How many landowners are there in the UK? Go for it. Guess. A million? 20 million? 30 million?
How about one?
Okay, that’s a bit of a lie. And yet, it’s all too true.
Let me explain…
In my last post, I talked about slavery – the extent to which the British people first got chained to the forces of imperialism, and then took up those chains for use on everybody else. In this article, I’m going to talk about another key sinew in the body politic of Empire in Britain – land.
As it happens, land is more my professional area than slavery (thank goodness). I’m a PhD student currently, studying land management practices in the Broads; a vast wetland, strung along a bundle of rivers at the eastern edge of England. So land – who works it, who owns it, and what they think about it – is what I live and breathe right now. I’ve been up to my shins in river mud, watching the water course through a sluice I’ve helped mend. I’ve been chopping down hazel coppice so the stools will live another 20 years. I’ve pulled out more weeds in defence of crops than I can count. I’ve seen barn owls and bitterns and bearded reedlings. I’ve spoken with farmers, conservationists, and the knuckers that live in the lakes and streams in this part of the world. I’ve sat in an awful lot of meetings. It’s all regulated, of course. The physical and social acts undertaken to manage the land, all unfold in accordance with a slew of laws, bylaws and mandates – all dependent, at root, on the venerable sack of precedent that is UK Land Law. And this traces back to one book, one arrow, and a very bad man; Britain’s second colonial episode in recorded history: the Norman Conquest.
In the beginning: Folkland; Bookland
Long ago, before the Normans – a bunch of aristocratic hoodlums from the French Duchy of Normandy – invaded England after the death of Edward the Confessor in 1066, land ownership was divided into two main kinds: folcland and bocland. Defined by ancient custom, folcland – literally “Folkland” – was the older type; a category that had once covered all the land in England. It was owned, under the law, by a single person on behalf of their entire kingroup. Ownership could be circulated within that kingroup freely; especially in the form of inheritance. Kin therefore had an inalienable claim to their folkland; a claim that could only be overruled by the king and the council of elders – the witanagemot – under special circumstances. Bocland, or Bookland appeared later; initially as a means of providing land for the Church after the Christianisation. As the church was outside of ordinary kin relations, it could not own folkland – as such, a new category of land ownership was needed. As such, the notion of “bookland” was created. In this form, land ownership was tied to the possession of a specific charter – the eponymous “book”. As the charter was granted in perpetuity, it could be given, sold, or circulated at will; kin had no prior claim, nor was could the government control how the land was disposed of.
The Heart of It: Domesday
Of course, this entire system of law was entirely abolished at the arrival of William the Conqueror. After defeating the English army and slaying King Harold Godwinsson at Hastings – with that dread arrow – the story wasn’t over. Uprisings happened all over the country for decades afterwards, as the English people attempted to drive out the invaders. William and his nobles responded by committing atrocities of the highest order.
The worst of these – the Harrying of the North – was a systematic campaign to devastate the entire North of England, after an initially successful campaign there by the last remaining member of the Wessex Dynasty, the former kings of England. Described by some modern historians as genocide, William’s armies murdered and sacked their way across the land from the Humber to Carlise – destroying livestock, crops, tools, and food along with weapons and armour. 100,000 people died of starvation. Contemporary chronicler Orderic Vitalis said “I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.”
After violently subduing the country, William declared that its inhabitants were all traitors for supporting Harold’s claim to the throne, rather than his own. He used this as a pretext to nullify all existing land tenure in England, bringing all land under his sole ownership – that of the Crown. Everyone who owned land, now owned it by his leave alone. Huge taxes were raised, through which the English financed their own subjugation at the hands of William’s mercenaries. Much of England, and all the choice jobs, were parcelled up amongst William’s favourite knights and the clergy he had brought with him from Normandy. They, in turn, gave land to those they trusted amongst their retinue; the English population was largely reduced to villeinage, and the English feudal system was born.
Resistance to this continued for decades afterwards; a guerrilla campaign carried out by those the Normans called (in Latin) the sylvatici – the men of the woods. Heroes still dimly remembered, like Hereward the Wake of the Cambridgeshire Fens, wrestled with the Norman Yoke for decades, harrying supply chains and attacking tax collectors. Writer and historian Paul Kingsnorth has memoralised these freedom fighters in his dark and brooding novel The Wake, and has suggested elsewhere that they are the true inspiration for the Green Men that bedeck our great Norman Churches.
