3 - Enclosure, sheep and the wool trade

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  • enclosure meant fencing or hedging (for private use) land previously held in common ownership for the benefit of all members of the community
  • wool from sheep was England's first major export.
  • producing wool required little labour and being non-perishable it was easy to trade and transport.
  • opposition to enclosure from both Church and Monarchy as it created a vagrant landless underclass not interested in fighting for country or paying tithes to the church.

songs, poems, quotes and stories - quote from Thomas More's Utopia is useful here - see below...

washing line

  • 1285 - 1640 Enclosures
  • b/w picture of a sheep
  • thomas more quote

New condensed text

Let's define Enclosure for now; this was the process over many hundreds of years by which land that was previously communally used and managed called 'the commons' was privatised into small fields for keeping flocks of Sheep. Wool was more profitable than food, requiring much less labour and far easier to transport and trade. It cannot be overstated how important sheep and wool were to the foundation of capitalism in this country.

Old sample text

Now it is rarely as clear cut as good guys and bad guys in history but I am going to propose to you that the Normans might qualify for bad guy status ...and next we need to talk briefly about another pretty uncontroversial bad guy – sheep (hold up picture of sheep)

As early as Roman times England and Spain were widely renown for the quality of the wool they produced. It was a highly profitable trade as the wool from sheep required much less labour than food to produce and furthermore wool being non perishable was quite happy to travel around Europe and beyond, unlike your leeks and spinach which wouldn't fancy the journey one bit.

But why are sheep going to turn out to be bad guys? Well, around this time much land, although technically belonging to the Norman king, was still held in 'common' for the cooperative use of everyone, an Anglo-Saxon model of land usage which was retained to placate the peasantry. Many families were housed on this land and relied on it for food, fuel and building materials.

This common land started to be 'enclosed' unlawfully by greedy local land lords as it was much easier to keep sheep in a bounded field. These enclosures were essentially creeping mini land grabs, piecemeal privatising land which all had used previously and often clearing people from their homes in the process.

They were hated and resented by the people but they were also despised by the king and church... The king because once people had lost their homes it created a vagrant and landless underclass who would have no interest in turning out to fight when the next war came along as they had no stake in the country to fight for... and the church hated enclosures as it meant there we less people around for them to hassle for tithes – a hugely abused tax system which enabled them to collect money and produce from the peasantry to keep god happy.

{baa baa black sheep?!)

{quote by thomas more from utopia}

There is another cause of stealing, which, as I suppose, is proper and peculiar to you Englishmen alone.

Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heard say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up, and swallow down the very men themselves. They consume, destroy, and devour whole fields, houses, and cities.

For look in what parts of the realm doth grow the finest, and therefore dearest wool, there noble men, and gentlemen, and certain Abbots, ...leave no ground for tillage: they inclose all into pastures, they throw down houses, they pluck down towns, and leave nothing standing.

Thomas More, Utopia (1516)


land managed cooperatively by everyone was called common land and this was relied upon for housing, food, fuel and building materials for much of the peasantry.

Greedy land lords fenced it off or enclosed it to make private fields for sheep farming which often led to a landless vagrant underclass.

sheep were highly profitable as wool was the main export of the country and required little labour to produce.