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

Lecture 13

 - A Polarizing Society, 1560-1640


Professor Wrightson reviews the consequences of the economic and population changes discussed in the last lecture. While economic shifts allowed some members of English society, especially members of the gentry and the land-holding classes, to increase their wealth, they also (coupled with an expanding population and price inflation) resulted in the growth of poverty and vagrancy. Professor Wrightson discusses the relative wealth and economic pressures faced by various segments of the early modern population (providing specific examples) and suggests that, while society was becoming increasingly polarized between the poor and the wealthy, there was also a third group, the ‘middling sort,’ who were expanding in numbers and influence. Professor Wrightson concludes by touching on the rising levels of poverty in the period and government responses to it (culminating in the passage of the Poor Laws), as well as very real human element in these larger social and economic processes.

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

HIST 251 - Lecture 13 - A Polarizing Society, 1560-1640

Chapter 1. Effects of Economic Expansion on the Nobility and Gentry [00:00:00]

Professor Keith Wrightson: Okay. Well last time I was presenting a kind of panorama of economic expansion; on the whole, a very upbeat story. It helps to explain how the long population growth of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was able to be sustained. And yet, as the final table on last-time’s handout showed, there’s also reason to doubt whether the expansion was sufficient, or whether the new wealth that was being created was well enough distributed in society, to avoid some real problems. Especially, real wages continued to fall and there were complaints of a growing problem of poverty and vagrancy. So there are paradoxes in the situation. And to get the economic expansion into perspective, we have to look a little more closely at how it actually impacted on people from different social groups. Inevitably that involves a certain amount of generalization but I’ll also try to give you examples of people from different groups which will help to give it something of a human face. So, let’s start by looking, as usual, at the top and at what was happening to the landlords, the gentry, the nobility.

It’s really one of the striking features of English society in this period that many of the nobility and gentry identified themselves very closely with economic innovations. Their imperative was to maintain and, if possible, expand their estate incomes and in doing so they became very deeply involved in the commercial restructuring of the country’s economy.

That’s rather unusual for a traditional ruling class. On the whole, such people tend to rely more upon their social privileges than upon trying to improve their competitiveness. But, certainly, the gentry and the aristocracy, or many of them, did make real efforts of that kind. And you get, basically, an acceleration of the trends which had already become visible in the mid-sixteenth century: a lot more careful management of their estates in order to produce more from their home farms for the market and in order to get a greater rental income. That often involved extending the use of leasehold tenure, tenure of land just like a modern lease; and wiping away the old, rather inflexible, customary tenures so that they had a more flexible management of their rental income. There was also something I touched on last time: a good deal of reorganizing their estates into enclosed farms, for which they could get better rents. And in general, every effort being made to edge rents upwards when opportunity arose. And in general, the landlord class did pretty well.

Of course a lot depended upon the fortunes of particular individuals and their personal quirks and characteristics. To take, for example, the Verney family, who had substantial estates in Buckinghamshire, just to the north-west of London: Sir Edmund Verney, who lived in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, was a man who was principally interested in forging a political career at court. That was very expensive. He had to sink a lot of his income into fortifying his position at the centre and as a result he incurred pretty considerable debts. He succeeded quite well; he became King Charles I’s Standard Bearer. In fact, he died in one of the earliest battles of the English Civil War bearing the King’s Standard. But his son, Sir Ralph, was of a rather different nature; he actually took a different side in the English Civil War. And when the War was over he devoted himself assiduously to restoring and improving the rather depleted inheritance he’d received from his father; involved in all the kinds of measures of estate management that I’ve briefly mentioned. Indeed, Sir Ralph was so keen to rebuild the family’s fortunes that when his first wife died he remained celibate; he didn’t remarry. He didn’t want any more children. He didn’t want the risk of the estate having to be divided amongst more children, since he already had a number who had survived infancy.

