Enclosures acts and the arrival of the Spencer family

 The enclosures, which were a series of government-enforced acts of possession, took place over a period of several centuries. The earlier ones in particular affected a number of villages, hamlets or "townes"- as they were sometimes called - especially in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire and it was as a result of an enclosure that the old Wormleighton Towne became a deserted village. Under the open fields system, many people had the historic right to graze animals and peasants didn't need to own the land to have to use of it. This system was the prevalent basis of agricultural in the Middle Ages and fields were divided into furlongs and strips and allocated to each villager. Whilst this suited the low subsistence farming aspirations of peasants, it was obviously a barrier to any major agricultural economic expansion based upon economies of scale and a drawback to the creation of enterprise-based agricultural wealth. The enclosures acts gave the opportunity for larger scale farming and the accumulation of wealth by successful owners of agricultural land - particularly for sheep-grazing. With Coventry being one of England's major centres for the wool trade, sheep-farming became an important industry for Warwickshire, although the Spencers later also sold their produce in London, Norwich and other centres. Hamlets and parishes to the North of Wormleighton, which included of those of Ladbroke, Capel Ascote, Hodnell, Wills Pastures, Upper- and Lower Radbourne, Priors Hardwick and Watergall to the West and Stoneton to the East made up sizeable areas of agricultural land, which were subjected to enclosures and became "deserted" villages. The families that profited from these included The Catesby Family, the Spencers from Hodnell, The Wilkes Family and the Drydens, who later settled at Canons Ashby. William Cope, upon his acquisition of the Manor of Wormleighton in 1498 had enclosed 240 acres of the open fields and in so doing depopulated 12 messuages and three cottages while Sir Edward Raleigh, (who lived in Farnborough and whose son married into the Cope family and who was seemingly acting on behalf of the Spencer family) is recorded as having wasted six further "messuages". Twelve ploughs were thus displaced and sixty villagers lost their livelihoods. These destroyed households were almost certainly in the enclosure, which is known as the "Old Town" lying to the West of the present Wormleighton village. (A messuage is a dwelling house with outbuildings and orchard/garden and thus was a sort of medieval farmhouse). Wormleighton's moated medieval manor house was also at that time next to the original old village but was described by John Spencer as being "but a sorry thatched house". In the year 1506, the aforesaid William Cope sold his manors of Wormleighton and Fenny Compton to his cousin- in-law John Spencer Esquire, the great-grandson of Henry Spencer of Badby (the first of his family to settle in the County of Northampton) and the grandson of John Spencer of Hodnell - a small hamlet just to the north of Wormleighton. The Spencers had actually obtained a feudal tenancy of Wormleighton from the Copes in 1469 before they eventually purchased the freehold 37 years later for the sum of £2000 (an enormous sum in those days) and built their new manor house on its present site on the hill to the south of the parish church. At the same time they also acquired further estates in Fenny Compton. Seizing the chance afforded by enclosures of nearby land to go in for larger scale farming, ambitious families like the Spencers from Hodnell and Badby and their neighbours the Knightleys at Fawsley with whom the Spencers intermarried, grew rich and eventually attained noble status firstly with a knighthood and later the higher-ranking title of a baronetcy and then later still an Earldom. Historically before the 16th century these higher rankings of nobility had been almost entirely the preserve of the Normans and the Plantagenets, who were all of French origin. In latter years, the Spencers were summoned on September 22nd, 1517 by 2 Commissioners acting under Cardinal Wolsey to attend a court of enquiry with a jury composed of sixteen Warwickshire gentry at Allesley near Coventry to investigate complaints of depopulation under the Acts of 1489 and 1515 "against the pulling down of towns". This case dragged on and John Spencer had to appear before the court of Chancery in1519 and the case was resurrected again in 1549. The Spencers denied that they had merely stolen land under guise of the enclosures act and that they had dispossessed poor villagers. They also made attempts to cover up their yeoman origins by trying to claim that they were of Norman descent by for example the quite spurious claim that their original name was De Spencer or Despenser which was the title of an important courtier in the Middle Ages. Actually the Despensers were a rather brutal and bloodthirsty family, who were involved with the de Montforts. Most of the Despensers took the Christian name of Hugh and were "self-seeking, greedy and corrupt bullies", which makes it somewhat surprising that the basically yeoman stock Spencers should seek to be associated with them. The Spencers argued with some justification that in creating their manor and farming industry, they had given employment to some 60 people – i.e. as many as there had been in Wormleighton village anyway. They employed 60 people to build their new Wormleighton Manor House in 1515 The Spencer family had initially rented enclosed land from some of the larger landowners in the late 15th Century and made enough money from their stock raising on depopulated lands to later purchase the land. For example in 1485 John Spencer, – the uncle of the above-mentioned John Spencer, who later purchased Wormleighton - who lived at Hodnell took a 100 years lease on all of William Catesby's lands in Hodnell and Chapel Ascote with additional land in Radbourne. This was mostly abandoned arable farm land that had been put down to pasture. When he died in 1497, John Spencer had land leases in Napton, Lower Shuckburgh, Burton Dasset, Ascote and Wormleighton. The younger John Spencer, who was farming at Snitterfield on the edge of the Avon valley West of Warwick moved to Hodnell on the death of his uncle and it was he who really set in motion the great advances in wealth and social standing of the Spencer family. The aforesaid John Spencer subsequently received a knighthood from King Henry VIII in 1518 and when he died in 1522 and was buried in the mortuary chapel which he had erected in the Parish Church of Brington the church closest to his estate at Althorp (another depopulated village). It was noted that he had "amassed great wealth and acquired extensive estates by his industry of wool-raising; yet overall his character has been handed down to posterity as a noble and generous one free from avarice and strictly honest and just". The manor of Wormleighton has remained with his descendants in direct line ever since then