Merrie England1



WHAT sort of England was it that gave Elizabeth her power and victory, and Shakespeare his language and inspiration? What kind of people were these Elizabethan Englishmen, so recklessly aggressive, so outspoken and exuberant? How did they live and labor, dress and think, love and build and sing?

In 1581 they numbered some five million. Most of them were farmers. Most of these were sharecroppers; some were tenants paying a fixed rent; a rising proportion were freeholding yeomen. Enclosures of common lands continued, as pasturage proved more profitable than tillage. Serfdom was almost gone, but evictions of tenants by enclosures and combinations were generating an unhappy class of laborers who sold their brawn precariously from farm to farm, or from shop to shop in the expanding towns.

Except for the capital, however, the towns were still small. Norwich and Bristol, the largest after London, had little more than twenty thousand souls each. There was a pleasant side to the matter: townsmen were neighborly, and even in London most homes had gardens, or were near to open fields, and could gather the varied flowers that Shakespeare litanied. Houses were heated by burning wood; most industry used charcoal as fuel power; but the price of firewood soared in the sixteenth century, and the rising demand of the towns for coal prompted landowners to explore the deposits of their soil. German operators were imported to improve mining and metallurgy. Elizabeth forbade the use of coal in London, but her imperative proved less categorical than economic need.2Textile shops expanded as weavers and fullers fled to England from Alva’s oppression in the Netherlands; Huguenots brought from France their artisan and mercantile skills; it was an Englishman, however, the Reverend William Lee, who invented (1589) the semi-automatic “stocking frame” for knitting. Fishing was the most flourishing industry, for the government encouraged it to inure men to seamanship and provide a reserve for the navy; hence Elizabeth, bowing to the Roman Church, ordered her people to abstain from meat on two days a week and on the traditional fast days of Lent.

The guilds, hamstrung by their medieval regulations, continued to lose markets in this individualistic and innovating age. Clever promoters gathered capital, bought up raw materials, distributed these to shops and families, bought the product, and sold it for all that the traffic would bear. Capitalism in England began in the home, with the work of father, mother, daughter, and son for the entrepreneur; now that “domestic system” took its rise which would prevail until late in the eighteenth century. Nearly every house was a miniature factory, where women wove and spun flax and wool, sewed and embroidered, prepared herb medicines, distilled liquor, and almost succeeded in developing an art of cookery in England.

The Elizabethan state legislated as zealously for the economy as for religion. Aware that municipal restrictions on manufacture and trade were hampering commerce and industry, it replaced communal by national regulation. The famous Statute of Apprentices (1563) established a laborious code of governmental supervision and compulsion that remained the law of England till 1815. Proposing to banish idleness and unemployment, it required every able-bodied youngster to serve as apprentice for seven years, for “until a man grow into twenty-three years, he for the most part, though not always, is wild, without judgment, and not of sufficient experience to govern himself.”3 Every willfully unemployed man under thirty not having an income of forty shillings a year could be forced to take employment as directed by the local authorities. In the countryside all well men under sixty could be compelled to join in harvesting. All workmen were to be hired by yearly contract, at a kind of guaranteed annual wage. The justices of the peace were empowered to fix maximum and minimum remuneration for every employment in their territory; for London laborers the pay was fixed at ninepence a day. Masters unduly dismissing employees were to be fined forty shillings; men unlawfully quitting their jobs were to be jailed; and no employee was to leave his town or parish without permission of his employer and the local magistrate. Hours of work were defined as twelve per day in summer and through daylight in winter. Strikes of any kind were forbidden under penalty of imprisonment or heavy fines.4

All in all, the statute had the effect of protecting the employer against the employee, agriculture against industry, and the state against social revolt. A guild of bricklayers at Hull inscribed at the head of its ordinances the consoling proposition that “all men are by nature equal, made all by one Workman of like mire”;5 but nobody believed it, least of all Cecil and Elizabeth; and it was probably Cecil who directed the economic legislation of 1563. Its results for the working classes was to make poverty compulsory. It proposed to readjust wages periodically to the price of basic foods, but the magistrates commissioned to do this belonged to the employing class. Wages rose, but far more slowly than prices; between 1580 and 1640 the price of necessities climbed 100 per cent, wages 20 per cent.6 During the century from 1550 to 1650 the conditions of artisans and laborers worsened from day to day.7 The outskirts of London “filled up with a comparatively poor and often vicious class, dwelling in meanest tenements,”8 and living in some parts by theft and beggary. At the funeral of the Earl of Shrewsbury (1591) some twenty thousand beggars applied for a dole.9

The government attacked these evils with ferocious laws against mendicancy, and a comparatively humane series of Poor Laws (1563–1601) that acknowledged the responsibility of the state for keeping its people from starvation. In every parish a tax was collected to care for the unemployable poor and to put the employable to work in workhouses managed by the state.

The rise of prices proved as stimulating to industry and commerce as it was tragic to the poor. The main causes were the mining of silver in Europe, the importation of precious metals from America, and the debasement of currencies by governments. In the period from 1501 to 1544 the total amount of silver imported or produced in Europe was worth some $150,000,000 in terms of 1957; for the period from 1545 to 1600 it was worth some $900,000,000.10 Elizabeth struggled nobly against debasement of the English coinage. She accepted the advice of her canny councilor, Sir Thomas Gresham, who warned her (1560), in words that became “Gresham’s law,” that bad money drives out good—that coins with an honest content of precious metal will be hoarded or sent abroad, while coins without proper content will be used for all other purposes, especially for taxes, the state being “paid in its own coin.” Elizabeth and Cecil reformed the currency that her father and brother had debased, and restored the gold or silver content of English coins. Prices rose nevertheless, for the influx or production of silver and gold, and the circulation of currency, outran the production of goods.

