He held this land on the second of March 1489 when those messuages were laid waste and thrown down, and lands formerly used for arable he turned over to pasture for animals, so three ploughs are now out of use there, and eighteen people who used to work on that land and earn their living there and who dwelled in the houses have gone away to take to the roads in their misery, and to seek their bread elsewhere and so are led into idleness. From Cardinal Wolsey's Commission of Inquiry -- 1517
Building New Forest in Hampshire depopulated a number of villages; establishing the Marcher Castles on the Welsh border also destroyed a few villages. In the 12th and 13th c. as the population rose and more land was brought under the plough; many new villages were established but could not survive and were somewhat later abandoned.
In the 14th c. raids by Scottish bands destroyed a number of villages in the North; indeed, Thixendale -- a neighboring village to Wharram Percy -- was burned by Scottish raiders but Wharram was left untouched. Also, in the 14th c. it was long thought that if any villages had been depopulated it was the Black Death that did so. As a matter of fact, very few villages were destroyed by that plague.
So, what was it that depopulated the villages?
In a word --sheep!
By the 15th c. economic conditions had changed to the point where landlords could make more money by turning previously ploughed land into pasture for sheep. Those living on the land were driven from it. It was doubted in the early part of this century that there were any "deserted" villages. Research -- begun at Wharram Percy -- has shown, however, that well over 3000 villages were depopulated!
There are some powerful contemporary statements about what was happening to English peasants driven from their homes to wander the roads looking for shelter and work. One of the most powerful of these statements comes in Book I of Sir Thomas More's Utopia:
"Your sheep which are usually so tame and so cheaply fed, begin now, according to report, to be so greedy and wild that they devour human beings themselves and devastate and depopulate fields, houses, and towns. In all those parts of the realm where the finest and therefore costliest wool is produced, there are noblemen, gentlemen, and even some abbots, though otherwise holy men, who are not satisfied with the annual revenues and profits which their predecessors used to derive from their estates. They are not content, by leading and idle and sumptuous life, to do no good to their country; they must also do it positive harm. They leave no ground to be tilled; they enclose every bit of land for pasture; they pull down houses and destroy towns, leaving only a church to pen the sheep in. And, as if enough English land were not wasted on ranges and preserves of game, those good fellows turn all human habitations and all cultivated land into a wilderness. Consequently, in order that one insatiable glutton and accursed plague of his native land may join field to field and surround many thousand acres with one fence, tenants are evicted. Some of them, either circumvented by fraud or overwhelmed by violence, are stripped even of their own property, or else wearied by unjust acts, are driven to sell. By hook or by crook the poor wretches are compelled to leave their homes -- men and women, husbands and wives, orphans and widows, parents with little children and a household not rich but numerous, since farm work requires many hands. Away they must go, I say, from the only homes familiar and known to them, and they find no shelter to go to. All their household goods which would not fetch a great price if could wait for a purchaser, since they must be thrust out, they sell for a trifle. After they have soon spent that trifle in wandering from place to place what remains for them but to steal and be hanged -- justly, you may say! -- or to wander and beg. And yet even in the latter case they are cast into prison as vagrants for going about idle when, though they most eagerly offer their labor, there is no one to hire them. For there is no farm work, to which they have been trained, to be had, when there is no land for plowing left. A single shepherd or herdsman is sufficient for grazing livestock on that land for whose cultivation many hands were once required to make it raise crops.Notice More's concern with the following:
Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones: I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale. A' plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all in a mouthful; such whales have I heard on i' the land, who never leave gaping till they've swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells and all. Pericles, Act II, 1, 31-38An Act of 1489 made it an offense to convert open fields to pasture if it involved the removal of smallholdings over 20 acres. The preamble shows the concern of the government:
Great inconveniencies daily doth increase by desolation and pulling down and wilfull waste of houses and Towns within his [i.e., the King's] realm, and laying to pasture lands which customarily have been used in tillage, whereby idleness -- ground and beginning of all mischiefs -- daily doth increase, for where in some Towns two hundred persons were occupied and lived by their lawful labours, now be there occupied 2 or 3 herdsmen and the residue fallen in idleness; the husbandry, which is one of the greatest commodities of this realm, is greatly decayed; churches destroyed; the service of God withdrawn; the bodies there buried not prayed for; the patron and curate wronged; the defense of this land against our enemies outwards feebled and impaired; to the great displeasure of God, to the subversion of policy and good rule of this land.The most idealized statement about peasant life and its destruction comes, of course, from Oliver Goldsmith's poem The Deserted Village. In the poem, Goldsmith mourns the loss of peasant values and, as an analog, the loss of those values in England itself.
Goldsmith attacks the landowners as being blind to the poverty they are creating:
The man of wealth and pride, Takes up a space that many poor supplied; Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds, Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds; That robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth Has robbed the neighboring fields of half their growth; His seat, where solitary sports are seen, Indignant spurns the cottage from the green. * * * * * * Where then, ah where, shall Poverty reside, To 'scape the pressure of contiguous Pride? If to some common's fenceless limits strayed, He drives his flock to pick the scanty blade, Those fenceless fields the sons of wealth divide, And even the bare-worn common is denied. If to the city sped -- What waits him there? To see the profusion that he must not share; To see ten thousand baneful arts combined To pamper luxury, and thin mankind; To see those joys the sons of pleasure know, Extorted from his fellow creature's woe. Here, while the courtier glitters in brocade, There the pale artist plies the sickly trade; Here, while the proud their long-drawn pomps display, There the black gibbet glooms beside the way. The dome where Pleasure holds her midnight reign, Here, richly decked admits the gorgeous train; Tumultuous grandeur crowds the blazing square, The rattling chariots clash, the torches glare. Sure scenes like these no troubles e'er annoy! Sure these denote one universal joy! Are these thy serious thoughts? -- Ah, turn thine eyes Where the poor houseless shivering female lies. She once, perhaps, in village plenty blest, Has wept at tales of innocence distressed; Her modest looks the cottage might adorn, Sweet as the primrose peeps beneath the thorn; Now lost to all; her friends, her virtue fled, Near her betrayer's door she lays her head, And pinced with cold, and shrinking from the shower, With heavy heart deplores the luckless hour, When idly first, ambitious of the town, She left her wheel and robes of country brown.Notice that Goldsmith creates one of the most powerful symbols in the poem in the peasant woman now forced into the city and a life of sin. While the poem is late -- 1770 -- it tells the old tale: greed and economics care little for people's lives.
Finally, to return to Wharram Percy. It was finally depopulated completely in the early decades of the 16th century. What was once a thriving village of 150 people was reduced to a shepherd family living in the valley in a small house just north of the church. The only other person living there would have been the parish priest.