Class conflict in Elizabethan Norfolk?

Brodie Waddell

In early March 1601, four men got into an argument in the small village of Wicklewood, about eleven miles west of Norwich. Although no blows were exchanged, one of the men uttered words that were dangerous enough to lead to a legal examination by a local magistrate. It is only thanks to this brief deposition – which I’ve transcribed at the end of this post – that we have any knowledge of what was said that day.

I came across this document last summer at the Norfolk Record Office when I was searching through the county quarter sessions files looking for something else. I’d completely forgotten about it until Mark put up a post last week that discussed the history of conflict hidden in England’s rural landscape. That post reminded me that the argument recorded in this deposition might provide some further illumination of this oft-debated aspect of early modern history.

The story, as recorded on this small slip of paper, goes like this. Roger Wells of Wicklewood had hired John Chibocke and Richard Hamond of the neighbouring village of Morley ‘to worke with him’. But Chibocke and Hamond arrived very late and Wells was angry. He declared that if he paid them the wages they really deserved, they wouldn’t be pleased. The two workmen replied that Wells and his ilk ‘Cared not thoughe poore men wrought the[i]re harts out’ and wished ‘that wee might have warres againe, [for] then we should have Corne Cheaper’. At this point, William Seaborne – presumably a partner or employee of Wells – stepped in. He rebuked Chibock and Hamond for their rash words, saying ‘these be matters you understand not’. Yet this just incensed Chibock further. ‘If a thowsand mysters were deade’, he said, ‘we poore men should farre the better’.

'if a thowsand mysters were deade we poore men should farre the better'

‘if a thowsand mysters were deade we poore men should farre the better’

This story is a wonderful example of why we continue to debate the role of class conflict in the early modern countryside.

In one respect, it provides a revealing example of the crackling social tension that existed even in small villages far from the glories of the Elizabethan court or the commercial bustle of the metropolis. Here we find the strained relationship between master and workmen boiling over into insults and death threats. This is not a ‘merry England’ of conviviality, charity and cooperative endeavour. Instead, John Chibocke, presumably voicing the unspoken feelings of many of his fellow ‘poore men’, fantasizes aloud about the deaths of a thousand masters.

Material conditions in Norfolk at this time lend weight to this interpretation. As Jane Whittle, Andy Wood and others have shown, this part of England had been commercialising and polarising at an extraordinary rate in the sixteenth century, leaving sharp divisions in the countryside between ‘the rich’ – landlords and substantial yeomen farmers – and ‘the poor’ – labourers and lowly husbandmen. The gap between the economic interests of these two ‘classes’ had grown extremely wide by the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

Chibocke and Hamond’s wish for cheaper ‘Corne’ is equally important. The cost of grain had been rising constantly for decades. In 1601, the price was about fifty percent higher than what it had been ten years earlier and the dark, hungry years of the later 1590s were very fresh in people’s memories. The reference to cheapness during ‘the warres’ is unclear, but what was unmistakeable is the general sense of grievance. Wealthy farmers with surplus grain to sell benefited immensely from high prices, but for wage-earners who had to buy their food in the marketplace, such circumstances could be extremely harsh.

Even the existence of this document speaks to the heightened animosity between ‘the rich’ and ‘the poor’ at this time. The fact that vague threats against ‘masters’ in general were taken seriously enough to led to a legal investigation suggests that elites did not feel entirely secure in their position despite the backing of overwhelming state power. Indeed, they were not afraid to use this power to crush seemingly class-based sedition.

Wicklewood and Morley in Norfolk

Wicklewood and Morley in Norfolk, where our tale unfolds

Yet, for all that, it would be easy to over-interpret this examination. Is it the exception that proves the rule? Such explicit examples of class hostility are actually exceedingly rare. Out of the thousands of early modern court papers that I’ve looked at in my time, I’ve only come across a handful of depositions of this sort that could be used as evidence of direct class conflict. Is this because ordinary people did not see the world through a ‘class’ lens? Or is it because it was too dangerous to say such things in public and they were only expressed as a ‘hidden transcript’ out of earshot of superiors?

