Landholding in England/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.— THE LEVELLERS


"The English Poor Law, after all, was the outcome of great crimes committed by Government.

"I can conceive nothing more cruel, I had almost said more insolent, than to condemn a labourer to the lowest possible wages on which life may be sustained, by an act of Parliament, interpreted and enforced by an ubiquitous body of magistrates, whose interest it was to screw the pittance down to the lowest conceivable margin, and to inform the stinted recipient that when he had starved on that pittance during the days of his strength, others must work to maintain him in sickness or old age. Now this was what the Statute of Apprenticeship, supplemented by the Poor Law, did in the days of Elizabeth. And if you go into the streets and alleys of our large towns, and indeed, of many English villages, you may meet the fruit of the wickedness of Henry and the policy of Elizabeth's counsellors in the degradation and helplessness of your countrymen."—Rogers, "Six Centuries of Work and Wages," p. 425 (Edition of 18S4).


JUDGING from my own ideas before I closely studied the subject, I believe the general notion is that the English peasant, since the Reformation, has drifted casually off the land, for one reason or other—inability to make a living out of a small allotment being the first cause; next, dislike to the dulness of a country life, compared with the attractions of the town; and the temptation of higher wages. And it is quite true that as time went on the lot of the husbandman became harder, and that when there opened out to him the prospect of good wages in factories, he flocked into the great manufacturing towns. But this was much later. Long before he left the land, the land had left him. He did not drift off—he was first wrenched off, then weeded off. Wrenched off in the great clearing of the sixteenth century, when the great landowners became great sheep- masters, and when the abbey lands changed hands. Weeded off more slowly, but quite as surely, by the gradual process of enclosure, during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

I will now try to give a slight sketch of this gradual enclosure of public lands.

It proceeded in an irregular fashion. Sometimes, for long periods, we hear little except the stock complaints that tillage and husbandry are declining, to the injury of the State—because it means depopulation. But along with this complaint we are assured that there are too many people in England. And then, on a sudden, we hear of people assembling to break down enclosures. We get several lurid glimpses of this during the reigns of the first two Stuart Kings.

The most serious was in 1607. The lands of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators had just been confiscated, and as usual the new owners began to enclose the common land—those lands of a manor, which lay around a village, and from time immemorial were cultivated by the villagers in allotments. These lands consisted of tillage and pasture (the tillage being often used as pasture in winter), together with tracts of moor and waste, where every man might turn out a certain number of beasts. In the middle of May 1607 "a great number of common persons suddenly assembled themselves in Northamptonshire, and then others of like nature assembled themselves in Warwickshire and Leicestershire."[1] In Leicestershire "they violently cut and brake down hedges, filled up ditches, and laid open all such enclosures of Commons and other grounds as they found enclosed, which of ancient time had been open and employed to tillage." These "tumultuous persons grew very strong; being in some places of men, women and children a thousand together, and at Hill Norton in Warwickshire a former estate of the Treshams there were 3000, and at Cottesbich there assembled of men, women and children to the number of full 5000." These "riotous persons bent all their strength to level and lay open enclosures, without exercising any manner of violence upon any man's person, goods or cattle, and wheresoever they came they were generally relieved by the near inhabitants, who sent them not only many carts laden with victual, but also good store of spades and shovels for speedy performance of their present enterprise, who until then some of them were fain to use bills, pikes, and such like tools instead of mattock and spade."

These people were called "Levellers," because they levelled enclosures — the first time the word appears as a name.

On 27th May several proclamations ordered them to "surcease their disorder," but "they ceased not, but rather persisted more eagerly, and thereupon the Sheriffs and Justices had authority to suppress them by force." Thereupon the sheriffs "raised an army and scattered them," using all possible means to avoid bloodshed. By this time the levellers had a leader. We are told that "at the first these foresaid multitudes assembled themselves without any particular head or guide. Then starts up a base fellow called John Reynoldes, whom they surnamed Captain Powch, because of a great leather powch which he wore by his side, in which purse he affirmed to his company, that there was sufficient matter to defend them against all comers, but afterward when he was apprehended, his powch was searched, and there was only a piece of green cheese. He told them also that he had authority from his majesty to throw down Enclosures, and that he was sent of God to satisfy all degrees whatsoever, and that in this present worke, he was directed by the Lord of Heaven, and thereupon they generally inclined to his direction, so as he kept them in good order, he commanded them not to swear, nor to offer violence to any person ; but to ply their business and to make fair work."

Poor Pouch thought he was invulnerable—neither bullet nor arrow could hurt him. He told his followers that the spell in his pouch would only work if they abstained from swearing and violence.

