SJ Bradley, author of Black Showers from novel Resist: Stories of Uprising, on the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596.

The Oxfordshire of 1596 was a rural place: large green downs, and the forests of Wychwood and Woodstock. Peasants lived in villages or in the homes of the wealthy, as their workers, but life was hard.

Several years of poor weather had resulted in bad harvests, sending grain prices skyrocketing. The peasants of Oxfordshire were starving. Worse still, many had been left landless. The Enclosure laws meant that landlords such as Vincent Barry, a particular focus of Steere’s violent campaign, were able to enclose lands in for their own use and pleasure. This left villages without ploughs, and peasants without land of their own to work.

During research for Black Showers, my story in Resist: Stories of Uprising (Comma Press), I was astonished to discover that 40 percent of the land in Oxfordshire had been closed in, leaving peasants destitute, forcing them out of the county to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In Bletchingdon, notorious encloser Lord Powers turned out tenants at the end of their leases, taking the land from their cottages to graze his sheep, of which he had thousands.

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It was in this context that a 28-year-old carpenter named Bartholomew Steere went from fair to fair, whipping up ill feeling amongst the peasants. His plan to start the Enslow Hill Rising may have first started at the fair at Hampton Foyle that September. As peasants increasingly left landless villages to seek work, finding employment in the houses of the gentry as labourers or maids, one of the key ways that information crossed the county was through the fairs. Fairs and markets were a great source of news and gossip. Bartholomew Steere used to visit his brother at Witney to gather support. They found a pair of brothers, John and William Horne, from Bletchington, who wanted to help. Lord Powers became another key target for the unrest.

“There would be a great rising of the people,” Steere is reported to have said, “to pulle downe the enclosures... pull the corne out of the Riche men’s barnes”.

Oxford Mail:

Steere and his compatriots chose a Sunday evening. They met on Enslow Hill. Their plan was to deal with the local Lords, then make their way to London to join up with the apprentices. But something went wrong. The men – we don’t know exactly how many, but it may have been as few as four – waited on the hill for great crowds to arrive, but none did. They waited for a while, and then, realising that nobody else was to come, they disbanded, and went their separate ways.

Why wasn’t the Rising a success? Historians speculate that the peasants lived in villages too far apart from one another to make meeting practical. It could be that the threat of violence was too much, and was beyond what some of the peasants wanted. Perhaps the peasants didn’t feel that Steere, an ageing and unmarried carpenter, had enough “status” to be leader of such a movement. What we do know is that Attorney General, Edward Coke, went to great lengths to find those upstarts behind the “Enslow Hill rising”. By November that year Steere, along with three others, was in custody in London and bound over for the next meeting of the Assizes.

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Coke wanted to find out who else was involved, and it is reported that Steere was tortured in gaol, “for better bowltinge forth of the truth.” Coke believed that the men had meant to team up with “certen persons calling themselves Egipicians”, a community of 180 gypsies moving through Northampton, to swell their numbers. He charged the prisoners with treason, although by the time the case made it to the Assizes in February 1597, Steere and one of the other men were already dead.

For me, the true story of the Enslow Hill Rising was not only that the rising “failed”, but the changes that followed. Only a few years after this disastrous peasant uprising, which resulted in imprisonment and death for its agitators, a change in the law came that ended the Enclosures Act, and forcibly lowered grain prices. The abortive rising, and the ill-feeling and destitution of the peasants, had forced lawmakers to act. It had forced statute-makers like Edward Coke to think about how the practise of enclosure forced peasants into poverty, and how they might live better without it.