So, different personalities, different outcomes; but all part of the same process. In general, the income of the gentry and the nobility was expanding. And much of it was spent, not only upon extending and improving their estates, but upon various kinds of conspicuous consumption. It’s a great age for the rebuilding of the manor house’s of the gentry. Many of the lovely country houses which still survive were built in this period, or rebuilt, as well as some of the great ‘prodigy houses’ of the age. The great mansions: Burghley House near Stamford which is up here in East Anglia; or Kirkby Hall in Northamptonshire, it’s another very good example, that’s over here, the splendid mansion from this period which survives.

They went in for more elaborate furnishing and lifestyles and, in addition, this was a period when many of the gentry and nobility, the wealthier ones, began to spend part of the year in London. It sees the beginnings of the development of what became known as the ‘London Season’: the habit of spending the winter in town and being absent from their estates, which were run by stewards for long periods of the year. This resulted in something of an urbanization of gentry culture, something which has been, recently, very well studied by Julia Merritt in a book on the emerging West End of London; the elite aristocratic enclaves around the royal palaces. To give you an idea of the kind of proportion of these people who might be in town, in 1632 King Charles I, in the circumstances of a harvest emergency, ordered the gentry to return to their estates to keep order and to see to the needs of local people. He had to fine 250 members of the nobility and gentry who were resident in London and didn’t go home when they were ordered to do so. Given that the great gentry and nobility numbered, perhaps, 2,000 families, that’s a very significant proportion of them who were resident in London and were fined for failing to go home.

Chapter 2. The Tenantry [00:06:47]

Well, if this was a good time on the whole, for landlords, if they used the opportunity sensibly, if we turn to their tenantry, to the yeomen and husbandman, one finds a more checkered picture. Opportunities to improve incomes were also common amongst the more substantial farmers. Those who had a big farm with a substantial surplus to market, were actually very well placed to benefit from rising prices and for the growth of the market for their products, be it food-stuff or agricultural raw materials. Many of these yeomen were extremely commercially astute. A very good example is a man called Robert Loder, here’s his name, whose farm accounts survive from the 1610s. He lived just to the west of London in the county of Berkshire. Robert Loder calculated every year exactly how much money he was making from different crops. He took decisions about how to vary his cropping pattern in accordance with price trends, especially the prices which he could get in London, and so forth. He even went so far, at one point, as to actually calculate the value of the dung that his pigeons deposited in his pigeon loft. He figured it out, what it was worth to him if he used it as fertilizer in his gardens. This is commercial rationality of a high order. He also calculated how much money his horses made for him over and above what he had to feed them. He then proceeded to do the same calculation for his servants.

Well, Robert Loder had nothing to learn about economic rationality and his basic attitudes are not untypical of this kind of substantial yeomen farmer. Many such people were willing to expand their operations if they got the opportunity; if land came available on the local land market they would snap it up. They were able to pay higher rents. They were in an excellent competitive position and as a result, you get a general shift in lowland England towards the building up of larger farms. In the county of Essex, for example, here to the east of London, it was very commercially oriented. By the early seventeenth century, nine percent, approximately, of the tenants held sixty-one percent of the land, built up in these large yeomen holdings. And there’s abundant evidence of the prosperity of the yeomanry. It was a great age for them.

This period has been described by historians of housing as the age of the ‘Great Rebuilding’. And by that they mean not only the houses of the gentry, which I’ve already mentioned, but the houses of the yeomanry. It was a period when many of the farm houses inherited from the late medieval period were being remodeled. It was very common, for example, they tended in the late medieval period to be what was known as a ‘hall house’, which was basically one large room with some partitions and a fireplace, the smoke from which would just be emitted through a whole in the roof. This is a period when you see people building great, central chimney stacks, so that they could have fireplaces and get rid of the smoke, making the whole of the interior more comfortable. They tended to divide off the top of the house and to make separate, private chambers above, and frequently they would add staircases, of course, to get up there. They might extend their homes in all kinds of ways. Many of these houses, the great yeomen houses of this period, survive to this day.

