The Commoners’ Cry

We are celebrating the publication of our twenty-fifth book, available now from our online shop. Our Spring 2024 issue is a hardback anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork from around the world, inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself. Today we bring you Robin Grey's exploration of two of the songs he sings in the show Three Acres and a Cow, rooted in England's deep history of peasant resistance and revolt. Accompanied by an image from an anonymous artist.
is a Sheffield-based musician, social historian and creator of the show 'Three Acres And A Cow, A History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story'. He really likes kale, bicycles and meditation. David Cameron and Ian Hislop have both shared conflicting opinions about his work.

The Fowlers’ Complaint

I first came across ‘The Fowlers’ Complaint’ in A Ballad History of England, written in 1979 by my late mentor Roy Palmer. Roy was a teacher, folklorist and singer from the Midlands, who dedicated his life to hunting out old folk songs and using them to teach radical British history. Importantly he was also an experienced performer which set him apart from most other collectors who approached the material from a more cerebral angle. This song – also known as ‘The Powtes Complaint’ – dates from 1611, and describes the draining and enclosure of the Fens in the east of England.

Between the 17th and the 19th centuries, the wetlands of East Anglia were systematically drained and enclosed to create privately owned fields for crops and pasture that benefited a few rich landowners. This destroyed the indigenous subsistence farming, fowling and fishing lifestyles of commoners who had existed there for generations, as well as brutally wiping out one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in England.

Throughout this process, the Fen population was denigrated as backwards and pagan – even subhuman, with webbed feet – which echoed the treatment of conquered peoples in England’s colonies from Ireland to the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The transformation of the wetlands met with fierce resistance; dams, dykes and sluice gates were destroyed, animals were let into the new fields to trample crops, equipment was burnt and the houses of colonisers pulled down by saboteurs known as the Fen Tigers. An even broader diversity of tactics was embraced once pitch forks had been upgraded to firearms during the Civil War. The state was often unable to catch those involved in the various restorative nocturnal activities so began imposing collective punishment on whole communities through large punitive fines given to every household in a village.

I wrote a melody for ‘The Fowlers’ Complaint’ and have enjoyed singing it out for many years. I tend to leave out two of the last three verses from Roy’s version as I err on the side of brevity when performing ballads with no chorus or refrain to keep modern audiences on side.

The transformation of the wetlands met with fierce resistance

 

Come, Brethren of the water and let us all assemble
To treat upon this matter, which makes us quake and tremble;
For we shall rue, if it be true, that the Fens be undertaken,
And where we feed in Fen and Reed, they’ll feed both Beef and Bacon.

They’ll sow both beans and oats where never man yet thought it,
Where men did row in boat, ere the undertakers bought it:
But, Ceres, thou behold us now, let wild oats be their venture,
Oh let the frogs and miry bogs destroy where they do enter.

Behold the great design, which they do now determine,
Will make our bodies pine, a prey to crows and vermine:
For they do mean all Fens to drain, and waters overmaster,
All will be dry, and we must die, ’cause Essex calves want pasture.

Away with boats and rudder, farewell both boots and skatches,
No need of one nor th’other, men now make better matches;
Stilt-makers all and tanners shall complain of this distaster;
For they will make each muddy lake for Essex calves a pasture.

The feather’d fowls have wings, to fly to other nations;
But we have no such things, to aid our transportations;
We must give place (oh grievous case) to horned beasts and cattle,
Except that we can all agree to drive them out by battle.

Wherefore let us intreat our ancient water nurses,
To shew their power so great as t’ help to drain their purses;
And send us good old Captain Flood to lead us out to battle,
Then two-penny Jack, with skales on’s back, will drive out all the cattle.

This noble Captain yet was never know to fail us,
But did the conquest get of all that did assail us;
His furious rage none could assuage; but, to the world’s great wonder,
He bears down banks, and breaks their cranks and whirlygigs asunder.

God Eolus, we do pray, that thou wilt not be wanting,
Thou never said’st us nay, now listen to our canting:
Do thou deride their hope and pride, that purpose our confusion;
And send a blast, that they in haste may work no good conclusion.