The rarity of examples of class sedition could also be contrasted with the huge number of records that seem to suggest the opposite. It is much, much easier to find humble petitions and supplications that could be interpreted as evidence of the strength of ties between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. Deference – rather than defiance – seems to be the predominant sentiment of the time. But do such sources accurately portray early modern social relations? Or is their humble rhetoric merely a facade hiding an antagonistic reality?

Obviously the answer to such questions is open to debate. Peter Laslett, for example, presented a view of ‘the world we have lost’ that was notoriously cosy and consensual. Christopher Hill and other Marxists suggested the opposite, placing ‘class hostility’ at the heart of their analysis. Even within the work of a single historian one can sometimes find both aspects of early modern England on display. Andy Wood, who has spent more time working on such questions than most, has explored not only ‘the politics of social conflict’ and ‘the hidden injuries of class’, but also the strength of ‘social subordination’ and, most recently, the resilience of ‘faith, hope and charity’. In fact, after writing this post, I inevitably discovered that Andy Wood had already briefly cited this examination in his book on The 1549 Rebellions (2007), p. 206.

So how should we interpret the argument between Roger Wells, William Seaborne, Richard Hamond and John Chibocke in 1601? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Wicklewood parish church today

Wicklewood parish church today


Sources in the Norfolk Record Office

There are a few references to men with these names at around this time, though it is not clear if they are the same men who were involved in the argument. One William Seaborne of Wicklewood, yeoman, died in c.1640 (NRO, DN/INV46/172) and Roger Wells of  nearby Wymondham, husbandman, died in c.1638 (NRO, DN/INV44/81).

The examination itself can be found at NRO, C/S 3/box 13A (1599-1603). It is transcribed below. Thanks to Meaghan Brown for help deciphering ‘Morley’.

The Examacons of Roger Wells and William Seaborne of Wickle Woode in the Countie of Norfolk taken before Sir Phillipp Woodehowse knight the vijth day of March 1600 [i.e. 1601]

The sed Examinants sayd that he the sed Roger Wells hyringe one John Chibocke & Richard Hamond of Morley to worke with him. And the sed Chibocke & Hamond Cominge verye late, the sed Roger Wells semed to be Angrye, And told them that if he should pay them there wages according to there worke, they would thinke them selfes not well dealte with whereunto The sed Chibocke and Hamond Replyed & sayd that they Cared not thoughe poore men wrought there harts out, And further sed Would to God that wee might have warres againe, then we should have Corne Cheaper, For which words the sed William Seaborne, one of these Examinants Rebuked them both & willed them to take heede what they sayd, For sayd Seaborne these be matters you understand not, Noe sayd Chibocke. Yes; And if a thowsand mysters were deade we poore men should farre the better.

[signed:] Phillip Woodehouse


19 thoughts on “Class conflict in Elizabethan Norfolk?

  1. It is no surprise that documents can be found in which relatively poor people in early modern England criticise their wealthier contemporaries. It would be even more surprising if no such documents existed at all. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to find manuscripts in which the poor are criticised by wealthier people too. In a sophisticated society like that of late-Tudor and early-Stuart England, there were inevitably tensions between individuals, within families and communities, between and within distinct geographical areas, between some elements of differing economic or social groups. These tensions, however, did not amount to class conflicts in the Marxist sense however much Christopher Hill, Brian Manning and their followers fifty or sixty years ago might have wanted to portray them as such. Nor can they be forced into an analytical straightjacket that makes them appear to have been examples of such conflict. There existed a range of bargaining mechanisms, of frameworks of arbitration and conciliation, between those at the top and bottom of English and Welsh societies. Undue pressure from the top could not be sustained as the Harlackendens of Earls Colne discovered (French and Hoyle). These tensions and mechanisms normally helped to sustain order and stability rather than undermining either. Contemporaries, in any case, had no concept of “class” in the sociological sense or of “class conflict” in any one of the myriad Marxist recensions. I respect those who still hold such views but I do not find them convincing any more than I did then they were much more vigorously asserted decades ago. “Class” analysis does not help in the exploration of early modern societies whether in these islands or in continental Europe. Better tools are now available and should be employed in the future.

