Land enclosures in England took centuries

UnknownAndro Linklater’s book Owning the Earth – the Transforming History of Land Ownership is a fascinating chronicle in the history of civilisation.

If you think that land speculation is something modern contemplate this: Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s lord chancellor was big speculator. Here is Andro Linklater on the topic:
“In three frenzied years, from 1537 to 1539, he bought almost twenty properties in the southeast of England at a cost of £38,000, then sold most of them again for a total profit of more than £4000…..

But the profit to be made from the rising price of land was irresistible. When the mighty abbey of Tewksbury lost its lands near the south coast, a wealthy London cloth merchant, Sir Robert Palmer, bought three of its manors in 1540 for £1255, and immediately cleared off the villeins and cottagers. Then he turned on the tenants, harassing them and even breaking into their homes.”

Jump two centuries forward and the enclosures are well advanced. He writes “The rising price of land triggered a new surge in enclosure. Much of England’s farmland had continued to be cultivated as ‘open fields’ with some common rights of pasturing livestock, and almost a quarter remained communally owned and used. It was a measure of the landowners’ influence in Parliament that more than four thousand ‘Inclosure acts’ were passed between 1700 and 1830, allowing their promoters to hedge and fence in most of this land as private, exclusive property….. Altogether some seven million acres were transferred into private ownership through the enclosure orders, brutal testimony to the political power now wielded by landowners. In many cases compensation was paid, but the total value of enclosed land represented the transfer of about £175million of assets from communal possession to the lawyers, merchants and wealthy landowners who controlled Parliament.”

Why did landowners want to enclose their property? Because they ran sheep and when the sheep were confined to one area bounded by hedges or ditches or stone walls, they manured the soil. The word ‘manure’ also meant ‘improve’. Their land was then more productive.

So let’s go back to 1485 and follow it through.

1485 Henry V11 first year on the throne
1489 The land revolution was well underway. Henry legislated to stop engrossment
1536 Pilgrimage of Grace opposes enclosures
1549 Robert Kett’s rebellion against enclosures. None statutes and 3 government commissions designed to prevent ploughland being turned into pasture and highways being thronged with homeless who were dispossessed of their land.

1517-1537 fines or imprisonment for those who enclosed land including 264 peers, bishops and knights.
1533 Inheritance issue. Struggle was won by the landowners and Henry V111 found that he was short of taxes.