The Coming of Commerce

The Coming of Commerce

The outstanding fact about the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century in England was the rise in prices, which was without a parallel until the incredible inflation in the twentieth century. The price of wheat and barley, essential for the making of bread and ale, increased five and a half times between the second decade of the sixteenth century and the fifth decade of the seventeenth. Several variations occurred between different foods, but the general trend applied to Europe as a whole. On the other hand, the price of industrial products rose much less, largely because the demand for them was more elastic than that for food. Everyone had to eat, but did not necessarily need to buy new clothes.

It used to be thought that the reason for this considerable rise in food prices was the influx of gold from Africa and silver from central and south America and the consequent lowering of the purchasing power of money. The American silver came chiefly to Spain, but the Spanish Government of Philip II, who ruled nearly half the known world, was almost bankrupted by the cost of large-scale warfare in Portugal and the Netherlands and against England at sea, the silver being dispersed throughout Europe in payment for munitions and for imports both of raw materials and food and clothing. But that situation did not arise until towards the end of the sixteenth century. In England earlier, however, the gold and silver coins (even the halfpenny was made of silver) were devalued, first in 1526 and then during the reigns of Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, in the fifteen-forties by as much as 5o per cent. Each time the currency was debased after an interval prices rose. It was not until the reform of the coinage in 156o during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that confidence in the value of money was regained and in fact prices steadied during the fifteen-seventies; but as soon as the English were absorbed in war against the might of the Spanish Empire, following the threat from Philip II’s ‘invincible armada’ in 1588, prices shot up again.

It is now generally agreed that the inflation of food prices was caused first not by the influx of bullion but by a sharp rise in the size of the population and an insufficient  rise in the output of grain. As has been noticed, after the Black Death the population of England fell to about two million. By the end of the fifteenth century it started to rise again; and between the fifteen-twenties and the close of the sixteenth century it doubled, reaching nearly five million at the outset of the seventeenth century. Here are two contrasting illustrations. The first is the small village of Wigston Manor in Leicestershire, which is known to have contained 70 families in 1524 and is estimated to have housed 134 by 1603.1 The second is London proper, which had a population of about 60,000 in the reign of Henry VII: that had doubled by the time James I came to the throne in 1603 and was bursting across its boundaries into Westminster and Southwark. This growth in the population can partly be explained by improved sanitation and fewer epidemics. Bastardy reached a record level in the reign of Elizabeth I. The illegitimacy ratio (derived from parish registers) grew high between 1550 and the first decade of the seventeenth century .2

Thus the demand for food mounted, while the supply of agricultural produce did not increase at the same rate. Elizabethan authors like John Fitzherbert pointed to a decline in the fertility of the soil and urged the need for more manuring to improve the yield of crops. A growth in the currency’s volume and velocity of circulation further enhanced prices. Moreover since the enlargement in population occurred throughout the whole of Europe, food could not be imported cheaply. And when harvests were poor, as they were during the wet summers of 1594 to 1596, famine resulted.

It was the wage-earners – one-quarter to one-half of the population – who were worst hit by the price inflation, for prices rose more than wages: it has been estimated that the latter only doubled during the sixteenth century. Besides food the price of drink rose nearly sevenfold and that of fuel and light fourfold between 1500 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642.3 In theory it is hard to understand how agricultural labourers survived. But mitigating factors were to be found. Where tenants held long leases rents remained stable; many of the rural population had side-lines; they owned cottage gardens where they grew fruit and vegetables; they might do part-time work weaving or mining and their wives and daughters could have been spinners or knitters. Thatchers, haywards and mole-catchers were in constant demand. In the Midlands and eastern England half the population kept pigs, and some had a cow or two. A large number of wage-earners moved into the towns where they would have been better paid. Apart from shopkeepers who sold food, drink and household goods, towns usually contained small domestic industries: during the reign of Henry VIII eighty-three cap-makers were at work in Coventry and fifty shoe-makers functioned in Northampton (today it is shoe shops that proliferate in towns). Undoubtedly the urban economy was variegated; but in most provincial towns a third of the inhabitants were too poor to be assessed for taxes.

In the countryside few villeins or ‘bondmen’, as they were now generally called, were left. The change from servile to free labour, begun some two centuries earlier, was virtually completed by the reign of Elizabeth I. A considerable number of customary tenants had by then become copyholders, that is to say, their landlords gave them copies of the manorial rolls which specified their rights in detail and which could be submitted as evidence in a law court. Others held leases which prevented their rents from being raised for twenty-one or even thirty-one years or during two lives. The average husbandman occupied twenty acres – or fewer when the soil was rich – from which he could supply his family with enough food and drink, except in a bad year. In some parts of England he might genuinely have been a mixed farmer: for example, dairy farming flourished in parts of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset.

