Robbing the Soil. 2

‘Systematic theft of communal property’

“The expropriation of the mass of the people from the soil forms the basis of the capitalist mode of production.” (Karl Marx)

Tenants harvest the landlord’s grain

Robbing the Soil, 1: Commons and classes before capitalism
Robbing the Soil, 2: ‘Systematic theft of communal property’

by Ian Angus

“The ground of the parish is gotten up into a few men’s hands, yea sometimes into the tenure of one or two or three, whereby the rest are compelled either to be hired servants unto the other or else to beg their bread in misery from door to door.” (William Harrison, 1577)[1]

In 1549, tens of thousands of English peasants fought — and thousands died — to halt and reverse the spread of capitalist farming that was destroying their way of life. The largest action, known as Kett’s Rebellion, has been called “the greatest practical utopian project of Tudor England and the greatest anticapitalist rising in English history.”[2]

On July 6, peasants from Wymondham, a market town in Norfolk, set out across country to tear down hedges and fences that divided formerly common land into private farms and pastures. By the time they reached Norwich, the second-largest city in England, they had been joined by farmers, farmworkers and artisans from many other towns and villages. On July 12, as many as 16,000 rebels set up camp on Mousehold Heath, near the city. They established a governing council with representatives from each community, requisitioned food and other supplies from nearby landowners, and drew up a list of demands addressed to the king.

Over the next six weeks, they twice invaded and captured Norwich, repeatedly rejected Royal pardons on the grounds that they had done nothing wrong, and defeated a force of 1,500 men sent from London to suppress them. They held out until late August, when they were attacked by some 4,000 professional soldiers, mostly German and Italian mercenaries, who were ordered by the Duke of Warwick to “take the company of rebels which they saw, not for men, but for brute beasts imbued with all cruelty.”[3] Over 3,500 rebels were massacred, and their leaders were tortured and beheaded.

The Norwich uprising is the best documented and lasted longest, but what contemporaries called the Rebellions of Commonwealth involved camps, petitions and mass assemblies in at least 25 counties, showing “unmistakable signs of coordination and planning right across lowland England.”[4] The best surviving statement of their objectives is the 29 articles adopted at Mousehold Heath. They were listed in no particular order, but, as historian Andy Wood writes, “a strong logic underlay them.”

“The demands drawn up at the Mousehold camp articulated a desire to limit the power of the gentry, exclude them from the world of the village, constrain rapid economic change, prevent the over-exploitation of communal resources, and remodel the values of the clergy. … Lords were to be excluded from common land and prevented from dealing in land. The Crown was asked to take over some of the powers exercised by lords, and to act as a neutral arbiter between lord and commoner. Rents were to be fixed at their 1485 level. In the most evocative phrase of the Norfolk complaints, the rebels required that the servile bondmen who still performed humiliating services upon the estates of the Duchy of Lancaster and the former estates of the Duke of Norfolk be freed: ‘We pray thatt all bonde men may be made Free, for god made all Free with his precious blode sheddyng’.”[5]

The scope and power of the rebellions of 1549 demonstrate, as nothing else can, the devastating impact of capitalism on the lives of the people who worked the land in early modern England. The radical changes known to history by the innocuous label enclosure peaked in two long waves: during the rise of agrarian capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and during the consolidation of agrarian capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth.

This article discusses the sixteenth century origins of what Marx called “the systematic theft of communal property.”[6]

Sheep devour people

In part one we saw that organized resistance and reduced population allowed English peasants to win lower rents and greater freedom in the 1400s. But they didn’t win every fight — rather than cutting rents and easing conditions to attract tenants, some landlords forcibly evicted their smaller tenants and leased larger farms, at increased rents, to well-off farmers or commercial sheep graziers. Caring for sheep required far less labor than growing grain, and the growing Flemish cloth industry was eager to buy English wool.

