by Merlyn MacLeod
“Commons refers to the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. The resources held in common can include everything from natural resources and common land to software. The commons contains public property and private property, over which people have certain traditional rights. When commonly held property is transformed into private property this process alternatively is termed ‘enclosure’ or more commonly, ‘privatization.’”
~First paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on “Commons”
“The first recorded written complaint against enclosure was made by a Warwickshire priest, John Rous, in his History of the Kings of England, published around 1459-86. The first complaint by a celebrity (and 500 years later it remains the most celebrated denunciation of enclosure) was by Thomas More in Utopia.”
~Simon Farlie in “A Short History of Enclosure in Britain”
Harry, What Are You Doing In My Movie?
The avaricious “Tudors” intruded on the medieval world, and continue intruding on the current world, in unexpected places.
I was recently watching a film called “The Corporation” and was startled to hear Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation of Economic Trends, make this stark statement:
“We can really begin to take a look at the emergence of the modern age with the enclosure movements of the great European commons in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth century. Medieval life, was a collectively lived life. It was a brutish, nasty affair. But there was a collective responsibility.
“People belonged to the land; the land did not belong to people. And in this European world, people, farmed the land in a collective way, because they saw it as a commons. It belonged to God. And then it was administered by the Church, the aristocracy, and then the local manors, as stewards of God’s creation.
“Beginning with Tudor England, we began to see a phenomenon emerge, and that is the enclosure of the great commons by parliamentary acts in England, and then in Europe. And so, first we began to take the great land masses of the world which were commons and shared, and we reduced those to private property. Then we went after the oceans, the great oceanic commons, and we created laws and regulations that would allow countries to claim a certain amount of water outside their coastal limits for exploitation.
“In this century we went after the air, and we divided it into air corridors that could be bought and sold for commercial traffic for airplanes. And then of course the rest is history” 
If Rifkin was right, and the “Tudors” began the enclosures through Parliamentary acts, I found myself wondering what Richard III’s attitude was toward overmighty subjects who attempted to use the commons for their own, exclusive purposes. Had he ever defended the rights of the commons?
John Rous said Richard had – at least while the King was alive. In his first, English version of the History of the Earls of Warwick (aka The Rous Roll circa 1483) Rous praised Richard. In his second, Latin version (aka The Rewritten Rous Roll circa 1485), Rous was writing as an old man desperately needing to suck up to Henry “Tudor” to preserve royal favor in hopes of also preserving his easy clerical life. So in the Latin version, Rous vilified Richard. These are the lines Rous deliberately deleted in the Latin version:
TRANSLATION: “The most mighty prince Richard (by the grace of god King of England and of France and Lord of Ireland, by very [i.e., real] matrimony without discontinuance or any defiling in the law, by [a] male heir lineally descending from King Henry II) all avarice set aside [and] ruled his subjects in his Realm full commendably, punishing offenders of his laws – especially extortionists and oppressors of his commons – and cherishing those that were virtuous, by the which discreet guiding he got great thanks of God and love of all his subjects rich and poor, and great love of the people of all other lands about him.” (My bold)
In his Richard III, Professor Charles Ross argues that Rous only “praised Richard along precisely the same lines as Richard himself tried to project a public image” as king, but there is contemporary historical evidence that Richard’s consideration of the rights of the commons began long before Edward V’s Royal Council petitioned Richard to take the throne.
Fishes and Dukes, Dominoes and Kings
In the fall of 1477, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was in London. Five years before, Edward IV had granted the Earl of Warwick’s estates at Middleham to his little brother. Since June of 1477, Edward IV kept his other brother, George, Duke of Clarence, locked in the Tower, awaiting trial on charges of treason; George had only three more months to live.
At the same time, the corporation of York was trying to remove a fishgarth called Goldale Garth from the river Aire. The problem was that the fishgarth belonged to the Crown lands of the Duchy of Lancaster.
So what was a fishgarth, and why was it a problem?
Here’s where the dominoes come in because individual lives in the medieval world were often intimately connected with other lives. Like a line of closely placed dominoes, one piece often couldn’t be moved without its affecting – or even knocking down – other pieces. Meaning, the actions of a single medieval lord could affect a lot of people beneath him, and not always for the better.
Fishgarths were dams formed by a system of nets and wicker “chambers” that were placed in a river to trap fish and eels. They were particularly effective in catching salmon as they attempted to migrate from the ocean and into the rivers, traveling upstream to spawn. Also known as weirs, fishgarths interfered with river navigation and severely reduced the number of fish that commoners could catch by hook and line. They were an ongoing problem before the Magna Carta was written in 1215, and that document includes a clause from the barons demanding, “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.”
