Troublesome tenants

In the seventeenth century, the Dean and Canons owned property in 30 counties in England and Wales, and consequently had to manage their tenants, including arbitrating between tenants and sub-tenants. This was not always easy, and long travelling times could mean that disputes dragged on for years. One particularly hard-fought dispute was in Ansty, Warwickshire, where the Dean and Chapter’s tenant Richard Barker had clashed with his sub-tenants.

Four unfolded letters, two neat and two messy, and two with a list of signatures. Written in black ink in secretary hand.
Letters from Richard Barker and his sub-tenants to the Dean and Canons (SGC CC 117046).

The first indication of a disagreement was in 1600, and it continued until an agreement in 1629, when a final ruling on the dispute was made. There were two main issues: the first being the illegal enclosure of lands, and the second being a disregard for the custom of tenancies descending through a family.

The names of several different sub-tenants appear on the letters and petitions, but the two most active seem to have Joseph Clerk and Henry Knibbe. Their list of offences committed by Mr Barker is long. It starts with a complaint that Barker has appropriated some college lands (some enclosed, some open field) to himself. Mindful of their addressee, the sub-tenants write ‘[this] will prove a greate wronge to the Deane & Cannons and theire Successours’. He also enclosed some of the common land and ploughed some of it up, including some land which funded the repair of the church. They complain that he put more cows to graze on the common pasture land than were allowed, harming the rights of the tenants who also used the land. Thomas Jephrots had a specific complaint that Barker had fixed an animal highway through his land to his detriment, although some of the tenants had even more reason to complain as he had turned them off their land and used it for himself. He felled so much timber that the tenants did not have enough to repair their houses.

In return, Barker claimed that some of the land had been enclosed long before him and denied the other accusations, claiming that it was not customary for tenancies to descend through inheritance. He addressed his letter to the ‘very good landlords’ and signed it ‘your tenant and loving frend to comand’. His version of events was that his sub-tenants were intent on injuring himself and the College and that he was happy to resort to the law to settle this.

The sub-tenants had a good reason for not wanting to agree to this. Joseph Clerk’s petition to the Dean and Canons laid out his own personal grievance that he had not been admitted as a tenant to his father’s tenancy, in contrary to the custom of the area. He also emphasised that he and the other sub-tenants had been drawn into suits of law as the town was ‘by these oppressions of Mr Barker overthrown’ while he himself was ‘tormented’ by Barker. The tenants spent £800 in legal fees ‘to their utter undoing in defence of Anstie commons and waste grounds’. He claimed that Barker purchased the judges of the Court Baron. In spite of this, he said that they won at trial but that Barker submitted the matter to arbitration without their consent.

The final ruling of the court was not wholly favourable to either side; it was decreed that a surviving unmarried widow might retain her husband’s tenancy, but that the tenant had no right to bequeath it to an heir. However, the court recommended that Barker should ‘deale well’ with the heirs and grant them the tenancy in preference to strangers. Barker also had to repay the tenants for their losses (the amount to be settled by the Dean and Canons) and the common lands were to be restored.

In 1637 Barker’s lease was renewed, but with the conditions made in the agreement of 1629. No further complaints against him appear in the archives.

Anne Courtney, Assistant Archivist

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.