Joseph Hyder: The Case for Land Nationalisation
It is the widespread domains that have been the ruin of Italy,
and soon will be that of the provinces as well.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XVIII., Chap. VII.
Chapter III: A Land of Great Estates
IN scarcely any country in the world is the possession of land so close a monopoly as it is in the British Isles. In France and Germany the owners of land are to be numbered by the million, in Holland and Belgium the cultivation of the soil by small owners is the normal feature of agriculture, and, in Russia, the Mir system makes land accessible to the bulk of the peasants in common ownership. In all the colonies, which we have founded across the seas, landed property has been diffused either by free grants or by cheap sales. And, even among the most savage tribes, we find that the poorest native has more right to the soil than is enjoyed by the average farm servant or the town labourer in our own country. The divorce of our common people from the soil of their native land is, in fact, one of the saddest features of our civilisation, and it is the root cause of most of the serious problems, which confront our statesmen.
Yet, in spite of the facts, which are obvious to every observer, there are those who, in their zeal in the defence of private property in land, boldly deny that there is a monopoly of land at all. Fortunately, although there is only a single authoritative record of the actual facts, and that record is incomplete, and nearly forty years old, yet enough is known to prove in the most emphatic and convincing manner that the widespread belief, which is based upon everyday observation open to all, is also confirmed by the result of a Government inquiry.
The landlessness of the British people has been the theme of reformers and the reproach of the nation for many generations. For centuries the country was governed entirely by the landlord class. None but landlords could exercise the franchise, and none but landlords could enter Parliament. The landed interest was all-powerful. It made the laws and it administered them.
In the Census Returns of 1861 only 30,766 persons described themselves as landed proprietors, and this fact was made use of by men like John Bright and John Stuart Mill, in their attacks upon the land monopoly. So Lord Derby, affirming that landowners were probably quite ten times as numerous as they appeared to be by the Census of 1861, called for a Government Return, which was accordingly collected by the Local Government Board and published in 1874. This is what is known as the New Domesday Book, to distinguish it from the original Domesday Book, which was completed by the order of William the Conqueror in 1087.
According to this Return there were:
Naturally the result of the inquiry was a surprise to every one, to critics and defenders alike. No one expected the figures to be so large, and they were naturally subjected to a close analysis, and were the occasion of much controversy. And, as they are still relied upon by the apologists for the landlord system, in their anxiety to prove that all is well, it is desirable that they should be carefully examined and considered.
Even if the figures were accurate, it is obvious that they do not disprove the main contention of the reformers, which was that the great mass of the people was landless.
But, as a matter of fact, the figures were very far from being accurate, as the following will show. For instance, no property was included in the Return except that which was assessed to rates. At that time all woods, except saleable underwoods, were exempt. All waste and common lands were exempt. All land withheld for speculative purposes was exempt from rates, as it remains, to our shame, to this very day. And London, which is noted for its great estates, and where the great majority of the people are mere tenants, was excluded. Besides inaccuracies by omission, the number of landholders was exaggerated in the following ways.
Every leaseholder who held a lease of more than ninetynine years, and every copyholder, was reckoned as a landowner, in spite of the fact that their interest in land falls far short of ownership. Every man who held land in different counties was reckoned as a separate owner in each county. Thus 28 Dukes owned 158 separate estates amounting to 3,001,811 acres, and they were set down as 158 owners. The Marquises numbered 33, but their total acreage of 1,567,227 was held in 121 different estates, and they were counted for each estate. Earls were 194 in number and they owned 5,862,118 acres in 634 estates, so the 104 was swollen to 634 in the record. Viscounts and Barons numbered 270. And, as their acreage of 3,780,009 was in 680 different county estates, they appeared as 680 in the Return. Thus the Duke of Buccleuch counted as 14 instead of 1, 4 other Dukes counted 11 each, and every one of the Dukes counted for an average of 5 instead of 1. Similarly every Railway or Canal Company counted 1 for each county in which its property was situated.
Again, every clergyman of the Church of England was entered as an owner of the glebe-land in his parish, and this added nearly 10,000 to the total. In Bucks there were thus 235 reverend owners, in Herts 159, in Lancashire 186, and so on.
In Northumberland 10,036 persons were returned as owners of less than one acre, but their total acreage was only 1,424 acres (the area of the county is 1,190,043 acres), or one-seventh of an acre each. In Nottinghamshire 9,891 owners of less than an acre each possessed no more than 1,266 acres, or one-eighth of an acre each.
