The Leicestershire Farmer in the Seventeenth Century

  • W. G. Hoskins


Most of what we know of the working of open-field farming is based upon literary evidence, often incomplete, usually arising from one side or the other of a heated controversy over enclosure, and often late in date. None of this material can be regarded as wholly satisfactory as a basis for the study of farming history. Fortunately, however, there exists in many parts of England a mass of contemporary record material about local farming which is precisely what we need to form an unprejudiced judgment. I refer to the tens of thousands of inventories to be found in various provincial probate registries, dating mostly from the early sixteenth century to the early eighteenth, which were drawn up for the purpose of administering a man’s estate after his death according to the terms of his will. These documents vary greatly in the amount of detail they contain, but they are so numerous that one can easily find a large enough sample with all the detail one could wish for. In the Leicestershire County Record Office there are hundreds of bundles dated between 1500 and 1750, containing several thousand inventories in all, and of these by far the greater part are those of farmers, large and small, from the squire down to the cottager and the labourer.1


Open Field Personal Estate Seventeenth Century Sixteenth Century Arable Farming 
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  1. 1.
    Cited by G. E. Fussell, ‘Four Centuries of Leicestershire Farming’, Studies in LeicestershireAgrarian History, ed. W. G. Hoskins (1949), p. 159.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See W. G. Hoskins, ‘The Leicestershire Farmer in the Sixteenth Century’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological Society, xxii (1944–5), pp. 34–4. This essay is revised and republished in Essays in Leicestershire History (1950), 123–83.Google Scholar
  3. 1.
    L. A. Parker, ‘The Tudor Enclosure Movement in Leicestershire, 1485–1607’ (unpublished thesis, University of London, 1948).Google Scholar
  4. 2.
    This revolution in rural housing conditions accomplished between about 1570 and 1640, when the Civil War put a stop to new building, is abundantly evidenced not only in the contemporary inventories and in the earliest county histories (cf. Richard Carew, Survey of Cornwall, 1602) but by the buildings themselves, which survive in large numbers in England, above all in the regions of stone building. See the essay on ‘The Rebuilding of Rural England 1570–1640’ in this volume (Chapter VII, above).Google Scholar
  5. 1.
    For some Bedfordshire examples of this type, see F. G. Emmison, Jacobean Household Inventories (Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, vol. 20, 1938).Google Scholar
  6. 1.
    H. L. Gray, English Field Systems (Cambridge, Mass., 1915), p, 35.Google Scholar
  7. 1.
    Wigston deeds, terriers, etc., 1577 onwards, in the Leicester city muniment room. See also W. G. Hoskins, The Midland Peasant (1957), esp. pp. 152, 162–4, 233–4Google Scholar
  8. 2.
    For enclosure between 1578 and 1607, see L. A.Parker, ‘The Depopulation Returns for Leicestershire in 1607’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeo logical Society, xxiii (1947), pp. 231–92. For the earlier movement and the abandonment of villages, see my essay, ‘The Deserted Villages of Leicestershire’.Google Scholar
  9. 1.
    Gilbert Slater, The English Peasantry and the Enclosure of Common Fields (1907), p. 189.Google Scholar
  10. 2.
    When he died in 1501, Thomas Keble possessed 1,119 sheep and 100 head of cattle on his enclosed pastures of Great Stretton and elsewhere near Leicester (cf. John Nichols, The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester, 1795–1815, vol. iii, p. 272). Presumably his enclosure at Stretton was of the demesne, a compact block of land not intermixed with the village lands.Google Scholar
  11. 1.
    Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through England and Wales (Everyman ed., 1928), vol. ii, pp. 89–90. Defoe’s visit was probably made in the time of Queen Anne.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© W. G. Hoskins 1963

Authors and Affiliations

  • W. G. Hoskins
    • 1
  1. 1.University of OxfordUK

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