So much of Medieval Suffolk was owned by the church and, as I drove through it with Phillip Schofield, I began to realise just how much the ownership and use of our land has changed since the Middle Ages. Back then, there was an open field system by which the common people rented strips from the lord and farmed them in unfenced fields. It was an arrangement that lasted for centuries.
I suppose the first big sign of change in ownership came in 1536 when Henry VIII started to close monasteries. He took away their lands and the abbeys fell into ruins. like this one at Bury. If you look at the documents of that time, you can see that, whilst existing landowners increased their stake, there were also new types of land owner such as merchants and lawyers.
But the biggest change was undoubtedly enclosure. Ever since the Middle Ages, a gradual process of fencing off and hedging fields had been underway. It happened more in certain parts of the country than others, but by the mid 1700s enclosure was stepping up a gear.
Dr Brian Short
The impact on the landscape was enormous. The Midlands in particular were severely affected by enclosure. It was the great landscape reshaper. Many poor and small farmers lost out at that time – they were often given allotments which were uneconomic, and they sold them out and became a kind of landed proletariat who, thereafter, had to sell their own labour for money, rather than having land to live off. So it affected enormously both the landscape and society at the time.
I hear Aylesbury has some pretty good enclosure records, showing just how things changed. Enclosure replaced the strip field system. But what happened when the strips disappeared? Leigh Shaw-Taylor is the man with the answers.
This is drawn up in 1799, a map of Weston Turville just south of Aylesbury. Prior to the enclosure, there were three very large open fields. One here, one here and one here, and a small one down here.
So big field but still with the tiny strips.
That’s right. So, as a result of enclosure, the Commissioners, having decided who had what land and what rights, then reallocated people, consolidated lots of land. Elizabeth Saunders for instance gets this big rectangular piece of land here, the Mercer Company get this block here, and here, and another piece here – they’re big land owners, Marquis of Buckingham this one here.
The perceived wisdom is that enclosure took away the farming rights of the peasantry. This isn’t strictly true. By the 1750s enclosure was regulated by government. You needed an Act of Parliament and about 4,000 such acts were passed by 1810.
As part of the process, a committee would visit your village to establish who had common right dwellings. The cottages owned or rented, with rights to use the land. Leigh followed up a number of these. Robert Fitkin owned one cottage. His tenant, James Burnham was a labourer and he would have lost his rights to land with enclosure. But interestingly, he was untypical. Only 6 of this village’s 50 labourers had common land rights. And what you don’t have to begin with, you can’t lose.
And so who are the winners, I mean who’s really benefiting from this situation?
Definitely the big landlords, who get higher rents, rents can double at enclosure, and probably farmers, the more substantial farmers.
And can you still see the physical effects of this in Weston Turville today?
Very much so. The landscape of Weston Turville is very much the one created by the Georgian enclosure.