Kings of the Road

is not a special road, not an ancient road, not a major road. In fact, in some respects, it's not "a" road at all, but an accidental concatenation of many local roads.

Some of these were turnpikes - roads built by an entrepreneur, some time between the 17th and 19th centuries, with the intention of charging tolls on traffic. Only later were they adopted by local authorities, and then absorbed into a national system.

But the majority of this particular road is made up of local "Enclosure" roads.

Englishmen emerged from the feudal period with a complex system of rights and obligations. Feudal masters might have wielded control over vast areas of land, but they didn't necessarily own them (beyond a home farm or demesne) - nor could they (legally) do anything they wanted with them. The land which was worked by the common people was, by and large, common land - not really owned by anybody (except the Crown). In addition, there were forests and grazing land which was also held in common.

But agriculture didn't remain a matter of supplying local needs - it became an industry. From the 13th century (but especially from the 15th) wool became an important source of wealth. Wool and woollen goods were exported all over Europe.

Estate owners wanted to expand this business, but existing grazing land was insufficient. They wanted to enclose common land, and run sheep on it.

So they did. In some cases, rents and duties were racked up - to force tenants out. In others, brute force was used.

Many villages were destroyed, sometimes leaving a single cottage for the use of the shepherd. Others were left intact, but had their common land reduced to a patch big enough to play cricket on, but not much else.

This was a truly dreadful period in English history. Families who had tilled their masters' land for generations were turfed out without compensation. They had to wander the lanes, hoping to hire themselves out to the highest bidder - to any bidder. Vagrancy Acts led to these poor bastards being harried from pillar to post, with each community they came to pushing them on to the next.

If they had a skill, they could head for the burgeoning towns, but there the guilds would do their best to stop them plying their trade (and diluting the guilds' bargaining power).

But it was very good for business. Those growing towns owed their vast wealth - and their grand new wool exchanges and corn exchanges and guildhalls and churches - to the suffering of the dispossessed villagers.

Indeed, much of the wealth and power of the English middle class was based on wool. It is not for comfort that the Lord Chancellor presides over the House of Lords from the Woolsack.

At the end of the 18th century, in a series of Enclosure Acts, Parliament began to regulate the final rites of this process, largely consolidating the status quo.

When is a Village? When is a Village? Enclosure to Turnpike Enclosure to Turnpike
© David Craig Send me a message