The Winners And The Loosers
Now then, last time, we heard about population change in England, and with reference to the Dulwich sewage works, and something of the structure of English society.
And I left you all with a question hanging uncomfortably in the air; how did population growth and price inflation affect the different groups? Was that uncomfortable?
I might have given the game away anyway when I mentioned that land was the big divider; no land? Good. Crucification then Line on the left, one cross each. With land – freedom and wealth.
Let me tell you why landownership became so spectacularly important, even more so than normal. In the 15th century,
you might remember that holding land had been not a great situation; because there were not many people knocking about on account of the largest pandemic in world history a century ago
So that’s where we’d come from; now in the early 16th century with a rising population, things looked different.
In principle, if you owned land you were sitting very pretty, very pretty indeed. You could in principle charge much higher rents,
both because there were more potential tenants around, and also because your tenants themselves were raking it in, getting much better income from rising prices.
Plus, if you could afford it, there were all those lovely lovely church lands coming onto the market.
The sell-off of the excessive wealth of the church has been described as the greatest transfer of property in English history since the Norman conquest.
The nobility snaffled up their share of the that in probably a slightly lower proportion than might be expected.
Bear in mind that the church had owned a gargantuan third of the land of England pre reformation, though far from all of that was transferred by any stretch.
But In Essex for example, the nobility’s share of land rose by 5% age points, from 12 to 17%. It was the Gentry that really made it big, their share of land in Essex going from 52% to 70%.
Urban authorities were also players, often quick to buy up land where they could, and recycle them into hospitals and schools;
this is one reason for a wave of town incorporations after 1540, since it meant that towns could then own land in their own right
For these farmers, from the substantial to smallholders, the economic circumstances and sale of church lands was transformative – and maybe it was transformative in a cultural sense too.
In many places these groups either bought or rented more land. Now the reason for doing this may not always have been to make a whole load more money so that they could buy that rig or Ludo set they’d always wanted.
The initial impetus may have simply been security; a way, finally, for the family to move beyond the crushing fear of bad harvests that could end in famine and death.
Now they could have a bit more wriggle room, a bit of a buffer to ride out bad years. Also, land has many other less tangible benefits;
it conferred social status, it was the best possible way of providing for your children after you were gone.
These are not particularly capitalist reasons for acquiring land; but in practical terms,
it meant that a large number of people were now freed from the previous model, of living on what they could produce with just family labour,
subsistence plus a small surplus; now they could make themselves wealthy and insulated, to some extent, from the vagaries of the economy
As I said have mentioned, the life of cottagers and labourers’ families was anyway precarious before all this; though it is possible to over do the story.
Many families were well above the subsistence level in 1500, and therefore were able to at least survive.
In Hull, it’s been calculated that a building craftsman needed to work 164 days to support a family, which was reasonably achievable; the equivalent figure for a labourer was 264 days, which is possible.
These figures are of course about bare survival; so that is setting the bar of happiness horrendously low.
And even then, it is clear that for many ‘make shift and mend’ would no longer hack it; that 264 day target would have been tough in the best of times. Now unemployment began to appear,
and not just unemployment, but under employment. For the wage labourer as I’ve mentioned, work was rarely about having a steady job with a monthly pay packet and a foreign holiday;
it was about a series of jobs with a glut of them during harvest time. So under employment is every bit as important as unemployment – work might still be found,
but just not enough of it. Filling 264 days a year with work was now very tough indeed.
Now Historians have pointed out that it’s too simple like Sybil, to divide the world into the rich and the poor
An example of an increasingly common experience might be found in the voice of the man hauled up before the Montgomeryshire magistrates for vagrancy in 1568.
He was asked where he lived, and he reflected the pitiless reality of his life when he said that he ‘dwells nowhere nor has no abiding but there as he may have work’.
Others led an entirely marginal existence, like the woman taken in Cheshire in 1574, who confessed that ‘she has used the art of begging from her cradle’.
Infamously, when they left home, they faced a wall of hostility, misunderstanding and incomprehension.
The separation of the poor into deserving and undeserving was not new; it was a product of the 15th century in fact
Deserving were the old and infirm, the casualties often of life cycle poverty or disability; the world was used to these people,
they were to be supported, and in their poverty they were close to God, and their support brought the wealthy closer to God also.
