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Eau et développement dans l'Europe moderne

Salvatore Ciriacono

I : De l'irrigation à la bonification

4. Drainage projects in Elizabethan England: the European dimension

Clive Holmes

Texte intégral

Lord Burghley and Humphrey Bradley, gentilhome Brabançon

1Among the papers received, carefully docketed, and filed by William Cecil, Lord Burghley (from 1571), Secretary of State (1550-1553; 1558-1572) and Lord Treasurer from 1572 until his death in 1598, are a significant group of documents relating to schemes for the economic improvement of the realm. A good number of these are proposals for the development of new industries and processes. Enterprising entrepreneurs, who hoped to turn new manufacturing or agrarian techniques to profit, sought alliance with the government to encourage and protect their schemes. Invariably they claimed that these deserved state backing because they would advance to the public good – creating employment, a cheaper provision of necessary goods, less dependence on imports. Many of those who besieged Elizabeth’s chief minister with their optimistic accounts of public-benefit schemes were short-term profiteers, some were eccentrics, a few were outright charlatans. But Burghley had learned from his mentor, Thomas Cromwell, and from his colleagues in the government of Edward VI, that the state should intervene positively in the economy, nursing and encouraging the inventive or entrepreneurial skills of its citizens. He spent a good deal of time reviewing and annotating the projects, and seeking independent assessment of their viability from experts. A number of the schemes survived this interrogation, to receive government backing in the form of Patents, Proclamations or Parliamentary Statutes (Thirsk 1978: chap. 1-3; Heal and Holmes 2002).

2Two of the papers filed in this archive, by Humphrey Bradley, will provide the focus for this paper. Bradley was the son of an English wool merchant who had settled in Bergen-op-Zoon (Harris 1961: 11 -117). He had come to England in 1584, probably in response to a request from Secretary of State Walsingham to the Governor of Walcharen to send some expert ‘dykers’ to England, to advise the government on the most feasible plan for the dredging, maintenance, and fortification of Dover Harbour. In October of that year Bradley offered a formal report on the Dover scheme. We have no information on his whereabouts from 1585 to 1588, but on 21 March 1589 he was appointed, with a couple of English surveyors, by the Privy Council as part of a new initiative to deal with major problems of drainage in the 325,000 hectares of fenland where the rivers Ouse, Nene, Welland and Witham flowed into the Wash. The condition of the fen and marsh in this area had given increasing cause for concern in the previous decade (Kennedy 1985: 45-88). While the merits of private schemes for the drainage of certain limited areas had been fiercely debated among competing interest groups, the traditional works had decayed. The chaotic situation was enhanced by the fragmentation of responsibility for drainage in the region between a number of localised authorities, the commissioners of sewers [country gentlemen appointed by the crown], whose mutual cooperation could seldom be guaranteed. In 1589 the Privy Council sought to establish a new authority with wider, regional, control, capable of taking the broadest view of the problem and of developing large-scale remedial projects. Bradley and his colleagues were appointed to assist this new body, initially by surveying and mapping the entire area (Skelton and Summerson 1971: 52-54, and plate 10; APC, 1588-1589: 112-113). Bradley worked in the fenland throughout the summer of 1589. In June the commissioners of sewers for Lincolnshire resolved to seek his advice on scouring the River Welland, ‘in that he is a man of understanding, and hath good experience in such woorkes’. But they were uncertain that they could secure his assistance because of his other engagements; he was straightening and embanking a river north of Wisbech, and building a new sluice near the town (Owen 1977: 112, 113 and 115).

  • 1 British Library, Landsdowne manuscripts, vol. 42, piece 31.

