Today in London radical history, 1549: Londoners demolish rich folk’s gardens in ‘suburban common fields’

“Before this time the inhabitants of the towns about London, ‘Iseldon’, Hoxton, Shoresditch, and others, had so inclosed the common fields with hedges and ditches, that neither the young men of the city might shoot, nor the antient persons walke for their pleasures in those fields…This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainly this yeere a great number of the City assembled themselves in a morning: and a turner, in a foole’s coate, came crying thorough the City, ‘shovels and spades shovels and spades’. So many of the people followed, that it was a wonder to behold; and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the ditches filled up…”

On 4th August 1549, some boisterous Londoners went out en masse to gardens built by rich folk on the ‘suburban common fields’ outside the walls of the City, to the north. This was probably on Moorfields or Finsbury Fields, open spaces with a tradition of such demolitions, in the context of a longer history of disorder and immorality. Below we will recount some of the activity around ‘encroachments’ on the Fields, often linked to the mass practice of archery, (together with some of the fields’ wider unruly history).

Straddling what is now the southernmost tip of the Borough of Islington and the north edge of the City, Moorfields was an open stretch of ground, which held a legendary place in the lives of medieval Londoners. Just outside the City’s walls, and hard to control for its authorities, for centuries the fields were a traditional place of bawdy recreation, outdoor sex and banned games, as well as a meeting ground for rebel or radical crowds. The disorderly and rebellious spirit of the fields spread to the streets which were gradually built around it, which became known for political and religious dissent, muckraking journalism and DIY publishing.

“This Fen or Moor Field,” says Stow, “stretching from the wall of the City betwixt Bishopsgate and the postern called Cripplesgate, to Finsbury, and to Holywell, continued a waste and unprofitable ground a long time, so that the same was all letten for four marks the year in the reign of Edward II; but in the year 1415, the 3rd of Henry V., Thomas Falconer, Mayor, caused the wall of the City to be broken toward the said moor, and built the postern called Moorgate, for the ease of the citizens to walk that way upon causeys towards Iseldon and Hoxton.”  ‘Iseldon’ is Islington.

Fitzstephen the monk, who wrote an account of London in the reign of Henry II, describes Moorfields as the general place of amusement for London youth. Especially, he says, was the Fen frequented for sliding in winter-time, when it was frozen. According to his account, locals whizzed across the ponds on a kind of primitive cross between ice skates or skis: “Others there are, still more expert in these amusements; they place certain bones-the leg-bones of animals-under the soles of their feet, by tying them round their ankles, and then taking a pole shod with iron into their hands, they push themselves forward by striking it against the ice, and are carried on with a velocity equal to the flight of a bird, or a bolt discharged from a cross-bow.” The piece of water on which the citizens of London performed their pastimes is spoken of by Fitzstephen as “the great Fen or Moor which watereth the walls of the City on the north side.” (possibly a pool on the now long lost river Walbrook).

Moorfields became especially popular for gatherings during holidays, particularly among the London apprentices. Young, footloose, often unpaid and socially oppressed and badly treated at work, apprentices usually played a central role in disorder, riots, and street politics throughout the middle ages and up to the eighteenth century. Moorfields and open spaces were especially popular on holidays, May Day, Shrove Tuesday, saints’ days etc – all occasions well-known for rowdy entertainment and outbreaks of political violence – leading to such regular trouble every year that in 1578, for instance, assemblies were banned on the traditional apprentice holiday of Shrove Tuesday.

It has been suggested that the Moorfields could have been where the city’s youth played the earliest football games, first recorded around 1170-83. Football was a great passion of the young, again especially apprentices; correspondingly it grew to be a headache for the authorities, as it often led to trouble: obstruction, damage, fights and sometimes riots. In medieval times it was no enclosed spectator sport, but often played through the streets, or in open spaces; hundreds sometimes took part – not so much silky skills as violence and disorder.

In 1314, there was “great uproar in the city… through certain tumults arising from great footballs in the fields of the public”. This led to a law making the game illegal; a ban repeated in 1331, 1365, 1388, 1410, 1414, 1477 and so on (in fact it was only really legalised in the 19th century.) In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, crowds would use football matches as a cover to gather for riots against landlords enclosing common land. In 1615 there were ‘great disorders & tumults’ in the city over a mass football game…

Part of the reason for the banning of football, apart from the trouble it caused, was that it was blamed for taking young men away from what were seen as more important pursuits – primarily archery. In the middle ages archery training was compulsory for men of fighting age; since there was no standing army, in times of war, citizen archers were vital for England’s war effort. Moorfields was one of the spaces where archery was practiced, for several centuries.

