1596: Oxfordshire Rising

Duration

A matter of hours

Location

Enslow Hill, Oxfordshire

Leadership

Commons –   carpenter Bartholomew Steer

Outcome

  1. Planned rebellion fails when only a handful of men assemble
  2. Plotters tortured to establish if there was a conspiracy. 2 executed, rest died in prison
  3. Act passed banning further enclosures

Main causes

Anger over enclosure

Subsidiary causes

Economic problems

  1. Famine caused by bad harvest
  2. Falling wages
  3. Rising population causes pressure on availability of land
  4. Epidemics
  5. Overall, worst conditions for some decades

 Degree of threat

Negligible

Narrative

Much of England was suffering considerable economic distress this year.

Problems had been escalating for several years in a number of parts of the country.

  • Enclosure continued to be a significant problem.
  • New enclosures at Hampton Gayer and Hampton Poyle, both close to the rebellion site
  • There had been rumblings about the fencing off of common land in Oxfordshire the previous year, 1595
  • And food riots in the south west and south east after two successive bad harvests.

Led by a local carpenter, several local men decided to protest this. Their plan was to march on the house of the Lord Norris, the lord lieutenant (government representative) of Oxfordshire. The protesters knew that weapons and artillery were stored there.

It is difficult to know exactly what was planned – much of the information we have was extracted under torture. According to the testimonies that were given, however, the plan was to murder 7 local landlords who had been involved in enclosing common land. The authorities feared that plans extended to attacking other local gentry and their property.

In the event, the rising fizzled out immediately. Only four men gathered at the appointed spot on top of Enslow Hill, and they dispersed when it became clear no one else was going to join them.

The rebels were betrayed when one of the men they had approached told his lord of their plans. The ringleaders – including one man who had had second thoughts and not even gone to the hill – were arrested soon afterwards. They were taken to London and tortured to discover what their plans had been and how serious a threat they posed.

The authorities’ reaction was severe – on four occasions they ordered Lord Norris to make further enquiries and arrests, though historians now believe a maximum of 20 men actually knew of the planned rising

The five were charged with treason. Two were hanged, drawn and quartered. The fate of the other 3 is not known.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, the Privy Council did prosecute several local landowners for illegally enclosing land and had the enclosed land restored to common use.

Reasons for failure

  • The protest was to be a violent one – the rebels confessed that they planned to murder 7 local landowners. This puts the Oxfordshire rising outside the normal run of economic protests and may explain the difficulty the men had in recruiting others
  • State security was good. Once one of the men approached by the rebels told his master of the plan, the ringleaders were quickly rounded up
  • Nonetheless it is remarkable, given the amount of economic hardship experienced throughout England at this time, that there was not more trouble. The fact that the rebellion was so tiny and that there were not other outbreaks is excellent evidence for the grip the Tudor state had on its people by the end of the century

Key stats, quotes & views

1596 was not only the third bad harvest in a row – it was the worst harvest for 40 years, and the second worst of the entire 16th century. There was a real threat of famine.

The index of food prices (with 1500 = 100) rose from 389 to 530 in this decade – meaning prices rose by 36%.

Only 4 men answered the call to rally at Enslow Hill and the group disbanded after 2 hours

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