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‘I'd say the magistrates have had their bellyful,’ Morgan says. ‘If he's not watering his ale, he's running illegal beasts on the common, if he's not despoiling the common he's assaulting an officer of the peace, if he's not drunk he's dead drunk, and if he's not dead before his time there's no justice in this world.’

(Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel)

What is the meaning of "to run illegal beasts on [something]"?

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I don't disagree with the fine answer posted by Technik Empire. This is more in the vein of an extended comment/elaboration upon it.

Public lands, especially those suitable for supporting livestock, were indeed referred to as 'the common', so called because they were 'held in common', owned by all members of the community, rather than by any individual. Many public spaces retain the name today, as with the Boston Common, the oldest public park in the US.

Boston Common

Public lands of this sort also lend their name to the Tragedy of the Commons, which describes the incentive of members of a community to consume public resources - originally, this public grazing land ('the commons'). To combat this tendency, many communities made laws limiting who might use these public lands for their animals, what animals they could place there, and so on.

It is in this sense, then, that the subject of the quote is running his illegal beasts. 'Run' here is used in the sense of 'herding' - the accusation is that the subject is deliberately encouraging his animals to graze on public lands (thus 'despoiling' them) in a manner that is against the law.

Cows on a Common

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  • Nice use of the photos. They instantly make your answer better than mine. :) – user20827 Sep 1 '15 at 11:18
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Sounds to me like it's describing the act of moving animals or letting them graze. Whether the animals themselves are illegal or the act of moving them or letting them graze is illegal isn't crystal clear.

"The common" could be interpreted as a public or shared space. The following bit about despoiling the common I think would lend to this interpretation. I would personally interpret it as him moving or letting loose his animals in a common space illegally (rather than the species itself being illegal), and the reason for it being illegal is because the act has destructive consequences (use of despoiling).

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