Capital versus Commons is a series of articles on early capitalism and agriculture in England. It was previously titled ‘Robbing the Soil.’
PART ONE discussed the central role of shared property and common rights to resources in pre-capitalist agriculture. In the 1400s that system began to break down, beginning the transition from feudalism to capitalism
PART TWO discussed the processes known as ‘enclosure.’ In the late 1400s, landlords began evicting small tenant farmers to increase profits, often by creating large sheep farms. In the 1530s that change was intensified when Henry VIII seized the church’s vast lands and sold them to investors who raised rents and imposed shorter leases. The twin transformations that Marx called primitive accumulation — stolen land becoming capital and landless producers becoming wage workers — were well underway when thousands of peasants rebelled against the changes in 1549.
PART THREE discusses the protestant reformers who opposed the growing drive for privatization of land in the mid-1500s.
by Ian Angus
|“I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to purchase and inhabit the earth.”—Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1550
“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!”—Karl Marx, 1867
The privatization of land has been justly described as “perhaps the weirdest of all undertakings of our ancestors.”
Enclosure — the transformation of common resources into private property — was a fundamental feature of the rise of capitalism in early modern England. It involved not only new ways of using the land, but also, as both cause and effect, new ways of thinking about it.
The idea that individuals could claim exclusive ownership of parts of nature on which all humans depend was very weird indeed. Contrary to the oft-expressed view that greed is inherent in human nature, the shift to from commons-based to private-profit-based farming was not accepted easily — in fact, it was denounced and resisted as an assault of the laws of God and the needs of humanity.
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Henry VIII died in 1547, succeeded as king by Edward VI, then only nine years old. For the next six years, actual political power rested with a regency council, headed by the Duke of Somerset until 1549, and by the Duke of Northumberland from late 1549 until Edward’s death in 1553.
Somerset and Northumberland were strong protestants who wanted the English church to move farther from catholic doctrine and practices than Henry had allowed. To promote that, the law outlawing heresy was repealed and censorship was relaxed, beginning a period that has been called “the first great era in the history of English public discussion.”
Liberal protestants took advantage of that opening to campaign vigorously, not just for religious reform, but against sin and corruption in society at large, particularly the erosion of traditional economic values. Their powerful condemnations of greedy landlords and merchants circulated both as books and sermons addressed to the wealthy, and as inexpensive pamphlets and broadsides that were sold in city streets.
They don’t seem to have acted as an organized group, but their speeches and writings clearly reveal the presence of a strong current of anti-capitalist opinion in England in the mid-1500s. Because they focused on the common weal — common good — historians have labelled them the commonwealth men.
Cormorants and greedy gulls
R.H. Tawney’s 1926 book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism remains the best account of the complex connections between social and religious criticism in Tudor England.
“It was an age in which the popular hatred of the encloser and the engrosser found a natural ally in religious sentiment, schooled, as it was, in a tradition which had taught that the greed of gain was a deadly sin, and that the plea of economic self-interest did not mitigate the verdict, but aggravated the offence.
“In England, as on the Continent, doctrinal radicalism marched hand in hand with social conservatism. The most scathing attack on social disorders came, not from the partisans of the old religion, but from divines on the left wing of the Protestant party, who saw in economic individualism but another expression of the laxity and licence which had degraded the purity of religion, and who understood by reformation a return to the moral austerity of the primitive Church, no less than to its government and doctrine.”
The great sin they condemned was covetousness — the desire to accumulate ever more wealth. Hugh Latimer, the most popular preacher of the day, condemned landlords’ greed in general, and enclosure in particular, in a sermon preached before the King and other worthies.
“You landlords, you rent-raisers, I may say you step-lords, you unnatural lords, you have for your possessions yearly too much. For what here before went for twenty or forty pound by year, (which is an honest portion to be had gratis in one lordship of another man’s sweat and labour) now is let for fifty or an hundred pound by year. … Too much, which these rich men have, causes such dearth, that poor men, which live of their labour, cannot with the sweat of their face have a living …
“These graziers, enclosers and rent-raisers, are hinderers of the King’s honour. For where as have been a great many householders and inhabitants there is now but a shepherd and his dog.”
Those views found support in the country’s top ruling circles. The Book of Private Prayer, prepared by Archbishop Cranmer and other officials of the established church in 1553, included a prayer “For Landlords.”