When you look at the inventories of these people, which were taken when they died, they also reveal a marked increase in the value of their household goods and in the elaboration of the types of goods that people possessed. William Harrison, a clergyman who described all of this happening in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign, said that despite the fact that higher rents were being paid, many of the villagers in his area — the yeomen farmers are the ones he was thinking of — were able, he said “yet to find the means to obtain and achieve such furniture as heretofore hath been unpossible.” And he went on to specify what that involved: joined furniture made by joiners, proper joined chairs rather than stools; nice tables; bedsteads; soft furnishings. There’s a proliferation in inventories of cushions and of carpet cloths. Carpets were — these were oriental carpets being imported by the Levant Company. They were put on tables, you didn’t put a carpet on the floor; it was far too valuable for that. You put it on the table, to decorate the table. Some representations of interior scenes in this period show that: the carpet across the table. And you find them also having more elaborate table-wear and more elaborate kitchen-wear, all sorts of odd products turning up in their inventories: apple toasters, for example. An apple toaster, something Crate and Barrel should perhaps try to imitate, to hold in the fire with an apple in it, and so on; all kinds of things. It’s been described by one historian of material culture as “a new household culture” with much greater comfort, much greater convenience, being enjoyed by these people.1 They could also put their money into other things: bigger dowries for their daughters so they could marry well. A study of Kent shows that in the reign of Elizabeth, the dowries being paid by yeomen with their daughters rose six-fold in the course of her reign. And they could also spend the money to have their sons apprenticed into trade, into professions, sent to school, in some cases even to the universities, something that I’ll return to on another occasion.

Well, the yeomanry were the big fish of village society. Things were a little more difficult for the little minnows — the smaller guys, the family-farming husbandman. Some of them did fine. If they lived near a city they might have good marketing opportunities, they could specialize in producing fruit or market-gardening or dairying and could do pretty well. You also get a lot of husbandman diversifying their activities into part-time industrial activity. Over in the West Midlands, in the metal working districts, the inventories of scythe makers, for example, can be quite interesting, indicating that these people were engaged in farming, but also in producing scythe blades on the side; they had forges. Generally, they would work at that in the slack periods of the agricultural year.

But for many of these small guys, the period was fraught with risk. The crucial issue was whether they could sustain their small farming economy under changing conditions. These were the people who would have most difficulty meeting higher rents. They might have a poor competitive position. One agricultural writer described them as “weak and un-stocked husbandmen.” They lacked capital; they produced smaller crops; they made smaller profits; they had fewer livestock. They couldn’t really, seriously contemplate indulging in expensive or risky innovations. And they were also very vulnerable to temporary crises like those produced by bad harvests, which could wipe out their surplus and force them into debt. Some of these people became vulnerable and were driven to the wall and their land was taken up by more ambitious neighbors. And, in general, there’s a diminution in the numbers of these small farmers. As the big farms are growing, many of the small ones are disappearing. A whittling away of small tenancies, which, in turn, made it rather difficult for the young to get onto the land to establish a foothold. More of the young people from rural families, after their period as servants in the households of larger farmers, were more likely to spend their lives as agricultural wage laborers than getting land of their own.

So, the fortunes of different groups in rural society varied. They’re broadly fairly clear. One can generalize with some confidence. In the towns the picture’s a little less clear. Clearly there was a lot of commercial development and business opportunity, but this was a period when business was fraught with risk. Finding the capital to set up could be difficult. Keeping businesses going could be difficult in a period when cash flow could be hard to manage. People had to keep a good balance between their debts and credits; that could be very difficult. Accumulation of wealth was often very slow. And even the successful could be wiped out by temporary economic crises; by fraud; by fire — there’s no fire insurance; by shipwreck — there’s no marine insurance; and so forth.

