Enclosure in Tudor England

When Thomas Wolsey took ascendancy of the Star Chamber (along with his Lord Chancellorship, which he inherited from Bishop Warham) in 1515, during the reign of King Henry VIII, he transformed it into a court that ostensibly sought to serve private interests. By this we mean that it became open, that any citizen of any rank whatsoever might bring litigation against any other (in contrast, a public court would seek to serve the interests of the Crown.) In a time of high humanist ideals, this was perhaps merely Wolsey's philanthropy. A cynic might suggest that Wolsey actually wanted to make it easier for people to undermine his opponents among the aristocracy and gentry. Either way, the first investigation by the Monarchy into enclosure and engrossing took place in 1517.

A discussion of enclosure lends itself to a discussion of the economics of farming. Several aspects of the Tudor economy led to landowners seeking to enclose the common land. In this period of rising prices, landlords were having to live with a relatively static income whilst copyholders were making increasing profits as the price of grain skyrocketed. It is of little surprise that they wanted to take control of their land themselves as quickly and easily as possible so they could control it themselves in these turbulent times, rather than having to rely on rents. It was thought at the time that landowners usually sought to enclose land so they could convert it to pasture and feed the growing cloth industry. In fact, especially as wool prices fell relative to grain prices as the century wore on, this was certainly not the long-term goal. Enclosing arable land and not changing its function could lead to a 13% increase in productivity, however - and this was the reason which drove many yeomen to enclose land.

This would have been a lot harder if it weren't for the legal status of copyholder. A copyholder was a man who had no right to the land he tilled beyond agreements made with the landlord. These agreements might include a clause which meant the land would pass to the copyholders' heirs, or they might not. When these agreements expired by whatever terms had been made, the landlord was free to make a new agreement or keep the land for himself and grant no further tenure. This meant that copyholders' land would pass to the landlords at varying times, but in some cases they were choosing to enclose it and engross it (combine two farms into one) when the opportunity arose.

A practice which often accompanied enclosure and was in fact probably more damaging to rural life was engrossing, or the practice of amalgamating adjacent farms. This was often carried out by yeomen who would, as an outside speculator, acquire the farms and then combine them, enclose them, and sell them off. The land was worth more once no common rights to it existed any longer. But this left many farmhouses defunct and many people out of work, which was leading to increased vagrancy and vagabondage. Tudor authorities were very concerned with vagrancy because they saw hordes of men travelling the country as a destabilizing element. This was the government's angle on it, despite the fact only 3% of the land was enclosed in the worst-effected areas (in the Midlands, such as Oxfordshire and Berkfordshire.) But to the people who were left with no land or livelihood, it seemed like there was a massive national conspiracy to convert land to pasture to bring fat landlords profits. Some historians have said this is the start of commercial farming and oppression. This point of view, which was much advanced by contemporaries (the most sensible account was A Discourse on the Commonweal of this Realm of England recognized most of the actual reality, and was written in 1549) is now mostly rejected.

There had been legislation against enclosure and engrossing in 1489 and 1514-15. Wolsey's commission in 1517 set out to discover how much land had been enclosed, by whom and where, and to find out where farmhouses had been pulled down (this happened following engrossing.) Wolsey was approaching the whole affair from the point of view of equity rather than good economics (structural change is often the response of an economy to hard times, such as this high period of inflation), but of course Tudor understanding of economics was very low. Several hundred cases were brought against landowners and an extraordinarily high number resulted in clear verdicts. But despite these verdicts, it is not so clear whether landlords actually took the action which they were ordered to in their localities. One of the most interesting cases was that against Thomas More, who spoke viciously of the practice in his book Utopia! He was charged with enclosing land with Oxfordshire and demolishing a farmhouse, to which he pleaded guilty and pledged to undo his work, including rebuilding the farmhouse.

The last type of enclosure to be considered was the enclosure of land owned wholly by the encloser, in agreement with his neighbours, to increase productivity. This was praised by contemporaries and Royal commissioners were taught to differentiate between "good" and "bad" enclosure.

When people's cottages or farmhouses were ripped down as a result of enclosure, it meant that they would most likely have to leave their locality and become vagrants. Some moved to the towns, and because of the growth of the cloth industry is is even possible that more employment was created by this industry than unemployment caused by enclosure. Some people put up cottages in the wasteland surrounding other villages, and these people were typically not welcomed: they were seen as the dregs of other counties who had been driven out. But in 1598 the first Elizabethan Poor Law recognized that this trend was inevitable, and that people couldn't be confined to their locality for ever (as had previously been proposed by the Crown): parishes were obliged to provide funds for the erection of these cottages. Some people went to the towns, were they could easily be assimilated in small numbers. In larger numbers, they could create problems for the town authorities and sometimes encroached on laws which had been established for the protection of the guilds (the Act of Artificers had established the supremacy of guilds in industry, no-one was allowed to conduct business outside of a guild.)