Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 September 2013
This chapter turns attention to Tawney's villains of the piece: the improving landlords and their role in the transition to a fully commercial and capitalist agriculture. The period covers the first half of the seventeenth century, the end of Tawney's long sixteenth century which ran from 1485 to 1642, and focuses on the activities of three Norfolk gentry families engaged in raising rental incomes and modernising their estates. These families, the Windhams of Felbrigg, Hobarts of Blickling and Le Stranges of Hunstanton, commended in the eighteenth century for the excellence of their estate management, faced a range of difficult issues in the early seventeenth century and responded in distinctive ways. The Windhams, having acquired a notorious reputation for litigation with their tenants in the late sixteenth century, simplified their methods and concentrated on demesne farming, while the newly enriched Hobarts, in their purchase of a great estate, avoided complicated holdings and the potential for disputes as far as possible. The Le Stranges, embedded on their ancient estate in north-west Norfolk, faced the most complex task, needing to implement far-reaching reforms within existing constraints. The Hobarts and Le Stranges, the newcomers and the financially embarrassed, have been identified as the most likely to behave badly, but in reality how did they fare? Do they deserve Tawney's description of a ‘blind, selfish, indomitable, aristocracy of county families which made the British Empire and ruined a considerable proportion of the English nation’?