3Bradley’s reflections on his summer’s experience in eastern England take the form of a short treatise, written in an awkward and uncolloquial Italian, entitled Discorso sopra il stato delle paludi over terre inundate (volgarmente Fennes). This crossed Burghley’s desk in December 1589. It made good sense to approach the Lord Treasurer. Bradley’s enterprise, he thought, needed a powerful patron with ‘un Animo risoluto e agiutante mano’ (Bradley 1589: fo.89). Cecil was a substantial owner of fenland in Lincolnshire and the Soke of Peterborough, and his father’s activity ‘for the common weal of the country’ as a commissioner of sewers was a source of family pride (Heal and Holmes 2002: 214). The improvement of fen and marsh had been one of the projects for the public good patronised by Cromwell (Elton 1973: 122), and Burghley encouraged further initiatives, many involving the application of drainage engines and mills, throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Most of the proposed technology had been developed on the continent. Burghley’s archive contains a series of promotional materials from optimistic inventors concerning novel pumping engines. So in 1584 a Frenchman, Latreille, who headed a consortium of men who knew ‘le secret de pouvoir eslever les eaus,’ offered to demonstrate a new machine in order to ‘faire evacuer les eaues des mareste et les rendre de tout secs’1.

4The combination of Burghley’s local interests, and his enthusiasm for new drainage technology was a major reason for Bradley’s expedition to East Anglia in 1589. In 1578 a Dutchman, Peter Morris, had, with Burghley’s backing, been granted a patent for a new form of force pump ‘to draw and raise up waters higher than nature of it self’. The patent listed a series of possible uses – waterworks; mine drainage; fen improvement – ‘whereby great benefit may come to [...] the whole common wealth’. Morris concentrated on the water supply utilisation of his invention, setting up a waterworks at London Bridge, and licensed George Carleton and Humphrey Michell to use the develop the drainage potential of the pump (Hulme and Jenkins 1895: 244-245). Both men had acquired lands, by purchase and lease from the crown, in the fens of the Isle of Ely and south Lincolnshire, but they had more in common than this. Both were active Puritans, and both had served in the second rank of central administration; it was this conjunction which brought them to the fenland, charged by the Privy Council to prepare Wisbech Castle as a prison for priests and recusants. Both had been involved in earlier projects, supported by Burghley, for economic improvement (APC, 1581-1582: 68-69; Hasler 1981: i 552-554, iii 47). Carleton became the active participant in fen drainage. He embanked land he rented from the crown, erected his mills, and drained the enclosure. He was cordially detested by the local landowners who claimed that his pumps were throwing out more water than the existing drains could handle; at high tide when the sea-sluice was closed, the drain into which Carleton was pumping backed up and flooded their grounds. The locals, in Carleton’s opinion were hide-bound traditionalists, suspicious of ‘strangers and foreigners’ and distrustful of cutting-edge technology. Carleton, his opponents thought, was a self-satisfied braggart, obsessed with novel unproven techniques – ‘Toys’ and ‘Geegaws’, who lacked any experience of the real issues in fen-management, and who ‘cared not who he drowned so he drained’. The dispute dragged on from 1581 to 1589: a groundswell of squabbles in the agencies of local government and the central courts was punctuated by intermittent violence, culminating in the sabotage of Carleton’s pumping engine. On the night after Christmas 1586 the main beam on which the mill stood was virtually sawn through; next morning, when the sails were set to the wind and the gears engaged, the force shattered the beam and the engine collapsed. Throughout this dispute Burghley patiently sought to negotiate some accommodation between his client, Carleton, and his Lincolnshire neighbours, the self-styled ‘gentlemen of South Holland’. Time and again his efforts foundered on the intransigence of the parties, yet he laboured on. In July and August 1588, at the height of the Armada crisis, Burghley sought to broker yet another compromise; a mention of ‘these times of unquietness’ is the only hint of the frustration he must have felt. The new commission of sewers, afforced by Bradley and the English surveyors, issued in March 1589 was a further attempt to settle a long-running dispute that was adversely affecting the drainage of the entire area (Kennedy 1983; Darby 1956: 17).

