This precious stone:

In Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1, Shakespeare has John of Gaunt say:

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
. . .
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds....

John of Gaunt continues:

Why, cousin, wert thou regent of the world,
It were a shame to let this land by lease;
But for thy world enjoying but this land,
Is it not more than shame to shame it so?
Landlord of England art thou now, not king....

Does anyone know what program of leasing John of Gaunt is referring to?

Stephen Aslett (mail):
Most likely enclosure.
12.12.2006 5:15pm
Eric James Stone (mail) (www):
According to this page, in the anonymous Elizabethan play "Thomas of Woodstock" (which some believe was written by Shakespeare), Richard II "...divides the kingdom into four parts, giving one part to each favourite, and requiring them to give him 'rent' which they can get by taxing the people."
12.12.2006 5:23pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Stephen Aslett: Care to spell that out? The connection between enclosure and royal leasing isn't obvious, and according to the Wikipedia page, enclosure had barely gotten going in Richard II's time (he was deposed in 1399) anyway.
12.12.2006 5:37pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Eric James Stone: I had seen this claim that it refers to tax farming, and the quotes from Woodstock give that some plausibility. Still, it seems like a bit of a stretch to me.
12.12.2006 5:39pm
Drive By Comments:
"enclosure had barely gotten going in Richard II's time (he was deposed in 1399) anyway."

Cannons didn't exist in Hamlet's time, either, and that didn't stop references to them in the play.
12.12.2006 5:46pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Drive By Comments: Indeed, but (1) Shakespeare did rely on historical sources for his history plays, (2) these speeches of John of Gaunt's are plausible (nay, obvious?) candidates for cases where Shakespeare particularly relied on historical sources, and (3) in any event, I'm asking the question as though Shakespeare was relying on historical sources.
12.12.2006 6:01pm
Pyrthroes (mail):
Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, not an illiterate Stratford wool merchant. The plays are autobiographical in the extreme... in "Shakespeare by Another Name" (2005), Mark Anderson notes that the "history plays" were written in the early 1590s on commission of 1000-pounds per year from Queen Elizabeth (about $250,000 today). Post-Armada (1588) and without an heir, Elizabeth needed to buttress her Tudor provenance preparatory to Succession.

For all his literary merits, de Vere was a selfish wastrel who had sold off every one of his ancestral estates to feed extravagant living and ridiculously speculative ventures. He proposed to Burghley, his father-in-law and Elizabeth's de facto Chief Executive, that he lease confiscated lands, sell them to himself at premiums, and buy them back for peanuts. (Probably Burghley himself suggested this, to compensate de Vere for the 15,000-pound dowry the Earl had never yet received.) So "Shake-speare" (from de Vere's family emblem of Athena, the spear-shaker [typical Elizabethan pun, har-har]) refers to Burghley as de facto King of England, analogous to John of Gaunt (aka "kingmaker"-- Burghley would be largely responsible for selecting Elizabeth's successor [James I, another convoluted story), in terms of "leasing the realm" he has of Queen Elizabeth.

Actually, Elizabeth as usual was very canny about such deals. Keeping de Vere productive (she knew genius when she saw it) at zero price to her was good fiscal policy and shrewd politics. Leased sale/buy-backs commonly served as incentive to maintain Court loyalties, made readily available by treason-trial confiscations of Norfolk and some others.

John of Gaunt "leased England", did he? Donald Trump ought to read up on de Vere.
12.12.2006 6:18pm
Stephen Aslett (mail):
Whew, you're going to make me remember back to my medieval economics class, aren't you? (The Wikipedia article doesn't do a great job of explaining it, and I should have linked to something better.)

What follows, of course, is based on my own memory. I could be wrong. It's not easy to find good medieval history information on the web, and having just finished exams and in a celebratory mood, I'm not eager to go searching for it to confirm my recollection.

My understanding is that enclosure began in earnest after England was hit by the Black Death in the late 1340s. Until the plague, large manorial estates were worked by serfs who each had in interest in some of the crops that were grown on the land. Lords made a profit by selling off the excess crops the peasants worked. When the plague hit, lots of peasants died and it was no longer possible to work such large tracts of land.