Another was Finsbury Fields, the medieval name for the open lands between what are now Old Street and Angel, stretching as far north as the modern St Paul’s Road/Balls Pond Road. The 1578 ban on London apprentices gathering on Moorfields on Shrove Tuesday was implemented here as well.

Like most open spaces, Finsbury Fields was also a place of illicit sex, clandestine meetings, prostitution and general immorality.

As Finsbury Fields was gradually built over, one of its fringes, later known as Islington Common, remained open, around what’s now Arlington Square, (west of New North Road, north of the canal). The Common was preserved from enclosure for years due to its use for archery practice since medieval times. But Finsbury Fields’ reputation as a place of dubious sports and outdoor sex was also preserved here.

Shovels and Spades, Shovels and Spades

Moorfields had already seen conflict as early as 1141-3, when ‘walls and curtileges’ erected on Moorfields outside the City wall were destroyed by Londoners apparently annoyed at the obstruction to their enjoyment of the space.

Both Finsbury Fields and Moorfields lay between the City and the outlying villages to the north, and they became the scene of conflict between the two. Partly this arose from the City-dwellers’ need for space for recreation and archery, and the villagers need for farming land, but this was also complicated by the actions of richer inhabitants of both the villages, and the City itself, who would often attempt to privatise some of this land for their own exclusive use.

Around 1513-1514, the conflicting demands on Moorfields and Finsbury Fields led to riotous scenes.

“… concerning the inclosures of common grounds about this cittie, whereof I mind not much to argue, Edwarde Hall setteth downe a note of his time, to wit in the fift or sixte of Henry the eight: before this time sayth hee, the inhabitantes of the Townes aboute London, as Iseldone, Hoxton, Shorsditch and others, had so inclosed the common fieldes with hedges, and ditches, that neyther the yong men of the City might shoote, nor the auncient persons walke for theyr pleasures in those fieldes, but that either their bowes and arrowes were taken away or broken, or the honest persons arrested or indighted: saying, that no Londoner ought to goe out of the City, but in the high Waies.” (Chronicle of the Greyfriars)

This suggests that either wealthier village dwellers, or even the authorities in those parts, attempted to exclude Londoners from the Fields by force, (whether with some form of sanction of law or not). In any case, this did not go unchallenged:

“This saying so grieved the Londoners, that suddainlie this yeare a great number of the Citie assembled themselves in a morning, and a Turner in a fooles coate came crying through the Citty, ‘shovelles and spades, shovelles and spades’: so many of the people followed that it was a wonder to behold, and within a short space all the hedges about the City were cast down, and the diches filled vp, and every thing made plaine, such was the diligence of these workmen: the kinges councell hearing of this assembly came to the gray Fryers, & sent for the Mayor and councell of the city to know the cause, which declared to them the injurie and annoying done to the citizens, and to their liberties, which though they wold not seeke disorderly to redresse, yet the comminalty & yong persons could not be stayed thus to remedy the same. When the kings councell had heard their answere, they dissimuled the matter & commanded the Mayor to see that no other thing were attempted, but that they should forthwith call home the younger sort: who having speedily achieved their desire, returned home before the Kings Councell, and the Mayor departed without more harme: after which time (sayeth Hall) these fieldes were never hedged…”

It seems from this account that preserving space for archery was partly a cover – the approved, even enforced sport; but other motivations existed, to keep the land free for more pleasurable purposes for all.

The process of encroachment onto the Fields outside the City was obviously ongoing, however, as the chronicler continues:

“but now wee see the thing in worse case than ever, by meanes of inclosure for Gardens, wherein are builded many fayre summer houses, and as in other places of the Suburbes, some of them like Midsommer Pageantes, with Towers, Turrets, and Chimney tops, not so much for vse or profite, as for shewe and pleasure, bewraying the vanity of mens mindes, much unlike to the disposition of the ancient Citizens, who delighted in the building of Hospitals, and Almes houses for the poore, and therein both imployed their wits, and spent their wealthes in preferment of the common commoditie of this our Citie.”

Resistance against the mini-enclosures also continued though, as in 1549, as the Chronicle of the Grey Friars records, on “The fourth day of August, of wych was Sonday, much people met and set to work from Newgate all along by the City walls to pull down the gardens that was made along by the walls of the City with houses, and so all along unto [Bishopsgate].”

