A Norfolk Village: Cawston 1595-1605
What was it really like to live in an English village at the end of Queen Elizabeth's reign? To what extent was it a close-knit community? How deeply was it divided by wealth and religious belief? Was the village even an important part of the identity of its members? Susan Amussen addresses these questions in one village in East Anglia.
Cawston is a Norfolk village twelve miles north of Norwich, just west of the main road to Holt. In Tudor times it had a market, but it was basically a village: a weaving village as well as an agricultural one. The 3,500 acres of the parish – large by Norfolk standards – included as part of the common over 1,000 acres of heath, which was adjacent to, and shared with, the commons of adjoining towns and villages. Cawston was an arable village; the main agricultural product was corn, with sheep in a traditional Norfolk fold-course used to fertilise the soil. (In a fold-course the sheep of the owner or farmer are moved through specified fields after the harvest, grazing on the stubble as they fertilise the soil.) At the end of the sixteenth century the manor was in the hands of the crown, which leased out its rights. The most important feature of agriculture in Cawston, as in all open-field villages of this period was that land was used by different people for more than one purpose. Competition for resources inevitably ensued: the heath was used to graze the sheep belonging to the farmer of the fold-course, to raise rabbits in the warren, to pasture the inhabitants' cattle, and to provide them with fuel. The fold-course system also depended on open fields at a time when prosperous farmers throughout England were consolidating and enclosing their holdings. The management of these interests required a delicate balancing act, in Cawston as elsewhere.
Competition for shared resources was not a problem unique to Cawston; neither was the town's other major problem, poverty, a problem aggravated by the growing population. The population of England and Wales grew by 60 per cent between 1541 and 16I2; the Elizabethan poor laws of 1598 and 1601 were, of course, responses to this expansion. In 1603 at least 530 people lived in Cawston; when a series of bad harvests in the 1590s had required the distribution of grain at reduced prices, at least eighty-five households – more than half the town – needed assistance. Even in 1601, when prices were lower, only 68 of the 167 households in Cawston – 40 per cent – were able to contribute to the charges of the parish.
We know a good bit about what happened in Cawston because of the survival of the papers of one man, George Sawer. His early life is shrouded in obscurity, but he was buried in Cawston on October 30th, 1627; one son was born in 1579, so he was probably over seventy at the time of his death. Although he was described as a gentleman in the parish register, surviving rentals for the manor of Cawston do not accord him such status. Yet Sawer's son Edmund (1579-1670) became auditor of London and was knighted; his grandson was attorney general in 1681 and served as senior counsel for the Seven Bishops in 1688. His family seems to be a perfect example of the 'rising gentry'. Although his son married and was living in London and Berkshire, and his daughter lived in Gloucestershire, Sawer himself remained in north Norfolk, respected if not liked by his neighbours.
George Sawer's papers enable us to see Cawston dealing with both the competition for scarce resources and poverty; they reflect the increasing self-consciousness of the village as a community, able to take care of its own members and willing to defend its collective interests against outsiders. They also help us to examine the tangled relationship between communal solidarity and individual self-interest.
In 1601, George Sawer received £20 from Edward Hammond, the Rector of Cawston, and William Batch and Robert Eston, two parish officers, to pay the expenses of a dispute between the villagers and Thomas Hyrne., Gent, of the neighbouring village of Heveringland. Hyrne had gained the lease of Cawston's fold-course and warren in August 1600; by the autumn of 1601 he and the inhabitants of Cawston were engaged in reciprocal lawsuits in the Court of Exchequer. Hammond and Sawer, Batch, and Eston were the named defendants in Hyrne's suit; they had, in turn, sought contributions from all the inhabitants of the village to prosecute their suit against him.
