“History is written by the victors”. Winston Churchill
The voices against the unjust leasehold system have never roared as loudly as they are right now. Millions of homeowners are tired of being ripped off by our deeply ingrained unfair land tenure. A tenure which systematically robs many millions of pounds every year from leaseholders and puts it in the pockets of a few wealthy freeholders and their oily legal advisors.
Organisations like the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership and The National Leasehold Campaign on Facebook work tirelessly on behalf of the many millions who find themselves trapped in this nightmarish system. The results they have achieved are staggering and the Government is on the verge of altering legislation to make it fairer….they say.
To put this achievement into some kind of historical perspective and to fully understand what those involved in this anti-leasehold movement are up against, it is essential to understand the history of this struggle.
It is quoted time and time again in the press that the current abuses of leasehold, with onerous ground rents, unfair contractual terms and eye watering fees due to the freeholder’s permissions regarding your own property is a ‘modern’ development. This is a fallacy.
Through a series of short articles, derived from research for a book I am writing ‘The History of Leasehold’, I will be sketching out the long historical battle for the anti-leasehold movement.
“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history”. Mahatma Gandhi.
An uncomfortable truth
Our current leasehold system is a feudal system which started in 1066. Modern day freeholders and their voracious lawyers, for obvious reasons, are quick to rubbish this assertation but it is undeniable.
In 1066 William the Conqueror defeated the British at the battle of Hastings and changed the country intrinsically. Whilst still on the hill in Hastings, with the noise of the battle echoing around him he declared “I claim right to all land by right of conquest”.
He decided he owned all the land in the country and he would dish it out in a feudal stylee to make his loyal generals rich beyond their wildest dreams and buy their continued loyalty to him.
He introduced an unjust system of ‘total feudalisation’ which made the vast majority of the population into nothing more than a slave class fixed in place by his new land tenure. This would benefit a few who enjoyed this perpetual land ownership.
The ghost of this feudal blueprint still exists today in the form of the leasehold system which affects around 5 million properties in England and Wales.
Through this system William became the richest man on the planet. His personal fortune exceeded the combined wealth of the ten richest men today. For greedy William this was not enough, he wanted more. He commissioned the biggest inventory of the country’s land to ensure he was extorting every penny he could from the people. We know this inventory today as the ‘Doomsday Book’ which was essentially a questionnaire designed to log every bit of land, the livestock people owned and even the tools they used to work the ground on behalf of their landlords.
The last question asked to all in the Doomsday Book would set the tone for the leasehold system for the next 1,000 years. The same question is being asked every day by our current freeholders to line their own pockets at the expense of the millions of leaseholders trapped in this legally established elitist land ownership system. The question asked was:
“Can more be had than is had?”
Life after William
Life for the tenants and land workers became a very grim affair after William died. He had introduced a legally binding land system which turned virtually the whole country into nothing more than slaves to their landlords.
The lives of the tenants were controlled absolutely by their landlords. They had no rights and they existed only to make the lives of their master richer. Their first priority was to work the land of their lords for free, then they had to tithe to the church and finally provide labour and money to the Crown, when requested, to fight the wars they chose to fight.
They had to ask for, and more importantly pay for, anything they wanted to do as they and their families were the property of their landlords. If they wanted to get married, have a child, were too ill to work or wanted one of their children to marry, they had to pay a fine to their lord for their permission.
Even when they died their lords, who were seen to be financially disadvantaged because they had to bad grace to die, could take their most valuable assets as ‘compensation’.
Once they had done all of this and paid all their dues, if they had time, they could grow some food for their own families to ensure their survival.
The few landowners grew wealthy and fat and the majority of the population slowly starved to death. Any disobedience or dissent to the system would result in a brutal and cruel death at the hands of their omnipotent landlords.
This was all about to change though.
The black death
In the 1330s there had been a major outbreak of a mysterious plague in Mongolia which killed thousands. The disease quickly spread to Europe and would eventually kill nearly half of the population. The black death had arrived.
The black death in a bizarre twist gave the land workers their first taste of freedom. The legally imposed unholy trinity of landlords, church and crown, all ran to the hills in an effort to save themselves. This sudden void of power meant for the first time, the land workers were free to think for themselves. They would not give up this freedom easily.
Once the black death had run its course the landlords were keen to get back in control and assert total feudalisation again so they could keep getting rich. This did not happen however as the land workers had tasted freedom and there were not enough serfs and workers left to match the production of a pre-black death world.
For the first time the value of the work the serfs could do had a value and they found they could work for money and provide for their families easily. The peasants were simply wandering off and doing their own thing and ignoring the screaming of their landlords.
The Government, acted quickly to return Britain to total feudalism by bringing in new laws designed to put these ‘beasts of the fields’ firmly back in their place and protect the status quo. For example, on 18 June 1349 they consented to bring in a new law The Ordinance of Labourers Act.