5Bradley had anticipated that he had an attentive and potentially sympathetic audience in Burghley, but, while the Lord Treasurer filed his 1589 proposal, nothing further was done. In 1591 and 1592 the engineer was involved in further technical work in the fens. Bradley also took the opportunity to offer gratuitous advice to the government on the conduct of its on-going war with Spain, recommending a series of attacks on the Spanish coasts, rather than the defensive posture favoured by Elizabeth (Bradley 1592). Then, in the spring of 1593, he presented another proposal for a general drainage scheme, which he hoped that Burghley might recommend to the Parliament then in session (Bradley 1593a, b, c). Despite Bradley’s claim that his scheme had the financial backing of ‘certen Gentlemen of worshippe and wealth’ (Bradley: 1593a), nothing was done to implement this proposal either. The proposal was filed in Burghley’s archive; Bradley returned to the Netherlands.

6Bradley went on to a career of great distinction as a drainage engineer in France. In 1596 Henri IV approached the States General to secure the services of skilled ‘dykers’ to be employed in his campaign against the Catholic League. Bradley and two other men were sent, charged to advise and assist the king ‘tot affbreuck des vyants’, and Bradley served in the sieges of Nantes and La Fere. He combined his military duties with involvement in land drainage operations – in Chaumont-en-Vexin in 1598; in the swamps about Bordeaux in 1599. In this year he was formally appointed ‘maître des digues du royaume’ by the king. In 1607 further privileges were granted him, and he established, with a number of other Dutch merchants, bankers and industrialists, ‘L’Association pour le dessèchement’ (De Dienne 1891: 33-36, 80, 120, 151-156, 178, 378,419-428,443-444).

Bradley’s papers of 1589 and 1593

7Bradley’s two manifestos presented to Burghley are the first discussions of the problems of drainage in the extensive fens of eastern England. The earlier piece, the Discorso, is a more general, almost philosophical, analysis. It emphasises the vast benefits that would accrue from the drainage of the fens, but it is the moral obligation to ensure their improvement – ‘Impero in deserto, vago, spopolato mutato in un Terreno fertile’ (Bradley 1589: fo. 87v) – rather than the direct financial advantage that is stressed. The Discorso makes no specific proposals and there is no attempt to calculate the cost of the necessary operations. What Bradley seeks is a state-sponsored initiative that will galvanise the area. ‘Li piu grandi impedimenti de tutti boni officii per seccarle e nelle menti e fantasie delli huomini, e non nel fatto istesso’ (fo. 85v). The fatal conjunction of tradition and pessimism which argues that improvement must be ‘difficillissimo o al turto desperara’ (fo. 87), must be dispelled. Burghley’s leadership will create a fertile paradise, establishing ‘un conquisto regal, una nuova Republica e Intero stato’ (fo. 88). The papers that Bradley produced in 1593 are more a prospectus, designed to impress the Treasurer and the Parliament with both the feasibility and the profitability of the scheme in very direct ways. Bradley points out to Burghley that his furtherance of the scheme will not only ‘eternize his honnorable Renowne unto all posterite’ (Bradley 1593a), but will also improve his own lands and increase his private income by £2-3,000 per annum. Bradley’s estimates in the 1593 document of the expense and time that would be required to drain the land were ridiculously optimistic. The labour of seven or eight hundred men would drain all the southern part of the region that summer at a cost of no more than £5 000; the northern area could be completed in the following year. Perhaps the most interesting part of Bradley’s 1593 sales-pitch is a section that mirrored Cecil’s own habits of thought. He provided an item by item comparison of the poverty of the East Anglian fens, of the profits that could be anticipated from their drainage, and of the affluent society of the Low Countries, created, with far greater difficulty and expense, through land reclamation. The vigorous economic and commercial life, the flourishing population, the high taxable capacity of reclaimed land in Holland and Zeeland are contrasted with a dismal picture of poverty and waste. The product-value of the entire area is worth less, Bradley insists, than the yield of 1 600 hectares of drained land in the Netherlands (Bradley 1593b: fos. 182-183).

