The Enclosure Movement doesn’t sound like it would have made a significant difference to English society through a modern lens. After all, everyday people are used to fencing off the land, designating land as having owners, and dividing up property amongst citizens to use as they wish.
However, before the Enclosure Movement, common-use land was standard and ordinary people did not have to struggle to find places to grow crops.
This is a movement with origins from 1066 and which had lasting consequences after the mid-1600s. Historians consider the Enclosure Movement one of the most influential movements in the history of England.
What is a Close?
The root of the movement began with the creation of “closes,” which were small parcels of land taken from larger fields.
This was done by the landed and titled person who owned a swath of land and wanted to reward a loyal servant or perhaps provide support to a family member.
The first documented case of the ruling class using closes as a part of the reward structure, which afforded loyal supporters upward social mobility, was done by William I.
William invaded and conquered England in 1066. He distributed land among 180 barons who were allowed to hold the land as tenants. He promised the English people that he would honor the current laws, which permitted commoners to exercise their ancient rights to the use of the land.
In the UK, land ownership is governed partly by this system that William set up. So even if you own land in England today, the Crown technically owns and is leasing it to you.
The contracts that the Crown put in place to allow these tenants to “own” the property required that the person provided service.
These were the first steps along the road to the feudal system, and they allowed the Crown to grow wealthy from the efforts of those indebted to it.
The feudal system also effectively ended the ability of the common people to use land that was not their own for sustenance. As a result, many historians trace the root of social disparity and true poverty in England to the first closes granted by William I.
When Did the Enclosure Movement Start?
The Enclosure Movement began in the 16th century. It gained steam in the 18th century when Parliament passed The Enclosure Acts to create privately-owned land that peasants or commoners could no longer use.
This increased the value of the properties in question and forced smaller farmers and common people to work for wealthy landowners to survive. A myriad of secondary social changes followed the first Enclosure Acts, which were rooted in the inability of peasants and commoners to farm their land without servitude to a landowner.
The Enclosure movement would continue into the 1800s as more and more of the property in England became privately owned and managed.
However, because the English people had been granted the right to common land since the time of William I, there was staunch resistance to this movement.
Bloodshed, conflict, and crime became intertwined with Enclosures. The poverty that the Enclosure Movement caused eventually made it possible for the Industrial Revolution to hire people for pennies an hour and treat them with brutal indifference.
William I would never have been able to know that his creation of closes in 1066 would lead to what amounted to indentured servitude for millions of British citizens.
What Were the Main Goals of the Enclosure Movement?
From this perspective, it is easy to see the Enclosure Movement as a massive power grab by England’s middle and upper classes. However, the original roots of the movement did not aim to deprive ordinary people of their rights.
When the first closes were made, it likely seemed that there was so much land in England that no one would ever go without access to the property.
The rise of the industrial revolution and the growth of cities were the fuel for the situation where Enclosure and poverty were so directly linked.
The Enclosure Movement was really begun as a means to increase agricultural efficiency. But, as in many other aspects of modernization, England was years ahead of the rest of Europe regarding agricultural technology.
Germany did not start pressing for Enclosure until the last half of the 18th century, and other places in Europe were not discussing Enclosure seriously until the Industrial Revolution was in full swing.
In England, the growing season was not long, and farmers and commoners were always allowed to let their animals graze on arable land between harvest seasons.
However, with the advent of technologies like crop rotation, and the desire to lengthen the agricultural year, farmers ceased to allow commoners and those without land to graze animals on their fields.
This made sense from the farmer’s standpoint, but it left the commoner or farmer without his land in a difficult situation.
Enclosure made ownership of any food-producing animal quite complex for those who did not possess the land. Because many people could no longer keep their cows or pigs, they were forced to move into the city for work and food.
Landowners never considered this consequence of Enclosure, and cities swelled with beggars and those struggling to make ends meet.
Consequences of Enclosure Beyond Poverty
The consequences of Enclosure are more clearly seen from the perspective of those living in modern cities. Still, at the time of the original movement, no one considered the risk to public health that such overpopulation in cities might cause.
Outbreaks of plague became common, the most famous of these outbreaks being the two successive years in the 17th century when the “Black Death” spread like wildfire throughout London.
