Economy and society in early modern England


 Health, mortality and population

Like the rest of the early modern world, England lacked adequate health care and sanitation. As a result, disease was common, and included such killers as typhoid & smallpox.
The Plague was endemic and hit towns particularly severely: there was high mortality in London in 1563, 1603, 1625, 1665.

Life expectancy in towns was always much lower than in the countryside - towns were death-traps in which mortality was far higher than the birth rate.
Despite disease & high mortality, the English population expanded greatly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
In 1485 it was between 2 and 2.5 million; 4 million by 1600; and stood at about 5 million in 1660.


The economy   

One effect of the rise in population was a general increase in prices - especially of food.  During the sixteenth century, food prices rose fivefold; (prices of industrial manufactures doubled.)

England was an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural country. Production of food was the main economic activity, and the most important event of the year  was the harvest. Harvests were especially bad in the years 1554-6, 1594-7.


English towns

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, very few English towns had more than a few thousand inhabitants - and a only a very small proportion of the population lived there.

London was vastly larger than any other English city, with a population of over 50,000 in the early sixteenth century. By 1600 about 200,000 people lived there, and London continued to grow despite losing about 80,000 of its inhabitants in the plague outbreak of 1665.



Rising prices were bad news for those on fixed incomes and those without enough land to supply their own needs. But people with large farms were able to take advantage of rising food prices. The farmers could then increase the efficiency of their farms to maximize profits:  
Agricultural innovation (for example water meadows)  increased productivity per acre.
The introduction of new crops and their periodic rotation on land increased its long-term fertility.
The reclamation of marginal land - for example draining of East Anglian fens - brought more land into productive use.

Enclosure was the fencing in and farming as personal property fields which had previously been leased to tenants or which had been used as common grazing land.
Ignorance of basic economics led many to blame enclosers  for England's economic problems. Tudor governments continually legislated against enclosure; and Tudor writers condemned it.

Only a very small proportion of English land was enclosed, but the social effects were magnified because enclosure was concentrated in a few areas - especially the Midlands.

By the mid seventeenth century, public opinion was largely reconciled to enclosure. Agricultural improvement was seen as benefiting everyone, and fears that England's population was declining and been supplanted by worries that it was too large.


There is a current debate on the impact of 16th and 17th century agricultural changes.
The Marxist viewpoint was that capitalistic exploitation of land was disastrous for English small holders, and that only the rich profited .
Others - especially Eric Kerridge - have argued that an agricultural revolution occurred which benefited the population as a whole.



In this period, industry was far less important than agriculture. Most industrial production was not in factories but in the home.
This was true in the case of cloth production which was England's main industry and its major export.
Other important industries included lead-mining (Derbyshire); tin-mining (Cornwall); coal-mining, especially in the North of England.

The phrase “like coals to Newcastle", which means giving someone things they don't need, was first recorded in 1538.


Water transportation was far cheaper & more efficient than land: roads were poor. By 1660 England was on its way to becoming the world's greatest sea-going power. In the seventeenth century international trade shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, and England was one of main beneficiaries.


England in the early modern period changed from being series of regional economies largely isolated from one another, to being an integrated national economy. London played a crucial role in this development.
The  growth of London also unified English culture; by 1600 it had become fashionable for the upper classes to spend part of each year in London. London's growth also stimulated interest in national politics.

Social structure

English social structure was hierarchical, but it was possible (although difficult)  to move up and down the social scale.

nobles and gentry
yeomen, merchants, and professions
husbandmen and labourers


Nobles (or peers):






Only the eldest son of a noble family inherited a title - this kept the number of nobles low

Though not tax-exempt, the nobility did possess important privileges, including the right to sit in House of Lords, and the right to be tried only by their peers (other lords in the House of Lords).
Bishops also sat in the House of Lords, and before the Reformation some abbots (i.e. the chief monk of a monastery) sat there too.






'Mere' gentlemen


It was said that "gentlemen are made good cheap in England;" anyone with a master's degree from one of the two universities (Oxford and Cambridge) counted as a gentlemen, as did any member of a profession (physician, lawyer). The means of gentlemen varied enormously, from small farmers to extremely wealthy landowners. Gentlemen held political power locally as Justices of the Peace and nationally as Members of Parliament. Gentry made up approximately 2% of the English population in 1600, but owned 50% of land (the nobility owned about 15%; church & crown owned most of the remainder).

The richest merchants were very wealthy, for example, aldermen of London were richer than almost all landed gentlemen.


Other Commoners (non-Nobles):
Yeomen were prosperous farmers, (i.e. with incomes in excess of £40 per annum in 1600).
Below yeomen were husbandmen, (earning about £15 pounds per annum in 1600).
A Labourer lacked enough land to maintain himself and his family, (though he often had a cottage and garden, and grazing rights for cattle on the local common),  and consequently had to work for wages.
The going rate for day labor in 1600 was roughly 1s per day when work was available, but agricultural work was seasonal, and many labourers would only have been able to find work for six months in the year.
With an annual income of about £9 pounds, labourers barely earned enough to get by.


Previous lecture

Next lecture


Return to top of page Course schedule Home