COMMON LAND THE LEGACY OF THE OXFORDSHIRE RISING OF 1596
COMMON LAND THE LEGACY OF THE OXFORDSHIRE RISING OF 1596
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‘This was a sorroful time for the poore of the land god grant that such a darth and famyne may never been sene agayn.’ – the Vicar of Wendlebury, 1596
The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was centred on the villages just to the north of Oxford city, although support had been canvassed over a much wider area. Yarnton, Water Eaton, Hampton Gay and Bletchingdon, in particular, were home to large manor houses and enclosing landlords.
INTRODUCTION This book explores the legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, a rural protest in the countryside to the north of Oxford city against hardship, inequality and land enclosure. By 1596 failed harvests had produced starvation in many rural areas. Equally significant, however, was the enclosure by wealthy landlords of what had been common or arable land and its conversion to sheep pasture, a profound social and economic change that had been growing throughout the Tudor era. No longer able to sustain themselves, many rural poor drifted into homelessness, unemployment and social breakdown as villages became depopulated. These legacies are still with us. The Tudor era was the dawn of centuries of land enclosure that have given us the English landscape we see today. Our ideas of land use, property and ownership began to take shape at this time, leaving us with spectacular inequality and notorious trespass laws. Even now, more than 90 per cent of the land in England is off-limits to the public and more than half of our rural land is owned by just 0.06 per cent of the population. Still with us, too, are social and legal systems that underwrite such imbalances and, frighteningly, the ease with which powerful interests can demonize poor and marginal social groups the better to take what little they have. The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was a protest by the common man. It was born of desperation and ended, tragically, at the gallows. The issues it brought to light, however, remain unresolved and are a stain upon Britain to this day. I have summarized the story of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, with references and further reading, at the end of this book.
‘There would be a rising of the people to pulle downe the enclosures, whereby waies were stopped up, and arrable lands inclosed, and to laie the same open againe.’ – Bartholomew Steer to Roger Symonds, 1596
‘Some barbarous and unmerciful soldier shall lay open your hedges, reap your fields, rifle your coffers and level your houses to the ground. ... Necessity hath no law.’ – Anon. to Norwich Magistrates, 1595
‘Mr Ffrere hath destroyed a wholle towne Called Water Eaton.’ – Bartholomew Steer, 1596
‘He wrought harde to finde his wiffe and Children, having seaven Sonnes, bread and water, and scarsly could doe that.’ – Roger Symonds, 1596
‘Vagabonds … which do nothing but walk the streets, wicked men, to be hired for every man’s money to do any mischief … Into what country and place soever they come, they cause sedition and tumult.’ – Geneva Bible, marginal comment on Acts xvii
‘The poor increase like fleas and lice, and these vermin will eat us up unless we enclose.’ – John Moore, 1653
‘He turns out his tenents as soon as their Leases are expir’d, and setts out ye land at a rackt rent to others; and ... he hath depopulated the Town, allowing to those houses where good Teams have been kept a quartern land; i.e. 3 acres so that the whole Town almost doth consist of poor people.’ – the rector of Bletchingdon, 1500s
‘... your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up, and swallow downe the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses, and cities.’ – Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516
‘He with his ffawchion would Cutt of their heads, and would not bestowe a halter on them, And then they would goe to Mr Berries and spoill him and Cutt of his heade, and his daughters’ heads.’ – Bartholomew Steer to Roger Symonds, 1596
‘The poore did once Rise in Spaine and Cutt down the gent[lemen], and sithens that tyme they have lyved merily there ... Yt was but a monthes work to overrun England.’ – Bartholomew Steer to Roger Symonds, 1596
‘Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price.’ – William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.1, 8, 1609
‘The Lord maketh the earth … waste, and turneth it upside down … And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress … The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage … The Lord shall punish the host of the high ones … and the kings of the earth upon the earth.’ – Isaiah XXIV, 1–2, 20–21
THE OXFORDSHIRE RISING OF 1596
The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was one of a large number of rural protests that took place throughout the sixteenth century all over England but which reached a particular peak in times of crisis. By 1596 there had been three poor harvests in a row. The price of grain had risen threefold in some areas and many rural poor now faced starvation. Lacking the support of a modern police and security apparatus, governments of the time were well aware that large and, especially, coordinated uprisings would be very difficult to contain. What we know of the events in Oxfordshire is almost entirely due to the historian John Walter who documented the story after meticulously researching the surviving state papers a few years ago (Walter 1985, 2006). Here, he sets the scene: England in the 1590s faced a series of challenges that has led historians to label the decade ‘the crisis of the 1590s’. Economically, renewed and rapid population growth had seen both rising inflation, especially in the price of food, and a significant growth in landlessness, land-poverty and unemployment. Socially, the consequences were divisive. While economic change brought a significant increase in the numbers of the landless poor, those with land and capital benefited from the same forces. By the late sixteenth century, perhaps some 40% of the population depended to a greater or lesser extent on the market for food and work (Walter 2006: 48-9). A bad harvest fell disproportionately on the poor, leading to high prices for basic foodstuffs and increased unemployment. As John Walter makes clear, in the days before any welfare safety net ‘tensions rose in a society where subsistence crises and regional famine threatened the lives of the poor and harvest-sensitive’ (Walter 2006: 48-9).
