The Cotesbach Enclosures Riot

Here is an account of the Enclosures Riot from John Nichols ‘The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester ’ 1807

Men Women and Children, Assemble yourselves once again to Make Living History

By walking from agreed points in Leicestershire (Lutterworth), Warwickshire (Hillmorton), and Northamptonshire (Lilbourne), led by Living History groups in 17 th gear - with your spare tools for OFfA ( www.gardenorganic.org.uk )……and joining in the great debate of our time, climate change, and – by looking backwards - to move forwards towards more sustainable society again for the next 400 years...

Living History Area

We invited members of early 17th Century Living History groups to join us on the day to demonstrate all aspects of rural life at the time of the Enclosures Riot, and to sell their wares – farmers, cooks, carpenters, potters, metalworkers, shoemakers, spinners, herbalists, musicians and more. (See the Links page for more information about some of those who'll be there.)


Rioting peasants of Cotesbach on the ridge and furrow??
Guess the date?

The Historical Context

(N.B. it's intriguing if you've got a few moments to read about it!)

The lordship of Cotesbach had quietly prospered under a period of stable ownership up until 1591 when Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Devereux who owned it at that time, needed to raise money and sold it. This led to a period of several rapid changes of ownership – Cotesbach Manor became something of a speculative investment property. The baddie of our tale is John Quarles, a citizen and draper of the City of London, who having purchased the Manor in 1596, got into financial difficulties and saw the need to realise his assets by enclosing the land for sheep, buying out the other smaller landowners and demanding huge increases in tenant farmers' rents for the land. In 1603 the villagers felt threatened enough by this to petition to King James about it, which led to an official enquiry into the situation. As the commissioners themselves were from landowning families who had themselves benefited from enclosure, the result fell, not surprisingly, in favour of Quarles being granted a royal licence to enclose in 1603. About half the villagers had to leave; the roots of the community would have been torn away, as the people were torn away from the land. Far from solving his financial crisis, however, Quarles next faced bankruptcy over the payment of his daughter's dowry on her marriage to George Turpin of Knaptoft, an ambitious social move. So by 1607, although Quarles was still in residence in Cotesbach, he had sold it on to an old acquaintance, Sir Henry Billingsley, who had himself since died without even visiting Cotesbach, and hadleft it to his son. Not surprisingly, there would have been a volatile mood amongst the remaining residents of Cotesbach, and anything but a feeling of deference to the Lord of the Manor.

There had been some enclosure of the common land a hundred years before, but across England at the turn of the 17 th Century more and more shared common land was being enclosed to allow the landowners to graze sheep and thus maximise their returns. This led to depopulation of the countryside as the ordinary people lost their common arable land from which they fed themselves and grazed their livestock. Nationally, this marked the moment of transformation from an agrarian economy to the emergence of industrial capitalism.  The process was already set to roll for the next 400 years.  In time the labels ‘Levellers’ and ‘Diggers’ which originated around the time of the Midlands Revolt of 1607 became associated with social equality and radical political thought, and the enclosures a symbol of all this, but at the time their complaints were simply against those who were enclosing land …”neyther for ye benefit of ye Communalty, but onely for theyr owne private gaine…”  And they were grievously concerned about the price of grain (which rose partly as a result of the land being enclosed, partly on account of poor harvests) and their ability to feed their families.

So did 5,000 really come to Cotesbach? (Figure from Edmund Howes account of the Revolt, 1625/1631).  The largest crowd known to have gathered during the 16th and early 17th Centuries was at Cheapside, when 1,800 gathered on 27th June 1595.  The first recorded riot directly associated with the 1607 Midland Revolt started in Haselbech, Northamptonshire, on May Eve (30th April). By the end of May 1607 the unrest had reached such a level that the authorities in Leicester tried to prohibit inhabitants from leaving the town…the urban dwellers had much sympathy with the rioters, since a shortage of grain had severe and immediate repercussions in areas of more dense population…but despite this many are known to have slipped out the following morning, Trinity Sunday, under pretence of ‘ordinarie shoe of recreacion’ and journeyed to centres such as Cotesbach and Withybrook a good fifteen miles away.  The following day, the Mayor of Leicester (who himself may have had some sympathy with the rioters) was ordered to take action, and sent his aldermen and others who met the returning rioters in Lutterworth, having completed the levelling of enclosures at Cotesbach and other places. We do not know exact numbers, but J.E. Martin’s account shows that people of many different trades came from Leicester in addition to those from the surrounding villages, and that people may have moved from one centre of rioting to the next, spurred on by the legendary figure of Captain Pouch, one John Reynolds, who claimed authority from God and the King to throw down the enclosures and guarantee the rebels’ safety by way of the magic contents of his ‘Pouch’ which, when he was captured and subsequently executed for treason, turned out to be no more than an old chunk of green cheese. He may have helped organise the rebels – they were known to have formed processions, with a leader on horseback (in Ladbroke the riot was led by a captain on horseback and a man playing a pipe and a tabor), including whole communities, women and children, with tools and weapons, music and drums, and the tolling of Church bells as a signal for assembly.  As they were excluded from the political process, this had been a traditional means of making their opinions known, often such riots being triggered by feast days or religious festivals (in the case of the Midlands Revolt it was May Day and Trinity Sunday).  At any rate the situation in Cotesbach prompted a huge gathering which represented the peak of non-violent protest by the peasant community, possibly the largest such gathering there had ever been, marking the final episode in a struggle over land which stretched back to medieval times: a week later, the gallows in Leicester having been erected by the Earl of Huntingdon, torn down again by the mob, and re-erected on 10th June, when the threat of social and political unrest became too great, the uprising at Newton was dealt with by force, and things changed for ever.

As for Quarles, he was eventually summoned before the Court of the Star Chamber charged with depopulating the village by the Commission which was set up following the Midlands Revolt. After 1609 the Manor seems to have been partly enclosed and partly common land, but by 1612 the land had been re-enclosed.

SJN 5/3/07

See also: R.Oldham ‘The Story of a Village’, 2000, and look out for the author’s updated history available at the event. J.E.Martin 'Feudalism to Capitalism'; R.B.Manning 'Village Revolts' 1988

Other Midlands Enclosures Riots

The Cotesbach Enclosures Riot was one in a wave of riots which swept the Midlands in early 1607: at Newton near Geddington forty people were killed in a riot just a week or so after the Cotesbach one. Go to www.geddington.net/newton_rebels.htm to find out more about this and support their event on 8th & 9th th June. Other villages and towns nearby to Cotesbach where riots were recorded include: Withybrook, Chilvers Coton, Coventry; Hillmorton, Dunchurch and Ladbroke.