In Northumberland three-fifths of the county were in the hands of 44 people, and nearly half was in the hands of 26 people. The 10,000 small owners held one-seventh of an acre each, but the Duke of Northumberland held one-seventh of the whole county, besides land in other counties.
In Nottinghamshire two-fifths of the land were held by 15 people, and one-quarter of the county was held by 5 people. If all the counties were similar to Northumberland and Nottingham, one-half of the entire country would be owned by no more than 1,000 people.
Take, again, the case of one of the Parliamentary Divisions of Dorset, North Dorset comprises 166,200 acres, and is divided into 92 parishes. Lord Eversley has shown that 60 of these parishes belong substantially each to a single owner, or are divided between two adjoining owners. In 23 parishes more than three-quarters of each of them belong to one great owner. In 7 parishes a great portion of each belongs to only two owners, and there are only 2 parishes where the land is held by many people. Four-fifths of the whole land in the Division belong to only 30 people. One man owns substantially the whole of 3 parishes, and the half of 2 others. Four others own the whole of the 2 or 3 parishes, and the greater part of 2 or 3 more. With the rare exception of a house here and there, the villages belong to the great owner of the district, equally with all the land. In the face of facts like these, the contention that there is no land monopoly in this country is the idlest and most transparent pretence.
Looking further at the figures given by the New Domesday Book, it will be seen that 852,438, out of the total of 1,173,724 people returned as landholders, possess no more than 188,413 acres between them.
The Duke of Sutherland’s estates alone are more than seven times as extensive as the total area held by 852,438 of his fellow-landlords. Each of the latter possesses an average of one-fifth of an acre, while the Duke possesses 1,358,000 acres. Then there are 252,725 people who hold 4,910,723 acres, or an average of 19 acres each. Thus there are 1,105,163 owners who have only 5,099,136 acres between them. Besides these there are 51,090 owners of 15,133,057 acres, or an average of 296 acres each. And the great bulk of the private land that remains, nearly 55,000,000 acres, belongs to no more than 10,888 people.
Mr. George Brodrick has shown that a landed aristocracy, consisting of about 2,250 persons, own together nearly half the enclosed area of England and Wales, and that there are no more than 150,000 owners of one acre or more, or less than one one-hundred-and-seventieth part of the population. And Mr. Joseph Kay proved that 710 persons own more than a fourth part of the enclosed land in England and Wales, and nearly one-sixth of it is owned by 280 persons.
The extent to which the land is monopolised by the House of Lords may be thus tabulated, and it fully explains the permanently reactionary character of that assembly, and its consistent one-sidedness in maintaining the unfair privileges of its own order in particular and of the landed interest as a whole.
|270||Viscounts and Barons possess||3,700,009|
In the forty years which have elapsed since the New Domesday Book was published, some changes have of course taken place which have increased the number of landholders, but, except in Ireland, they have chiefly resulted in an increase in the number of those who have been enabled through Building Societies to purchase freehold houses and the small plots of land upon which they are built. Land speculators have also been busy in various places buying land wholesale at farm rates, and selling it retail at building rates. And in some cases, which are not numerous, where large owners have lately sold their outlying lands, the tenant farmers, by paying a part of the money as a deposit and by borrowing the balance on mortgage, have become freeholders. In Ireland the State has come to the rescue of the farmers, and, by buying out the big landlords, has put the farmers in the way of becoming freeholders when they have paid the last instalment of principal and interest, which, however, may not be until from 49 to 78 years after the payment of the first. But, even in Ireland, the labourers and the townsmen have no more interest of ownership in the land of their birth than they had forty years ago, and, taking the British Isles as a whole, and bearing in mind the enormous increase in the population which has taken place, it is almost certainly the fact that the proportion of landless men to the whole population is greater to-day, not less, than it was in the seventies.
It is as true today as it was then that ours is a country of great estates, and that the mass of the people are without any part or lot in the land which by moral right should be the property of all.
