Age of Invention: The English Crisis

I wrote last month about how 1550-1650 is the century we need to look at if we want to explain why Britain had an acceleration of innovation that led to the Industrial Revolution. But what is so striking about the mid-sixteenth century is that it was a time of acute and near-constant economic, social, and religious crisis.

For a start, Henry VIII and the young Edward VI’s protectors drained England’s coffers in the 1540s on ineffectual wars with France and Scotland, to which they responded by debasing the coinage. As a result, in the 1540s alone, prices rose by 50%. This exacerbated a general rise in prices that had taken place across Europe since the beginning of the sixteenth century – what historians call the Price Revolution – which was largely driven by an influx of silver from more productive mines in central Europe and then from the Spanish mines in the New World. To make matters even worse, there were also harvest failures in 1545, 1549-51, and 1555-57, each of which also caused sharp increases in food prices.

And while prices rose, jobs also became scarce. With the growth of England’s woollen cloth exports in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, land had become increasingly valuable for sheep pasturage rather than farming. The pressures of inflation meant that the landowning gentry had to either restrict their lifestyles or to find a way to raises revenues, and they tended to do the latter. When the leases of their tenants came due, they either raised the rents or took the land back into their own hands and enclosed it with fences and hedges, converting it into pasturage. Raising the rents was obviously unpopular, but so were the enclosures. “Whereas forty persons had their livings, now one man and his shepherd has all”, was the way that one commentator characterised the complaint of the tenant farmers. In other words, the sheep were taking people’s jobs.

On top of these economic troubles, England was wracked by religious turmoil. In the 1530s, Henry VIII had gradually separated the English church from the authority of the Pope in Rome, and in the years of Edward VI’s reign, Protestants had begun to assert control. Henry had also expropriated England’s monasteries, selling their lands and assets to his cronies, while depriving the poor of one of their major sources of charitable support. Between the lack of farming jobs and the lack of charity, people increasingly resorted to begging, stealing, and piracy.

But rather than alleviating the distress, Parliament responded with brutality. The Vagrancy Act of 1547 stipulated that beggars who refused to be put to work were to be branded with the letter “V” and enslaved for two years. People could buy and sell the slaves, and those who could not be sold would be enslaved by their local parish, to serve the community. The masters could beat their slaves, chain them, or do whatever else they deemed necessary to force them to work. Runaways were punished by becoming slaves for life, and repeat offenders were simply killed. Unsurprisingly, much of the country was soon up in arms. In 1548-49, over half of England’s counties experienced riots and unrest, with more serious rebellions taking place in Cornwall and Norfolk.

The rebellions were eventually put down, and the Vagrancy Act soon repealed, but the state of crisis persisted. Although the currency began to be revalued in 1551, the export market for English woollen cloth collapsed. This made farming relatively profitable again, but now the urban clothworkers faced unemployment. To make matters worse, England’s Protestantism (apart from the brief Catholic rule of Mary I, 1553-58) left it diplomatically vulnerable. The Hapsburg emperors banned imports from England in the mid-1560s, which deprived England of the only major market for its cloth in Antwerp. The trade with the eastern Mediterranean – usually to Crete and Chios – was also choked off in the early 1550s, with English ships having to sail all the way around hostile Spain to get to the Straits of Gibraltar, and then having to worry about Algerian pirates and Ottoman fleets. In 1558, too, the major trading port of Calais – England’s wool depot, the “staple” – was lost to the French. England thus found itself increasingly cut off, in terms of both trade and diplomacy. And unrest was still rife. Elizabeth I’s new government in 1559 even considered reviving the Vagrancy Act. In the papers of her minister, William Cecil, it was ominously proposed that the law enslaving the unemployed be revived “with additions”.

So how could a period of such crisis and repression have also experienced the first signs of sustained innovation? Well, I’ve been pursuing a few leads as to the answer, but more on those another time.

P.S. The sheep-related Tudor enclosures are not to be confused with the expropriations that took place via acts of Parliament in the eighteenth century, which usually had more to do with consolidating small strips of farmland into larger chunks, or privatising “wastes” and woods, to which people had had common rights of access.

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