You are here
HIST 251: Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts
- "Commodity" and "Commonwealth": Economic and Social Problems, 1520-1560
Professor Wrightson surveys the changing economic landscape of early modern England in the early sixteenth century. He notes that, throughout the period, population levels rose and, at the same time, inflation caused a rise in prices, and real wages fell. While many landowners were able to raise rents on their lands and profit from enclosing land, and many yeoman farmers prospered, these trends also resulted in a measure of social dislocation and a growth in poverty and vagrancy. Moral outrage at these developments was voiced by the so-called Commonwealth’s Men, and popular discontent resulted in large scale rebellions, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace and Kett’s Rebellion. Professor Wrightson ends by discussing the economic thought of Sir Thomas Smith, which influenced government initiatives to combat these problems.
|Low Bandwidth Video
|High Bandwidth Video
Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts
HIST 251 - Lecture 9 - "Commodity" and "Commonwealth": Economic and Social Problems, 1520-1560
Chapter 1. Rising Prices and Population [00:00:00]
Professor Keith Wrightson: Okay. Well, we’ve seen now how the early Tudors managed to reestablish the authority of the monarchy; how that achievement was threatened by the succession crisis which was looming under Henry VIII; how that problem was met by actions which further extended royal authority over the church, but at the same time, of course, introduced a new form of instability into the kingdom — potential conflict over religion. But that wasn’t all that was going on and there were other sources of instability which were set in motion at around the same time in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. What adds additional complexity to the whole situation is the fact that there were simultaneous shifts in some of the basic aspects of economic and social life which in 1500 would have been more or less taken for granted. The problem then had been political instability, not social instability. But soon social instability was to be on the agenda. And people knew by the 1530s and 1540s that they lived in radically changing times in more ways than one.
The phenomenon of which they were most acutely aware was rising prices, rising prices for the basic necessities of life. Prices of goods had been fairly stable for most of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, but around about the second decade of the sixteenth century they began rising. If you look at your handout, section one, you’ll find there an index of prices for what’s described as a basket of basic consumables, mostly foodstuffs and other essentials of life. You can see from that index, which stands at around 100 in 1500, how prices rose rapidly in the course of the sixteenth century. At first it was a modest trend. It picked up momentum in the 1530s. Price rises were very rapid indeed in the 1540s and ’50s and they continued to rise more slowly thereafter. So, they faced a problem of inflation, and the causes of that inflation were complex. They’re much debated, but amongst them one of the most principal seems to have been the fact that population was also growing. The pressure was being felt of increasing numbers of people on relatively inelastic resources, forcing up prices.
If you look at section two of your handout, you’ll see the best figures available from demographic historians of what the population of England was at different points in the earlier sixteenth century. The best estimates we have suggest that in the 1520s about 2.4 million. By the 1550s that had risen to about 3 million, by 1570 3.3 million, and still rising. The annual rate of increase can be calculated and it’s there on the right-hand side. In the 1540s about 0.64% per annum, in the 1560s almost 1% per annum, 1570s over 1% per annum. These are quite rapid rates of increase for a preindustrial population. In fact, that kind of rate of population increase was not matched again in England until the late eighteenth century at the height of the Industrial Revolution. So the population was rising.
Now explaining why that was so is far from easy, but in all likelihood it was to do with a fall in death rates in the early sixteenth century in a population which had a fairly high fertility rate and high propensity to grow if it wasn’t culled by severe mortality. So death rates, still high by our standards, seem to have been falling somewhat. If you’re interested in that kind of historical demography and would like to pursue the issue of population dynamics, then I’d be happy to advise you on more detailed reading. But for the moment it’s enough to just register the essential facts: prices are rising; population is rising; the two are probably connected.