It was not always so. The Teutonic settlers in Britain brought with them the system of the Mark, or village community, which held land under collective ownership. It has generally been supposed that at the time of the Norman Conquest the whole of the land was confiscated. In one sense it was, and every estate was in future held, mediately or immediately, from the King. But, although nearly all of it was taken from its former possessors and given to the Conqueror’s own countrymen, this was not the invariable rule. And to this day there remain traces of the German Mark system of open fields over which the people had common rights. The German writer, Nasse, quotes William Marshall’s Elementary and Practical Treatise on Landed Property(London, 1804) as follows: “In almost all parts of the country, in the midland and eastern counties particularly, but also in the west in Wiltshire, for example – in the south, as in Surrey, in the north, as in Yorkshire, there are extensive open and cultivated fields. Out of 316 parishes in Northamptonshire 89 are in this condition; more than 100 in Oxfordshire; about 50,000 acres in Warwickshire; in Berkshire half the county; more than half of Wiltshire; in Huntingdonshire, out of a total area of 240,000 acres, 130,000 are commonable meadows, commons, and common fields.” These were not all the wastes of ancient manors vested in their several lords, but were often the remnant of the lands of the village communities. For centuries they survived until the Inclosure Acts, which Parliaments of landlords were ever ready to pass for the aggrandisement of their class, between 1709 and 1845.
The common fields were almost invariably divided into three long strips, separated by green baulks of turf, and in one case the common fields were so extensive that the pasturage on these dividing strips was no less than 80 acres. “Speaking for myself personally,” says Sir Henry Maine, in his great work on Village Communities, “I have been greatly surprised at the number of instances of abnormal proprietary rights, necessarily implying the former existence of collective ownership and joint cultivation, which comparative brief inquiry has brought to my notice.”
But the feudal system, which was introduced at the Norman Conquest, was the starting-point of our modern land system. Although very few of our present territorial families can claim direct descent from ancestors who “came over with the Conqueror,” their estates are the undoubted outcome of the grants then made. In the course of centuries of warfare the old families were generally obliterated, but new ones arose upon their ashes and entered into possession of their lost or forfeited lands.
“The Barons and Knights,” says Augustin Thierry in his Conquest of England by the Normans, “had extensive domains, castles, town lands, and even entire towns allotted to them; the meaner vassals had smaller portions; some took their pay in money; others had stipulated for some Saxon woman; and, according to the Norman Chronicle, William caused them to take in marriage noble ladies, the heiresses of great possessions, whose husbands had been slain in the battle. One alone, amongst all the warriors in the Conqueror’s train, claimed neither lands, nor gold, nor women, and would accept no part of the spoils of the vanquished. He was named Guilbert, son of Richard. He said that he had accompanied his lord into England because such was his duty; that he was not to be tempted by stolen property, but would return into Normandy to live on his own patrimony, which, though small, was lawful; and that, content with his own lands, he would take nothing away from others.” There was only one Guilbert in the whole host.
“Ignoble squires, impure vagabonds,” says the old annalist, “disposed at their pleasure of young women of the best families, leaving them to weep and wish for death. Those despicable men, yielding to unbridled licentiousness, were themselves astonished at their villainy; they became mad with pride, and wondered at finding themselves so powerful, and at having retainers of greater wealth than their fathers ever possessed. Whatever they had the will, they believed they had the right to do. They shed blood in wantonness, they snatched the last morsel of bread from the unfortunate, they seized everything – money, goods, and land.” Such were the predecessors in title, if not the ancestors, of our English landed aristocracy, and to such men was granted the land which has been held in great estates ever since.
“The man who passed the sea,” says Thierry, “with the quilted hassock and black wooden bow of the foot-soldier now appeared to the astonished eyes of the new recruits who had come after him, mounted on a war-horse and bearing the military baldrick. He who had arrived as a poor knight soon lifted his banner (as it was then expressed) and commanded a company, whose rallying cry was his own name. The herdsmen of Normandy and the weavers of Flanders, with a little courage and good fortune, soon became in England men of consequence – illustrious barons; and their names, ignoble and obscure on one shore of the straits, became noble and glorious on the other.”
By the feudal law all land was King’s land, as in theory it is even today. Every man had a chief, every acre its lord, and every lord was dependent on the King’s favour. The chief work of the Government was fighting, and the rent of the King’s land was paid in the shape of fighting men. But, besides the duty of following their lord’s banner when he went to war, there was the duty of service or goods. The lord could command the labour of his vassals or tenants in his fields. Their pigs and their poultry, their cattle and their crop went to his table, save so much as was necessary to support their own poor and dependent lives.
