Post-classical history

Chapter 12

THE SHAPE OF ENGLISH SOCIETY BY 1553

It was under Henry VIII and his son, Edward VI, that the greatest assaults took place on the Catholic Church which had been such a focal point of national and local community life throughout the Middle Ages. This accompanied a complex process of reorganization within the English Church – already some of the more questionable arrangements of the Church structure of the Middle Ages were being addressed. In 1200 there had been about 9,500 parishes in England, and by 1535 this had been rationalized to somewhere in the region of 8,800. But this was as nothing when compared with the changes that were coming.

In 1531 Thomas Cromwell launched an attack on papal authority in England. The fine of £100,000 levied on the clergy in return for a pardon for accepting foreign jurisdiction both contributed to depleted royal finances and tapped into popular resentment against worldly clergy. In 1532 (temporarily) and 1534 (permanently) the pope’s right to tax the English clergy was removed. At the same time Convocation (the ruling body of the English Church) was forced to accept royal authority over its decisions. In 1543 the Act of Supremacy finally recognized Henry as ‘supreme head’ of the Church in England. But it can be argued that ‘The Act of Supremacy represents not an attack on Catholicism as such, but a consolidation of royal authority, in effect, a nationalisation of the Church in England . . .’1 This process started in 1531, continued in 1536 with the suppression of the lesser religious houses and in 1538 with an all-out assault on the larger religious houses, until, by 1540, all the religious houses in England and Wales had been dissolved. The Crown gained over £1 million from this campaign. The dissolution of the monasteries put an end to institutions which had dominated much of the life of the Middle Ages. It is clear though that, by the early sixteenth century, monasticism as an idea was in decline. Recruitment had been reduced to a trickle and bequests of land had all but stopped. The wealth of many monasteries meant that a large number could have continued for many years even in this condition, but it is important to realize that Henry’s dissolution struck at an already ailing institution. Even so, the dissolution removed important features of the medieval world, since many monasteries had become the focal points of pilgrimages and the veneration of relics and of saints. It is not surprising, then, that within a decade these two areas of devotion had also come under sustained attack. Furthermore, the distribution of monastic land meant that a large number of local landowners had a vested interest in ensuring that there would be no return to the world of the great religious houses, even if the destruction had not already made such a development impossible to imagine.

Nevertheless, there remained a deep-seated commitment to the Catholic faith in Lincolnshire and in much of the north and the south-west of England. The Middle Ages would not vanish overnight. Indeed, in the later years of Henry’s reign the ‘Middle Ages’ were fighting back at the very centre of government. In the same year as the Pilgrimage of Grace failed in its attempt to defend the traditional Catholic faith, the passing of The Ten Articles by Convocation established the basic beliefs of the English Church. However, apart from listing only three sacraments (baptism, penance and the Eucharist) and describing the Eucharist in terms whose ambiguity could give comfort to both Catholics and Protestants, the articles were very conservative. Henry had certainly not launched a ‘Protestant Reformation’. But more radical measures were to follow. In 1538 laws were passed banning the burning of candles before images of saints, burning candles in commemoration of the dead, statues and images which were objects of veneration. Aspects of medieval practice which had survived for centuries were ended in a matter of months. After 1539 not a single will recorded in the diocese of Salisbury left money for ‘lights’ (the burning of candles), whereas in the previous eight years about 50 per cent of all wills had included such requests.2 In addition, an English Bible was to be placed in every parish church.

But the world of the Middle Ages was not yet gone. Resistance by more conservative elements – allied to the king’s own conservative outlook in religious matters – led, in 1539, to the passing of The Act of Six Articles. These reasserted Catholic beliefs in such key areas as transubstantiation and clerical celibacy. In 1543 the publication of The King’s Book asserted the continuation of prayers for the dead and, by implication, the idea of purgatory. In addition, the Mass remained in Latin, although Cranmer had succeeded in publishing his English Litany in 1544, which would later be the forerunner of the Book of Common Prayer. The mindset of ‘the Middle Ages’ and that of ‘the Early Modern World’ were wrestling for control of the character of England.

