15th Century England
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
The constitutional history of the century preceding the battle of Bosworth shows us first an attempt to limit the powers of the crown, taking as precedents the Provisions of Oxford and the Lords Ordainers; then Richard II's attempt to free the crown from all restraints and render it despotic; then the premature subjection of the Crown to the Commons, whose new authority collapsed in the face of civil war.
The civil war not only paralysed the Commons, but also shattered the baronage, thereby making it possible for a dynasty of able rulers to recover for the Crown a degree of practical autocracy. But it did not destroy the tradition of parliamentary control. Neither foreign wars nor civil broils arrested the normal course of economic development. The foreign wars were fought on foreign soil; the conquest of France and the expulsion from France both involved devastation of France, but not of England.
The insurrections under Richard II and Henry IV and the War of the Roses were largely in the nature of faction fights; and though much blood was shed, they were not, comparatively speaking, destructive of property. It is not, indeed, to be supposed that agricultural life or town life and commerce were unaffected; bat only in rare instances was there sacking of towns, and confiscations were directed not against wealthy burgesses but against the owners of wide lands.
Hence England, on the whole, was rather prosperous than otherwise; although we must decline to accept the view of those historians who have persuaded themselves that the fifteenth century was the golden age of the agriculturist and the craftsman.
Role of the Villein
The return to normal conditions, after the Peasant Revolt, ended the reaction which had checked the passage from tenure by service to paid service and tenure by rent. The villein, as a rule, became either a "copyholder" with a right to his tenement in perpetuity, subject to the payment of a rent which could not be raised, or a free labourer; not because those rights were extorted from reluctant landowners, but because the landowners found the arrangement profitable.
The idea of servitude passed away, and nothing was heard about "bondage" in Jack Cade's insurrection. The copyholder ceased to sympathise with the labourer, when he was himself freed from the fear of enforced services and possibly wished to hire labour. The labourer, on the other hand, could command adequate wages, because as yet the supply of labour did not exceed the demand except in the the off seasons.
But it cannot be assumed that employment was regular throughout the year, or that the recorded rates of wages represent the average wage received throughout the year by the individual labourer.
There was another outcome of the depopulation and disorganisation consequent upon the Black Death. A great deal of the land was thrown out of cultivation altogether, and much of it was not brought back into cultivation because at the first it was not necessary to grow so much food as before, apart from the fact that there was not sufficient labour available. Whole families of the villans, nay, in some cases entire villages, had been swept away by the pestilence; and many villein holdings, reverting to the lords of the manor, were absorbed into demesne lands.
The lords then, as a mere matter of convenience, turned over what had formally been tilled land to pasture, growing sheep on it instead of attempting to restore it as arable. Nobody was the worse, and the sheep did not demand the same amount of labour as tillage; which, in view of the shortage of labour, was advantageous.
On the other hand, with the ever-increasing demand for wool, the landlords began to wake up to the fact that wool-growing was a profitable occupation, more profitable than corn-growing when low prices ruled. Out of these things trouble arose presently, but it was not actively felt until some while after Henry VII was seated on the throne.
The policy of Edward III gave an impetus to commercial life which was actively felt in the towns, and developed the mercantile class and commercial enterprise. With the growth of the cloth-working industry, the "staples" in which the merchants of the staple dealt ceased to be the only goods for which the English merchant sought to find a market abroad. But the individual merchant found innumerable barriers to interfere with his trade in foreign cities.
The Merchant Adventurers
The German towns of the Hanseatic League had been admitted to trade privileges in England on the hypothesis that they would grant corresponding privileges to English traders; but the individual trader was not strong enough to get his rights recognised. Hence the great mercantile company of the Merchant Adventurers received a charter in the reign of Henry IV granting it a monopoly of foreign trade in other than staple goods, since a company could fight its own battles very much better than isolated traders.
There was a jealousy, indeed, between the Merchant Adventurers and the Merchants of the Staple, because the main trade of the former was in cloth, the manufactured article, and of the latter in wool, the raw material; and the cloth workers sought to check the export of wool in order to cheapen it at home, so that the interests of the two associations conflicted. The fifteenth century, however, saw the Merchant Adventurers steadily and successfully forcing their way into foreign markets.
With the expansion of trade and the increase of manufactures, even in a very limited field, capitalism came into being. That is to say, men found that when they accumulated wealth they could carry on operations on a larger scale; and also that the surplus wealth not required for extending their own operations could be profitably applied by others.
In the chartered towns, every one was under the strict supervision and regulations of the craft gilds, but beyond the jurisdiction of the borough men could follow their own devices. Thus it was to a great extent in new unchartered towns that the cloth-working industry grew up and flourished; and to this, in part at least may be attributed that decay of some of the older boroughs from which a falling off in the general prosperity has sometimes been inferred. Trade was drawn away from them to the new centres.
Great wealth in fewer hands
The fact that there was a great deal of private wealth is demonstrated by the great expenditure in this century upon building - a form of outlay in which none but rich men could indulge. But it would seem rather that a few men were acquiring great wealth than that the normal standard was greatly raised as a result of the new methods.
The craftsman was tending to become the client of the big trader rather than an independent trader on his own account. The journeyman's chance of setting up for himself diminished, as it became necessary to start business with a substantial stock-in-trade. The old days had departed when the craftsman had required little more than the tools with which he executed the orders that came to him, working upon materials which were provided for him.
The man who wanted custom must have wares to exhibit instead of merely waiting for orders, and wares to exhibit meant capital locked up. So the average journeyman no longer regarded himself as being on the way to become a master craftsman, but expected to remain a journeyman all his days. Thus the fifteenth century saw the beginnings of the opposition between capital and labour, between employers and employed.
With regard to foreign commerce, it must be remarked that England had scarcely as yet developed a carrying trade. In this department she could not compete with the cities of Italy and the Low Countries. It was to encourage English shipping more from a military than from a commercial point of view that the first Navigation Act was passed in the reign of Richard II, requiring that goods should be brought for import either in English bottoms or in the ships of the exporting country. The regulation was, in fact, so impracticable that it very soon became a dead letter. English sailors generally held their own on the narrow seas; but the great development of English shipping for all purposes was the work of the Tudor period.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.