The feudal obligations of the King’s tenants were abolished soon after the Restoration, but their own feudal privileges are still maintained, although necessarily in a modified form. Excise duties payable by the whole people took the place of the last remnant of the feudal duties which fell upon the landlords alone, and, as the excise duties were not sufficient, the landlords soon after agreed to a tax of 4s. in the £ on the annual value of land and other property. It is a standing disgrace to the landlords, who have until recent times always been overwhelmingly predominant in legislation, that the land was never re-valued for the purpose of the land tax, while the growing burden of government has fallen in an ever-increasing proportion upon everything rather than upon that form of property in which they are themselves particularly interested. No worse instance of unfair class legislation is to be found in the annals of this or any other country.
The people are forced to pay an enormous tribute to the lords of the soil. But by what right do the landlords claim it? Moral right they have none to the exclusive possession of natural resources and opportunities. But legal right they have, and it is well to examine its nature. It always rests upon some grant or supposed grant of some King or Queen in the distant past. It is as in the case of a recognised public right of way. The right may have been established by proof of long user, unchallenged by the private owner. At some time the owner could have prevented the public from passing over his land, but, for some reason or other, he never did so. And the time comes when the right of the private owner has ceased by not being asserted. But the theory of the law is that at some time the path must have been definitely dedicated to the public by the owner, and the modern practice of the Courts is to reject the evidence even of the oldest inhabitants as to long user, in the case of settled estates, on the ground that there was no one in a position to dedicate the land for that or any other purpose. In the same way the legal presumption is that even where no royal grant can be proved to have been made such a grant must have been made at one time. And so the unchallenged and undisturbed exercise of the usual rights of landownership for a given term of years establishes a sound title in the eye of the law, no parchment proof being necessary.
The real character of titles to land must always be borne in mind. All other property is the result of human effort in one form or another, and the present possessor is presumed to have obtained it honourably, by gift, purchase, or inheritance, from the one whose labour called it into existence in the first place. The original title was acquired by work, and all subsequent changes of ownership are presumed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, to have transferred that good title unimpaired by lapse of time. But land was here before man himself was, and the first man who called it his own property set up a claim which could have no warrant, and which no lapse of time can ever make good. And, as a buyer can never acquire a better title than the vendor has to give, the last buyer or inheritor of land has really no better title to its exclusive and monopolistic possession than was possessed by its first so-called “owner.” The claim of the first comer was destroyed by conquest, the Conqueror treated the land as his own, and his grantees treated it as theirs, subject only to obligations which they have long since repudiated. And many honest men have given hard cash for it in our own day. But, while honest acquisition does undoubtedly confer a just claim to be honestly dealt with when the supreme right of the community is asserted, it can never confer a just claim of absolute ownership in the land itself. And, just as in the case of the denial of public rights of way over settled estates on the ground that there was no one who had authority to make the necessary allotment or dedication, so we are led to the denial of absolute private ownership of the bounty of nature, on the ground that there never was any authority which had the moral right to create it or to allow it in the first instance.
In fact the land is of such a nature, as the first necessary of life, and strictly limited in amount, that it can never be treated as even the absolute property of a nation, still less of an individual. Each generation of men has only a life interest in it, and has no right, as by the institution of private ownership in it, to condemn its posterity to landlessness. By a majority it may, of course, decide to divide the land as it will, but the possession of a power is very different from the possession of a right. By the acts of democratic governments in dealing with the land of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, future generations have been disinherited through the shortsighted alienation of what ought to have been religiously regarded as the inalienable patrimony of the entire nation.
Exactly the same thing was done in our own country by the exercise of the feudal prerogatives of irresponsible sovereigns. We are suffering today from the inevitable consequences of that injustice, and, although in the vast new and thinly peopled territories of America and Australia the consequences are not yet so serious or so obvious as they are here, they are bound to be intensified as time goes on. In this matter primitive people have often a truer sense of justice than prevails among so-called civilised nations, and, while they may be willing to sell their own rights, they recognise that they have no right to sell those of their descendants.
Titles to Land
The history of land titles is as interesting as it is instructive. When some Northumbrian fishermen went to take the limpets from the rocks on the foreshore at Cullercoats they were confronted with the claim of the Duke of Northumberland that the foreshore, and the rocks on the foreshore, as well as the seaweed and the limpets on the rocks, were his property. They challenged his title, and he proved it. For he was able to show that an ancestor received the grant of the shore from Henry VIII., and that for four hundred years before that the local monastery had owned it. The monks got it by a grant from King Stephen. Much less than this would have been held to warrant the Duke’s claim, and in the eye of the law he triumphantly proved it up to the hilt. So we find that the fishermen’s rights to take the limpets for bait were destroyed by a King who has been dead over 760 years. Such is the power of the “dead hand.” And there is not a single title to land, which, in the last analysis, has a better foundation than that of the Duke of Northumberland to the limpets by the sea at Cullercoats. Such are the rights of property, which he once declared are of greater urgency and importance than the question of providing homes for the working classes.