Chapter 2. Landlords and the Peasantry [00:04:45]
What I want to focus on today is the fallout from all of that: some of the stresses in society which were produced by this dynamic of population growth and price inflation, how it impacted on different groups in society. And one can start at the top with the landlords, gentlemen, noblemen, the monarchy. In most cases the bulk of landlords’ incomes, as you know, came from rents and they needed that income to sustain the lifestyles which were appropriate to their station as gentlemen, to sustain their magnificence. In that situation their biggest problem as the sixteenth century went on was rising prices but an inflexible income. At worst many of them had tenants who enjoyed fixed rents; they’d been granted fixed rents at some point in the past. At best they were in a position to periodically modify the rents they got for their lands, but they were still relatively inflexible. Land was often granted for long periods of time on a fixed agreement for that term. It might be twenty, thirty years. Land was also let according to customs, as you know, which had been established in particular areas which might inhibit the landlords’ capacity to adjust the rent levels. That’s very bad news when prices are rising. So, how did these people cope?
For the most part landlords coped by gradually trying to alter the terms on which they granted their land to the peasantry. They tried to let it for shorter leases which they could renegotiate more often, try to get the lease down to seven years, ten years or whatever rather than ninety, which had been quite common in the past. They also tried to change local customs regarding what kind of fine or down payment they could get when they let land. For example, on the estates of the Herbert family, which were located in Wiltshire in the southwest, in the first half of the sixteenth century they managed to roughly double the fines which they were getting when a new tenant took land from them.
Well, it was only possible for landlords to squeeze their tenants a little harder in that way because land was in demand. The rise in population, rise in population for the first time in a century and a half, meant that there was demand for land in a way that hadn’t really been known since the fourteenth century. There’s a lot of evidence of people nibbling at wasteland, forest land, moor land, bringing land into cultivation. In the Forest of Inglewood for example, which was located up in the northwest of England, up here, there was a survey made of illegal ‘encroachments’ in the forest, people cutting out a little piece of land for themselves where they could squat, and it revealed that over a period of twenty or thirty years almost 200 encroachments had been made into the forest there.
So pressure on the land. And inevitably also as the population rose the size of the wholly landless population rose too. There were more young people surviving to adulthood for whom there was no inheritance, no place on the land. Now those shifting circumstances, the pressures on landlords, the pressures that they’d pass on to their tenants, the pressure of population growth, helped to explain the emergence in the early sixteenth century of some quite severe tensions in the relationships between landlords and farm tenants. Tensions in particular over customs and the emergence of one particular cardinal grievance, the grievance of ‘enclosure’.
Now as I’ve explained earlier, in some areas of the kingdom agriculture had never been practiced in great open fields but had been practiced already on enclosed farms. Before 1500, in the areas where there was — there were — open fields, some of them had been reorganized by enclosing them to make sheep pastures. This was done by landlords who were short of tenants. They found that doing that was a good way of keeping their land in production, although a low-intensity production, when otherwise it might go vacant or might be unprofitable. Wool was in demand from the cloth industry so they went over to a kind of sheep ranching. At the time that wasn’t particularly controversial, but after the 1510s steps to enclose land which had formerly been open became much more controversial. In the Midlands, which was a major wool-supplying area, many landlords withdrew land from the plow to turn it into sheep ranches despite the growing demand from tenants for land. Some landlords also took in and enclosed for their own use land which had formerly been the common pastureland of particular villages. Thereby they reduced the area of common pasture available to their tenants, which was a further grievance, especially since common land was particularly valuable in conditions of land hunger.
Well, these changing conditions meant that enclosure, which had previously been merely a tactic you could adopt on your estate, became a quite significant grievance in many areas of the kingdom. It seemed to many people a very visible sign of the changing balance of power in rural society between lords and tenants. Sir Thomas More in his Utopia refers to the phenomenon of sheep eating men in England at this time, reflecting that sense of grievance. It’s for these reasons that issues of rents and fines and customs and common land became a quite explosive cocktail in landlord-tenant relations by the mid-sixteenth century.
And there was also a little more to it than that. The economic trends and the population trends of the period were gradually producing a greater differentiation in village society amongst tenants. There were those who did quite well in these circumstances, especially the bigger farmers, the yeomanry. Quite often they held part of their land in freehold; they were somewhat protected. Quite often they produced a large surplus which they could market and if prices were rising they could make bigger profits. They were able to pay higher rents without too much trouble. They might take on more land to extend their operations, and if they wanted to do that they were in a far better position to compete for available land than were their poorer neighbors. So this is a period when one sees the yeomanry becoming increasingly differentiated in their wealth and living standards from their poorer neighbors. These were people who were able to benefit from the trends of the period. They showed a lot of ambition in the way they did that, and the ambition of those who were best able to take advantage of the trends of the — this generation, that ambition is also shown in response to another economic development of the period and this time it’s an economic development which wasn’t directly connected to population or price trends but was connected to religious changes. And I’m thinking of course of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the bringing on to the market of vast quantities of former monastic land.