The suit reflects the competition for access to Cawston heath. During the summer, Hyrne used it to pasture his flock, while the tenants used it to pasture both sheep and cattle. As we have seen, it was also a warren, used to raise rabbits, as well as the major source of fuel. Hyrne complained that Cawston people, with their rector's encouragement, were killing his rabbits in the warren. Furthermore, the tenants were wrongly allowing their sheep to stray from Eastgate Green, a small section of the common, onto the heath. Finally, enclosures made by tenants in the open fields were not being thrown open after the harvest, when his sheep were supposed to graze on the stubble. In response, the tenants alleged that Hyrne had unjustly increased the number of his sheep on the foldcourse and the number of rabbits in the warren. They argued that their sheep could graze on the heath: shepherds had been fined in the manor court for pushing them off it, just as warreners had been fined for digging holes for rabbits. Finally, the tenants noted that although they had enclosed lands in Lownd field, the farmer of the foldcourse had enclosed land in Baywood Field, so that the foldcourse now omitted both fields. There was one open field not in the foldcourse – Alvington field – but Hyrne already fed sheep there. In addition, the tenants had lost access to eighty acres of common in Heveringland recently enclosed by Hyrne.
Here is a typically complex enclosure dispute. The lawsuits do not represent a conflict between the poor and exploited and the rich and powerful. Each side was defending itself against encroachments by the other at the same time that it sought to extend its own rights. Hyrne and the villagers were both trying to exploit their lands more effectively. The judgement in the case recognised this. Thus, while tenants were to continue to take firing from the heath, they were not to sell it; while tenants were allowed to destroy rabbit burrows close to their lands, Hyrne was allowed to dig an equal number of new ones on the heath. The dispute over pasture was settled by reference to a 1574 lawsuit: a com- mission would decide which enclosures had been made since then, and which of the older enclosures were traditionally opened up to feed the sheep.
The lawsuits did not pit the poor against the rich, but villagers against outsiders. Three of the four named defendants were parish officers and wealthy men, the fourth was the rector – who had extensive holdings both as rector and in his own right. The defendants were not friends: there had been conflicts between Sawer and Hammond ten years before the lawsuit with Hyrne, and they recur fifteen years later – over religious practice, tithes, and land rights. They carne together not because all their interests were identical, but because all tenants in Cawston, particularly the wealthier ones, would benefit from the extension of their rights, and suffer from the extension of the foldcourse. Such was the basis for collective action and collective identity.
While it is easy to point to the personal advantages – enclosures, more pasture, and the like – which would accrue to the tenants of Cawston if they had won their suit, not all of their claims would have directly benefitted Cawston's more prosperous inhabitants. They looked also to the wider problems of the village, which, though it had been a 'town of good reckoning', had 'growne into great poverty so that those of Ability are scarse able to releave the wantes of the poorer sort'. Hyrne refused to contribute to any parish charges. His excessive. exploitation of the heath diminished the amount of fuel available for the poor. One villager, Henry Younge, explained that many of the poor earned their living by collecting fuel on the heath for their richer neighbours; deprived of this, they would be reduced to begging. The heath thus provided respectable employment for the poor. There is, of course, no particular virtue in defending the rights of the poor simply to reduce parochial burdens. However, other evidence suggests that Cawston made extensive and careful provision for its poor, provision which reflects the increasing importance of the parish as both an administrative and social unit.
The provision of adequate relief for the poor did not engage the self- interest of the well-to-do in the same way as the defence of property rights. Yet such provision was seen as both necessary, and to a certain extent, desirable. Elizabethan parish notables feared vagrants and beggars, so the legislation providing a national system of poor relief passed by Parliament in 1598 provided relief only in the parish of settlement: only if the poor were kept in one place could they be adequately disciplined. The anxiety about the wandering poor, and the perceived need for discipline, reflect the uneasiness of those who governed the parishes and counties of England about their relationship with their inferiors in a time of rapid economic change.
