1902 Encyclopedia > Agriculture > Laws relating to Agriculture and the Rural Economy (16th C. - 1688 AD)

(Part 3)


Laws relating to Agriculture and the Rural Economy
(16th C. - 1688 AD)

The laws of this period, in so far as they relate to agriculture and rural economy, display a similar progress in improvement.

From the beginning of the reign of Henry VII to the end of Elizabeth’s, a number of statutes were made for the encouragement of tillage, though probably to little purpose. The great grievance of those days was the practice of laying arable land to pasture, and suffering the farm-houses to fall to ruin. "Where in some towns," says the statue 4th Henry VII (1488), "two hundred persons were occupied and lived of their lawful labours, now there are occupied two or three herdsmen, and the residue fall into idleness;" therefore it is ordained, that houses which within three years have been let for farms, with twenty acres of land lying in tillage or husbandry, shall be upheld, under the penalty of half the profits, to be forfeited to the king or the lord of the fee. Almost half a century afterwards, the practice had become still more alarming; and in 1534 a new Act was tired, apparently with as little success. "Some have 24,000 sheep, some 20,000 sheep, some 10,000, some 6,000, some 4,000, and some more and some less;" and yet it is alleged the price of wool had nearly doubled, "sheep being come to a few persons’ hands." A penalty was therefore imposed on all who kept above 2,000 sheep; and no person was to take in farm more than two tenements of husbandry. By the 39th Elizabeth (1597), arable land made pasture since the 1st Elizabeth shall be again converted into tillage, and what is arable shall not be converted into pasture.

Many laws were enacted during this period against vagabonds, as they were called; and persons who could not find employment seem to have been sometimes confounded with those who really preferred idleness and plunder. The dissolution of the feudal system, and the suppression of the monasteries, deprived a great part of the rural population of the means of support. They could not be employed in cultivating the soil, for there was no middle class of farmers possessed of capital to be vested in improvements; and what little disposable capital was in the hands of great proprietors could not, in those rude times be so advantageously embarked in the expensive and precarious labours of growing corns, as in pasturage, which required much less skill and superintendence. Besides there was a constant demand for wool on the Continent; while the corn market was not only confined by law against exportation, but fettered by restrictions on the internal trade. The laws regarding the wages of labour and the price of provisions are further proof of the ignorance of the age in regard to the proper subject of legislation.

By the statute 1552 it is declared, that any person that shall buy merchandise, victual, &c., coming to market, or make any bargain for buying the same, before they shall be in the market ready to be sold, or shall make any motion for enhancing the price, or dissuade any person from coming to market, or forbear to bring any of the things to market, &c., shall be deemed a forestaller. Any persons who buys and sells again in the same market, or within four miles thereof, shall be reputed a regrater. Any person buying corn growing in the fields, or any other corn, with intent to sell again, shall be reputed an unlawful in grosser. It was also declared, that no person shall sell cattle within five weeks after he had bought them Licenses, indeed, were to be granted in certain cases, and particularly when the price of wheat was at or under 6s. 8d. a quarter, and other kinds of grain in that proportion.

The laws regarding the exportation and importation of corn during this period could have had little effect in encouraging agriculture, though towards the latter part of it they gradually approached that system which was finally established at and soon after the Revolution. From the time of the above-mentioned statute against forestallers, which effectually prevented exportation, as well as the freedom of the home trade, when corn was above the price therein specified, down to 1688, there are at least twelve statutes on this subject; and some of them are so nearly the same, that it is probable they were not very carefully observed. The price at which wheat was allowed to be exported was raised from 6s. 8d. a quarter, the price fixed by the 1st and 2nd of Philip and Mary (1553), to 10s. in 1562; to 20s. in 1593; to 26s. 8d. in 1604; to 32s. in 1623; to 40s. in 1660; to 48s. in 1663; and at last in 1670, exportation was virtually permitted without limitation. Certain duties, however, were payable, which in some cases seem to have amounted to a prohibition; and until 1660 importation was not restrained even in years of plenty and cheapness. In permitting exportation, the object appears to have been revenue rather than the encouragement of production.

The first statute for levying tools at turnpikes, to make or repair roads in England, passed in 1662.

Of the state of agriculture in Scotland in the 16th and the greater part of the 17th century very little is known; no professed treatise on the subject appeared till after the Revolution. The south-eastern counties were the earliest improved, and yet in 1660 their condition seems to have been very wretched. Ray, who made a tour along the eastern coast in that year, says, "We observed little or no fallow ground in Scotland; some ley ground we saw, which they manured with sea wreck. The men seemed to be very lazy, and may be frequently observed to plough in their cloaks. It is the fashion of them to wear cloaks when they go abroad, but especially on Sundays. They have either good bread, cheese, nor drink. They cannot make them, nor will they learn. Their butter is very indifferent, and one would wonder how they could contrive to make it so bad. They use much pottage made of coalwort, which they call kail, sometimes broth of decorticated barley. The ordinary country-houses are pitiful cots, built of stone and covered with turfs, having in them but one room, many of them no chimneys, the windows very small holes, and not glazed. The ground in the valley and plains bears very good corn, but especially bears barley or bigge, and oats, but rarely wheat and rye." [Footnote 299-1]

It is probable that no great change had taken place in Scotland from the end of the 15th century, except that tenants gradually became possesses of a little stock of their own, instead of having their farm stocked by the landlord. "The minority of James V., the reign of Mary Stuart, the infancy of her son, and the civil wars of her grandson Charles I, were all periods of lasting waste. The very laws which were made during successive reigns for protecting the tillers of the soil from spoil, are the best proofs of the deplorable state of the husbandman." [Footnote 299-2]

Yet in the 17th century were those laws made which paved the way for the present improved system of agriculture in Scotland. By statute 1633, landholders were enabled to have their titles valued, and to buy them either at nine or six year’s purchase, according to the nature of the property. The statute 1685, conferring on landlords a power to entail their estate, was indeed of a very different tendency in regard to its effects on agriculture. But the two Acts in 1695, for the division of commons, and separation of intermixed properties, have facilitated in an eminent degree the progress of improvement.


299-1 Select Remains of John Ray. Lond. 1765.

299-2 Chalmers' Caledonia, vol.ii, p. 732.

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