Some figures relating to this are there on your handout in section three. Basically, between 1536 and 1540 about 60% of the land which was owned by the church was transferred to the crown through the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Many studies have been done of individual counties. In the county of Essex, down here to the east of London, for example, the church had owned about 28% of the manors in that county. By 1540, after the Dissolution it owned only 2%; a massive transfer of land. Well, these seizures of church land were probably intended by Thomas Cromwell to endow the crown in perpetuity with massive land holdings which would render it absolutely unchallengeable and indeed might even render it independent of any grants of taxation from Parliament. But if that was Cromwell’s intention it failed to materialize, because most of the monastic land was quite rapidly disposed of by the crown. By the time Henry VIII himself died in 1547, he had already sold something like two thirds of the monastery land which had come in to him, and still more of this land was sold later. For example, there’s been a study done of the whole of Wales which shows that of the monastic land there 60% had gone by the death of Henry in 1547 and by the time Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 75% of the monastery land had been disposed of.
Why would the crown dispose of the land in this kind of way? Well, basically to pay for wars; wars which were getting more expensive, requiring fortresses, modern weapons, new ships and so forth. Henry VIII in his last years engaged in short, inconclusive, utterly futile, assertions of his rights, as he saw them, against France and against Scotland resulting in wars and massive expenditure which accounted for much of the monastic land.
For our purposes today it’s interesting to note the results of studies which have looked at the identities of who’s buying this land from the crown. Quite a lot went to the heads of established noble and gentry families, people who were anxious to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to consolidate their estates, to rationalize the estates and so forth, to build up their holdings in particular areas of their strength. Another group who emerged quite strongly are people who were the youngest sons of such gentry and noble families, people who in the normal course of events would expect most of the family’s property to pass to their older brothers, but who now had an opportunity to get in and get some land for themselves. Younger brothers. They could set up cadet branches of the family and sometimes they did so with the money which they had generated in trade or in professions. Younger sons were often put into trade or into professions and were able to make the money which enabled them to return to landed society and set themselves up as minor gentlemen.
Another significant group were upwardly mobile people from the middle ranks of society: yeoman farmers piecing together field to field until they could emerge with a sufficient estate to call themselves gentlemen; people from the towns who had no gentry ancestry, perhaps lawyers, perhaps merchants, prosperous craftsmen and tradesmen, who were able to acquire land and its superior social status, perhaps in some cases on a level which would again bring them into the lower ranks of the gentry. So there were customers enough for this monastic land, and to serve their needs there were many speculators. A lot of the monastic land was bought by speculators who rapidly sold it on.
The overall effects of this was a kind of feeding frenzy in the land market. It resulted of course not only in the severe reduction of the position of the church as a great landowner, but it also resulted ultimately in a very significant rise in both the numbers of those who called themselves gentlemen and in the relative wealth of the gentry as a whole. So some people were doing very well out of all of this, but of course it’s not all buoyancy. No process of change of this kind ever is, and so one has to ask, “who were the losers in these processes?” And there are some large and quite obvious groups.
Amongst the losers were the small farm tenants who couldn’t easily meet rising rents, who didn’t sell enough on the market to produce the profits which would pay them, who were finding it difficult to make ends meet. Then there were those who were — one could think of as would-be farm tenants, those who might aspire to getting a foothold on the land but found it increasingly difficult because rents were rising, fines were rising and so forth, and they couldn’t compete with the bigger guys in the village who could take up land that came available on the local market. It could be quite a difficult time for the young in that respect. But above all there were the growing numbers of landless people in the countryside or in the towns whose living depended principally on what they could earn from wage earning as laborers and the rights to use commons which they might enjoy in the places where they lived.