The Duke of Buccleuch is the owner of nearly half a million acres, dispersed over fourteen counties. One of his estates covers many thousands of acres in Eskdale, and a magnificent and stately mansion testifies to the power of his family in that valley. The manner in which it came into the possession of the Scotts of Buccleuch is recited in Sir Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel(Canto the Third, x. to xii.).
“By the sword they won their land,
And by the sword they hold it still.
Hearken, Ladye to the tale,
How thy sires won fair Eskdale.
Earl Morton was lord of that valley fair,
The Beattisons were his vassals there;
The Earl was gentle, and mild of mood,
The vassals were warlike, and fierce and rude.
High of heart, and haughty of word.
Little they recked of a tame liege lord.
The Earl to fair Eskdale came.
Homage and seignory to claim.
Of Gilbert the Gailliard, a heriot he sought.
Saying, ‘Give thy best steed, as a vassal ought.’ “
The heriot was refused, and –
“But that the Earl to flight had ta’en.
The vassals there their lord had slain.”
He escaped to Branksome Tower, and –
“In haste to Branksome’s lord he spoke.
Saying: ‘Take these traitors to thy yoke.
For a cast of hawks and a purse of gold.
All Eskdale I’ll sell thee, to have and hold.
Beshrew thy heart, of the Beattison’s clan,
If thou leave on Eske a landed man;
But spare Woodkerrick’s lands alone.
For he lent me his horse to escape upon.”
So with five hundred riders he rode to the valley, and the end of it was
–”The Scotts have scattered the Beattison clan.
In Eskdale they left but one landed man.
The Valley of Eske, from the mouth to the source.
Was lost and won for that bonny white Horse.”
From that day to this the Scotts of Buccleuch have been masters there and have drawn tribute from all its inhabitants. Of the feudal robbers Froissart says, “Nought came amiss to them that was not too heavy or too hot.” By such men were the Buccleuch estates founded.
Deeds like these were in Herbert Spencer’s mind when he penned his unanswered and unanswerable indictment of (private titles to land. “It can never be pretended that existing titles to such property are legitimate. Should any one think so, let him look in the Chronicles. Violence, fraud, the prerogative of force, the claims of superior cunning – these are the sources to which those titles may be traced. The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen; not lawyers, but soldiers, were the conveyancers; blows were the current coin given in payment; and, for seals, blood was used in preference to wax. Could valid claims be thus constituted? Hardly. And, if not, what becomes of the pretensions of all subsequent holders of estates so obtained?” (Social Statics, 1850 edition, Ch. IX.)
Of course, land was not the only thing that was stolen in those days. In unsettled times nothing was safe, and the one guiding principle was –
“The good old rule, the simple plan.
That they shall take who have the power.
And they shall keep who can.”
But the effects of a robbery of other kinds of property die out in course of time. They are perishable; land is imperishable. Other property of like kind may be called into existence, but no man can make an inch of land. And they are not fundamental necessaries of life, as land is. The evil consequences of the very worst theft of anything other than land are scarcely felt beyond one generation. The consequences of a robbery of land rights are unending so long as there are landless men. For the Beattisons were by no means the only sufferers by the fight in Gailliard’s Hough in the fifteenth century. The landless tenants of Eskdale have suffered ever since, by being compelled to render of their substance to the Buccleuchs in return for mere permission to live on the land at all. And the Buccleuchs owe their present legal power to take the rents of Eskdale, and to spend them as they will, to the fact that one of their ancestors happened to be able to command the services of a fierce band of his kinsmen and retainers in that memorable fray.
Another ancestor, Walter Scott of Kirkurd, received the barony of Eckford in Teviotdale from Robert II., for the apprehending of Gilbert Ridderford. In 1443 James II. of Scotland granted a Walter Scott half of the barony of Branksome, to be held in blanche for the payment of a red rose. The King got the rose, but the rents exacted by his tenant-in-chief were much more substantial. A few days afterwards the lucky Scott received part of the barony of Langholm and many lands in Lanarkshire. Every farmer, every labourer, and every tradesman on those estates is today the payer of tribute to the Duke of Buccleuch because of those grants.
