HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

Lecture 12

 - Economic Expansion, 1560-1640


Professor Wrightson traces the major economic expansion of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Despite occasional crises of mortality, population levels rose steadily, particularly in urban areas. Increased population levels resulted in enhanced agricultural and industrial output. Professor Wrightson reviews the extension of the cultivated area, forms of agricultural improvement and trends in enclosure. He then examines urban growth, the expansion of traditional industries such as cloth-making, and the development of new ones such as coal production. He ends by discussing the intensification of internal commerce and the expansion in foreign trade which took place during the Despite economic expansion and a greatly increased national income, however, prices continued to rise, real wages remained depressed, and the problem of poverty appears to have grown.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts

HIST 251 - Lecture 12 - Economic Expansion, 1560-1640

Chapter 1. Economic History [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: For the last three weeks, then, we’ve been going through some of the major developments in terms of political and religious change in the course of the sixteenth century, and for the next three weeks we’ll be looking at other aspects of what was going on in the reign of Elizabeth and under the early Stuarts, dealing with a number of themes that run across from about 1560 to 1640 and then we’ll return to the political narrative. So I’m going to look at things like witchcraft and crime and popular protest and education and the growth of literacy. But first of all this week, in order to understand all of these developments and create the context of change, we need to know what was going on in economy and society, both of which were changing in their structure quite significantly in these two generations at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. And today I’ll focus on the economic developments. So, a bit of economic history.

Economic history is rarely immensely popular but it does matter. It’s absolutely basic. It’s perhaps an unfamiliar kind of history. It’s mostly done in economics departments, but what I’ll try to do basically is to give you a clear overview of what we know about what seems to have been happening in this period and your handout will provide you with some statistics to chart the overall developments and illustrate some of the details.

Okay. So by the 1560s already, as you know, population growth and price inflation had impacted to some degree upon established patterns of social relationships especially on the land between landlords and tenants. In this situation there was need for sustained economic expansion if a growing population was to be maintained and in particular if the younger generation were to be able to find employment, to enjoy living standards comparable to those of their parents, and such expansion needed to be considerable if it was to keep pace with continued population rise. If you look at your handout, table number one there, we have the best figures available for population showing that by the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign in 1561 it had already reached about three million, by 1601 it had topped four million, and by 1641 the population had risen to just over five million.

In fact, the population in England seems to have been rising faster and for rather longer than was generally the case in Europe at the time. Between the 1520s and the 1640s, the population of England and Wales roughly doubled whereas in most European countries which — continental European countries — which have been studied the rise was something like 50%. That suggests that whatever the population rise in England had in common with what was going on elsewhere in Europe, perhaps in terms of its origins, it was nonetheless being sustained rather longer, perhaps because of factors peculiar to the English situation. There seems to have been a capacity to absorb increased numbers of people to a somewhat greater extent than in much of continental Europe. And that this could happen at all is of course an indication that some kind of economic expansion was probably going on. And so the question arises and has been extensively investigated as to what were the areas of economic expansion in this period.

Chapter 2. Agriculture [00:04:05]

Well, in a predominantly rural society, of course, we need to begin with agriculture. And if you look at table two on your handout, 2(a), there’s an index there of agricultural output. It’s the best estimate currently available, calculated by the agricultural historian Mark Overton, and it suggests that grain output rose by about 38% in England between 1550 and 1600 and by a further 26% between 1600 and 1650. Over the entire period something like a 75% increase in grain output. Well, how did they achieve that?

One thing they did was to extend the cultivated area. In fact, very little land was not used at all so really this was largely a matter of changing the use of the land so as to increase the intensity of its use. They did that in many ways. One way was by clearing woodlands and bringing the woodland into arable production. A good deal of that went on in the heavily wooded areas of the West Midlands here, and elsewhere piecemeal. Another thing they did was to drain waterlogged land and to reclaim it for agriculture. There was a good deal of that going on piecemeal around the country. Down here in eastern England for example a lot of salt marsh along the coast was brought in permanently. They built dikes so that it wouldn’t flood and drained it, much in the manner that was practiced in the Netherlands, of course, and brought that land into permanent pasture use.