Those who depended on wages were particularly hard hit by inflation and despite the fact that prices were rising, squeezing their living standards, wages rose only slowly because the population was growing and there was plenty of labor available. Wages tended to remain pretty sticky at customary levels for long periods of time. That meant that people’s real wages, the real purchasing power of their wages, was falling. And quite close studies of this have been done and they suggest that between 1510 and 1550 the purchasing power of wages fell by about 40% in the south of England. By the 1550s, they were down 50% and they began to recover modestly only in the later sixteenth century. So these were quite hard times for a lot of people. William Harrison, who wrote a famous description of England at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth, described how many of what he described as the “inferior sort of people” lived principally on what he called “white meats”: eggs and cheese and bread. In times of dearth they were particularly hard hit and might have to live on peas and beans or even ground acorns which they tried to bake into bread. He added, “I will not say that this extremity is often also found in times of plenty, but if I should I could easily stand my trial.” That’s Harrison’s ironic comment on the living standards of the poor in his time.
Chapter 3. Poverty [00:21:14]
Well, all of this is reflected in a growing contemporary concern with the problem of poverty. There had always been poor of course, but poverty as a major social problem hadn’t been a major issue in the fifteenth century. It was more a matter of the poverty that resulted from life cycle crises of a small minority of people: the widowed, the aged, the sick, orphaned children. These were the ones that contemporaries referred to as the “impotent poor,” those who could not help themselves, those who were poor by circumstance beyond their control. But as the sixteenth century advanced people began talking and writing about poverty in two worryingly expanded forms.
They first became aware of the problem of vagrancy, the problem of what they called ‘rogues and vagabonds’, homeless people visible on the streets of the towns or on the roads of the countryside. People like one man who was arrested by the justices of the peace over near the Welsh border who, in the examination which they took from him, told them that he was a person who dwells no — I’m quoting the examination — who “dwells nowhere nor has no abiding but where he might find work.” The vagrant looking for work, moving around the countryside. People like this were a much more common sight as the sixteenth century advanced. It’s quite interesting that in his translation of the New Testament William Tyndale, in trying to describe a scene from the Acts of the Apostles where Saint Paul is attacked by a mob in Thessalonica, translated the Greek word which literally means people standing in the street, he translated it as “vagabonds.” When Tyndale tried to imagine people hanging around in the street he imagined them as some of these vagrants who he would have seen in the streets of London.
So vagrancy, rogues and vagabonds, are emerging as a significant problem. On the other hand, there was the growing problem of what they described as the “laboring poor,” people whose whole style of life was based increasingly on a kind of economy of makeshifts, getting work wherever they could. Working, certainly, but finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The laboring poor, people who would also fall into really severe poverty if they suffered any misfortune; if they couldn’t find work, if there was a depression in the cloth industry, if they fell sick, and so forth. These people were especially visible in areas where wage workers were concentrated, principally the towns or those areas of the countryside where many people worked in rural industries.
Okay then. Let’s just take stock. By the 1540s, rising prices and demographic growth had seen in some ways a quickening of economic activity. For some people this brought new opportunities and indeed enhanced prosperity. But at the same time there was also a growing sense of tension in the relationships between landlords and their peasant tenants, an emerging problem of land hunger, a growing problem of a wage laboring population which was very vulnerable to poverty on an unaccustomed scale. Now people were aware of these changes, they were aware of the tensions, but from their perspective at the time it was the symptoms of change which were more apparent than the actual causes. It was exceedingly difficult for people in the sixteenth century to comprehend what was happening to them. They didn’t keep official statistics. The figures which are on your handout have been calculated by historians using a variety of sources. Contemporaries didn’t have information of this kind. They tended to perceive changes and emergent problems of this kind through their inherited attitudes, their essentially medieval moral philosophy; a view of the world in which economic behavior wasn’t treated as a distinct area of activity, a phenomenon to be studied in itself by the science of economics, they saw it as a branch of personal and social morality. The ideal world in their view was the world of the commonwealth, which I’ve described to you. They saw these problems as failings in the ideal of the commonwealth, failings which could be attributed to the misdeeds of specific people.
