Land reform issues during the English civil wars
Griffin, Elizabeth Pearson
Strake, Gerald M.
Master of Arts
During the English Civil Wars a number of men turned their attention to serious land problems caused by new economic, religious and political factors which were destroying the feudal manorial land system. This paper is an attempt to discover how important land problems were to men of this period, and what kinds of reform proposals they offered. By the middle of the seventeenth century many men were aware that technical improvements in farming methods might vastly increase the agricultural produce of England. William Blith, Richard Weston, Gabriel Plattes and Samuel Hartlib are representative of the "improvers'* who strongly advocated using the new methods. They urged landlords and tenants to enclose their lands and establish private farms because the manorial system of farming impeded economic progress. The "improvers" were among the most outspoken about the hardships inflicted upon the poorer tenants and agricultural laborers by lingering manorial practices. Almost to a man the "improvers" insisted that an increase in farm production would benefit all classes by creating more jobs and more food. Therefore, they felt justified in claiming God’s blessing for their projects. Harrington, the Levellers and the anonymous author of Chaos all approached the land problem as a preeminently political one. Harrington attempted to prove that the landlords were morally and intellectually the best qualified to establish and rule a republic in England, The Levellers were aware of the injustices resulting from the landlords' arbitrary powers over tenants, and their pamphlets contained complaints to that effect. The Levellers believed that the right to- hold land was an inalienable one granted by Sod. Furthermore, the Levellers concluded that the franchise should not be tied to property ownership. In these beliefs the Levellers stood against the main current of opinion in the revolutionary period. Harrington, Hobbes and the writer of Chaos explicitly developed the theme that the overall good of society was more important than individual rights. No matter what classical or practical arguments they used to prove their cases, these writers were certain that the most basic justification for their views was the Holy will of God. Peter Cornelius Plockboy and Peter Chamberlen developed semi-socialistic schemes for land use to provide for society’s poor. Both of these men justified their ideas by reminding their readers of Christ’s injunctions to care for the poor. Of those who advocated radical reforms in the name of God, Gerrard Winstanley was the only one who developed a complete plan for a Holy state. Winstanley's most basic idea was: that all land and all the earth's material goods should be held in common. The question arises, if all these ideas for land reforms existed during the wars, why was almost nothing done to implement any of them? One answer is that the members of the Interregnum Parliaments all came from the landlord class and had no intention of limiting their own class power in any way. A search into the actual legislation proposed and an attempt to understand the religious convictions of Cromwell and other well-to-do participants in the Civil Wars have led me to doubt this thesis. Parliament did attempt some land legislation that would protect tenants from their landlords. When Cromwell, Robert Harris, Samuel Rutherford and other leaders of the various factions in the revolutionary governments questioned the contemporary social structure, they found it justified in the Scriptures and in their firm belief that according to the sovereign will of God men were not equal in matters spiritual or matters temporal. Land was a key factor in the social and political structure which Cromwell and most other Puritan leaders saw no need to reform.