    • Thanks for such a vigorous response, Christopher. As you’ll have guessed, I’m not especially wedded to the old ‘class conflict’ model put forward by Hill. To take the most obvious example, today it would be rather hard to sustain the claim that the 1640s were a ‘bourgeois revolution’. But I’m equally unconvinced by the old anti-Marxist models that once suggested early modern people were somehow inherently incapable of thinking about who controlled the means of production. So, for me at least, the question remains open.

      I’d be interested to hear what other people think about the continued relevance (or not) of ‘class’ in early modern historiography. Early modernists certainly don’t use the term very much any more, though that doesn’t mean we’ve stopped thinking about it.

      • Many thanks, Brodie, for your comments. It is clear – in my view – that people at the lower end of the economic and social hierarchies had some quite sophisticated ideas about the ways in which their world was organised. They also appreciated how to apply to their alleged ‘betters’ for help, how to bargain for such aid, how to apply pressure, etc. In a society with so fragile an apparatus of government, they could be surprisingly effective in articulating their demands. We actually need an entirely new terminology for this intellectual venture, one that leaves nineteenth-century concepts far behind.

  2. Another great piece, thanks for sharing! Could I just comment on the transcription of the final part of the document (the bit you’ve included in the photo)? To me, the word ‘mysters’ actually looks more like ‘missers’ [i.e. ‘misers’]. If this were the case, it would change the tenor of the argument somewhat, from an overtly status-based complaint to one which would read instead more like a general moan on the part of Chibock for feeling hard done by at the hands of society in general, even though he has no right to feel this way, having apparently not even bothered to turn up for work on time! Just a thought.

    • Thanks, Stephanie. You could be right about the ‘mysters’/’myssers’. I’d assumed the fourth letter was an uncrossed ‘t’ (which the scribe does regularly’) because it doesn’t go much beneath the line, but it could also be an ‘s’. Unfortunately the scribe doesn’t use ‘ss’ anywhere else the document, so we can’t directly compare it. The only other ‘st’ is a couple lines above in ‘understand’, which isn’t a close match. I don’t think there is conclusive proof either way.

      As you say, ‘myssers’ (= misers) could fit in the context, given that they were earlier complaining about the price of corn. High food prices were often blamed on ‘misers’ who hoarded grain. If it was misers, that would make it even less likely that this was an example of ‘class conflict’ because hoarders and greedy middlemen (a.k.a. regraters, forestallers, engrossers) were regularly condemned by the government and occasionally punished by local magistrates. In other words, ‘misers’ were not the rich in general but rather a specific type of economic delinquent.

  3. Errrm. I’ll stick my neck out here and say it sounds more like an example of status-group conflict than class conflict. Though we could have a lot of fun defining each to our mutual satisfaction. I doubt that there’s ever been a human society without status groups, and yes, they’ll pick quarrels with each other over their points of difference. Some of these points of difference may indeed lead to injustice and resentment. Others may simply provide opportunities for ridicule, e.g. the urban middling sort vs. the rural middling sort.

      • Because in this context, Chibocke seems to be using “masters” as a generic term for what I might call “rich (insert expletive of your choice)” and mean “anyone who thinks they can treat me with contempt because they’ve got more money than I have”. Neither Wells nor Seaborne appear to have been “masters” as in “gentlemen”.

        And even if they were, gentlemen in Elizabethan England were by definition a motley crew, hardly constituting a class. Landed gentry; impoverished university men; upstarts with enough money to fork out for a coat of arms…

        Also, Chibocke is talking about a temporary master/servant (employer/employee) relationship, rather than an ongoing one. Though no surprise that he and his mate were called to account for what was said: Elizabethans didn’t like people being insolent to their betters. It was frowned upon at every level of society, including among the nobility. But that still seems to be about status rather than class.

        I’m diffident about commenting on this, because it’s not something I’ve thought about in depth since the 1970s when I read Peter Laslett plus an overly-sharp review by Christopher Hill. But at the time I thought that society in early modern England was just too small to sustain what we would recognise as a class system, and I still think so.

