Landholding in England/Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII.— THE REBELLIONS OF THE POOR COMMONS


"The English labourer, then, in the sixteenth century, was almost simultaneously assailed on two sides. The money which he received for his wages was debased and the assistance which his benefit society gave him in times of difficulty, which allowed him loans without interest, apprenticed his son, or pensioned his widow, was confiscated. All the necessaries of life rose … in the proportion generally of 1 to 2, while the wages of labour rose to little more than from 1 to 1. His ordinary means of life were curtailed. … He lost his insurance also, the fund destined to support him and his during the period of youth and age, when work is not open … or has become impossible."—Rogers, "Six Centuries of Work and Wages."


THE people rebelled. As early as the autumn of 1547 isolated disturbances began—bands of people pulled down fences. The first were "about Northall and Cheshunt." Perhaps, being so near London, they influenced the savage "Bill for Vagabonds and Slaves" (so it is called on the Commons Journals), Doubtless, enclosers would have been glad enough to hang all the vagabonds they had made ! In the spring of 1548 small sporadic risings broke out in other places, till it was clear that something must be done. The little band known as Commonwealth's Men—to which Latimer, Lever, and the elder Hales belonged—were protesting on behalf of "the poor Commons." Somerset, whatever we may think of the rest of his conduct, was now the champion of the people. He was moved, by the "Supplications " addressed to him in the name of the commons, to appoint a Commission of Inquiry into Enclosures, and to issue his proclamation of 1st June 1548. It is a terrible document. It speaks of the "insatiable greediness" by which land that was heretofore tilled and occupied with so many men is now in one or two men's hands, "so that the realm is brought to a miraculous desolation, houses decayed, parishes diminished, the force of the realm weakened," and Christian people driven from their houses by sheep and bullocks. But the Commission only went into some of the home counties, and not many on it, besides Hales himself, were in earnest to do anything. Every obstacle was placed in the way of the Commission by the gentlemen, who were highly offended when the enclosures were examined, "whereby men's commons and livings were taken away."[1] They said that Hales was "stirring the Commonalty against the nobility," and accused him of sedition. When they could not stop the Commission, they hindered it; when they could not entirely hinder it, they made its decisions of no effect. They put their servants on the juries who were to try their cases—and in some parts the dependents and retainers of great men (the chief enclosers) were so numerous that juries could not be procured without them. Witnesses were threatened with eviction if they told the truth—i.e. if they said that enclosures were recent, or that land had till then been common. So many "shameful slights were used " that Hales was ashamed to tell of them all.

The cheats Hales was ashamed to tell were of this sort—ploughing up one furrow of land enclosed for pasture, and then returning the whole as land in tillage; keeping one or two oxen among hundreds of sheep, and passing off the whole plot as devoted to the "fatting of beasts."

Such Acts as were passed either fell through after Somerset's disgrace, or were futile. How could it be otherwise, when the party of the enclosures was supreme, and when even Latimer seemed to think the Council could do no wrong? All Hales' own three Bills were rejected, and he says indignantly that whoever had seen "all this" would have said that "the lamb had been committed to the custody of the wolf." He meant that the robbers sat in both Houses of Parliament, and were deciding their own cause. Thinking to lessen the opposition of the great men, he advised the Protector to issue a general pardon to enclosers for what was past. But, as soon as they had got their pardons, they restored the enclosures, "and were more greedy than ever they were before." Among the parks which had been ploughed up were Warwick's and Herbert's.

Early in 1549 an insurrection began in Somerset, spread to Gloucester, Worcester, Wilts, Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey, Essex, Herts, and "divers other places." At first the Council made light of these tumults—one excellent reason being that they did not want the French to hear they were in trouble. Somerset's criminal blunder of going to war with Scotland to make her more earnest in the matter of Edward's marriage with the infant Queen Mary, had ended in Mary being sent to France, and the attitude of Henry II. of France was far from friendly. Paget (himself an encloser) was earnest for striking terror. Hang first, pardon afterwards. He sneered at the demands of the commons in his letters of remonstrance to Somerset. "The Commons must have a new price at their pleasure. The Commons must be pleased. You must take pity upon the poor men's children."[2] Paget wanted the Almain Horse sent for from Calais; for since enclosures had begun to diminish the people, and since we had lost so many of our French provinces, great bands of mercenaries had been hired for our wars.