The reckless way in which the land was granted away by the sovereigns of England for services that were merely nominal is an interesting study. The rent that might have paid all the ordinary expenses of government was never exacted. The rents payable by the tenants of the grantees were heavy enough, and have been steadily increased as the population has increased; but the rents payable by the grantees to the head of the State were often grotesquely and triflingly nominal, and have generally fallen into abeyance.
Some Ancient Tenures
The Manor of Downhall (Cambridgeshire) was held for the service of holding the King’s stirrup when he mounted his horse at Cambridge Castle.
The Manor of Acton (Bucks) was held by the Lords Grey of Wilton by the sergeanty of keeping a falcon for the King.
Addington (Surrey) was held by the payment of a mess of pottage. This, says Thomas Blount (Tenures of land and Customs of Manors), was apparently an appendage to the office of King’s Cook, as Richmond (then Shene) was to the office of butler. The Lord of Baddow (Essex) had to keep the King’s palfrey, and the Lord of Bekton (Devon) had to keep Exeter Gaol. William de Hastings held the Manor of Ashley in Norfolk by the service of taking charge of the table-cloths and other linen at the coronation of the Kings of England.
Every tenant of the Manor of Builth (Radnor) paid maiden-rent, namely a noble at each marriage, in lieu of the ancient and indescribably disgraceful custom of Merchetta. At the coronation of Edward VII., Mr. Southerton-Estcourt claimed the right of being chief larderer, that being the original title to his lands at Shipton-Moigne in Gloucestershire.
The Lord of Shirefield had the duty of exercising supervision over the royal laundresses, of dismembering condemned malefactors, and measuring the gallows.
The Falconbergs formerly held the Manor of Cokeney (Notts) by the sergeanty of shoeing the King’s horse when he went to Mansfield.
Theobalds (Middlesex) was granted as a Crown Manor in 1441 for the annual tender of a bow worth 2s. and a barbed arrow worth 3d.
William Russell held Kingston in the County of Dorset by sergeanty of being keeper of the door of the King’s butlery at the four principal feasts of the year, and of counting the King’s chessmen and putting them into a bag when the King should “perform the game” with him.
The Queen’s Remembrancer every year attends at the Royal Courts of Justice to receive the rent payable to the Crown by the Corporation of London in respect of some land in Shropshire. The rent consists of two hatchets; and for some land in the parish of St. Clementle-Dane the rent is six horse-shoes and sixty-one nails. The City Records show that these rents have been paid for the last 650 years at least.
The Talbots of Malahide near Dublin have held the castle and lordship for nearly 700 years, “with Sac and Soc, Tol and Them, infangthef, and the judgement of Water, of Iron, the Duel, the Pit and the Gallows,” by rendering to the King the services of one archer, with a horse and a coat of mail.
An ancestor of the Earl of Derby, Sir John Stanley, received from Henry IV. a grant “to fortify his house at Leverpool, and the lordship of the Isle of Man, as of all the Regalities, Franchises, and Rights thereto belonging and the patronage of the Bishoprick there,” to be held of the King by homage, and the service of two falcons payable on the day of the coronation.
There were few castles till the time of the Normans, but there were 1,115 by the end of Stephen’s reign. The lords of these castles soon began to arrogate to themselves a royal power, exercising judicature, both civil and criminal, coining of money, and arbitrarily seizing forage and provision for the subsistence of their garrisons, which they afterwards demanded as a right. William of Newbury says, “There were in England as many kings, or rather tyrants, as lords of castles,” and Matthew of Paris said the castles were “very nests of devils and dens of thieves.” The power of the landlord is different now, but it still remains true that power over land gives power over men.
Dissolution of the Monasteries
Enormous tracts of land were conferred upon the monasteries, and one condition was that masses were to be said for the repose of the souls of the pious donors. Those lands were resumed by Henry VIII. at the dissolution of the monasteries, and most of them are held today by our territorial aristocracy.