George Sawer's papers reveal both the operation of poor relief and the thinking which underlay it. Provision for the poor and needy in Cawston was thoroughly planned. Circum- stances, both individual and general, were carefully taken into consideration. In the earliest surviving records we can see the village's response to the disastrous harvest of 1596. Lists of those in need of grain were .made up, divided according to the extent of need. The 'poorer sort' bought corn at highly subsidised prices; those 'somewhat more able' paid a bit more; those with 'no corn growing' bargained with the sellers for a price; and when all these groups were taken care of, others with insufficient corn for their households were allowed to purchase any remaining corn. The supply of corn to the weekly market was assured by requiring inhabitants with corn to bring specified amounts to the market each Wednesday between January and August of 1597. The process ensured that those who needed corn could get it, and that those with a surplus provided it. 8ut the plan sought also to protect profits: each seller served a different group of buyers each week so that there was an equitable distribution of the more profitable sales.
Such a relief effort works only if it is well-organised and respected. The possibilities for argument are legion: should Thomas Sporle be classed as 'poor' or 'somewhat more able'? Should Edward Lombe be asked to bring one or two combes of corn to the market in a particular week? George Sawer evidently managed the effort successfully: he was subsequently chosen as overseer of the poor at least five times, and as churchwarden at least twice – including one year in which major repairs to the church required heavy taxation. Sawer was relied on for methodical, careful and fair work, both in categorising the poor and valuing the estates of the propertied. As overseer, he made list after list of the population: there are two different lists for 1601, which followed lists in 1596 and 1597 of those buying corn at the market. One 1601 list divided the village into those who paid rates, those who received relief, and those who could not pay rates; the latter were divided into those with neither a house nor a cow, and those with either a cottage or a cow; prosperity apparently demanded both.
Sawer's categories refine the social divisions of the population. The first 1601 list noted that sixty-eight of the 167 households in Cawston paid rates, and seventy-two people in all (including five fatherless children) received relief. The other 1601 list focused exclusively on the poor. The poor were divided by age – those over forty and those over sixty – with the fatherless children in a separate category. These three groups included 194 people, so less than half the poor received weekly relief. The 'poor' were somehow different from 'others not so poor' and 'more not able to give anything.' The distinction, however made, was real: those described as poor were far more likely than those in other groups to appear three years later as recipients either of relief or of doles (occasional payments, often in kind, seldom more than 1s.). Those who could not contribute to the town charges might never need assistance in normal circumstances, but they lacked a surplus to contribute to the support of their poorer neighbours.
George Sawer's lists demonstrate that the villagers' claim that 'those of Ability are scarse able to releave the wantes of the poorer sort' was not just rhetoric. In 1601 Sawer noted that only fourteen landholders in Cawston had more than forty acres. In a crisis only these men would have a substantial surplus to contribute to the relief of the poor, and the burden of poor relief fell on them. In 1597 three men – including Edward Hammond – were each assessed at 1s. a week or more for the poor. In 1604-5 the overseers assessed 19s. 1d. a month from sixty-six householders. The nine householders paying more than 6d. a month paid 9s. 10d., or 51.5 per cent of the total; in other years the burden would have been greater, for the receipts of the overseers that year were just one-third what they had been three years before. Sawer's lists suggest the care that was taken to give assistance only to the 'truly needy'. Sawer's diligent administration of poor relief reflects a sense of duty and responsibility to his neighbours of all social levels. This sense of responsibility was not, of course, shared by everyone: in 1604-5 Edward Hammond was still in arrears for his 1602 rates – hardly the model of a generous and charitable rector.
The discussion of these administrative records skirts the central question of what it meant to live in Cawston. We can begin with George Sawer. Sawer was evidently a puritan, as Hammond remarked that Sawer had been 'precise' about some points of divinity. Like many parish officers, he believed in discipline: he kept a list of rules for the regulation of alehouses, and the earliest of his papers relating to local government is a 1592 draft petition to the justices of the peace against a local ne'er-do-well, John Ellison. Ellison had quarrelled with his neighbours and carried a dagger to threaten them, failed to complete work for which he had been paid, and although he had 'neither land nor living to our knowledge doth live uprightly without labor or trade to get his living'; he also 'haunteth the ale- house daily'. The list of offences is typical of the concerns of what is known as the 'puritan reformation of manners'; not surprisingly, Ellison later deserted his wife, who was buried in 1601 at the expense of the parish. Puritanism and its attendant personal discipline would help explain the assiduity of George Sawer, but he was not just a stern disciplinarian. His family papers are mostly concerned with business but he also thought it worth keeping a Christmas thank-you note from his grandson, Francis Phelips, just after he became a grammarian, painfully traced in ink over a pencil outline. 'Of all the tokens you sent I like best of the brawne and cheese', says Francis, 'and therefore send you most thankes for them, though the cheese be not yet come.'