When the sheriff's "army" came up, and the levellers were summoned to disperse, Pouch told the magistrates that they were only enforcing the statute against enclosures. To their credit, the yeomanry did not much care about shooting the people, and many country gentlemen were for giving them their old rights of common. It was now that the King sent Lords Huntingdon, Exeter and Zouch, with a considerable force. Sir Antony Mildmay and Sir Edward Montague fell in with the levellers at Newton—another confiscated estate of the Treshams'. They were busy digging and levelling, and were armed "with half-piked staves, long bills, bows and arrows, and stones." There was "great backwardness in the trained bands"—Mildmay and Montague dared not order them to charge. They used "all the horse they could make, and as many foot of their own servants and followers as they could trust, using all the best provisions to them to desist that they could devise—that is, trying to persuade them to disperse ; but when nothing could prevail, they charged them throughly, both with their horse and foot. At the first charge they stood, and fought desperately ; but at the second charge they ran away ; in which they were slain some forty or fifty of them, and a very great number hurt."[2]

This rout was followed by others, till the insurrection was put down ; and then the Earls of Huntingdon and Exeter, Lord Zouch, Lord Compton, Lord John Harrington, Lord Robert Spencer, Lord George Carew, and Sir Edward Coke, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, "with divers other learned Judges," assisted by the Mayor of Coventry, and " the most discreet Justices of Peace of Oyer and Terminer in their several counties," did justice on the levellers, "according to the nature of their offences"; and on the 8th of June King James made proclamation signifying his great unwillingness to have proceeded against them either by martial law or civil justice, if "gentle admonition might any ways have prevailed with them to desist from their turbulent, rebellious and traitorous practice."

Until the levellers were examined, "it was generally bruited throughout the land, that the special cause of their assemblies and discontent was concerning religion, and the same passed current with many according to their several opinions in religion. Some said it was the Puritan faction, because they were the strongest, and thereby sought to enforce their pretended Reformation, others said it was the practice of the papists, thereby to obtain restauration or toleration, all which reports proved false." For the examination of the prisoners showed plainly that it was "for the laying open of Enclosures, the prevention of further depopulation, the increase and continuance of tillage to relieve their wives and children, and chiefly because it had been credibly reported to them by many that of very late years there were three hundred and eighty towns decayed and depopulated."[3] Some of them were indicted of high treason for levying war on the King and opposing the King's forces. Pouch was "made exemplary." Others for felony in continuing together by the space of one hour after proclamation to depart, "according to the Statute." The rest for riot, unlawful assembly, and throwing down hedges and filling ditches. But the insurgents were neither traitors nor felons. They were, as they said, enforcing the law of enclosures, and not a single crime is laid to their charge.

James has been given credit for his "anxiety" on behalf of the poor in this affair. He showed his anxiety by desiring the Commission to "take care" that the poor received no injury from the encroachments of the rich, and we may perhaps assume that these new enclosures were not replaced; but "the poor" had been hanged freely for pulling them down. At this time James was alternating the new delight of hunting in a safety saddle and padded garments with lying in bed and desiring his Council to take "the charge and burden of affairs, and not let him be interrupted nor troubled with too much business," for he would sooner go back to Scotland than be for ever chained to the Council table.

During the reign of James I., as during that of his son. Parliament was too much taken up with fighting the royal prerogative to have time for thinking of the condition of the poor. One great struggle was over the intolerable grievance of Purveyance (the taking of provisions for the royal household at the price the purveyors chose to give); another was to get rid of the Court of Wards. The Commons offered £100,000 a year if purveyance might be abolished and all the Crown tenures turned into free common soccage—which meant that the Crown lands would be let at money-rents, and that fines, wardships, custody of lands, primer seizin, and all the other "incidents" of tenure in capite, would be done away. James demanded £300,000—then came down to £200,000. It was, " Take it or be dissolved." The Commons hesitated—they distrusted the King's promises, they were appalled at his monstrous extravagance, and they did not know how they were to raise the £200,000 a year. So they were dissolved; the "Great Contract" fell through and the old oppressive feudal charges remained, to be swept away in a fiercer struggle.

Primer seizin—or "first possession"—was only incident to the King's tenants in capite, and not to those who held of inferior lords. It was the right of the King to one whole year's profit of the lands of an heir, if of full age, and in immediate possession, or half-a-year's if the lands were in reversion. "Wardship" was the right to the custody of the heir, till the age of twenty-one for males, and sixteen for females. A girl was supposed capable of marriage at fourteen, and then her husband might perform the service. But if she were under fourteen, "and the lord once had her in ward," he could keep her till she was sixteen, by the First Statute of Westminster, "the two additional years being given for no other reason, but merely to benefit the lord." It was said that the original pretext for "premier seizin" was that the superior might prevent intruders taking possession; and in unsettled times an orphan girl needed a guardian. But both customs had degenerated into mere abuses, wardship perhaps most of all.

Petitions often throw much light on the inner history of a period. On the very eve of the Civil War, we and several such illuminating petitions, which show us how the process of what may be called stealthy enclosure was carried on. A petition of Leonard Triefe, gentleman, and others of the tenants of "Lanceston Land," in Cornwall, sets forth that in 1626 the King (Charles), intending to sell, caused proclamation to be made of the sale, to give the tenants the opportunity of buying their holdings; "but Mr Paul Speccott, bearing ill-will to some of the tenants, and seeking his own advantage by underhand ways," prevented the tenants from obtaining a copy of the proclamation, … and having bought the land himself, has distrained for rent, and threatens to turn out many of the tenants, who will have no means of livelihood, if they are not allowed to renew their leases … upon reasonable terms" (Historical Manuscripts Commission, vi. p. 68).

Again, there is a petition to the Lords of William, Earl of Bedford, and Jerome, Earl of Portland, lords of the manors of Whittlesea in the Isle of Ely. The earls say they have for years been in possession of certain marsh grounds by virtue of an agreement with the tenants, since which time most of the tenants have sold their proportions to petitioners, who have laid out large sums on improvements of lands formerly waste; but now many of the persons who sold have, with their servants, "ousted" petitioners, and tried to destroy enclosures and fences, in spite of five several orders of the House, by which the "riots" have been in some degree prevented for a time. But in May, "Jeffrey Boyce and others, to the number of 100," in defiance of an appeal from a justice, threw down the division dykes, etc., and continued till "the Parliament troops, under Sir John Palgrave," lying at Wisbech, marched and dispersed them. There follows the counter-petition "of some of the poor inhabitants" of Whittlesea, "in the name of themselves and many others." They say that they quietly submitted to the order of the House—that the earls and all claiming under them should quietly hold possession of the manors and divisions of tenants until good cause shown to the contrary ; but since this order, "Mr George Glapthorne[4] and others have already enclosed above a thousand acres of ground, which formerly lay open, and which petitioners have time out of mind enjoyed as common, and are proceeding to enclose more, to the great impoverishing of petitioners," who obtain their chief livelihood from commons.

Most of the petitions and counter-petitions are after these patterns—the lords of the manors profess to have come to an agreement with the tenants, and charge the tenants with violating it; and the tenants reply that the lords have enclosed more than was agreed upon. In the case of the Crown lands of Launceston, there was an actual plan to defraud.

It appears that marsh, pasture, waste, coppice, and woods were now the chief objects of enclosers; the enclosure of woods, in particular, caused much suffering to the small people, by making firewood hard to come by. Probably the enclosure of the "open field" slumbered between 1607 and the middle of the century. But whether of wood, or marsh, or common, enclosure crept on, and there was to be nothing whatever in the great upheaval now close at hand to stay, or even to check it. Rather did it receive a new impetus under the "Free" Commonwealth.

All the sidelights of the history of the Commonwealth show that the misery of the people was frightful. The "gentlemen" of England, and the great middle class immediately below them, gained greatly by their "rebellion"; but the poor were if anything ground down more relentlessly than before. In March 1649 (two months after Charles I. had laid his head upon the block) the misery was so extreme and so widespread that it is appalling to reflect how little account history has made of it. But for the despairing and futile efforts of Lilburne and his friends, historians would never have noticed it at all. Bulstrode Whitelocke, one of the Parliament's three Commissioners for the Great Seal, afterwards First Commissioner under Cromwell, has, among other entries on the state of the people in the summer of 1649: "Letters from Lancashire of their want of bread, so that many families were starved" (30th April). And again, in May: "Letters from Newcastle that many in Cumberland and Westmoreland died in the Highways for want of bread, and divers left their habitations, travelling with their wives and children to other parts to get Relief, but could find none. That the Committees and Justices of the Peace of Cumberland signed a certificate, that there were Thirty Thousand Families that had neither seed nor bread-corn, nor money to buy either, and they desired a Collection for them, which was made, but much too little to relieve so great a multitude." In Lancashire, the "famine was sore among them, after which the plague overspread itself in many parts of the country, taking away whole families together … the Levellers got into arms, but were suppressed speedily by the Governor." And once more, in August: "Letters of great complaints of the taxes in Lancashire; and that the meaner sort threaten to leave their habitations, and their wives and children to be maintained by the Gentry; that they can no longer bear the oppression to have the bread taken out of the mouths of their wives and children by the taxes." Never had there been such taxation in England as that of the Commonwealth. The net cast by the Long Parliament had meshes so fine that the smallest fish was taken in it.


  1. Stow. (Continued by Howes.)
  2. Letter of the Earl of Shrewsbury to Sir John Manvers. Printed in Lodge's "Illustrations."
  3. Stow's " Annales," continued to 1614 by Howes, pp. 889-890.
  4. Glapthorne was a J. P.—perhaps the one who "appealed." The rioters destroyed the fences, houses and crops, threatened Glapthorne with a pitchfork, and told him he was no justice, for he was against the King and for the Parliament.