The rural class that fared best in Tudor England was that of the yeoman, the freeholder with some hundred acres at his command, who worked hard himself, employed a few men, ploughed his land with his own oxen or horses, sold his surplus produce in the local markets, served on juries, indulged in hospitality in his comfortable house, ‘bountiful both to strangers and poor people’, was a farmer on weekdays and a gentleman on Sundays. Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester, and a yeoman’s son, recalled the life of his father in a sermon: ‘He had a farm of £3 to £4 a year. He tilled so much that he kept half a dozen men. He had a walk for a hundred sheep. My mother milked thirty kine [cows]. He kept me at school and married my sisters with £5 apiece.’ Naturally some yeomen aspired to be gentry; it was not difficult to acquire a coat of arms, possibly by slipping a tip into the hands of the heralds who paid periodical visitations to different counties; other yeomen drifted into the higher status through marriage. But quite a few felt it was ‘better to be the head of the yeomanry than the tail of the gentry’. After all, successful social climbers have always been liable to be sneered at. In The Blind Beggar of Bednal Green a contemporary playwright had a yeoman say to his son, who sought to be a gentleman:


Come, off with this trash,

You bought gentility, that sits on thee

Like Peacock’s feathers cock’t on a Raven.

The proficient yeomen farmers were not the only class to knock on the door of the gentry. Lawyers who had made their pile bought landed estates to improve their social standing. So did Crown officials and a number of merchants. But basically it was agreed that a gentleman was a man who could live ‘without manual labour’ and could afford to buy a coat of arms from the heralds. Queen Elizabeth was not keen on excessive social mobility. Only one duke existed in her reign and she had him beheaded. She also issued proclamations discouraging inferior gentry from assuming the title of esquire; she was chary of creating knights and even more so in adding to the peerage, though she made an exception in favour of her fancy man, Robert Dudley.

The emergence of the prosperous and public-spirited yeoman in Tudor England must not blind one to the general condition of the English countryside. It was the husbandmen, either copyholders or tenants at will, who constituted the bulk of rural society, some half or three-quarters of it during the sixteenth century. Although landlords found themselves unable to exact all the ancient feudal dues from their tenants, the husbandmen still had to make such customary payments as heriots, in addition to finding their rents, and had to work hard to provide subsistence for their families. The worst placed were the cottagers, who were employed as labourers and had little or no land of their own. For the comprehensive act known as the Statute of Artificers, which became law in 1563, laid down that the justices of the peace were responsible for assessing wages and that wage-earners must stay in the parish where they were born unless they received permission, recorded in a written testimony, registered by the local parson, of their right to leave. It was also enacted that during the spring and summer labourers must start their work at five in the morning and continue until seven or eight at night, with two and a half hours allowed for meal times. But it is questionable whether all these rules were obeyed and wage assessments fully enforced; yet real wages were certainly low and prices completely out of control.

While agriculture remained the principal occupation of Englishmen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, industry and commerce were growing. One reason for this was that the general rise of prices stimulated industry, while the demand for manufactured goods fluctuated more than that for food and drink. A second reason was that England was at peace for longer periods than most countries on the European mainland. Thirdly, new technological inventions, such as blast furnaces and engines for draining mines, were introduced and cheapened the cost of production. Cannon foundries, sugar refineries and saltpetre works were being built. There were gig mills (which reduced the nap on the cloth by clipping), spinning wheels replacing distaffs and knitting frames for making stockings. Fourthly, the prejudice against the use of coal in preference to wood was being overcome and coal was becoming more widely applied to industrial purposes. Finally, in 1568 two joint-stock companies, were established – the Mines Royal, concerned chiefly with copper, and the Mineral and Battery Works, which made brass – both of which were pioneers of new processes, protected by patents, though they did not prove very successful.

Moreover the idea that internal communications were so bad as to handicap the movement of industrial goods has been exaggerated, even if it was bumpy to drive around in a coach. John Leland, the antiquary, who set out, as he told King Henry VIII in 1546, to see all parts of his ‘opulent and ample realm’, thought communications were quite good, with many stone bridges, though the road surfaces were generally poor. However, such products as coal and tin that were hard to cart over the roads could be carried along rivers or by coastal shipping around the island. No tolls were imposed on river traffic, as they were in other lands.

Cloth manufacture remained far and away the chief industry, at least until the middle of the seventeenth century. Exports, partly handled by foreign merchants, rose rapidly in the first half of the sixteenth century and steadily during the second half, while those of wool continued to decline, particularly after the staple town of Calais was lost to the French in 1557. ‘If the office of Lord Chancellor had first assumed importance in Tudor times,’ it has been said, he could have sat ‘not on a sack of wool but on a bale of broadcloth.’4 The early Tudor period has been called ‘the golden age of traditional broadcloth manufacture’. Exports, mainly to the Netherlands and Germany, continued to flourish spasmodically until 1614. Most of these consisted of undyed and undressed or ‘white’ cloth. In that year King James I was persuaded to issue a proclamation forbidding export ‘in the white’; since nearly half the cost of finished cloth went on dyeing it, a handsome profit was expected by the King and by an enterprising merchant, William Cockayne, a London alderman, who was granted a monopoly at the expense of the Merchant Adventurers.