“We heartily pray Thee to send Thy Holy Spirit into the hearts of those that possess the grounds and pastures of the earth, that they remembering themselves to be Thy tenants may not rack nor stretch out the rents of their lands, nor yet take unreasonable fines. … Give them grace also … that they … may be content with that which is sufficient and not join house to house and land to land, to the impoverishment of others, but so behave themselves in letting out their lands, tenements and pastures that after this life they may be received into everlasting dwelling places.”
One of the most vehement critics of greed and exploitation was the London-based printer and poet Robert Crowley, who offered this explanation for the 1549 peasant rebellions.
“If I should demand of the poor man of the country what thing he thinks to be the cause of Sedition, I know his answer. He would tell me that the great farmers, the graziers, the rich butchers, the men of law, the merchants, the gentlemen, the knights, the lords, and I can not tell who; men that have no name because they are doers of all things that any gain hangs upon. Men without conscience. Men utterly devoid of God’s fear. Yea, men that live as though there were no God at all! Men that would have all in their own hands; men that would leave nothing for others; men that would be alone on the earth; men that be never satisfied.
“Cormorants, greedy gulls; yea, men that would eat up men, women, & children, are the causes of Sedition! They take our houses over our heads, they buy our lands out of our hands, they raise our rents, they levy great (yea unreasonable) fines, they enclose our commons! No custom, no law or statute can keep them from oppressing us in such sort, that we know not which way to turn so as to live.”
Condemning “lease mongers that cancel leases on land in order to lease it again for double or triple the rent,” Crowley argued that landlords should “consider themselves to be but stewards, and not Lords over their possessions.”
“But so long as this persuasion sticks in their minds — ‘It is my own; who shall stop me from doing as I like with my own as I wish?’ — it shall not be possible to have any redress at all. For if I may do with my own as I wish, then I may suffer my brother, his wife, and his children toil in the street, unless he will give me more rent for my house than he shall ever be able to pay. Then may I take his goods for that he owes me, and keep his body in prison, turning out his wife and children to perish, if God will not move some man’s heart to pity them, and yet keep my coffers full of gold and silver.”
Back to the feudal
While no one can doubt the sincerity of their criticism of the rich, the commonwealth men were also “united in denouncing the rebels, whose sin could never be justified even if their grievances could.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose denunciation of wealth accumulation is quoted at the beginning of this article, also, in the same sermon, condemned “unlawful assemblies and tumults,” and people who “confound all things upsy down with seditious uproars and unquietness.” “God in his scriptures expressly forbids all private revenging, and had made this order in commonwealths, that there should be kings and governors to whom he has willed all men to be subject and obedient.”
Speaking of the 1549 rebellions, Latimer declared that “all ireful, rebellious persons, all quarrelers and wranglers, all blood-shedders, do the will of the devil, and not God’s will.” Disobedience to one’s superiors was a major sin, even if the superiors were themselves violating God’s laws. “What laws soever they make as concerning outward things we ought to obey, and in no wise to rebel, although they be never so hard, noisome and hurtful.”
Immediately after condemning landlords as cormorants and greedy gulls, Crowley told the 1549 rebels that they had been misled by the devil: “to revenge wrongs is, in a subject, to take an usurp the office of a king, and, consequently, the office of God.” The poor should suffer in silence, awaiting royal or divine intervention.
Like the nineteenth century “feudal socialists” who Marx and Engels criticized three centuries later, the commonwealth men were literally reactionary — they wanted “to roll back the wheel of history.” “From the ills of present-day society this group draws the conclusion that feudal and patriarchal society should be restored because it was free from these ills.”
As historian Michael Bush says, the commonwealth men “showed concern for the poor, but accepted the need for poverty.”
“Without exception they subscribed to the traditional ideal of the state as a body politic in which every social group had its place, function and desert. … They pleaded with rulers to reform society, and proposed various means, but not by changing its structure. Their thinking was paternalistic and conservative. Although they censured the nobility, it was for malpractices, not for being ruling class.”
English protestant reformers in the mid-1500s “inherited the social idea of medieval Christianity pretty much in its entirety,” so their views were “especially antithetical to the acquisitive spirit that animated the emerging society of capitalism.”
In the 1500s, Tawney wrote, “the new economic realities came into sharp collision with the social theory inherited from the Middle Ages.” What shocked and frightened the commonwealth men was not just poverty, but the growth of a worldview that repudiated “the principles by which alone, as it seemed, human society is distinguished from a pack of wolves.”
“That creed was that the individual is absolute master of his own, and, within the limits set by positive law, may exploit it with a single eye to his pecuniary advantage, unrestrained by any obligation to postpone his own profit to the well-being of his neighbours, or to give account of his actions to a higher authority.”