Monopolies shared in raising prices. Elizabeth permitted them for the manufacture or sale of iron, oil, vinegar, coal, lead, saltpeter, starch, yarns, skins, leather, glass. She granted these patents partly to encourage capital in importing products and establishing new industries, partly as remuneration for offices and services not otherwise sufficiently paid. When complaints against these monopolies rose to the pitch of parliamentary revolt, Elizabeth agreed to suspend them until their operation had been investigated and approved (1601). Some were maintained.

So hampered, domestic trade developed more slowly than foreign commerce. Except at fairs, no one was allowed to sell goods in any town of which he was not a resident. Such fairs were periodical in many localities, and numbered several hundred a year; the most popular was the Bartholomew Fair, held each August near London, with a circus to draw the people to the merchandise. Goods moved by water rather than by road; the rivers were alive with traffic. Roads were bad but improving, and men could ride a hundred miles on them in a day; the messenger who brought to Edinburgh the news of Elizabeth’s death traveled 162 miles on his first day out. Postal service, established in 1517, was for the government only; private mail went by friends, envoys, couriers, or other travelers. Land travel was mostly on horseback. Coaches were introduced about 1564; they remained till 1600 a luxury of the few; but by 1634 they were so numerous that a proclamation forbade their use by private persons because of congestion of traffic.11 Inns were good, and so were their waitresses, except on demand; but the wayfarer had to watch his purse and conceal his route.12 You had to be on your toes in Elizabeth’s England.

Foreign commerce grew as industry developed. The export of finished products was the preferred way of paying for the import of raw materials and Oriental luxuries. The market was expanding from commune to nation to Europe, even to Asia and America, and the scope and power of national governments grew with the reach and problems of trade. England, like Spain and France, wished to export goods and import gold, for the “mercantilist” theory then prevalent measured a nation’s wealth by the precious metals it held. Francis Bacon was apparently the first to speak of a favorable “balance of trade,”13 by which he meant an excess of exports over imports, and therefore an intake of silver or gold. Cecil declared his aim “by all policies to abridge the use of foreign commodities as be not necessary for us.”14 He knew that silver and gold cannot be eaten or worn, but they were an international currency that could in an emergency buy almost anything, even enemies. Home industries had to be protected in time of peace, lest the nation be dependent on foreign products in time of war. Hence governments discouraged imports by tariffs and encouraged exports with subsidies. “Merchant companies” were formed to sell English products abroad; English “merchant adventurers” developed an export outlet at Hamburg, Anthony Jenkinson led trade missions to Russia (1557) and Persia (1562), another went to India (1583–91), an English Turkey Company was set up in 1581, the Muscovy Company was founded in 1595, and the historic East India Company on December 31, 1600. The stage was prepared for Hastings and Clive. Men in love with the sea or money ventured across oceans to find new trade routes; the science of geography was in part a by-product of their zeal. A fury of shipbuilding was engendered by the quest for markets and colonies; English forests became masts and hulls, Britannia began to rule the waves, and the British Empire was born in fact and phrase.

As commerce spread its sails, financial institutions developed to expedite it. Banks multiplied. In 1553 the Merchant Adventurers organized a jointstock company for trade with Russia; 240 shares were issued, at £25 each; after each expedition profits were distributed and the invested capital was refunded.15 The East India Company financed its voyages likewise; and the 87½ per cent profit realized on its first venture led to a rush of subscribers—courtiers, judges, clergymen, knights, widows, spinsters, tradesmen—to share in the next enterprise. Men and women loved money as passionately then as now. Interest on loans had been forbidden by Parliament as late as 1552 as “a vice most odious”;16 but the growing strength of business forces in the Commons led to the Usury Bill of 1571, which distinguished interest from usury and legalized a 10 per cent return. As stock transactions mounted, bourses were formed for the exchange of ownership in shares or goods, and additional currency was coined to facilitate the sale and purchase of commodities. In 1566 Gresham built the Royal Exchange to cover such mercantile and financial operations. In 1583 it issued the earliest life insurance policy.17

The commercial spirit grew as London became one of the thriving marts and centers of the world. The unlit streets were brightened with goods; a traveler to many countries judged the London goldsmiths’ establishments as the most sumptuous anywhere.18Businessmen were cramped for quarters, and some used the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral as temporary offices, confident that Christ had changed His mind since Calvin; lawyers dealt with clients there, men counted out money on the tombs, and in the courtyard hucksters sold bread and meat, fish and fruit, ale and beer. Pedestrians, peddlers, coaches, and carts swarmed in the narrow and muddy streets. The Thames served as the main thoroughfare, carrying barges, ferries, and pleasure craft; at almost any point a waterman could be found with a boat ready to transfer goods or passengers across the river or upstream or down; hence their lusty cries, “Eastward Ho!” and “Westward Ho!”—which gave titles to Jacobean plays. When its odors abated, the river was a blessing to commerce, recreation, and amours, the setting for stately pageants and rich homes. London Bridge, built in 1209, was the pride of the town and the only road between its north and south sides. The south specialized in taverns, theaters, brothels, and jails. The north was the chief center of business; here the merchant was master, the titled lord entered on sufferance; royalty and nobility lived mostly in palaces outside London. Westminster, where Parliament met, was then a separate city. There too the businessman made himself heard; by 1600 he could frighten the Queen, and a half century later he beheaded the King.

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