The scheme, although it seemed promising enough, proved a fiasco and was soon abandoned, but cloth remained England’s largest export until the end of the seventeenth century. This was partly because although the demand for broadcloth, made from short-staple wool, providing warm clothing, declined – broadcloth, as a Member of Parliament was to observe, ‘is a heavy and hot wearing and serves but one cold corner of the world’ – lighter cloth, known as ‘the New Draperies’, made from longer, coarser wool, began to gain customers. Its manufacture was increased when Flemings and Walloons, driven into exile by the ferocities of the Spaniards, settled in Colchester in Essex, Norwich and other parts of eastern England. The art of making fustian, a mixture of linen and cotton, was introduced into Lancashire, where rough cloth had been woven in the later Middle Ages. Previously fustian had been imported from Italy and south Germany; here again its manufacture owed much to refugees. The Privy Council licensed these immigrants to make ‘bays’ and ‘says’ and ‘other outlandish commodities new to England’. Though such settlers were subjected to jealousy and xenophobia, they contributed handsomely to the strengthening of the cloth industry.

Other exports during the period included, as before, metals and minerals. The output of pig iron, made from ore since Roman times, was also improved by the expertise of immigrants, notably from Germany. Primitive blast furnaces were used chiefly in the Sussex Weald, but also elsewhere. Zinc ore, found in the Mendip hills, was alloyed with copper to produce brass, which had hitherto been imported. The tonnage of coal, dug from deeper mines, multiplied fifteen times between the mid sixteenth and mid seventeenth centuries. Only a small amount of it was exported because the need for it at home was paramount as timber became scarcer. Not only was it used for cooking and heating, but it was also employed in brewing, soap manufacture, iron production and other industrial processes. During the reign of Elizabeth I the reputation of English steel was enhanced and by the next reign it was claimed that the finest knives were made in England. Once again foreign workers, who settled in Sheffield, helped to revive a stagnant industry, which dated back to the Middle Ages. Lead and tin were exported in small quantities. The output and price of tin fell during the sixteenth century: it was then bought chiefly by London pewterers. But when the ‘coinage duty’ or tax on tin and the method of buying it by pre-emption were both abolished in the middle of the seventeenth century, the price doubled, the number of miners grew, and new works were opened.

Recognizable industrial establishments can also be discovered at this time, that is to say, as distinct from what are called ‘country industries’.

The famous cloth factory of Jack of Newbury, employing 200 ‘pretty maidens’ with milk-white ‘kerchiefs’ on their heads to do the spinning alone (backed by 200 men working the looms), appears to have been mythical; but undoubtedly a fairly large number of workers – engaged in mining, soap-boiling, glass manufacture and so on – serving one master on his own premises, were to be found in the Elizabethan age, although the ‘putting-out’ system, with men and women paid at piece rates and doing their jobs in their own homes, was the most characteristic form of employment.

A great many ‘projects’ were promoted, from pin manufacture to growing woad. A Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, written in 1549, advocated a whole programme of new trades. But, like Alderman Cockayne’s bright idea for dye-works and dye-houses, they were slow to get off the ground and had to cope with Dutch competition. Two exceptions may be mentioned: gun-making and shipbuilding. London and Birmingham both had gun-making companies and plenty of artillery was available to the Parliamentarian side when the Civil War came, though Charles I sent his wife to buy cannon in Holland and France.

Of course, the reason why England was able to remain at peace for so long and develop industries was because it was an island. Therefore a fleet was essential. This consisted partly of armed merchant ships and partly of warships. In I 56 England had 50,000 tons of merchant shipping: by 1629, in the reign of Charles I (who deserves the title of father of the English navy more than Henry VIII), this was doubled. During the first half of the seventeenth century shipwrights concentrated on building heavily masted ships carrying cannon for the navy and privateering. They included first-rates and second-rates of 250 to 500 tons able to mount a hundred guns. This provided ample employment in the naval shipyards at London and Bristol. Merchant ships were mostly small (not more than 200 tons), but larger ships up to nearly 1,000 tons capable of reaching the Far East were built for the East India Company. A substantial number of merchant ships, especially ‘flyboats’ suitable for use in the Baltic, were bought from the Netherlands, where the Dutch shipbuilding industry was the most advanced in Europe, and also from Scotland.

The development of the shipbuilding industry and of a navy necessary to protect commerce, which was frequently menaced by pirates, was beneficial to the rapid expansion of foreign trade after 166o. Overwhelmingly the principal export continued to be cloth of various sorts. Its export was largely controlled by English merchants, though foreign merchants, particularly those belonging to the Hanseatic League, had previously managed about half of it and they continued to regulate two-fifths of the import trade.