8Two elements common to Bradley’s schemes both in 1589 and 1593 deserve particular discussion. First, his concept of the technical side of the drainage; second, his concerns regarding the ecology and land-tenure of the region, and thus of the legal and political problems that attended any drainage scheme. In both instances Bradley raises issues that had to be faced in the seventeenth century when the large-scale drainage schemes, of which he dreamed, were finally undertaken in the area.

[a] Technology2

  • 2 On these aspects, see Darby 1956: 94-121, 229-232.

9Bradley’s basic assumption was that there was a significant fall between the level of the fens and sea level. This was, typically, expressed most optimistically in 1593: the entire fenland is a metre or 1.5 m. above high water mark. In 1589 Bradley had acknowledged that a small part of the fens were below the high water mark, but 2 m above low water. The fens were waterlogged because the drainage channels had been neglected. Minor streams were overgrown with vegetation and clogged with debris. The great outfalls – the rivers Witham, Welland, Nene and Ouse – were silted up, their beds almost a metre higher than most of the surrounding fenland that was to be drained, particularly as they approached their mouths in the shifting sands of the Wash. Therefore the drainage was feasible by gravitation, once the beds of the existing channels had been scoured, and some new artificial channels had been constructed straight to the mouths of the rivers. In 1589 Bradley wrote of the need to construct ‘died millia nuovi fossi par bonificare le terre’ (Bradley 1589: fo. 87); by 1593 he argued that the only major construction required in the southern fenland would be a major canal seven kilometres in length. Once these works were completed then the problem would be to keep sufficient water in the area for agriculture and transport; sluices and locks would have to be built to maintain necessary water levels in the summer months. There would be no need to emulate the Dutch in their reclamation projects, ‘dove anco bisogno haver ricorso a stromenti, Argini, machine, molini e d’inestimabili spese necessarie percioche le terre giacciono sotto la acqua bassa o poco di sopra’. (fo. 86)

(b) Human geography: land utilisation and legal tenure3

  • 3 See Butlin 1990.
  • 4 British Library, Lansdowne manuscripts, vol. 110, piece 9, 1-111; III contains Burghey’s comment o (...)

10Bradley’s account of land utilisation in the fenland was shot through with contradictions. At one level he argued that the region was a ‘wildernisse’ (Bradley 1593b: fo. 180v). It produced few commodities ‘tutte di poca stima’, and supported only a tiny population, estimated in 1589 to consist of 6 000 families; in 1593 this was scaled down even further. Though few, the fenmen, ‘sempre nudi e bisognosi’, were dangerous, a significant threat to the security of the realm (Bradley 1589: fo. 86v). Poverty and idleness created anarchy. In his strategic recommendations of 1592 Bradley underscored this theme; extensive common lands had bred ‘quasi un Infinite’ of the marginalised, ‘gens ocieus et pleins de toute license,’ who, with little to lose, might seek to improve their dismal fortunes by insurrection (Bradley 1592: fo. 106). By contrast, on the drained fen ‘Li communeri se potramo mantenare con lodevol abundanti vivendo da huomini da bene e come membri necessarii nella Republica’ (Bradley 1589: fo. 87v). Yet Bradley’s requests for practical assistance from the state displayed a more nuanced understanding of the social conditions and complex patterns of ownership in the fenland. Bradley was keenly aware that the large-scale operation that he favoured would be difficult to organise given the multiplicity and variety of property rights in the region. In 1593 he sought the Lord Treasurer’s assistance to secure Parliamentary legislation to back his scheme. This was essential, because the ‘diversite off Tenures’ in the Fens made its impossible to negotiate successfully with all interested parties: ‘Some beinge Lords intierly, some in partaige and some but for lyf namely the Spiritualte: some freehollders; some tenants for more and some for fewer yeares and some at will; some coppiehollders, some conveners and suche lyke’ (Bradley 1593b: fo. 180v). Only Parliament, the sovereign legislature, could abrogate existing titles, and establish a compulsory but fair re-division of the lands between the drainers and the numerous interested parties in the localities. This was not wholly an original insight. Burghley, dealing with a project advanced by an Italian engineer, Frederico Gienibelli, for the drainage of the Isle of Oxney in Kent, had noted that ‘the chiefest difficultie’ even in this fairly minor undertaking would be to persuade ‘the owners and occupiers thereof every of them according to his proportion of ground to disburse his parte of the charge’4 But another Italian, the refugee philosopher, Jacopo Aconcio, had already provided an answer to this problem.