The lords found it became more economical to divide up the manorial estate into plots and lease them to the serfs. Now tenants on their own land, the serfs were encouraged to work smaller plots of land more productively. (Of course, "productively" is relative--you can imagine how hefty rents, often paid as a portion of crops worked--might be.) This is the sense of enclosure I remember.

Richard II was the king of England a mere thirty years after the Black Death, when this process would have been in full swing. Gaunt is perhaps referring to the fact that most lords were now leasing out their lands to their people and exacting rent in return. Again, my memory is hazy, but I remember reading back in college that historians think the landlord-tenant system that emerged was, in many cases, a worse deal for serfs than the old manorial system (I believe because serfs could now be evicted whereas before they were tied to the land).

I think there's another sense of enclosure that the Wikipedia article refers to that took place much later in the 16th century and was what Thomas More was complaining about. During that time, lords found that sheep herding was more profitable than leasing their land to peasants, so they just flat out evicted them and "enclosed" the land with fences (they owned the land in fee anyway). This caused peasants to pour into the cities looking for work and creates some social unrest.

Georges Duby has a great book on all of this called Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West (published in French in the 1960s, but translated into English and republished in 1998). I still own the book, but it's inaccessible right now (I'd need to go digging for it in storage). There's an entire section where Duby talks about the decline of the manorial system due to the plague in the 14th Century in which (if I remember correctly), he discusses in detail the process I've outlined above.
12.12.2006 6:24pm
3L 5000:
Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth;

Holinshed's Chronicles of England were used as a source for Richard II, and it is a fascinating read.
12.12.2006 6:34pm
BobH (mail):
Fair Pyrthroes seeks to spin a twisted tale
Of Burghley and his son-in-law, de Vere,
Elizabeth the First, whose russet hair
And queenly mien could turn equerries pale,
And sundry others from the Scepter'd Isle --
But it's all shite, and zounds! a hefty pile.
12.12.2006 7:11pm
Chris W. (mail):
This is just off the top of my head, but I'm reasonably certain that tax-farming was one of the things Richard II was particularly criticized for. I've never heard of the sense of enclosure that Stephen Aslett mentions, but it seems an odd criticism for John of Gaunt to make, since it's the sort of thing every individual landowner would be able to do at his own discretion, and hence out of place in Gaunt's criticism of Richard's job as king. Tax farming (selling the right to collect future taxes for a large sum of cash up front) seems a more likely reading. Tax farming was very common and very unpopular because those who bought the rights were often brutal and unscrupulous. It also tended to worsen the financial state of the monarchy. This is particularly apt since the first thing Richard does on hearing of John's death in the play is to confiscate his holdings and use the proceeds to finance his war in Ireland, showing his desire for easy cash to finance his whims.
12.12.2006 7:19pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Stephen Aslett: I've got Duby on my shelf (picked it up in French at a used bookstore in Paris in summer '02), and manorial leasing in the 13th and 14th centuries is the subject of one of my major papers (draft available here).

Nonetheless, it doesn't sound plausible to me that this phenomenon is what Gaunt is talking about. Manorial leasing happens with or without enclosure, and enclosure happens with or without leasing -- all enclosure does is increase the quantity of no-longer-common land.

I'm looking for a particular policy of Richard II's -- the king on his own lands, not just any old landholder. (For example, Henry III did the opposite -- revert to direct management -- on some of his lands for a brief period, 1236-40.) So far, the tax farming hypothesis is best specific hypothesis I've heard, but I'm hoping to do better.
12.12.2006 7:37pm
Mark Seecof:
In 1397, at the outset of Richard II's "second tyranny"...
Richard ... rewarded his supporters. Cheshire became a Duchy. Henry of Bolingbroke, up to now the Earl of Derby, became Duke of Hereford. Edward, Earl of Rutland, was promoted to be Duke of Aumerle, Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, became Duke of Surrey. John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon, became Duke of Exeter. Thomas Mowbray, Earl of Nottingham, became Duke of Norfolk. John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset, became Marquis of Dorset. Thomas Despenser became Earl of Gloucester. Sir William Lescrope became Earl of Wiltshire. Sir Thomas Percy became Earl of Worcester. Ralph, Lord Neville became Earl of Westmorland. This was yet a further declaration to the ancient nobility that King Richard II did not care for the previous conventions. Dukes had only been appointed in England during the reign of King Edward III, and it was understood that they should always be of Royal blood. The King was now strong enough to defy any feelings of disapproval.

