Division or consolidation of communal lands in Western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned farm plots of modern times. Before enclosure, farmland was under the control of individual cultivators only during the growing season; after harvest and before the next growing season, the land was used by the community for the grazing of livestock and other purposes. In England the movement for enclosure began in the 12th century and proceeded rapidly from 1450 to 1640; the process was virtually complete by the end of the 19th century. In the rest of Europe, enclosure made little progress until the 19th century. Common rights over arable land have now been largely eliminated.
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Enclosure or inclosure (the latter is used in legal documents and place names) is the term used in England and Wales for the process by which arable farming in open field systems was ended. It is also applied to the process by which some commons (a piece of land owned by one person, but over which other people could exercise certain traditional rights, such as allowing their livestock to graze upon it), were fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more private owners, who would then enjoy the possession and fruits of the land to the exclusion of all others.
The process of enclosure was sometimes accompanied by force, resistance, and bloodshed and remains among the most controversial areas of agricultural and economic history in England. Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit. This created a landless working class that provided the labour required in the new industries developing in the north of England. For example: "In agriculture the years between 1760 and 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which, in village after village, common rights are lost. "Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery.
On the other hand, others have argued that this is perhaps an oversimplification, and economic studies have found that the better-off members of the European peasantry had encouraged and participated actively in enclosure, seeking to end the perpetual poverty of subsistence farming. "We should be careful not to ascribe to (enclosure) developments that were the consequence of a much broader and more complex process of historical change. "The impact of eighteenth and nineteenth century enclosure has been grossly exaggerated.
Throughout the medieval and modern periods, piecemeal enclosure took place in which adajacent strips were fenced off from the common field. This was sometimes undertaken by small landowners, but more often by large landowners and lords of the manor. Significant enclosures (or emparkments) took place to establish deer parks. Some (but not all) of these enclosures took place with local agreement.
There was a significant rise in enclosure during the Tudor period. These enclosures largely resulted in conversion of land use from arable to pasture – usually sheep farming. These enclosures were often undertaken unilaterally by the landowner. Enclosures during the Tudor period were often accompanied by a loss of common rights and could result in the destruction of whole villages.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, enclosures were by means of local acts of Parliament, called the Inclosure Acts. These "parliamentary" enclosures consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units, and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although often of poor quality and limited extent.
Parliamentary enclosure was also used for the division and privatisation of common wastes (in the original sense of "uninhabited places"), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, moors. These enclosures turned common land into owned land, whereas field enclosures only segregated land that was already owned, and removed the common rights.
But I do not think that this necessity of stealing arises only from hence; there is another cause of it, more peculiar to England.' 'What is that?' said the Cardinal: 'The increase of pasture,' said I, 'by which your sheep, which are naturally mild, and easily kept in order, may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns; for wherever it is found that the sheep of any soil yield a softer and richer wool than ordinary, there the nobility and gentry, and even those holy men, the abbots not contented with the old rents which their farms yielded, nor thinking it enough that they, living at their ease, do no good to the public, resolve to do it hurt instead of good. They stop the course of agriculture, destroying houses and towns, reserving only the churches, and enclose grounds that they may lodge their sheep in them.
The loss of agricultural labour also hurt others like millers whose livelihood relied on agricultural produce. Fynes Moryson reported on these problems in An Itinerary (1617):
England abounds with corn [wheat and other grains], which they may transport, when a quarter (in some places containing six, in others eight bushels) is sold for twenty shillings, or under; and this corn not only serves England, but also served the English army in the civil wars of Ireland, at which time they also exported great quantity thereof into foreign parts, and by God's mercy England scarce once in ten years needs a supply of foreign corn, which want commonly proceeds of the covetousness of private men, exporting or hiding it. Yet I must confess, that daily this plenty of corn decreaseth, by reason that private men, finding greater commodity in feeding of sheep and cattle than in the plow, requiring the hands of many servants, can by no law be restrained from turning cornfields into enclosed pastures, especially since great men are the first to break these laws.
