Rich and poor in town and country
Even in 1485 much of the countryside was still untouched. There were still great forests of oak trees, and unused land in between. There were still wild animals, wild pigs, wild cattle, and even a few wolves. Scattered across this countryside were "islands" of human settlement, villages and towns. Few towns had more than 3,000 people, the size of a large village today. Most towns, anyway, were no more than large villages, with their own fields and farms. Even London, a large city of over 60,000 by 1500, had fields farmed by its citizens.
In the sixteenth century, however, this picture began to change rapidly. The population increased, the unused land was cleared for sheep, and large areas of forest were cut down to provide wood for the growing shipbuilding industry. England was beginning to experience greater social and economic problems than ever before.
The price of food and other goods rose steeply during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The price of wheat and barley, necessary for bread and beer, increased over five times between 1510 and 1650. The government tried to deal with the problem of rising costs by making coins which contained up to 50 per cent less precious metal. This only reduced the value of money, helping to push prices up.
People thought that inflation was caused by silver and gold pouring into Europe from Spanish America. But a greater problem was the sudden increase in population. In England and Wales the population almost doubled from 2.2 million in 1525 to four million in 1603.
In the countryside the people who did best in this situation were the yeoman farmers who had at least 100 acres of land. They produced food to sell, and employed men to work on their land. They worked as farmers during the week, but were "gentlemen" on Sundays. They were able to go on increasing their prices because there was not enough food in the markets.
Most people, however, had only twenty acres of land or less. They had to pay rent for the land, and often found it difficult to pay when the rent increased. Because of the growing population it was harder for a man to find work, or to produce enough food for his family.
Many landowners found they could make more money from sheep farming than from growing crops. They could sell the wool for a good price to the rapidly growing cloth industry. In order to keep sheep they fenced off land that had always belonged to the whole village. Enclosing land in this way was often against the law. As a result many poor people lost the land they farmed as well as the common land where they kept animals, and the total amount of land used for growing food was reduced.
Many people became unemployed.
In 1536 large numbers of people from the north marched to London to show their anger at the dissolution of the monasteries. Their reasons were only partly religious. As life had become harder, the monasteries had given employment to many and provided food for the very poor. This "Pilgrimage of Grace", as it was known, was cruelly put down, and its leaders were executed. Without work to do, many people stole food in order to eat.
Efforts were made by government to keep order in a situation of rising unemployment. In 1547 Parliament gave magistrates the power to take any person who was without work and give him for two years to any local farmer who wanted to use him. Any person found homeless and unemployed a second time could be executed. It did not solve the crime problem. As one foreign visitor reported, "There are incredible numbers of robbers here, they go about in bands of twenty ..."
In 1563 Parliament made JPs responsible for deciding on fair wages and working hours. A worker was expected to start at five o'clock in the morning and work until seven or eight at night with two and a half hours allowed for meals.
Good harvests through most of the century probably saved England from disaster, but there were bad ones between 1594 and 1597, making the problem of the poor worse again. In 1601 Parliament passed the first Poor Law. This made local people responsible for the poor in their own area. It gave power to JPs to raise money to provide food, housing and work for the poor and homeless of the same parish.
Many of the poor moved to towns, where there was a danger they would join together to fight against and destroy their rulers. The government had good reason to be afraid. The pattern of employment was changing. The production of finished cloth, the most important of England's products, reached its greatest importance during the sixteenth century. Clothmakers and merchants bought raw wool, gave it to spinners, who were mostly women and children in cottages, collected it and passed it on to weavers and other clothworkers. Then they sold it.
The successful men of this new capitalist class showed off their success by building magnificent houses and churches in the villages where they worked. England destroyed the Flemish cloth-making industry, but took advantage of the special skills of Flemish craftsmen who came to England.
The lives of rich and poor were very different.
By using coal instead of wood fires, Tudor England learnt how to make greatly improved steel, necessary for modem weapons. Improved steel was used for making knives and forks, clocks, watches, nails and pins. Birmingham, by using coal fires to make steel, grew in the sixteenth century from a village into an important industrial city.
Coal was unpopular, but it burnt better than wood and became the most commonly used fuel, especially in London, the rapidly growing capital. In 1560 London used 33,000 tons of coal from Newcastle, but by 1600 it used five times as much, and the smoke darkened the sky over London. A foreign ambassador wrote that the city was "the filthiest in the world".
