Land Tenure: a Lake District Survey

Part of the Studies in Modern History book series (SMH)


This chapter will define more precisely than before the extent to which Wordsworth’s views of land tenure were rooted in his study of history and not just his personal observation and experience of a vanishing way of life. It will involve the review of Wordsworth’s life and work within the context of contemporary scholarship on the Lake Counties and pre-industrial society: in particular, (i) the contemporary usage of the term statesmen to signify yeomen-farmers and customary tenants in the region; (ii) the original meaning of Border tenure, in feudal times, as ‘tenant right’, and its later reduction to ‘customary estate of inheritance’, on the one hand, and ‘copyhold’, on the other; and (iii) the historical connection between this ancient system of farming and the growth of social and economic equality in Old Lakeland. In so doing, we shall discuss the poet’s Golden Age ideal of Old Lakeland as the product, in part, of social, economic, and political traditions in the area.1


Land Tenure Lake District Economic Equality Lake County Border County 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    In his classic survey of the evolution of the English landscape, W. G. Hoskins wrote that: ‘The facts of topography, soils and climate explain much [about the appearance of the countryside], but beyond them lie purely historical facts like the laws of property and inheritance. The peculiar field-patterns and other features of the Kent and Norfolk landscapes can probably only be explained in the last resort by the social and legal history that lie behind them; and they still await their interpreter’. (W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1970 [1st pub. 1955]), pp. 146–7.) The reader might well consider the present chapter as a social and legal explanation of the ‘peculiar field-patterns and other features’ of the Lake District landscape in Wordsworth’s time.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    J. D. Marshall, ‘“Statesmen” in Cumbria: the Vicissitudes of an Expression’, CW2, 72 (1972), pp. 258–9.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    D. Wu, Wordsworth’s Reading 1770–1799 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 173–4 and 183–4. Wordsworth’s interest in Fox as a whig statesman might have arisen from his possible use of the Stowey Book Society in 1797–8. Among the works listed by Duncan Wu in this regard were: C. J. Fox, A Letter from the Right Honourable Charles James Fox, to the Worthy and Independent Electors of the City and Liberty of Westminster (1793) and idem, ‘Fox’s Letter to the Electors of Westminster’ (ibid., p. 174).Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    S. Gill, William Wordsworth: a Life (1989), p. 80.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    The Hammonds gave examples of Fox’s support of several policies which were favourable to the rural labourers of the South. J. L. and B. Hammond, The Village Labourer (1978 reprint), pp. 41, 82, 87, 140, 151–2.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    I use the words ‘semi-feudal exactions’ on account of the famous Statute of 12 Charles II, c.24, which ended feudal tenures, such as knight’s service, but retained certain customary rents, fines, heriots, and suits of court. Cf. W. Hutchinson, op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 40, and T. West, op. cit. (1774 edn), pp. 144–7. Cf. F. E. Huggett, The Land Question and European Society since 1650 (London: Thames and Hudson Ltd, 1975), pp. 69–70: copyhold tenures were continued until 1925. According to Annette Bagot, these modified tenant-right customs were not abolished or assimilated until the passing of the Agricultural Holdings Act of 1948. A. Bagot, ‘Mr. Gilpin and Manorial Customs’, CW2, 62 (1962), p. 225.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    Lord Ellenborough’s decision in the Case of Doe d Reay v. Huntington and others, quoted in Wilson Butler, ‘The Customs of Tenant Right Tenures of the Northern Counties, with Particulars of those in the District of Furness’, CW2, 26 (1925), pp. 321–2. See p. 322 of Butler’s essay for similar court decisions in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Lord Ellenborough was the son of Bishop Law of Carlisle.Google Scholar
  8. 16.
    Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 324. Re. Border service, see also pp. 325–7 incl. n. 1, pp. 329–30. Cf. J. Nicolson and R. Burn, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 14 and 21. Cf. too W. Hutchinson, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 19–20, where Border service is said to be ‘totally unconnected with other military service’; and C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, A Short Economic and Social History of the Lake Counties 1500–1830 (1961), pp. 11–12.Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 318–19. Cf. J. Nicolson and R. Burn, op. cit., Vol. 2, p. 219, re. the Court of Chancery’s confirmation of the customs of the Manor of Burgh in c.1674. F. W. Maitland studied a similar case from Cumberland, about a thirteenth-century tenant who held lands ‘by cornage’ and was ‘bound to follow the king against the Scots, leading the van when the army’ was ‘advancing’ and ‘bringing up the rear during its return’. He concluded that this Border service looked ‘like an ancient trait, for at the time of the [Norman] Conquest there were men on the Welsh march who were bound to a similar service, to occupy the post of honour when the army marched into Wales or out of Wales’. (Canon Bouch, however, concluded that the two types of Border service, in England were distinct, at least in Norman and Tudor times.) F. W. Maitland, ‘Northumbrian Tenures’, EHR, 5 (1890), p. 629.Google Scholar
  10. 18.
    Sir Charles Elton, Custom and Tenant Right (1882), p. 25 quoted in Richard S. Ferguson, A History of Westmorland (1894), p. 128. The following account of the difference between copyhold tenure and tenant right is based largely upon pp. 127–8 of Ferguson’s admirable book.Google Scholar
  11. Cf. S. B. Chrimes, English Constitutional History, 4th edn (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 60–6.Google Scholar
  12. 21.
    Cf. R. S. Ferguson, ibid., p. 127, and C. M. L. Bouch, Prelates and People of the Lake Counties (1948), p. 18. Cf. J. Nicolson and R. Burn, op. cit., Vol. 1, pp. 40–60, re. a report, composed in 1572, for Queen Elizabeth, about the nature of tenant right in the Marquis Fee of the Barony of Kendal in Westmorland: the said tenants had ‘neither copy nor other evidence to show for their title’.Google Scholar
  13. Contrast the fate of customary tenants in the manors of Wark and Harbottle, in Northumberland, during the 1620s, who lost their traditional status because they could not prove their title by means of court rolls or other documents: S. J. Watts, ‘Tenant-Right in Early Seventeenth-Century Northumberland’, NH, 6 (1971), p. 79.Google Scholar
  14. 37.
    J. L. Kirby, ‘Border Service, 1662–1757’, CW2, 48 (1949), pp. 125–9. Cf. R. S. Ferguson, loc. cit., Ch. XVII, pp. 249–79; and idem, A History of Cumberland (London: Elliott Stock, 1890), Ch. XIX, pp. 269–76.Google Scholar
  15. 38.
    W. Wordsworth, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ (comp. 1805; pub. 1807), l. 20 in J. O. Hayden, loc. cit., Vol. 1, p. 657. Dorothy Wordsworth quoted in Mary Moorman, William Wordsworth: a Biography (1957) Vol. 1, p. 30. William Wordsworth, The Excursion (1814), Bk 6, ll. 392–521 in J. O. Hayden, op. cit., Vol. 2, pp. 197–200.Google Scholar
  16. 39.
