(The references in this text can be found here)

The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was one of a large number of rural protests that took place throughout the sixteenth century all over England but which reached a particular peak in times of crisis. By 1596 there had been three poor harvests in a row. The price of grain had risen threefold in some areas and many rural poor now faced starvation. Lacking the support of a modern police and security apparatus, governments of the time were well aware that large and, especially, coordinated uprisings would be very difficult to contain.
What we know of the events in Oxfordshire is almost entirely due to the historian John Walter who documented the story after meticulously researching the surviving state papers a few years ago (Walter 1985, 2006). Here, he sets the scene:
'England in the 1590s faced a series of challenges that has led historians to label the decade "the crisis of the 1590s". Economically, renewed and rapid population growth had seen both rising inflation, especially in the price of food, and a significant growth in landlessness, land-poverty and unemployment. Socially, the consequences were divisive. While economic change brought a significant increase in the numbers of the landless poor, those with land and capital benefited from the same forces. By the late sixteenth century, perhaps some 40% of the population depended to a greater or lesser extent on the market for food and work' (Walter 2006: 48-9).
A bad harvest fell disproportionately on the poor, leading to high prices for basic foodstuffs and increased unemployment. As John Walter makes clear, in the days before any welfare safety net ‘tensions rose in a society where subsistence crises and regional famine threatened the lives of the poor and harvest-sensitive’ (Walter 2006: 48-9).
In northern Oxfordshire, however, another factor was fuelling social tensions: aggressive land enclosures by wealthy landlords, forcing villagers off what had hitherto been common or arable land in favour of sheep pasture and thus increasing the pool of landless poor unable to sustain themselves. The enclosers were often aristocrats but were often also ‘new money’ like the Freres of Water Eaton, successful aldermen from Oxford city.
While land enclosure was a piecemeal process at the time across England, a nexus of contentious and resented enclosures was in a small parcel of land around the villages of Bletchingdon, Hampton Gay, Kidlington, Water Eaton and Yarnton just to the north of Oxford city. Several enclosers were at work there, among them Francis Power in Bletchingdon, Vincent Barry in Hampton Gay, William Frere in Water Eaton and Sir William Spencer in Yarnton.
Enter a 28-year-old carpenter called Bartholomew Steer from the village of Hampton Gay. In the autumn of 1596 Steer and a few other young men began to solicit support for a general rising in the area against the landlords and to secure famine relief. In Steer’s words, ‘There would be a rising of the people to pulle downe the enclosures, whereby waies were stopped up, and arrable landes inclosed, and to laie the same open againe’ (Walter 1985: 100).
Crucially, however, Steer went a step further than other rebels of the time. Whereas the call in rural areas was usually confined to violence against property – by throwing down the hedges of the enclosers and taking back arable land – Steer advocated a more drastic solution. He called for local landlords to be assassinated and their weapons seized house by house in a progress towards London – at which point, he hoped, the London prentices would join them in a general uprising. ‘Yt was but a monthes work to overrun England’, he reportedly claimed (Walter 1985: 108).
In Steer’s sights were property owners from one of the Queen’s favourites Sir Henry Lee at Ditchley to the county’s lord lieutenant Sir Henry Norris at Rycote . As Steer proposed,
'after their rising they would goe to Mr Poers, and knock at the gate, and keepe him fast that opened the dore, and sodainly thrust in, And . . . he with his ffawchion would Cutt of their heads, and would not bestowe a halter on them, And then they would goe to Mr Berries and spoill him and Cutt of his heade, and his daughters’ heads. ... And thens to Sir Henry Lea and spoile him likewise, and thens to Sir William Spencer & spoille him, And so to Mr ffrere, and so to my Lord Norreis, and so to London' (Walter 1985: 90).
In the event, Steer’s plans never got off the ground. Records show that he was a thoughtful tactician and eloquent speaker, but the essential problem was that he and a handful of other not-so-young village men would never have the authority to persuade large numbers of people to risk everything for political change. Most of those approached expressed sympathy but declined involvement.
Besides, many of Steer’s recorded comments are somewhat fantastical and it remains unclear how serious about a programme of assassination he actually was. ‘Work?’, he said to a starving villager, ‘Care not for worke, for we shall have a meryer world shortly; there be lusty fellowes abroade, and I will gett more, and I will work one daie and plaie an other, ffor I know ere yt be long wee shall have a meryer world’ (Walter 1985: 100). This was hardly practical talk in a famine. The enigma of the Oxfordshire Rising is whether, had it ever happened, anyone would have been harmed at all.
Steer aimed to ignite the uprising with a gathering on Enslow Hill (a mile from Hampton Gay) on 17 November 1596, chosen because it had been the site of an earlier rural rebellion in 1549, also bloodily suppressed. On that Sunday evening, however, only a handful of people turned up and by 11 p.m. Steer and his few companions made for home. Worse was to follow, much worse. Elizabethan society was rife with informers and Vincent Barry at Hampton Gay, Steer’s own Lord of the Manor, had already been alerted. Barry raised a general alarm and within days Steer and others had been detained. Before long, they were on their way to London tied to the backs of horses.