The Black Death was written about in poetic detail by Edgar Allan Poe, and his description in The Masque of the Red Death of, “profuse bleedings at the pores, with dissolution”) was quite accurate.
Entire neighborhoods of London were wiped out, bodies lying in the street, contagion hovering in the air.
On top of the instances of plague, which created havoc in cities, fires were a new and insidious risk.
London was still made entirely from timber, and the city’s stables and storehouses were full of flammable products like straw. All it took was one small slip with a candle, one tiny spark in the air in a stable yard, for a fire to break out.
The Great Fire in London in 1666 can be laid, in part, at the feet of the Enclosure Movement. London was overburdened with people who could not care for or feed themselves in the country due to Enclosure, and the stables were packed with animals brought along when people moved into the city.
Houses were covered with flammable pitch to seal out the winter rains and the snow and were roofed with thatch. There was no organized fire brigade and no means to evacuate large city sections along crowded, narrow streets safely.
The Great Fire began in a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane and spread rapidly throughout the city. As a result, nearly all of London burned down and had to be rebuilt. The city stopped the fire because the Royal Navy blew up houses to create a firebreak.
Combined with the changes to the social structure of Britain and the steep rise in poverty, the plague and the fire had a drastic and negative impact on England.
The Industrial Revolution that was to come would soften the economic blow somewhat, but it would only further widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
While the Enclosure Movement is often viewed as a social event and nothing more, the Great Fire and The Black Death tell a different story.
Lasting Impacts of the Enclosure Movement
It isn’t easy to overstate the alterations to English society’s fabric caused by the Enclosure Movement. The movement was unpopular, and this new kind of tension between social classes had not been felt before.
Traditionally, England had fought wars with other peoples, but now conflict was present between English people with property and those without.
Crop yields and livestock ownership increased, but only for those with the property. Those without found themselves unable to feed their families and were forced to move into cities to struggle against poverty and hunger.
The increased labor supply in cities, with seemingly nothing else to do, was easily pressed into labor during the Industrial Revolution. As a result, English citizens who would have once said they were equals, living as free people, now found themselves reduced to circumstances they could only consider indentured servitude.
Disease, fires, and other social ills followed the influx of large numbers of impoverished people in cities like London.
While the rich began to grow richer, the poor suffered the most due to the ills of this societal shift. Poverty became synonymous with disease, starvation, and death in ways that it had never been before.
Beggars laws had to be enacted, and a police force had to be developed to deal with the roving bands of poor and starving people forced to live cheek to jowl in overcrowded cities.
The Enclosure Movement Changed England and Europe Forever
To people living today, it is hard to imagine a world where ownership of property and possessions is not the standard goal of all people. However, before the creation of the first closes, much was shared by English and European society.
The land was among the shared items, and the common people of England were allowed by ancient lawful right to graze animals and farm the land of England.
When Enclosure was conceived and enforced, the English people were deprived of one of the most fundamental rights humans can claim.
The resulting poverty, social class division, and conflict have impacted the social fabric of England and the rest of Europe.
Enclosure was about making more arable land and more productive agricultural practices possible. However, in practice, it became even more connected with the rise of enforced poverty, starvation, and social strife.
While ownership feels entirely normal to us today, ownership was not a major factor in the lives of humans before the arrival of William I in England.
When we consider what it means to own something, we rarely consider whether or not that ownership deprives someone else of something essential to their daily life.
This is likely the exception to the rule in the modern world, but the Enclosure Movement proves how linked ownership and deprivation can be.
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Duffy, Phil. “The Enclosure Movement and the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions.” 12 Sept. 2022, https://mises.org/wire/enclosure-movement-and-agricultural-and-industrial-revolutions. Accessed 26 Jan. 2023.
Poe, Edgar Allan. The Masque of the Red Death. 1842.
Britannica.com. “Enclosure.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/enclosure. Accessed 26 Jan. 2023.
LFB. “The Great Fire of London.” https://www.london-fire.gov.uk/museum/history-and-stories/the-great-fire-of-london/#:~:text=In%201666%2C%20a%20devastating%20fire,Paul’ s%20Cathedral. Accessed 26 Jan. 2023.
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