The undeserving were the able bodied, and in the eyes of the medieval and Early modern world view, they were rule breakers and a canker that struck at the very roots of society
Penalties under the Yorkist and Tudor laws were hideously harsh by our standards; committed to the stocks, or pillory, whipping for multiple offences,
and then being sent back whence they came. Severe under Edward IV and Henry VII, under Henry VIII and his children it would only get worse.
At the same time of course, support for the poor was severely disrupted by the dissolution of monasteries and chantries.
There is much debate about this of course, about how significant support from monasteries was by the 1530s, since it was probably much less than it had once been;
A figure around £9,000 to £10,000 a year seemingly reasonably widely supported; which falls broadly into the worthy but dull level
– that is, it would have clearly been insufficient on its own to support the poor, and there were many other sources of private giving which were not removed.
However, it’s still significant. And then there’s debate about how far support was replaced elsewhere.
It’s clear that there were mechanisms in place, whether existing hospitals and almshouses were taken over,
or newly created, and it is also clear that parishes and towns retained their responsibility for support.
But I will say that there are some estimates that say poor relief took until 1600 to fully recover;
and that I have yet to read anything suggesting the amount of poor relief got any better before the poor law of 1598 despite a tranche of poor laws before that,
and in the face of an increasing poverty problem, that means the situation got worse
The government was well aware there was a problem, and tried to do something about it, and applied both carrot and stick, medicine both hard and soft
There is no evidence any of these did any significant good. Just to make matters worse, in 1551 the cloth trade collapsed,
and legislation tried to protect livihoods by stopping the industry starting up in new places, and therefore putting people already engaged out of work.
It’s an interesting example that action tended to try to reinforce the old verities, rather than take advantage of the new.
The mention of the cloth trade might seem to be a golden opportunity to talk towns,
and I will seize that opportunity, though it is not such an obvious leap as might be thought; because in fact a lot of industry,
as we will hear at some point, took place in the countryside cottage. However, towns.
The general profile of the country’s population remains the same as it has for a while; the vast majority lived in the countryside 10% or less in the towns.
And there is as yet little sign of any great growth in the number of people living in towns
– in fact the size of smaller towns might actually have been falling in the 16th century.
The exception of course is the beast, the big smoke, London, like a great black hole pulling migrants in from all over England and from abroad,
where population from around 55,000 rose to 80,000 by 1550, and would reach 200,000 by 1600
When you arrived and wandered through the streets trades might be grouped into 5 broad types; shops and merchants; manufacturers, of stuff like leather goods, clothing and so on; food and drink retailing
– including the boozer of course; building, and then the professional lot – apothecaries, lawyers, clergymen.
But you would also find numbers of semi-skilled or unskilled labourers, who would be carrying out jobs that would vary from day to day.
The majority of the types of things you might be looking for would have been produced by the handicrafts system.
The handicrafts system is a label we have applied to the pre modern situation in Europe, where the Master concerned produced the item themselves all the way through from materials to finished item.
Given the size of the market and the level of demand there wasn’t much incentive to try to increase the sophistication of the process through any division of labour or mechanisation.
I say the Master concerned would have done the work, what I mean is manage it really, because he would probably have an apprentice of even apprentices who had achieved the status of journeymen,
but did not have the capital to set up on their own as a Master. Becoming an apprentice, normally for 7 years was a common start in life, particularly for young men, second only to domestic service.
However, there is one great exception to this rule, the rule of the handicraft that is, which is far and away the largest and most important industry
– that of clothing. Here there were greater opportunities to get involved in larger scale manufacturing. If you happened to be a Master in the industry you might follow two routes,
both of which involved a merchant with a greater access to capital to service the development. You might go for the domestic system,
which kept the Master pretty much in control of production as normal – you’d hook up with a merchant who would sell and distribute your glowing products to markets further away.
That meant that many were less exposed to harvest failure, which is a good thing, because they had other income to fall back on,
But it also meant they were susceptible to a wider and more distant series of events; the impact of war in Europe and an embargo on trade with the Netherlands,
or the collapse in the demand for English broadcloth, or the flap of a butterfly’s wings in China could reach back all the way to the highlands of Cumbria.
Secondly, it’s worth adding that areas like the highlands of Cumbria or the Weald of Kent were more likely to be so protected or affected;
because areas characterised by Wood and pasture agriculture rather than open field and arable, were much more likely to be part of rural industry
– a comment to which I must return. Thirdly, is the debate about this so called ‘proto-industrialsation’, as it has been called.