The more the establishment pushed though for total control of the masses the more the ‘peasants’ pushed back.
The first anti-leasehold movement
An uncontrollable priest by the name of John Bull, who preached against feudalism and the corrupt church, devised a poem which put a seriously seditious idea in the minds of the land workers. It was an idea which very nearly ended feudalism once and for all.
The poem said: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?”
At the dawn of society when it was just Adam working the fields to provide enough food for his own family to eat while his wife Eve made the families clothes where was the land ownership class then profiting from Adam and Eve’s toil?
If the land ownership class was not needed then, why do we need them now?
Soon acts of rebellion against the land ownership system were being reported across the whole country. The ‘beasts of the fields’ were fighting back.
One such act of rebellion was responsible for bringing forth a man who would become the leader of the first rebellion against the unjust land ownership system. Wat Tyler is reported to have killed a tax inspector of the crown. Tax was due from anyone aged 14 years or over and the lecherous way tax inspectors establish the age of the children was to carry out a ‘puberty’ test on the daughters of the land workers. They would force their hands up the skirts of young women and examine their intimate areas.
Tyler came home one day and found a tax inspector carrying out this test on his daughter and he split his head in two. He was now an outlaw.
Soon the whole country was behind the revolt started by John Bull and Wat Tyler and they found they had taken control of the country within a week proving that people power can work. This revolt is called by homogenous historians either the “Poll Tax Riot’ or the ‘Peasant’s Revolt’ but it was neither.
They marched on London, where the young king Richard II was hiding in the Tower. They wanted to make their demands directly to him. That these peasants should have the temerity to dare to try to talk to the king himself rocked the elite to their very core. Their strategically planned feudal society was collapsing before their very eyes.
Along the way the rebels attacked the symbols and properties of those who represented this feudal system and destroyed them. They were careful not to loot anything, they wanted this revolt to focus on the unjust system and not their own personal gain. They also attacked the law companies who they blamed for manipulating the law for the betterment of the land owners. Their offices were destroyed and many were hanged.
They finally got agreement from the 14-year old king Richard II that he would meet them and hear their grievances. The rebels trusted Richard and assumed that he was just being badly advised by his corrupt uncles. They, of course, were ridiculously rich and had vested interest in land ownership. It was this trust which would be their undoing.
When Tyler met the king he had just three demands:
- That each man should be beholden only to himself and that no man should be bonded to his lord (they wanted freedom from their land lords)
- That the peasants be granted the right to sell his produce in the fairs and markets and whichever town he chose (all their produce had to be sold through their lords who took a big cut off the top)
- That ground rent should be set at 4 shillings per acre (Ground rent abuses were already rife as landlords tried to make as much as they could from the peasants)
He also humbly asked that when this was over that the rebels should not be punished for their actions in the rising for they acted in the name of justice and right was on their side.
After some game-playing the king eventually agreed to grant all of the requests and he signed new laws which essentially ended the feudal system. The rebels could not believe that they, the ‘beasts of the fields’, had united and brought about a fairer world.
In an ensuing skirmish Tyler was killed by one of the king’s generals. The crowd turned nasty and raised their weapons toward the king and his elitist generals. Just as it looked like the royal family was about to be consigned to history, the young king rode his horse to the rebels. He announced that they must follow him and no other. He was their leader and he was just. Hadn’t he just signed new laws to make their lives better?
They lowered their weapons and meekly followed him, eventually returning to their homes to savour their victory against the feudal system. They had won and feudalism was dead. From now on their lives would be free from the shackles of having to slave for their landlords.
What Richard did next
If Richard had kept his word and abided by the new laws, we would not have a leasehold system today and the course of English history would have been changed. England would have been a much fairer place to live for the majority of the populace.
They had seriously misjudged Richard and what he stood for. Richard loved the feudal system more than anyone. It made him fabulously wealthy and provided him with a vice like grip of controlling his subjects.
He immediately rescinded his new anti-feudal laws and sent out his forces to find all those rebels who took part in the uprising. He ensured they were put to death in the slowest and most brutal way they could devise.
When the dissident preacher John Bull was tortured, hung and his body quartered to be paraded across the country, the young king made sure he was there to personally witness it.
He promised not to make the lives of peasant’s better and free them from the enslavement of the feudal system. He instead vowed to make the lives of the peasants harder and more unjust. To be fair he tried his very best to live by this promise for the rest of his (short) life.
The first anti-leasehold movement had been brutally put down and was lost. Lives did indeed get harder for the land workers. The elite landowners got richer by using the land ownership system of feudalisation to their favour.
The torch of dissent however had been lit and it would not go out so easily.
The history of the anti-leasehold movement – Pt 2 will explain just what happened next for those who opposed the system of perpetual land ownership introduced by William.