Post-classical history

Chapter 6
Wealth, Population, and Social Change in the Later Middle Ages

England’s wealth in the later Middle Ages was its land, the exploitation of which engaged most Englishmen: growing corn, producing dairy goods, and tending livestock. England’s most important industry, textiles, was indirectly based on the land, producing the finest wool in Europe from often very large sheep flocks: St Peter’s Abbey, Gloucester, owned over 10,000 sheep by 1300, when the total number in England is thought to have been in the region of 15 to 18 millions. The wealthiest regions were the lowlands and gently rolling hill-country of the midland and southern shires, with extensions into the borderland and southern littoral of Wales. Other industries were less significant in creating wealth and employing labour, but Cornish tin mining was internationally famous and the tin was exported to the Continent. Lead, iron, and coal mining was quite modest, though the coastal traffic in coal from the Tyne Valley and the neighbourhood of Swansea reflected its growing domestic and industrial use. As for financial and commercial services, the economy gained little from what became, in modern times, one of the nation’s prime sources of wealth. Few English merchants – the de la Poles of Hull were an exception – could compete with the international bankers of Italy, with their branches in London, despite the fact that Edward I and Edward III were slow to honour their war debts to these Italian companies. England’s mercantile marine was generally outclassed, except in coastal waters, by foreign shipping; but the Gascon wine-run and woollen shipments to the Low Countries did fall increasingly into the hands of English merchants and into the holds of English vessels. The thousand and more markets and fairs dotted about the English and Welsh countryside – more numerous by 1350 than in the past – served mainly their local communities within a radius of a score or so miles. Most of these small towns and villages – Monmouth, Worcester, and Stratford among them – were integrated with their rural hinterland, whose well-to-do inhabitants frequently played a part in town life, joining the guilds, buying or renting town residences, and filling urban offices. A small number of towns, including some ports, were larger and had broader commercial horizons: Shrewsbury’s traders travelled regularly to London by the fifteenth century, and merchants from the capital and Calais (after 1347) visited the Welsh borderland in search of fine wool. Bristol, with its vital link with Bordeaux, was rapidly becoming the entrepôt of late medieval Severnside; whilst York, Coventry, and especially London were centres of international trade.

Landowners, Peasants, and Merchants

From this wealth sprang the prosperity of individuals, institutions, and the Crown. The greatest landowners were the lay magnates (small in number, like ‘skyscrapers on a plain’), bishops, monasteries, and other religious institutions. In 1300 these still benefited handsomely from a market boom created by the expanding population of the previous century. Prices were buoyant and landed incomes substantial: after the earl of Gloucester died at Bannockburn (1314), his estates were estimated to be worth just over £6,000 a year, whilst those of Christ Church Priory, Canterbury, produced in 1331 a gross annual income of more than £2,540. Landowners therefore exploited their estates directly and took a personal interest in their efficient management. They insisted on their rights as far as possible, squeezing higher rents out of tenants and carefully recording in manor courts the obligations attached to holdings. Such landed wealth was the foundation of the political, administrative, and social influence of the aristocracy, many of whom had estates in several counties as well as Wales and Ireland:

Humphrey, earl of Hereford and Essex, for instance, inherited property in Essex, Middlesex, Huntingdonshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire, and also in Brecon, Hay, Huntington, and Caldicot in the Welsh march. Land was equally the basis of the gentry’s fortunes, albeit on a more local, shire level, whilst it gave ecclesiastical landowners an earthly authority that complemented their hold on men’s minds and souls. This wealth could support pretensions and ambitions on a more national stage, as in the case of Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), the richest earl in the England of his day.

The peasantry in 1300 were living in a world where land was scarce and opportunities for economic advancement were limited by the tight controls of the landowners. Prices were high – the price of wheat after 1270 was consistently higher than it had been earlier in the century – and there was little cash to spare after food, clothing, and equipment had been bought. Wages in an over-stocked labour market were low and reduced the purchasing power of skilled and unskilled alike: a carpenter earned 3d. a day (without food) and a labourer 1d. or 1½d. Grumbles, complaints, and spasms of violence were directed at landowners and their officials, and rent strikes and refusals to perform customary labour services were not uncommon.

The merchants of 1300, most notably the exporters of wool and importers of wine, thrived in an expanding market from the Baltic to Spain, Portugal, and, especially after the opening of the sea-route from the Mediterranean, to northern Italy. During 1304–11 wool exports averaged annually 39,500 sacks (each containing at least 250 fleeces) and only 30–40 per cent of these cargoes was shipped by foreigners. The rising antipathy towards alien merchants in English trade reflects the self-confidence and assertiveness of native (or denizen) merchants. Edward I legislated (1280s) in their interest, notably to facilitate the recovery of debts at law, which was essential to the expansion of trade. But when war came, merchants were among the first to resist heavy taxation, especially the maltolt(or ‘evil tax’) of 1294, and the impressment of their ships.