Chapter 4. The Commonwealth’s Men [00:26:29]
Well, these ideas not only persisted throughout the early sixteenth century but they were powerfully reemphasized in the 1540s with the emergence of a group of moralists, most of them Protestant clergymen, in the reign of Edward VI, who addressed these social and economic grievances. They were known at the time as the “Commonwealth’s Men” because they talked constantly about the needs of the commonwealth. Such people also saw the reformation not simply in terms of the jurisdictional independence of the Church of England from the Church of Rome, or simply in terms of fundamental doctrinal changes. They also thought it was an opportunity for the re-moralizing of society, the revitalization of Christian values in society. They advocated an ideal Christian commonwealth. They thought this was the opportunity to achieve it, and yet they saw all around them evidence of the corruption of social relationships by what they saw as the cardinal sin of covetousness, one of their favorite words, covetousness — greed — and the pernicious idea again which they constantly refer to that, quote, “every man may do with his own as he will.” The motion that every man may do with his own as he will, which they regarded as an unchristian attitude.
In their view, worldly goods were given by God to be handled with stewardship, with an interest to society as a whole. So their social vision was essentially conservative. They saw change in terms of social dislocation and moral corruption. They denounced the representatives of covetousness whom they identified. They spoke for example of “ungentle gentlemen.” They attacked what they called the “caterpillars of the commonwealth” who were eating up its green shoots. They attacked what they saw as exploitation and oppression of the poor, and they did all of this in a language reminiscent of Old Testament prophets. R. H. Tawney, a great historian of these changes, says they used the moral rhetoric, in his words, of “an age that had rediscovered the Bible.” Well, it hadn’t rediscovered it. It had discovered it for the first time in English, and as I say, the language of Jeremiah or Isaiah is the kind of language that they used to denounce what they saw as a world out of joint.
Well, the pamphlets written by these people in the 1540s and 1550s are a quite magnificent literature of moral indignation. It still has the capacity to thrill when you read it. It indicated also what’s been described by one recent historian as a “crisis of legitimation,” a crisis of legitimation. [Historian in question is Andy Wood.] The world seemed out of joint in so many ways, but response to change also took a more direct form. There were not only those who were appealing for reform, for moral reformation, for people to behave as they should, there were also those who were prepared to directly resist these changes especially in the countryside. From about the 1530s onwards, researchers working on records of local government and on the courts find that the country was increasingly pockmarked with minor forms of disorder as the peasantry of particular localities resisted initiatives on the part of their landlords, perhaps rioting against the enclosing of fields or of common land and so forth, or against changes in their customs and tenures. And such resistance becomes above all evident in some of the great risings of the commons which took place in the middle third of the sixteenth century, risings which convulsed first the north of England and then the east of England in particular.
The first of these risings was the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, a rising of much of the north of England. This was a complex event. It combined religious hostility to the reformation and a desire to defend the monasteries, which had been ordered to be dissolved, with a variety of other grievances and in particular agrarian grievances against the enclosing of commons and the forcing up of entry fines to land. It was described by those who took part in it as a “pilgrimage of grace for the commonwealth,” for the commonwealth as a whole, and those who mustered for the pilgrimage, some 20,000 men, regarded themselves as defending each branch of the commonwealth. They wanted the king to turn away from his evil counselors, they wanted the ancient rights of the nobility to be properly recognized, they wanted the rights of the church to be respected and, as they put in one of their statements of grievances, they also demanded that the “commonalty be used as they should be” — “the commonality be used as they should be” — particularly in matters relating to the land.
So this was a complex event. It led to the rebel army eventually mustering near Pontefract in South Yorkshire, having taken the city of York where it faced a standoff with royal troops under the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke negotiated with the rebels, persuaded those gentlemen who had joined them, in particular, to act as negotiators with the crown, promised that their grievances would be met, and persuaded them to disperse. The rebels were wrong to trust Norfolk. He was already writing to the crown that he regarded no promises made to a rebel as binding. And when the crown got the opportunity with the flurry of a few more agrarian troubles in the northwest at the beginning of the following year royal troops went in and suppressed them with considerable violence. Robert Aske, the leader of the rebels who was a lawyer from York, along with a number of other figures, was arrested, tried and executed for treason. That was the Pilgrimage of Grace, probably the biggest threat that the Tudor monarchy ever faced.