In Richard’s time, fishgarths were constructed by underlings who served the lords, abbots and bishops who were powerful enough to ignore the longstanding laws limiting the size and number of fishgarths. They were still a problem in 1861, when Parliament banned them entirely except wherever someone could prove that a particular fishgarth had been in use prior to the Magna Carta.
Rich or poor, medieval Christians didn’t eat meat (defined by the early church as the flesh of warmblooded animals) on Wednesdays, Fridays, during Advent and Lent, or on other holy days. Fish are coldblooded, so they didn’t count as meat. Hence, King Edward IV and his nobles liked to see messes of tasty fish and eel on their tables on meatless days. So did everyone else, from mighty lords of castle and manors, to the bishops and abbots living in palaces, monasteries and friaries, on down to the lowly commoner out on the bank of his local river, fishing with great hopes attached to his measly line and rough-bent, rusted hook.
So in the fall of 1477, the dominoes are placed thus: we have the city of York failing in their efforts to get the uppity men in the employ of the Duchy of Lancaster to remove an entirely illegal fishgarth on the river Aire. Said Duchy, uppity men, and fishgarth all fall under Edward IV’s proprietorship. We also have a statute passed during the reign of King Edward III to remove fishgarths from English rivers, which statute had been reaffirmed by Edward IV in 1472. And we have Richard in London with his brother the King. Both men are extremely busy with Great Matters of State and Consequence, not the least of which is worrying over brother George’s fate.
Another domino is Richard’s prior involvement with the pesky fishgarths of Yorkshire. According to the municipal records of the city of York, in March 1476 the corporation of York had previously sought and obtained the duke’s “gracious aid and assistance” regarding the removal of weirs on the rivers “Ouse, Wharle, Eyre, Donne, Niddle, Yore, Swales, Derwent, and Humbre.”
At the time, Richard himself was the knowing or unknowing proprietor of fishgarths at Hook, on the river Ouse. Upon receiving York’s letter, Richard had sent “his full honourable letters unto his bailees and tenants,” ordering them to remove whatever garths were on the rivers in the Duke’s lands.
With Richard’s help assured, the corporation of York then fearlessly wrote to William Dudley, Bishop of Durham regarding the fishgarths he owned at Howdenshire on the river Derwent. Their letter freely invoked the Duke of Gloucester’s request that the said weirs be “removed, taken up and withdrawn.”
Eighteen months later, in the fall of 1477, York was still chasing fishgarths, and they wrote to inform the council of the Duchy of Lancaster that Goldale Garth needed to go. The council’s response isn’t recorded, but it must have been less than satisfactory because York’s next move was to write to King Edward IV himself. Via the same messenger, they sent a letter to Richard at London, basically asking him to help them remove the blasted fishgarths, “as yet standing in certain waters” – weirs including the King’s own Goldale Garth.
Another man might have ignored York’s request. What, after all, are a few wicker baskets in the water when you’re the brother of the king? What, after all, are a few flopping salmon when you are the king? They’re nothing to any medieval man in power, unless that man has compassion enough to understand what fish meant to the commons: an equal opportunity with the wealthy to fill your belly and your family’s bellies after spending a few pleasant hours on the riverbank, and comply with God’s holy law.
So what exactly did the high and mighty Richard, Duke of Gloucester do with York’s plea, even as he was buried in meetings and worried about the fate of his brother?
Don’t Tell Me Who Richard Was: Tell Me What He Did, and That Will Tell Me Who He Was
- He mentioned the Matter of Goldale Garth to his brother the king – who was ultimately responsible for that particular fishgarth, as Richard had been responsible for the ones on the rivers in his jurisdiction.
- He was willing to do “any other thing” to help York as well, and he put his personal signet to the letter saying so.
- He accepted the King’s orders to personally make sure all illegal weirs were pulled down. This was to be accomplished, not at Richard’s leisure, but at his next homecoming.
- Immediately after returning to Middleham after Clarence’s execution in Febrary of 1478, Richard received a delegation from York to confer about the weirs.
- He suggested the delegation also meet with the Earl of Northumberland, and the delegation did so.
- He appointed three representatives: Sir William Redeman, Lord Hastings’ brother Ralph, and the escheator of the chamber of York and organized a complex and thorough investigation of the fishgarths.
- He had Northumberland appoint two representatives to the investigation.
- He had the Mayor and Aldermen of York, and twenty-four attendants, take four days and nights to survey, on horseback and by boat, the fishgarths in the rivers Ouse, Aire, and Warfe, at a cost to York of £19 4s. 3d.
Relief didn’t come immediately after the investigation, but by 1479 the commons’ discontentment had eased because the city of York and the Duke of Gloucester had continued working together for months to continue removing fishgarths.