In northern Oxfordshire, however, another factor was fuelling social tensions: aggressive land enclosures by wealthy landlords, forcing villagers off what had hitherto been common or arable land in favour of sheep pasture and thus increasing the pool of landless poor unable to sustain themselves. The enclosers were often aristocrats but were often also ‘new money’ like the Freres of Water Eaton, successful aldermen from Oxford city. While land enclosure was a piecemeal process at the time across England, a nexus of contentious and resented enclosures was in a small parcel of land around the villages of Bletchingdon, Hampton Gay, Kidlington, Water Eaton and Yarnton just to the north of Oxford city. Several enclosers were at work there, among them Francis Power in Bletchingdon, Vincent Barry in Hampton Gay, William Frere in Water Eaton and Sir William Spencer in Yarnton. Enter a 28-year-old carpenter called Bartholomew Steer from the village of Hampton Gay. In the autumn of 1596 Steer and a few other young men began to solicit support for a general rising in the area against the landlords and to secure famine relief. In Steer’s words, ‘There would be a rising of the people to pulle downe the enclosures, whereby waies were stopped up, and arrable landes inclosed, and to laie the same open againe’ (Walter 1985: 100). Crucially, however, Steer went a step further than other rebels of the time. Whereas the call in rural areas was usually confined to violence against property – by throwing down the hedges of the enclosers and taking back arable land – Steer advocated a more drastic solution. He called for local landlords to be assassinated and their weapons seized house by house in a progress towards London – at which point, he hoped, the London prentices would join them in a general uprising. ‘Yt was but a monthes work to overrun England’, he reportedly claimed (Walter 1985: 108).
In Steer’s sights were property owners from one of the Queen’s favourites Sir Henry Lee at Ditchley to the county’s lord lieutenant Sir Henry Norris at Rycote . As Steer proposed, after their rising they would goe to Mr Poers, and knock at the gate, and keepe him fast that opened the dore, and sodainly thrust in, And . . . he with his ffawchion would Cutt of their heads, and would not bestowe a halter on them, And then they would goe to Mr Berries and spoill him and Cutt of his heade, and his daughters’ heads. … And thens to Sir Henry Lea and spoile him likewise, and thens to Sir William Spencer & spoille him, And so to Mr ffrere, and so to my Lord Norreis, and so to London (Walter 1985: 90). In the event, Steer’s plans never got off the ground. Records show that he was a thoughtful tactician and eloquent speaker, but the essential problem was that he and a handful of other not-so-young village men would never have the authority to persuade large numbers of people to risk everything for political change. Most of those approached expressed sympathy but declined involvement. Besides, many of Steer’s recorded comments are somewhat fantastical and it remains unclear how serious about a programme of assassination he actually was. ‘Work?’, he said to a starving villager, ‘Care not for worke, for we shall have a meryer world shortly; there be lusty fellowes abroade, and I will gett more, and I will work one daie and plaie an other, ffor I know ere yt be long wee shall have a meryer world’ (Walter 1985: 100). This was hardly practical talk in a famine. The enigma of the Oxfordshire Rising is whether, had it ever happened, anyone would have been harmed at all. Steer aimed to ignite the uprising with a gathering on Enslow Hill (a mile from Hampton Gay) on 17 November 1596, chosen because it had been the site of an earlier rural rebellion in 1549, also bloodily suppressed. On that Sunday evening, however, only a handful of people turned up and by 11 p.m. Steer and his few companions made for