Merchants who sold English cloth abroad had been known since the Middle Ages as Adventurers (though they were not very venturesome), as distinct from the Staplers who exported wool. They concentrated their business chiefly in the Netherlands, where Antwerp was the principal market. After the sack of Antwerp in 1576 the Merchant Adventurers searched for new markets and finally settled on Hamburg and Dordrecht. The Merchant Adventurers received a charter from Henry VII and had been recognized by an act of parliament as a regulated company in 1497. The company prescribed terms of apprenticeship, specified quantities that each member might export, made bye-laws and levied fines for breaches of its rules, but its membership was open to any trader willing to pay its fees. The members included not only export merchants in London, but affiliated members in other big ports such as Bristol and Newcastle. Undoubtedly ‘interlopers’, that is to say, exporters not belonging to the company, obtained a share of the business. Over this the company complained fiercely to the Privy Council, asserting that such competition lowered prices and raised the cost of imports, so ‘bringing much evil and deceitful wares into the realm’.

The discovery of America and the West Indies at the end of the fifteenth century contributed only a little to the expansion of English commerce. The English were not conquistadors or at that time explorers. It is true that Henry VII granted pensions in turn to John Cabot and his son, Sebastian, who are believed to have been Genoese; they set out across the Atlantic in English ships to discover new lands that were open to trade. But John Cabot disappeared into the blue and his son, who appears to have discovered Hudson’s Bay and Newfoundland, received a cold welcome when he returned to England: so he entered the service of Spain. Queen Elizabeth I was more amenable than her predecessors to persuasion about the merits of commercial expansion, but was attracted most by the idea of making a profit out of piratical adventures, especially when her country was embroiled in the long war against Spain.

The instrument of English commercial progress was the chartered company formed by enterprising merchants who were accorded exclusive privileges. Francis Bacon, the celebrated philosopher, who served Elizabeth I and James I, declared that ‘trading in companies is most agreeable to English nature’. Such companies included the Muscovy Company (trading with Greenland and Russia), the Eastland Company (trading in the Baltic), the Levant Company (trading with the Turkish empire and Persia), and the East India Company, granted its charter just before the death of Queen Elizabeth. Trade with France, Italy and Spain in general was open to all, though French and Spanish companies had a fleeting existence. The only company that was concerned with crossing the Atlantic was the Virginia Company, in which the versatile Sir Walter Ralegh, statesman, admiral and historian, invested a fortune. The colony, which he set up, came to grief; but once tobacco was found to be a profitable crop, a Virginia joint-stock company managed for a time to pay its way. The first load of tobacco from Virginia arrived in England in 1614.

The East India Company also proved successful, especially after it obtained permission to establish a ‘factory’, that is to say, a trading station, north of Bombay. But from a financial point of view the Royal African Company, in which the courtiers of the early Stuart monarchs invested heavily, was outstanding. For not only did it bring back to England ivory, silver and gold as well as hides from west Africa, but it smuggled Negroes as slaves into the West Indies and later Virginia in return for tobacco and sugar. This triangular trade proved a godsend to English merchants for many years.

It has to be remembered that throughout the Tudor period the government, acting through Parliament (or by issuing proclamations in the monarch’s name), interfered or, to use a neutral word, concerned itself intimately with the economic and social life of the country. It did so almost to as great an extent as have governments in the twentieth century. But whereas today governments make money available to assist industries enjoying a monopoly (such as coal and the railways), Tudor governments aimed by establishing monopolies to make money out of industry and commerce and thus reduce taxation. They even tried to prescribe in detail how craftsmen should do their work and how much they ought to be paid. This policy was embodied, as has already been observed, in the Statute of Artificers, which ordered justices of the peace to assess wage rates annually according to ‘the plenty or scarcity of the time’. If the justices failed to undertake this duty they were to be fined £5, but if they attended sessions for the purpose they could pay themselves 5 shillings a day. In fact the government’s reliance on the justices of the peace, who were overburdened maids of all work, stultified the effect of the act; some justices, for example, satisfied themselves simply by reissuing the previous year’s assessment. Indeed, much of the economic policy followed by governments throughout early English history was vitiated by the fact that it was not enforced or not enforceable.

Broadly, governments tried to maintain employment in industry by prohibiting the import of goods that could be made at home, a system pursued or at least advocated in the course of most English history. They also attempted to ensure an even balance of trade. The author of the Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England wrote in 1549: ‘we must always take care that we buy no more of strangers than we sell to them’. That was why the export of raw wool had been periodically banned, why the manufacture of new kinds of cloth with the advice of experts from abroad was approved, why the exploitation of fishing was supported even to the extent of making Wednesday as well as Friday and Saturday into ‘fish days’, and why in the first year of Henry VII’s reign an act was passed laying down that the wines of Guienne and Gascony could only be imported in English, Welsh and Irish ships; it was also enacted later that such ships must not have foreign masters or crews. These last acts were praised by Francis Bacon, because, he said, they changed ‘the ancient policy of this realm from consideration of plenty to consideration of power’. For the same reason more than two centuries later the economist Adam Smith, otherwise a staunch believer in freedom of trade, approved the policy of the Navigation Acts, of which these two acts were the forbears, because they aimed at sustaining British shipping. But Smith was not to approve of’ bullionism’, the view expressed by Queen Elizabeth I’s chief Minister, Lord Burghley, who wrote: ‘it is manifest that nothing robbeth the realm of England but when more merchandise is brought into the realm than is carried forth’, since the adverse balance had to be paid for in gold or silver. Though it would be untrue to say that bullion was completely identified with wealth, the Government of Elizabeth I insisted that it needed a war chest with which to equal the flood of silver that sustained the Spanish Empire as it was waging war against England during the last fifteen years of the reign.