11Aconcio, from Trento, humanist, lawyer, mathematician, and propagandist for religious toleration, had come to England in 1559; he was granted a royal pension of £60 per annum in 1560 and letters of naturalisation in the next year. He was also protected from the attentions of the English episcopate, suspicious of his religious liberalism. His utility to Elizabeth was predominantly as a military engineer. In 1564 he was sent north to advise on the defences of the border stronghold of Berwick. He drew on his ‘grande sperientia’, and examples drawn from the practice of the Turks in Hungary and the French in Savoy, to question the scheme favoured by the English engineers. He later complained that such work for the government kept him from the intellectual speculation in which he most delighted (MacIvor 1965: 84-87; O’Malley 1952: 52-55; White 1966-1967).

12Yet Aconcio’s inventive intellect was not constrained within the confines of theology or of military engineering. In 1565 Aconcio was awarded a patent protecting his rights in some new machines of his devising. He had designed a furnace for dyers or brewers that was exceptionally economical in its use of wood and a machine for grinding, crushing and cutting, worked by geared wheels that could be driven either by wind or water-power. The claim that Aconcio was the instigator of the patent system is based on a misdating of his petition. But he did produce a reasoned defence of the granting of patents to inventors, as a reward for their time and expense of preliminary experiments and to encourage others to use their skills for the public benefit, which the government employed to justify his and subsequent grants (O’Malley 1952:

13With the accession of Charles I, in fen drainage as in so many other areas of policy and administration, the foot-dragging and lethargy that had typified his father’s reign ceased. An energetic and imaginative King was prepared to back large-scale land-drainage experiments, ‘so good and so public a work’, along the lines that Bradley had first proposed (Sharpe 1992: 252-256). A series of projects, not only for the Great Level, but in north Holland and in the fens of Hatfield Chase and the isle of Axholme were instituted. The history of these undertakings provides further opportunity to review Bradley’s original scheme, in both its technical, and its socio-legal dimensions.

‘Stromenti, argini, machine, molini’

14Bradley’s basic technical assumption, the sufficiency of a gravitational system, was agreed by all the early seventeenth century engineers involved in the drainage of the Great Level. Vermuyden saw the silting of the mouths of the rivers as the prime problem, and argued for the building of an extensive series of artificial channels, to ensure a powerful flow of land-water into the outfalls at Wisbech and Lynn to keep them scoured. His professional rivals dissented loudly on the details of his scheme. Dodson and Burrell argued that sluices would have to be built to protect the fens from the inflow of the high spring tides, particularly if they were accompanied by a strong northeast wind. But all seventeenth century engineers agreed that since the peat fen stood about two metres higher than the silt and the sea, gravitation should suffice to clear the waters from the area: so Dodson argued that ‘the descent and quick current [...] must do our work’ (Dodson 1665: 15). Some modern experts have denied that the peat fen could possibly have been higher than the silt lands, and suggested that Bradley’s surveying techniques must have been faulty. Bradley’s abortive work on a canal for the city of Dijon certainly shows that he was capable of errors in surveying (Harris 1961: 109-113,115), but this would hardly explain why the seventeenth-century engineers concurred with his figures. However, whether or not the elevation of the peat fen prior to drainage had been higher than the silt, it was clear by the late seventeenth century that the drained peat was contracting rapidly to a point where it was well below the level of the outfalls. The peat shrank and was more susceptible to bacterial action as it dried out, while agricultural technique, particularly burning the surface prior to ploughing, eroded it. A series of disastrous floods, heaviest in 1674 and 1694, displayed the full extent of the problem. In consequence the artificial means, ‘forceable ingins’, that Bradley had thought superfluous became essential in the Great Level. As the watercourses ‘grew’ above the level of the surrounding country, so individual landowners erected mills to drain their increasingly waterlogged grounds. The destruction of these machines, which predictably eroded the embankments and flooded the lands of others, was initially ordered by the Governors of the Bedford Level. However, by the early eighteenth century they were obliged to accept to the inevitable. Pumping engines provided the only means to clear the water, and the artificial system of interior drainage that Bradley had thought unnecessary was established. The Level became a series of embanked areas, drained by small cuts leading to a central channel, from which the water was pumped – often in two stages, with a smaller mill behind a larger one on the bank of the river – into one of the main rivers or canals (Darby 1956: 119-121).