Some of the insurgents "were papists, and required the restoration of the old religion. Some were Anabaptists and Libertines, and would have all things in common. A third sort were men that sought to have their commons again, by force and power taken from them," and "a redress of the great dearth, and abatement of the price of provision" (Strype). Everywhere the great graziers and sheepmasters (who were also great lords) had ceased tilling the ground and growing corn, and had pulled down houses and destroyed villages, to have more land for grazing, "and less charge of poor tenants," who depended on them as ploughmen and husbandmen. In July the rebellion broke out in the west. Paget was still pressing for the Almain Horse, and "as many horsemen out of Wales as can be trusted." And plenty of hanging and imprisoning, and taking away the freedom of towns (to be restored again "at pleasure"—and leisure). Above all, no promises.[3]

The Almain Horse came; 4000 German lansquenets; and Italian arquebusiers under Spinola and Malatesta and Captain Gamboa; and marched with Lord Russell and Lord Grey of Wilton to "pacify" the rebels. They pacified them—after some other engagements at Sampford Courtenay, where 3000 men of Devon fell "in the summer gloaming, like stout-hearted, valiant men, for their hearths and altars, and Miles Coverdale, translator of the Bible, and future Bishop of Exeter, preached a thanksgiving sermon among the bodies as they lay with stiffening limbs, with their faces to the sky" (Froude).

"The country knuffs, Hob, Dick, and Hick, with clubs and clouted shoon," were no match for the Almain Horse and Spinola's arquebusiers. "They were slain like wild beasts," says Sir John Hayward.[4] The Vicar of St Thomas's, Exeter, was hanged from his own church-tower, and the number of vagabonds in England was reduced.

It was also reduced in Norfolk. There the rising was more serious still. It was led by a man of great ability, Robert Ket, a landowner. The commons of Norfolk took Norwich, and set up a "Commonwealth." The Marquis of Northampton was defeated fighting in the city streets. Lord Sheffield was slain, and Warwick, just ready to invade Scotland, was obliged to march against Ket instead.[5] And France heard of it, and invaded the Boulonnais.

The enclosers triumphed. Four thousand of the Norfolk rebels were computed to have fallen fighting. Ket was hanged.

The party of the Reformation had committed itself irretrievably to the new landlords, and sermons upon the sin of covetousness had no more effect than King Canute's command to the angry waves to come no farther. No power on earth would make the holders of abbey lands disgorge, or cease to exploit those lands to their own best advantage. Somerset's enemies prevailed; Warwick became supreme, and began to mature his grand schemes, which ended in the setting up of poor Lady Jane Grey.[6]

When Somerset was safe in the Tower, Parliament passed an Act re-enacting the old Statute of Merton (20 Henry III.), which allowed lords of manors to enclose wastes, provided their tenants had enough common pasture—if there was any doubt as to this, an "assize" was to decide. But now there was nothing about an assize—anyone might enclose ground, if it was waste, and not more than 3 acres. Section 5 of 3 & 4 Edward VI, is one of the most extraordinary Acts on record. It even surpasses that for making proclamations law—now repealed. This Act made it treason to attempt to kill or imprison a Privy Councillor—thus extending to the Council of State the sacredness of the King's own person. Two years later Somerset was condemned under his clause, for intending to attempt to imprison Warwick, But the main part of the Act is concerned with rebellions. Twelve or more persons assembled with a view to alter the laws, or abate the price of corn, or break down enclosures (not a word of whether legal or illegal), or dig up the palings of any park or fish-pond, or take right of common or of way in any such park, or destroy deer or deer-houses, or burn cornstacks ; who, being commanded to disperse, refuse, are guilty of felony. It is also felony to call such assemblies together by ringing of bells, blowing of horns or trumpets, or by handbills. Forty persons assembled and continuing for two hours to commit the foregoing or any other traitorous acts, are declared traitors, and are to suffer the penalties of treason.[7] So are their wives and servants if they willingly carry them money, weapons, meat, or drink, while so assembled. Two or more persons "assembled," and attempting to kill a subject, or pull down an enclosure, to be imprisoned for a year, and with fine and ransom to the King, "at his pleasure." Sheriffs and justices may assemble the King's loving subjects, "in manner of war to be arrayed," to apprehend such offenders, and if any of them are killed, no one shall be punished. Copyholders who refuse to aid on such occasions, to lose their holdings for their own lives. Any person not revealing an intended commotion within twenty-four hours, to be imprisoned at the pleasure of the justices. This Act to be read at every Quarter Sessions. This terrible Act did not even require the two witnesses necessary to prove a treason, nor did it set any limit of time for the indictment.