It may be significant that this took place when it did – 1548-9 saw mass revolt against enclosures across eastern and southern England, (most notably Kett’s Rebellion),  but also nearer to London, at Northaw Common, Ruislip, and Enfield – which may have inspired this action in August…

For want of roome to shoote abroad

The importance of archery, and the laws enforcing its practice, were a formative part of this anti-enclosure riot; ironically archery was even at this time beginning its decline, as more modern weaponry was replacing it. By 1570, the City trades that depended on archery (the Bowyers, Fletchers, Stringers and Arrowhead-makers) were suffering as a result, petitioning the Queen and the Lord Treasurer, complaining of the poverty many of their number were falling into. As with many groups facing obsolescence, they confused causes and symptoms, technological and economic change and morality; archery was declining, they maintained, because of the official toleration of unlawful games, the loss of traditional spaces where it was practised, as well as individual neglect. Stow in his Survey of London, concurs: archery had become “almost cleane left off and forsaken; for by means of the closing in of common grounds, our archers, for want of roome to shoote abroad, creepe into bowling alleys, and ordinary dicing houses, neerer home, where they have roome enough to hazzard their money at unlawful games.”

Enclosures historically are often seen in simple terms, with the rich as enclosers and the poor as victims and losers out. While this is broadly true, things were not always so clear-cut. Many landowners profited by fencing off land and preventing others from using it; often the local poor might be banned from collecting wood or other fuel for burning, or residents might be stopped from grazing their animals in woods or common fields. These and other practices had gathered tradition and ritual around them, as well as strong emotional and political overtones, and were widely seen as ‘rights’ or customs that people were entitled to. In reality, these rights were almost always at the discretion of the lord of the manor. But, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was also a current among the rich and land owning classes that opposed enclosure; sometimes because they genuinely charitably believed in allowing poorer folk to subsist, sometimes because they themselves put some store by tradition, the traditional order and long-established social relations. But also out of pure self-interest, as with Finsbury Fields and Moorfields, because of the military needs of the state, or because some feared that making life harder for the lower classes would provoke disorder, disruption of the status quo, for instance by forcing people into moving around, uprooting, pushing them into begging and crime… In the last years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, the powers that be were much exercised by the increasing numbers of homeless, displaced persons, forced into travelling by enclosure, and by the destruction of the traditional welfare system (the confiscation and abolition of most of the abbeys and monasteries dating from the 1530s.)

This conflict within the upper classes, about the wisdom of enclosures, can in fact be observed for centuries, though it was the enclosing ‘faction’ that kept the upper hand for much of that time.

In the case of ‘the suburban common fields’, however, the well-to-do enclosers incurred the enmity of the highest authorities.

Both king James I and his son Charles I issued edicts preventing any enclosure of the Fields, which would “interrupt the necessary and profitable exercise of shooting.” James’ instruction to the Lord Mayor of London and the Lord Chancellor (among others) echo the petitions of the distressed archery trades; “divers persons about the City, possessing lands, &c, had taken away from the archers the exercise of shooting in such fields and closes, as time out of mind, had been allowed to be shot in, by making banks, hedges, and plucking up the old marks, and making ditches so broad, without bridges &c.;” he ordered that the land two miles around the City be surveyed and any land traditionally used for archery be restored to its former state. Ironically while the Stuart kings may have opposed enclosures here (and elsewhere), they were notable enclosers themselves elsewhere, for instance Charles seized a huge tract of land from several parishes and forced many smaller landowners to sell to him, for the enclosing of Richmond Park in Surrey.

Actions against enclosure, at least when carried out by archers, and targeted against particular obstructions on their old rights, seem then to have had some official sanction, and continued for two and a half centuries after the riot of 1513/14. The Artillers Company of London, representing the archers of the City, were accustomed to marching round the Fields, demolishing anything that they claimed prevented them from practicing their craft (similar to the old parish custom of Beating the Bounds). So as late as 1782 it was reported that “they found the gate of a large field, in which stood one of their stone marks, near Ball’s Pond” both locked and chained, and four men placed to prevent their entrance. The adjutant ordered it to be forced; after which they marched across and opened another gate.” Three years later “the Company marched to Finsbury Fields to view their stone marks [targets]… they removed several obstructions.” And in 1786, “considerable encroachments having been made upon the antient marks belonging to the Company, the Court ordered notice to be given to all occupiers of lands in Baumes and Finsbury Fields, between Peerless Pool South, Baumes-Pond North, Hoxton East, and Islington West, wherein any of their marks were placed, to remove any obstruction to the Company’s rights.”