Among other things, these new tenants-in-chief paid Richard (renowned for his courtly extravagance) handsomely for their new fiefs. They also assisted Richard to raise money by mulcting nearly every freeman and corporation in the kingdom of fines for their supposed infidelities to Richard before 1397. A little while later, in September 1398, Richard exiled the new Hereford, Henry of Bolingbroke—John of Gaunt's son, and the future King Henry IV. John of Gaunt died less than half a year later, in February 1399.

It may be that Shakespeare's John of Gaunt merely complains of Richard's habit of raising funds by letting the Kingdom to his upstart favorites. Certainly the historical John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, had disapproved of Richard II's additions to the peerage.
12.12.2006 7:39pm
byomtov (mail):
I don't know what he's referring to either, though Chris W. makes an important point about the fact that Richard seized Gaunt's property. "The linings of his coffers shall make coats to deck our soldiers for these Irish Wars," he says, upon hearing of Gaunt's illness. Maybe that has something to do with it.

Of course this ends up a disaster, as it provides Bolingbroke a pretext for returning from exile, and an argument with which to win over allies.

Anyway, it's a great play.
12.12.2006 7:43pm
JoshL (mail):

Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, not an illiterate Stratford wool merchant.

And yet there are all sorts of problems with the Oxfordian theory, including de Vere's death in 1604 (before the general assessment of Shakespeare's final plays), or that we know for certain of lists that include both of them as playwrights/poets. That's not to say that de Vere couldn't have written the plays, but I don't think there's enough evidence to say that he definitely did, either.
12.12.2006 8:15pm
liberty (mail) (www):
And yet there are all sorts of problems with the Oxfordian theory

Isn't it "Oxonian"? Sorry... all I can offer to this discussion :-)
12.12.2006 9:32pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Richard II was also cutting all kinds of deals with the Angevins during the time referenced in the play. Perhaps the "leasing" out refers to money he got from his in-laws by selling out English interests to the French monarchy. Shakespeare's plays are full of patriotic propaganda like this. Shakespeare's clear distaste for the peasant revolts in Richard's time. ("First we'll kill all the lawyers." was meant to shock audiences, not please them.) So I very much doubt that Gaunt's quote is a reference to the enclosure laws.
12.12.2006 9:57pm
A.D. (mail):
Might it be in reference to Richard's role as the technical owner of all the lands in England, which are supposed to be held by his vassals at his pleasure. The same vassals who rebelled against him and deposed him. That by "lease" Gaunt could be refferring to the erosion of royal authority under Richard, as opposed to the authority exercised by his more powerful grandfather Edward III and his father the Black Prince? Just an idea, but that is how interpret it?

12.12.2006 10:08pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
A.D.: If so, he would be the landlord of England just like every other king of England -- not an effective criticism. As for the idea that royal authority had eroded, I believe Gaunt is making a specific point that royal authority had eroded because of some program that he's referring to, not that the leasing language represents some broader, more diffuse erosion of authority.
12.12.2006 10:25pm
byomtov (mail):

The vassals who deposed Richard were, at least according to the play, motivated initially by his violation of his obligations to one of their number. In seizing Gaunt's English property at his death Richard took what rightfully belonged to Bolingbroke. That Bolingbroke, Gaunt's son, had been banished for six years did not affect his right to inherit. This was a great blunder by Richard.

I don't understand your point about the royal authority exercised by the Black Prince, since he never ascended to the throne. Indeed, it was the his death, which preceded that of Edward III, that led to Richard's becoming king at an early age, surrounded by jealous and wealthy uncles. In this situation, it is hardly surprising that Richard favored his own friends as Mark Seecof describes.
12.12.2006 10:25pm
AD (mail):
Valid criticims, I did a poor job of explaining myself. first of all I am aware that Edward Black Prince of Wales never ascended the throne, but he did excercise considerable authority on his father's behalf and is undeniably one of the great alpha males of the Middle Ages, who did much to enhance the royal authority excercised by the English Crown.
My point was that I do not think that Gaunt is reffering to any "program" of leasing, as is suggested by some of the comments regarding enclosure or tax farming. I think he means that even though Richard technically owns all the land in England that position comes with reciprocal obligations, so a king is supposed to be much more than a "landlord of England." However, Richard has decided to act as a mere landlord and is treating the land like a tenemant or pelting (trash) farm by throwing Gaunt's bloodline off of it by dubious legal means (the ink blots and rotten parhcment). I also realize that this contradicts my earlier thoughts on royal authority, so I accept being wrong. However, I think the passage is more about the alleged misuse of royal authority and the neglect of reciprocal duties between vassal and liege lord. Edward III enhanced royal authority through via a tight, reciprocal relationship witht the nobility. Although Richard has inherited that authority, he has obviously forgotten where it came from and is abusing it in order to behave more like a land lord than a liege lord. Anyway, could be wrong, but I think it makes sense.
12.13.2006 10:40am
john smith (mail):
>Does anyone know what program of leasing John of Gaunt is referring to?