Chapter 3. Trade [00:16:06]

It was to try to counter some of these insecurities that some of the principal merchants of England’s cities preferred, if possible, to be members of chartered trading companies. Those companies which had a monopoly of particular branches of trade, the ones I mentioned last time, and which laid down rules for the conduct of the trade; rules which were generally aimed at securing stable profits for all the members of the company. And to restrict the numbers of people who were involved in particular trades. It’s true that no trading monopoly could protect a merchant from shipwreck, or piracy, or the collapse of demand, but, nonetheless, one can generalize to some degree, about the way in which they fared.

For some, who were members of established companies, things could go pretty well. Take, for example, the Levant Company. The Levant Company traded to the Mediterranean, especially the eastern Mediterranean. In 1570 it was founded. By the early seventeenth century to become a member of the Levant Company meant laying down two to three hundred pounds as membership fee; quite a substantial sum of money. By the early seventeenth century also, this company has been described as, I’m quoting, “a highly ramified network of interconnecting family relationships,” the members of which were often related to one another and controlling a great share of the trade. One contemporary described them as “born rich and adding wealth to wealth by trading in a beaten road to wealth.” In 1627 there were only twenty-four men who controlled fifty-four percent of the Levant trade. So, members of the great companies, having established the trade, could restrict it in various ways in order to ensure some stability in their trading lives. It was members of that company who were later to go on to found the East India Company.

Well, in addition, though, there were certain additional opportunities. Another way to prosper, if you had the nerve and would take the risks, was to get involved in pioneering altogether new trades. And the most significant of those were the American trades. With the early establishment of colonies in America, the initial opportunities were not obviously good and many members of established trading companies were reluctant to invest. That left the path open for those who were prepared to take the risks of involvement and very often, those who got involved in the American trades were men of lesser standing in the merchant community: smaller merchants, even shopkeepers, ships captains, people like that who were willing to get involved; new men, you could say.

They built up, as you know, a very substantial trade in the course of the early seventeenth century. To just give you an example of one of these people, a man called Maurice Thompson. Maurice Thompson was the younger son of a gentry family. He got a little bit of capital from his family but not much more; he didn’t inherit the family estate. He came from Hertfordshire, just to the north of London. How he came to go to Virginia is uncertain, but he was there by the time he was in his mid-teens and he got involved on the ground floor with the development of the tobacco trade. Pretty soon he owned land, he owned a ship, he became involved in the trade in tobacco and in the supply of goods needed by the colonists. He expanded his operations; he married well; he became a significant figure amongst the leaders of the Virginia colony as quite a young man. By the time he was in his early thirties he was back in London, managing much of the — a good part of the Virginia trade from his base there. And, indeed, he went on to expand his operations to become involved in the Indian Ocean and in other ventures. If you’re interested in that kind of person and that kind of development, Robert Brenner’s book, Merchants and Revolution, the first section is a splendid depiction of these shifts and developments in the last years of Elizabeth and under the early Stuarts.

At lower levels in the urban hierarchy, the capital that people needed to set up in business was gradually growing. That made it a little more difficult to establish yourself as an independent master and a great many people had to be content with serving as skilled craftsmen working for others, whereas previously they might have hoped to become independent masters. Even skilled employees were often forced to work longer and more intensively, if the work was available, in order to sustain their living standards. To give you a specific example of this, I’ve got some figures here relating to building craftsmen from the town of Hull, on the east coast. Donald Woodward, in a very imaginative piece of research, worked out the price of foodstuffs; found the wages being paid to craftsmen of different kinds; and then figured out how many days you would need to work to feed husband, wife and three children. So, here are some of his figures. The best paid men in the 1560s could have fed their families with a hundred and fifty-three days work. By the 1630s, with rising prices, and wages not rising so fast, two hundred and twenty-nine days. The worst paid, a hundred and ninety-two days in the 1560s, three hundred and six by the 1630s. So, this was the experience of some of the craftsmen of the towns.