A lot of wasteland was plowed up and brought into cultivation. There was a lot of piecemeal change of that kind wherever wasteland was available, but there were also some very large projects of that kind which were sponsored and overseen by the royal privy council. In the west of England a lot of forested land was ‘disafforested’ by the crown; that is its status as forest land was canceled. Woodlands were cleared. Land was brought into cultivation all over the west. Another major scheme was in the fenlands of East Anglia. The fens were from the 1620s onwards gradually drained and that land was brought into cultivation. Dutch engineers were brought in because of their expertise in draining land, building dikes, drainage channels and so forth. It’s because of that drainage which took place in the seventeenth century that if you drive through that area you’ll find the roads are higher than the surrounding land.

Well, much change then of this kind going on, and this tended to recast the balance between arable and pastoral production in the kingdom as a whole. It also furthered increased specialization in accordance with the best use of the land. In the forest of Arden, for example, in Warwickshire an area which was previously largely an area of grazing in forest clearances [correction: clearings] much of the forest was cleared and the land went over from meat production to arable and dairying. Amongst the arable crops they began growing more barley as well as wheat to diversify the product. They generally increased the food base of the area. They were producing milk and cheese and grain as well as meat, and you get other areas where there’s even more diversification. Down in Kent to the southeast of London. Northern Kent became an area specializing in producing wheat for the bakers of London. Other areas of the county specialized in fattening cattle which were driven down from the north, fattened up and then went to butchers in London. There were areas specializing in hop production, as there still are, for the brewers of London; areas specializing in market gardening for the city.

Proximity to the vast food market of London, of course, encouraged specialization of that kind. And such specialization in various parts of the kingdom in turn encouraged intensification of cultivation. Sometimes that was by introducing technical changes in agricultural production. There was a lot of attention paid to better forms of manuring the land, not just using animal muck but also spreading lime on the fields or ‘marling’ the fields. Marl is a kind of chalky clay. They would dig it up and spread it on the fields and then plow it in. Techniques of that kind had the effect of reducing the acidity of the soil and they encouraged nitrogen mineralization which encouraged the fertility of the soil. They didn’t know the chemistry of what was happening, but they knew that it worked and techniques of this kind were quite widely practiced.

There were also technical changes in the form of changing rotations in the use of land between having it down to grass or plowing it up for arable crops, in particular an innovation which is known as convertible husbandry, or up and down husbandry, it was often called. Previously, the practice had been in the great open fields around villages to leave one of them fallow each year. It would be rested for a single year and then brought back into production. Convertible husbandry was a much more efficient form of rotation. You would leave the grass — the land down to grass for quite a long time, ten years, twelve years perhaps, then plow it up for just two or three years and then put it down to grass again. The effect of this change in rotation was that the land was — got its heart restored better. You got greatly improved cereal yields when it was plowed up for arable, but at the same time you had more of your acreage down to grass at any one time, so you could keep more animals. So they could increase both their output of grain and the density of the livestock which they raised. This practice, up and down or convertible husbandry, had long been known in some areas but it gradually spread as a particularly efficient practice, and it spreads all over lowland England between about the 1580s and the 1650s.

And finally, change of all these kinds could be facilitated by enclosing the land into individually managed farms. As you know, in the sixteenth century there’d been great hostility to enclosure for pasture which took land out of arable production. In the late sixteenth century, partly because of this hostility to enclosure, the enclosure movement slackened, but at the turn of the seventeenth century it began to pick up again. In the central England county of Leicestershire in the — what people refer to as the Midland Plain of central England, for example, about a third of the county had already been enclosed by 1550. In the second half of the sixteenth century, only 5% more was enclosed. The movement slackened. But in the early seventeenth century it picked up again and 40% more of the county was enclosed. Similar figures have been produced for other areas particularly in the Midlands.

