1549 saw rioting, sabotage and protest against the increasing pace of enclosure of common land across England by landowners, culminating in Kett’s Rebellion in Norfolk.
In April, this movement spread to Ruislip, then in the county of Middlesex.
At Ruislip, in April, one Thomas Strete had made himself unpopular, soon after he came into possession of the lease of former priory lands, by enclosing several pastures. According to the depositions, approximately 16-18 acres of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and ‘Churchefelde’ had been sown with oats, beans and tares.
This had taken place in March 1549. The ‘honest & substunciall inhabitantes’ of Ruislip petitioned Strete a number of times, asking him to allow the fields to be used according to custom. Strete replied ‘that if they coulde not lyve with oute their Comen there then they might avoide the towne & dwell ells where so they sholde not lyve upon that that he payed his rent for’.
From 14-23 April, the tenants of Ruislip asserted the common rights they had in the enclosed lands, based on custom and tradition. A group of more than sixteen people assembled to pull down the new hedge enclosing ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on Palm Sunday (14 April).
John Parker, the labourer who opened the gate, was as a result badly assaulted by one of Strete’s servants, so that ‘he was not able to earn his lyving a good space after’. On the following Tuesday (16 April), Parker was beaten up again, so that the same servant ‘tooke suche acorage in mysusing his force upon suche pore wretches that he made his bost openly in the Churcheyarde there before a grete parte of the parishe … that if he had meft with any of the Churles or knaves of the said parish of Ruyslipe he wolde have served them lykewise’.
Fuelled by these assaults and by the goading by Thomas Strete’s servants, the situation escalated on Good Friday (April 19th), when a crowd returned to destroy the gate to this field, and remove its lock and chain.
When John Ferne, a labourer, complained to John Wheler ‘that his cowe lacked meate & his stover was spent’, the two men resolved to put their kine to pasture in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ the following day, and, on 20 April, thirteen of the tenants took their cattle to the field. [‘Stover’ refers generally to winter fodder for cattle.] Ferne alleged that the field was now common land.
When Strete’s servants’ attempts to impound the tenants’ cattle, the crowd fought them off (actions similar to those which occurred elsewhere during the 1549 revolts, notably at Landbeach, Cambridgeshire).
After a short period of quiet over Easter Saturday and Sunday, the rioters again gathered on 22 April (Easter Monday), taking a great iron hammer to the locked gate. Protesters repeated this ‘whole ritual’ on two other ‘closes’, at ‘Churchefelde’ and ‘Cogmores’ the same day.
This action was again based on collective community assumptions and agreements on land use. Since ‘Churchefelde’ had been parcel of Wyndmyllfelde ‘tyme oute of mynde of than’, it was held that it should also have lain fallow in 1549, and not been elcnsoed and sown with crops. The defendants claimed that it was customary for certain fields to lie fallow every year, in accordance with the season of tillage adopted there (Wyndmyllfelde, Churchefelde and Cogmores should have lain fallow from Michaelmas 1548 until Michaelmas 1549). During fallow years, the tenants of the manor, the freeholders and copyholders of the parish and all other inhabitants in the parish who dwelt in any freehold or copyhold held of the manor had the right to pasture their livestock in the fallow fields by means of their tenancies. This ‘prescripsion usage & custome’ had been lawfully found before the escheator of the Shire of Middlesex and set down in writing by ‘a certen order’ taken before the king’s commissioners, allegedly in John Smith’s possession in 1549. Strete denied that an order had been made and, even if it had, he and his lessees would not have been ‘therby bounden’. The defendants refer to ‘the comen ffilde at Ryseslyp’ called Wyndmyllfelde’, whilst Strete alleged that Wyndmyllfelde formed part of the demesne lands.
Although one of Strete’s servants was allegedly assaulted at Wyndmyllfelde on 23 April, the protests were largely peaceful, and the tenants were careful to ensure that their action remained within circumscribed bounds. Rather than descending on the pasture in a disorderly crowd, they took turns to lead their cattle into ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in an orderly fashion. According to reports, they showed a strange reverence for Strete’s corn, keeping their cattle to the unsown part of the ground, to avoid reprisals.
However, Strete alleged that the inhabitants’ cattle had destroyed the corn (elsewhere, anti-enclosure rioters had not been so careful: Sir Thomas Wroth’s grass was deliberate trampled during disorders at Enfield the same year).