Henry VIII’s break with Rome had allowed significant inroads of Protestantism and Lollardy into London and the south-east, where it already had some support. Not that Henry had intended any of this – he died in all his essential beliefs a Catholic who no longer accepted the authority of the pope. It was the Protestant policies of Edward VI’s government which really ended the Catholic ritual year of the Middle Ages and changed the texture of life for most English people. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued: ‘The Edwardian adventure was a religious revolution, demolishing the traditional Church in order to rebuild another’.3 Arguably it was in these later changes that the feel, the colour and the rhythm of the Middle Ages was truly dislocated and replaced by a new experience. During the young king’s short reign (1547–53) the widespread removal and destruction of religious images occurred, the Act of Six Articles was repealed, chantries were dissolved (their continuation was in question anyway because of their cost), clerical celibacy was no longer required and all religious orders were banned. The revolutionary intent of the new government was apparent in the fact that the ordinance requiring the removal of religious images came only a few weeks into the new regime and went well beyond earlier decrees. This time not only statues but two-dimensional images, such as stained glass, were included in the prohibition. All over the country statues, ancient rood screens, ‘Jesse Trees’ and stained-glass windows were smashed or removed. Much of the internal fabric of churches, which had grown up over the previous millennium, vanished in a reign which only lasted six and a half years.

While the Catholic belief in transubstantiation was not officially rejected, both the bread and wine were now to be received in the Eucharist, instead of bread only, as in previous Catholic practice. In addition, the 1549 Act of Uniformity insisted on the use of the new English Book of Common Prayer in churches. In 1552 a second edition of the Prayer Book was issued. The radical nature of these changes was clearly recognized at the time. Those who approved of the changes described Edward VI as a young Josiah, a reference to the eight-year-old king of Judah in the Old Testament who had purged his nation of idolatry. Edward himself was just nine years old when he became king and, having been brought up to support the Protestant reformed religion, his actions stemmed as much from his personal sincerity as from his regency council. And, although this end to the community traditions of the Middle Ages was in many ways a government-driven revolution, it nevertheless was in alliance with a significant minority of the population, particularly in London and the south-east. Once in place (and given the brevity of the counter-reformation reign of Edward’s half-sister Mary and the moderate Protestant policies of Elizabeth), the changes soon became part of national culture. The evidence for this reveals itself in curious ways. Despite earlier developments, the great majority of wills in London during the last years of Henry VIII’s reign were still worded in the terminology of the Catholic faith. But in the short reign of Edward VI the proportion expressing themselves in the vocabulary of the new reformed religion rose to 44 per cent.4 A way of looking at and understanding death – and life – had changed. If there is an ‘end to the Middle Ages’, then the period 1547 to 1553 is as reasonable a time to choose for it as any.

This ‘end’ revealed itself in building as well as in destruction. After the relative stagnation in church architectural styles in the fifteenth century, the early sixteenth saw a return to increased elaboration and decoration. But this did not last. Renaissance ideas, with their focus on classical forms, diverted fashions and funds from church building into the mansions of the elite. At the same time, the Reformation swept away monasteries and the national framework of huge church building projects (with their coordinated community of craftspeople) which had made the great medieval churches possible. By 1550 medieval styles seemed compromisingly Catholic. When medieval style became acceptable again, after 1600, it was no longer innovative and would soon be challenged by classical forms.5

Population, land and economic change

The sixteenth century saw other major changes in English society. Of these, one of the most significant was an increase in population. In 1520 the population stood at about 2.5 million, by 1541 it had risen to 2.7 million and by 1551 it reached about 3 million – and the upward trend continued. This created social and economic stresses. Firstly, prices and rents soared as there was increased demand for land and accommodation. As a result investors began to buy land not as an end in itself but for profit, which created a speculation boom in land prices. While this benefited a small number of investors and property speculators, it also resulted in a large number of tenants, or copyholders, being forced out of the market as they could not afford the increased rents. Many migrated into towns in search of work. In addition, food prices increased yet further as speculators attempted to sell foodstuffs in the dearest markets in order to offset the rising cost of purchasing land. This in turn depressed the living standards of the poorest members of society.