Then in 1549 came another widespread burst of unrest known as the “Camping Time,” because many tenants from particular areas were gathering together in protest and forming camps. These were scattered all over central, eastern and southern England. Many of these camps were ultimately dispersed. The Earl of Arundel in Sussex for example, down towards the south coast, met the protesting peasants, assured them that he would speak for them on their behalf, and persuaded them to disperse. This was the way that it could sometimes be handled and Arundel kept his word; he did speak for them.
But one particular rising did not disperse and that was the one in the county of Norfolk led by Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer. Kett’s rebels advanced to set up a camp just outside Norwich, on Mousehold Heath outside Norwich, where Kett, who was very well organized, had a supply system to keep the — to keep his army, as it was by then, well supplied. He sat under an oak tree on the heath which was known as the Oak of Reformation and there with his counsel he delivered justice to the local farm tenants against their gentlemen landlords. The principal grievances of the Norfolk rising were agrarian. They were protesting against enhanced rents and against the abuses of common land by their landlords. And they’re also remarkable in that Kett’s rebels refused to disperse. Eventually, a royal army was sent against them. It consisted mostly of mercenaries who had been hired from Germany and Italy. They didn’t dare use English troops for fear they would sympathize with the rebels. Kett’s army refused to disperse and went down fighting in a battle at Dussindale just outside the city of Norwich.
It’s been said of these peasant rebels that they were trying to create “a world in which gentlemen were kept at arm’s length.” They were trying to preserve the rights that they had in the land in a changing economic climate which threatened to diminish them, trying to create a world in which gentlemen were kept at arm’s length, and their statements of grievances and demands make very interesting reading. There’s a rich literature on these rebellions. If anyone’s interested in that for an essay topic, I’d be happy to advise you.
So in seeking to restore what was essentially an idealized vision of stable social relationships, the just commonwealth, an ideal which they located in a past golden age, both the peasant rebels and the literary Commonwealth Men, the preachers and clergy, had a great deal in common. And together they give perhaps the most vivid expression, literary expression and practical expression, to the sense that many people had in the mid-sixteenth century that the bonds of society, the bonds of commonwealth, were fraying and falling apart. But neither the Commonwealth’s Men in their books and sermons nor the peasant rebels could turn back the dynamic of change. Moral exhortation or localized protest by people who couldn’t face a royal army effectively were not enough and both were swept aside after 1549.
It’s one of the nice ironies of history that the place outside Norwich, now in the suburbs, where Kett’s rebels were finally defeated very bloodily — many were slaughtered — Dussindale, is now the site of a shopping mall. So the English peasantry made their last stand there and it’s now a shopping mall, a sort of shrine to modern consumerism. Amongst the murals that decorate it there’s one of Robert Kett sitting under the Tree of Reformation, which I hope schoolchildren in Norwich will all recognize as they go about their shopping.
But it wasn’t all repression. There’s another side to the story. By 1549, some people in positions of authority in the kingdom were equally concerned about all of this and they were trying to come to grips with change in an alternative way. A striking piece of evidence of this is a wonderful composition written for circulation in manuscript in 1549 by Sir Thomas Smith and entitled The Discourse of the Commonweal of England. It’s a remarkable piece of writing. It wasn’t published until after Smith’s death, and at one time it was actually attributed to William Shakespeare, but it’s now pretty certain that it was written by Sir Thomas Smith. He was professor of civil law at the University of Cambridge and a leading member later in his career of the royal Privy Council under Edward VI and subsequently under Elizabeth I. Smith was trying to think out the problems of his day, not to denounce the moral failings of particular individuals or groups, but to try to understand what was going on, to try to understand the motives and the pressures that were felt by different people in society. And he did that by having a discussion. He wrote a dialog between a gentleman, a husbandman — a peasant, a craftsman — a wage worker, and a figure called the Doctor who is a sort of academic figure who acts as a kind of moderator for this discussion. He imagines them all sitting outside a pub discussing the affairs of the commonwealth. It’s because of this dialog form that it was once attributed to Shakespeare.
