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 die 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. This inflation was without equal until the twentieth century. The price of wheat and barley, necessary for bread and beer, increased over five times between 1510 and 1650. While most other prices increased by five times between 1500 and 1600, real wages fell by half. 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 2.2million in1525 to four million in 1603. Twice the number of people needed twice the amount of food. It was not produced. Living conditions got worse as the population rose. It is not surprising that fewer people married than ever before.
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, but because JPs were themselves landlords, few peasants could prevent it. 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.
There was a clear connection between the damage caused by enclosures and the growth of the cloth trade as one man watching the problem wrote in 1583, "these enclosures be the causes why rich men eat up poor men as beasts do eat grass." All through the century the government tried to control enclosures but without much success. Many people became unemployed.
There were warning signs that the problem was growing. 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. It is thought that about 7,000 thieves were hanged during Henry VIII's reign.
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. In order to control the growing problem of wandering homeless people, workers were not allowed to move from the parish where they had been born without permission. But already there were probably over 10,000 homeless people on the roads.
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 in the parish 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. In 1596, during the period of -bad harvests, peasants in Oxfordshire rioted against the enclosures of common land. Apprentices in London rioted against the city authorities. The Elizabethan Poor Law was as much a symbol of authority as an act of kindness. It remained in operation until 1834.
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. The rich ate good quality bread made from wheat, while the poor ate rough bread made from rye and barley. When there was not enough food the poor made their bread from beans, peas, or oats. The rich showed off their wealth in silk, woollen or linen clothing, while the poor wore simple clothes of leather or wool.
By using coal instead of wood fires, Tudor England learnt how to make greatly improved steel, necessary for modern weapons. Henry VIII replaced the longbow with the musket, an early kind of hand-held gun. Muskets were not as effective as longbows, but gunpowder and bullets were cheaper than arrows, and the men cheaper to train. 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. In both Birmingham and Manchester ambitious members of the working and trading classes could now develop new industries, free from the controls placed on workers by the trade guilds in London and in many other older towns.
Coal was unpopular, but it burnt better than wood and became the most commonly used fuel, especially in London, the rapidly growing capital. In Henry VIII's reign London had roughly 60,000 inhabitants. By the end of the century this number had grown to almost 200,000. 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 stank, and was "the filthiest in the world".