Agriculture and Enclosures

In the 16th century most farmers rented a small amount of land from large landowners. This land rarely produced enough food for their needs and they therefore had to spend several days a week working as farm labourers. Those that had no land at all had to work all the time for other farmers.

Most farmers also owned a few animals. These animals were allowed to graze on the common land of the village. This common land also provided them with rabbits for food, timber for building and reeds for thatching.

The first half of the 16th century saw a rapid growth in the cloth trade. This resulted in a great demand for wool. As prices grew it became more profitable for large landowners to switch from arable to sheep farming. Farmers began enclosing their fields with fences and hedges and filling them with sheep. Whereas growing crops involved employing large numbers of farm labourers, sheep farming needed very few workers.

Large landowners wanted as much land as possible to be used for sheep farming. One way they did this was by enclosing the common land and using it for sheep farming.

To obtain even more land for sheep farming the large landowners increased the rents they charged the peasants for their land. Unable to pay these increased rents, the peasants were forced to leave the land.

Without work or land many peasants left the village and moved to the nearest town to find work. These peasants became known as vagrants or vagabonds.

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In many areas the peasants rebelled against the enclosure of the common land. The most important rebellion took place in 1549 in Norfolk. Led by Robert Kett, thousands of peasants began to take down the hedges and fences that had enclosed the common land.

The Norfolk landowners appealed to Edward VI for help and he sent over 13,000 troops to put down the rebellion. The king's troops defeated the peasant army at a place called Dussindale. Over 3,000 peasants were killed or injured. Afterwards Robert Kett and other rebels were executed for treason.

Parliament realised that they had to try to do something about this problem. Laws were passed insisting that land that had recently been converted to pasture had to be used for arable farming. Parliament even passed a bill which imposed a poll tax on sheep. However, the people responsible for enforcing these laws were local landowners. As these were the very people who had been enclosing the land, these laws were often ignored.

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas More, Utopia (1516)

The landowners enclose all land into pastures (for sheep)... the peasants must depart away.... And when they have wandered... what else can they do but steal or go about begging.

(2) A note found attached to the skin of a sheep found in Norfolk in 1549.

Mr. Pratt, your sheep are very fat,

And we thank you for that;

We have left you the skins;

And you must thank us for that.

(3) In 1536, John Wilson, a farm labourer, wrote a letter to the Earl of Northumberland.

John Wilson, his wife, and eight poor children complain... I was forced by your officers to pay treble rent for the land... I know no other way but to hand back your land and take my wife and children to go begging up and down the country.

(4) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938)

Enclosures... involved sweeping social changes... The 'prosperity' of the later Tudor period was in fact a vast transfer of wealth from the labouring masses to a small class of merchants and capitalist farmers.

(5) Sir Thomas Smith, Discourse on this Realm of England (1549)

These enclosures... make us pay dearer for our land that we occupy... where forty persons had their livings, now one man and his shepherd hath all.

(6) Letter sent by Robert Kett to Edward VI in 1549.

We pray your grace... that from henceforth no man shall enclose any more... We pray your grace... that all men may enjoy their commons with all profits... We pray that all bond men may be made free, for God made all free.

(7) In a letter to a friend in Italy, the Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, explained what had happened during the Kett rebellion. (September, 1549)

Kett fled, and the rest of the rebels, casting away their weapons and armour and asking pardon on their knees.... were sent home without injury and pardoned.... Kett, with three of his brothers and three other chief captains, all vile persons... are still held to receive that which they have deserved... We trust, truly, that these rebellions are now at an end.

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