The English Wool Trade

Chapter 3 : Enclosing

By the end of the fifteenth century, the population was at last beginning to grow again, which brought the need for food and employment for the labouring classes (not everyone had access to the skilled trades involved in the cloth industry) into direct conflict with the opportunities for profit from sheep-farming, in a time when the price of wool and cloth for export was rising.

Whilst the big farmers had land on which to graze their flocks, the smaller owners needed to take advantage of rights of common. In line with customary practice, the inhabitants of a manor would agree how the common land should be used. A frequent structure was to allow each villager to graze a number of animals in proportion to his landholdings on the manor. This led to frequent disputation, overgrazing and, potentially shortage of feed for both men and beasts.  At this time, the overwintering of stock on root vegetables was unknown, so to keep the flocks all year round, there had to be a compromise on the amount of food retained for human use.

The practice of enclosing – that is, the transfer of open, arable fields, dotted with farmsteads and owned by the manor with the tenants having ancient rights and duties, to enclosed pasture land, treated as entirely his own, by the lord of the manor – became a feature of the rural economy and caused widespread condemnation.

The Crown’s objection to enclosing (although it was heavily dependent on wool income) was a mixture of genuine concern for growing unemployment and the resulting vagrancy which terrified an establishment that saw stability of people within their home villages as fundamental to good order, and the risk of becoming dependent on foreign food imports – starving men are dangerous.

The first act which attempted to control enclosing, was that of 1488, 4. Henry VII c. 19. This was against the pulling down of towns and is sometimes referred to as the Husbandry Act. It provided that any land let to farm of greater than 20 acres, leased since 1485, or in the future must maintain the requisite buildings and houses for tillage.

The act had little effect. It was followed up in 1514 with a further proclamation against ingrossment (another term for enclosure), which required all land that had been under the plough at the start of the reign of Henry VII to be returned to arable. This was followed up by acts of 1515 and 1516 to restore towns that had been pulled down.  The acts did not distinguish between enclosure for sheep-farming, or for more productive arable management.

Sir Thomas More’s Utopia talks a good deal about the sheep which have eaten up the men, perhaps in response to the first English Royal Commission - The Domesday of Inclsosures (sic) - which took place in 1517 – 1518, promoted by Cardinal Wolsey. This sent commissioners to investigate practices in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. It was followed up by provisions for wrongdoers found guilty by the Chancery courts, to restore the land within forty days.  Since most of the offenders were the big landowners, many of whom were Henry VIII’s courtiers, we can see in this one of the causes of Wolsey’s unpopularity with the nobility.

1526 saw further expostulations from Parliament, requiring the return of land to tillage, suggesting that the economic benefits of sheep-farming outweighed any fear of real punishment. Those who had previously occupied and worked the land lost their employment, and, if their cottages were pulled down, were also evicted. The statistics indicate that there was no great difference in the treatment of the agricultural labourers between lay and ecclesiastical lords of the manor.

In 1548, Edward, Duke of Somerset, instituted a further commission. In this case, the commissioners were to refer to the 1517 work, to determine changes.

By 1549, rampaging inflation, and a growing population brought anger against enclosing to a head in Kett’s Rebellion, which was brutally suppressed by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Economics, however, had changed. As noted above, the price of wool collapsed, whilst the price of grain was increasing, so enclosing for sheep farming waned. It still occurred for improved arable management, which resulted in evictions of smaller landholders.

Riots and rebellions against enclosing of common land continued to occur, with two significant outbreaks in 1607; the Midland Revolt and the Newton Rebellion. 


Bowden, Peter J. (2005) ‘Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England: Volume 9 (Economic History) Routledge

Leasdam. I. S (1897) ‘The Domesday of Inclosures, 1517-1518, 2 Vols: Being the Extant Returns to Chancery for Berks Bucks, Cheshire, Essex, Leicestershire, ... Inclosures in 1517 and for Bedfordshire in 1518’  Longmans, Green & Co. 

Savine, A. (1904) ‘English Customary Tenure in the Tudor Period’, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 19/1: 33–80