Local populations declined as a result, and many villages disappeared entirely. As Sir Thomas More famously wrote in 1516, sheep had “become so greedy and fierce that they devour human beings themselves. They devastate and depopulate fields, houses and towns.”[7]

For more than a century, enclosure and depopulation — the words were almost always used together — were major social and political concerns for England’s rulers. As early as 1483, Edward V’s Lord Chancellor, John Russell, criticized “enclosures and emparking … [for] driving away of tenants and letting down of tenantries.”[8] In the same decade, the priest and historian John Rous condemned enclosure and depopulation, and identified 62 villages and hamlets within 12 miles of his home in Warwickshire that were “either destroyed or shrunken,” because “lovers or inducers of avarice” had “ignominiously and violently driven out the inhabitants.” He called for “justice under heavy penalties” against the landlords responsible.[9]

Thirty years later, Henry VIII’s advisor Sir Thomas More condemned the same activity, in more detail.

“The tenants are ejected; and some are stripped of their belongings by trickery or brute force, or, wearied by constant harassment, are driven to sell them. One way or another, these wretched people — men, women, husbands, wives, orphans, widows, parents with little children and entire families (poor but numerous, since farming requires many hands) — are forced to move out. They leave the only homes familiar to them, and can find no place to go. Since they must have at once without waiting for a proper buyer, they sell for a pittance all their household goods, which would not bring much in any case. When that little money is gone (and it’s soon spent in wandering from place to place), what finally remains for them but to steal, and so be hanged — justly, no doubt — or to wander and beg? And yet if they go tramping, they are jailed as idle vagrants. They would be glad to work, but they can find no one who will hire them. There is no need for farm labor, in which they have been trained, when there is no land left to be planted. One herdsman or shepherd can look after a flock of beasts large enough to stock an area at used to require many hands to make it grow crops.”[10]

Many accounts of the destruction of commons-based agriculture assume that that enclosure simply meant the consolidation of open-field strips into compact farms, and planting hedges or building fences to demark the now-private property. In fact, as the great social historian R.H. Tawney pointed out in his classic study of The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century, in medieval and early modern England the word enclosure “covered many different kinds of action and has a somewhat delusive appearance of simplicity.”[11] Enclosure might refer to farmers trading strips of manor land to create more compact farms, or to a landlord unilaterally adding common land to his demesne, or to the violent expulsion of an entire village from land their families had worked for centuries.

Even in the middle ages, tenant farmers had traded or combined strips of land for local or personal reasons. That was called enclosure, but the spatial rearrangement of property as such didn’t affect common rights or alter the local economy.[12] In the sixteenth century, opponents of enclosure were careful to exempt such activity from criticism. For example, the commissioners appointed to investigate illegal enclosure in 1549 received this instruction:

“You shall enquire what towns, villages, and hamlets have been decayed and laid down by enclosures into pastures, within the shire contained in your instructions …

“But first, to declare unto you what is meant by the word enclosure. It is not taken where a man encloses and hedges his own proper ground, where no man has commons, for such enclosure is very beneficial to the commonwealth; it is a cause of great increase of wood: but it is meant thereby, when any man has taken away and enclosed any other men’s commons, or has pulled down houses of husbandry, and converted the lands from tillage to pasture. This is the meaning of this word, and so we pray you to remember it.”[13]

As R.H. Tawney wrote, “What damaged the smaller tenants, and produced the popular revolts against enclosure, was not merely enclosing, but enclosing accompanied by either eviction and conversion to pasture, or by the monopolizing of common rights. … It is over the absorption of commons and the eviction of tenants that agrarian warfare — the expression is not too modern or too strong — is waged in the sixteenth century.”[14]

An unsuccessful crusade

Tudor Monarchs
Henry VII 1485–1509
Henry VIII 1509–1547
Edward VI 1547–1553
Mary I 1553–1558
Elizabeth I 1558–1603

The Tudor monarchs who ruled England from 1485 to 1603 were unable to halt the destruction of the commons and the spread of agrarian capitalism, but they didn’t fail for lack of trying. A general Act Against Pulling Down of Towns was enacted in 1489, just four years after Henry VII came to power. Declaring that “in some towns two hundred persons were occupied and lived by their lawful labours [but] now two or three herdsmen work there and the rest are fallen in idleness,”[15] the Act forbade conversion of farms of 20 acres or more to pasture, and ordered landlords to maintain the existing houses and buildings on all such farms.