Well, this second wave of enclosure, of dividing up the fields and common into smaller fields individually managed, it was different in two respects from the earlier enclosure movement. First of all, it was now not so much enclosure for conversion to pasture, especially conversion to sheep ranching. Now it tended to be enclosure for the practice of improved arable husbandry or convertible husbandry. When the forests of the west were cleared and the fens of the east were drained, the land brought into production tended to be divided up into individual fields and then let out to local farmers where they practiced convertible husbandry in their enclosed farms.

Secondly, this differed because it was not a thing which was just pushed through unilaterally by the local gentry who wanted to create sheep ranches in the early sixteenth century. Now it was a movement which tended to proceed by agreement — agreements which would be struck between local gentlemen and the principal local farmers, their biggest tenants in the main. And so you find all over the kingdom local communities coming to agreements of this kind to enclose the common fields or the common pastures. To take just one example, there’s a village up in the West Midlands called Highley, which has been much studied, and it has excellent records, and at Highley, for example, it was in the 1610s and the 1620s that the open fields of the parish were gradually enclosed little by little by agreement, and then they rounded the whole thing off by dividing up and portioning out the woodlands and common pasture of the manor.

The whole idea of this was to create consolidated farms which would be under the individual management of a particular farmer. That gave those farmers freedom of movement in managing and adapting their husbandry practice as they saw fit. Intensification of methods was not impossible in the old open fields, but it was much easier on farms under individual management, and in consequence the old communally managed customary system of agriculture gradually weakened. It weakened its hold on agricultural organization generally, survived in some areas, but in many parts of the country it was gradually disappearing and in some it was almost wholly extinguished.

Right. Overall, various combinations of changes of this kind appear to have boosted agricultural output considerably, even boosting the yields per acre, the productivity of the land. The study which is represented by the figures on two — table 2(b) — on your handout of land productivity in a number of counties, a study based upon farmers’ inventories — the crops that are recorded in their inventories and also on some surviving account books — this suggests that in these counties cereal yields, numbers of bushels per acre, rose by about 15% in the late sixteenth century and by another 4% in the early seventeenth century.

Chapter 3. Urbanization [00:15:14]

Okay. Well, gradual change of this kind in agriculture implies that there existed a larger market for agricultural produce and in some ways a more distant market for agricultural produce that farmers were trying to serve. And those markets were found, as you would imagine, above all in the towns and in those areas of the countryside which had large populations which were engaged in activities other than agriculture; industrial areas of the countryside. This was a period of very marked urbanization, very significant urban growth. Some of the figures are there on table three on your handout for a number of cities. In Worcester, for example, the population rose between 1550 and 1650 from just over 4,000 to roughly 8,000. In Norwich the population of the city rose from about 10,000 to over 30,000. And above all there was massive population growth in the city of London. The figures are there for you. In 1550, London was already about 70,000, by 1600 200,000, by 1650 400,000 and still growing. By 1600, London already contained 5% of the national population. By 1650, London contained just over 9% of the national population and was still growing, and today it’s about 10%. It had almost reached that proportion in the mid-seventeenth century. So very significant urban growth.

All of that involved, within particular cities, the taking up of vacant space within their walls for building, the subdivision of existing housing and the growth of suburbs outside the old city walls. In London, for example, by the 1580s there were complaints by the local authorities of what they called “pestering of houses with diverse families” or multiple occupation. Or again “multitudes of people” — these are quotations — “multitudes of people brought to inhabit in small rooms and… heaped up together and in a sort almost smothered,” said one report. Overcrowding; congestion.

In addition, in the parishes outside the city walls there was significant suburban growth. The parishes of east London, to the east of the Tower of London, the modern East End, in the 1570s contained about 7,000 people already. So there was already a significant population in these parishes just outside the old city walls. By the 1630s, there were 50,000 people in the east London suburbs. Or if we turn to western London the parish of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which was literally in the fields in the mid-sixteenth century, had a population of about 600 when Elizabeth came to the throne. By the 1630s, St. Martin’s had a population of 18,000. So this single London suburban parish contained more people than most of the cities in other parts of the kingdom. The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is the one that stands beside Trafalgar Square today right in the heart of the city.