        In a country with a population approaching 4,000,000, and a capital city of around 200,000, sooner or later everyone knows everyone else. Or, more exactly, knows someone who knows someone who’s married to…etc. Gossip (positive and negative) is rife, and used as a means of social control. The networks are formidable. People within these networks, indeed within families, may belong to a variety of status groups. They may or may not get along with each other. In times of crisis, family/acquaintanceship loyalty may or may not win out over status group loyalty.

        Whatever, the small society is more fluid than class thinking suggests.

        But doubtless many will disagree with me.

  4. I’m not convinced by the overly Marxist interpretations either, but like you, Brodie, I still think ‘class’ can be useful if used carefully. For over thing, there was a whole array of stereotypes associated with social and economic status which I believe helped people to interpret and engage with society. That doesn’t mean that people thought solely and rigidly in these terms, but the ideas were useful to them. If we take the example of petitions that you mentioned, when people referred to themselves as ‘poor’, is that because they saw themselves as such or because that knew that this rhetoric would appeal to the patriarchal attitudes of the elite, and so make the petition more likely to succeed? I suppose my point is that I am suspicious of any simplistic idea about early modern ‘class consciousness’, especially when that is used to explain political activities, but I am nevertheless interested in how people thought about their position in society. Also, Marcel van der Linden’s essays on global labour history raise some interesting points about moving beyond Marxist definitions, and seeing class not just about relation to the means of production (for Van der Linden this also means getting away from a focus on wage workers and wage relations) but rather in terms of coercion and economic necessity.

    • Thanks for the suggestion of Van der Linden. I’d read his 2011 article in IRSH, but hadn’t seen his other essays. Coercion and economic necessity seem pretty important, and I suspect even the most traditional Marxist would agree that they are part of a ‘class’ system!

      However, as Mark notes below, there’s no agreed definition of ‘class’ even among Marxists. There are plenty who use a Thompsonian model that emphasizes culture and identity rather than ‘objective’ material reality, and that model probably makes more sense for analysing things like petitions where broad catagories such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ are more salient than, say, employer and worker.

  5. I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic about the usefulness of ‘class’ as a concept with which to discuss early modern society. Personally I do find it useful – I don’t think it is the blunt tool many people see it as, and it is hardly the case that even ‘the Marxists’ had one definition of what exactly ‘class’ is. To my mind many of the features of social consciousness and conflict that we all seem to agree were present in early modern society can be reasonably described as features of class relations without that implying that deference, sophisticated maneuvering, vertical ties etc didn’t also play a part in social relations. Ultimately, of course, it is all a matter of how we define class, and on that we will never agree.

    The reason why I think the term is unhelpful is because whenever it is deployed the debate – much like the one we are having here – tends to get sidetracked into a discussion of its applicability, which to my mind detracts from the fact that we are essentially all drawing similar conclusions about the character of social relations in this period. The original debate over whether the common people saw the world in terms of ‘class’ or ‘deference’ was to my mind less about looking for a narrowly defined ‘class consciousness’ and more about challenging the assumption that the lower orders simply accepted their lot. That has surely now been put to bed; no one any longer thinks that the lower orders unthinkingly accepted their subordinate position in society without challenge. Instead we see a complex web of social relations which could at times articulate a rather stark clash of rich versus poor, and at others involve ‘the poor’ humbly appealing to the generosity of their ‘betters’. Whilst the debate about what best to call all of this rumbles on, I actually think we are developing quite a clear, sophisticated and generally agreed upon picture of early modern social relations.

    • Sometime I too feel decidedly pessimistic about the usefulness of ‘class’ for much the same reason you mention – often it just leads to a politicised argument only tangentially related to empirical history. The fact that I (mostly) disagree with the traditional long-term Marxist metanarrative of ‘class struggle’ is also a bit of a problem.