Does Your Grace the Bishop Intend to Confess Your Greed Before Easter is Upon Us?
Of course the greedy lords rebuilt their weirs on the sly because their desire didn’t cease for salmon and eels far beyond their fair share, so the problem kept recurring. Even as King, in 1484, Richard had to authorize yet another commission to pull out all freshwater fishgarths located within the county of York. It would take another 377 years and an act of Parliament to permanently remove the weirs, but the historical record reveals that Richard tried repeatedly over many months to gain equal access for commoners to local fishstocks.
All of Your Trees Belong to You. Except the Ones I Want for Elizabeth & Me
“Edward IV himself used Woodstock as an occasional residence, and was often at Langley in Wychwood Forest, for the purpose of hunting…
“It is said that in the glades of Wychwood Forest Edward first saw Elizabeth Woodville. The King was hunting, and the beautiful woman flung herself at his feet with entreaties that he would restore her children’s heritage. So runs the story, and one can well imagine such a scene taking place in some of those wild woodland glades of ancient timber, which still remain in isolated beauty at Fairspear and other points in the old forest domain.”
~From A History of Oxfordshire, by J. Meade Falkner, Elliot Stock, London, 1899
In his Life and Reign of Richard III, James Gairdner wrote that on his progression after being made king, Richard III went from Oxford to Woodstock where, in answer to a petition from citizens living in the adjoining district, he returned to the commons a considerable tract of land that Edward IV had “arbitrarily, and for his own pleasure, annexed to Whichwood Forest. The act was remembered to his credit after he was gone, even by one who did not love his memory.”
The writer Gairdner was referring to was John Rous, who wrote in his Historia Regnum Angliae:
“…The king [Richard] then removed to Oxford, and to Woodstock, where by popular request he disafforested a great area of the country which King Edward IV his brother had annexed and incorporated in the forest of Wychwood under forest law, against conscience and to the public damage….”
So what big brother took away, little brother restored, not only because he could, but perhaps also because it was the right thing to do.
When, Exactly, Did Those Nasty Enclosures Begin, and Who Started Them?
Susan Troxell pointed out something during a discussion of garths among friends here at Murrey and Blue:
“The most successful garths would have been built in rivers surrounded by a wealthy person’s lands. The steward of the manor lord would ensure the garths weren’t destroyed – not something that a commoner could protect.
“I believe the fish garths were constructed by the gentry class in order to maximize their riparian rights, with complete disregard for the loss downstream. The matter must have been important enough because Richard was called in as Duke to intervene in this situation. If it had been mere riffraff building them, the sheriff could have handled the issue on his own.”
So we see that England’s enclosures began long before Henry “Tudor” and his French mercenaries invaded England, and Richard’s efforts were ongoing to push back against at least two methods of enclosure, which might be summarized as, “All of the fish do not belong to the greedy landlords among us,” and “All of the trees adjoining Wychwood Forest no longer belong to the Crown.”
These pushbacks in favor of the commons, which we know occurred over a six-year expanse, were likely accompanied by many more pushbacks on behalf of individual commoners who sought Richard’s help, when he went about dispensing justice in the North for over a decade. We also have it from his own mouth that he was determined to see justice done after he became king, for in his address to Westminster on 26 June, 1483 (Richard began his reign this day; he was crowned on 6 July 1483), Richard stated clearly that his officers and representatives should “…justly and duly administer the laws without delay or favor, [dispensing justice] indifferently to every person, as well as to poor as to rich”.
In 1607, Sir William Cornwallis wrote an essay in defense of Richard III and said, “His statutes are extent; what can be found in them not becoming a king? What, not befitting the service of God? The worship of religion? The good of his country? (Yea,I have heard of some, accounted both good lawyers and good statists, that in those three years of his government, there were more good statutes for the public weal enacted, than in thirty years before). He was no taxer of the people, no oppressor of the commons (though he came to manage an estate whose treasure was exceedingly exhausted); no suppressor of his subjects, to satisfy either licentious humors, or to enrich light-headed flatterers…”
As an aside, something of interest in relation to the 1810 printing of Cornwallis’ essay in Sir Walter Scott’s A Collection of Scarce and Valuable Tracts (cited in the references below) is a comment inserted by either Sir Walter Scott or his co-editor, Lord John Somers, at the end of their brief introduction of Cornwallis. One of them wrote, “The prejudice which we imbibe against Richard, in our poetical studies, is too deep to be erased, even by proof of its injustice.”
England’s enclosures began with a series of…little things…over decades, so that the commons could scarcely protest what was being lost. Little things were taken away, as a handful of wealthier members of late-medieval society wanted the bulk of resources for themselves that were meant to be used by everyone.