Pennant says that no family profited so much by the spoils of the Church as that of the Russells. Sir Bernard Burke, in The Rise of Great Families, says: “To the grant of Woburn Abbey in 1547 the Russells owe much of their property in Bedfordshire and in Buckinghamshire; to that of the rich Abbey of Tavistock (containing thirty manors) vast fortunes and interests in Devonshire; and, to render them the more extensive, that of Dunkeswell Abbey was added. The donation of Thorney Abbey gave Lord Russell an amazing tract of fens in Cambridgeshire, together with a great revenue. Melchburn Abbey increased his property in Bedfordshire. The Priory of Castle Hymel gave him footing in Northamptonshire, and he came in for parcels of the appurtenances of St. Albans, Herts, and Mount Grace in Yorkshire; not to mention the house of the Friars’ Benchers in Exeter, and finally the estate about Covent Garden, with a field adjoining, called the Seven Acres, on which Long Acre is built, and which was forfeited by the Duke of Somerset.”
Green, the historian, says that “three hundred and seventy-six smaller houses had been suppressed in 1536; six hundred and forty-five greater houses were surrendered and seized in 1539. Some of the spoil was devoted to the creation of six new bishoprics; a larger part went to the fortification of the coast. But the bulk of these possessions were granted lavishly away to the nobles and courtiers about the King, and to a host of adventurers who had become gospellers for the abbey lands. Something like a fifth of the actual land in the Kingdom was in this way transferred from the Church to that of nobles and gentry. Not only were the older houses enriched, but a new aristocracy was erected from the dependents of the Court. The Russells and the Cavendishes are familiar instances of families which rose from obscurity through the enormous grants of Church lands made to Henry’s courtiers.”
Sir H. Spelman (History of the Confiscation) says that Thomas Howard, who was Duke of Norfolk when the monasteries were suppressed, managed to secure thirteen religious houses in the eastern counties. One of these was Castleacre Abbey, which possessed 11 manors and 33 rectories in Norfolk, 8 rectories in other counties, and lands, tithes, and rents in 142 Norfolk parishes.
Haxted’s History of Kentrecords that Thomas Cranmer, “observing murmurings among the hungry courtiers of the Archbishop’s palaces,” surrendered the Manors of Olford, Wrotham, Bexley, Northfleet, Maidstone, Knole, Sergeants Orford, Sevenoke, Shoreham, Chevening, Panters, and Brytains, with their appurtenances. If this is what he surrendered, how much must he have kept!
Nor were the Cecils behindhand in the great scramble for territory. Richard Cecil, one of the gentlemen of the King’s Chamber, got “Stamford Nunnery with St. Martin’s Rectory, the house and site of the late priory of St. Michael, near Stamford, the church, steeple, and churchyard thereof: the Manor of Workthorpp which belonged to the late Monastery of Croyland; Whitefriars, Stamford; lands in Colyweston, Northampton, which belonged to Stamford Priory; Beckardes March in Brokeland Parish, Kent, which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Almshouse within the precinct of the late Monastery of Westerminster,” and so on. The latter grant probably accounts for the valuable Salisbury Estate in the Strand and in the Shaftesbury Avenue district.
The foundation of the fortunes of the Dukes of Portland was laid by grants by William III. to one of his fellow-countrymen, a Bentinck, who came over with him to England. So lavish were the grants made by William that he was forced to withdraw some of them. Amongst them was a grant of four-fifths of a county to Bentinck and his heirs forever for an annual rent of 6s. 8d. A few months later, Bentinck got the Manors of Grantham, Bracklow, and Rudneth, Terrington, Partington, Bristol Garth, Harnsey, Burnisley, Leven, Pevensey, and East Greenwich, and the Honour of Penrith. Welbeck Abbey and the vast and valuable mineral lands are the presentday fruit of those grants.
Nor must we forget the grants which were made by one of the most dissolute monarchs who ever disgraced the throne, Charles II., for the endowment of his illegitimate children, who are represented by several ducal families today.
But the enclosure of commons was one of the chief agencies for the aggrandisement of the landed interest.
In the course of time, by purchases, and by the marriage of heiresses, the great estates have been still further enlarged, and, by means of the law of primogeniture and entail, they have been maintained for the most part intact. But naturally it could not always remain so in all cases. And so the men of money made in trade sometimes buy the rights of lordship, which the older families have to relinquish. As was wittily stated in the House of Commons by the Member for East Edinburgh: “Ben Wyvis belongs to Shoolbreds, the land of the Mackenzics and the Matthewsons to Baron Schroeder, Skye belongs to Nixey’s Blacklead, Loch Ness to Bass’s Beer, and Inverary Castle to Beecham’s Pills.”
But there is nothing but an occasional change of ownership, and the outstanding fact remains that the bulk of the land is still in the hands of a small minority of the people, while the masses are disinherited, as they have been for centuries.