8 – Midland Revolt, 1607
The religious changes instituted by Henry the Eighth would continue to be fought over for most of the next two hundred years, but another factor was to enter into English society that would make internal conflict even more likely. Social change was sweeping through England and whereas our civil wars previously had been about kings fighting kings and lords fighting lords, now the people were about to enter the stage as a force with which the government would have to reckon.
The average working classes had always been the fodder of the conflicts over successions and kingdoms, but by the 17th century, they were ready to become the agents of change as well. Among the first uprisings to take place as a result of popular pressure was the Midland Revolt, which sprung up in 1607 in, unsurprisingly, the Midlands. The spark was the enclosure of common land, a fundamental change in the economic circumstances of the vast majority of the people – estimated at 90% – who made their living from agriculture.
The mediaeval English village had always been organised thus: the common man in the countryside grew vegetables on strips of land that they rented from local landlords, while their animals grazed on commonly-held fields, also using these common lands for hunting, firewood, timber and thatch for building materials. As the population grew – largely because of the success of farming and improvements in technology – it became more profitable for the landlords to graze their own sheep for wool on the land rather than allowing people to rent it. Thus, the common land was enclosed and sold off, forcing people off the land and into cities.
In the Midlands, where the vast majority lived from the land, this was particularly felt. In Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire, riots began against enclosure, with thousands following a leader called John Reynolds, an itinerant former peasant who claimed to have authority from God and the King to fight enclosure. He was known as Captain Pouch, as he carried a pouch that he said contained an item that would protect all those who followed him in his protests.
As many as 5000 rallied to Captain Pouch’s cause and marched on the town of Newton in Northamptonshire, where they intended to undo the enclosures of land that had been enacted by the Tresham family, the local landowners. The Treshams were already hated because of their association with the Gunpowder Plot – which had failed to kill the King two years previously – and had further angered locals by buying out Rockingham Forest, where the poor had once hunted.
The King despatched Edward Montagu, the local Member of Parliament, to put down the rebellion. He had previously spoken against enclosure, but was now tasked with defending it. He attempted to raise a local militia, but the population refused to rally to the King against their neighbours. Instead, the local landowners armed their own servants and charged the rioters, leaving 50 dead after a protracted battle. When the riot had been quelled, the ringleaders hanged and quartered, as was the custom for those convicted of treason.
Captain Pouch John Reynolds was among those executed – and his magical pouch was found to contain nothing more than a piece of mouldy cheese.