    D. Wu, op. cit., passim; idem, ‘The Hawkshead School Library in 1788: a Catalogue’, CW2, 91 (1993), pp. 173– 97. See too J. Burton, Catalogue of the Varied and Valuable Historical, Theological, and Miscellaneous Library of the Late Venerated Poet-Laureate, William Wordsworth, Esquire, D.L.C. (Preston[?], 1859), passim. (Hereafter: C. Reprinted by permission of the Wordsworth Trust.) It is not known when, or even if, Wordsworth read all of the books in his library, but most of the works listed in this footnote were either read in whole or in part; at least, their contents have been observed to some extent in the poet’s letters, conversation, poetry or prose. The young Wordsworth was familiar with the following works on local and regional history: Dr John Brown, A Description of the Lake at Keswick (1767); James Clark, Survey of the Lakes (1789); Sir Frederick Eden, State of the Poor (1797); William Gilpin, Observations on the Lakes, 2 Vols (1786); Thomas Gray, Journal of the Lakes (1775); John Housman, Guide to the Lakes (1800) (C., p. 19); William Hutchinson, Excursion to the Lakes (1774); Joseph Nicolson and Richard Burn, The History and Antiquities of the Counties of Westmorland and Cumberland, 2 Vols (1777); George Ridpath, The Border History of England and Scotland (1776); Thomas West, A Guide to the Lakes (1794) — Wordsworth owned a copy of the 1807 edition; idem, The Antiquities of Furness (1774) — Wordsworth owned a copy of the 1805 edition; Thomas Dunham Whitaker, The History and Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven (1805). Wordsworth also read a large number of legal, travel and antiquarian books which were relevant to the topics of tenant right estates, Border service, and domestic economy in the North of England, including: William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, 4 Vols (1768) [C., p. 2.]; William Nicolson (the Bishop of Carlisle), Border Laws (1705) = Leges Marchiarum (1249?) [C., p. 2.]; Sir Matthew Hale, History of the Common Law (1779) [C., p. 6.]; William Woodfall, The Law of Landlord and Tenant (1804) [C., p. 11.]; Edward Baines, History and Directory of the County Palatine of Lancaster, 2 Vols (1822; 1823) [C., p. 12.]; Guide to Perthshire, History of Glasgow, and other guide books [C., p. 14.]; W. Parson and W. White, History and Directory of Durham and Northumberland, 2 Vols (1827) [C., p. 16]; Stephen Oliver (jnr), Rambles in Northumberland and on the Scottish borders [sic.] (1835) [C., p. 16.]; John Close, Book of the Chronicles of Westmorland, Vol. 1 (1742) [C., p. 16.]; Giles Jacob, Law Dictionary (1736) [C., p. 37.]; Andrew Fletcher(?), The Freeholder — Political Essays (1739) [C., p. 7.]. Re: British Museum General Catalogue of Printed Books (1965): Edward Baines — 1822, 1823 [Vol. 10, p. 134] John Housman — 1800 [Vol. 107, p. 619] A. Fletcher of Saltoun — [Cf. Vol. 74, pp. 333–4] N.B. According to Duncan Wu, Wordsworth read only William Hutchinson’s early work, an Excursion to the Lakes (1774). It is possible, however, that he also read the same author’s History of the County of Cumberland, published in 1794. At least, the copy of this work which is kept in the State Library of Victoria (Australia) lists Richard Wordsworth of Whitehaven as one of its subscribers. According to Mark L. Reed, Wordsworth and his sister stayed for several weeks at Whitehaven in that year. If the book was already published and printed in Carlisle and received by Richard Wordsworth’s family at Whitehaven, or his son’s family at Branthwaite, before the middle of that year, it is possible that William Wordsworth read it — in whole or in part — between c.mid-May and 18 June in 1794.Google Scholar
  17. Cf. M. L. Reed, Wordsworth. The Chronology of the Early Years 1770–1799 (1967), p. 154.Google Scholar
  18. 41.
    J. R. Nabholtz, ‘Wordsworth’s “Guide to the Lakes” and the Picturesque Tradition’, MP, 61 (1963–4), pp. 289–90.Google Scholar
  19. 43.
    M. Bloch, ‘Mediaeval Inventions’, in M. Bloch (ed.), Land and Work in Modern Europe (tr. by J. E. Anderson) (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 170.Google Scholar
  20. 44.
    Cf. M. Bloch, French Rural Society. An Essay on its Basic Characteristics (tr. by J. Sondheim) (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 50.Google Scholar
  21. 50.
    Old fell-side enclosures were called ‘quillets’ in the Lake Counties. Cf. H. R. Trevor-Roper, ‘Fernand Braudel, the Annales, and the Mediterranean’, JMH, 44 (1972), pp. 468–79. This essay deals with the topic of ‘total history’.Google Scholar
  22. 51.