The idea is that these rural industries and the putting out system encouraged the conditions for later industrialisation; largely because it began to consolidate capital for industrial use,
an essential component; and also it began to give experience of another key component of the industrial revolution
– the division of labour. Such as you make the tea, I’ll read the newspaper.
Well not quite like that, reducing costs and increasing quality and productivity by focussing on specific tasks in the process.
Finally in this rather random list, the impact on the population of smaller towns could be quite dramatic.
By and large the emphasis now is on continuity again, the complexion of towns’ trade changing rather than a disastrous decline, but nonetheless many towns shrank ion the 16th century – Coventry in the Midlands went from 10,000 to 6,600 by 1520 for example.
In this profile, London was an exception, as London tends to be exceptional in English life and politics to this day, of course
Given that London is something of an exception one rubric has been of a general urban crisis during the 16th century,
and that story has been moderated more recently. First of all, it is first important to remember the basic fact that trade outside of the parish
and immediate locality was a relatively small part of the early modern economy.
It’s almost impossible to even dream of calculating it. But Keith Wrightson and Mark Overton gave it a shout,
with the suitably qualified statement that it would ‘seem unlikely that the total of ‘market-oriented’ producers and consumers constituted much more than a third of the English population.’
So there you go make of that what you will – 2/3rds of people, probably just focussed on their own family needs.
With that proviso, despite the shifts in some parts of cloth manufacture to rural suppliers, towns may have lost some of their numbers,
but they lost very little of their essential role, integrated into the English economy
in the modern world or you do if you are English I think, however much weaker those connections are now.
We know that the people of East Anglia and Cambridgeshire are connected in some way; that the South West is distinctive, and the Midlands, Yorkshire of course, the I could go on.
When people of the time spoke of their ‘country’, they might mean England, but they were more likely to be talking of the region of which they were apart.
I thought I would use Jane Austen for an example here, since I though she had written in Pride and Prej ‘that there was no finer country in England than Derbyshire’ but it seems she wrote county,
so I took me to one James Pilkington who wrote also of Derbyshire in 1789
so it was difficult to find enough people to work arable land. So there was a flight from arable to pasture, since it was much less labour intensive,
and large landowners got out of the business of directly farming a demesne, and rented it out to tenants if they could.
That was brilliant for the free peasant, because you could get a nice low rents, since there weren’t enough people around ready to rent so there was no competition.
But landowners did it anyway if they could, because renting insulated them from the vagaries of a difficult stagnant market, so the trade of profit for security was acceptable.
And so, this very much encouraged the move from the world of serfdom, unfree peasants working the lord’s land, to the world of self sufficient farmers holding their land for rent, freehold or copyhold.
So, on a side note serfdom has pretty much disappeared by the time we get to 1550; there’s a bit of it here and there,
notably on the Duke of Norfolk’s estates as it happens, but in the scheme of things, it is yesterday’s news.
The transfer meant that much more land was now devoted to lay and household priorities, and it was a massive boon to yeomen,
and the better off husbandmen – to all of those who could afford either to buy their farms, or take on more land to rent.
For a while in fact, Yeomen and Husbandmen acquired a double benefit. Many held land on copyhold rents,
which were very much part of the customary tradition and difficult to change. I know you are all thinking did I really come to the History of England podcast to hear about copyhold leases,
but look these things mattered to your small farmer much more than whether Mary Tudor had married a Spaniard or not.
A copyhold lease was traditionally very often held for 3 lifetimes; very different to Scotland, for example, where the traditional lease was for a year.
Sometimes copyhold leases were 99 years, but basically the word you are looking for is long. Critically, this meant that tenants were pretty well protected,
and it was hard for landowners to raise rents quickly. They could try to realise some gains when land transferred from generation to generation,#
because when that happened the new generation often had to pay an entry fines, which were normally payable to take possession under copyhold agreements. But even these were also quite inflexible and difficult to increase.
So for a while many husbandmen and Yeomen profited both from rising income from selling their goods at a higher price; and stationary rents which kept their costs low. Banzai was the cry around the hillsides.
In the appearance of capitalism, that must be significant point musn’t it?