Under Elizabeth, who repudiated the Roman Catholic Church and assumed the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and who ruled the country with the assent of Parliament, a conscious, unified nation-state was evolving which, acting in the economic sphere, aimed to increase the power, wealth and prosperity of the land. Whether it acted in a misguided way or not, it directed its commercial and industrial policy to achieving these ends.

One problem that exercised Tudor governments was the ‘enclosing’ and ‘engrossing’ of land to make agriculture more efficient and profitable. Enclosing meant fencing in a piece of land that had hitherto lain open either in arable fields, meadows or commons, so that the cultivator could exploit the land as he chose and not have to clear it for common grazing at agreed seasons. Engrossing meant amalgamating two or more holdings into one in order to create larger units – economically advantageous but socially damaging. It also had similar ends in view to enclosure.

Enclosures were often made by the agreement of a whole village, and since it was natural enough to try to improve the productivity and profitability of the land this had been going on for some time. But the rising population and rocketing food prices in the sixteenth century accelerated the process. The precise motives for it varied. The expansion of the cloth industry during the fifteenth century, continuing up to the middle of the sixteenth century, meant that sheep farming had become more advantageous and required less labour than corn fields. The New Draperies did not need wool as fine as that used to make broadcloth. Sheep were also valuable for providing food. The Spencers of Althorp, a family famous in English history, for example, sold much mutton and lamb to the butchers in the reign of Elizabeth I. A foreign observer thought the English farmers were ‘so lazy and slow that they do not bother to sow more wheat than is necessary for their own consumption; they prefer to let the ground be transformed into pasture for the use of sheep, which they breed in large numbers’. There was a saying: ‘He that bath sheep, swine and bees, sleep he, wake he, he may thrive.’

It was the enclosure of arable land for use as permanent pasture that worried the government, for two reasons: first, it reduced the output of grain at a time when it was scarce and dear; secondly, by curtailing the demand for agricultural labour it created unemployment and provoked rioting where landholders ignored the traditional rights of villagers. On occasion riots degenerated into armed revolts. In the summer of 1549 Robert Ket, a Norfolk tradesman, led a large-scale revolt against the county’s landlords, who, among other things, had been fencing in or encroaching on common land for grazing their sheep and cattle where the tenants also had grazing rights. Though the rebels were defeated and Ket was hanged at Norwich castle, the episode was a striking example of agrarian discontent. Nearly sixty years later a similar revolt wholly over enclosures took place in the Midlands, stemming from Northamptonshire. A lengthy series of acts was passed against enclosures for pasture (the first general statute was enacted in 1489) and royal commissions were appointed in 1517, 1548, 1565 and 1607 to investigate the matter. It was explained that ‘when a man doth enclose and hedge his own proper ground where no man hath commons’ it was ‘very beneficial’, but ‘when any man hath taken away and enclosed any other man’s commons or hath pulled down houses of husbandry and converted the lands from tillage to pasture’ that was ‘enclosure’, which created unemployment, poverty and vagrancy. Sir Thomas More, who became Lord Chancellor in 1529, had condemned in his book Utopia noblemen and gentlemen who grew the finest and dearest wool and left no ground for tillage; a puritan, Philip Stubbs, explained in 1583: ‘these enclosures be the causes why rich men eat up poor men as beasts do eat grass’; and John Aubrey, no puritan, writing in the seventeenth century, observed: ‘Enclosures are for private, not public good. For a shepherd and his dog or a milkmaid can manage the land that upon arable employed the hands of several scores of labourers.’

It was in the Midlands, then one of the most densely populated parts of the country, where the majority of medieval villages had been surrounded by much common and waste, that the protests against enclosures were the loudest. For here enclosures were carried out pretty ruthlessly by large landlords and the peasantry had to appeal to ancient customs for redress in the law courts. In fact it was encroachment on the commons that most aggravated villagers. Where the soil was ill-drained, cold, heavy clay or chalk and limestone its use for sheep farming was understandable. It was the enclosure of fertile arable land when the price of grain was high that was harder to defend and led to social problems.