Further anti-enclosure laws were enacted in 1515, 1516, 1517, 1519, 1526, 1534, 1536, 1548, 1552, 1555, 1563, 1589, 1593, and 1597. In the same period, commissions were repeatedly appointed to investigate and punish violators of those laws. The fact that so many anti-enclosure laws were enacted shows that while the Tudor government wanted to prevent depopulating enclosure, it was consistently unable to do so. From the beginning, landlords simply disobeyed the laws. The first Commission of Enquiry, appointed in 1517 by Henry VIII’s chief advisor Thomas Wolsey, identified 1,361 illegal enclosures that occurred after the 1489 Act was passed.[16] Undoubtedly more were hidden from the investigators, and even more were omitted because landlords successfully argued that they were formally legal.[17]

The central government had multiple reasons for opposing depopulating enclosure. Paternalist feudal ideology played a role — those whose wealth and position depended on the labor of the poor were supposed to protect the poor in return. More practically, England had no standing army, so the king’s wars were fought by peasant soldiers assembled and led by the nobility, but evicted tenants would not be available to fight. At the most basic level, fewer people working the land meant less money collected in taxes and tithes. And, as we’ll discuss in Part Three, enclosures caused social unrest, which the Tudors were determined to prevent.

Important as those issues were, for a growing number of landlords they were outweighed by their desire to maintain their income in a time of unprecedented inflation, driven by debasement of the currency and the influx of plundered new world silver. “During the price revolution of the period 1500-1640, in which agricultural prices rose by over 600 per cent, the only way for landlords to protect their income was to introduce new forms of tenure and rent and to invest in production for the market.”[18]

Smaller gentry and well-off tenant farmers did the same, in many cases more quickly than the large landlords. The changes they made shifted income from small farmers and farmworkers to capitalist farmers, and deepened class divisions in the countryside.

“Throughout the sixteenth century the number of smaller lessees shrank, while large leaseholding, for which accumulated capital was a prerequisite, became increasingly important. The sixteenth century also saw the rise of the capitalist lessee who was prepared to invest capital in land and stock. The increasing divergence of agricultural prices and wages resulted in a ‘profit inflation’ for capitalist farmers prepared and able to respond to market trends and who hired agricultural labor.”[19]

As we’ve seen, the Tudor government repeatedly outlawed enclosures that removed tenant farmers from the land. The laws failed because enforcement depended on justices of the peace, typically local gentry who, even if they weren’t enclosers themselves, wouldn’t betray neighbors and friends who were. Occasional Commissions of Enquiry were more effective — and so were hated by landlords — but their orders to remove enclosures and reinstate former tenants were rarely obeyed, and fines could be treated as a cost of doing business.

From monks to investors

The Tudors didn’t just fail to halt the advance of capitalist agriculture, they unintentionally gave it a major boost. As Marx wrote, “the process of forcible expropriation of the people received a new and terrible impulse in the sixteenth century from the Reformation, and the consequent colossal spoliation of church property.”[20]

Between 1536 and 1541, seeking to reform religious practice and increase royal income, Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell disbanded nearly 900 monasteries and related institutions, retired their occupants, and confiscated their lands and income.

This was no small matter — together, the monasteries’ estates comprised between a quarter and a third of all cultivated land in England and Wales. If he had kept it, the existing rents and tithes would have tripled the king’s annual income. But in 1543 Henry, a small-country king who wanted to be a European emperor, launched a pointless and very expensive war against Scotland and France, and paid for it by selling off the properties he had just acquired. When Henry died in 1547, only a third of the confiscated monastery property remained in royal hands; almost all that remained was sold later in the century, to finance Elizabeth’s wars with Spain.[21]

The sale of so much land in a short time transformed the land market and reshaped classes. As Christopher Hill writes, “In the century and a quarter after 1530, more land was bought and sold in England than ever before.”

“There was relatively cheap land to be bought by anyone who had capital to invest and social aspirations to satisfy…. By 1600 gentlemen, new and old, owned a far greater proportion of the land of England than in 1530 — to the disadvantage of crown, aristocracy and peasantry alike.