Other Acts were passed—an Act to repeal the cloth tax of 8d. in the £ on all woollen cloth—a tax "so onerous to Clothmakers, and so tedious for the making their accounts," that it discourages them from making cloth. Also the sheep-tax, which is a great charge to the poor, and very "cumbrous to collect." Probably the last was the true reason, for this deficit was made up to the King by granting him the rents of the fee-farms, which he had given to cities, boroughs and corporate towns, to pay for setting the poor to work on repairing walls, bridges, etc. Everything done at this time made the poor poorer, and eased the better-to-do. The richer a man was, the more he was eased. Warwick, who had had his park ploughed up, could now return to his enclosing.

The spirit of the times is exemplified in two dreadful instances which have come down to us in the State Papers. In 1551 a man was hanged merely for presenting a "Supplication" against a person who had destroyed his corn. The same year one Appleyard, accused of stirring up rebellion in Northamptonshire, was twice tried there by different juries, and acquitted, as there was only one witness against him. He was then taken to Leicester, and Griffin, the Solicitor-General (who managed the trial of Somerset), came down and told the jury that if Appleyard was not hanged they should all be summoned before the Council. Appleyard was hanged, and some time after his accuser, moved by conscience, confessed that he had accused him falsely. He was himself under sentence of death, and was promised his life if he would accuse Appleyard.

The "Supplication of Beggars" (written about 1529, when the first rumours of suppression had alarmed the religious houses), puts the contributions given by the people to the begging friars at £45,333 annually, from 520,000 households. This would be expended on hospitals, infirmaries, etc., as well as for relief of poor travellers, and of the indigent poor. But now that the laity were enriched with these enormous spoils, the sick poor were lying untended in the streets of London, to the positive "inconvenience" of the citizens.

Where did the money go ? Not to the poor—they had never been so miserable ; not to the State—it was nearly bankrupt. Edward's Government twice again debased the coin. The teston[8] and all coins below it—groats, twopenny pieces, pennies, and halfpennies—were "cried down" to half their value, so that the teston was now worth but sixpence and the halfpenny but a farthing. Superfluous Church-plate was called in to be melted for bullion. The rebellions cost the King £27,000, and he was, besides, overwhelmed with the debts of his father. By Bacon's calculation, Henry VIII. had inherited from his father about £30,000,000 of our money. It was all gone—the subsidies, the fifteenths, the tenths, the subsidies of the clergy, tonnage and poundage, the abbey lands, the enormous riches of the great shrines, the vast sums for the chantry lands, the gilds—all had been cast into that bottomless pit of waste and greed. Even in the Wars of the Roses, even in the shameful reign of John, the currency was never tampered with—the gold and silver coins remained the same. But now the pound of gold, which used to make 20 sovereigns, was alloyed till it made 28, then till it made 30. The first coins of Edward VI. bear King Henry's image because Somerset would not let the boy-king's face appear on this base coin! Base money had now been issued five times within seven years—in 1543, 1545. and 1546 by Henry, and in 1549 and 1551 by the Guardians of Edward.[9] There were to have been no more taxes, and instead of this, even the halfpenny was cried down! By 1552 Edward owed £300,000, or £6,000,000 of our money. He had borrowed everywhere—of the Fuggars, of Jasper Schetz, Van Hall, and Rentleger, Lazarus Tucker, and Guolphango Rohlingero, and he could not even pay the interest. Sir Thomas Gresham was in Antwerp, taking up money wherever he could. There were attempts at retrenchment: on the Lord Privy Seal's pensioners, on discharging the Admiralty, giving up certain bulwarks by the sea, now thought "superfluous," discharging men in Ireland, at Berwick, and at Guisnes ; taking advantage of the forfeitures of the merchants of the Steelyard, reviving old statutes fallen into desuetude, and enforcing fines from the unwary—as in the good old times of Henrv VII. of course the King got a subsidy, "to defend the English robbed by the French"; but in December and January, 1551-1552, money was raised by the old obnoxious and unconstitutional method of Commission—that is, taking it without asking. Tonnage and poundage had been granted to Edward for his life—a thing never done before. The clappers of the church bells had been taken away after the insurrections, that the bells might not be rung to call the people together. The bells themselves were now torn out of the towers and steeples, and sold for bell metal.[10]