Well, this formidable urban growth occurred despite alarming levels of urban mortality in the overcrowded, increasingly insanitary towns. They didn’t have adequate water supply. They didn’t have adequate sanitation measures. ‘Background mortality’, ordinary, everyday mortality from infectious disease in the towns was very bad, far worse than in the countryside. Even within the cities it could vary quite significantly. For example, in the late sixteenth century average life expectation at birth in the wealthier districts of London was thirty to thirty-five. Average life expectation of birth in the poorer parishes of the East End was only twenty to twenty-five.

The towns were also prone, of course, to catastrophic ‘crisis morality’ in the form of epidemics, particularly epidemics of bubonic plague. Norwich saw five major epidemics of bubonic plague between 1579 and 1640. London also saw five in the same period and most other major cities witnessed a number. These outbreaks could kill 10-15% of the population or even worse. In York in 1604, which was a really bad year, when the plague spread from city to city across the kingdom — in York in that year roughly 30% of the population died. In Newcastle up here in the northeast in 1636 an estimated 47% of the population died between May and October of that year. These were absolutely devastating events and they were at their worst in the poorer, overcrowded, dirtier areas of the cities. It’s been said by Paul Slack, who’s written a wonderful book about the impact of the plague, that there was a “distinct urban topography” of the plague. The disease was no respecter of persons, but it raged at its worst under certain social conditions.

And yet despite these appalling catastrophes the towns continued to grow, London above all. One of the earliest demographers, a man named John Graunt who published a study based upon the mortality figures for London which were regularly collected by the city authorities to keep an eye on the epidemic disease situation. He studied them for the first time. He made various projections on the basis of those figures. He was a great pioneer of the use of statistical information. He came to the conclusion — I’m quoting him — “let the mortality be what it will, this city repairs itself within two years.” The loss of inhabitants could be rapidly replaced. And the evidence is that this was so, and of course the loss was replaced primarily by continued migration to the towns.

It’s been calculated that in order to replace the numbers who died under these dreadful mortality conditions and to continue to grow in the way that it did London needed an average of 6,000 new people a year coming in to the city to replace its losses and grow. And the evidence is that they came. Some of them came as what one demographer describes as “betterment migrants,” people who came to the city in fairly confident expectation of better opportunities.1 They might come in as apprentices to be apprenticed to a particular trade, their apprenticeship having been arranged by members of their family. They might be people who came in with a known place to fill. Very often for example they might have relatives already in the city who would encourage their migration to join them. A very interesting study by Vivien Brodsky of single women marrying for the first time in London and taking out licenses to marry, which give us some details of their circumstances, she finds, interestingly, that two fifths of these single women marrying in London had kin in the city with whom they were living at the time that they married. So they’d come in from the countryside, they were living with family members already in the city, and then they established themselves and married there.2

Other people came not as betterment migrants with good prospects of that kind but as what have been described as “subsistence migrants,” people looking for any opportunity to find work and hoping that the city would provide it. And clearly it did, perhaps not the opportunities that people hoped for — the streets of London were certainly not paved with gold — but opportunities of a kind, to make a living of some kind. The quickening urban economies of other cities also did the same. In Colchester and in Norwich, for example, the cloth industry was expanding, particularly with the help of refugees from the Netherlands, from the religious wars of the Netherlands, who came and were placed in those cities by Elizabeth’s government and who were welcomed because they introduced certain advanced cloth-making techniques, which helped to improve the local cloth industry and assist its expansion.

In London above all you get a spectacular diversification of manufacturing activity. In east London along the river there were shipyards. There were also businesses producing all sorts of other goods ancillary to the shipping industry: rope making, sail making, coopers making barrels, people making pulleys, pulley makers for the ropes that held — for the rigging of the ships. In London you also find textiles, especially luxury textiles, a massive brewing industry, metal trades, sugar refining, starch making, soap making, glass making, and so one could go. And then of course there was all the activity around the wharves and the river in what was England’s greatest trading city.

