Today in London’s radical history, 1549: An Enclosure Riot at Enfield

As previously recounted, residents of Enfield had a long tradition of defending common fields against enclosure by landowners, their agents or developers on the make… resistance to enclosure on Enfield Chase occurred and re-occurred for several hundred years.

During what some have called the ‘commotion time’ in the summer of 1549, when anger at enclosure and the increasing despoiling of and denial of access to the commons led to rioting and armed revolt from the southwest to Norfolk, Enfield was not spared from trouble. Being close to London, the beady eyes of agricultural improvers and land-grabbers was often cast on the large open spaces of Enfield Chase and its environs, and the general climate of rage sweeping the country against the greedy spread here.

On 13 July 1549, more than twenty armed men rioted in Enfield, destroying the fences, ditches and grass of lands belonging to Sir Thomas Wroth. These inhabitants of Enfield threw down hedges and filled in ditches surrounding a twelve acre piece of land called the ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a seven acre pasture known as ‘welgate lease’, leaving the lands ‘to lye open as a waste & comen grounde’.

This matter was considered serious enough to warrant the attention of the Privy Council (already up to their ears in aggro, what with Kett’s Rebellion against enclosures in Norfolk, and everything else that was kicking off) in late August 1549, and for four of the ringleaders of the Enfield riot were committed to prison. An entry in the Acts of the Privy Council for 27 August reveals that the Council heard a complaint of riot made by Sir Thomas Wroth against the Enfield tenants, and it upheld that an earlier decree made by Sir William Paget (Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 1547-52) ordering the four ringleaders to be imprisoned and six lesser rioters to be bound over to keep the peace. Two of the 1549 rioters’ are named: Edward Boynyerde and Robert Whyte.

It seems that this direct action was a last resort on the part of the participants, after an initial legal settlement of the dispute around the enclosure, apparently favourable to them, had failed to work or had been broken.

Robert Wood, gentleman, and other tenants of Durants manor, Enfield, had lodged a complaint against Sir Thomas Wroth in the Court of the Duchy of Lancaster in autumn 1547, concerning a long-standing controversy over rights of common pasture on certain of the manor’s lands. On 6 May 1546, the manor court had agreed that Wroth could enclose the twenty-four acres of the demesne of Durants manor between ‘horshowe garden’ and ‘welgate lease’, on the north side of his house, but was ordered to leave to the tenants, on the south side, a right of way and a pasture called ‘welgate lease’. He was further permitted to enclose two crofts called ‘hoggescroftes’, three crofts called ‘Rabbettes mores’ and a field called ‘Crouchefelde’. In return for their surrender of common right on these enclosed lands, Wroth was ordered to pay 6d. per acre to the inhabitants of the town. Additionally, he was to allow them to enjoy common with all beasts on other lands he owned, where they had traditionally done so. The Enfield tenants took the agreement to the Duchy of Lancaster to be ratified (in order to force Sir Thomas Wroth to accept it as legally binding), since the manorial court proceedings were ‘bare matters in wrytting and not of Recorde’. In this way they hoped possibly to ensure that Wroth neither carried out further enclosures nor denied them their due payment, according to the settlement.

This was an apparently generous settlement for the residents – yet it was the hedges around ‘welgate lease’ and ‘Rabbettes mores’ that were cast down during the July 1549 riot. Had the 1547 settlement broken down? Did Wroth renege on the agreement in some way?

Enfield boasted a strong tradition of resistance to enclosure stretching back to 1475, much of which was associated with the enclosing activity of the powerful Wroth family, whose connection with Durants Manor dated back to at least 1401. Successive Wroth men occupied the positions of power in the parish of Enfield – they were MPs and JPs for generations, and dominated politics and social and economic life locally from the 15th to the 17th century. They also played varied parts in London and national politics: in fact the 1540s-1550s represented the height of their power: Sir Thomas Wroth himself being a friend of king Edward VI, a gentleman of his Bedchamber, and a member of his Council.

Anger at enclosures in Durants manor fills local accounts through the sixteenth century in particular. Politician and ‘ardent Protestant’, John Wroth of Durants had been accused in 1514 of enclosing forty acres and barring cattle from his fields in open seasons; in 1589, Sir Robert Wroth (son of the villain of 1549) was reported to have been ‘the greatest encloser of common fields in the parish’.

The July 1549 ‘riot’ may indicate an interesting connection with the anti-enclosure riots at nearby Northaw (just the other side of the Hertfordshire-Middlesex border) and Cheshunt in Hertfordshire the previous year, and with the 1549 commotions at Tyttenhanger. Many of the Northaw rioters were identified as coming from Enfield. Several families, including the Cordells, Wilsons, Smiths, Forsters and Woodhams, feature amongst rioters active both at Northaw in 1544 and 1548 as well as at Enfield in 1549.

