History - Was Charles I executed because he stopped enclosure?

Gerrard Winstanley news at tlio.org.uk
Fri May 9 12:53:06 BST 2008

Not published on the web so far - this extract will be uploaded to 
in the next few days.

'If the reign in its social and agrarian policy may be judged solely
from the number of anti-enclosure commissions set up, then undoubtedly
King Charles I is the one English monarch of outstanding importance as
an agrarian reformer.'

Extracted from 
The English Village Community and the Enclosure Movements by W. E.
Tate, Victor Gollancz, London, 1967
Chapter 11, Enclosure and the State: (A) In Tudor and Early Stuart Times

The Tudor Governments

>From the social and political points of view too the Tudor governments
disliked such enclosures as led or threatened to lead to depopulation.
Several of the Tudor rulers, certainly Henry VIII and the Lord
Protector Somerset, had a quite genuine desire to be fair to the small
proprietor, who was usually, with good reason, bitterly opposed to
enclosure. All had a lively apprehension of the danger of dynastic or
religious rebellion, and all were unwilling that malcontents should be
presented with the opportunities afforded by the existence of a
dispossessed and starving peasantry. Even before Henry VIII's time
anti-enclosure measures had been placed on the statute book, and
throughout Tudor times there was a long stream of statutes,
proclamations and commissions, all designed to check a process felt to
be utterly destructive of the common weal. Thus in 1517 there was the
commission already referred to. Thirty-two years later a main count in
the indictment against Somerset, under which at last he lost his head,
was that he had been so slack in suppressing Kett's Rebellion in 1549
as to give the rebellious peasantry an idea that he was in sympathy
with their feelings on the agrarian grievances which had led to the

The first landmarks in the story of enclosure in Tudor times are the
Depopulation Act of 1489 'agaynst pullying doun of Tounes', a
proclamation of 1515 against engrossing of farms, and certain
inquiries by the justices, etc., made the same year. A temporary act
of early 1516 was virtually made permanent later in the year, and the
next year was the commission of 1517, addressed to the nobles and
gentry of all save the four most northerly counties of England, with
other anti-enclosure commissions in 1518 and 1519. In 1519 Wolsey, as
Chancellor, ordered that those claiming the royal pardon for enclosure
should destroy the hedges and ditches made since 1488. A proclamation
of 1526 made a similar order. There was an act for restraining sheep
farming in 1534, and two further depopu¬lation acts in 1536. At the
same time proceedings were taken in the Chancery and the Court of
Exchequer against enclosers, sometimes those of lofty station.
Evidently the acts and pro¬clamations were little observed, and in
1548 the Protector Somerset issued yet another proclamation. A
movement in the reverse direction was made in 1550, when as part of
the policy of the nobility and gentry who had triumphed over him, the
Statutes of Merton and Westminster 112 were confirmed and re-enacted,
and measures were taken to check hedge and fence¬breaking. However,
only two years later another depopulation act was passed, in 1552.
There was still another in Philip and Mary's time, 1555, and one five
years after Elizabeth I's accession, in 1563. This repealed as
ineffectual the three latest depopulation acts, of 1536, 1552, 1555
but re-enacted the earlier one of 1489. It was repealed in part in
1593. Most of these acts endeavoured to re-establish the status quo,
to forbid under penalty of forfeiture the conversion of arable to
pasture, and to compel the rebuilding of decayed houses, with the
reconversion to arable of pasture which had lately been put down to
grass. Probably the multiplicity of acts is an indication of their
ineffectiveness. The reason was that the administration alike of acts
and commissions was largely in the hands of the landed classes
profiting by agrarian change. In 1589 was passed Elizabeth's famous
act prohibiting the erection of any cottage without four acres of
arable land [? and of course, proportionate pasture rights]. This
remained in force, theoretically at any rate, until 1775. The
difficulty with which the government was faced is well illustrated by
two acts of 1593, which passed through Parliament together, and which
in fact stand next to one another on the statute book, but which adopt
markedly contrasting points of view towards enclosures of different
kinds. The first of them, as noted above, repeals much. of the 1563
act, that part forbidding the conversion of arable to pasture. The
second of them anticipates legislation of the nineteenth century. It
orders that no persons shall enclose commons within three miles of the
City of London, 'to the hindrance of the training or mustering of
soldiers, or of walking for recreation, comfort and health of Her
Majesty's people, or of the laudable exercise of shooting. . .' etc.

The last Depopulation and Tillage Acts

The more complacent attitude towards enclosure evidenced by the first
of the 1593 acts did not last very long. In 1597 were passed two acts,
again neighbours on the statute book, the first for the re-erection
(though with some qualifications) of houses of husbandry which had
been decayed. At the same time the government clearly recognized that
if it merely tried by legislation to maintain or to restore the status
quo, its efforts would be in vain. So the same act specifically
authorizes lords of manors, or tenants with their lord's consent, to
exchange intermixed open-field holdings in order to facilitate
improved husbandry. The preamble of the second act sets out that since
1593 [and the partial repeal of the tillage acts then] 'there have
growen many more Depopulacions by turning Tillage into Pasture', and
the first act orders that decayed houses were to be re-erected, and
lands reconverted to tillage under a penalty of 20s. per acre per
annum. The second act relates to twenty¬ three counties only,
generally those of the Midlands, with one or two southern counties,
and Pembrokeshire in South Wales. These were the last of the
depopulation and tillage acts, and they escaped the general repeal of
such acts in 1624, and remained in force (in theory) until 1863.

