Conflict in the Landscape: The Enclosure Movement in England, 1220-1349

Conflict in the Landscape: The Enclosure Movement in England, 1220-1349

By Christopher Dyer

Landscape History, Vol.29 (2007)

Abstract: Between 1220 and 1349 groups of people destroyed enclosure banks, hedges and fences in defense of their common rights. Many law suits were provoked by encroachments on common pastures. This reflected the importance of an enclosure movement which had its main impact in wooded, upland or wetland landscapes. It led to large areas being taken out of common use, and a growing proportion of land being controlled by individuals. The beneficiaries of enclosure included the lords of manors, but also landholders below the gentry. The opponents of the movement had some success in preserving areas of common pasture.

Introduction: The English enclosure movement of modern times, and particularly the phase of parliamentary enclosures between 1750 and 1850, transformed the landscape of open-field regions, and helped to make profound changes in the economy. Much attention has rightly been given to preceding phases of enclosure, between 1400 and 1750. In the seventeenth century enclosure followed disafforestation, and marshlands and fenlands were drained and brought into more intensive use. Land was taken into new or enlarged parks, and most famously in the champion landscapes of the ‘central province’, especially in the fifteenth century, many open fields were converted into pasture closes, and villages deserted.

All of these processes of enclosure met with protests and even violent confrontations. In the eighteenth century the main opposition from villagers took the form of slow compliance, foot-dragging, and ‘passive grumbling’. In earlier centuries those losing their rights of common acted more robustly, including those who attacked parks such as that at Wilstrop in Yorkshire in 1497, the groups of villagers who forcibly removed enclosure hedges in dozens of places between 1510 and 1625, and the various rioters in fenlands and forests in the early and mid seventeenth century. Not all enclosure schemes caused such troubles, and landscape historians in particular are aware of the evidence for late medieval and early modern enclosures by agreement.

The purpose of this article is to draw attention to the enclosures of the period 1220-1349, which because they reached their height in the middle of that period could be called ‘the enclosure movement of the thirteenth century’. It will be shown that this movement caused much contention, that it took place on a large scale with widespread effects, and that it had implications for the emergence of property rights. The changes associated with this ‘enclosure movement’ are well known to those familiar with the period. Everyone uses the generalisations (even the clichés) which describe developments in the countryside – the growth and reorganisation of settlement, the extension of cultivation, land reclamation, internal colonisation, assarting, emparking – but the word ‘enclosure’ is usually absent. The terminology of making closes was employed at the time, and phrases permitting recipients of land grants ‘ad claudendum fossandum et hayandum ‘ (to enclose, ditch and hedge) often appear in charters of the period.

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