The Enclosure Act’s Impact on British Landscapes

The Enclosure Act in England embody a significant part of rural history, and thus are a defining feature of English societal identity.

Enclosure represents a relationship, a story, between the people and the land which began around the 12th century. As is expected from the name, land enclosure is the act of cordoning off an area of land for agricultural use.


To get a detailed image of the impact of land enclosure, it is important to understand the social hierarchy, and how the land was utilised in the period before land enclosure became a prominent social phenomenon.

medieval ridge and furrow
Perfect example of an enclosure act. You can see the medieval ridge and furrow of the once open field system that has been enclosed with hedges.

Manorial Control

In the Medieval period, land in many regions of England was cultivated under the “open-field system”. This process can, perhaps, be best understood by looking at a general plan of a Manorial plot.

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The land under manorial control usually consisted of large fields for crops, pasture land for communal grazing, woodland, and the land specifically under the onus of the lord of the manor.

medieval manor plan
Generic map of a medieval manor. The mustard-colored areas are part of the demesne, the hatched areas part of the glebe

The large fields were divided into many strips. Each was cultivated by a tenant farmer who had an agreement with the manor lord. The lord’s land was also cultivated by his tenants.

Enclosure Act & Common Land

Communal pasture land, or “the commons”, as well as the woodlands, enabled the tenant farmers, and others, to graze livestock. They were also able to collect wood and turf. This was a part of their rights as commoners.

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A manor lord could not evict his tenant farmers without legal cause. Equally a tenant farmer could not leave nor be replaced. The open-field system was an integrated system of planning and work between the manor lord and the tenants.

It functioned on a three-field crop rotation system as follows: barley, oats, and legumes were planted in one field in spring; wheat and rye were planted in the second field in autumn, and the third field was left fallow.

common land
To this day you will still see the place name ‘common’. A direct link to our medieval past.

The fallow field provided a grazing plot for local livestock, and so manure was deposited to re-fertilized the soil. The fields were then rotated. This solved an earlier problem of constantly using the same plot for growing which would exhaust the soil fertility.

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After the harvesting had been completed, and before the time came to plant again, the fields became “common”. This meant commoners, people who did not own their own land, had rights to allow their livestock to graze the land.

Chasing Profits

The open-field system came to an end as manor lords looked to make greater profits from their land, and for a more efficient way of managing their land. This desire went hand in hand with the process of land enclosure.

In 1235, the Statute of Merton was passed by King Henry III. This statute effectively allowed manor lords to enclose common land. They were also able to assert their rights over common woodland and pasture. The enclosed land was now a consolidated, singular area, cordoned off from the surrounding areas by hedges, fences, and walls.

Medieval ridge and furrow of the open field system

Land enclosure at this time was carried out informally, sometimes illegally. The formalities of land enclosure, becoming an act of parliament, would not become apparent until the early seventeenth century. Informally, land enclosure was enabled by what was called “unity of possession”.

An individual owned all the strips of land and was able to consolidate them. Sometimes, there was a map of agreement between the peoples involved.

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With a consolidated and singular piece of land, new and efficient farming methods could be practiced that would bring in higher yields. The development of the “Norfolk four-course system” was such a system.

It involved wheat the first year, turnips and barley the second, and clover and ryegrass in the third. The clover and ryegrass were grazed in the fourth year. The growing of dissimilar crops restored nutrients and improved soil fertility.

Peasants Revolt

With the removal of common rights to the enclosed land, the new systems of farming could flourish without the disturbance of common livestock grazing. It is no surprise that one of the most significant causes of social unrest throughout the late medieval period, and into the Early Modern period, was precisely this act of land enclosure.

The commons were now inaccessible to the local farmers, or anyone who wished to earn a living or gain personal sustenance from them. Many workers were forced from their land as the old rights were abandoned for the large uniform fields.

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In fact, as land enclosure progressed to the formality of a parliamentary act, so the riots became much more focussed on this issue. Land enclosure was not the main issue in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

However, over the next two hundred years, land enclosure became increasingly the reason for discontent. Notable acts of unrest include Cade’s rebellion of 1450 and Kett’s rebellion of 1549. In the seventeenth century, after land enclosure had become part of the parliamentary process, political dissidents in relation to the enclosure, such as the “Diggers” and “Levellers”, began to appear.

Enclosure Act Map of Bere Regis

enclosure map
The map of Bere Regis, Dorset in 1775

The map above, which predates the final enclosure by seventy years, provides insight into the significant amount of land already enclosed and transformed into individual farms and “closes.” While the three open fields in the valleys and lower slopes north of the village remained, they were gradually facing encroachment and enclosures.

The process of enclosing land involved hedging and dividing it into smaller, privately-owned plots, altering the landscape and transforming communal agricultural practices. The map serves as a visual representation of the changing rural landscape and the ongoing transition from open communal fields to more enclosed and individually managed farmland.

There has been much negative criticism levelled at the act of enclosure throughout English history from those sympathetic to the plight of the farming classes, and for the several revolts noted above.

Tillage Acts

There was even a period within the Tudor reign (1485-1603) where enclosure was cracked down upon.

Henry VII issued the “Tillage Acts” to curb the rate of enclosure as it was creating an un-wanted effect, namely that farmers who were forced off the land and could not find work would subsequently become vagabonds and thieves.

Not only that but this “depopulation” cut the workforce and weakened military strength. However, these acts were not sufficiently imposed.

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There is no denying that by being forced off the land, or even by being employed on the land for work, the population gradually lost the connection of commonality with the land.

As noted above with the riots, land enclosure in England became a part of a larger cultural conversation about the well-being of tenant farmers and of the greed of landowners.

Thomas More famously satirises the land enclosure in Utopia by explaining how sheep “devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns”.

a shepherd in the 1800s with a shepherds crook and lamb
A shepherd in the 1800s, the open field system was a huge part in sheep farming – they were some of the first victims of the enclosures

It is difficult to assess the overall effect of land enclosure. Although historians note the labourer without land and the destruction of labouring communities, there is also another side that expresses land enclosure as a means to greater yields of produce for a growing population, a method to enable cultivation of the land and more rural employment.

20% of England

By the mid-18th century, land enclosure via a parliamentary act had become the norm, with the first act of enclosure being listed in 1605. It has been noted that between 1605 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were licensed by parliament.

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Over 6.8 million acres were cordoned off for enclosure officially: one-fifth of the total land of England. This permanently changed the landscape of Britain. Where once was open land, there is now fenced, through hedges and trees, uniform fields for produce. In parts of England, enclosure gave rise to the need for better roads.

Enclosure act
We travel along these enclosure roads every day

The roads were designed specifically to create better access from the village to the field, and with a specific width so that a horse and cart could manoeuvre successfully.It also shaped English society in another way: enclosure affected how the land was perceived and of what use it could be.

Land enclosure was also used to privatise what used to be called “wastes”. These areas included moors, heathland, downland, fens, and marshes.

The position of “Commissioner of Enclosure” existed from 1745 until the General Enclosure Act of 1845. The commissioner’s job was to travel around the country, inspecting the land. He had the authority to enclose or re-distribute common land as he felt necessary.

In this figure is a role that understood the needs and applicability of the land that could not be conceived before the widespread use of land enclosure.

Rural Migration

Land enclosure also played an integral part in the movement of the population from the countryside to the city. People migrated perhaps for work with plans to later gain their own land, or perhaps because there was no land left for them to cultivate. In this country-to-city migration lay the workforce that gave strength to the industries, and culture, of the city.

The depopulation of the countryside to the towns and cities created an explosion of over population in the slums

The systemisation of land under the acts of enclosure made England more efficient in keeping records for trade. Additionally the improvement of roads meant greater interconnectivity of resources. Thus, travel became easier for personal exploration and pleasure. Of course, land enclosure and the kinds of farming that it produced were not uniform. The history of enclosure in England differs by region.

Defining Influence of the Enclosure Act

For example, in west and north-west England, land was not managed through open-field systems and was enclosed early on. The open-field system was common in lowland areas such as Yorkshire, in the Midlands, and throughout the south of England.

It is not even technically correct to say that the open-field system was completely lost. There still exists a unique example of it in the village of Laxton in Nottinghamshire.

It could also be argued that the modern phenomenon of “allotment gardens”, where individuals can rent a plot of land from local authorities, is an extension of the open-field system.

While the Enclosure Acts resulted in the redistribution of land and had far-reaching impacts, it is subjective to label them as the “biggest land grab” in British history. Here’s an overview of the Enclosure Acts and their implications:

Background: The Enclosure Acts were a series of parliamentary acts that facilitated the consolidation and privatization of common lands, open fields, and other communal agricultural areas.

These acts aimed to promote more efficient and productive farming methods, increase agricultural output, and incentivize investment in agriculture.

Enclosure Process: Enclosure involved the division and allocation of previously shared or common lands to individual landowners. Fences, hedges, or walls were erected to separate the newly enclosed plots.

This transition from communal farming to private ownership led to changes in agricultural practices, with larger, consolidated farms replacing the fragmented and often inefficient open-field system.

Impacts far Reaching

Impacts: The Enclosure Acts had significant social, economic, and environmental consequences.

Social Impact: Enclosure led to the displacement of many rural communities, as commoners and small-scale farmers lost access to land they had traditionally relied upon. This resulted in rural unemployment, migration to cities, and the breakdown of traditional community ties.

Economic Impact: Enclosure aimed to increase agricultural productivity by incentivizing landowners to invest in modern farming methods. This led to improved agricultural practices, increased efficiency, and higher yields in some areas.

However, it also concentrated land ownership in the hands of a few, exacerbating wealth inequality and limiting opportunities for smaller landholders.

Environmental Impact: Enclosure facilitated land improvement and the adoption of more intensive farming techniques. It allowed landowners to undertake drainage, land reclamation, and crop rotation, which increased agricultural productivity.

However, the enclosure of common lands also resulted in the loss of common grazing areas and restricted access to resources like fuel and timber for rural communities.

Land enclosure remains the defining influence upon the English landscape, barring natural geography. It shows the history of the nation through the physical manipulation of the landscape for its own ends.

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