And all through the reign prices were high. There was a "dearth," which seems to have meant only a "dearness," for it is not attributed to bad harvests, but to artificial causes, regrating, etc. What wars and civil commotions had not done, the greed of the upper classes had brought about. A great mass of poverty, too vast to cope with, was turned loose on England, and the condition of the poorer classes has not recovered from the effects to this day.

Edward VI.'s Primer of 1552 has some curious prayers—for Rich men, that they may give cheerfully; for "Poor People," that they may "by no means envy, murmur, or grudge "at the rich, but be "like that Lazarus of whom we read," who chose to die patiently rather than get any man's goods "unjustly or by force"; and for Landlords.

Prayer for Landlords

The earth is Thine, O Lord, and all that is contained therein : notwithstanding, Thou hast given the possession thereof to the children of men, to pass over the short time of their pilgrimage in this vale of misery. We heartily pray Thee to send Thy holy Spirit into the hearts of them that possess the grounds, pastures, and dwelling places of the earth, that they, remembering themselves to be Thy tenants, may not rack and stretch out the rents of their houses and lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines and incomes after the manner of covetous worldlings: but so let them out to others that the inhabitants thereof may be able both to pay the rents, and also honestly to live to nourish their family and relieve the poor : give them grace also to consider that they are but strangers and pilgrims in this world, having no dwelling place, but seeking one to come: that they, remembering the short continuance of their life, may be content with that is sufficient, and not join house to house, nor couple land to land, to the impoverishment of others, but so behave themselves in letting out their lands, tenements and pastures, that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.


  1. In one of his sermons Latimer says of this Inquiry "I remember my own self a certain giant, and great man who sat in Commission about such matters ; and when the townsmen would bring in what had been enclosed, he frowned and chafed, and so near looked and threatened the poor men that they durst not ask their right."
  2. "My good Lord, alas! be no more gentle, for it hath done hurt."—Paget to Somerset, 7th July 1549.
  3. Paget, though he deserted Somerset in the end, was hand and glove with him until his fall. While Henry VIII. lay dying, Paget had tried to get from Somerset (then Hertford) a promise to be always guided by his advice.
  4. The names of fifty-two foreign captains of mercenaries are found in the Acts of Council, with the sums paid them. See "Who killed Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey?" by Alfred Marks, p. 191.
  5. The Journal of Edward VI. gives long accounts of the fighting.
  6. Hales fled to Germany when Somerset fell.
  7. It is worthy of note—and is certainly a strange fact—that there appears to be no evidence of outrages, properly so called, committed by the "poor commons." They are not even accused. The worst offence mentioned in the Act against riots—beyond the initial enormity of assembling and pulling down enclosures—is the burning of ricks. No outrage on persons, or on property in general, is anywhere alleged.
  8. The teston, first coined in 34 Henry VIII., was then 12d. In 1547 it fell to 9d.
  9. In 1551 the alloy was 9 oz. The nominal shilling was worth less than 3 pence.
  10. In October 1541, 100,000 lbs. of bell metal were sold to John Core, grocer of London, to be exported under licence. For this he paid £900. Soon after he had 44,500 lbs. more. There are many other such entries—one for 120,000 lbs., to be exported. In 1543 there are two entries of 8418 lbs. each of bell metal—one was from York, and was sent to the Tower "to make bombards." The other was for ordnance for the King.