Map 3. Main roads in medieval England and Wales

Taxation, Wages, and Employment

The king was the largest landowner of all, even before Edward I acquired a principality in Wales and the estates of the house of Lancaster merged with the Crown’s in 1399. The growth of national taxation under Edward I and his successors enabled the Crown to tap the wealth of private landowners and merchants, too. Not even the peasantry escaped, as was well appreciated by those who sang the popular lament, ‘Song of the Husbandman’, in Edward I’s reign. Then, in 1327, all who had goods worth at least 10s. a year were required to pay 1s. 8d. in tax, and doubtless the less well-off had the burden passed on to them indirectly. The preoccupation with war made the king heavily dependent on the wealth and forbearance of his subjects. If that wealth ceased to grow, or if the prosperity of individuals and institutions were punctured, then the king’s extraordinary commitments might eventually be beyond his means and his subjects’ tolerance wear dangerously thin.

By the mid-fourteenth century the prosperous period of ‘high farming’ was almost over. Prices were falling, making cultivation for a market less profitable. Wages were rising, more so for agricultural labourers than for craftsmen, and there was no advantage in employing women, who were paid the same as men – indeed, in bear-baiting they were paid more! The principal reason why large-scale farming was losing some of its attraction was that the population boom came to an end and went, full throttle, into reverse. As the pool of available labour shrank, wages rose; as the population declined so did the demand for food and supplies, and prices followed suit.

Population, Poverty, and Plague

England’s population reached its peak, perhaps over 4 millions, about the end of the thirteenth century. At that time, there was insufficient cultivable land to ensure that all peasant families had an adequate livelihood. A high population coupled with low living standards inevitably meant poverty, famine, and disease, and a mortality that crept upwards and brought the demographic boom to a halt. The plight of those living at or below the poverty-line was made worse by a series of natural disasters related to over-exploitation of the land and exceptionally bad weather in the opening decades of the fourteenth century. Poor harvests were calamitous for a society without adequate storage facilities: there was less to eat and no cash to buy what now cost much more. The harvests of the years 1315, 1316, 1320, and 1321 were exceptionally bad; cattle and sheep murrains were especially prevalent in 1319 and 1321, and on the estates of Ramsey Abbey (Cambs.) recovery took 20 years; and in 1324–6 parts of England had severe floods which drowned thousands of sheep in Kent. Famine and disease spread, and on Halesowen Manor (Worcs.) 15 per cent of males died in 1315–17. Agricultural dislocation was widespread, grain prices soared (from 5s. 7¼14 d. to 26s. 8d. per quarter in Halesowen during 1315–16), and wool exports collapsed. However, it was a temporary calamity and England gradually recovered during the 1320s; but the vulnerability of the poor in particular had been starkly demonstrated.


11. A Kentish peasant, c.1390, forced to carry barefoot a sack of hay and straw publicly from Wingham to the archbishop’s palace six miles away at Canterbury. Tenants in the late fourteenth century tried to avoid such humiliating labour services to their lords. (From the Register of Archbishop William Courtenay (1381–96), fo. 337v.)

Longer lasting and more profound were the consequences of plague. The first attack, known since the late sixteenth century as the Black Death but to contemporaries as ‘the great mortality’, occurred in southern England in 1348; by the end of 1349 it had spread north to central Scotland. Geoffrey le Baker, a contemporary Oxfordshire cleric, described its progress from the ports, where it arrived in rat-infested ships, and men’s helplessness in diagnosing its cause and dealing with its effects.

And at first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland and from there it raged so dreadfully through Devon and Somerset as far as Bristol and then men of Gloucester refused those of Bristol entrance to their country, everyone thinking that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of plague was infectious. But at last it attacked Gloucester, yea and Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England so violently that scarcely one in ten of either sex was left alive. As the graveyards did not suffice, fields were chosen for the burial of the dead … A countless number of common people and a host of monks and nuns and clerics as well, known to God alone, passed away. It was the young and strong that the plague chiefly attacked … This great pestilence, which began at Bristol on [15 August] and in London about [29 September], raged for a whole year in England so terribly that it cleared many country villages entirely of every human being. While this great calamity was devastating England, the Scots rejoicing thought that they would obtain all they wished against the English … But sorrow following on the heels of joy, the sword of the anger of God departing from the English drove the Scots to frenzy … In the following year it ravaged the Welsh as well as the English; and at last, setting sail, so to speak, for Ireland, it laid low the English living there in great numbers, but scarcely touched at all the pure Irish who lived amongst the mountains and on higher ground, until the year of Christ 1357, when it unexpectedly and terribly destroyed them also everywhere.

