The following is a summary of a meticulous scholarly investigation by the historian John Walter (Walter 1985). It is important to record it here because now that I have found and researched it the story of the Oxfordshire Rising is going to form the backbone of my Final Major Project.
The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was one of a large number of rural protests that took place all over England in about 1595–7. By 1596 there had been three poor harvests in a row. The price of grain had risen threefold and many rural poor now faced starvation. The government of the time was well aware that a coordinated uprising – another Peasants’ Revolt – would be very difficult to contain. Coming on top of political insecurities such as constant warring with Spain this threat to the nation’s food supply made a fraught situation even worse.
In northern Oxfordshire, another factor was at play: aggressive land enclosures by wealthy landlords, forcing villagers off the 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’, self-made men with little time for the traditional social bonds between landlord and tenant. ‘There is no such thing as society’ is a phrase they would likely have understood very well.
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. Three enclosers, in particular, were at work there: Francis Power in Bletchingdon, Vincent Barry in Hampton Gay and William Frere in Water Eaton. This is almost exactly the area I am already studying for my Final Major Project.
Enter a 28-year-old carpenter called Bartholomew Steer from Hampton Gay. In the autumn of 1596 Steer and a few other young men decided that enough was enough, and they began to solicit support for a general rising in the area against the landlords and to secure desperately needed food supplies. Steer, however, went a step further than similar 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 farmland – 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. Among the top of his list to be ‘spoil’d’ – Steer’s term for executed – were Francis Power and Vincent Barry.
In the event, Steer’s plans were a dismal failure. Records show that he was a thoughtful tactician and eloquent speaker, but the essential problem was that he and a handful of other ‘poor boys’ – angry young village men with no prospects – would never have the authority to persuade large numbers of people to risk everything for political change. Besides, many of Steer’s recorded comments are somewhat fantastical and it remains unclear how serious about ‘spoiling’ 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.
Steer aimed to ignite the uprising with a gathering on Enslow Hill (a mile from Hampton Gay) on 17 November 1596, but on that Sunday evening the only people who ever turned up were Steer himself and three companions. 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 arrested and sent to London tied to the backs of horses.
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 encourager 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 landlords from Bletchingdon. 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 acting as sheriff.
This is a tremendous if very sad story that John Walter’s meticulous research into contemporary records and court proceedings has now rescued from historical obscurity. The story also has a very surprising outcome. Within a decade, the Elizabethan authorities had reversed their policy on land enclosure and were coming down hard on 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 social breakdown and possibly catastrophic public disorder. The poor always had to be kept on side. The ghost of Bartholomew Steer would haunt lawmakers for years to come. Arguably it still does. The Cameron government’s austerity programme of 2010-16 fell disproportionately on the poor. The uprising that resulted – this time at the ballot box – was Brexit.
My challenge is how to represent this photographically. I think the only way is to treat the Oxfordshire Rising as a rich layer of metaphor within my own story. To an extent I can take a literal approach, for example by photographing some of the places where these events occurred. However, the real meaning here likes in the metaphor. In photographing a physical landscape I am actually showing an economic landscape. The physical landscape has changed; it is the economic landscape and its social relations that has endured through time.
My research has already indicated that remarkably little has changed since Steer’s day. Many big estates are still there, social inequality has increased noticeably in recent years, and there is an uneasy and sometimes unpleasant relationship between those who own the land and others who happen to live there. Meanwhile government sees the general population as potentially hostile and concentrates mainly on fixing things for its own class of interests. We may no longer have land enclosures of the Tudor kind, but I would argue that the current fashion for offshore financial vehicles, property development and 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. Plus ça change.
WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/past/107.1.90 [accessed 29 March 2021].