By some accounts, 3/4ths to 9/10ths of the tenant farmers on some estates were evicted in the late medieval period. Other economic historians argue that forced evictions were probably rare. Landlords would turn to enclosure as an option when lands went unused.
Initially, enclosure was not itself an offence, but where it was accompanied by the destruction of houses, half the profits would go to the Crown until the lost houses were rebuilt. (The 1489 act gave half the profits to the superior landlord who might not be the crown, but an act of 1536 allowed the Crown to receive this half share if the superior landlord had not taken action.) In 1515, conversion from arable to pasture became an offence. Once again, half the profits from conversion would go to the Crown until the arable land was restored. Neither the 1515 act, nor the previous legislation was effective in stopping enclosure so in 1517, Cardinal Wolsey established a commission of enquiry to determine where offences had taken place – and to ensure the Crown received its half of the
In 1607, beginning on May Eve in Haselbech, Northamptonshire and spreading to Warwickshire and Leicestershire throughout May, riots took place as a protest against the enclosure of common land. Known as The Midland Revolt, it drew considerable support and was led by Captain Pouch, otherwise known as John Reynolds, a tinker said to be from Desborough, Northamptonshire. He told the protestors he had authority from the King and the Lord of Heaven to destroy enclosures and promised to protect protesters by the contents of his pouch, carried by his side, which he said would keep them from all harm. (After he was captured, his pouch was opened - all that was in it was a piece of green cheese.) Thousands of people were recorded at Hillmorton, Warwickshire and at Cotesbach, Leicestershire. A curfew was imposed in the city of Leicester, as it was feared citizens would stream out of the city to join the riots. A gibbet was erected in Leicester as a warning, and was pulled down by the citizens.
The Newton Rebellion was one of the last times that the peasantry of England and the gentry were in open armed conflict. Things had come to a head in early June. James I issued a Proclamation and ordered his Deputy Lieutenants in Northamptonshire to put down the riots. It is recorded that women and children were part of the protest. Over a thousand had gathered at Newton, near Kettering, pulling down hedges and filling ditches, to protest against the enclosures of Thomas Tresham.
The Treshams were unpopular for their voracious enclosing of land - both the family at Newton and their more well-known Roman Catholic cousins at nearby Rushton, the family of Francis Tresham, who had been involved two years earlier in the Gunpowder Plot and had apparently died in The Tower. Sir Thomas Tresham of Rushton was known as "the most odious man in the county". The old Roman Catholic gentry family of the Treshams had long argued with the emerging Puritan gentry family, the Montagus of Boughton, about territory. Now Tresham of Newton was enclosing common land - The Brand - that had been part of Rockingham Forest.
Edward Montagu, one of the Deputy Lieutenants, had stood up against enclosure in Parliament some years earlier, but was now placed by the King in the position effectively of defending the Treshams. The local armed bands and militia refused the call-up, so the landowners were forced to use their own servants to suppress the rioters on 8 June 1607. The Royal Proclamation was read twice. The rioters continued in their actions, although at the second reading some ran away. The gentry and their forces charged. A pitched battle ensued. 40-50 were killed and the ringleaders were hanged and quartered.
No memorial to the event or to those killed exists. The Tresham family declined soon after. The Montagu family went on through marriage to become the Dukes of Buccleuch, one of the biggest landowners in Britain.
Note that at this time "field" meant only the unenclosed open arable land – most of what would now be called "fields" would then have been called "closes". The only boundaries would be those separating the various types of land, and around the closes.
In each of the two waves of enclosure, two different processes were used. One was the division of the large open fields and meadows into privately controlled plots of land, usually hedged and known at the time as severals. In the course of enclosure, the large fields and meadows were divided and common access restricted. Most open-field manors in England were enclosed in this manner, with the notable exception of Laxton, Nottinghamshire and parts of the Isle of Axholme in North Lincolnshire.
