My recent book, The Draining of the Fens, is about the drive to transform a vast wetland in eastern England into arable farmland during the seventeenth century. Today, England’s Fens are among the most fertile farmland in all of northern Europe, but the region’s transformation came at a high cost for its inhabitants, and it still requires a great deal of energy and effort to keep them dry. Although the drainage took place centuries ago, as I wrote the book I was continually struck by the number of ways in which the issues and debates of that time remain deeply relevant today.
One such issue is the unpredictable impact of climate change on human societies. The Fens had been comparatively fertile and prosperous during most of the Middle Ages, but seem to have deteriorated rapidly during the sixteenth century. We now believe this was due primarily to the effects of climate change during the Little Ice Age, but crown officials under Queen Elizabeth I did not recognize the wider climatic changes they were experiencing. They came to believe instead that Fens was somehow a broken landscape and that its inhabitants had failed to manage it properly, and this became the principal justification for the crown to intervene in the fenlanders’ long-standing drainage methods.
Another important issue is the tension between private interest and the public good. Powerful monarchs and statesmen such as King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and the Earl of Bedford all claimed that in draining the Fens they were undertaking a project of enormous difficulty and expense for the benefit of the entire English commonwealth. But since each of these powerful men personally owned vast estates in the Fens, they stood to gain a great deal from draining and enclosing the common grazing areas on their lands, which generated no rental revenue in their flooded state. The distinction between public and private good in draining the Fens was thus very hard to discern, and anti-drainage advocates often pointed out the obvious conflict of interest, to no avail.
Income inequality and social justice were a related flashpoint, just as they are today. To pay for the massive projects, in a region that was notoriously cash poor, landowners contracted with drainage engineers by offering them a sizable share of the newly drained lands in recompense. These lands were to be appropriated and enclosed from out of the extensive commons, upon which the numerous small-hold farmers and cottagers of the Fens utterly relied for grazing their small herds of cattle and sheep. After the drainage, the Fens were more valuable as farmland, but the gains mostly accrued to the area’s large landowners and their tenants. Small-hold farmers could no longer eke out a living on their shrunken commons and were either pushed off the land or forced to become wage laborers working for their wealthier neighbors. The shifting of land and wealth from the humble many to the powerful few caused lasting resentment and sparked a number of serious riots.
Finally, the draining of the Fens illustrates an ongoing debate about the value of wetlands as a natural resource. Fenland inhabitants understood their watery world and knew how to prosper from a diverse alternative agriculture that took full advantage of the region’s tendency to flood annually. They grazed livestock on the abundant grasses and harvested the natural produce of the wettest areas, including fish, waterfowl, reeds, and peat for fuel, none of which could have existed without the regular floods. Outsiders, however, saw the Fens only as a reprehensible waste of resources, a broken and unhealthy landscape that gave rise to little but disease, poverty, and idleness. Only by eradicating the floods could the Fens at last be recovered, properly managed, and made prosperous.
The draining of the seventeenth-century Fens is thus a timely story, one with important lessons and resonances for our contemporary world as we still struggle to understand and manage our natural environment, seeking the proper balance between conserving and exploiting it.
Eric H. Ash is an associate professor of history at Wayne State University. He is the author of Power, Knowledge, and Expertise in Elizabethan England. His latest book, The Draining of the Fens: Projectors, Popular Politics, and State Building in Early Modern England, is available now.