home. Worse was to follow, much worse. Elizabethan society was rife with informers and Vincent Barry at Hampton Gay, Steer’s own Lord of the Manor, had already been alerted. Barry raised a general alarm and within days Steer and others had been detained. Before long, they were on their way to London tied to the backs of horses. Waiting for them in London was Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general. Coke was convinced that he had uncovered a grave plot and authorized torture ‘for the better bowltinge forth of the truthe’. From now on, matters assumed a terrible inevitability. Statements extracted from the men confirmed to Coke that stern measures were required, if only pour encourager les autres. Four men were subsequently arraigned on charges of high treason, even though some of Coke’s fellow lawyers were uneasy at what may have seemed a disproportionate response to rural braggadocio with no actual action ever arising. Of the four men charged, only two ever went to full trial. Steer and one companion had already died in prison, either from the torture or from the conditions of incarceration. Judicial proceedings were little more than a kangaroo court. At an assize hearing two of the jurors were local land-owners. A judge at the treason trial was compromised by a familial relationship with Vincent Barry of Hampton Gay: his heir was about to become Barry’s son-in-law. In the summer of 1597 the Oxfordshire Rising came to a miserable end back on Enslow Hill where it had started. In a final act of barbarity Richard Bradshaw of Hampton Gay and Robert Burton of Beckley were hung, drawn and quartered with proceedings overseen by none other than landlord and encloser William Frere of Water Eaton. This is a poignant and fascinating insight into another world that John Walter’s research into contemporary records and court proceedings has rescued from historical obscurity. The story also has a very surprising outcome. Within a few years, the authorities were
discouraging land enclosure, promoting a return to tillage and prosecuting aggressive landlords. Among the first to be arraigned before the Star Chamber in London for precisely that were Francis Power of Bletchingdon and William Frere of Water Eaton. Ironically, one of the leading voices in favour of enclosure reform was Sir Edward Coke. Perhaps Coke had a residue of guilt over his harsh treatment of Steer. More probably, he like others in government had realized that a new class of acquisitive and aggressive property owners could not be allowed to prosper unchecked if the result was food scarcity, social breakdown and possibly catastrophic public disorder. A legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising is that government without consent invites no government at all: the poor always have to be kept on side. Another and frightening legacy is the ease with which poor and marginal social groups can be demonized by vested interests, something I have alluded to in this book. Within a few years of 1596, some writers were portraying the poor as verminous, the more easily to take what little they had through enclosure. ‘From the sixteenth century onwards the emerging middle class of private property-owners joined the aristocracy in treating the rural commons as subversive, a zone of idleness, sinfulness and debauchery’ (Standing 2019: 15). Patterns of this kind repeat through history, and they can repeat again. We still live with other legacies of the Oxfordshire Rising. The landscapes, estates and parks we see in much of rural Britain began to take form in the Tudor era. As Guy Standing writes in Plunder of the Commons, on the consequences of Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church lands, ‘The arbitrary mass transfer of what had been a form of commons was to scar permanently Britain’s class structure. It led to an extraordinary degree of concentration of land ownership that persists to this day’ (Standing 2019: 11). The result is a peculiar notion of property rights and notorious trespass laws which still mean that more than 90 per cent of the land in England is off-limits to the public.
