Thursday, 25 August 2016

Bartholomew Steere and the North Oxfordshire Uprising, 1596

The prize for the least successful revolution to take place on British soil must surely go to the North Oxfordshire Uprising of 1596. A pre-requisite of a revolution must be that large numbers of people gather and makes demands for a better way of life – so ten men and a dog has to register as something of a failure.

Bartholomew Steere – would-be revolutionary

Bartholomew Steere was a young man who hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps as a tenant farmer in north Oxfordshire. As a way of life it was not particularly luxurious – farmers earned a meagre living at the best of times and were subject to all sorts of privations if things went wrong – but in most years a farmer could get by and keep his family fed.

However, change was afoot in the 16th century as landowners saw more profit in enclosing their fields and turning them into pastures for sheep than they could get from collecting rents from peasant farmers.

Bartholomew was determined to do something about it, so he canvassed opinion among other young men in the area. Before long he came up with a plan for a new “Peasants’ Revolt” that would be bound to make the landlords sit up and take notice.

The North Oxfordshire Uprising

Bartholomew put the word out that a revolt would take place and he asked people to gather on a named day at Enslow Hill, near the village of Bletchingdon (the hill has all but disappeared in more recent times, thanks to extensive quarrying). As evening fell the first of the revolutionaries climbed the hill, these being Bartholomew and nine others, one of whom brought his dog.

They confidently expected hundreds more people to turn up during the night, so they lit a fire, bedded down under the stars at the top of the hill, and waited for first light so that the gathered hordes could then march to confront their oppressors.

However, when dawn broke it became apparent that not a single extra person had joined them. They had no option but to put out the fire, descend the hill and go home. The revolution was well and truly over.

An unfortunate sequel

The whole affair might well have been forgotten about were it not that word reached a local vicar that a rebellion had been planned. He passed the news on, and when it reached the ears of the landowners they suddenly got the notion that the countryside was awash with violent revolutionaries. The result was little short of panic, although the ten men on the hill (and the dog) had long since given up any plans they might have had and were back working on their farms.

The government in London eventually got wind of the incident and issued arrest warrants for the four ringleaders, including Bartholomew Steere. Orders were given for how these dangerous criminals were to be treated on their journey to London for trial – being bound and gagged so that they couldn’t get word out to other revolutionaries who would attempt a rescue. Needless to say, nothing of the sort took place.

It all ended badly for Bartholomew and his companions. He and one of the others under arrest died from the tortures they were subjected to and the other two were taken back to Enslow Hill where they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

It has to be assumed that the reason why the Uprising never happened is that most of the would-be revolutionaries, who stayed at home rather than climb Enslow Hill, knew full well what the outcome would be. Any attempt to question the status quo, especially if violence was threatened, was regarded as treason against the state, and the punishments inflicted by the government were indeed in line with that interpretation.

One has therefore to conclude that Bartholomew Steere, although well-meaning, was extremely foolish to do what he did, although one might also conclude that, with a little more investigation into the circumstances, the government could have afforded to be more lenient towards a group of young men who were never going to pose a serious threat to public order.

As it was, the threatened enclosure of the common fields of north Oxfordshire did go ahead, with those of Bletchingdon being among the first to be affected. As Bartholomew Steere had feared, the old ways of rural living came to an end, accompanied by a great deal of suffering for those tenant farmers who could not adapt to the new regime. The fact remains that there was absolutely nothing that he and his fellows could have done about it.

© John Welford