Great Neptune (God of seas), this work must needs provoke thee;
They mean thee to disease, and with Fen water choke thee:
But, with thy mace, do thou deface, and quite confound this matter;
And send thy sands, to make dry lands, when they shall want fresh water.

And eke we pray thee Moon, that thou wilt be propitious,
To see that nought be done to prosper the malicious;
Though summer’s heat hath wrought a feat, whereby themselves they flatter,
Yet be so good as send a flood, lest Essex calves want water.

 

 

The Poor Man’s Joye

This ballad dates from 1607 and is undoubtedly connected to the Midlands Revolt of the same year, which was a series of uprisings against the enclosure of common land. Hedges were torn down, ditches filled, and the terms ‘Diggers’ and ‘Levellers’ – later made famous in the Civil War – were heard for the first time. It culminated in the Newton Rebellion, which saw around 50 people killed by troops of the local gentry, with the ringleaders hanged and quartered by order of King James I.

The unrest was led by Captain Pouch, described by historian John Padwick as ‘a strangely anonymous and mystical character, who claimed to have authority from the kingdom of Heaven and to have a pouch which contained “that which shall keep you from all harm”. Following his capture and execution, it was found to contain nothing more than a piece of green cheese.’

Having a hunch from the title that this was an important work, Roy Palmer spent a good few years trying to acquire the text of this ballad from a reluctant aristocrat’s private library. It eventually came to him by way of a visiting academic who smuggled out a copy back in the 1970s. Roy passed me a hand typed facsimile in 2014 shortly before he died.

I have distilled down the original text to about half the length in the version I perform. As in the Fowlers’ Complaint this mostly involves excavating the essence whilst removing stanzas dense with Greek or Roman mythological references that would have resonated with listeners at the time, but mean little to most modern audiences.

Both these songs regularly feature in Three Acres and a Cow, a show I created to tell the history of land rights and protest in England through folk song and story.

Hedges were torn down, ditches filled, and the terms ‘Diggers’ and ‘Levellers’ were heard for the first time


 

You gentlemen that rack your rentes, and throwe downe Land for corne
The tyme will com that som will sigh, that ever they were borne.
Small care you have for to maintayne trueth or godlines.
Yee seek your gayne and still the poore oppresse.

Yee throw downe townes and houses to, and seek for honors more.
When we your tenantes arre constraynde to beg from doore to doore.
The king commaundes and wisheth all thinges well
he askes if all be don nothing but lies you tell.

Yet meanyng no harme to our gracious King Quene Prince or any of those
But to pull downe those hawghty myndes
Which against his commandmentes themselves oppose.
Therfoer we have agreed even for the comons sake a blooddye entreprise to take.

Here they lyve in pompe & glory and may not be Controulde
They think scorn of there faultes for to be told.
We will be merry and take our full of joye
As Achilles had to trayle Hectors body about the walles of Troye

Yet that tyme you must Leave your whores & dainty dames
whose lascyvious apparell & dainty chere, the poore man still maintaynes
Their peacock plumes and golden coates, shall them nought avayll
When soden death shall sodenly them call.

This taske shall well be performed eare Martilmas be one fortenight gone.
and of your goodly howses we will not leave one stone upon a stone
when we com out, you tyrants to ynvade
we neede not feare for helpe, thowsandes have sworn to Ayde
Oh yt shall do us good to see, these tyrantes wallowed in their Blood

So to the house of Heneage let us please call to mind
Such men who are good to the poor and to the commons kind
And to Pelham and to Hatton, may you both take courage still
To you and Master Shefford we all owe you much good will

God bless our King Quene and prince all waies
God send them happy lief & old Nestors dayes.

 

IMAGE: Anonymous
No Entry
Digital photo collage

A collage of images communicating that some humans are not permitted by other humans to be in certain places.

 

Three Acres and a Cow: a History of Land Rights and Protest in Folk Song and Story is currently touring the UK. See here for venues and tickets.

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

Read more

 

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