rare medicinal herbs which are still found within their precincts. In the universal destruction of these establishments, the hardest instruments of Henry's purposes interceded for the retention of some amongst the most meritorious, useful, and unblemished of them.—"Six Centuries of Work and Wages," II. 17.
  6. Toulmin Smith, "Old Crown House."