The wolf-pack creed they were fighting, Tawney commented ironically, was “the theory of property which was later to be accepted by all civilized communities.”
A Losing Battle
The commonwealth men were eloquent and persuasive, but they were fighting a losing battle. The aristocrats who owned most of England’s farmland and controlled the government could tolerate public criticism and ineffective laws, but not anything that actually threatened their wealth and power. They blamed the 1549 rebellions on the critics, and quickly ousted the Duke of Somerset, the only member of the regency council who seemed to favor enforcing the anti-enclosure laws.
What remained of the commonwealth campaign collapsed after 1543, when the catholic Mary Tudor became queen and launched a vicious reign of terror against protestants. Some 300 “heretics,” including Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer, were burned at the stake, and hundreds more fled to protestant countries on the continent.
Capitalist practices already had a strong foothold in the countryside in the 1540s, and they spread rapidly in the rest of the century, without regard to what Christian preachers might say. “Forms of economic behavior which had appeared novel and aberrant in the 1540s were becoming normalized virtually to the point of being taken for granted.”
For landowners who wanted to preserve their estates, that shift wasn’t a choice. It was forced on them by changes beyond their control.
“Between the beginning of the sixteenth century and 1640 prices, particularly of foodstuffs, rose approximately sixfold. … [This] put an unusual premium energy and adaptability and turned conservatism from a force making for stability into a quick way to economic disaster. Landed families which stuck to the old ways, left rents as they were, and continued to grant long leases soon found themselves trapped between static incomes and rising prices.”
As a result, the trends that Latimer and his co-thinkers opposed actually accelerated, and their vision of a reborn feudal paternalism was replaced in ruling class thought by what historian C.B. MacPherson calls “possessive individualism” — the view that society is a collection of market relations between people who have an absolute right to do as they wish with their property. That view has remained central to all variants of capitalist ideology, down to the present.
Parliament never passed another anti-enclosure bill after 1597, and the Stuart kings who succeeded the Tudors in 1603 only gave lip-service to protecting the poor from enclosure. “Commissions were issued from time to time for the discovery of offenders, but their crimes were pardoned on payment of a money fine. The punishment of enclosers had degenerated into a revenue-raising device and little else.”
As Christopher Hill writes, in the century before the English Revolution, ruling class attitudes toward the land changed radically. “No government after 1640 seriously tried either to prevent enclosures, or even to make money by fining enclosers.”
But only the rich had decided that land privatization was a good idea. The poor continued to resist that weird undertaking, and for some, the objective now was communism.
To be continued …
I have modernized spelling, and occasionally grammar and vocabulary, in quotations from 16th and 17th century authors.
 Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 196. The date 1550 is approximate.
 Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, (Penguin Books, 1976), 742.
 Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Beacon Press, 2001), 178.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), xiii.
 Richard H. Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism: A Historical Study (Angelico Press, 2021 ), 140-41.
 Hugh Latimer, “The First Sermon Preached before King Edward, March 8, 1549,” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library)
 Quoted in Thomas Edward Scruton, Commons and Common Fields (Batoche Books, 2003 ), 81-2.
 Robert Crowley, “The Way to Wealth,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 132-3.
 Robert Crowley, “An information and petition against the oppressors of the poor commons of this realm,” The Select Works of Robert Crowley, ed. J.M. Cowper, (Kegan Paul Trench Trubner & Co., 1872), 162, 157.
 Catharine Davies, A Religion of the Word: The Defence of the Reformation in the Reign of Edward VI (Manchester Univ. Press, 2002), 159.
 Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon on Rebellion,” The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge University Press, 1846), 192, 193
 Hugh Latimer, “The Fourth Sermon upon the Lord’s Prayer (1552)” Sermons by Hugh Latimer, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library) https://ccel.org/ccel/latimer/sermons/
 Karl Marx & Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 6, (International Publishers, 1976) 494, 355.
 M. L. Bush, The Government Policy of Protector Somerset (Edward Arnold, 1975), 61.
 Arthur B. Ferguson, The Articulate Citizen and the English Renaissance (Duke University Press, 1965), 248.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 135.
 Tawney, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, 146-7.
 Keith Wrightson, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (Yale University Press, 2000), 202.
 Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford University Press, 1965), 188, 189-90.
 C. B. Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (Oxford University Press, 1962).
 Joan Thirsk, “Enclosing and Engrossing, 1500-1640,” in Agricultural Change: Policy and Practice 1500-1750, ed. Joan Thirsk (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 67.
 Christopher Hill, Reformation to Industrial Revolution (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1968), 51.