So urban economies were expanding. The numbers of apprentices being taken on were growing, the level of activity was growing, the activities themselves were proliferating. But manufacturing in other industries also extended well beyond the cities. Manufacturing of some products had long been established in rural villages under the ‘putting out’ system, and this period also witnessed considerable growth in activities of this kind. It rarely involved really significant technological change of the kind that we associate with the industrial revolution and the birth of the factory system, but what it often saw was the adoption, or the imitation, of the best practices known at the time and the diversification of the products which were being produced, and there was also something of a spread in the geographical location of various kinds of manufacturing activity.

Chapter 4. Changing Industrial Trends [00:26:47]

As you know, the premier traditional industry was the production of woolen broadcloth, most of it exported to the Netherlands where traditionally it was finished and then passed on to markets across Europe. This traditional industry had had something of a crisis of overproduction in the 1550s and thereafter found that its markets were somewhat declining. Its overseas markets were somewhat declining and it faced pretty stiff competition from the Dutch. But the textile industries continued to expand nonetheless. The most dynamic areas of textiles were not the old broadcloth industry but the production of what they called the “new draperies.” The new draperies. These were lighter, fully finished, more colorful cloths rather like modern suit cloth. If old — if the old broadcloths were rather like a heavy blanket, then if you imagine modern suiting cloths that’s what the new draperies were like, worsteds of various kinds. They had lovely names for them. They were always inventing fancy names for these new cloths: Bays and Says and Perpetuanas and Calimancoes. All of these were different forms of worsted cloth.

The new draperies were centered in the towns of East Anglia where they had been- where their establishment had been greatly assisted by the influx of skilled refugees from the Netherlands. They brought their expertise and they helped to revive and transform the cloth industries of those areas especially around Norwich and Colchester. But the new draperies were not the whole story of textile diversification. Up in Lancashire around the town of Manchester, which at this time was not a great city but a small market town, there was the growth in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries of the manufacture of so-called “fustians.” Fustians involved a mixture of cotton and linen and the production of this cloth — it was cheap, coarse cloth for the home market, cloth for the poor — was centered around Manchester. It’s the distant ancestor of what was later to be the great cotton industry of the city of Manchester.

Another thing that was spreading in many rural areas was stocking knitting. The wives of farmers and agricultural laborers were often involved in knitting high-quality stockings. Many people knitted stockings for themselves, but there was a market for high-quality stockings supplied by people working in that way. The stocking industry spread all over Norfolk, spread across the Midlands into the Nottinghamshire area, which is actually still to this day a center for the manufacture of stockings and underwear. Marks and Spencer’s gets a lot of stuff from Nottinghamshire and so on. One could talk about silks, luxury textiles. Silks were introduced by French Protestant refugees from southern France and silk production became established principally in eastern London and also in the town of Canterbury in Kent.

So, a lot of diversification, not only in woolen textiles but in some new developments like silk. And this was part of a larger diversification of manufacturing in town and country. A lot of the new — the altogether new manufacturers which were introduced were really forms of import substitution encouraged by the royal government so that things could be produced at home rather than imported. Traditionally, a great deal of miscellaneous manufactured goods actually were imported, principally from the Netherlands or north Germany. Under Elizabeth the privy council was very responsive indeed to anyone with good ideas for introducing these things into England. They would often encourage them by granting them a patent which would give them the monopoly of producing a certain item for a stated period of years, after which it would be open to anyone who wished to participate in the industry once it was established. It’s the origins of the patent system, of course.