[The Peerless Pool mentioned above was a pond lying immediately behind St Luke’s Hospital, off old Street, to the east of the parish church. Originally nicknamed the ‘Perilous Pond’, after several bathers were drowned there, it was later transformed into a swimming bath in 1743. Local jeweller William Kemp had it enlarged to a length of sixty yards by thirty. The pool became a popular resort, especially in summer evenings, until it was built over around 1860.]

In August 1786, Company archers pulled down several parts of a fence erected by one Samuel Pitt for gardens and summer-houses, and were only prevented from knocking down a wall built by Messrs Walker, Ward and Co (owners of the local lead mill) after one of the leadmill partners assuring them their needs would be accommodated. As with Beating the Bounds, the ritual nature of their march is seen in this latter dispute: “One of the archers’ division was then ordered to shoot an arrow over the said enclosure, as an assertion of the Company’s right…” The military importance of archery had long since become been outmoded, and it remained solely as a recreational pastime, but the traditions were fully maintained.

Of course, the Company’s actions may well have also benefited other ordinary users of the open fields, and no doubt the archers took a mischievous pride in imposing their will on richer residents of a nominally higher class in this way, which in most walks of life would not have been permitted. This kind of licensed disorder, allowed within certain limits and for certain ends only, contains some echoes of the social control functions of medieval carnivals and festivals, where a short, temporary, relaxation of tight disciplines and hierarchies helped to keep a lid on social tensions and class antagonisms for the rest of the year.

Again in 1791, when digging for gravel destroyed several archery butts on Islington Common, “A detachment marched to the spot pursuant to a previous notice to the occupiers and commissioners of the roads to remove any obstruction, and to replace the marks. These objects were obtained.”

It’s also possible that young men joined the Artillers Company either because it gave them some small power in life – or, speculating here – given that the Company may have been invested with a certain traditional role as guardians of the common fields by City dwellers, that some men joined it with an eye to keeping a watch on the ‘encroachments’ by the well-to-do. Elsewhere, certain families, social groups, workers in particular trades, residents of notable streets or villages, came to see themselves and be seen as traditional guardians of the ‘common rights’ on local commons or woods – perhaps the riot of 1514 played a part in the Artillers Company adopting that role for Moorfields and Finsbury Fields. Another factor might be the reputation that some of the City suburbs adjoining the Fields – Shoreditch, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields – had for disorder and disrepute themselves – many of their residents were generally up for a bit of agro…

It is however interesting that, although the open spaces around the village of Islington and between it and the City later became places of disorder, gathering spots for rowdy, often radical crowds, that Finsbury Fields and Moorfields are the only ones where any form of struggle seems to have taken place around enclosure – though possibly this simply means they were the only ones where a memory has survived.

Moorfields’ central role as a meeting point and recreation ground led to its’ being one of main the gathering places for crowds of rebellious apprentices. Public holidays were a popular time for crowds to gather, and when they got together, social or economic grievances often sparked demonstrations and riots. Mayday and Shrove Tuesday were two of the main traditional holidays, especially know for outbreaks of disorder. For instance, during the Shrove Tuesday riots of 1617, when crowds of apprentices met on Moorfields, as well as in Wapping, and marched off to attack prisoners and free their inmates, pull down brothels, and fight with the sheriffs and militia.

This kind of upsurge of rebelliousness stepped up a gear in the English Civil War years.

For instance, on Whit Sunday (4 May) 1639, Katherine Hadley distributed pamphlets to holidaying apprentices, appealing for them to support a campaign demanding the release of the imprisoned puritan activist, and future Leveller leader, John Lilburne (who was also then an apprentice)… the apprentices held a mass meeting, then headed off to riot at Lambeth Palace. Katharine was arrested & sent to the Bridewell (the workhouse-cum-prison by the river at Blackfriars).

Open fields were also used for clandestine meetings. During the almost schizophrenic religious turmoil of the mid-Tudor era, when protestant and catholic regimes succeeded each other in rapid succession, several hundred of each were executed for adhering to the wrong beliefs (depending on who was in power), as well as various smaller sects like Anabaptists being persecuted by both. Many were burned alive at Smithfield, as recounted below. In April 1558, forty men and women were seized at a nighttime protestant meeting in an Islington field. Half of them were sent to Newgate Prison; thirteen refused to attend catholic mass, and seven of these were burned at Smithfield in June. Despite a proclamation read by the Sheriff of London, threatening arrest and punishment for anyone showing support, a large and sympathetic crowd assembled, shouting and protesting at the executions.