In fact, ‘just 36,000 people – a mere 0.06 per cent of the population – own half of the rural land in England and Wales’ (Shrubsole 2019: 21). This inequitable system ties up a disproportionate amount of national wealth in property and blocks reform and sensible policy planning in many fields. We may no longer have the land enclosures of the Tudor and subsequent eras, but one might argue that the current fashion for offshore financial vehicles, the corporate control of hitherto public spaces, widespread property development and unchecked agribusiness is our contemporary version of the same thing. It is essentially a cash grab upon society’s common resources by that same class of aggressive self-interested new money – today, the City of London – that caused all the trouble in the first place. The Tudor era was the beginning of an accelerating process of exploitation and dispossession of rights that remains a stain upon Britain to this day. Mark Crean
References The quotations from Bartholomew Steer and Roger Symonds throughout this book are recorded by John Walter in ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’ (Walter 1985). HAYES, Nick. 2020. The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines That Divide Us. London: Bloomsbury. HILL, Christopher. 1991. The World Turned Upside down: Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. Harmondsworth: Penguin. KINGSNORTH, Paul. 2008. Real England: The Battle against the Bland. London: Portobello. LINEBAUGH, Peter. 2014. Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance. Oakland, CA: PM Press. SHRUBSOLE, Guy. 2019. Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green & Pleasant Land & How to Take It Back. London: William Collins. STANDING, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican. WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present, 107(1), May 1985, 90–143. WALTER, John. 2006. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. In John WALTER. 2006. Crowds and Popular Politics in Early Modern England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 73-123. WALTER, John. 2019. ‘Afterword’. In Ra PAGE (ed.). 2019. Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press, 48-57.
Notes Pages 15–23 These images were made in and around Yarnton and Begbroke which at that time would mostly have been owned by Sir William Spencer, although parts of Begbroke were owned by Humfrey Fitzherbert whose tenants complained in the early 1590s that Fitzherbert had ‘most pittiefullie defaced the said village and undone his poor Tenants by heddginge and ditchinge and inclosing’ (Walter 1985: 116). Pages iii, 7, 25–33 These images were made on the estate at Water Eaton, a remote, misty place even today. In 1596 Water Eaton was owned by the Frere family, a dynasty of wealthy Oxford merchants. Traces of the original village have almost vanished. Water Eaton Manor was built for Sir Edward Frere in 1586 but the building has been reduced and altered since that time. In 1646, the Articles of Surrender for the siege of Oxford were negotiated here. Pages 9, 11, 13, 35–43 Hampton Poyle lacked a grand manor in the style of Water Eaton or Yarnton. Land here was owned or leased by several individuals among them the Rathbones, yeoman farmers who also held lands in Bletchingdon and who went on to acquire the Manor at Shipton-on-Cherwell. The Rathbone brothers were on Bartholomew Steer’s list but despite that they sat as jurymen at an assize hearing of the condemned men. Pages 45–55 Bletchingdon was the province of the Power family, centred on a moated medieval manor (subsequently replaced by a Palladian country house in 1782). By 1596–7 some 40 per cent or 780 acres of the village open fields had been enclosed. It was said of Richard Bradshaw, one of the condemned men, that ‘when they came to Mr Power’s hedges of his new enclosed ground … Bradshaw wished that the hedges were throwne within the diches, & he under them that made them’ (Walter 1985: 110).
Pages 57–71, 75 Hampton Gay is a near-vanished village now but was more populous in the sixteenth century. Some 33 tax-payers were recorded there in 1524. The Lord of the Manor at this time was Vincent Barry. The Barrys were wealthy merchants involved in the wool trade who had built Hampton Gay Manor in the second half of the sixteenth century. Vincent Barry’s grandfather had bought the estate in 1544 for £1,100, and in their pursuit of profit the Barrys at one stage were leasing part of the land to an Oxford butcher. Hampton Gay Manor, originally a fine Elizabethan mansion, was gutted by fire in 1887 and today it is a ruin. Pages 73–87 The woods at Enslow Hill had been the site of an earlier rising in 1549 and sit on an escarpment formed by the River Cherwell. The old road from London to Worcester crosses the river here. The exact spot where executions took place is not recorded, but it would have been within sight of Hampton Gay across the fields, the home village of Richard Bradshaw. Francis Power had enclosed land at Enslow. Today, part of Enslow Hill houses a satellite station.
'Common Land' explores the legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, a rural protest against hardship and enclosure. The Tudor period introd...
Published on Aug 4, 2021
'Common Land' explores the legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, a rural protest against hardship and enclosure. The Tudor period introd...