George Sawer, devoted to discipline and administration, seems typical of many of the wealthier inhabitants of Elizabethan and early Jacobean English villages. The village – or more accurately the parish – was an important source of identity for them in areas of open-field agriculture like Cawston, some co-operation was enforced by the agricultural system; after 1560 everyone was required by law to attend their parish church weekly; churchwardens represented their parish and disciplined their neighbours in the church courts; and at the end of the sixteenth century parishes took on the administration of the poor law. By 1600 the parish was a more important institution than it had been forty years earlier. Yet the parish was still only part of the county; parish officers and many of their neighbours would often attend the quarter sessions in Norwich, and more rarely the assizes, either as participants or observers; they would learn something of national events from those visits, from gossip at the market, or from royal proclamations read in church. While his son Edmund attended grander affairs in London, George Sawer remained primarily concerned with affairs in Cawston. The village was the centre of his public life, and he sought nothing greater. Sawer embodies several different dimensions of village life: administrative responsibility and protection of self-interest, provision for the poor and discipline of the unruly. Yet his life also suggests that village horizons were not totally restricted: anchored in Cawston, he dealt with county leaders while his son kept him abreast of events in the capital.
Sawer's papers reflect the agricultural and economic life of the community, as well as the various aspects of its administrative life; but they also suggest the importance of social and economic status in determining the meaning of local identity. People of his type had both the privileges and responsibilities of leadership. The advantages could be pecuniary, but there were also less tangible ones of respect and status accruing from service as churchwarden or overseer of the poor. Parish officers helped to define the local social hierarchy by assigning seats in the church: in a surviving plan for the women's side of Cawston church in 1615, the wives of the parish officers sat immediately behind the rector's wife. The parish officers spoke for the village: they determined, for instance, that the lawsuit against Thomas Hyrne from which they benefitted should be paid for collectively. But they also ensured that the town's poor were fed, employed, and provided for.
While wealth and position led to a clear identification with place, it is more difficult to say what the village meant to its less prosperous members. In local records they are spoken of, but rarely speak. Cawston's records at least allow us to see how the parish shaped their lives – who they saw in church on Sundays, how many were poor, what resources were available to them, and the attitudes of local notables to them. Poorer rate- payers often suspected their officers of embezzlement, so the scrupulousness of George Sawer would be welcome, though not if it were accompanied by too much discipline and regulation of their lives. For those who did not pay rates, the disadvantages of tight discipline could be counterbalanced, though not necessarily compensated for, by the knowledge that if they were in need, they and their families would be cared for. That their needs were defined by their richer neighbours was just one other aspect of what it meant to be poor. For the. poor, the parish could be intrusive or helpful, supportive or critical, but it was never an institution they could control.
What do these stories from one village tell us about Elizabethan villages in general? First, they remind us that central to all villages was an interplay between local identity and social distinction. Villagers were not an undifferentiated mass, but were divided – by wealth, landholding, behaviour, religion, and the like. Though the divisions are rarely spelled out, they shape many records of the period. And yet the divisions are within a community which saw itself as, and often acted as, a unit. The village usually united against outsiders, and in dealing with justices of the peace, church courts, and the central government, village leaders spoke confidently for their community. Yet local notables were also aware of their membership in the county and the nation – a membership which often separated them from their poorer neighbours. In some sense the village can be seen as a model for the nation: both reflect a balance between those things which divided and those which unified their inhabitants in their multiple identities.
I am grateful to Mrs Janet Hammond, for permission to use those of George Sawer's papers which are in her possession.
Susan Amussen is Assistant Professor of History at Connecticut College.
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