    Cf. J. Langton, ‘The Industrial Revolution and the Regional Geography of England’, TIBG, New Series, 9, No. 1 (1984), pp. 147–8 re. the significance of ‘county communities’.Google Scholar
  23. 52.
    W. Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes (1835) in J. O. Hayden (ed.), William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), pp. 43–4.Google Scholar
  24. 57.
    M. Osborne, ‘Wordsworth’s “Borderers” and the Landscape of Penrith’, CW2, 76 (1976), pp. 144–58. Cf. too note 49 above.Google Scholar
  25. 58.
    T. B. Macaulay, History of England, Vol. 1 (1849) in The Works of Lord Macaulay, Vol. 1 (ed. by Lady Trevelyan) (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1866), Ch. III, p. 258.Google Scholar
  26. 62.
    C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, op.cit., pp. 186–7. See too W. Wordsworth, Memoir of the Rev. Robert Walker (1820) in J. O. Hayden, William Wordsworth. Selected Prose (1988), pp. 127–36.Google Scholar
  27. 63.
    W. Wordsworth, The Excursion (1814), Bk 7, ll. 232–9 (see too ll. 240–360) in J. O. Hayden, The Poems (1977), Vol. 2, pp. 230–1.Google Scholar
  28. 65.
    A. C. Gibson, The Old Man; Or Ravings and Ramblings Round Coniston (1854), p. 57.Google Scholar
  29. 66.
    C. Wordsworth (jnr), Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851), Vol. 1, pp. 42, 174–5, and 177–8. Cf. C. M. L. Bouch and G. P. Jones, op.cit., pp. 195–202; and J. H. Porter, ‘The Development of Rural Society’, in G. E. Mingay (ed.), loc.cit., pp. 891–906.Google Scholar
  30. 68.
    William Wordsworth quoted in Jared Curtis, The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth (1993), pp. 64–5.Google Scholar
  31. 71.
    See, respectively: C. Hill, ‘The Norman Yoke’ (1956), pp. 14–15.Google Scholar
  32. V. G. Kiernan, ‘Wordsworth and the People’ (1956), pp. 175–6.Google Scholar
  33. W. Wordsworth, ‘Postscript. 1835’, in W. Knight (ed.), The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 4 (Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1883), pp. 361–87.Google Scholar
  34. 76.
    Dorothy read Ben Jonson’s poems to William on Thursday, 11 February 1802. She observed that the poems were ‘too interesting for him & would not let him go to sleep’. The editor of her Journal, Pamela Woof, adds that Dorothy re-read the poem ‘To Penshurst’, on 14 February. On the previous day ‘William had read aloud parts of his Recluse to her; one part was probably the lines about the “true Community” in a glorious dwelling place which he had composed for “Home at Grasmere”’, and ‘these clearly have “to Penshurst” behind them’ (D. Wordsworth, The Grasmere Journals (ed. by P. Woof) (1993), pp. 65–6 and 204). He was also well read in the Golden Age writings of Samuel Daniel’s ‘A Pastoral’ (1592, 1601), Philip Sidney’s ‘Arcadia’ (1590), George Wither’s ‘Philarete’ (1615?), Edmund Spenser’s ‘The Shepherdes Calendar’ (1579), and John Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ (1637).Google Scholar
  35. 79.
    W. Hutchinson, op.cit., Vol. 1, p. 38. G. P. Jones concluded that ‘in this respect [the statesmen] are to be compared rather with the Roman farmercitizens of republican times than with English tenants in villeinage whence in general the class of copyholders was derived’ (G. P. Jones, ‘The Decline of the Yeomanry in the Lake Counties’, p. 198). Cf. too the description of the Old English yeomen-farmers given by G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942), pp. 123–4. Cf. too W. Parson and W. White, op.cit., pp. 24–5, re. the importance of the Reformation in England to the growth of Old Lakeland life, manners, and society.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Mark Keay 2001

Authors and Affiliations

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations