Post-classical history

The Economies of Britain

Between 1066 and 1284 the economies of Britain were transformed. The population at least doubled. A large acreage of new land was brought under the plough. The commercial sector also expanded with the money supply spiralling, and a new infrastructure of towns, markets and fairs growing up. These changes embraced Wales and Scotland as well as England, serving to reduce the contrasts between the different parts of Britain. In the triforium of Westminster Abbey the sculptured head of a craftsman, smiling, assured, naturalistic, humane, seems to sum up this expansionary, self-confident age. Yet below in the chapel of St Faith is another head, with pinched cheeks and sunken eyes, its mouth open as though crying out in pain. This was also an age when a large proportion of the peasant population lived at the level of bare subsistence. In years of bad harvest there was starvation. According to one view the situation was getting worse as the rising population began to outrun the ability of the land to support it. For many peasants there was no ‘merrie England’.

The English economy dominated the rest of Britain. England covers 57 per cent of Britain’s land mass as against Scotland’s 34 per cent and Wales’s 8 per cent. England was also mile for mile much richer, a reflection of the far higher proportion of good fertile land as opposed to upland pasture, moor and mountain. Whereas roughly 13 per cent of England’s land mass stands at over 600 feet, the respective figures for Wales and Scotland are 42 per cent and 48 per cent. In the assessment of ecclesiastical wealth made for a papal tax in 1291–2, the only figures covering the whole of Britain for this period, the average valuation per square mile in England was £4.04, in Scotland £1.34 and in Wales £0.90. The grand total for Scotland was just short of a fifth of England’s; that of Wales was only a twenty-eighth. The English economy was not only the largest. It is possible to know much more about it. Domesday Book, the Hundred Roll survey of 1279, numerous private charters, and a growing body of manorial accounts from the thirteenth century provide sources uniquely rich, if frustratingly patchy.

The picture Domesday Book gives of England in 1086 is of a society overwhelmingly rural. It records some 270,000 heads of rural house-holds, nearly all of them peasants, that is broadly people who lived by working on the land. Against that there were between five and ten thousand lords and some 25,000 heads of urban households, the latter an estimate by historians because Domesday Book gives uneven information about the town population. Domesday placed much of the rural population in units of lordly exploitation which it called manors, although these varied in size and structure. In a broad swathe across the midlands and the south (excluding Kent) large numbers were what historians call ‘classical’, that is to say they were coterminous with a single ‘nucleated’ village. Indeed the twelfth-century chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote that in common speech the words ‘manor’ and ‘village’ were interchangeable. Thus at Willingham in Cambridgeshire the bishop of Ely’s manor consisted of the whole village and its surrounding arable and meadow lands, embracing in all some 900 acres. Much of the land the bishop had kept in his own hands as his home-farm or demesne. The rest of the arable with a share in the common meadows was held by his peasants: twelve villeins, and eight cottagers. Later evidence (Domesday itself never gives the size of peasant holdings or the terms on which they were held) shows that the villeins each held half a ‘yardland’ (around fifteen acres). The cottagers probably had under five acres. Both groups had to supply two days’ labour a week on the bishop’s demesne and further work at harvest time. In 1086, taking all of Domesday England, villeins made up 41 per cent of peasant tenants, most probably holding either a whole yardland or a half, while cottagers accounted for another 32 per cent. The obligation to provide labour was probably heavy and widespread, but peasants could also pay rents both in money and kind. At Willingham there was only one slave but some manors had many more, so that they made up roughly 10 per cent of the rural population. There was one other key feature of the manorial system, namely that both the lord’s demesne and the land of each individual peasant was distributed in equal proportions between either two or three great open fields which lay around the village. At Willingham there were three fields and in 1251 the lord had roughly a hundred acres in each. The lands of each peasant were probably divided evenly between the three fields in the same way. This was the normal pattern. As a consequence everyone had to follow the same agricultural regime, accepting, for example, that one field each year should lie fallow (the usual practice), hence such manors were said to have ‘common fields’, and hence the need for a manorial court to organize the running of the manor.

There were manors of the Willingham type throughout England, although as inheritances were divided and the population increased it was quite usual for there to be more than one manor in a village. In Kent, East Anglia, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, however, a rather different form of structure was common. This was one composed of a lordly centre, often a nucleated village, linked to a series of outlying hamlets whose peasants gave renders in kind and money to the centre, rather than extensive labour services, the renders often being more important in the lord’s income than the direct produce from any central demesne. Such peasants were often called ‘sokemen’, the subordinate hamlets being part of the ‘soke’ or jurisdiction of the centre. Attached to the five carucates of land (about 600 acres) at William de Warenne’s great base at Conisbrough in Yorkshire were a further eighty-six carucates held by sokemen in twenty-eight subordinate hamlets. In Domesday Book sokemen and other freemen made up roughly 14 per cent of England’s peasant population.

In this society there were therefore gaping disparities in wealth. Even a lord of a single manor had far more wealth and power than a villein, let alone a cottager. And great lords had many manors: Willingham was one of fifty held by the bishop of Ely across six counties. His estates in Domesday Book were valued at an annual £484 – 318 pennies a day, when one penny a day was the wage (when he could find work) of a twelfth-century labourer.