I don’t think we are going to cover it in this short series now, but as the 16th century progressed the results could be seen in what W G Hoskins called the Great Rebuilding of England,
as yeomen extended and beautified their farmhouses. I am told that Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is one of those; so if you go and visit Stratford,
which we will do on the forthcoming History of England tour in September next year by the way, you can not only find out more about the life of the bloody bard,
but also see the impact of the economic transformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Which is a lot more interesting as far as I am concerned than whether Yorick was or was not poor
So far then it has been a reasonably pleasant story, we have discussed the winners. For cottagers and wage labourers the experience was very different.
More people meant more competition for work, and therefore the suppression of wages.
Meanwhile increased population led to higher prices for grain; one study established that if population rose by more than 0.5% a year, prices began to rise,
since supply could not be easily increased to meet increased demand. This is a killer stat – if population rose by more than 0.5% the economy was not flexible enough to adjust.
This is a nasty combination for a wage labourer – increasing prices, increasing availability of labour – this mean real wages effectively fell.
And when I say fell, I mean, a cliff face type stuff, not just doing a roly poly type falling. The 1540s and 1550s were particularly disastrous with the highest inflation rates.
Employers eventually responded with higher wages to a degree, but nothing like what was required to meet price increases.
The fall in real wages could be crushing; real wages of building craftsmen in the towns of southern England fell by close to 50 per cent by the 1550s. Think about that for a moment, 50%
Historians don’t like simple things, in complexity is truth. Such a simple division suggests groups of individuals or families that were born poor, and stayed poor all their lives.
But it was rarely quite like that. The more common experience of poverty was often age related – ‘life cycle poverty’ is the phrase that gets used.
Wage workers, whether male or female, or might be relatively well off when young, and manage to make ends meet when bringing up a family together as dinkies,
but fall into poverty in old age and need support then from their communities.
But in the mid and later 16th century this also began to change for more people; as inflation,
population growth and unemployment all increased, more and more families were finding poverty to be a permanent or semi permanent condition, not age related anymore
For many, unable to find employment in their home parish, they just had to leave home to try to find work.
The premise was that if you have the faculty to work and were not doing so, then you were clearly simply shirking and a slacker.
It is not that people were in some way intrinsically less charitable back then, although they were probably more accepting of poverty as part of the world order.
It is because the medieval world was built in relatively closed societies where most people lived and died within their parish or region
and were either looked after there, or found employment there. That safety was exploded into a million tiny shards by the population growth of the 16th century,
and while our sympathies are naturally with the losers, to understand, it’s necessary to feel sympathy for everyone
– long held basic assumptions about the way the world worked were being shattered, in a way which was pretty terrifying for most.
If, in desperation, you did indeed take to the road, your problems doubled; vagrants were by definition undeserving, since if they were deserving, they’d have been supported by their parish
In 1531 laws allowed deserving poor to beg, in 1536 Cromwell introduced the first poor law, there were further laws in 1547 and 1552,
and further efforts would be made under Elizabeth. The number of acts in itself demonstrates the size of the problem.
But it was not until the 1598 Poor law act that a genuinely effective system was put in place.
Meanwhile laws also tried to repair the economic situation; In 1552 for example, ordering the return to tillage of land converted to pasture since 1509.
‘Badgers’ had to be licensed. You might wonder what badgers have to do with anything, but a badger was any trader who bought somewhere and sold somewhere else – such as Corn Dealers.
It finding out this fact, I also learned that there is a modern use of the word badger to mean someone who is over prepared, has all the kit, that sort of thing.
The modern world is a difficult thing since I understand one of my favourite words mather, to dither and moan, is now frankly unusable. Curse you, modern world, I curse you and cast you out.
Anyway, Badgers, specifically in this case Corn dealers had to be licensed by local magistrates, on the basis that they could then stop them raising prices,
which surely they must be doing, because you know, the prices keep going up.
There must be some very disreputable badgers making unreasonable profits and if we can just stop them, everything would be OK
Towns were very much part of the countryside around them, integrated into it, so that most towns would contain most trades to service the area around;
towns were part of the countryside they served. Often those towns also articulated the specialisations of the district of which they were part.
So, lovely Richmond on the border between the Yorkshire Dales and the Vale of York, provided the interchange between wool and dairy of the dales with the grain of the Vale.