In order to maximize profits from land which was now more expensive to buy or rent, a number of larger landowners attempted to increase their profits by enclosing land for sheep farming. The attraction of this lay in the reduction of the cost of wages paid for the running of sheep farms (which required relatively few workers) compared with arable farming, which was more labour intensive. This development hit poorer members of rural communities as it frequently involved the enclosure of common land, or the amalgamation of smaller farms into larger, more efficient and therefore more profitable land units.

This increased drive to maximize profit from land was manifested in many ways. One of the most unusual was in a virtual declaration of war on animals which were not part of the rural economy (and especially those accused of consuming crops). Henry VIII’s first Vermin Act of 1532 put a price on the head of birds and animals which damaged agriculture and ‘ordeyned to dystroye Choughes, Crowes and Rookes’. But it did not end there. The list of animals to be exterminated included foxes, kingfishers, bullfinches, golden eagles, woodpeckers, owls, pine martens, badgers, otters, choughs and hedgehogs. Hedgehogs were thought to suck milk from cows – though quite what the economic consequences were considered to be is a puzzle. Choughs were thought to carry embers which might set fire to houses. These accusations are clearly bizarre, but the hard-headed economics which drove these exterminatory drives waged war on the fauna of the medieval landscape. Churchwardens were charged with keeping a record of kills and for paying bounties for severed heads or tails. Elizabeth I’s Vermin Act of 1566, passed for ‘the preservation of Grayne’, laid down the rewards of a penny for three crows’ heads or twelve starlings’ heads, rising to a shilling each for foxes and badgers. Even ospreys (fourpence), kingfishers (a penny) and otters (twopence) were considered a threat to ‘Grayne’, though in what sense is hard to imagine. These accounts tell a terrible story of destruction: for example, 498 hedgehogs killed in one year in the Cheshire parish of Bunbury, at 2d a head, and 380 red kites killed in a 13-year period at Tenterden in Kent, for a penny a time.6

The problems of increasing population were slightly softened (though not permanently) by a warmer fluctuation in the climate. Although the ‘Little Ice Age’ lasted from about 1450 to 1850, the period in the middle of the sixteenth century – according to tree-ring analysis – was one of the warmest before 1900. This needs to be set against contemporary records, which can give an unbalanced picture through focusing on unusual climatic events such as the Thames freezing over three times, severe rainfall in 1526–7 and 1535, and severe drought in 1536. Incidentally, the Thames freezing was not in itself unusual since, before the later dredging and embanking of the river, it was much shallower than today and therefore more prone to a dramatic response both to very cold weather and to summer droughts.

Accompanying these developments, the sixteenth-century changes in economic relationships ended many features of medieval social networks. This was the latest chapter in a process which had started in the thirteenth century. In the century after 1200 English landlords were aggressively expanding their control. They demanded more work on their demesne land, increased control over villeins, reduced wages and increased rent. In the 150 years after 1350 much of this trend was reversed. Demesne land was rented out for cash payments, villeinage vanished, wages went up and rents went down. All of this altered the traditional relationships in rural communities. However, after 1500, rising population altered this pattern yet again, with some wealthier farmers – the yeoman class – increasing their wealth at the expense of a growing population of the landless and dispossessed. A new rural gentry class was emerging. This was subdivided hierarchically, even as it held itself distinct from those below it on the social scale. In addition, lords were no longer actively engaged in agricultural production and tenant farmers were now the ‘locomotive of change’ in the developing countryside. Clothiers and yeoman farmers had stepped into the positions left vacant by the retreating influence of feudal lords.

The increasing tendency of landowners to enclose their land was both a symptom and a cause of this break with the past. It went hand in hand with a lessening of communal cooperation and an increase in a more private and exclusive use of land. This was especially striking when the land involved had once been ‘common land’, used by the whole local community. The newly hedged fields were mostly designed to control sheep and livestock and these in turn reduced the demand for agricultural workers and drove many from the land. In addition, the hedges were also barriers aimed at excluding the poor and their animals from the pastures in question. As one recent study put it, they were ‘organic barbed wire’, which even at the time was regarded as being as divisive socially as it was agriculturally. Not for nothing would revolutionaries of the next century be calledLevellers. We interpret this term as coming from their demands for social equality but the name itself was inspired by ‘hedge-levelling’, a common way in which popular unrest and resentment expressed itself. Hedges then were symbols of an emerging and privatized Early Modern World and the end of the more communal world of the Middle Ages.7