In short then, urban manufactures and the urban manufacturing system was becoming less small master-based and rather more capitalistically structured, with a larger proportion of urban craftsmen having to cope with the difficulties and uncertainties of their dependence upon wage labor. Well, much of the same was true of the industries of the countryside. In Somersetshire, in the West Country, where the cloth industry was the major industry in the 1620s, one contemporary described the “multitudes of poor cottages” which were to be found in the cloth-weaving areas. And he continued they are “stuffed with poor people which get most of their living by spinning, by carding, and such employments about wool and cloth.” And they gained their living most of the time, but he added that when trade was dead “they know not how to live.”

Chapter 4. Social Polarization [00:23:02]

In town and country alike, then, what contemporaries described as the “laboring poor” was emerging as a larger, more wage-dependent population emerged; probably half the population by the mid-seventeenth century, to judge by surviving tax listings. Agricultural intensification and a diversification of industry and urban growth all meant that there was more work for such people. But the work was often seasonal; it was often insecure; there was a lot of under-employment, difficulty finding five days work a week; and so forth. And there was the constant pressure of greater numbers of people on the labor market. And it was this, really, that issued in what’s sometimes described as a problem of ‘structural poverty’. A large number of people whose very way of life on a day to day basis meant periodic hardship was almost inevitable some of the time; people who faced a situation in which the rate of pay for their labor was such as to mean declining capacity to meet the needs of their households.

And that produced a distinct life cycle amongst the laboring poor. They could manage pretty well until they had, say, two children or so. They might even have a little bit of disposable income to spend on manufactured goods, but once they had too many mouths to feed, or if the chief breadwinners fell sick or injured, or if there was a trading depression, they could be plunged immediately into real hardship. And in old age, if they reached old age, they almost inevitably would be dependent upon charity. Many of these people survived by what’s been described as “an economy of makeshifts,” it’s a phrase of Olwen Hufton’s, “an economy of makeshifts.” You get by as best you can, doing what you can. Cottaging where they could; using the commons if they were available; gleaning the fields after the harvest, the poor were allowed to glean for grains of corn in the fields after harvest; and finding various kinds of assistance from their family, from their neighbors; moving around when there seemed to be better opportunities to piece together a living.

And for that reason, they tended to become concentrated in certain areas where those opportunities existed. It was a rather unsettled life for many of them. I’ll give you a couple of examples of these people: Margaret Knowsley she came from Nantwich in Cheshire, there’s her name. She’s visible in the records between 1613 and 1629. She was married to a laborer. We know that she had ten children between 1613 and 1629. Five of her children died in infancy. Something of her working life survives in various records. She worked as an ale wife, making and selling ale; she worked as an agricultural laborer during the appropriate seasons; she did some stocking knitting; she acted as a cleaner for the minister of the parish; she’s thought to have practiced some forms of medical skills, she had some skills in aspects of midwifery, apparently. She was alleged also, from time to time, to have solicited men for money. So, that’s “an economy of makeshifts” indeed. Or, another such person, Henry Savery, he’s visible in the records between 1629 and 1636. He came from Stow Bardolph in the county of Suffolk. We know a little bit about Henry. In 1629 he was a servant. He left service and instead of engaging himself to a new master, decided to go to London. Once he got to London he found it difficult to find regular work so he signed-on for a voyage on a ship, but he wasn’t a very good sailor. By the time the ship had got out into the Thames estuary he was suffering from chronic seasickness and his legs were swelling up. So, finding him no use to him, the shipmaster put him to shore and just landed him and discharged him. He went back to London. There, he was taken by the constables as a vagrant and sent home to Stow Bardolph. In 1635 he decided to try at his fortunes again. He left Stow Bardolph after haymaking where he’d earned a total of seven shillings; he had seven shillings in his purse. He went to the county of Suffolk — further into the County of Suffolk — and worked in various farms there for three months and then he went off to London again. Once again, he found it difficult to find regular work so he began working “up and down the country,” as he described it. He got as far north as York and then made his way back again. Back in London, he found himself once again arrested as a vagrant and sent home to Norfolk. And there we lose track of Henry Savery; he vanishes from the records.2

