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’.
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.
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.
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 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