      Yet, whenever I’m beginning to despair in the value this term/model, I come across some new work on early modern history that explicitly draws on ‘class’ to provide some new, powerful, provocative insight into the period. For example, Andy’s articles on ‘Fear, Hatred and the Hidden Injuries of Class’ (2006) and ‘Subordination, Solidarity and Limits of Popular Agency’ (2006), and most recently Hilary Taylor’s article on ‘Plebeian Inarticulacy’ (2015) forced me to think much harder about the role of collaboration and deference in social relations. I doubt those pieces would have been as effective if they’d avoided any mention of ‘class’.

  6. Any analytical tool that helps to illuminate the past is worth having in my opinion even if it is only partially useful. But, in the case of ‘class’ terminology, there are important and highly interesting issues about what historians may claim to know and say about societies in the past in general and about England and Wales in the early modern period. Deploying Marxist terms, however they are defined or understood, exposes a gap between the perceptions of early modern people about how their societies were structured quite apart from the inappropriate validity of such terminology. The risk of adopting Marxism’s universal conspiracy theory about relations between social groups is also present. There is also the danger that practitioners of other disciplines wedded to the use of such analytical tools in the modern world simply borrow the contents of secondary works in history to sustain contentious propositions about the present. Did Barrington Moore or C.B.Mcpherson or Ellen Meiksins Wood ever look at a manorial roll or a lease book or proceedings in Chancery before pronouncing on economic and social relationships in late-medieval and early modern England? I think not but anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists continue to write on our period without any significant acquaintance with its records. This, in brief, is why I support the development of a different analytical and epistemological framework, one that accommodates arbitration, conciliation and consensus as well as conflict in its resources and which is more sensitive to contemporaries’ views than to those of the Marxist and post-Marxist eras.

    • Yes, the risk of simplistic histories being misused by scholars from other disciplines (and of course non-scholarly popularisers) is a real one, though I don’t think its confined to class analysis. Plenty of sophisticated work on, e.g., the early modern English state/constitution risks being misused in narratives of ‘British’ [sic] exceptionalism.

      More importantly, I don’t think there’s any particular reason to think that an analytical framework that uses ‘class’ can’t accomodate ‘arbitration, conciliation and consensus’. Historians interested in class no longer rely on ‘false consciousness’ to wave away such crucial issues.

  7. I’d like to leave aside the semantics of class if possible, we use a range of conceptually dense words ‘now’ to describe the politics and social relations of ‘then’ and often quite successfully do so without recourse to anachronism. I will say that for me the word ‘class’ does an excellent job standing in for a much longer and more tortured explanation of social and material relations, both cooperative and antagonistic, across groups, but I seem to use the actual word rarely.

    I am absolutely with Mark regarding the issue of being side-tracked by the applicability of the term. I agree further that our present picture of early modern social relations is wonderfully robust and nuanced. If ‘class’ does useful conceptual work and assists in the cogent explanation of those historical relationships for the historian writing on these relationships, then I rather fail to see the problem in its appropriate use. Interestingly, in a book about early modern vagrancy I think I barely use the term, but I certainly invoke the conceptual framework throughout.

    Adding ‘consciousness’ almost inevitably presents a slightly reductive vision of landless labourers all aware of their fundamental dispossession by personal or impersonal economic and social forces, protesting their exclusion in one voice : a coalescence that more than occasionally occurred, as the work of Andy Wood or John Walter or many others points out. The term does miss all the additional layers — these perhaps only as finite as individual experiences — that historians increasingly describe using other robust terms like choice and constraint (most often still used when discussing economics but I am seeing this change in some recent publications I’ve reviewed).

    These conceptual frameworks are far from exclusive. For me, the key word in the term ‘mutual obligation’ was *obligation*; to be obliged to be charitable, to be deferential, is to be moved to a position well past free choice, in my view, and early modern people understood obligation quite clearly, religious, social, and economic evidence of it as the glue that held all together abounded in their view. Poor petitioners humbly requesting the charity of parish vestries lest they and their families starve are actually articulating their need in the strongest rhetorical framework available; they are after all expending precious time and resources to petition, they often do so aided by better-off petitioners, and *against* the institutional impulses of exclusion and ratepayer reluctance. As both an economic and moral strategy they are very successful Like the outstretched hand, the petition’s voice effectively demands the attention of local elites and officeholders in a language difficult to ignore, because they will be seen to have done so.