Taken as a whole the Scottish and Welsh economies were very different from the English. This was largely the result of the much higher proportion of high ground which made pastoral farming far more important than arable. As a sixteenth-century writer remarked, Scotland was always ‘more gevin to store of bestiall than ony production of cornys’. Gerald of Wales in the 1190s made the same point about Wales: ‘the greater part of the land is laid down to pasturage; little is cultivated’. Another consequence of this largely pastoral economy was that settlements were often small and scattered. According to Gerald, the Welsh lived a solitary life in huts on the edge of woods rather than communally in villages. He would probably have said much the same about the Scots.

This contrast between England and the rest of Britain should not, however, be overdrawn. Even at the start of our period there was probably extensive corn production, if mostly of oats (more suitable than wheat for poorish land) both in the coastal lowlands of Wales and in the lowlands of eastern Scotland south and north of Forth. Gerald of Wales himself described Welsh ploughing, which was of a peculiar nature. The driver of the oxen walked in front but facing backwards, so that he often fell and was run over. Although there is little sign of manorial structures, a point to which we will return, there was certainly the equivalent both in Wales and Scotland of the soke-type estates found in parts of England. In Wales, historians are increasingly detecting nucleated villages which apparently pre-date the Norman Conquest. In Dyfed, these had the strips of the peasant bondmen arranged round them in radial fashion. In Gwynedd considerable progress has been made in tracing the sites of llys and maerdref complexes. Llys means ‘court’, that is the residential and judicial centre of the local ruler. The maerdref was the associated village in which the peasant bondman lived. These Welsh villages were not subject to fully formed manorial institutions; the strips of the peasant bondmen, whether scattered or radial, seem to have been run individually, rather than as part of some common field system. Since, however, the bondmen gave renders in kind and also had to labour on the land of the lord, the two systems were not that dissimilar.

If there were features in common between the English rural economy and that of Scotland and Wales, that was much less so when it came to towns, commerce and coinage, at least if the comparison is with England south of York. North of that city, apart perhaps from a market and urban beginnings at Durham, there were no towns in 1066 either in England or Scotland. There is scant evidence of English money circulating north of the border; in any case, York was the northernmost English mint. The Scottish kings did not mint coins before 1136. A contemporary Life of Queen Margaret of Scotland, who died in 1093, tells how she encouraged merchants to come to Scotland by land and sea with precious wares, hitherto unknown, which hardly suggests a high level of pre-existing commerce. As late as the 1140s King David, Margaret’s son, expressed doubts as to whether ships were likely to arrive at Perth ‘for the sake of trade’. In Wales there were no towns before the Normans and little evidence of money. The economy depended on barter and plunder, with a trade (to Ireland) in one of the most valuable items of that plunder: slaves. Plundered slaves were also important in Scotland, hence the appalling impact of the Scottish invasion of the north in 1138. (See above, p. 16.)

In England things were very different. ‘And one coinage is to be current throughout all the king’s dominion, and no man is to refuse it,’ thundered King Edgar (959–75). The assertion of a royal monopoly over the coinage, and the minting of plentiful and high-quality silver coins to sustain it, was one of the greatest achievements of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In the last years before the Conquest, a quarter of the coinage was minted in London. All the coins bore the king’s head on one side, and all the dies for striking this image were manufactured in London before being distributed to the regional mints. Of the latter there were between sixty and seventy, making it possible for the king in a single simultaneous exercise to replace one type of coin by another throughout the country, a practice to which surviving coin hoards bear testimony.

Most of these mints were situated in what the Domesday clerks called boroughs: all told they gave the name (or that of city) to some 112 places in England while listing thirty-nine more as having markets. The clerks were not using ‘borough’ in any technical sense. They simply meant a place where a significant number of the inhabitants lived from non-agricultural pursuits, that is from trade and manufacture. It is equally clear, however, that these boroughs differed from the countryside legally and administratively. There was already burgage tenure, which meant that townsmen held their property in return for money rents and enjoyed freedom to alienate it. Boroughs had their own courts (mentioned in Anglo-Saxon law codes) and could owe the king an annual ‘farm’ (that is a payment) separate from that of the rest of the county. Domesday provides no surveys for London and Winchester, and its information is incomplete elsewhere. One can only offer a guess at the total number of townspeople in 1086 – one already mentioned is 25,000 heads of households, which would make with their families an urban population of, say, 120,000. Around thirty places perhaps had populations of between 1,000 and 5,000 inhabitants, with only York, Lincoln, Norwich, Winchester and London exceeding that figure. London’s population may have been around 25,000. It was already divided into wards, each under an alderman.

Most of the small towns were involved in local trade, which will be discussed in more detail later, but trade was also international. Around the year 1000 merchants from Normandy, Ponthieu, Flanders and the Rhineland were active in London. Of these the Flemings were already the most important, shipping England’s chief export, wool, to Flanders for its burgeoning cloth industry. Tin was also exported, while imports included wine, cloth and spices. Some part of the trade at least was in English hands. According to one legal tract, the rights of a merchant were enhanced if he crossed the sea three times (and some are known to have reached Pavia). In 1066 England with its currency, cornfields, sheep and towns was a wealthy country; indeed it was a wealth about which William the Conqueror’s chaplain, William of Poitiers, waxed lyrical. