Hungry Forties

In a recent radio interview, the eminent and very rock’n’roll physicist, Professor Brian Cox claimed ‘All dates are arbitrary, which is particularly important if you are mad.’

He was talking about the recent end of the world dates thingy, and of course being an eminent scientist he is absolutely right. But there is something very strange in British – and to an extent European – history that seems to throw up disasters every hundred years. The 1540s were disastrous, with a catastrophic harvest of 1545 which took years to recover from. The 1640s was the Civil War, and the 1740s and 1840s were famously named The Hungry Forties with famines and civil unrest that led to the creation of several European countries such as Germany.. In the 20th century there was also a bit of a fuss at this time.

In England in the 1540s, the rich were getting rich buying up religious properties whilst the population soared whilst food production remained the same. It was at this time the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector whilst Henry VIII’s son Edward VIII was still a minor, urged the return to notions of landowners being ‘stewards and fathers of their little commonwealths’. The fashion of enclosing former commons or open fields were at odds with this notion, and loss of this land was causing immense hardship to the growing numbers of the poor.

This was the time when English radicalism really took flight, demands for all to have a greater share of national wealth became widespread. According to Adam Nicholson in ‘Arcadia’, the first of the enclosures of land, was to provide a pleasure park for the Herbert family at Wilton near Salisbury. And involved the destruction of the village of Washern.

“”On 25 May 1549 a Norfolk gent, John Paston [a family famous for its letters which survive] wrote to his cousin the Earl of Rutland ‘there is a great number of the commons up about Salisbury in Wiltshire, and they have plucked down Sir William Herbert’s park that is about his new house and divers other parks and commons that be enclosed in that country.’

It was the people of Washern taking their revenge. They threw down the new oak palings which Herbert had set up to enclose the deer and exclude the people; and slaughtered what deer they could catch. For three weeks, they occupied the ground on the other side of the Nadder from Herbert’s new house. They may not have known what they were taking on, since in those weeks, as they attempted to rebuild their houses on the old sites – there was a mistaken belief widespread in England that any ma who could build a house and light a fire in the course of a day had the right to remain in it – Herbert was a way in Wales. There, from his Glamorgan estates, drawing on the ‘affinity’ – the band of his tenants who could be relied on to fight for him when summoned – he marched back into Wiltshire. Approaching Wilton, he attacked the invading Washern tenants as if they were an enemy and ‘slew to death divers of the rebels’.

2 thoughts on “Hungry Forties

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s