    I ask what is incorrect about calling that language the language of ‘class’?

    • You’ll see from my responses above that I’m broadly in agreement: class analysis is sometimes a Good Thing. The question, as always, is *when* is it useful and *when* is it not.

      I’m intrigued by your example of a pauper petition. In one sense, this is obviously could be a manifestation of a ‘class’ relationship, given that the parish elite were ‘the propertied’ and the poor were of course ‘propertyless’. The first potential problem is that paupers don’t actually fit tidily into a conventional ‘class’ structure very well thanks to their reliance on ‘the economy of makeshifts’. They could not survive outside the capitalist economy, so they worked intermittently as wool-spinners, labourers, parish nurses, etc. (thus = working class) but also relied on various non-market survival strategies such as charity and/or crime (thus = ‘underclass’ or ‘lumpenproletariat’). The second potential problem is that the language used by poor petitioners was not always built on class differences. Instead they sometimes (usually?) appealed to shared Christian morality focused on virtue and sin than rich and poor, or to pseudo-familial bonds emphasising their age (decrepitude; youth) or disrupted household (widow; fatherless), or to geographical community (long resident; neighbour), or to statutory entitlement, or … and so on. So if the relationship between a propertyless pauper and a propertied overseer or magistrate wasn’t particularly ‘class based’, then what was?

  8. Sorry to chime in late on this, but this passage reminds me of one that I quote (as does Andy Wood) from 1597 in Norfolk, where a man said that there should be a camp in Whissonsett like Kett’s camp, and they should fight for corn. I’d have to go back to my 30 year old notes to see if I have the one you quote, but it suggests to me that this kind of consciousness — of an economic relationship that was exploitative. It’s interesting that these are labourers rather than servants: they are not in a paternalistic relationship, but one entirely governed by cash.

    Obviously I have no trouble using the word class, even in the title of a book; I’ve always seen the big conflicts of the early modern period arising from the fact that the language for social position was a language of status, but that judgments were being made on the basis of wealth. So it’s a transitional period. And yes, I’ve gotten grief over the years for the class thing, but it’s always been clear that I’m not talking about class in a crude Marxist way. (Though Christopher Hill was delighted when I told him about the Kett reference.)

    My question is when are people going to stop acting as if Christopher Hill wrote last year, and engage with what people say about class? It’s kind of hard to believe we’re still having that particular argument.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughts, Susan. It is great to have the perspective of someone who is willing to explicitly use ‘class’ in published work. As your book showed, acknowledging the importance of socio-economic divisions and conflict does not mean that we need to ignore other sources of both friction and authority in early modern society such as the patriarchal household. Economic capital and gender were both powerful drivers of social relations, rather than one overwhelming the other.

      I quite like your idea of ‘big conflicts of the early modern period arising from the fact that the language for social position was a language of status, but that judgments were being made on the basis of wealth’. That seems to come up again and again in the more minor struggles over precedence and position in the parishes too. If the recent work on contemporary assessments of worth by Alex Shepard and others have taught me anything, it’s that people were constantly making very detailed judgements about their neighbours’ wealth and income. As you say, that regularly caused conflict when the results didn’t align with conventional or customary hierarchies of rank and order.

      In any case, at the very least I think you are absolutely right to say that it is time to step beyond the crude claims and counter-claims of Hill and others of that generation. That doesn’t mean that I think we should give up arguing about the applicability of ‘class’ to particular situations. It just means that thanks to you, Andy, and many other current historians, we’re now blessed with a much more sophisticated understanding of early modern society, so we ought to take full advantage of that.

      • Thanks, Brodie. This is just it: “people were constantly making very detailed judgements about their neighbours’ wealth and income” — and they mapped it on to church seats, credit, etc.

        I don’t know how we convince people that we can use the word class and not mean it in a simplistic Marxist way, but I think we just have to do it!

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