“Those who acquired land in significant quantity became gentlemen, if they were not such already … Gentlemen leased land — from the king, from bishops, from deans and chapters, from Oxford and Cambridge colleges — often in order to sub-let at a profit. Leases and reversions sometimes lay two deep. It was a form of investment…. The smaller gentry gained where big landlords lost, gained as tenants what others lost as lords.”[22]

As early as 1515, there were complaints that farmland was being acquired by men not from the traditional landowning classes — “merchant adventurers, clothmakers, goldsmiths, butchers, tanners and other artificers who held sometimes ten to sixteen farms apiece.”[23] When monastery land came available, owning or leasing multiple farms, known as engrossing, became even more attractive to urban businessmen with capital to spare. Some no doubt just wanted the prestige of a country estate, but others, used to profiting from their investments, moved to impose shorter leases and higher rents, and to make private profit from common land.

A popular ballad of the time expressed the change concisely:

“We have shut away all cloisters,
But still we keep extortioners.
We have taken their land for their abuse,
But we have converted them to a worse use.”[24]

Hysterical exaggeration?

Early in the 1900s, conservative economist E.F. Gay — later the first president of the Harvard Business School — wrote that 16th century accounts of enclosure were wildly exaggerated. Under the influence of “contemporary hysterics” and “the excited sixteenth century imagination,” a small number of depopulating enclosures were “magnified into a menacing social evil, a national calamity responsible for dearth and distress, and calling for drastic legislative remedy.” Popular opposition reflected not widespread hardship, but “the ignorance and hide-bound conservatism of the English peasant,” who combined “sturdy, admirable qualities with a large admixture of suspicion, cunning and deceit.” [25]

Gay argued that the reports produced by two major commissions to investigate enclosures show that the percentage of enclosed land in the counties investigated was just 1.72% in 1517 and 2.46% in 1607. Those small numbers “warn against exaggeration of the actual extent of the movement, against an uncritical acceptance of the contemporary estimate both of the greatness and the evil of the first century and a half of the ‘Agrarian Revolution.’”[26]

Ever since, Gay’s argument has been accepted and repeated by right-wing historians eager to debunk anything resembling a materialist, class-struggle analysis of capitalism. The most prominent was Cambridge University professor Sir Geoffrey Elton, whose bestselling book England Under the Tudors dismissed critics of enclosure as “moralists and amateur economists” for whom landlords were convenient scapegoats. Despite the complaints of such “false prophets,” enclosers were just good businessmen who “succeeded in sharing the advantages which the inflation offered to the enterprising and lucky.” And even then, “the whole amount of enclosure was astonishingly small.”[27]

The claim that enclosure was an imaginary problem is improbable, to say the least. R.H. Tawney’s 1912 response to Gay applies with full force to Elton and his conservative co-thinkers.

“To suppose that contemporaries were mistaken as to the general nature of the movement is to accuse them of an imbecility which is really incredible. Governments do not go out of their way to offend powerful classes out of mere lightheartedness, nor do large bodies of men revolt because they have mistaken a ploughed field for a sheep pasture.”[28]

The reports that Gay analyzed were important, but far from complete. They didn’t cover the whole country (only six counties in 1607), and their information came from local “jurors” who were easily intimidated by their landlords. Despite the dedication of the commissioners, it is virtually certain that their reports understated the number and extent of illegal enclosures.

And, as Tawney pointed out, enclosure as a percentage of all land doesn’t tell us much about its economic and social impact — the real issue is how much farmed land was enclosed.

In 1979, John Martin reanalysed Gay’s figures for the most intensely farmed areas of England, the ten Midlands counties where 80% of all enclosures took place. He concluded that in those counties over a fifth of cultivated land had been enclosed by 1607, and that in two counties enclosure exceeded 40%. Contrary to Elton’s claim, those are not “astonishingly small” figures — they support Martin’s conclusion that “the enclosure movement must have had a fundamental impact upon the agrarian organization of the Midlands peasantry in this period.” [29]

It’s important to bear in mind that enclosure, as narrowly defined by Tudor legislation and Inquiry commissions, was only part of the restructuring that was transforming rural life. W.G, Hoskins emphasizes that in The Age of Plunder:

“The importance of engrossing of farms by bigger men was possibly a greater social problem than the much more noisy controversy over enclosures, if only because it was more general. The enclosure problem was largely confined to the Midlands … but the engrossing of farms was going on all the time all over the country.”[30]

George Yerby elaborates.

