Tudor and Stuart Gloucestershire

Tudor and Stuart Gloucestershire Riots

Tudor and Stuart Gloucestershire Riots


Written after reading

In Contempt of All Authority

Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England,


Buchanan Sharp


When I walk the banks of the River Severn,

Those turbid waters seem a barrier:

Something liminal and divisive:

It all looks so different on the other side,

Whether you stand on the east or the west:

Dense forest one way, Cotswold hills the other.


But rethink the river, land and skyscape,

Forget the turnpike roads and railways,

Slip back half a millennium of time,

And the river becomes a corridor,

Not just down and upstream, but also across:

With a nascent rural proletariat,

In the mining, charcoaled Forest of Dean,

Linked with the broadcloth east bank weavers,

And the fields and farms of Gloucestershire.


The spring of 1586 was a season

Of high food prices and unemployment –

This led to attacks on ‘barks’ with their cargoes

Of malt at Framilode by around

Five hundred of ‘the commone sorte of people’.

This action was followed by congregations

On both sides of the river to stop vessels

Taking cargoes downstream towards Bristol:

so great was their necessitye as that dyvers of them justifye they were dryvers to feede their children with oattes dogges* and rootes of nettles …’ (* dog-grass).


Resistance remained firm and steadfast

Despite the readings of the Riot Act,

And when two ringleaders faced possible charges,

The summoned forces of law and order,

Were intimidated by some hundreds

Of the local Gloucestershire populace

Who ‘lay in awayte in the woodes and other secret places.’


This riverine and littoral action

Was repeated again in 1622;

Individual and familial begging,

Tramping, pilfering and petitioning

Eventually led to collective riot

As a response to high food prices,

And also unemployment in the cloth trade,

And so, the indigent workless,

through want doe already steale

and are like to starve or doe worse’;

Numbers were so vast that good hearted charity,

And politic efforts to assist

‘by raising of public stockes for their imployment in worke’

Were doomed to inevitable failure:

JPs could not compel clothiers

To give work when they had no markets –

And so, the judges of assize then thought

That they should write to the privy council:

‘Craveinge pardon for our bouldnes,

wee humbly leave this greate and weighty cause

to your grave and juditious consideration’.

Gloucestershire Justices of the Peace

Were of similarly bleak outlook

Later in the year of 1622:

‘the complaints of the weavers and other poore workefolkes depending upon the trade of clothinge …

doe daylie increase in that their worke

and meanes of reliefe doe more and more decay.’

In consequence, it was impossible

‘to releeve the infinite number of poore people residing within the same drawne hither by meanes of clothing.’


What of over on the river’s other bank,

In the charcoal-burning free-mining

Forest of Dean?

Enclosure (‘privatisation of land’)

In the Forest of Dean was met in 1631

By some five hundred inhabitants who

‘did with two drummes, two coulers and one fife in a warlike and outrageous manner assemble themselves together armed with gunnes, pykes, halberds and other weapons.’

They tore down enclosures in the Snead,

And also, in Mailescott Woods, where they also

Fired muskets, threatened to destroy the house

Of an agent of Lady Villiers,

Threw cut timber of oak into the Wye,

And filled up three iron ore pits,

Together with an effigy of loathed

Sir Giles Mompesson, aka

‘The odious projector’.

Just a fortnight later, some 3,000

Gathered with the steady beating of drums

And the flying of pennants and banners,

To destroy enclosures and burn houses.


By the early summer, the Dean enclosures

Had been pretty well removed, although some

Residual rioting took place up at Cannop Chase,

Where enclosures held by the secretary

to the Lord Treasurer, no less,

Were once more destroyed in January 1632,

While further rejections of authority

Took place when enclosures were partially restored

By the rich, as at Mailescott Woods

In July 1633, due to

‘loose and disorderly persons in the night tyme.’


These were the revolts of the poor and those who are

‘Condemned to the enormous condescension of posterity’,


But who can, or might be, identified,

From these nocturnal depredations?


John Williams aka ‘Skimington’,

A labourer/miner from English Bicknor,

Was identified as a ringleader;

A target for arrest in 1631,

Over 120 men advanced,

Under the orders of the undersheriff,

‘before the breake of the day towards the house of one John Williams called by the name of Skymington thinking to have caught him in his bed’

Prior warning led to his escape,

And bribes for information from the poor

Proved to be as ineffective as the force

Of horse and sword and musket.

Star Chamber then became involved

With Williams in 1632,

For this Skymington had ‘threatened and used

some violence to the agents for the King,

that he would serve them as he did others

that intrenched upon his liberties

in the forest of Deane.’

Williams was, however, captured,

And then moved from Gloucester Castle to Newgate

(Where he spent five years).

The response in the Forest of Dean to this?

William Cowse, who arrested Williams,

Was attacked at Newland parish church

By ‘the under sort of people.’


No one was convicted but local JPs

Were ordered to provide armed guards for Cowse,

And his assistants when they were in the Forest

Pursuing the business of King Charles 1st.


The Skimmington tradition and its rough music

Reflected the tradition of a moral economy

And a moral society based upon justice

And a living commonality,

So, it is no surprise to see the Skimmington symbol

Reappear on the eastern bank of the Severn

Between Frampton and Slimbridge in 1631 –

Enclosures had been torn down twenty years before,

But after restoration, peace returned,

Until June 1631, when it was said that:

‘Skymingtones leiuetenaunts and some five more of his company were come to Frampton-upon-Seaverne in the County of Gloucester with an intent to throw in the inclosures of the new groundes.’

This was all hot air, but is an indication

Of the nervousness of the local ruling class

(With some good reason) –

While rumours further circulated that

‘money and victualls’ would be given

To any who would tear down the enclosures.


The Privy Council was more than irritated

With the impotent local authorities,

Especially in the Forest of Dean:

‘We hold this for an extreame neglect of your duties’;

‘Hereof yee must not faile as yee tender his Majesties

heavy displeasure.’

Annoyance continued with the inability

Of the county authorities to stop riots

and arrest rioters, ‘when we

consider what expresse and carefull directions have been from tyme to tyme given by this board as well for the suppressing and preventing of the outrageous assemblies within the Forest of Deane as for the discoverie and apprehending of the offenders and proceeding with them in an exemplarie way.’

But a poorly trained and weak local militia …

The potential size of a riotous assembly

(3,000 determined souls!) …

The way in which potential witnesses

Disappeared into the Welsh Marches …

The indicted hiding within the vast forests,

Valleys, hills and hidden hamlets

Of the Dean, Herefordshire,

Monmouthshire, the Marches …

The ‘base disorderly persons’

Who confronted official ‘search parties,

All accentuated the perception of official impotence;

Sir Ralph Dutton, the sheriff of Gloucester,

Blamed the topography:

‘in regard of the Seaverne on the one side and the River of Wye, the other two shires on the other side, and the woods, hills, myne pitts and colepitts where they dwell, the apprehending of them becomes very difficult and must be effected only by policy never by strength.’

This policy included overt and covert bribery.

The result?

The grand total of just three arrests.


The solidarity between labourers, free miners,

And assorted artisans in the Dean,

In the face of enclosure and

Other intrusions such as ironworks

And privately owned blast furnaces,

Was, of course, as important as topography,

In the battle against authority.

Rights of common were vital to the health

And well-being of individuals,

Families and the whole community:


Such common rights included pasture

For sheep and cattle; pannage for pigs,

And rights of estover: For example:

Collecting deadwood for winter warmth,

Wood for fencing, housing and outbuildings;


This solidarity had stood the test of time:

When the Earl of Pembroke, in 1612,

Started an ironworks – ‘the King’s ironworks’

With blast furnaces, forges, and enclosure,

‘Robin Hoods’ promptly, consequentially,

Burned the wood all cut ready and waiting

For the ironworks – ‘the King’s ironworks’;

This tradition of direct action

Stretched way back, for example,

Back in 1594, 15 tons of wood

Earmarked for royal use was rendered useless

By the simple but lengthy expedient

Of being cut into uselessly tiny pieces;

In 1605, riots occurred

When timber cut for Sir Edward Winter’s

Supplies of charcoal and his iron works

Caused outrage that estover rights

Were being appropriated.


Court decisions reached compromises

Between the rights of property and estover,

But free born miners continued to defy

These court decisions in the Forest

In what was ‘royal demesne’,

By defying authority and selling iron ore

Wherever and to whomever they wished.

In effect, one could argue that

the said mynors whose educacion

had bene onely in labour of this kind’

and who desired that they

‘might be permitted to utter their overplus

or remayne of their said oare or myne

to the relief of their wives and children

to any others who will buye the same’

Had defied – successfully -the monarchy,

And all its attendant forces and structures

Of local and national law and order.


The staccato ‘guerrilla warfare’

Continued, as we have seen and read,

Beyond the reign of King James and into

The reign of King Charles 1,

Culminating, in 1641,

In the destruction of fully 12 miles

Of enclosures around ‘privatised’ forest areas.

The Civil War, starting in 1642,

And the Siege of Gloucester in the following year,

Brought new perspectives on ‘disafforestation’,

A sort of ‘cease-fire’, as it were,

In the battle between privatisation,

Enclosure and monopoly on the one side,

And rights of estover and free born miners,

On the subaltern other.

But ‘In 1645 the ironworks and the right to cordwood … were leased anew to Colonel Edward Massey by authority of a parliamentary ordinance. From this point until 1659, the …policy of the Stuarts – the exploitation of the forest as a source of timber, cordwood, and iron ore – was reintroduced. With this inheritance went all the problems that Stuart governments had to face … Complaints about the activities of the poor grew more frequent … Thus, forest officers lamented in 1647 that:

‘There is still a great spoyle done in the forrest in cutting downe very many of the best oake and beech trees by the Cabbiners and others poore and beggerly persons wee are not able to suppresse them; they resist us and have often beaten and abused most of us …if there be not some speedy course of action taken for the pulling down of these cabins and for the punishing of these beggerly persons that are common spoylers of the timber there wilbe every day more and more spoyles made and committed.’

Two years later, the year of Charles’ execution,

A commission observed that these ‘cabbiners’

‘Chiefly poor vagabonds and strangers who had crept into the forest’ sustained themselves and their families ‘by cutting, cording, burning’ any tree they fancied. Others who ‘spoyled the forest’ included those who made tools, barrels and cardboard.


How did Cromwell and the Commonwealth respond?

The republic responded with partial generosity;

Only one third of the Forest of Dean

Was allocated for enclosure in 1657,

With commons legal rights given to locals

For the other two thirds of the forest,

For sustenance, work, income, living and pleasure.

Even so, enclosures in the privatised third

Were torn down and destroyed in 1659.


How did the government of Charles the Second respond?

‘The post-Restoration of Dean is beyond the scope of this work, but we should note that it was one of the few forests in which disafforestation was permanently reversed … in 1688 Dean was reafforested by Act of Parliament … This meant returning the forest to an open commons to be exploited by the inhabitants … During the next 150 years, however, the inhabitants frequently rioted against attempts to erect enclosures or to impose regulations on their right to common.’

But that’s another story: Warren James.

We shall eventually research and put on a walk about Warren, after reading Ralph Anstis’ book, but for the moment, for those who are interested, it’s https://www.forestofdeanhistory.org.uk/learn-about-the-forest/green-plaque-warren-james-1792-1841/