The open common in the south of the parish of Northaw formed part of Enfield Chase, a large expanse of land stretching across the Middlesex border, whilst the parish of Ridge, where disorder broke out at Tyttenhanger in 1549, lay on the border between the counties of Hertfordshire Middlesex. The warren belonging to the manor of Tyttenhanger adjoined Enfield’s ‘Crouchfield’ to the west.

Earlier anti-enclosure protests around nearby Northaw in May 1548 may well have encouraged anti-enclosure action at nearby Enfield, and that both episodes formed part of a wider protest aimed at redefining local communities through common rights. In 1548-9, as at other times of widespread rural revolt, news of resistance and collective action in one area rapidly spread to neighbouring parishes, often through these kind of family and community connections; since local grievances were often similar in nature across many communities, hearing about actions elsewhere could easily help fire up people to get active on their own issues. Large-scale times of crisis from the Peasants Revolt to the Swing Riots spread like wildfire in this way…

Enfield commoners attached a huge importance to their common rights, both in their own parish and in neighbouring ones where they held some rights of pasture, etc. In 1548-9, they were involved in fighting for their common rights in Northaw Common, to retain their rights in Saysmarsh, Edmonton, and other areas of Enfield Chase.

‘Intercommoning’ – neighbouring communities or parishes both sharing right to pasture animals on the same common lands – undoubtedly also helped forge strong links between communities such as Northaw, Cheshunt, North Mimms and Enfield, which contributed to what has been described as ‘cultural communal defensiveness’ – the willingness of locals to go to the aid of other communities facing enclosure and restrictions on common rights. At other times, intercommoning could often lead to disputes between residents of different manors. For instance, in May 1548, some Northaw tenants were trying to exclude ‘strangers’ from their common – this seems to have included some Enfield residents. Disputes like this could rumble on for years, resulting in court cases, petitions and sometimes confiscation of cattle… in 1572 a petition suggests agro had revived: “there ys a place callyd the acre bredthe in whiche place by the auncyent custom the tenantes of Enfield dyd putte their hogges eveiy yere in fawnyng tyme by reason of whiche place beinge a comon we had intreest of comon within Northall or Chesthonte wood so that yf the hogges or cattail of eny tenante of Enfleld had strayed into any of those woodes or commons they had them agayne quyetly.”

Enfield tenants were said to have had ‘so large a skope of common’ within Northaw and Cheshunt woods’; after the enclosure of Acre Breadth any of their cattle which happened to stray into these woods or commons were ‘imedyatly impownded, harryed vexed and grevowsly hurte’.

The widespread nature of protest against enclosures in this area of North Middlesex and neighbouring parts of Hertfordshire over the ‘commotion time’ led the government to suspect not only co-ordinated protest but a shared leadership – the secret hand of an organisation or leadership – maybe the old ‘outside agitator’ again. One figure they saw as being a possible part of this was one ‘Captain Red Cap’. In an entry dated 20 April 1550, the Acts of the Privy Council recorded that “Captaine Redde Cappe, one of the rebelles of the last yere, having been in prison at Westminster, was nowe sell at libertie, and of late had been in sundrie places of Middlesex wheare the commons had feasted him.” Interestingly, while ‘Captain Red Cap’ is obviously a pseudonym, he isn’t named under a real name – did the authorities not find out his identity? Not consider it important? In any case, he might not simply have been let go – it appears that someone or a group of rebels may have sprung him from prison, to the irritation of the Privy Council.

It’s unknown what role Captain Red Cap played role in the Middlesex ‘rebellion’ of 1549, though he was clearly popular with the local commons, who feasting him at various places in Middlesex. Perhaps he had acted as a ‘charismatic leader’? Also significantly, the authorities seem not to have re-arrested him later, unless records are lost…

Possibly the authorities considered him either no longer a threat, or were even themselves sympathetic to anti-enclosure agitators – not unusual at the time (bearing in mind the Lord Protector in 1549 – effective ruler of England – the Duke of Somerset, was himself thought to be sympathetic to anti-enclosure rebels: his slowness to put down the 1549 revolts in fact caused the Privy Council to depose and imprison him late in that year)

However, the government had, only a few months before Redcap’s release, had the leaders of the East Anglian and South-Western anti-enclosure rebellions executed, and disorder was in fact still continuing in Kent. It’s worth noting that there was personal interest in the events at Enfield from the Privy Council, as the powerful Sir William Paget, member of the Council, and  Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was also Master Forester of Enfield Chase in 1549.

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