Early modern England was marked by profound changes in economy, society, politics and religion. It is widely believed that the poverty and discontent which these changes often caused resulted in major rebellion and frequent 'riots'. This book argues for the inherently political nature of popular protest through a series of studies of acts of collective protest, up to and including the English Revolution. Authority was always the first historian of popular protest. Explaining the complex relationship between the poor and their governors, the book overviews popular attitudes to the law and the proper exercise of authority in early modern England. A detailed reconstruction of events centring on grain riots in the Essex port of Maldon in the crisis of 1629 is then presented. Urbanisation, regional specialisation and market integration were the larger changes against which disorder was directed between 1585 and 1649. The book discusses the 'four Ps', population growth, price rise, poverty and protest, explaining their connection with population explosion to poverty and protest. The major European revolts of the so-called 'Oxfordshire rising' are then analysed. Popular politics might deploy 'weapons of the weak' in a form of everyday politics that was less dramatic but more continuous than 'riot'. On the very eve of the Civil War, large crowds, with underemployed clothworkers, attacked and plundered the houses of local Catholics and proto-royalists among the nobility and gentry. In a culture that proscribed protest and prescribed obedience, public transcripts could be used to legitimise a popular political agency.
A ‘rising of the people’?
The Oxfordshirerising of 1596
lizabeth I, on a progress through Oxfordshire in 1592, visited Sir Henry
Lee, one of her favourites, at his house at Ditchley. To greet her, her former
champion and master of ceremonies at the accession-day tilts staged an elaborate entertainment of chivalric romance lasting two days. At its conclusion,
Loricus (Lee), a knight-hermit, made Elizabeth a mock conveyance of ‘The
Whole Mannor of Love’. Among the amorous appurtenances of this transfer
Woods of hie attemptes,
Reconstructing popular political culture in early modern England
to explain, for example, the belief of
urban historians, against a lack of supporting evidence, that protests over food
were common in sixteenth-century London, and the elevation to the roll-call
of major European revolts of the so-called ‘Oxfordshirerising’, which saw four
young men spend a night shivering on a hillside in the November of 1596 as
they waited unsuccessfully for someone else to join them.
In retrospect, it is possible to see how these two historiographies of protest,
the political and the economic, intersected to produce a picture of early modern
Popular culture and popular protest in early modern England
between the cultural appropriations of the people and the cultural hegemony of the elite.
Popular politics in early modern England
1 R. Cobb, The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1780–1820 (Oxford, 1970).
2 J. Walter, ‘The impact on society: a world turned upside down’, in J. Morrill (ed.), The
Impact of the English Civil War (London, 1991).
3 For the distortions that can be produced when historians fail to recognise this, see the
example of the Oxfordshirerising: a failed attempt at a rising, which
of the strategic importance of sensitive
sites; and demonstrated a tactical ability to refer to appropriate transcripts, had
the best chance of success.
In crisis years, grumbling by the poor was also able to exploit a public transcript, then more insistent on the moral nature of the obligation, which called
for contributions from the rich, ‘according to their devotions, and as charity
requireth in this time of dearth’.22 Dearth years doubtless saw increased
grumbling. In the aftermath of the attempted Oxfordshirerising, one man
told the authorities that he, ‘made
Common right, parish relief and endowed charity in a forest economy, c. 1600–1800
defected from this alliance, and Sir Thomas Tresham of Newton
was amongst those eleven landlords prosecuted by AttorneyGeneral Coke for enclosure and engrossing in the reaction against
depopulation after the Oxfordshirerising.48 His long-standing
abuses in this respect almost certainly explain why Geddington
Chase should be the epicentre of the Midland Rising of 1607.
The Northamptonshire disturbances of that year were, as we
have seen, focused on the Tresham estates in and around Newton
and Geddington. By Michaelmas 1607, 143 rebels had sued for
Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘to the abortive
Oxfordshirerising of November 1596’, 48 and that the play seems to allude
to Oxfordshire in that the fairy queen motif had appeared also in
the Ditchley entertainment of 1592 (usually attributed to Richard
Eedes, a figure in whom Shakespeare is likely to have taken an
interest, since he was commended by Meres in Palladis Tamia
commit robberies. See Royal
Proclamations, Hughes and Larkin (eds), vol. 3, pp. 160–2.
Cockburn, CAR: Essex Indictments Elizabeth I, p. 427. For the rumours of an uprising of
the poor in Essex, see Hunt, Puritan Moment; John Walter, ‘A “rising of the people?” the
Oxfordshirerising of 1596’, P&P, 107 (1985), pp. 90–143.
See William Harrison, Elizabethan England, Tothrop Withington (ed.) (London, n.d.),
p. 107; Essex Record Office, Q/SR 76/57, both cited in Hunt, Puritan Moment, p. 51;
Beier, ‘Anti-language’, pp. 93–7.
Slack, Poverty, pp. 92, 96.
see esp. A. L. Morton, The English Utopia (London, 1978) passim; John Walter,
‘A “rising of the people”?: the Oxfordshirerising of 1596’, P&P, 107 (1985), pp. 90–143;
Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley, 1994). passim; McRae,
God Speed the Plough, passim; Andy Wood, ‘“Poore men woll speke one daye”: plebeian
languages of deference and defiance in England, c. 1520–1640’, in Harris, Politics of the
Excluded, pp. 67–98.
from copyhold and leasehold’, pp. 282–92.
31 Hoyle, ‘Agrarian agitation’, 234, 237; John Walter, ‘A “Rising of the People”?
The Oxfordshirerising of 1596’, Past and Present 107 (1985), 110–14.
32 E. M. Griffiths, ‘Responses to adversity: the changing strategies of two
Norfolk landholding families, c.1665–1700’, in R. W. Hoyle (ed.), People,
landscape and alternative agriculture: essays for Joan Thirsk (Agricultural
History Review, supp. ser., 3, 2004), 76–94.
33 Below, pp. 53–4, 119–21.
34 Allen, Enclosure and the yeoman, esp. chs 10, 15.
35 Alan Macfarlane, The