However, if this drive for agricultural efficiency in a money economy sounds like modern capitalism, we must pause before we make an assumption too far. If something like the cash-driven economy of the modern world was emerging around 1500, it still had a long way to go before it dominated life. As late as 1525 as many as 60 per cent of households were effectively self-employed; a proportion similar to the situation in 1300.8 It would be a long time before a wage-earning majority created a social and economic situation comparable to modern capitalist economies and societies. The social structure of England in the sixteenth century, although changing, was still largely medieval.

The drive for increased profit by successful landowners was accompanied, in the late 1530s, by the dissolution of the monasteries, which led to major changes in wealth distribution and church patronage. This actually had less impact on agriculture than might be supposed, since many monastic estates were already leased to local gentry, who now bought them and converted their tenancies into outright ownership. Nevertheless, the sixteenth century saw a steady growth in the number of local gentry, from a baseline of about 4,500 in 1524. Appearing in the sixteenth-century records under such imprecise terms as ‘gentleman’ and ‘esquire’, their exact numbers can be difficult to calculate with any precision, but it is clear that they were growing as a class. What is evident is that these new social groupings emerged in a time of increasing economic turbulence.

By the time Henry VIII came to the throne, in 1509, inflation was eating away at the economic stability which had begun to emerge in the final decades of the fifteenth century. One reason for this was recovering population growth, which pushed up food prices; another was a flooding of the European silver market due to the discovery of new supplies in the Tyrol, Saxony and Bohemia in the 1460s and 1490s. But a more serious cause lay in government policy. Warlike foreign policy drained national resources through heavy taxation. It was a drive to increase the liquid assets at the disposal of the Crown which led to the dissolution of the abbeys and the sale of their property in the 1530s. This was accompanied by ten debasements of the currency between 1542 and 1551, each of which reduced the silver content of the English coinage further and lowered its value. So thin was the silver wash on pennies that, when used, it quickly wore off the highest points of Henry VIII’s portrait, earning him the nickname of ‘Old Copper-nose’. By 1550 the spending power of the average English worker had fallen by about 33 per cent compared with 1500. The result – when combined with rising population – was increasing levels of underemployment, unemployment and vagrancy.

It is clear, from the issues just explored, that many apparent certainties of the later Middle Ages faced serious challenges by the middle years of the sixteenth century. A notable casualty was the cloth trade. In 1550 cloth exports reached their peak. In this market London led the way, but other ports also benefited from this boom in the cloth trade. However, there was a corresponding decline in the export of raw wool, which had once been one of the main export trades of the later Middle Ages. After 1550, even finished cloth would face a slow decline, in the face of competition from the continent and as a result of exchange-rate fluctuations after 1544.

But the picture was not solely one of decline. Merchant Venturers, such as those of Bristol, were leading the search for a north-west passage to Asia. While they failed in this, their journeys to the north-east coast of North America led to an expansion in the fishing industries based in Bristol, which processed the fish products of Newfoundland. While Tudor exploration of the new world was limited and small scale compared with that of the Spanish, it was a tentative sign of things to come – though few can have guessed its importance at the time. However, it is significant that, as the Middle Ages drew to a close, this contact was beginning – pointing as it did to future developments of immense importance that would have a profound impact on the economy of England and of Europe as a whole.

The ‘new world’

Other tentative evidence exists from the sixteenth century of increased international connections. Travellers, who became known in England as Egyptians or Gypsies (but who called themselves Roma) were, it is claimed, first recorded in Scotland in 1505. However, an entry in the Book of the Lord High Treasurer in 1492, in the reign of the Scots king James IV, referring to someone titled ‘King of Rowmais’ may actually be the earliest record. This title sounds like the kind often used by leaders of early travelling groups of Roma. Other titles in sixteenth-century British sources include ‘Earl of Little Egypt’ and ‘Earl of Greece’. In England this community of travellers was first recorded in about 1515. The first discriminatory law against them, expelling Gypsies from England, dates from 1530, by which it was forbidden to transport Gypsies into England. The punishment for doing so was the considerable fine of £40 for a ship’s owner or captain. The Gypsies themselves, if identified, were to be hanged by a law of 1554. They were regarded as aliens and became the objects of mistrust: it was the start of a long history of persecution which would extend into modern times. Gypsies became another group living on the edge of society, and their persecution adds to the argument that discrimination against minorities was, sadly, well established by the sixteenth century.