That’s exactly the kind of person, moving around, trying to earn a living where he could, who might have been the sort of person who would’ve signed-on with a shipmaster in London to become an indentured servant in the new colonies in Virginia and Maryland. And indeed, many people who found their way to London but couldn’t find a place there did just that. In London, there was an institution charged with the oversight of the vagrant poor, the Bridewell. And the governors of the Bridewell actually dispatched over 1,100 people to Virginia and the West Indies between 1618 and 1658. At first they were mostly men, about ninety percent men, but by the 1630s about a third of them, or close to a third, were women. Two thirds of these people who were sent had been taken by the officers on the streets of London. Some of them were accused of crime, they might have been accused of being pickpockets or thieves; but most of them were simply out on the streets. They were described as “out after curfew” or “nightwalkers” — that was just loitering suspiciously on the streets at night. Some of them were former servants who had no place and were on the streets, and they were sent by the Bridewell to the new colonies.

One of those who was sent gave his occupation as “Ballad Singer” which makes me wonder if that’s the origins of country music [laughter]. I’m serious [laughs]. In the early twentieth century, songs collected by folklorists in the Appalachians, many of those songs can actually be traced back to printed ballads which are known to be sung on the streets of London in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. They passed into the oral culture of the Appalachian area.

Well, one can go on about these people. There’s a wonderful recent book by Paul Griffiths called Lost Londons which looks closely at them through the records of the Bridewell. The Bridewell kept excellent records; they even kept physical descriptions of some of the people they dealt with so they could identify them if they turned up again. And so, we have descriptions of, you know, their stature: “slender;” “well-set;” “thick-set;” one was described as “great-gutted.” Their complexion: “sallow;” “high-colored;” “bright;” “sad,” a sad complexion was described. Their hair color: “flaxen;” “dark brown;” “betwixt auburn and flaxen.” All of these descriptions are entered in the books. Their clothing: a woman found on the streets wearing a red petticoat and a white upper-bodice; so, poor but colorfully dressed. Some, of course, were beggars who were near-naked. You get descriptions also of their medical condition: “pock-marked in his face”; “a small scar upon his forehead;” “burned in the hand,” that means someone had been found guilty of a crime and branded for future identification. And sometimes they were suffering from disease: “palsied;” “scurvy;” “scalded-headed,” that was very common. It meant a kind of scalp condition. One man, well, a boy actually, described as “his toes almost rotted off.” Others were mentally ill: “crack-brained;” “silly;” “simple.” That’s how they’re described. One description that arrested me when reading this was: “a Northern man by his speech,” “high-colored,” “beard close-cut mingled with white hair,” “in a manner crazed.”

And then you get those people on the streets of London who had no known identity, they turn up in the parish records. The parish of Saint Bartholomew’s, for example, gave assistance to a beggar who turned up at the church who had no name. They put him down in their account books as money given to “Bartholomew Need.” “Bartholomew Need” because he came to Saint Bartholomew’s church. And you find the children who were left on the streets. Often when they were taken in by parish authorities, they would give them a name: “Michael Found;” “Joan Foundbasket” (a baby found in a basket);” “Porch Wall,” she was found in porch of the church of Saint Andrew by the Wall, so they baptized her “Porch Wall”; and so one could go on, “Joan Mad.” Or those who were sometimes buried in the parishes, found dead on the streets: “John No Name”; “Jane Nobody.”

