This story explores the legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596, a rural protest in the countryside to the north of Oxford city against hardship, inequality and land enclosure.
By 1596 failed harvests had produced starvation in many rural areas. Equally significant, however, was the enclosure by wealthy landlords of what had been common or arable land and its conversion to sheep pasture, a profound social and economic change that had been growing throughout the Tudor era. No longer able to sustain themselves, many rural poor drifted into homelessness, unemployment and social breakdown as villages became depopulated.
The Rising was led by Bartholomew Steer, a young carpenter from the village of Hampton Gay. Steer called for ‘a rising of the people to pulle downe the enclosures’, but crucially he went a step further than other rebels of the time. He called for local landlords to be killed and their weapons seized as the precursor to a general rebellion. This soon became the cause of all his trouble.
These legacies are still with us. The Tudor era was the dawn of centuries of sometimes violent land enclosure that have given us the English landscape we see today. Our ideas of land use, property and ownership began to take shape at this time, leaving us with spectacular inequality and notorious trespass laws. Even now, more than 90 per cent of the land in England is off-limits to the public and more than half of our rural land is owned by just 0.06 per cent of the population. Still with us, too, are social and legal systems that underwrite such imbalances and, frighteningly, the ease with which powerful interests can demonize poor and marginal social groups the better to take what little they have.
The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was a protest by the common man. It was born of desperation and ended, tragically, at the gallows. The issues it brought to light, however, remain unresolved and are a stain upon Britain to this day.
I have summarized the story of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 in a later section, 'The Story', here.
I give references and further reading in 'References' here.