The representatives of the different groups in The Discourse of the Commonweal put their own perspectives, their own grievances. The different voices of different interest groups are heard. The Doctor who acts as moderator provides a kind of disinterested analytical authority helping to explore the underlying causes to propose solutions, to think of ways that the interests of different groups might be reconciled. So, for example, when the view is put by the gentlemen that all men are free “to make their most advantage of that which is their own,” the phrase — well, close to the phrase — which was always being denounced by the Commonwealth’s Men, Smith has the Doctor reply not by denouncing covetousness but by saying, yes, they may, but they “may not abuse their own… to the damage of the commonweal.” Good lords should set limits to the pursuit of individual economic interest. In short then, he’s willing to accept the simple reality of self-interested behavior but he seeks to prevent abuses or to channel that behavior in ways that it might serve the common interest through the encouragement of enterprise.
It’s because of that kind of attitude that Smith has been described as the father of political economy and there’s some justice in that. But essentially, putting him in his own time, he was in the classical humanist tradition. He had great faith in the positive effects of good government as a means of harmonizing conflicting interests, and that’s what he’s trying essentially to achieve. Well, Sir Thomas Smith wasn’t alone and he had considerable influence upon like-minded statesmen under Edward VI and still more in the early years of Elizabeth I. He sat himself in Elizabeth’s council. He was responsible for drafting some of the early legislation of her parliaments. He was a very close friend of her chief advisor, Sir William Cecil. And it led, this kind of attitude among Smith and others, to a kind of dual strategy on the part of government which is gradually emerging in the mid-sixteenth century.
On the one hand, they want to stabilize things; they want to dampen things down; they want to re-knit the fraying fabric of the commonwealth. On the other hand, they were very aware of the need to pursue, where possible, orderly economic growth. And this issued in a number of statutes, which are listed in the last part of your handout and which I’ll just briefly mention, which were intended to be steps towards these ends. In 1551, the coinage was revalued and reissued in an attempt to curb the worst excesses of inflation. In 1552, legislation was passed against abuses in marketing again with a view to the problems occasioned by the price rise. In the 1550s, the royal courts were made more open to hear the grievances of the peasantry, some of whom had not previously been able to plead in royal courts. In 1563 — we’re now into the reign of Elizabeth — the Statute of Artificers was passed, the longest single act of Parliament passed in England before the twentieth century, which went into great detail in attempts to regulate relationships between employers and employees; to lay down rules, to introduce for example annual assessments of wages so that wages could be adjusted in line with prices. In 1563, legislation was passed to restrict not all forms of enclosure but those forms of enclosure which were thought to be harmful. If enclosure was beneficial it would be permitted. And in addition they introduced, on the model of experiments which had been attempted in a number of towns, forms of relief for the impotent poor; a constructive system of poor relief which was to operate at the level of the parish involving the raising of money from local taxation of those who could afford it, the “poor rate,” and the dispersal of that money to the impotent poor.
Finally, efforts were made to encourage economically enterprising people who brought projects to the government: the establishment of new trade routes, the encouragement of shipping and fishing, the establishment of new manufacturing industries which might be granted a royal patent, giving them a monopoly until they were established, — it’s the origins of the patent system — the encouragement of immigration of skilled Protestant refugees from abroad, especially from the Netherlands where the religious wars were raging.
So one mustn’t exaggerate the impact of all of this. This is the sixteenth century. Their powers of enforcement were limited. But efforts were being made, very visible efforts to do something about the situation. And that marked a significant step forward in the conception of the responsibilities of the Tudor state, a broadening of its role, an increasing presence in attempting to shape, to channel, the economic and social developments of the time, to develop policy to deal with the problems that they produced. And that helped shape the environment of change as people gradually moved from the first shocks of response to these changing features of the economic and social environment and began to enter a period of transition in the late sixteenth century towards a more thoroughly commercial economy, which is something I’ll touch on later.
But for now we need to turn back again, having looked at what was happening in the mid-sixteenth century outside the religious sphere, to the issues of the reformation and the settlement which was attempted with the accession in 1558 of Elizabeth, and we’ll take that up on Tuesday.
[end of transcript]Back to Top