John Stow (c. 1525–1605) was a historian and antiquarian. In 1580 he published Annales, or a Generale Chronicle of England from Brute until the present yeare of Christ 1580, a narrative account of England’s history to date. Stow continued to update the chronicle bringing out three further editions in his lifetime. The work was continued after his death by the historian Edmund Howes, who published further updated editions in 1615 and 1631.
The Midland Revolt of 1607
The pages here, digitised from the 1615 edition, show Howes’s account of the Midland Revolt of 1607, a peasant uprising against land enclosures. He begins:
About the middle of this moneth of May, 1607 a great number of common persons, sodainly assembled themselves in Northamptonshire, and then others of like nature assembled themselves in Warwickshire, and some in Lecestershire, they violently cut and brake downe hedges, filled up ditches, and laid open all such enclosures of Commons, and other grounds as they found enclosed, which of ancient time hadde bin open and imploied to tillage. (p. 889)
Enclosure was the act of fencing off fields that had traditionally been common land, i.e. land leased in small strips to tenant farmers, and common areas of pasture and woodland. Enclosure benefitted the land owner who, instead of collecting rents or tithes, could turn his fields to more profitable uses such as sheep farming. However, it severely disadvantaged the common people who faced mass unemployment, displacement from their homes and the removal of their means to produce food. Enclosure had been prevalent throughout the 16th century, and in the 1590s and 1600s there was a sharp increase on previous decades. In the 1600s, with the growing number of enclosures and the interrelated problems of grain shortages and rising food prices, starvation was a real threat to the rural poor.
Howe goes on to describe the growing momentum of the uprising and the support for the levelling of the land by the local people. He also reports on the Proclamations issued by the King ordering an end to the uprising and the legal sanctions taken against some of the rebels, although he fails to mention the incident at Newton in Northamptonshire on 8 June where 40 or 50 peasants were killed by a gentry militia for refusing to disperse.
Coriolanus and the Midland Revolt
This real life clash between poor rural peasants threatened by starvation and the wealthy land owners controlling the economic situation sees its parallel in Coriolanus in the conflict between the hungry rioting plebeians and the patricians who controlled the grain supply. Shakespeare individualises the conflict and pushes the arguments on the side of the land owner to their extreme in his portrayal of Coriolanus’s bitter contempt for the common folk.
Shakespeare was himself a landowner in the 1600s and had been named for hoarding grain in 1594.
In 1614 (six or seven years after Coriolanus was written), William Combe – a landowner in Stratford-upon-Avon – proposed to enclose open fields at Welcombe, in which Shakespeare had a lease of tithes. Initially Shakespeare did not object as his tithe share would not be affected, but after some diggers started levelling the enclosures, he had second thoughts and voiced his objection.
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