Economic Effects of the Black Death

At a stroke, the Black Death reduced England’s population by about a third. By 1350, Newcastle upon Tyne was in desperate financial straits ‘on account of the deadly pestilence as by various other adversities in these times of war’, and Carlisle was ‘wasted and more than usually depressed as well by the mortal pestilence lately prevalent in those parts as by frequent attacks’ (by the Scots). Seaford (Sussex) was reported even in 1356 as ‘so desolated by plague and the chances of war that men living there are so few and poor that they cannot pay their taxes or defend the town’. Tusmore (Oxon.) was another victim of the plague: by 1358 permission was given to turn its fields into a park because every villein was dead and the village no longer had any taxpayers. Nevertheless, the Black Death’s effects were not immediately or permanently catastrophic. The behaviour of a Welshman living in Ruthin was not uncommon: he ‘left his land during the pestilence on account of poverty’, but by 1354 he had returned ‘and was admitted by the lord’s favour to hold the same land by the service due from the same’. In any case, in a well-populated country, dead tenants could be replaced and landowners’ incomes over the next 20 years were cut by no more than 10 per cent. It was the recurrence of plague over thefollowing century – particularly the attacks of 1360–2, 1369, and 1375 – which had lasting effects, even if these outbreaks were more local and urban. The population steadily declined to about two and a half millions – or even less – by the mid-fifteenth century.


12. A ‘lost village’ among 1,300 and more in the Midlands and eastern England. Middle Ditchford (Glos.) was probably abandoned in the mid-fifteenth century because of declining population and the conversion of its streets, lanes, and open fields (still well marked, with ridge-and-furrow cultivation in foreground) to pastoral farming

For those who survived an ugly death, life may not have been as wretched in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as it undoubtedly was before. For many peasants, this became an age of opportunity, ambition, and affluence: Chaucer was able to portray his pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales with good-humoured optimism, not in an atmosphere of gloom and despondency. The peasant in a smaller labour market was often able to shake off the disabilities of centuries, force rents down, and insist on a better wage for his hire; and with the collapse in prices, his standard of living rose. The more successful and ambitious peasants leased new property, invested spare cash by lending to their fellows and, especially in the south and east, built substantial stone houses for the first time in peasant history.

Landowners, on the other hand, were facing severe difficulties. Market production in wheat, wool, and other commodities was less profitable, the cultivated area of England contracted, and agricultural investment was curtailed. Wages and other costs climbed and it seemed advisable to abandon ‘high farming’ techniques in favour of leasing plots to enterprising peasants. Entire communities were deserted – the ‘lost villages’ of England – and many of these were abandoned as a result of the twin afflictions of demographic crisis and prolonged war: among the English regions with the highest number of ‘lost villages’ are Northumberland, close to the Scottish border, and the Isle of Wight, the goal of enemy marauders. Only in the last decades of the fifteenth century – from the 1460s in East Anglia – did England’s population begin to rise at all significantly, and it is likely that the level of 1300 was not reached again until the seventeenth century.

