Enclosures – the King gets a sermon

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On March 8, 1549, Master Hugh Latimer (c.1485-1555) preached the first of his Lenten sermons at the Palace of Westminster before the boy king Edward VI.

He did not mince his words: “For I ful certifye you, extorcioners, violent opreffers, ingroffers of tenamentes and lands, throughe whose couetousness, villages decaye and fall downe, (and) the kinges leige people for lacke of fuftenaunce are famished and decayed...”

To ‘engross’ meant “to buy up the whole stock for the purpose of retailing it at a monopoly price,” (OED).

It follows that an engrosser of tenements and lands was one who bought up whole villages and then charged extortionate rents.

We now follow him as he develops his theme, using his own words, but with modern spelling and punctuation.

“You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you steplords, you unnatural lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much.

"For that herebefore went for 20 or 40 pound by year (which is an honest portion to be had gratis in one Lordship of another man’s sweat and labour) now is it let for 50 or 100 pound by year.

“Too much, which these rich men have, causeth such dearth, that poor men (which live of their labour) cannot with the sweat of their face have a living, all kind of victuals is so dear, pigs, geese, capons, chickens, eggs, etc.

“These things, with other, are so unreasonably enhanced, and I think verily, that if it thus continue, we shall at length be constrained to pay for a pig a pound. I will tell you my lords and masters, this is not for the king’s honour.

“Also it is ye King’s honour that the common wealth be advanced, that the dearth of these foresaid things be provided for, and the commodities of this Realm so employed, as it may be to the setting his subjects on work, and keeping them from idleness.

“And herein,” he concludes, “resteth the King’s honour, and his office. So doing, his account before God shall be allowed and rewarded.”

Latimer and his contemporaries knew not the word ‘inflation’, but they knew of it from personal experience.

“My father was a Yeoman, and had no lands of his own, only he had a farm of 3 or 4 pound by year at the uttermost, and hereupon he tilled so much as kept half a dozen men. He had walk for a hundred sheep, and my mother milked 30 kine.”

Out of this modest farm — though not so very modest if he could keep 100 sheep and 30 cattle — Latimer senior was able to send his son to university, marry his daughters with respectable dowries, give alms to the poor, and serve his king, Henry VII, with horse and harness at the Battle of Blackheath in 1497.

Yet on the same farm now: “he that now hath it, payeth 16 pound by year or more, and is not able to do anything for his Prince, for himself, nor for his children, or give a cup of drink to the poor.”

Another example was the vicar in a “great market Town” where the poor priest, who had “so great a cure”, got only 12 or 14 marks (£8-£9), “so that of this pension he is not able to buy him books, nor give his neighbours drink, all the great gain goeth another way.”

Latimer’s ‘rent-rearers’ have their counterpart in modern-day property investors who vastly increase the ground rents of leasehold houses, while the poor vicar has his in people whose pay is so low that they have to go to the food bank just to put food on the table.

Inflation, however, is largely impersonal. It is market forces that compel people to look to their own interest.

The same is true of enclosures.

But with this difference, as Latimer saw it, that they were a source of danger to the King himself.

“Further more, if the king’s honour standeth (as some men say) in the great multitude of people, then these graziers, enclosers, and rent-rearers, are hinderers of the King’s honour.

"For whereas have been a great many of householders and inhabitants, there is now but a shepherd and his dog, so they hinder the king’s honour most of all.

“My lords and masters, I say also, that all such proceedings do intend plainly to make the yeomanry slavery, and the Clergy shavery.

"For such works are all singular, private wealth and commodity. We of the Clergy had too much, but that is taken away, and now we have too little.”

The whole sermon was a powerful tirade against personal greed, beginning with a word to the King against taxing the people too heavily.

Latimer preached his sermons extempore, without notes, but his Swiss servant, Augustine Bernher, wrote them down. They were then published at the expense of his patroness, Katherine, Duchess of Suffolk, and have been reprinted many times over.

And while enclosures have been the subject of both polemic and sober analysis ever since, Latimer’s sermon before Edward VI remains vivid and immediate.

The enclosures are usually seen as having occurred in two distinct phases.

The first was in the Tudor period, when the open fields, hitherto cultivated in common by the villagers, were laid down to grass and enclosed for sheep walks.

Latimer saw for himself how it made villages “decay and fall down”, and drove out the inhabitants to leave only a shepherd and his dog.

The second was the Georgian period, or more correctly the 18th and early 19th centuries, when the village commons were converted, either to arable or mixed farming, or to private grazing.

In this phase, people who had previously eked out their living by gathering fuel on the common, or by keeping a cow, or a few sheep or geese on it, lost their common rights and got little or nothing in return.

Historians have seen both as being driven by economic imperatives: the high price of English wool in the Tudor period, and of corn in the Georgian, and in both, the supplanting of a mutually supportive communal ethic by capitalism.

A recent book, Assembling Enclosure by Ronan O’Donnell, 2015, puts forward an alternative view.

Rather than attributing enclosure solely to impersonal economic factors, such as the price of wool or corn, or the rise of capitalism, Dr O’Donnell adopts what is called actor-network theory.

He does not deny the importance of abstract economic forces, but gives equal weight to local and personal factors in the process of enclosure.

One of the leading enclosers in this area was Edward Grey of Morpeth (d. 1631).

Edward Grey, later Sir Edward, was constable of Morpeth Castle from 1584 to 1589, and high sheriff in 1597.

In 1593, he bought the tower and three acres of meadow at Howick from his brothers, Roger and Arthur Grey, of Chillingham.

In a forthcoming article, we will look more closely at Sir Edward himself, at how he acquired control of the lands of Howick, and how the process of enclosure there compares both with the broad outline we have given above.