So Jeremy Rifkin is right that the enclosures through Parliamentary acts began with Henry “Tudor.” But the enclosures began before the “Tudor” came on the scene. What he did was to make an illegal thing legal…through Parliament. And so the enclosures expanded exponentially under Henry “Tudor” and his get so that this not-of-royal blood, illegitimate, unworthy, greedy family and the nobles who supported them could snatch a large portion of England’s resources for their own, exclusive use…and the protests, such as the ones the corporation of York voiced…were silenced on pain of death, or worse.
It might be prudent for us to note that the enclosure of the commons continues today. As we and our children watch Henry “Tudor’s” historical legacy of avarice expand even more over the next few decades in the form of blatant exploitation of the Arctic and Antarctica, the Moon and Mars – and beyond, into infinity – we might do well to consider where and with whom the enclosures began. We might also do well to remember the last Plantagenet who fought for years against such greed.
There are many other instances of Richard helping those below him on the medieval social scale, likely to the bewilderment of the bishops, many of the gentry, and definitely the nobility. The scope of this article is too narrow to discuss those instances, but many historical citations can be found in brief here.
As I was finishing this article, my subconscious came up with a bit of remembered pop-culture dialogue that could be directed not only at Henry “Tudor”, but also at all the greedy elite who have continued over the centuries to enclose the commons of this world.
Years before George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” became popular, there was a strange and wonderful television series called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Its creator, writer and director, Joss Whedon, spent much of his childhood growing up in England.
I’d like to share with you the words Joss wrote for a character called Anya — a former justice demon who had traveled the world for centuries, exacting vengeance on behalf of victims as varied as wronged and scorned women, dying humans, and neglected/abused children. In the world Joss built, Anya would have exacted vengeance on the “Tudor”, not on King Richard III. And this is what she would have thought of “Tudor” and the greedy ones who came after him.
ANYA: You really do think you’re better than we are. But we don’t know if you’re actually better. I mean, you came into the world with certain advantages, sure. I mean, that’s the legacy. But you didn’t earn it. You didn’t work for it. You’ve never had anybody come up to you and say that you deserve these things more than anyone else. They were just handed to you. So that doesn’t make you better than us. It makes you luckier than us.
~Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — “Empty Places”
I think this may also be what Richard understood. A realization like this, made while he was in exile in Flanders and no longer “special” in the eyes of anyone, may have been at the root of his obvious compassion and why – in the short time he held the power to make a difference as duke and as king – he tried so hard to take care of the commons, and the commoners.
It may also be part of why, in the end, members of the avaricious elite betrayed him at Bosworth.
 The official website for “The Corporation” is here. For general information on the film, go here. The producers have made the movie freely available for viewing or download here. You can see Jeremy Rifkin interviewed in the film or read his words in Part One of the film’s transcript (page 19, under “Boundary Issues”). The transcript is available for download in two parts on the official website; look under the Resources Tab/“Transcripts and Extras” here. If you’d like more information on Mr. Rifkin and his professional credentials, go here.
 The English version of John Rous’s illustrated History of the Earls of Warwick is British Library Additional MS 48976. It was published in 1859 by H.G. Bohn as The Rows Roll with an introduction by W. Courthope. This 1859 edition is available online for download in a variety of versions (some with the original illustrations) at Open Libary here. Many thanks to the collectives writers of Murrey and Blue for their “modern translation by committee” of Rous’s words.
 Charles Ross, Richard III, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1981, p.xxii.
 For more information on fishgarths in general, see this article on fishing weirs. For more information specifically on the fishgarths of York, see Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996, pgs. 157-58.
 Editor A. Lulders et. al., Statutes of the Realm, Volume 2, London, 1810-28, pp. 439-42.
 Robert Davies, Extracts from the Municipal Records of the City of York during the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III with Notes illustrative and explanatory, J. B. Nichols & Son, 1843, pp. 84-91. (Available for free download at Google Books here.)
 James Gairdner, The Life & Reign of Richard III, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1879, p. 143.
 John Rous, Historia Regum Angliae, J. Fletcher & J. Pote, Oxford, 1745, p. 216.
 Sir William Cornwallis, “The Praise of King Richard III,” essay written in 1617 and published in A Collection of Scarce & Valuable Tracts, on the Most Interesting and Entertaining Subjects: Reign of James I, edited by Sir Walter Scott and Lord John Somers, published London, 1810, pgs 316-328. The quote used above is on page 321 of this edition, which is available free from Google Books here. Cornwallis’ essay has also been edited by A.N. Kincaid and published under The Encomium of Richard III, Turner & Devereaux, London, 1977. The quote used above appears on page 14 of that edition.