I think the better question is, "Who is John Gaunt?"
12.13.2006 12:10pm
I think AD's last comment is essentially correct: John of Gaunt accuses his nephew of abusing royal authority by appropriating John's lands as though John is a lessee who possesses no rights of survivorship in his property. However, I suspect that the verb "leased out" is intended to have a double meaning the first time that the duke of Lancaster uses it: first, it refers to the duke's own apparent lack of property rights in the fact of royal seizure (nationalization?), and perhaps implies that everyone's property is equally vulnerable to such seizure -- this seizure of John's estate of course foreshadows the angry return to England of John's son Henry, who seizes the throne of England. I think the second meaning derives from a much-older definition of "lease" that equates it with "gleaning" - that is to say, the duke suggests that England is fully gleaned, tapped out, or wasted, just like a tenement or pelting (contempitible or worthless) farm. It is of course possible that an audience of middling sorts of people

I very much doubt that Shakespeare here refers to enclosures or engrossments, as neither depends on the existence of a leasehold tenure -- medieval enclosures typically arose from a landlord's seizure of the manor's common lands with statutory authority (unlike the 18th century variety).
12.13.2006 4:54pm
byomtov (mail):

You might be right. The last line quoted by Sasha,

"Landlord of England art thou now, not king"

supports your suggestion, I think.
12.13.2006 9:38pm
Grant (mail):
Googling "Landlord of England art thou now, not king", I find (one link below this VC discussion) an essay titled "Landholding, leasing, and inheritance in Richard II", , which suggests that tax farming is part of Gaunt's concern:

One question here is just what Gaunt is comparing to the leasing of land. Though Shakespeare does not specify the object of comparison, for Gaunt the leasing of property seems to resemble Richard's means of raising cash by farming out the privilege of tax collection to his supporters. Details of such a transaction are given in the anonymous play Woodstock, in which Richard signs a document of tax farming that provides that "These gentlemen here ... all jointly here stand bound to pay your majesty, or your deputy, wherever you remain, seven thousand pounds a month for this your kingdom; for which your grace, by these writings, surrenders to their hands: all your crown lands, lordships: manors, rents: taxes, subsidies ... and all other duties that do, shall, or may appertain to the king or crown's revenues." (3) Although Richard is still nominal owner of the realm, he has leased out the use of it to the tax farmers, who function as tenants (perhaps with the people as subtenants).
12.13.2006 11:13pm
William Smit (mail):

Since I haven't seen it in the comments, I'll add that it seems clear to me that the following quote from Act I Scene 4 (King Richard speaking) is the relevant passage:

We will ourself in person to this war:
And, for our coffers, with too great a court
And liberal largess, are grown somewhat light,
We are inforced to farm our royal realm;
The revenue whereof shall furnish us
For our affairs in hand: if that come short,
Our substitutes at home shall have blank charters;
Whereto, when they shall know what men are rich,
They shall subscribe them for large sums of gold
And send them after to supply our wants;
For we will make for Ireland presently.

I can't find any passages in the play that hint at the Enclosure movement.
12.14.2006 12:58am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
William Smit: Indeed, that's why I think the reference is to a particular leasing program. But it's got to be some greater degree of leasing than usual -- since the Crown has always extensively farmed its demesnes.

Grant: I had read that paper, and it was precisely the connection that that paper drew between leasing and tax farming (based on evidence in the play Woodstock) that I wanted to question in this post.
12.15.2006 12:20am