Actually the amount of land enclosed for sheep and cattle grazing in the Midlands was clearly exaggerated by contemporaries. Over two generations ago the findings of historical research concluded that less than 7 per cent of the total area of seven Midland counties was affected at that time, but such a blunt inference does not satisfy the requirements of quantitative historians or modem statisticians. At any rate, by the end of the sixteenth century the uproar over depopulation had largely subsided. An act of parliament in 1597 permitted the temporary conversion of arable land to pasture in order to restore it to good heart. King James I (1603-25) expressed the opinion that more land had been ploughed up in recent years from the waste than had been converted by enclosure from arable to pasture. Some experts on agriculture such as Thomas Tusser, an Eton and Cambridge man, who offered his advice to other farmers in verse and died bankrupt in 1580, thought that the common-field method of tillage was inefficient and uneconomic and advocated mixed farming. Depopulation was attributed, at least in part, to men moving from villages into towns. Although Charles I levied heavy fines for depopulation, by the time his son came to the throne in 1660 knowledgeable pamphleteers were arguing for more, not less, enclosure, and dubbed it in the long run ‘an improvement’.

Elizabethan administrators – including such a well-informed character as the principal Secretary of State, Lord Burghley – were convinced that the enclosures, which, it was claimed, depopulated the countryside, were a main reason why so many beggars and vagabonds were to be found all over the country. The preamble to the Act for the Maintenance of Husbandry and Tillage, passed in 1598, insisted that they were ‘a principal means that people are set on work, and thereby withdrawn from idleness, drunkenness, unlawful games, and all other lewd practices and conditions of life’. But in fact it is certain that enclosures played only a minor part in mobilizing an army of the unemployed and unemployable. During the fifteenth century wage-earners had not been too badly off and could afford to buy food, drink and clothing if they did not produce them at home. But Tudor England was relatively overpopulated, prices outstripped wages, and these wages were kept down (or supposed to be kept down) by justices of the peace. Unskilled labourers earned fourpence to fivepence a day and skilled labourers earned sixpence to eightpence when bread cost a penny a pound, cheese threepence a pound and butter fivepence to sixpence. Thus real wages were lower and the diet poorer than they had been in the recent past.

The rapid growth of population in sixteenth-century England and the rise in food prices were not exceptional, but a common experience throughout most of Europe. Hardly a country was not plagued by ‘masterless men’ unable to find work. One factor aggravating the situation in England was the suppression of the monasteries. For there almoners had usually provided a night’s lodging and distributed food and money indiscriminately to all who came to them for help. This, however, had tended to create professional begging. The monks in the later Middle Ages had not attempted to come to grips with the root causes of poverty. After the dissolution greedy landlords, cowardly clergy and rich idlers were all denounced for giving birth to so much destitution. One clerical writer, William Harrison, the rector of a rural parish, claimed in his Description of England that 10,000 vagabonds or ‘sturdy beggars’ were ‘on the road’ between 1563 and 1572. In addition gypsies made their appearance in England at about this time and tramps, thieves and robbers were pretty numerous. But the bulk of the vagrants were young men and women aged between fifteen and twenty-five who were genuinely out of work. 5

Apart from the able-bodied unemployed were the disabled, crippled and incurable invalids. London contained five hospitals: St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s for the sick, Christ’s, which specialized in orphans, Bridewell, where vagabonds were punished and set to work, and Bedlam, for the mentally ill. In the capital, too, philanthropic merchants built almshouses or arranged for the distribution during their funerals of doles for the poor. A number of acts of parliament were passed ordering work to be found for vagrants, the erection of houses of correction, and the relief of the helpless poor by voluntary alms. In 1598, however, a statute fixed a compulsory maximum poor rate of twopence a head per parish, to be levied by permission of the justices of the peace, in order to build and maintain workhouses to employ rogues and sturdy beggars and provide relief for the ‘impotent’, while unpaid overseers of the poor were created to set those who were capable to work and apprentice unwanted children. A second statute ordered unlicensed beggars to be whipped and sent back to their birthplaces. The justices also tried to keep down the price of food and the export of corn was prohibited by statute when a bad harvest brought scarcity.

Life in the towns, to which the vagrants flocked, was, on the whole, better than in the countryside. London of course was unique, offering every kind of work from that of chimneysweeps to domestic service. It was far and away the largest port in England; it had 120 churches, its Inns of Court and lovely livery halls, vast houses and a Royal Exchange, opened by the Queen in 1570, and was surrounded by villages like Chelsea and Hampstead which it was destined to swallow up. In spite of endemic diseases its population grew rapidly and stimulated much building. James I is supposed to have said it had ‘changed from sticks to bricks’. Bristol, Norwich and Exeter were other busy cities, though they had their ups and downs. Large villages, like Birmingham and Manchester, welcomed new industries, which were able to avoid the demand made by the craft gilds in the towns. (John Leland thought Birmingham particularly beautiful.) Such industries, or more strictly trades, included pillow-lace making, the manufacture of glass and the production of straw hats. In these lively communities ambitious members of the working class were not content to be mere wage-earners but became small masters and shopkeepers.

The sixteenth century was a splendid age for building, both in the towns and in the country; and we are lucky that so much of its architecture has survived, ranging from Elizabethan yeomen’s farmhouses, the black and white timber-framed houses familiar in Cheshire and along the Welsh border, and scattered inns, to the palatial houses of the wealthy like Hatfield, Hardwick Hall, Audley End, Longleat and Montacute. We are reminded of mercantile prosperity by Exeter town hail or the buildings along Cheapside in London. But Tudor churches are few: it was a secular age. We have also learned how in Elizabethan times ‘English provinces were incomparably more individual and distinctive than they are today’. 6 Only very important people had houses in London. When the landed gentry left their country homes they moved to town houses in county capitals like Exeter, Norwich or York; and they spoke not Oxford and Cambridge English but the language of their native parts.

In this age of building and rebuilding, the homes of gentlefolk no longer had walls of earth, low thatched roofs, a few wooden partitions and holes in the wall to let out the smoke. The new and enlarged houses had glazed windows, proper chimneys, plaster ceilings and painted walls. Stone usually replaced timber, which made the buildings more stable. Private houses could therefore be safely constructed on two floors, allowing for a parlour and several bedrooms besides the usual offices. Some rooms were warmed with coal. Modest houses and cottages did not cost much to build because labour was so cheap. Inside the houses furniture changed little. Beds and tables were elaborate and heavy. Cupboards were used to contain food and sideboards to display plate. Only a few chairs were to be found and they looked uncomfortable; stools and benches were the usual seats. But bedclothes were more inviting; straw pallets were replaced by down, and pillows superseded logs as head-rests.

Men and women dressed – or were supposed to dress – according to their station in life. Thus London apprentices wore blue cloaks, breeches of white broadcloth and flat caps. Merchants and other citizens and their wives dressed fairly simply, but the upper classes wore elaborate and heavy clothing, imitating French and Italian fashions. Gentlemen wore padded doublets (close-fitting body garments) covered by warm knee-length cloaks made of velvet or silk and often trimmed with fur, silk stockings and modern-looking shoes. Women also wore doublets, but their skirts and cloaks trailed on the ground. Ruffs were introduced at this time; so were scarfs, embroidered waistcoats, masks, fans and periwigs. Women painted their faces and dyed their hair, usually blonde, and bought perfumes and cosmetics. An Italian who visited London in the reign of Henry VII thought that Englishmen dressed ‘in the French fashion except that their suits are more full and accordingly were out of shape’. The Reverend William Harrison did not approve of the clothes of the nobility and gentry. The idea that women wore doublets and men grew their hair long made it come to pass, he wrote, ‘that women are become men and men transformed into monsters’.

Eating and drinking – despite the high prices – continued on a lavish scale among the well-to-do. Country gentlemen and city merchants, according to Harrison, were content with four, five or six dishes. They dined between eleven and twelve in the morning and supped between seven and eight in the evening. The Italian visitor wrote: ‘They delight in banquets and variety of meat and food and they excel everyone in preparing them with excessive abandon. They eat very frequently at times more than is suitable, and are particularly fond of young swans, rabbits, deer and sea birds.’ Table manners were not delicate. Only exquisite gentlemen used forks.

Beer, as distinct from ale, made from malt and flavoured with hops, was introduced from Holland during the Tudor period. A popular couplet declared:

Hops, Reformation, bays and beer

Came into England all in a year.

Quickly the growing of hops increased, though it was confined chiefly to south-east England. One of an ordinary wife’s duties was making, for beer was made in the homes of gentry and yeomen as well as in breweries. John Stow, a London chronicler, who wrote towards the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, said the price of ale was three pints for a halfpenny in the summer and a quart for a halfpenny in the winter. A physician in Henry VIII’s reign deplored the huge consumption of beer, and in James I’s reign a statute was passed penalizing drunkenness. Wine, though imported, was inexpensive. An act limiting its price was passed in 1536: this ordered that French wine should not be sold at more than a penny a pint. The Italian reporter observed that few people kept wine in their houses, but drank it in taverns. With the disappearance of the monasteries, which had often functioned as hotels, the number of inns multiplied, some of them being able to put up two or three hundred people at night. Fynes Moryson, who wrote at length about his travels, concluded that ‘the world affords not such inns as England hath, either for good and cheap entertainments or the guests’ own pleasure, or for humble attendance on passengers’.

Besides drinking in inns and taverns and overeating at home, amusements included masques and pageants, and plays were performed in London suburbs since they were not allowed in the city itself. Two of the earliest playhouses, the Theatre and the Curtain, were built in Finsbury and a third, the Rose, was built at Shoreditch. Here too was the Swan, while the Globe, where Shakespeare acted, was in Southwark. There was also a bear-baiting theatre at Southwark and a bull-baiting theatre on the south bank of the Thames. These theatres had to contend with much opposition. The Mayor of London wanted them banned altogether as corrupting the city youth. Actors were not allowed to perform on Sundays or public holidays or when an epidemic was raging. Because of difficulties with the lighting, plays were given in the daytime, thus interrupting the afternoon’s work for their audience. Outside London many strolling players performed, as did minstrels, jugglers and acrobats, mainly in the courtyards of inns. Sports included football, surprisingly a much rougher game than it is today. Henry VIII set an example to the nobility by playing ‘real tennis’.