“Enclosure was one manifestation of a broader and less formal development that was working in exactly the same direction. The essential basis of the change, and of the new economic balance, was the consolidation of larger individual farms, and this could take place with or without the technical enclosure of the fields. This also serves to underline the force of commercialization as the leading trend in changes in the use and occupation of the land during this period, for the achievement of a substantial marketable surplus was the incentive to consolidate, and it did not always require the considerable expense of hedging.”[31]

More large farms meant fewer small farms, and more people who had no choice but to work for others. The twin transformations of primitive accumulation — stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers — were well underway.

Robbing the Soil is a series of articles on capitalist agriculture, part of my continuing project on metabolic rifts. Your constructive comments, suggestions, and corrections will help me get it right. Part 3 will discuss how English peasants fought back against the theft of communal property.IA


[1] William Harrison, The Description of England: The Classic Contemporary Account of Tudor Social Life, ed. Georges Edelen (Folger Shakespeare Library, 1994), 217.

[2] Jim Holstun, “Utopia Pre-Empted: Ketts Rebellion, Commoning, and the Hysterical Sublime,” Historical Materialism 16, no. 3 (2008), 5.

[3] Quoted in Martin Empson, Kill All the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks Publications, 2018), 162.

[4] Diarmaid MacCulloch and Anthony Fletcher, Tudor Rebellions, 6th ed. (Routledge, 2016), 70.

[5] Andy Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (Palgrave, 2002), 66-7.

[6] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 886.

[7] Thomas More, Utopia, trans. Robert M. Adams, ed. George M. Logan, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 2016), 19.

[8] A. R. Myers, ed., English Historical Documents, 1327-1485, vol. 4 (Routledge, 1996), 1031. “Emparking” meant converting farmland into private forests or parks, where landlords could hunt.

[9] Ibid., 1029.

[10] More, Utopia, 19-20.

[11] R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (Lector House, 2021 [1912]), 7.

[12] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 110.

[13] R. H. Tawney and E. E. Power, eds., Tudor Economic Documents, Vol. 1. (Longmans, Green, 1924), 39, 41. Spelling modernized.

[14] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 124, 175.

[15] Quoted in M. W. Beresford, “The Lost Villages of Medieval England,” The Geographical Journal 117, no. 2 (June 1951), 132. Spelling modernized.

[16] Spencer Dimmock, “Expropriation and the Political Origins of Agrarian Capitalism in England,” in Case Studies in the Origins of Capitalism, ed. Xavier Lafrance and Charles Post (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 52.

[17] The Statute of Merton, enacted in 1235, allowed landlords to take possession of and enclose common land, so long as sufficient remained to meet customary tenants’ rights. In the 1500s that long-disused law provided a loophole for enclosing landlords who defined “sufficient” as narrowly as possible.

[18] Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism, 131.

[19] Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism, 133.

[20] Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, 883.

[21] Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (Verso, 1979), 124-5.

[22] Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution: A Social and Economic History of Britain, 1530-1780 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967), 47-8.

[23] Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 69.

[24] Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 [1887]), 73.

[25] Edwin F. Gay, “Inclosures in England in the Sixteenth Century,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 17, no. 4 (August 1903), 576-97; “The Inclosure Movement in England,” Publications of the American Economic Association 6, no. 2 (May 1905), 146-159.

[26] Edwin F. Gay, “The Midland Revolt and the Inquisitions of Depopulation of 1607,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 18 (1904), 234, 237.

[27] G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (Methuen, 1962), 78-80.

[28] Tawney, Agrarian Problem, 166.

[29] John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant and Landlord in English Agrarian Development (Macmillan Press, 1986), 132-38.

[30] W. G. Hoskins, The Age of Plunder: The England of Henry VIII 1500-1547, Kindle ed. (Sapere Books, 2020 [1976]), loc. 1256.

[31] George Yerby, The Economic Causes of the English Civil War (Routledge, 2020), 48.

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