15Yet, while the Dutch engineer’s technical scheme was seriously flawed, his discussion of the problem of drainage in relation to existing patterns of ownership proved prescient. His insistence on the need for parliamentary legislation to legitimise the project was a precursor of the system that was ultimately to be employed to warrant the drainage operations of the mid-and late-seventeenth century.

Social Structure, Tenure and Law

16Later proponents of drainage followed Bradley in simply dismissing the existing fenland economy. The fens were a wasteland, ‘a meer quagmire’, barely supporting an idle, dangerous, almost Neanderthal population. This propaganda was successfully sold to the central government. In 1606 James I described the fens as the nursery of ‘all slowthe and idlenesse’; in 1630 his son affected to believe that the fens were inhabited with ‘men who had rather live a poor and lazy life than a rich and industrious one’ (Thirsk 1957: 29; Holmes 1985: 186; Holmes 1980: 128).

17By the 1650s the fenmen had recognised the need to educate others on the virtues of their system of land utilisation. Their public representations emphasised the value of their local products such as peat, reed, fish and fowl, and, more insistently, the extensive pasturage, supporting vast herds and flocks. This was the ‘rich oare of the Common-wealth’; the ‘Dutch commodities’ favoured by the drainers were, in comparison, ‘but trash and trumpery’ (Thirsk 1957: 29-30). Recent research, particularly that by Professor Thirsk, has tended to uphold this view of the vibrant pre-drainage economy of the fens (Thirsk 1957: 27-30, 119-129; idem 1953). Her work and that of other scholars has also indicated the existence of a far more elaborate social structure in the region than the simplistic monochrome picture produced by the propagandists of drainage.

18Technicalities of tenurial and proprietorial arrangements were complex throughout the region, but two characteristics of the fen communities stand out, and continued to predominate into the nineteenth century (Butlin 1995: 150, 155-156). First, the absence of resident landowners and large estates; in consequence the dominant group in the village consisted of ‘middling-rich yeomen’. Second, the ‘proliferation of cottagers and smallholders’ (Thirsk 1957: 47; Hindle 1998: 74; Ravensdale 1974: 164). These men possessed very small pieces of land, or none, but they could, as at Willingham, live in ‘comparative prosperity’ by the exploitation of the common land in the fen (Spufford 1974: 20-22,130, 133, 135-6, 141, 148, 159). The diffuse manorial structures of the area and the absence of resident gentry also ensured that the fenland villages had a strong sense of community and traditions of self-government (Hindle 1998: 77; Ravensdale 1974: 162; Spufford 1974: 122-3). Disputes with other villages over boundaries or intercommoning in the fen were frequent, and resulted in communal action, led by the village elite. Landlords who sought to extend their rights of pasture in the common, or to enclose disputed demesne land, or to enhance the fines due from copyholders, also faced collective resistance. When Sir Thomas Josselin sought to extend his manorial authority as lord of Littleport into the commons claimed by the men of Upwell and Welney, the villagers held public meetings, raised a common purse to support litigation, consulted legal counsel and hired guards to protect their cattle from the depredations of Josselin’s agents (Lindley 1982: 39; Holmes 1985: 190-191).

