Back in the autumn, midway though a week-long research trip to the Hampshire Record Office in Winchester, I decided to take an afternoon off to stretch my legs – there is, after all, a limit to how many days in row you can spend hunched over the documents, click-clicking away on your digital camera, before your sanity is in peril. So, after lunch I jumped in the car and headed due east into the South Downs, a part of the country I’d never explored before.
A quick glance at the road atlas and a suitable destination for my walk jumped out at me: Petworth Park, the curvaceous landscaped grounds of a seventeenth-century mansion house, complete with the largest herd of fallow deer in England. What better place for a stroll in the autumnal sunshine than a landscape curated by ‘Capability’ Brown, immortalised in numerous works by Turner, and populated by turning trees and grazing deer. It was all very pleasant indeed.
But there was something amiss. For all that Petworth is an important site of English cultural and landscape history, it was not its connections with Brown and Turner that had drawn me there. Like many an academic anecdote, the true starting point for my story is ‘an article I was reading recently’… in this case, Andy Wood’s 2014 essay ‘”Some banglyng about the customes”: popular memory and the experience of defeat in a Sussex village, 1549–1640’. The village in question is Petworth, which lies adjacent to the estate, and the article details a significant period in the relationship between the two. It played out as follows…
On one side of that relationship stood the Percy family, earls of Northumberland. The Crown had grown wary of their power base in the north, and in the second half of the sixteenth century compelled the Percys to take up their main residence in the south – which they did at Petworth. It was a move that triggered several generations of social conflict in this seemingly tranquil corner of the South Downs.
These were tumultuous years across the country of course, with dramatic population growth and rising inflation putting considerable strain on existing social and economic structures. For one, inflation was biting into the rent rolls of the landholding classes, many of whom responded with a drive to maximise the profits of their holdings in as many ways as possible – raising rents and introducing less secure forms of tenancy; enclosing common land for their own exclusive use; exploiting woodland resources, often cutting them down and selling the timber. All of these policies – grouped together by historians under the heading of ‘fiscal seigneurialism’ – were bad news for tenants, as ordinary villagers lost their right to keep a few animals on the common, or to collect firewood from the woods, which were often crucial to them making ends meet.
The Percys were at the forefront of this new aggressive landlordism, and the commons and woodlands of Petworth came under threat. But the villagers were prepared to fight their corner too: they pulled down the hedges that had been erected around common land, and pooled their resources (in early modern parlance, they ‘raised a common purse’) to fund a legal complaint against their landlords at the Court of Chancery in 1592. This even met with some success, and the court ordered an investigation into the enclosures implemented by the Percys. Ultimately, however – and this is something Wood is keen to stress in his article – the imbalance of power between lords and tenants was too much for the villagers of Petworth to overcome. The Earl was able to use his influence to stall the investigation, and to have the ringleader of the village resistance pressed into the army and sent off to fight in Ireland.
His policies continued apace, and the commons were ‘gobbled up’ in enclosure and emparkment – the latter a reminder that it was not only for economic gain that landlords were fencing off common land: they also wanted to enlarge the parks in which they hunted. In fact, by 1610 there were only 340 acres of common land remaining in Petworth, but 1200 acres of such parkland. One villager, the day-labourer Ralfe Coates, summed up the transformative impact these years had on the tenants of the Percys:
‘before these things happened he saith which are but of late dayes the said coppiholders were of good worthe and abylytye for the most part and lyved in wealthe and quyettnes, but sithence these things fell out they are growen to great decayance and povertye.’
As I traversed the handiwork of ‘Capability’ Brown on that autumn afternoon I found no trace of this history that had prompted my visit – no indication that the serene landscape he had been commissioned to design in the eighteenth century, by the descendants of those fiscally-minded seigneurs of the late sixteenth century, was built on foundations of conflict and impoverishment. (I’m not sure what I was expecting to find – well, nothing I suppose – but a plaque or noticeboard somewhere in the grounds, or something in the history section of their website, would be some suggestions.) But it seems to me there is a much broader point to make here about our relationship with the landscape. After all, the landscape represents an important medium through which many people engage with a sense of the past. Whether through a visit to the grounds of a National Trust or English Heritage estate, or even a Sunday stroll in the countryside through fields, woods and villages, we often feel as though a walk connects us in some way with our past, as we tread across a landscape whose features date back far beyond our own time.
But it is important to remember that very little of the English landscape is ‘natural’. As the title of W.G. Hoskins’ classic The Making of the English Landscape reminds us, landscape is ‘made’. It is the product of human interaction, and whilst a scene like Petworth Park might seem serene enough, behind rolling hills and clustered copses there is usually a story of power relations to be told – of some people shaping the landscape in a way that served their interests, and was very often detrimental to the interests of others. Think, for instance, of England’s quintessential ‘patchwork quilt’ of small green fields, so often a welcome site when flying back into the country: it is the product of the division and enclosure of larger fields that were once held and farmed in common, claimed for private and more individualistic use by landlords and wealthier farmers.
As is the case with so many of the avenues through which we engage with our past, our landscape tends to privilege the history of the winners – of the powerful. At Petworth we can walk through the realised dreams of the landlords: a glorious country estate that projects the power, prestige, even the seeming naturalness, of the aristocracy. The history of our more humble ancestors – the struggles of the villagers of Petworth, the experiences of Ralfe Coates – are smoothed over, buried, obscured. It seems to me then that this is another area where the ‘history from below’ approach has an important role to play in our society. It can encourage us to reflect more deeply on our landscape, to think carefully about what lies beneath it and to uncover the stories behind its making. In the process, we can develop a fuller understanding of the relationship between our landscape and our history that is not so easily dominated by the powerful, and which doesn’t so readily bury the history of our more humble ancestors.
Postscript: Of course, the idea of a landscape history ‘from below’ is not a new one – I’m just trying to champion it here. Those interested in this field could, for instance, take a look at Nicola Whyte’s book Inhabiting the Landscape: Place, Custom and Memory, 1500-1800 (2009) which examines how ordinary people valued and gave meaning to the landscape in the early modern period. Andy Wood’s book The Memory of the People: Custom and Popular Senses of the Past in Early Modern England (2013) includes a chapter (7) on the ways in which popular memory was embedded in the landscape. A rather different way to approach this issue is through Jim Crace’s novel Harvest (2013), which explores the process of enclosure in a fictional early modern village from the perspective of the villagers. I’m sure readers will have some suggestions of their own, so please do add these to the comments section.
 Andy Wood, ‘”Some banglyng about the customes”: popular memory and the experience of defeat in a Sussex village, 1549–1640’, Rural History, 25, pp. 1-14.
 Ibid, p.7
 Ibid, p.11