Well, numerous patents were granted. To take some examples, which may seem almost silly but they mattered. Pins. One doesn’t usually think of pins when one thinks of major economic expansion, but in 1597 England imported 40,000 pounds’ worth of pins from the Netherlands. That’s a lot of pins, and a lot of money. In the first decade of the seventeenth century, pin manufacturing was established under patent in the suburbs of London. They mostly employed children making the pins. By the 1630s, the patent had expired and it spread beyond London, became particularly established in villages in the west of England in the Gloucestershire area. From about this time onward, most English pins were produced at home, and so one could go on. Glass was nearly always imported before the 1580s. Patents were then granted for introducing glass manufacture particular — particularly to the counties of Kent and Sussex and then it spread to some other places. There were glassworks around Newcastle very soon. By the 1620s, nearly all glass bottles used in England were being produced at home instead of imported, and so on.

Well, industries of this kind were generally somewhat decentralized in their organization. They were organized on the putting out system. They didn’t involve a great deal in the way of investment in fixed capital in the form of industrial plant, machinery and so forth. Principally, they needed the capital to buy raw materials, to pay workers who were working in their own cottages or workshops; to market the finished goods. It was all done on the putting out system, but there were a number of other industries which were also beginning to bring a rather different face to industrial activity. Iron for example.

Iron manufacturing really got going in the mid-sixteenth century when the technique of using blast furnaces was introduced into England from Germany. It was greatly encouraged by Elizabeth’s privy council because they wanted iron production domestically for the production of munitions. By the 1570s, there were over fifty blast furnaces operating in the forests of the area known as the Weald, down here towards the south coast, the forested area with fast-running streams which were suitable for driving some of the machinery involved. In the early seventeenth century, the industry in the Weald had stabilized, even declined a little, but there was a great deal of relocation to south Wales, largely because that area offered a combination of iron ore, forests to provide the timber to produce charcoal for the blast furnaces, and also fast-running streams to drive the machinery which was used in slitting mills in iron production, machinery driven by water wheels.

All of this is very interesting to go into in detail to see the technology they used, but I’ll spare you that, but it can be followed up if these things interest you. By…by the 1580s, the levels of iron production of the 1550s had increased threefold. By the 1640s, England was producing 23-24,000 tons of pig iron a year. Those were the signs of things to come in the iron industry which continued to grow, but a lot of iron was still imported from Scandinavia in particular, from Sweden especially, to serve a growing industry producing metal wares and that was centered in the West Midlands around the town of Birmingham. Metalware production had taken place there for many years, indeed centuries, but was greatly increasing. They produced there many metal products used in agriculture and in the building industries and in shipping; nails and locks and scythes and buckles, latches for doors, bits and stirrups for horses, and so forth. All of this was organized by iron masters who lived in emerging towns like Birmingham, Walsall, and Stourbridge, and they did it partly by employing independent master craftsmen to produce specialized goods for them and also by putting out work — putting out raw materials for the simpler items like nail making, to cottagers who worked part time. And so one can go on. Lead production was also expanding. Some of the figures are there in table four, 1560s only about 600 tons of lead produced per annum, by the 1630s well over 12,000. Lead production was centered in the hills of Derbyshire and in parts of Somerset where lead deposits were to be found.

And finally, perhaps most spectacular of all in the introduction of these new heavier industries, was the growth of the coal industry. The coal industry, centered around Newcastle on the River Tyne, grew spectacularly under Elizabeth and the early Stuarts in response above all to the demands for fuel exerted by London and other growing cities. In the 1580s, Newcastle exported to London through the coastal trade 50,000 tons of coal a year. By the 1640s, it was exporting 300,000 tons of coal per year in addition to which by 1640 another 200,000 tons were being exported to other English cities. The coal industry could not have grown as it did without the demand being exerted by these growing urban centers. Those urban centers could not have grown as they did without the fuel, the cheap fuel which was coming from the mines of the North. By 1650, the Northeast alone — and there were coal fields in some other areas too — but the Northeast alone was producing half a million tons of coal per annum, quite extraordinary output. Just to give you a sense of what that might mean, a recent historian of these developments has calculated that a ton of coal yields roughly the same heat energy as the charcoal which could be produced by harvesting timber on an acre of land. Okay? So same heat energy as the timber from an acre of land. So, if you’re producing half a million tons of coal per annum you have in effect created half a million acres of land, as it were, in terms of your — the capacity you would need in order to produce that amount of heat energy, and that heat energy was used not only for domestic heating but for any industrial process which required heat. They couldn’t use it for smelting iron yet but they could use it for many, many industrial processes. Is that all clear? Good. You get the point. It’s an interesting way of representing the difference that that kind of industrial development could make.3