The impressions recorded or deduced about the economy of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are contradictory. Admiral Sir John Hawkins thought that the wealth of England had trebled since the accession of Elizabeth I and Lord Burghley considered the country was ‘abounding in riches’. Polydore Vergil, an Italian who spent much of the first half of the sixteenth century in England, conveys in his Anglica Historia the opinion that the Englishmen of his time were healthy and well fed and that the peasants were much better off than the peasants of his native land. Writing in 1587, William Harrison said:

White meats, as milk, butter and cheese, which were never so dear in my time are now reputed as food appertinent only to the inferior sort, while such as are more wealthy feed upon the flesh of all kinds of cattle accustomed to be eaten, all sorts of fish . . . and such diversity of wild and tame fowls as are either bred in our island or brought unto us from other countries of the main.

A Spaniard observed during the reign of Mary I (1553-8): ‘These English have their houses of sticks and dirt, but they fare commonly as well as the King.’ This reads like hyperbole; and the houses evidently improved after he left.

In contrast with these generalizations, we have the view, based on taxation returns, that ‘In the larger towns of England … fully a third of the population … were so poor that they paid neither on the minimum level of wages nor the minimum level of goods.’ As to the rural inhabitants, a great social historian expressed the view that ‘the sixteenth century was poor with a poverty which no industrial community can understand’. 7

The evidence about the large numbers of unemployed and unemployable, ranging from beggars to footpads, can hardly be denied, even if to blame it to any extent on enclosures of arable land to turn it into pasture is more than doubtful. At the end of the reign of Elizabeth I the ruling classes were noting ‘the great decay of the people’, the ‘swarms of poor loose and wandering people’, and ‘the danger of famine’. Even the cloth industry, still the foundation of a valuable export trade, was far from being a gold-mine for ordinary workmen and women. Shakespeare blamed this on taxation in his play Henry VIII:


for, upon these taxations,

The clothiers all, not able to maintain

The many to them ‘longing, have put off

The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who,

Unfit for other life, compelled to hunger

And lack of other means, in desperate manner

Daring the event to the teeth are all in uproar,

And danger serves among them.


It has been contended that the age of the Tudors was a commercial age and became more commercial as the sixteenth century went on. Certainly it saw the birth of new regulated and joint-stock trading companies. Until the middle of the century only two such companies existed – the Merchant Adventurers, now seeking markets in Germany at the expense of the Hanseatic League, and the Eastland Company, which had long traded in the Baltic – but individual merchants pioneered by aiming to spread commerce as far as Russia, Persia and India. In 1569 the Pope was told that England largely depended on ‘the merchandise that goes out of and is carried into the realm’. 8 It is likely, too, that a considerable amount of interloping and smuggling was carried on. One can name financiers and capitalists such as Sir Thomas Gresham, who boasted he could borrow any sum he liked in Antwerp; Sir John Hawkins, who made a fortune out of the slave trade, and Sir Lionel Cranfield, who became extremely wealthy as an exporter, importer and speculator before he became James I’s Lord Treasurer. Even William Cockayne survived his vicissitudes to die a very rich man. Because of the profit inflation, that is to say, prices running away from the costs of production to the benefit of middle men, the sixteenth century was a period when financiers found a happy hunting ground. Lord Keynes wrote that ‘never in the annals of the modern world has there existed so prolonged and so rich an opportunity for the business man, the speculator and the profiteer.’ 9

Similarly in agriculture, the landowner or sheepmaster, whether he was called a gentleman, an esquire or a yeoman, if he had an adequate acreage and could afford to hire a few men at the current rate of low wages, did very well for himself by selling wool to clothiers and food to the industrial areas of the country. He differed entirely from the medieval husbandman struggling to feed his family on what he could grow in his share of the village fields. Thus it can be said, and has been said, with equal conviction, on the one hand that sixteenth-century England was a country replete with riches; and on the other that because it was relatively overpopulated, with many unemployed and most wage-earners indifferently paid, ‘Shakespeare’s England’ was ‘a poor place’. 10


  1. W. G. Hoskins, Provincial England (1963), pp. 185 seq.
  2. Peter Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (1977), chapter 3
  3. These figures were kindly given me by Sir Henry Phelps Brown
  4. P.J. Bowden, The Wool Trade in Tudor and Stuart England (1962), p. 40
  5. A. L. Beier, ‘Vagrants and the Social Order in Elizabethan England’, Past and Present, 64 (1974)
  6. Hoskins, op. cit., p. 86
  7. R. H. Tawney, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), p. 35
  8. Cit. E. Lipson, The Economic History of England (1931), II, p. 185
  9. J.M. Keynes, Treatise on Money (1930), II, p. 159
  10. Sir John Clapham, A Concise Economic History of Britain to 1750 (1949), p. 210