At the same time, other newcomers to England seem to have been the first recorded Africans in the country since the Roman Empire. In 1501 Katherine of Aragon landed at Deptford with a multicultural retinue including Moors, as well as Muslims and Jews. In 1507 a black African trumpeter named John Blanc was paid by Henry VII for playing at royal events. In a painting of the Westminster Tournament of 1511 he became the first black Londoner ever to be portrayed. Documents from the High Court of Admiralty reveal that in 1547 a black slave named Jacques Francis, from Guinea, in West Africa, was employed by an Italian salvage operator as a diver recovering items from a ship which had sunk in the Solent. In 1555 a group of West Africans, who were cooperating in opening up African markets to Tudor traders, were brought to England. But it was in 1562 that John Hawkins began a more terrible connection with Africa, which pointed to greater atrocities to come. In that year he transported African slaves for the first time in English ships. It was another indication of the Early Modern period which was emerging from the end of the Middle Ages.

The complex mixture of social tension for some and increased wealth for others means it is hard to generalize regarding the life experiences and mental outlook of English men and women at the end of the Middle Ages. For some it was a time of lessening independence and falling living standards, accompanied by the loosening of the spiritual anchors which had provided stability throughout the Middle Ages. For others, a ‘new world’ was opening up of increased wealth at home, new global markets and a new dynamic and individual religious experience. For many people in 1553, the jury would have been out on whether these changes were going to be a positive or a negative experience overall. But that things were changing could not be denied.

Accompanying the other great currents of religious, economic and social change which were sweeping England in the first half of the sixteenth century was one of increasing intellectual awareness driven by the greater availability of books – a ‘revolution in the mind’. This was due to the arrival of printing in the second half of the fifteenth century. In the 1530s it was printing presses which took the debates of Thomas More and William Tyndale to a wider audience: one disseminating, the other countering Reformation ideas. More people could engage with the arguments because of the new technology. And, of course, it was the availability of printing which made it possible to place the English-language Great Bible in every parish church in 1539.

While regional identities remained strong, the newly invented printing press and the associated increase in literacy meant that more of a ‘national culture’ was beginning to emerge. This particularly benefited the spread of the English language into the northern and western areas of the British Isles. Not a single book was printed in Cornish, or Irish or Scots Gaelic in this period (there was in fact no printer in Ireland before 1551). The first book in Welsh was printed in only 1546. As a result, the prolific printing houses of London and Edinburgh meant that it was the southern – London – version of English which was the dominant form of the language in England, and Lowland Scots (a form of English) which was becoming the dominant language of Scotland. Soon even this Scots form of English (sometimes called Inglis) would give way to the London-based form amongst educated Scots. Bibles in Scotland, as in England, were printed in the southern (London) form of English. Indeed, it would not be until 1983 that a Scots translation of the Bible appeared. In the face of this advance of English, Welsh, Cornish and Gaelic began an uphill struggle to survive. The linguistic landscape of the Middle Ages – and with it the cultural and social fabric – was being transformed.

From a modern perspective it is easy to see the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as disastrous, and therefore the end of the Middle Ages in the sixteenth century as something of an anticlimax. It is as if the dynamism of the medieval period had slowly collapsed in disorder and eventual dissolution. Yet by 1500 England – like Europe as a whole – had survived and was recovering from its demographic upheavals. Large building projects continued (although those connected with the Church would lose impetus after the 1530s) and voyages of exploration had begun, even if the early English ones were modest compared with those of the Spanish and Portuguese. The strength and resilience of medieval civilization is revealed in the fact that England and Europe by the 1550s, for all the trauma and turmoil that would follow in the next century, were not in terminal decline but instead stood at the start of a process of world domination. Whatever our modern verdict on this may be, it says a great deal about the achievements of the Middle Ages that it was possible.

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