Gyles Phillips, a woolwinder, was my 9xgreat grandfather. He lived at Little Weldon, close to the modern town of Corby in Northamptonshire. He was probably born around 1575. In 1598 he married Joan Checkly and over the next 22 years they had at least nine children.
In 1607 he was caught up in a so-called “riot” in which at least 40 people were killed. This event was part of a historically-significant period of unrest known as the Midland Rebellion or Midland Riots. You have probably never heard about this event which is little known, partly because many of the most important records have disappeared or been deliberately destroyed.
At this time in history the majority of the population lived in villages where some of them earned a living from a skill or trade, but most people were dependent on their ability to grow their own food in the common fields and have access to the common land (pasture and woodland) to graze animals and collect firewood to keep warm and for cooking. For this reason there had always been laws to prevent the local landowners and gentry from denying access to common land by “enclosing” it for their own private purposes. In a strange way, this meant that the king was regarded as an ally by the peasantry in protecting them from the excesses of the landowners and this may account for their strong loyalty to the crown. It is certainly a very significant element in this story.
In 1593, the laws protecting common land were relaxed. This led to a spate of enclosures, especially in the Northamptonshire area, where conditions were favourable for sheep grazing and greedy landowners saw the chance to make themselves rich on the profits of wool at the expense of their villagers, whom they were happy to make homeless and destitute. The pace of this greedy land-grab was such that the laws protecting rights of access to common land were reinstated after just four years in 1597, but by then the harm was done and no attempt was made to force the enclosers to restore common access to the land they had already enclosed.
The law may have been reinstated, but it had little effect. The wealth that could be earned from sheep and their wool encouraged more new illegal enclosures. All over Northamptonshire and surrounding areas people saw that the king’s laws were being broken by landowners who were often also the very Justices of the Peace, responsible for enforcing the very laws they were breaking. Among the worst offenders were the Catholic Tresham family, whose lands included the villages of Rushton and Newton, very close to Weldon.
This terrible crisis came to a head in 1607, just two years after the Gunpowder Plot, in which one of the Tresham family had been involved. Food shortages were growing because of the reduction of land available for crops but more new enclosures were still being made. Believing that both God and King James were on their side people realised that their only hope was to attempt to enforce the law themselves by destroying the ditches, hedges and fences which denied them access to their precious common land. No-one else was going to do it for them.
From the early summer of 1607, at various places in the area where new enclosures had been made, large groups of people, several hundred strong, from towns as well as villages, gathered to pull down the hedges and fences and to fill in the ditches. They were in no way violent, just restoring access to the common land. News of this reached the king, who, despite sympathy with the peasants, was far more afraid of rebellion. After all, only two years before, people from the same part of England had plotted to blow him up in parliament. He therefore issued a proclamation that these “enclosure riots” should be suppressed by the Deputy Lieutenants of each county (the king’s representatives responsible for the rule of law), by force if necessary, using the militia.
At the beginning of June 1607 the “rioters”, as they were now unfairly described, turned their attention to the particularly provocative enclosure by the hated Thomas Tresham, who had his seat at Newton. Among these people were Gyles Phillips, his wife’s brother and two of her cousins, all from Weldon. As well as enclosing the common fields of the village and evicting nine farming families, Tresham had also illegally enclosed an area called “The Brand”. This was an area of Rockingham Forest shared as common land by all the villagers of five parishes, not just Newton, so by enclosing it, he made himself an enemy of a remarkable number of people. He had even tried to enclose land that belonged to the Montagus of Boughton House, a puritan family not well-disposed anyway towards the Catholic Treshams.
Ironically, despite some sympathy with the rebels, Sir Edward Montagu of Boughton, as one of the Deputy Lieutenants of the county, found himself, along with Sir Anthony Mildmay of Apethorpe, responsible for restoring order at Newton, for the benefit of his enemy, Tresham. They failed to raise the militia, many of whom would have had sympathies with the protesters or even been participants, so Montagu and Mildmay were forced to put together a sort of private army, some on horseback and some on foot, by arming their own servants and estate workers. Montagu tried to get a peaceful conclusion and is known to have had negotiations with some of the townspeople of Kettering, to no avail.
By 8th June 1607 Montagu had lost patience. He then read out the king’s proclamation to the protesters. It said that they were guilty of seditious libel for criticising the failure to prosecute those responsible for the enclosures and threatened them with armed force if they refused to disperse peacefully. They refused to do so.
Montagu and Mildmay made a last attempt to persuade the protesters to disperse and read the king’s proclamation for a second time. When this had no effect they ordered their “army” to attack. The protesters stood their ground and drove the attackers back. A second attack was ordered and this time the protesters were overcome. As they tried to run away between forty and fifty were killed, many more were wounded and a large number were captured. These were held prisoner in Newton church before being tried at a special judicial commission at Northampton on 21st June. Those regarded as leaders were charged with treason and sentenced to being hanged and quartered. Their quarters were displayed in towns in the area as a warning against further protest.
Two of the protesters at Newton are known to have been arrested under martial law and hanged. There has been a suggestion that these hangings took place at Newton, but there is circumstantial evidence in the draft of a letter from Montagu to his wife that these two were not leaders, as has been supposed, but two of the deputation from Kettering who had gone back on the agreement Montagu believed he had made with them. He reports that he had them hanged at Kettering.
In order to quell the resentment and guard against further unrest, the king issued another proclamation on 24th July 1607, offering a pardon to all those protesters who signed a document accepting their guilt and begging for his clemency. For local people that meant going to Boughton House, the home of Lord Montagu, to sign a copy of the document and this copy has survived. It bears the names of 144 protesters, including two women. Among the signatures is that of Gyles Phillips. His brother-in law and his wife’s cousins, being illiterate, made their marks. There is no surviving record of those who were killed or those who were captured and executed.
To find out more visit the website of the Newton Rebels 1607 http://www.newtonrebels.org.uk/rebels/index.htm where you can read about the slaughter at Newton and the efforts of a group based at nearby Geddington to commemorate all that happened 410 years ago.
Robert G. Page 2017