The Policy of the Early Stuart Governments

Probably in Stuart times baser motives weighed more heavily with the
governmental authorities. The Stuart policies, especially that of
Charles I, were as Tawney says, 'smeared with the trail of finance'.
Enclosure, at any rate enclosure leading to depopulation, was an
offence against the common law. Commissions inquired into it, and in
many cases the statesmen and divines who composed these were inspired
by the loftiest motives. The general action of the government,
however, was to use the Privy Council and the courts, especially the
prerogative courts, the Court of Requests and the Star Chamber, the
Councils of Wales and the North, as means of extortion. The offenders
were 'compounded with', i.e. huge fines were levied so that the
culprits might continue their malpractices. 

In 1601 a proposal to repeal the depopulation acts was crushed upon
the ground that the majority of the militia levies were ploughmen. In
1603 the Council of the Nortt were ordered to check the 'wrongful
taking in of commons and the consequent 'decay of houses of husbandry.
. .'. From about 1607 to 1636, the Government pursued an active
anti-enclosure policy. In 1607 the agrarian changes in the Midland had
produced an armed revolt of the peasantry, beginning in
Northamptonshire, where there had been stirrings of unrest at any rate
since 1604. The counties mainly affected were Northamptonshire,
Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire, Leicestershire, the
three divisions of Lincolnshire, and Warwickshire. The leader was a
certain John Reynolds, nick named Captain Pouch, 'because of a great
leather pouch which he wore by his side, in which purse he affirmed to
his company there was sufficient matter to defend them against all
comers, but afterwards when he was apprehended, his Pouch was
searched, and therein was only a peece of greene cheese'. John was
soon dealt with after a skirmish at Newton, where a body of mounted
gentlemen with their servants dispersed a body of a thousand rebels,
killing some forty or fifty of the poorly-armed rustics. Some of his
followers were hanged and quartered. Promises of redress made by
various proclamations were fulfilled only to the extent of the
appointment of still another royal commission to inquire into agrarian
grievances in the counties named. After it had made its return,
however, it was discovered that on legal technicalities the commission
was invalid, and little action seems to have been taken upon its
laboriously compiled returns. The local gentry were soon busily at
work again in enclosing their own land and that of others, though in
1620 Sir Edward Coke, the greatest of English judges, who had already
shown himself a keen opponent of enclosure, declared depopulation to
be against the laws of the realm, asserting that the encloser who kept
a shepherd and his dog in the place of a flourishing village community
was hateful to God and man.

A reaction set in when in 1619 there were good harvests, and the Privy
Council was concerned to relieve farmers and landlords who were
suffering through the low price of corn. This is why commissions were
appointed to grant pardons for breaches of the depopulation acts, and
why in 1624 all save the two acts of 1597 were repealed. The county
justices still, however, attempted to check the change, and in this
received more or less spasmodic pressure from the Council. In the
1630's corn prices rose again, and in 1630 the justices of five
Midland counties were ordered to remove all enclosures made in the
last two years. In 1632, 1635, and 1636 more commissions were
appointed, and the justices of assize were instructed to enforce the
tillage acts. In 1633 they were cited before the Board to give an
account of their proceedings. From 1635-8 enclosure com¬positions were
levied in thirteen counties, some six hundred persons in all being
fined, and the total fines levied amounting to almost £50,000.
Enclosers were being prosecuted in the Star Chamber as late as 1639.
However, the Star Chamber was to vanish in 1641, and the Stuart
administrative policy disappeared with the engines by which it had
been-somewhat ineffectively and spasmodically - put in force.
If the reign in its social and agrarian policy may be judged solely
from the number of anti-enclosure commissions set up, then undoubtedly
King Charles I is the one English monarch of outstanding importance as
an agrarian reformer. How far his policy was due to genuine
disinterested love of the poor, and how far it followed from the more
sordid motive of a desire to extort fines from offenders, it is
difficult to say. But even the most unsympathetic critic must allow a
good deal of honest benevolence to his minister Laud, Archbishop of
Canterbury, and some measure of it to his master. On the whole it is
perhaps not too much to say that for a short time after the
commissions issued in 1632, 1635, and 1636, Star Chamber dealt fairly
effectively with offenders. The lack of ultimate success of this last
governmental attempt to stem the tide of enclosure was due, no doubt,
partly to the mixture of motives on the part of its proponents. Still
more its failure is to be attributed to the fact that again the local
administrators, upon whom the Crown depended to implement its policy,
were of the very [landed] class which included the worst offenders. A
(practising) poacher does not make a very good gamekeeper!

The Commonwealth

During the Commonwealth there was little legal or admin¬istrative
attempt to check enclosure of open fields. It is not clear how far
this was taking place, though there was great activity in the
enclosure and drainage of commonable waste. Some of the
Major-Generals, especially Edward Whalley, held strong views upon
agrarian matters, and attempted to use their very extensive powers to
carry their ideals into operation. Petitions were prepared and
presented, a committee of the Council of State was appointed and
numerous pamphlets were written.

In 1653 the mayor and aldermen of Leicester complained of local
enclosures and sent a petition to London, very sensibly choosing their
neighbour, John Moore, as its bearer. Appar¬ently it was because of
this that the same year the Committee for the Poor were ordered 'to
consider of the business where Enclosures have been made'. The
question arose again in 1656 when Whalley, the Major-General in charge
of the Midlands, set on foot local inquiries, and took fairly drastic
action in response to petitions adopted by the grand juries in his
area. He hoped that as a result of his action 'God will not be
pro¬voked, the poor not wronged, depopulation prevented, and the State
not dampnified'. The same year he brought in a Bill 'touching the
dividing of commons', but it failed through the opposition of William
Lenthall, the Master of the Rolls, and indeed was not even given a
second reading. This was the last bill to regulate enclosure. Ten
years later, in 1666, another bill was read in the Lords, to confirm
all enclosures made by court decree in the preceding sixty years. It
also was ¬unsuccessful, but the fact that it was introduced is
indicative of a great change in the general attitude towards enclosure
displayed by those in authority.

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