So, England’s increasing income was very unevenly distributed. It was an expanding economy but one with an expanding problem of structural poverty. It was a commercializing society in which there were great opportunities, but many of those who had nothing to sell but their labor were in a poor competitive position and in an exceedingly risky environment. Of course, some aspects of those insecurities were perennial, but at times they could become particularly acute. And the times that stand out are the 1590s, which was a time when the harvest failed four years in a row, food prices rocketed, the weaknesses in the economy were revealed, and there was widespread misery. Indeed, in the years 1596 to 1598 there was actual famine in the most vulnerable areas; parts of the far north, north-west in particular, and parts of the far west. There’s evidence of actual death from starvation. The 1620s was another decade when there were bad harvests, combined, in this case, with an industrial depression. War in Europe had dislocated the markets for some of the goods that England exported, leading to industrial depression. There was widespread unemployment and poverty in many of the weaving areas. And again, some sinister evidence of actual famine in some of the most exposed areas. These were the hardest years. Really acute crises of that kind, of course, were exceptional, but they revealed the weaknesses within society as a whole.

So, how to conceptualize all of this? Very often historians talk about these decades, these generations at the turn of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, as witnessing a process of “social polarization” and there’s some obvious truth in that. There’s a real divergence going on in living standards and in life chances in a more competitive, commercialized economy. But it’s also, in some ways, more complex than simply the notion of polarization. In many ways, the social structure was rearticulating into a, sort of, three-part form. There were greater opportunities, on the one hand, to acquire and to consolidate wealth. There was a greater population of laboring poor on the other hand, both of which we’ve looked at. But there was also the elaboration of what contemporaries were beginning to describe as the “middle sort of people,” between the gentry and the poor. Successful manufacturers and tradesman, substantial yeomen farmers, increasing numbers of people involved in professions like the law and medicine and the offering of services of other kinds: surveyors, clerks, land agents and so forth.

So, it all depends on how one looks at it. You can focus your attention upon the real polarization; you can also take account of these middling groups who are doing quite well. But, whichever way one looks at it, it’s clear that the old medieval conception of a society, simply describable in terms of three estates, had gradually decomposed under the pressure of economic and social change, and society was gradually recomposing itself; adopting a new shape under the pressure of various economic fields of force. And that transition involved not only shifts in the structure of society, but also shifts in peoples’ attitudes and values.

Chapter 5. Further Developments [00:37:24]

By the early seventeenth century, decades of cumulative economic and social change meant that economic relationships and forms of behavior which had previously appeared new and rather threatening were becoming more normalized, more taken for granted. And some traditional values were losing some of their older moral force and you can see that in various ways, but a good example is to look very briefly at the problem of enclosure, the classic issue of great symbolic significance in agrarian society. As you know, in the mid-sixteenth century, enclosure had been demonized as something which was damaging to the well-being of the ploughman, to the strength of the nation, destructive of households and of the Commonwealth. And throughout the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, actual enclosure schemes were very often opposed by coalitions of tenants and commoners who tried to defend their customary ways against the initiatives of landlords and others, and we look at that again when I look at popular protest.

But, meanwhile, the debate over enclosure was gradually shifting. You get that shift reflected in Parliament. In 1601 there was a debate on the enclosure laws and whether or not to repeal them. Sir Robert Cecil, son of William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister, speaking on behalf of the privy council said, “I think that whosoever doth not maintain the plough, destroyeth this kingdom.;” very much the traditional attitude towards enclosure. He was opposed by Sir Walter Raleigh, yes, the Sir Walter Raleigh, who said he agreed that there was a situation which must be faced regarding agricultural change, but he argued that there were lots of countries in Europe which could produce corn cheaper than England could and, therefore, it should be imported rather than insisting upon maintaining land under the plough. He argued that every man should use his land to its best advantage and should be at liberty to do so. “Leave every man free,” he said, to pursue his economic interest. So we have the voice of economic individualism opposing Cecil.

Debates like that in Parliament reveal a gradual process of transition in attitudes, tensions and shifts between older and newer attitudes, and that tension was resolved in various ways: sometimes by authoritative adjudication, by government decisions in Parliament or the privy council; often by sheer expediency, by people gradually adjusting themselves, voluntarily or reluctantly, to the demands of a changing world. In the case of enclosure, gradually most of the gentry and many leading tenant farmers came to accept its desirability, and the laws against it were in fact repealed in 1624, leaving people free to use their land as they saw best, as Raleigh had argued.