Risings and protests were often bloodily suppressed throughout the Tudor era. (Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library.)

Waiting for them in London was Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general. Coke was convinced that he had uncovered a grave plot and authorized torture ‘for the better bowltinge forth of the truthe’. From now on, matters assumed a terrible inevitability. Statements extracted from the men confirmed to Coke that stern measures were required, if only pour décourager les autres. Four men were subsequently arraigned on charges of high treason, even though some of Coke’s fellow lawyers were uneasy at what may have seemed a disproportionate response to rural braggadocio with no actual action ever arising.
Of the four men charged, only two ever went to full trial. Steer and one companion had already died in prison, either from the torture or from the conditions of incarceration. Judicial proceedings were little more than a kangaroo court. At an assize hearing two of the jurors were local land-owners. A judge at the treason trial was compromised by a familial relationship with Vincent Barry of Hampton Gay: his heir was about to become Barry’s son-in-law.
In the summer of 1597 the Oxfordshire Rising came to a miserable end back on Enslow Hill where it had started. In a final act of barbarity Richard Bradshaw of Hampton Gay and Robert Burton of Beckley were hung, drawn and quartered with proceedings overseen by none other than landlord and encloser William Frere of Water Eaton.
This is a poignant and fascinating insight into another world that John Walter’s research into contemporary records and court proceedings has rescued from historical obscurity. The story also has a very surprising outcome. Within a few years, the authorities were discouraging land enclosure, promoting a return to tillage and prosecuting aggressive landlords. Among the first to be arraigned before the Star Chamber in London for precisely that were Francis Power of Bletchingdon and William Frere of Water Eaton.
Ironically, one of the leading voices in favour of enclosure reform was Sir Edward Coke. Perhaps Coke had a residue of guilt over his harsh treatment of Steer. More probably, he like others in government had realized that a new class of acquisitive and aggressive property owners could not be allowed to prosper unchecked if the result was food scarcity, social breakdown and possibly catastrophic public disorder. A legacy of the Oxfordshire Rising is that government without consent invites no government at all: the poor always have to be kept on side.
Another and frightening legacy is the ease with which poor and marginal social groups can be demonized by vested interests, something I have alluded to in this story. Within a few years of 1596, some writers were portraying the poor as verminous, the more easily to take what little they had through enclosure. ‘From the sixteenth century onwards the emerging middle class of private property-owners joined the aristocracy in treating the rural commons as subversive, a zone of idleness, sinfulness and debauchery’ (Standing 2019: 15). Patterns of this kind repeat through history, and they can repeat again.
We still live with other legacies of the Oxfordshire Rising. The landscapes, estates and parks we see in much of rural Britain began to take form in the Tudor era. As Guy Standing writes in Plunder of the Commons, on the consequences of Henry VIII’s confiscation of Church lands, ‘The arbitrary mass transfer of what had been a form of commons was to scar permanently Britain’s class structure. It led to an extraordinary degree of concentration of land ownership that persists to this day’ (Standing 2019: 11).
The result is a peculiar notion of property rights and notorious trespass laws which still mean that more than 90 per cent of the land in England is off-limits to the public. In fact, ‘just 36,000 people – a mere 0.06 per cent of the population – own half of the rural land in England and Wales’ (Shrubsole 2019: 21). This inequitable system ties up a disproportionate amount of national wealth in property and blocks reform and sensible policy planning in many fields.
We may no longer have the land enclosures of the Tudor and subsequent eras, but one might argue that the current fashion for offshore financial vehicles, the corporate control of hitherto public spaces, widespread property development and unchecked agribusiness is our contemporary version of the same thing. It is essentially a cash grab upon society’s common resources by that same class of aggressive self-interested new money – today, the City of London – that caused all the trouble in the first place. The Tudor era was the beginning of an accelerating process of exploitation and dispossession of rights that remains a stain upon Britain to this day.
Mark Crean
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