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The Inquisition of Depopulation, 1607

Historical background, 1350-1607

Concern had been expressed over the "depopulation of towns" from as far back as the 1490s, when John Rous (a chantry priest in Warwick) complained of the desertion of many villages in Warwickshire, which were all victims of early sheep-enclosures in that county.

The theme was repeated in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in his novel "Utopia", where one of his characters complains that "Sheep ... have developed a raging appetite ... fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats. To put it more plainly ...in those parts of the kingdom where the finest, and so the most expensive wool is produced, the nobles and gentlemen ... are enclosing all the land they can for pasture, and leaving none of it for cultivation."

A significant indirect cause of this problem was the Black Death, which in 1348/9 killed about 1/3 of England's population; and regular recurrences of plague acted to keep the population level depressed until the end of the C15th, after which it began to rise again (NB: the reasons for this rise in population are examined in some new research by G.W. Hatton, which is covered in another part of this site). The drop in population left some areas seriously underpopulated, with the result that much former arable land lay abandoned - and landlords sought to recover their income by turning this land over to pasture and raising sheep on it. As long as the population remained depleted this situation was accepted - and even welcomed - but once the population level began to rise again in the late 1400s there was increasing demand for arable land and sheep-pasturing became an increasing cause for conflict.

Many attempts were made to assess and control the situation. Statutes were enacted against the "pulling down of towns and laying down of pastures" in 1489, and again in 1515 and 1518 - and then in 1517, a royal commission was set up to examine all "enclosures for pasture" and "depopulated towns" carried out since 1488 (this became known as the Domesday of Inclosures, and was followed by a series of prosecutions in 1518). However, those who were guilty of breaking these statutes were often the very same men who were involved in making and administering the legislation - and as one wit remarked, "Men pass not much by what laws be made, for they see few of them put in practice". Further statutes prohibiting the "pulling down of towns" and/or the "conversion of arable to pasture" were enacted in 1526, 1536, 1549 and 1597 - all of which strongly suggests that there was continued widespread flouting of these laws.

The statutes against conversion of arable to pasture were briefly repealed in 1593, before being re-enacted in 1597 - and this gave rise to a flurry of oppportunistic enclosures in the 1590s by gentlemen and noble landlords anxious to increase their sheep pastures.

Meanwhile, there had been increasing rioting against enclosure, as the population continued to rise and arable land became ever more scarce - and this erupted in widespread violence in Oxfordshire in 1596 (the so-called Oxfordshire Rising) and once again in even greater and more widespread action in 1607, when huge crowds of 3,000 to 5,000 "Levellers" gathered at specific points around the Leics/Warks/Northants borders to break down recent enclosures at such places as Cotesbach and Hillmorton. Government was forced to react - and this led to the Inquisition of Depopulation of 1607 and the associated prosecutions of 1610.

Findings of the 1607 Inquisition

The findings of the Inquisition relating to Northampton are summarised in two one-page documents held in The National Archives (document reference TNA E163-17-8). G.W. Hatton's transcriptions of these two documents may be viewed/downloaded here. It will be noted that the very first item in the list of prosecutions relates to Onley - and also, that Onley lies directly adjacent to Hillmorton.

The geographic distribution of the locations singled out for these prosecutions is shown in this map.

New analysis of the 1610 prosecutions

Kerridge and Martin, in separate papers on this topic, have already analysed many of the legal aspects of these prosecutions, and have cast light on the characters of the men who carried out the enclosures and those who led the prosecutions (and John Martin's paper may be viewed/downloaded from the preceding page in this section). Professor Hindle's excellent summary of the 1607 Rising is also available from the preceding page in this section.

No-one, however, has looked in any detail at the purely practical aspects of the enclosures, to gauge the degree to which the enclosers were able to take advantage of the prevailing conditions. No analysis has been made, for example, of the effects of bad harvest, inclement weather, incidence of disease etc as factors that would have had significant effect on the level of population and their ability to work their arable land.

A study was therefore carried out by G.W. Hatton, making use of early parish registers and long-term meteorological data, to investigate these effects in relation to the prosecutions made in Northamptonshire.

The results of this study - including the DMV site at Onley - with an analysis and interpretation of the results, may be viewed/downloaded here. The raw data on population statistics are also available here in MS Excel format.