The history of enclosure in England is different from region to region. Not all areas of England had open-field farming in the medieval period. Parts of south-east England (notably parts of Essex and Kent) retained a pre-Roman system of farming in small enclosed fields. Similarly in much of west and north-west England, fields were either never open, or were enclosed early. The primary area of open field management was in the lowland areas of England in a broad band from Yorkshire and Lincolnshire diagonally across England to the south, taking in parts of Norfolk and Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, large areas of the Midlands, and most of south central England. These areas were most affected by the first type of enclosure, particularly in the more densely-settled areas where grazing was scarce and farmers relied on open field grazing after the harvest and on the fallow to support their animals.
The second form of enclosure affected those areas, such as the north, the far south-west, and some other regions such as the East Anglian Fens, and the Weald, where grazing had been plentiful on otherwise marginal lands, such as marshes and moors. Access to these common resources had been an essential part of the economic life in these strongly pastoral regions, and in the Fens, large riots broke out in the seventeenth century, when attempts to drain the peat and silt marshes were combined with proposals to partially enclose them.
Both economic and social factors drove the enclosure movement. In particular, the demand for land in the seventeenth century, increasing regional specialisation, engrossment in landholding and a shift in beliefs regarding the importance of "common wealth" (usually implying common livelihoods) as opposed to the "public good" (the wealth of the nation or the GDP) all laid the groundwork for a shift of support among elites to favour enclosure. Enclosures were conducted by agreement among the landholders (not necessarily the tenants) throughout the seventeenth century; enclosure by Parliamentary Act began in the eighteenth century. Enclosed lands normally could demand higher rents than unenclosed, and thus landlords had an economic stake in enclosure, even if they did not intend to farm the land directly.
While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England, as compared to the Continent, though others believe that this process had already begun from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless labourers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing, but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosure, employment in agriculture did not fall, but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became labourers in the Industrial Revolution.
By the end of the 19th century the process of enclosure was largely complete, in most areas just leaving a few pasture commons and village greens.
Many landowners became rich through the enclosure of the commons, while many ordinary folk had a centuries-old right taken away. Land enclosure has been condemned as a gigantic swindle on the part of large landowners, and Oliver Goldsmith wrote "The Deserted Village" in 1770 deploring rural depopulation. An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century summed up the anti-enclosure feeling:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
From 1450 to 1630, economies expanded alongside increasing poverty. The social framework of the manorial estate – and that of medieval society in general, including the town guilds of the burghers – was falling away. The old order had been centered on religious, theocentric values of continuity, stability, security and cooperative effort. These goods were accompanied by the ills of intolerance of change, rigid social stratification, little development, and a high degree of poverty.
The debasement was not seen as a cause of inflation (and therefore enclosures) until Somerset's reign as Protector of Edward VI. Up to this point enclosures were seen as the cause of inflation, not the outcome. When Thomas Smith tried to advise Edward Seymour (The 1st Duke of Somerset) on his response to enclosure (that it was result of inflation not a cause), he was only ignored. It took till John Dudley (The 1st Duke of Northumberland)'s time as Protector for his finance minister William Cecil to realise and act on debasement to stop enclosure.
The English Civil War spurred a major acceleration of enclosures. The parliamentary leaders supported the rights of landlords vis-a-vis the King, whose Star Chamber court, abolished in 1641, had provided the primary legal brake on the enclosure process. By dealing an ultimately crippling blow to the monarchy (which, even after the Restoration, no longer posed a significant challenge to enclosures) the Civil War paved the way for the eventual rise to power in the 18th century of what has been called a "committee of Landlords, a prelude to the UK's parliamentary system. The economics of enclosures also changed. Whereas earlier land had been enclosed in order to make it available for sheep farming, by 1650 the steep rise in wool prices had come to an end. Thereafter, the focus shifted to implementation of new agricultural techniques, including fertilizer, new crops, and crop rotation, all of which greatly increased the profitability of large-scale farms. The enclosure movement probably peaked from 1760 to 1832; by the latter date it had essentially completed the destruction of the medieval peasant community.