Foreign visitors were surprised that women in England had greater freedom than anywhere else in Europe. Although they had to obey their husbands, they had self-confidence and were not kept hidden in their homes as women were in Spain and other countries. They were allowed free and easy ways with strangers. As one foreigner delightedly noticed, "You are received with a kiss by all, when you leave you are sent with a kiss. You return and kisses are repeated."
However, there was a dark side to married life. Most women bore between eight and fifteen children, and many women died in childbirth. Those who did not saw half their children die at a young age. No one dared hope for a long married life because the dangers to life were too great. For this reason, and because marriage was often an economic arrangement, deep emotional ties often seem to have been absent. When a wife died, a husband looked for another.
Both rich and poor lived in small family groups. Brothers and sisters usually did not live with each other or with their parents once they had grown up. They tried to find a place of their own. Over half the population was under twenty-five, while few were over sixty. Queen Elizabeth reached the age of seventy, but this was unusual. People expected to work hard and to die young. Poor children started work at the age of six or seven.
An Italian visitor to England gives an interesting view of English society in Tudor times: "The English are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England: and whenever they see a handsome foreigner, they say that “he looks like an Englishman.” The English did not love their children, he thought, for "having kept them at home till they arrive at the age of seven or nine years at the most, they put them out, boys and girls, to hard service in the houses of other people, holding them to seven or eight years' hard service. They say they do it in order that their children might learn better manners. But I believe that they do it because they are better served by strangers than they would be by their own children."
In spite of the hard conditions of life, most people had a larger and better home to live in than ever before. Chimneys, which before had only been found in the homes of the rich, were now built in every house. This technical development made cooking and heating easier and more comfortable. For the first time more than one room could be used in winter.
Between 1530 and 1600 almost everyone doubled their living space. After 1570 the wealthy yeoman's family had eight or more rooms and workers' families had three rooms instead of one, and more furniture was used than ever before.
Language and culture
At the beginning of the Tudor period English was still spoken in a number of different ways. There were still reminders of the Saxon, Angle, Jute and Viking invasions in the different forms of language spoken in different parts of the country. Since the time of Chaucer, in the mid-fourteenth century, London English, itself a mixture of south Midland and southeastern English, had become accepted as standard English. Printing made this standard English more widely accepted amongst the literate
population. Educated people began to speak "correct" English, and uneducated people continued to speak the local dialect.
In fact, by the seventeenth century about half the population could read and
England felt the effects of the Renaissance later than much of Europe because it was an island. In the early years of the sixteenth century English thinkers had become interested in the work of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. One of them, Thomas More, wrote a study of the ideal nation, called Utopia, which became extremely popular throughout Europe.
The Renaissance also influenced religion, encouraging the Protestant Reformation, as well as a freer approach to ways of thinking within the Catholic Church. In music England enjoyed its most fruitful period ever. There was also considerable interest in the new painters in Europe, and England developed its own special kind of painting, the miniature portrait.
Literature, however, was England's greatest art form. Playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, and William Shakespeare filled the theatres with their exciting new plays.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and went to the local grammar school. His education was typical of the Tudor age, because at this time the "grammar" schools, which tried to teach "correct" English, became the commonest form of education. His plays were popular with both educated and uneducated people. Many of his plays were about English history, but he changed fact to suit public opinion.
Crown and Parliament
The Stuart monarchs (1603-1714), from James I were less successful than the Tudors. They quarrelled with Parliament and this resulted in civil war. The only king of England ever to be tried and executed was a Stuart. The republic that followed was even more unsuccessful, and by popular demand the dead king's son was called back to the throne. Another Stuart king was driven from his throne by his own daughter and her Dutch husband, William of Orange. William became king by Parliament's election, not by right of birth. When the last Stuart, Queen Anne, died in 1714, the monarchy was no longer absolutely powerful as it had been when James VI rode south from Scotland in 1603. It had become a "parliamentary monarchy" controlled by a constitution.
During the seventeenth century economic power moved even faster into the hands of the merchant and landowning farmer classes. The Crown could no longer raise money or govern without their cooperation. These groups were represented by the House of Commons. In return for money the Commons demanded political power. The victory of the Commons and the classes it represented was unavoidable.