The vast majority of business actually took place in the village or parish, in small scale deals which often relied on credit;
if more was required then the local market town would normally do the job. The people of Market Kibworth in Leicestershire for example,
had the option of travelling into the town once a week where they could find a market most days.
Maybe you were feeling particularly picky, and the local market town couldn’t help you out, in which case you might need to square the shoulders and travel further to one of the provincial capitals
– like Newcastle, or York, Bristol, Norwich; to give you a point of reference, Norwich was the largest of these with a population of about 12,000
Or, you might get involved in the ‘putting out’ system, where a merchant capitalist financed the whole process, putting out stages of the manufacturing process to specialists.
In the process there would be a combination of centralisation and local working – so parts of the process like the cleaning and dyeing or the fulling of the cloth would be done in the clothier’s workshop; the spinning and weaving would be put out.
This work would be done by individuals in their own homes, paid for by piece work; it is essentially wage work.
The critical news, though, is that by the 1520s, this work was not simply the preserve of towns;
it expanded into the countryside; for the merchants organising the work, households in the countryside would often do the work for very much less than in the towns,
so that encouraged the growth of rural production. For many rural households in the countryside, making ends meet involved being part of manufacturing as well as food production.
In Kent, 1,300 households in the Weald appear to have been involved in weaving, which could have been 16% of the population.
Spinning was often dominated by children and women; the same analysis in Kent had suggested 35% of children and women were involved in spinning.
I am dimly aware that there is a modern joke relating to some hideous exercise routine which could be made,
but I am going to decline the temptation to make such a gag, as a principled stand.
I would like to pull out a few points about rural manufacturing if I may. Firstly, by the 1550s it is too simple to think purely of rural vs urban, or farming versus trades;
many families, at least 15% of households would be carrying out a variety of economic activities
The 16th century was one of constant growth; from 55,000 in 1500 to 200,000 in 1600 it was the only truly big city on a European scale.
It completely dominated English overseas trade, based upon its proximity to the Netherlands,
with monopolistic control of the Netherlands trade enjoyed by the
Merchant Adventurers’ Company. It handled 70 per cent of England’s cloth exports in the 1480s, and 80 per cent by the 1530s.
Its population growth was not driven by it’s own birth rate, but by national migration; people flocked to London,
because after all the streets were paved with gold. To give you an example of the scale of that; of a thousand new freemen admitted to the city in the years 1551–3, only a fifth had been born in London.
They came from all over – most from the south-east and East Anglia, almost as many the midlands and northern counties, with smaller numbers from the south-west,
Wales, and Ireland, and the constant flow of immigration from other parts of England was essential to population growth or even maintenance
– organics growth does not seem to have been enough to replenish London’s numbers with out it
Since I have mentioned that some of the cities of England played a role as provincial capitals,
it would seem churlish and careless not to talk a bit about the regions and provinces of which they were part.
It also allows me to talk about another underpinning, foundational concept of how England worked.
So, I harp on, I admit, I harp on interminably about how unusually centralised England has been administratively speaking since the later Anglo Saxon Kings,
and despite the best that the Norman kings could do to mess things up with their poxy feudalism. But this should not blind you to the strength of local and regional experiences.
The vast majority spend their lives within one parish or region, and it is that region and its peculiarities – landscape, markets, landholding, customs – that will affect the way you lived.
A very large percentage of the people of early modern England operated principally within five to ten miles of where they were born.
In Kent, for example, about half the villagers found marriage partners within their parishes;
70 per cent married within five miles distance; 84 per cent within ten miles; 93 per cent within fifteen miles.
In that regard, there is a map of surpassing loveliness, intellectually speaking produced in a book edited by a chap called Charles Phythian-Adams.
I mean it’s not beautiful to the eye but in it are mapped 14 cultural provinces of pre modern England. What the map shows is that regions of England are linked by topography
– coast, hills, rivers landscape – and market access into regions. We kind of know this instinctively even now I think
But diversified beauty is the prevailing characteristic of the narrow dales of the low peaks; and perhaps there is no country that can boast of finer scenes of the latter kind than Derbyshire
You might wonder at the obsession with Derbyshire, but I have just been walking there and I had forgotten just what a stunner it is.
Anyway, so that would be their country, their area, their hood, their patch; it would deliver government and law, but it would also include their personal connections and dealings, which might extend around a much more nebulous cultural province than an administrative shire even.