Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Land Enclosures in Wolverton

Medieval agriculture was undertaken in open fields where each peasant had traditional rights to grow and harvest crops in strips. The fields were "open" in the sense that they were not enclosed by hedgerows, but there was in no sense a free-for-all. Strips of land were passed down through generations, usually on payment of an entry fine. Thereafter the peasant was entitled to make use of the land and everyone knew where the boundaries were. Some peasants had acquired more land rights than other over centuries and some were landless labourers working for day wages. Sheep and cattle were driven out to graze on “waste” (land that was hard to cultivate), sometimes known as common land. Common rights were critical to the peasant economy; without them it was hard to maintain livestock.

The Tudor period witnessed the beginning of land enclosures which continued to the 18th century. What we now see as a familiar pattern of fields and hedgerows in the countryside was developed during these centuries.

In the 16th century common rights were held by all the residents of the manor, that is the inhabitants of the village of Wolverton and outlying cottages and the fifty or so dwellings on the east side of the Watling Street.

The enclosures began in a tentative manner. Sir John Longueville enclosed 10 acres around Bushfield School in 1530 and his son Thomas enclosed 32 acres called the Dickens, but revoked the action on his deathbed. In 1541, Arthur Longueville, then the inheritor promptly re-enclosed the land and in 1554 enclosed another 50 acres in the Stacey Bushes area. However, he also relented and re-opened the field.
His son, Henry, was more determined. In 1566 he enclosed those lands that had formerly been enclosed and in 1579-80 enclosed a 158 acre tract of land known as the Furzes. These combined actions took some 250 acres out of common usage.

The local population at first responded by pulling down the fences. Henry Longueville retaliated by hiring ruffians to beat up the objectors and sometimes to kill their cattle. Local justice was not much use here, as Sir Henry Longueville himself was the Justice of the Peace, so the inhabitants of Wolverton and Stony Stratford petitioned the Lord Chancellor in 1584. Three men had the courage to sign thee petition, Thomas Furtho, John Hinders and Christopher Carne. It appears that their complaint was upheld, although it is not clear how it was enforced.

The final phase of the enclosures occurred around 1654 when Sir Edward Longueville was Lord of the manor, chiefly, it seems, under the instigation of his wife Margaret. We should perhaps bear in mind that the Longuevilles were at the time in somewhat straitened circumstances due to their heavy committment to the royalist cause in the Civil War and may have acted with more ruthlessness than they might have in more affluent times. Not a bit of this mitigation would have impressed the villagers who were uprooted from their homes, and in many cases from their livelihoods. There was probably some compensation, although this is unrecorded, and was probably little enough. Some may have found employment on the manor for low wages, but many would have had to find new ways of making a living in (probably) Stony Stratford. Dame Margaret's name was infamous in the popular mind.

The location of the ancient settlement can still be seen in the field beside Wolverton Park. I have a post about it here.

Enclosure meant exactly that. Hedgerows were planted to mark off the fields and separate cattle and sheep from arable land. Dr. Francis Hyde published a map of these fields, together with their names, in his A Short History of Wolverton. I have discussed these names (some of which are very old indeed) in these posts.

It has been estimated that there were about 30 families still living in the old medieval village in the middle of the 16th century. However, by 1654, when the Longuevilles completed their objective of enclosing the entire manor, the village had ben totally depopulated.

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