Chapter 5. Looking Outward [00:38:53]

Okay. Well, much of this built on existing foundations, but the sheer scale of expansion began to give a very distinct regional geography to the English economy. There were distinctive areas of agricultural specialization emerging and there were also those areas which were rendered distinctive by their involvement in industrial activity. One traveler traveling through the West Midlands near Birmingham in the 1640s described it as being like “one continued village,” large village after large village heavily involved in iron production. The Stour Valley area stretching up from Colchester where the new draperies were well established was described as with — continuing — consisting of a constellation of villages in which a small number of clothiers set on work “a great company of poor people.” There again there’s the extraordinary moonscape which was emerging around the Newcastle coal field area in which there were many, many individual pits working down to depths of two or three hundred feet. And then they couldn’t really go any deeper because of drainage problems so they would simply open a new pit, creating a kind of moonscape across that whole area.

This kind of regional differentiation enhanced the redistribution of the population as people seeking work moved to places which had the capacity to provide them with some kind of employment, be it in agriculture of particular kinds or in industry. I’ve already touched on the migration to the towns. There was also migration to certain rural areas which were becoming very densely populated, especially the manufacturing districts, and those densely populated areas of course exerted demand in their turn for the agricultural products of a more specialized agriculture. Something of the redistribution of population which was going on is summarized in section five of your handout. There are some figures calculated by the demographer E. A. Wrigley showing that between 1520 and 1670 the rural agricultural population, those directly employed in agriculture, was significantly reduced, the urban population living in towns of over 5,000 rose from about 5.5% to over 13%, and the rural non-agricultural population rose from about 18% to something like 26%. That’s the people living in small towns all working in rural industry.

All of this was of course linked together by internal trade. The established arteries of internal trade grew in their significance. Road traffic increased. Traffic around the coast and on the rivers, a very good way of moving bulky goods, greatly increased. Networks of internal trade were elaborated and tightened. If that had not happened, then none of these developments would have been possible. The emerging picture is one of an elaborating web of commercial interconnection pulling the various regional economies together even more tightly than had previously been the case. And this intensification of commercial activity involved new commercial practices, and one of the best indicators of the sheer extent of what was going on is actually provided by the evidence of the law courts.

A great deal of the litigation which took place in England’s law courts concerned broken contracts, disagreements over debts or the meeting of contractual obligations. There was an absolutely massive rise in the amount of such business within the courts. If you look at section six of your handout, you’ll see that in 1560 just over 5,000 cases of this kind were heard by the central courts in London. By 1640, it was almost 29,000 cases being heard a year. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. These are the deals that went wrong and resulted in someone suing someone else. One can only imagine the massive amount of commercial activity which was going on.

Whereas in 1500, then, a great deal of the marketing which had taken place in England was rather localized, with some longer distance flows going across the kingdom in particular commodities — cattle, cloth and so forth — by the early seventeenth century one gets a picture of a society which was ever more closely interconnected and integrated by market dealings and commercial transactions. This was in short a commercializing society, an emerging market economy in which the living and the daily economic dealings of a far larger proportion of the population were shaped by the market.

And finally it wasn’t just becoming a more internally integrated commercial society, it was one which was also linked increasingly to a larger world. Because the same decades in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a transformation of overseas trade, from a pattern which had been very much based on short-distance traffic across the English Channel, a few voyages down to other French and perhaps Spanish ports, but predominantly concentrated on the narrow seas, to one in which English merchants were trading directly with far more diverse areas of the world.