It’s very likely that the earlier reforming dissenters, the Lollards, who flourished in the fifteenth century, would also have met in Islington’s open countryside. We know they had many sympathisers in the area, for example around Smithfield, and that Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard insurrectionary leader, was a Clerkenwell landowner, who hid out in what’s now Farringdon Road are, while on the run around 1413-14. As Lollardy became increasingly persecuted, secret congregations gathering away from urban areas to avoid arrest became their preferred, even the only safe, method of meeting.

A Walk for thieves and lovers

The barren region of Moorfields and Finsbury was first drained (no doubt to the great indignation of the London apprentices) in 1527, laid out in pleasant walks in the reign of James I., and first built on after the Great Fire, when all the City was turned topsy-turvy. Moorfields before this was described as “a place for cudgel-players and train-band musters, for its madhouse (one of the lions of London), and for its wrestlers, pedestrians, bookstall-keepers, and ballad-sellers”, featuring “raised paths and refuse-heaps”, deep black smelly ditches and open sewers; “a walk for thieves and lovers, suicides and philosophers, and as Howes (1631) says, ‘held impossible to be reformed.’ ”

Moorfields was also a traditional location for pre-arranged or spontaneous rumbles between groups of London workers (rivalries often derived from the old medieval guild jealousies). For example, in 1664, mobs of the butchers and weavers fought there: “26th July, 1664. Great discourse yesterday of the fray in Moorfields; how the butchers at first did beat the weavers, between whom there hath been ever an old competition for mastery, but at last the weavers rallied, and beat them. At first the butchers knocked down all for weavers that had green or blue aprons, till they were fain to pull them off and put them in their breeches. At last the butchers were fain to pull off their sleeves, that they might not be known, and were soundly beaten out of the field, and some deeply wounded and bruised; till at last the weavers went out triumphing, calling, ‘£100 for a butcher!’”

The cheap bookstalls of Moorfields were famous; Gray refers in a letter to Warton to “a penny history that hangs upon the rails in Moorfields;” while Tom Brown (1709, Queen Anne), to illustrate the insolence and forgetfulness of prosperity, describes how “a well-grown Paul’s Churchyard bookseller, [despises] one of the trade that sells second-hand books under the trees in Moorfields.”

Parks and open fields were also popular for outdoor sex; more so for gay men than with female prostitutes (because they had to be more discreet, given that ‘sodomy’ could well be a hanging offence). Moorfields was well known by the eighteenth century as a gay cruising ground, or ‘molly market’. The path that ran across the middle of these fields was known as the Sodomites’ Walk. This was used so regularly by gay men, that it’s obvious that their main aim was to make contact with one another, rather than simply to pick up passing straight errand boys. The basic technique was to stand up against the wall alongside the path and pretend to be taking a piss, and to wait until someone struck up a conversation about the weather. For example, a man named William Brown was entrapped along the Sodomites’ Walk in 1726, by a hustler who worked for the police in order to get immunity from prosecution as a sodomite. The constable told the judge that when he asked Brown why he had taken such indecent liberties, Brown “was not ashamed to answer, I did it because I thought I knew him, and I think there is no crime in making what use I please of my own body.”

This very modern-sounding defence was apparently not uncommon… Rictor Norton identifies is as arising from the “Enlightenment philosophy that sexual pleasure was a personal area that the law had no business meddling with.” There was even a serious public debate in the newspapers in 1772, when a number of respectable people argued that sexual relations between men should be legalized as long as they take place between consenting partners over the age of 14, the age at which a boy became an adult.

In August 1726 a ‘gang of sodomites’ was chased by Constables across Moorfields but escaped. The streets that grew up around Moorfields also became well-known for this gay subculture – a molly house in Christopher Alley, off Moorfields, was kept by John Towleton, whose nickname was Mary Magdalen.

Moorfields was landscaped in the 1590s in an attempt to bring order to all of the above infamous ‘uncontrollable’ area. This may represent the earliest known use in London of altering public space as a means of social control. Its notorious immorality may have also contributed to Moorfields’ popularity for open air religious meetings – non-conforming groups spoke regularly there from the seventeenth centuries, no doubt partly in an attempt to save the souls of the field’s immoral frequenters… However, the Fields also accommodated a part of the huge tent city that sheltered Londoners displaced and made homeless by the Great Fire of 1666 (many others moved off to the north-east, some ending up roaming Epping Forest and Enfield in search of shelter and food.)

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