Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Friday, 31 August 2012
Winstanley and the Witch-Burners
As of tomorrow, the First of September, 2012, 'squatting' (the act of temporarily occupying an empty property or area without the owner's permission) will be added to the list of activities which have - in recent times - turned previously law-abiding British citizens into criminals.
I never actually 'squatted' a house in my youth, but I knew plenty of people who did, and I have to say that - in many cases - I felt quite a lot of sympathy with the owners of the properties, especially if they were genuinely trying to sell as non-professionals who did not speculate on housing as a way of making money. I had no sympathy with local authorities who deliberately kept our properties empty for financial reasons at a time when housing was short, and families were becoming homeless after events like the London Blitz, however.
The law regarding the eviction of unauthorised occupants was extremely complex and slow-moving, relying heavily on the law of 'trespass'. When the lawyers looked into it, they discovered that the 'trespass' law was virtually toothless ever since it became illegal to shoot poachers on sight, and the quickest you could expect to have squatters legally removed from your property was about three months, having established that a trespass had taken place through expensive and protracted hearings in the Civil Courts. Margaret Thatcher (yes, her again) soon gave the trespass law some teeth and, effectively, tomorrow sees it all go back to Criminal rather than Civil proceedings, the only difference being that you still won't be able to shoot a poacher - yet.
In 1649, Gerard Winstanley occupied a patch of common land at St George's Hill, near Weybridge, Surrey, with a band of companions called 'Diggers', because they dug for vegetables, etc. as well as building a small homestead of simple huts and hovels.
'Common Land' is supposed to be what it says it is - land for the commoners - but during the brief period of Oliver Cromwell's 'Commonwealth' government, it became land belonging to the 'State', with grazing rights only given out to a small number of locals who already had somewhere to live and farm, and who were expected to support any members of their community who were not so fortunate as they, even though most of them lived a hand-to-mouth existence themselves, suffering greater hardship in times of famine and winter.
Winstanley and his band were taken to the High Court where the charges against them were read out in Latin - the legal language of the time - and their defence also had to be submitted in Latin, so it was not surprising that they lost case after case, being virtually illiterate even in English and too poor to afford legal representation. After a gruelling winter, they were all violently evicted and disbanded by Cromwell's Roundheads, who made sure they could never return by torching the whole area.
Today, St Georges Hill is one of the most expensive areas to live in Surrey, and the Beatles can thank the Diggers for making it possible to have their mansions built there, over 300 years later. I wonder what happened to that bit of common land.
Witchcraft was also made illegal in the seventeenth century, and thousands of elderly women were burnt at the stake for the heinous crime of keeping a black cat for company whilst being a burden on their neighbours, or simply just an eyesore for the younger inhabitants of a village.
Ironically, eBay has only just caught up with the 17th century zeitgeist and - also as of tomorrow - it will become illegal to sell 'spells, hexes and magical items' on it's website. Where am I going to buy them now?