They began doing so partly to look for new markets for English cloth, partly also to get direct access to the source of much desired imports which had previously been obtained from the Netherlands. They stopped trying to go direct to source; looking for grain, for wine, for spices, for luxury textiles from far afield. The late sixteenth century, of course, was the beginning of the great age of exploratory voyages by English navigators, the voyages of Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher and so forth. But the really significant thing from the point of view of the economic development of the period were those who undertake — undertook trading voyages to establish new trades, often with royal backing, often through forming companies which would get a royal charter to conduct trade with somewhere with which England had not previously traded direct.

So companies were founded with royal charters to trade to the Baltic in search of the furs, the grain of Poland, the timber products of Scandinavia, all of which had a place in England’s growing economy. Companies were founded to trade with Russia, sailing north around Scandinavia to the port of Archangel. They intended to proceed from there to get access to central Asian goods, though that was an enterprise which didn’t succeed, but they established trade with Muscovy. There was increasing trade direct with Spain principally for wine and currants, which were extremely popular. There was direct trade with Italy first of all and then with the Levant, bringing in spices, luxury textiles, wine and other goods. And finally, once the Muscovy company had learned that it could not successfully reach the East via Russia, they imitated the Portuguese and went the other way, around Africa to establish the trade with the East Indies with the voyages of the East India Company chartered in 1599 and voyaging for the first time in 1601.

All of these trades once they had become established were consolidated and expanding in the course of the early seventeenth century when they were joined by yet another area of activity, the Atlantic trades. By the 1630s, there were already 300 English ships a year fishing off Newfoundland and bringing back the fish to Europe where dried cod was particularly popular in parts of southern Europe. And increasingly trade had been established with the colonies established upon the American mainland, after 1607, in Virginia and then Maryland of course, from the 1620s onwards in the Northeast, and Caribbean colonies, notably Barbados, being established in the same period. Jamaica wasn’t conquered until the 1650s.

Most of these colonies managed to get on their feet through establishing plantation economies of course, and they produced the goods which were increasingly imported into England and then sold on to other customers. Tobacco for example, tobacco first being produced in large quantities from 1617 in Virginia, the salvation of the colony. 60,000 thousand pounds of tobacco were being imported into London already by 1622. By 1638, they were bringing in two million pounds of tobacco per annum, and from — yes, we’re very ungrateful to tobacco, [laughter] it had a major role. And that was followed from the 1640s by another product about which we’re very ungrateful, sugar, being produced in the West Indies and exported for refining in London.

So then we have a panorama of economic expansion. Attempts to establish overall national income in this period are extremely dodgy, but a number of heroic economic historians have attempted to do it and you’ll find the estimates there in section eight of your table. It seems likely that between the 1560s and the 1590s national income had risen by about 48% and it rose by a further 51% between the 1590s and 1640, over the 80 years as a whole something like 120% growth in national income in real terms. If they’re right about that, and even if they’re wrong by 20%, it’s still a lot. If they’re right about that, it helps to account for the fact that population growth was sustained as long as it was and for the growing signs of prosperity which one finds throughout this period.

And yet despite those positive and optimistic signs, as you’ll see in the final table, table nine, the prices of basic foodstuffs were still rising, suggesting that despite increased output there was a continued imbalance between population and food resources. The period also saw complaints of poverty and a continuing decline in the purchasing power of wages, the declining real wages which you’ll find in the final column of that table on the right.

So having looked at the panorama of economic expansion, what we have to do next time is to look at how this growing national wealth was actually distributed socially and how the trends of this period worked out in terms of the actual life chances of particular social groups. And I’ll do that on Thursday.

[end of transcript]


1.The terms “betterment migrants” and “subsistence migrants” were coined by Peter Clark in “The Migrant in Kentish Towns,” in P. Clark & Paul Slack, eds., Crisis and Order in English Towns1500-1700 (1972).

2. Vivien Brodsky Elliott, “Singlewomen in the London Marriage Market,” in R.B. Outhwaite ed., Marriage and Society (1981).

3. For this calculation, see E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change (1988).

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]