This section is from the book "The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation", by George Abbey. Also available from Amazon: The Balance Of Nature And Modern Conditions Of Cultivation.
Agriculture flourished under the encouragement of the ecclesiastics, they attaining to the greatest height of power 1216-1399, then entering upon their long decline 1399-1485, when ecclesiastical polity is seen losing its hold on the affections and respect of the people, and the fury of the whirlwind which gradually blew over the whole land in the seizure of the abbeys and monasteries was so complete that in the spring of the year 1540 all the monastic establishments of the kingdom were suppressed, and much of their landed property was divided among courtiers and parasites. Pauperism increased, education was neglected, and yet agriculture must have been largely practised outside the monastic establishments and attained some prominence by and in the reign of Henry VIII, for the first English treatise on husbandry was published in 1534 by Sir A. Fitzherbert, Judge of the Common Pleas. It is entitled the Book of Husbandry, and contains directions for draining, clearing and enclosing a farm, for enriching the soil and rendering it fit for tillage. Lime, marl and fallowing are strongly recommended.
Indeed, there is little in the Book of Husbandry, as written from the author's experience of over forty years, which should be omitted, and not a great deal that should be added, in so far as regards the culture of corn, in a manual of husbandry adapted to the present time.
During the reign of Elizabeth agriculture advanced. Tusser's Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry (first complete edition published in 1580) contains much useful information in metre. According to this we learn the farmer of the sixteenth century "had eels in his stew and bees in his garden. Grew his own hops, made his own malt and many of his rough implements. Raised his own hemp, twisted his own cart-ropes, cleaned and spun his flax at home, sold some of his wool to the weaver, and kept the spindle moving on his kitchen floor. Sawed his own timber, built the mud walls round his cattle-yard, was his own farrier and butcher, made his own candles, burned his wood into charcoal, cultivated herbs for physic, which his wife dried or distilled, varied his corn crops by the cultivation of saffron and mustard seed."
In the seventeenth century Charles I resolved to revive the forest laws which had been allowed in good part to drop into desuetude, at least all such parts of that disgraceful code as might tend to the increase of his revenue. The Earl of Holland was appointed to hold a court for the recovery of the king's forestral rights, or those lands which had once belonged to the royal chases. In this manner people were driven from many tracts which they and their fathers had long occupied as their own; gentlemen's estates were encroached upon, and, as the king was the litigant, the opposite party, even if he gained his cause, which in such circumstances he had but slight chance of doing, was distressed or ruined by the costs of the action which he had to pay, whether he was the loser or the winner. The Earl of Southampton was reduced almost to poverty by a decision which deprived him of his estate adjoining the New Forest in Hampshire. In Essex the royal forests grew so large that people said they had swallowed up the whole county.
Rockingham Forest was increased from a circuit of six miles to one of sixty miles, and all trespassers were punished by the imposition of enormous fines. "Which burden," says Clarendon, "lighted most upon persons of quality and honour, who thought themselves above ordinary oppressions, and were therefore sure to remember it with more sharpness." To enlarge Richmond Park, Charles deprived many proprietors, not merely of their rights of common, but also of their freehold lands. It would appear that he afterwards gave some compensation, but the act at first had in it all the worst features of a cruel and plundering despotism.
About 1645 the field cultivation of red clover was introduced into England by Sir Richard Weston, author of a Discourse on the Husbandry of Brabant and Flanders, and in less than ten years its cultivation had spread over England and made its way into Ireland. Turnips also were introduced by Sir Richard Weston as an agricultural crop. Blythe's Improver Improved, which appeared during the Commonwealth, treats of the cultivation of clover, recommends turnips as a crop for feeding cattle, and contains the first intimation as to the practice of alternate cropping. After the Restoration agriculture remained stationary for about eighty years.
In the eighteenth century British agriculture was advanced by the practice of Jethro Tull, a gentleman of Berkshire, who began to drill wheat and other crops about the year 1701, and whose Horse-hoeing Husbandry was published in 1731. He was the founder of the system of sowing crops in rows or drills in order to admit of tillage between the ridges: turnips, potatoes, etc., being cultivated on his system at the present time. After the time of Tull's publication no great alteration in British agriculture took place till Robert Blakewell and others effected some improvement in the breed of cattle, sheep, and swine. To Blakewell we owe the well-known breed of Leicester sheep. By the end of the eighteenth century it was a common practice to alternate green crops with grain crops, instead of exhausting the land and inviting diseases with a number of successive crops of corn.
In 1754 complaints were made by country gentlemen of the old laws not being sufficient for the preservation of game, poaching being greatly on the increase. During the session a new Game Act was passed through both Houses of Parliament, but it only served to crowd the jails with unqualified sportsmen, who there became qualified for the commission of much more serious offences. The Game Laws, a relic of the old Forest Laws, required a certain qualification to enable any one to pursue and kill game. In the time of James I, the qualifications were £40 a year from land, or £200 in personal property. In the time of Charles II the qualifications were altered to the possession of an estate of inheritance worth £100 per annum, or of a leasehold estate for life, or for ninety years or upwards, worth £150 per annum. By the Act 25 George III, cap. i, it was made incumbent on qualified persons, in order to give them the full right of killing game, to take out a game certificate, that is, to pay a tax for the privilege.