19When major drainage operations were commenced, in the reign of Charles I, Bradley’s insistence on the centrality of parliamentary legislation to any successful proposal was forgotten, and the government and the drainers employed an alternative method to legitimate their operations. The crown’s lawyers devised an ingenious procedure whereby the powers, largely customary but reinforced by statute in the reign of Henry VIII, of the commissioners of sewers were employed to compel the participation of recalcitrant landowners and commoners in new operations (Holmes 1984: 107-117). The commissioners’ customary powers extended not only to the levying of rates to ensure the repair the old works – scouring existing rivers and re-building embankments – but to the condemnation and sale of the lands of those who refused to pay such taxes. The key question, and a matter of great legal controversy, was whether the commissioners could order the construction of new works. Charles’s legal advisors insisted that they could. The king issued new commissions of sewers, from which ‘worthy patriots’ were dismissed and replaced by those with a vested interest in the drainage schemes – ‘courtiers, sharers, sharks, and strangers’, as the locals complained. These handpicked commissioners would meet, declare a large area to be in need of drainage, and assess a substantial tax, with a very short period for payment, on local landowners and commoners for this purpose. No effort was made to collect the tax, and, once the deadline was passed, the commissioners would condemn a large proportion of the land for nonpayment, and offer this to an entrepreneur nominated by the king. Such entrepreneurs were sometimes local landowners with court contacts, like the earls of Bedford and Lindsey or Sir John Monson, sometimes complete outsiders, like the Zeelander, Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, in Hatfield Chase and the Isle of Axholme. The drainers then received every assistance from the crown: missives to secure the continued compliance of the commissioners of sewers; protections from their creditors and against the lawsuits attempted by dispossessed landowners; force to browbeat the local peasantry whose traditional economy was threatened. The legal procedure was controversial, and behind the authority of the commissioners of sewers, ostensibly customary and statutory, lay a view of the absolute power of the king. ‘We expect you will comply with our royal pleasure herein,’ Charles wrote to the Lincolnshire commissioners when they proved momentarily recalcitrant, ‘that we be not constrained to interpose our regal power and prerogative’ (Holmes 1980: 121-130, 152-157).

20In consequence of the dubious legal authority by which the drainers acted they faced fierce communal resistance in the fens: a barrage of lawsuits; the terrorisation of their workmen; riots. When the weakness of Charles I’s government emerged in 1640 and 1641, the fenmen rose and launched a series of devastating attacks on the drainage works. In some areas they affirmed their rights of common in a ritual game: ‘throwing out a football, and playing at it drove it against a new house set up in the drained fennes, and because it stood in theyr way pulled it downe [...] and so have they pulled down many’ (Holmes 1985: 171). By 1643 rioters had destroyed all the operations established in the 1630s and the fens had reverted to their pre-drainage state.

21In 1649 in the Bedford Level and after 1660 in the northern areas, new attempts were made to recover the previously drained lands. Some failed, as the drainers were enmeshed in a web of litigation, and the locals attacked their works and their workmen. The undertakings that succeeded were those that employed Parliamentary legislation as their legal authority. These post-1660 statutes included all that Bradley had required in 1593. They gave the power to condemn lands; a strong administrative structure to oversee the drainage operations; a body to adjudicate claims between the drainers and the locals; formidable legal protection against rioters. Perhaps more important than these practical concerns, the ‘full and final confirmation’ of a sovereign legislature, ‘wherein all men’s consents are included’ for ‘the publick good’. In the areas where drainage was warranted by such legislation opposition was not silenced, but it ran in legal channels; skirmishes were fought in the courts at Westminster, not in the commons and fields of the fen villages (Holmes 1985: 172-179). Bradley’s perception that statute alone could guarantee the success of large-scale drainage schemes was thoroughly vindicated in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

