Cromwell's drain of thought

PUBLISHED: 09:27 10 November 2006 | UPDATED: 12:06 04 May 2010

ESSENTIAL money-making projects during the rule of Charles I challenged property rights. These varied from region to region. For example, in Dovedale the arguments between the landowners and commoners were over mining rights. Here in the Fens, land enclos

ESSENTIAL money-making projects during the rule of Charles I challenged property rights.

These varied from region to region. For example, in Dovedale the arguments between the landowners and commoners were over mining rights. Here in the Fens, land enclosure and drainage were the issues at this time.

Locally, landowners were quick to extend rights over common land by enclosing them with ditches. Those who stood to lose most were the mass of Fen commoners, dependent on the land for grazing, fowling and fishing.

Local landlords were among the wealthy elites at court and anxious to have a share in profits as the Crown tried to exploit the Fens for money.

Drainage was put forward as an innovation to transform the landscape of the Fens and bring much-wanted farmland into use.

Arguments in favour of drainage stated the scheme would bring relief of local poverty and unemployment. Fenman would be employed in the drainage works and, afterwards, would maintain the works and be hired to farm the newly drained land. Access to grazing on the commons would be all year.

The scheme was sold as one of national pride. Foreigners often commented about the English being lazy, leaving large areas of the country non-productive. Drainage would put pay to their comments.

Furthermore, rather than colonising the New World, drainage would, in effect, add another province to England. It would also increase the area of the country that could contribute to the taxes of church and State.

The Fenmen would have none of these pro arguments. Instead, they highlighted the value of the traditional Fenland economy and stressed that drainage and enclosures would actually worsen the plight of the inhabitants by seriously undermining their livelihoods. They also challenged the legality of the scheme.

Under Charles I, landowners were awarded the rights to enclose and drain land. When this happened, protests were localised and sporadic.

At Wicken, women were sent into the church tower to throw stones at the drainers. Whelpmore Fen, in the Isle of Ely, was common land shared by inhabitants of Ely, Downham and Littleport and, in June 1638, 40 or 50 men levelled the enclosure ditches. Certainly arrests were made and churchwarden's justices and constables tried to keep the peace.

Appeals for leniency in the treatment of ringleaders and offenders were made to the King and local gentry, one of whom was Oliver Cromwell. It is thought that, in 1637, Oliver had become a spokesman and organiser for the commoners in Ely and the Isle.

In a report against one rioter from Glatton, in Huntingdonshire, there is a statement suggesting a common view that "Mr Cromwell of Ely hath undertaken they pay[ing] him a groat for every cow they have upon the common to hold the drainers in suit of law for five years and that in the mean time they should enjoy every foot of their common".

This role seems to be confirmed with his appointment to act as spokesmen for commoners in Huntingdon in April 1638 when "his boldness and elocution gained him so much credit".

His advice and action as spokesman to commoners in May and June 1641 is also recorded. Why Cromwell took this action is unclear because, true to family tradition, he actively encouraged fenland drainage.

Perhaps in these intensely political times it was a shrewd move on Cromwell's part to show open support of the commoners, against whom the King allowed glaring injustices to take place. It seems to have worked because he was later selected to represent Cambridge as an MP in the Long Parliament.

His title as "Lord of the Fens" comes not from the Fenlanders he chose to support at this time, but from royalist propaganda published in 1643, intended to ridicule him by associating Cromwell with the inhospitable Fens.

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