To maximise the amount of revenue he and his supporters could extract from their new territories, William commissioned the creation of the Domesday Book – a huge ledger containing detailed information about who owned Britain – both before and after the conquest – and what their estates produced. Throughout this formative text of British landscape history, what shines through is the complete transfer of land from English to Norman hands. Domesday is indeed an apt name for such a testament to ruthless exploitation.
Ending: The Crown Takes It All
Although English land law has evolved considerably since feudal times, it nonetheless still operates from the same basic premiss – that all land is owned by the Crown, in trust for the people. When you buy land in Britain, you don’t buy the land itself – you buy the “freehold” – meaning you have the right to hold it, freely, in perpetuity. This is called an “estate in land”. This may seem like mere semantics, but it has very real consequences – you do not, for example, own everything about your land: the mineral rights, for example, remain the property of the state, and the estate comes with certain duties, such as that you are liable to pay taxation. This has utterly transformed the campaign against fracking in the UK, for example – whereas Americans are able to refuse sale of the mineral rights under their properties, and thus effectively “lock the gate” individually; in Britain, this is much harder – because the mineral rights to oil and gas are owned by the government, and so we can only prevent drilling through denying planning permission or pushing for a nationwide ban. Kingsnorth points out that the Normans also imposed primogeniture on England – the idea that the first son inherits all the land – whereas previously, land had been parcelled up amongst the children of the owner. As one of my aristocratic informants explained to me when I visited his Norfolk estate; this more than anything else has allowed the vast English estates to endure down the years – under Anglo-Saxon land law, they would have been almost certainly broken up, and circulated amongst the wider population along kinship lines.
The Moral of the Story
There has been significant debate about the true character of folkland amongst historians. The initial view, taken by John Allen in 1830, was the somewhat romantic notion that folkland was owned in common by the everyone in the kinship group; a view that has been criticised subsequently as not being consistent with the actual documentation from the time. Certainly, folkland was no model of egalitarian land ownership – the power of the king and the witanagemot saw to that.
But irrespective of whether the land was owned in common by all the people, or in trust by a local leader, we can say with some confidence that the major difference between folkland and bookland is that they are presuppose different sorts of relationship between people and the land. Folkland says that they are inalienable – the land is intimately and completely tied to the people who live upon it; a sacred trust, that can only be broken by the equally potent word of the king.
With folkland, the land and the people cannot be separated. Bookland, however, introduces a second step – it transforms an unmediated relationship between people and land, into a mediated one. Land is no longer an extension of kin relations; it is a commodity – in the form of a royal charter – that can be bought, sold, and disposed of at will. This represents a fundamental shift in how people were relating to the landscape; the land no longer held them, they held land. With this in mind – though undeniably an intensely traumatic and violent colonial event – the Norman Conquest represents merely an extreme form of an alienation that was already ongoing in Anglo-Saxon society. The Norman feudal system, and the system of English land law based upon it, in a way integrates the worst aspects of both folkland and bookland – like bookland, it fetishises the land into charter; like folkland, it ensures a powerful royal prerogative.
This very much echoes the nature of land ownership in Britain today. Kevin Cahill, in his book Who owns Britain?, points out that two thirds of Britain’s 60 million acres are owned by 0.36% of the British population. Although it would be wrong to claim that all of these landowners do not respect the land they hold, land under this regime is nevertheless first and foremost an asset: a source of revenue to be circulated in a market. Although some people do still feel a long-term, familial connection to particular tracts of land – such as certain old, aristocratic families – it is striking that what was once something connected with entire kin groups is now only expressed by an intensely privileged minority of nuclear families, who are increasingly the exception, rather than the rule. These days, most land in Britain is owned by large institutions or absentee landowners, who simply use the landscape as a source of revenue, employing land agents and contractors to manage vast estates for maximum profit – a state of affairs unnoticed by most British people, even in rural areas. For most Britons, the inalienability of folkland is history.
It is, perhaps, unimaginable to see any other way of doing things in the Britain of today, a Britain that recently voted for a right-wing majority in the House of Commons. But by looking beyond the Crown, to a time when the land and the folk were one, we have a glimpse of a completely different set of relationships, where the very soil upon which we walked, was our eorþan modor (1).
(1) Anglo-Saxon, “Mother of Earth / Earthen Mother”, Lacnunga, Aecerbot.
Jonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.
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