Well, the attempts to stabilize and channel change by the use of the law gave way gradually to attempts simply to alleviate the worst manifestations of change where it had led to major social distress, and the greatest monument to efforts of that kind were the Poor Laws. The crisis years of the 1590s led to the overhaul and consolidation and extension by Parliament of earlier measures which had been taken in poor relief, resulting in great consolidated statutes of 1598 and 1601. Under those statues, a full national system of poor relief was created, based upon compulsory local taxation at the level of the parish, administered by officers to be appointed in every parish. Under the laws, vagrants were to be punished and restrained; those who were deemed the “impotent poor” — the aged, the sick, the orphaned — were to be relieved by being paid weekly pensions in their parishes; and finally, the “laboring poor” — those who could get by most of the time but needed occasional relief — were to be periodically relieved by the parish to enable their families to get through hard times and, where possible, work was to be created for them.

So what you have in the Poor Laws is a mixture of charity and discipline. In some ways, the system was quite well devised to deal with the periodic life-cycle crises of the laboring population, though rarely generously. It was a system which in many ways demonstrated England’s relative wealth. There was a tax base there to pay for it. But it was one, of course, which also demonstrated how unequally distributed that wealth was. In one parish, for example, the parish of Cawston in Norfolk, where the laws were put into operation very early, there were sixty-eight people in the parish out of one hundred and sixty households who were able to pay the poor rates to support the system. At the other end of the scale there were twenty households who received weekly pensions. So, sixty-eight are paying, twenty are receiving pensions, all the ones in between are neither paying nor in receipt of relief, though in bad times some of those families might receive occasional help. So, the Poor Laws, in a way, are both a response to and enshrine some of the changes which had taken place in society at the local level.

I’ve surveyed, then, a process of redistribution of wealth in a changing economic environment. Economic development had enabled the population of England to grow faster, for longer than was usually the case in other European countries at this time. But the benefits of economic growth were poorly distributed and that showed.

Population, at last, began to stabilize in the third decade of the seventeenth century and that began to slow down this long-term process of change. The reasons for that stabilization were, partly, shifts in mortality — the evidence is that life expectation at birth was deteriorating in the early seventeenth century — but it was restrained even more by shifts that were taking place in fertility; quite significant shifts. In the early seventeenth century, the rates of fertility that can be calculated from the parish registers of parishes show that marital fertility was falling quite sharply. That was produced, in part, by a rising age at marriage, people were marrying later and having fewer children. But it was also produced by a larger proportion of the population never marrying at all. It was startling when historical demographers discovered that of the people who were coming up to marriageable age, from the 1620s through to the 1650s, people who’d been born around 1600 to 1610, or thereabouts, as many as twenty percent, or sometimes even more, never married. It’s a quite extraordinary figure; a very large proportion of the population remaining unmarried. What we seem to have here is evidence of a situation in which, for those who were doing least well in the circumstances of the time, life was too insecure, or living standards were too marginal, for them to be able to marry and establish independent households of their own. As a result, fertility declined; population gradually stabilized.

As population stabilized, so did prices. The great underlying dynamic of change from the second quarter of the sixteenth century through to the mid-seventeenth century was over. But that long dynamic of population growth, inflation and its many consequences in economy and society, had unleashed economic changes which would not be reversed and they had significantly reconfigured the structure of society and the relationship between its members.

So, with that, I’ve tried to briefly set the scene for you, and now we can go on to look at a number of other aspects of society and culture, starting next week with the issues of witchcraft and popular literacy and crime.

[end of transcript]


1. Matthew Johnson in An Archaeology of Capitalism (1996).

2. For Margaret Knowsley, see Steve Hindle, “The Shaming of Margaret Knowsley: Gossip, Gender and the Experience of Authority in Early Modern England,” Continuity & Change, 9 (1994), and for Henry Savery, see S.D. Amussen, An Ordered Society. Gender and Class in Early Modern England (1988).

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