22In the history of Fen Drainage in England the intensity of the continental influence in providing innovative, if often misguided, technology is obvious. The roll of Elizabethan and Jacobean engineers reads like a proto-EU: Gherard Houricke of West Friesland and Cornelius Vermuyden of St Martinddijk in Tholen; the Italian, Frederico Gienibelli, the German, Engelbert, the Frenchmen, Latreille and Mostart. In 1596 the Privy Council applauded the skills of an English engineer, Thomas Lovell. But Lovell had served for 23 years in the wars in the Low Countries, where he had acquired ‘great knowledge in fortifications, inundations of floods, water courses, and works of rivers and streams’. His patent recognised that his techniques were imported from Holland, and several of his English successors, like William Dodson, also acknowledged that their initial experience of drainage technology was gained there (Kennedy 1985: 88-9; Harris 1961: 86; Dodson 1665: 23). Less noticed has been the key role of foreign entrepreneurs in devising what was to become the key legal instrument in the subsequent history of fen-drainage. Jacopo Aconcio of Trento initially deployed parliamentary legislation to cut through the complex tenurial web that invariably made negotiation between landowners and drainers difficult. Humphrey Bradley of Bergen-op-Zoon, in his discussions with Lord Burghley, insisted that only such legislation could accomplish the large-scale, holistic projects upon which successful drainage depended.


23APC, Dasent, J. R., (éd.), Acts of the Privy Council of England, new series: vol. 13, 1581-1582; vol. 17, 1588-1589.

24Bradley, H., 1589, “Discorso sopra il stato delle paludi over terre inundate (volgarmente fennes)”, dated 3 December 1589: British Library, Lansdowne Manuscripts, vol. 60, piece 74, fols 85-89. There is an English translation of the work as an appendix to Darby 1956: 263-69.

25Bradley, H., 1592, “Memoires sur la guerre présente entre la serenissime Roine d’Angleterre et le roi Philippe”, dated 29 March 1591: British Library, Cotton Manuscripts, Galba D IX, fols 100-114 verso.

26Bradley, H., 1593a, Letter to Lord Burghley, 29 March 1593, Public Record Office, State Papers, 12/244/97.

27— 1593b, “A proiect for the drayning off the fennes”, Lansdowne Manuscripts, vol. 74, piece 65, fols 180-183.

28— 1593c, “Sommary poincts For advancing off the fenne-causes [...] thys parlement”, Lansdowne Manuscripts, vol. 74, piece 65, fol. 178.

29Butlin, R., 1990, “Drainage and land use in the Fenlands and Fen-edge of northeast Cambridgeshire in the seventeenth and eighteenth century” in Water, Engineering and Landscape: water control and lanscape transformation in the modern period, Cosgrove D. and Petts G. (eds), London, Belhaven: 54-76.

30— 1995, “Social Economic and Environmental Change in the Fen and Fen-edge region of East Cambridgeshire in the Nineteenth Century” in Ecological relations in Historical limes: Human Impact and Adaptation, Butlin R.A. and Roberts N. (eds), Oxford, Blackwell: 146-68.

31Darby, H. C, 1956 [2nd edition], The Drainage of the Fens, Cambridge, CUP.

32Davies, D. S., 1936-1937, “Acontius, Champion of Toleration and the Patent System”, Economic History Review, old series, vii: 63-66.

33De Dienne, L. E. M. H., 1891, Histoire du dessèchement des lacs et marais en France avant 1789, Paris, Champion.

34Dodson, Col. W., 1665, The Designe for the Perfect Draining of the Great Level, Wing STC, D1801.

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1 British Library, Landsdowne manuscripts, vol. 42, piece 31.

2 On these aspects, see Darby 1956: 94-121, 229-232.

3 See Butlin 1990.

4 British Library, Lansdowne manuscripts, vol. 110, piece 9, 1-111; III contains Burghey’s comment on the project.


Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

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