England’s economy had contracted markedly in the late fourteenth century, but it was not universally depressed. After men came to terms with the psychological shock of the plague visitations, society adjusted remarkably well, though not without turmoil. Landowners had the most painful adjustment to make and they reacted in several ways, not all of which were calculated to preserve domestic peace. Some, including the more conservatively minded ecclesiastical landlords such as the abbot of St Albans, resorted to high-handed measures, even to oppression and extortion, to preserve their hold on their remaining tenants. Some exploited their estates ruthlessly in order to conserve their incomes, and the harsh attitudes of magnate families such as the Mortimers, with extensive estates in Wales, may have helped cause the GlyndImager rebellion (1400). Others, such as the dukes of Buckingham later in the fifteenth century, adopted more efficient methods of management to improve the profitability of their estates. Yet others saw the enclosure of fields and commons for pasture and cultivation as less costly and an alternative means of buttressing unsteady rent-rolls; enclosure gathered speed especially in the north and west in the later fifteenth century. Large and small, the landowners as a group acted ‘to curb the malice of servants, who were idle, and not willing to serve after the pestilence, without excessive wages’. Edward III’s ordinance (1349) to restore pre-plague wage levels and discourage mobility among an emancipated labour force was quickly turned into a parliamentary statute (1351). Moreover, the well-placed magnate or gentleman had supplementary sources of wealth available to him: royal patronage in the form of grants of land, money, and office (as the Beaufort relatives of King Henry VI well knew); family inheritance, which enabled Richard, duke of York (d. 1460) to become the richest magnate of his age; and fortunate marriage with a well-endowed heiress or a wealthy widow. Others prospered in the king’s service, not least in war. Henry V’s spectacular victories enabled the capture of ransomable prisoners and the acquisition of estates in northern France, and as late as 1448 the duke of Buckingham was expecting more than £530 a year from the French county of Perche. Some invested the profits of service and war in the mid-fifteenth century in the grandest manner, building imposing and elegant castles: witness Sir John Fastolf’s at Caister (Norfolk), or the Herberts’ huge fortress-palace at Raglan (Gwent), or Sir Ralph Botiller’s castle at Sudeley (Gloucestershire). Such means and resources as these facilitated the emergence of aristocratic lines that were every bit as powerful as those of earlier centuries and often with entrenched regional positions like those of the Nevilles and Percies in the north and the Staffords and Mortimers in the west.

Similar adjustments were taking place in English towns and trade. Wool-growing remained the main pastoral occupation, but the pattern of its industry was transformed during the fourteenth century. Partly as a result of the war and its disruption of Flemish industry, and partly as a result of changes in English taste and demand, cloth manufacture absorbed growing quantities of wool previously exported; a number of the wool ports, such as Boston and Lynn in eastern England, began to decline. Leading cloth-manufacturing centres such as Stamford and Lincoln were overtaken by a host of newer ones sited in villages and towns near fast-flowing streams and rivers that ran the fulling mills. York found itself upstaged by Leeds, Halifax, and Bradford; further south, East Anglia, the west country, and even Wales developed a flourishing cloth industry, with Bristol as the main outlet in the west. London was in a class of its own: the only medieval English town with a population probably in excess of 50,000 in the late fourteenth century. It was an entrepôt for the kingdom, a terminal of the Baltic, North Sea, and Mediterranean trades; it attracted immigrants from the home counties and East Anglia, and especially from the East Midlands; and its suburbs were creeping up-river towards Westminster. No less than in the countryside, these changes unsettled life in a number of towns, whose burgess oligarchies strove to maintain their control in a changing world. The landowners of England thus strove to counter the economic crisis, but it was often at the price of straining relations with an increasingly assertive peasantry and established urban communities.

The Peasants’ Revolt

The cumulative effect of economic, social, political, and military strains in fourteenth-century England is seen most graphically in the Peasants’ Revolt (1381). It was exceptional in its intensity, length, and broad appeal, but not in its fundamental character, which was revealed in other conspiracies and insurrections in the years that followed. Widespread violence was sparked off in 1381 by yet another poll tax, this one at 1s. a head, three times the rate of 1377 and 1379. People responded with evasion, violence towards the collectors and the justices who investigated, and, ultimately, in June 1381, with rebellion. Agricultural workers from eastern and south-eastern England were joined by townsmen and Londoners; the grain and wool-growing countryside of East Anglia had felt the full impact of the contraction and dislocation of the economy and the social contradictions of an increasingly outmoded feudal society. Moreover, the rebels were disillusioned by the political mismanagement of the 1370s and the recent dismal record in France, and they feared enemy raids on the coast. Although heretics played no major role in the rebellion, radical criticism of the doctrines and organization of the English Church predisposed many to denounce an establishment that seemed to be failing in its duty.

Pressure on the government and an appeal to the new king (’With King Richard and the true-hearted commons’ was the rebels’ watch-word) held out the best hope for remedy of grievances, and the populace of London offered a pool of potential sympathizers. The rebels accordingly converged on London from Essex and Kent (where Wat Tyler and a clerical demagogue, John Ball, emerged as leaders). They threw prisons open, sacked the homes of the king’s ministers, ransacked the Tower, and tried to frighten Richard II into making far-reaching concessions which, if implemented, would have broken the remaining bonds of serfdom and revolutionized landholding in Church and State. But the rebellion was poorly planned and organized and more in the nature of a spontaneous outburst of frustration. By 15 June the rebels had dispersed to their homes.


13. John Ball, the priestly demagogue who inspired the rebellious peasants in 1381, preaching to the rebel host led by Wat Tyler (left foreground); banners proclaim the rebels’ loyalty to King Richard II

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