Ironically, Strete’s livestock appear to have caused as much damage to the crop as the tenants’ cattle. Several of his hogs, sheep, mares, colts and horses had been seen in the corn at various thues. James Osmond saw Strete’s shepherd drive 300 sheep out of the corn and into the fold ‘at folding tyme’; according to William Gayler, the inhabitants had opened the foldcourse. The protestors are also accused of having shorn the sheep for their wool, perhaps as a symbol of Strete’s covetousness and commodity. Similar grievances arose from large-scale sheep-farming in Norfolk.
The protest had a strong sense of morality and justice about it, which may have been linked to church teachings – much of the action, and the exchange of news behind it, centred on the parish church – the focal point of the community during Easter. For example, John Parker opened the gate to Wyndmyllfelde on his way home from church on Palm Sunday; John Feme and John Wheler resolved to act on their way home from church on Good Friday; and William Gayler (Strete’s servant) delivered his threatening proclamation in the churchyard, so that it reached a wide audience.
John Parker thought nothing of opening the gate to ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ because it barred a common way through the fields which ‘oughte to be open to all the Kinges liege people’; the same gate was destroyed a second time after Strete had it locked up. Similarly, only three of the five great arable fields belonging to the manor of Ruislip (‘Wyndmyllfelde’ and the two fields known as Cogmores) were targeted in April 1549, on the grounds that Strete had wrongfully enclosed these fields and kept them in severalty in a year when they should have lain fallow, as common. Poverty and desperation gave further weight to the protestors’ cause and provided the main justification for direct action. The protestors lamented in exaggerated rhetoric that, having just come through ‘suche an harde wynter’, their ‘stover was spent and wasted’, and they had no pasture in which to put so much as a cow each in order to sustain their families. It was this sheer desperation which drove the protestors to resist Strete’s servants in ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ on 20 April. Fearing that Strete’s men had come to impound their cattle, and that the cattle would be starved to death (as Strete had threatened), the protestors withstood them ‘forasmuche as they thoughte themselves undone’ if their cattle were destroyed. As a lessee, Strete may have been targeted due to a tenuous commitment to the local community, which allowed him to put speculative interest and private profit ahead of the communal good. Strete is certainly portrayed as the villain of the piece. He was insensitive to the inhabitants’ plight… he encapsulates the spiritual and material means by which ‘the rich intended the destruction of ‘the poor commons’ in 1549. In enclosing and sowing part of ‘Wyndmyllfelde’ in March 1549, ‘for his owne onely lucre & proffit’, Strete intended both the ‘breaking & intempcion’ of its customary usage and the ‘undoing’ of the poor inhabitants of the manor, who were excluded from the field where they had formerly had common. This direct challenge to manorial custom, held ‘tyme oute of mynde of man’, threatened to erode the very foundations upon which this local community had been constructed. Furthermore, the defendants skilfully employed the rhetoric of depopulation to show that Strete’s behaviour endangered the community in a far more literal sense, causing the poor inhabitants of the parish to fear that they would be forced ‘to forsake their lyvinges & dwellinges’.
Ruislip had a radical tradition, dating back at least to 1381, when rebelling peasants attacked a local manor houses to destroy hated records of the feudal dues owed to the landowners.
And disorder carried on here, though not always with an economic grievance. In 1576, a group of artisans, “with unknown malefactors to the number of 100, assembled themselves unlawfully and played a certain unlawful game, called football, by reason of which unlawful; game there arose amongst them great affrays.”
But trouble over enclosures was to be a sore point here for centuries. In May 1834, nine trustees of the Ruislip ‘poors field’, 60 acres of pasture set aside for poor cottagers under the Ruislip enclosure award in 1804, were prevented from enforcing the strict regulation of the common pasture ‘in consequence of a riotous assemblage of persons’… Almost all those subsequently convicted at the Uxbridge Petty Sessions were Ruislip inhabitants and several had legal rights to the field.
Sources: ‘Commotion Time: The English Risings of 1549’, Amanda Claire Jones.
Paul Carter: ‘Enclosure Resistance in Middlesex 1656 – 1889: A Study of Common Right Assertion’ (PHD thesis)