In 1602 the royal deer parks at Brigstock were granted by the Crown to Sir Robert Cecil with permission to enclose them. This effectively removed the rights of the villagers of Brigstock and Stanion within the parks. The pasturing of cattle and gathering of fuel were a crucial part of the village economy and the deer a valuable, if illegal, supplement to the diet. The community strongly resented the loss of these rights and were further incensed when Cecil promptly set about cutting down and selling the timber and underwood from Great Park. He also intended removing all the deer from Great to Little Park and leasing it to Sir Thomas Tresham. There were protests, some of which escalated into riots. Cecil’s officers were attacked, deer were killed and carried home and at one point a ‘troop of lewd women of Brigstock’ were brought in to pressure the workmen in the parks!
The enclosed fields which replaced Brigstock parks can be seen here in a reconstruction of the landscape as it was in the 18th century
But these riots were not solely the result of the villagers protecting vital economic interests. Much agitation was caused by various parties who had a personal, political or religious axe to grind. Personal enmity between Cecil and Simon Montague, who challenged Cecil’s right to the Parks and encouraged villagers to protest, was responsible for much of the disturbance. It was not just that Tresham was a staunch Catholic amidst an equally extreme Puritan populace, he also had a reputation for ‘hard and extreme usage of his tenants’, making him extremely unpopular locally with both gentry and commoner. Though legally there was never any real question as to Cecil’s right to the Parks, by the middle of 1603 the ‘bad people of Brigstock’ had by a combination of threat and persuasion been appeased, enabling Cecil’s agricultural improvement to proceed.
The Brand was originally an area of waste within the forest in which the villagers of Geddington, Stanion, Brigstock and Little Oakley had various common rights. It was at the centre of disputes between the local villagers for many years. This came to head between 1607-1610 when Sir Thomas Tresham illegally enclosed part of the Brand. He claimed it was part of Newton and stopped the commoners having access to it. Feelings ran high and in 1607 riots broke out in Newton, resulting in 40-50 deaths. Both Geddington and Newton villagers claimed the same rights and customs in the Brand and both claimed the area as being within their bounds. Tresham asserted that the Brand was within the procession (perambulation) of Newton and accused William Montague of creating a ‘pretended’ perambulation encompassing the Brand within Geddington.
In 1610 a commission was set up to settle the dispute. The absence of maps meant depositions from local people who claimed the rights to the Brand through ancient custom and usage were heard as evidence. Geddington’s claim was enhanced by the memory of one villager who asserted that around 1570 when a man from Stanion had been killed within the Brand and taken back to Stanion and buried there, he was ‘fetched out of the ground’ by Geddington men and re-buried in Geddington. According to the same witness this was not unique as a similar incident had happened with a man from Newton who had been killed in the Brand and was subsequently ‘fetched’ and buried in Geddington. This implies that it was customary to bury people in the township where they died rather than where they lived and therefore the Brand belonged to Geddington.
Such legal cases tend to produce detailed documentation and in the case of the Brand it led to the surveying of two maps, both of which still survive to give us an exceptional view of a small part of the forest in the early 17th century. Local knowledge and tradition was usual sufficient to establish boundaries and only where disputes could not be settled amicably was it necessary to resort to such lengths.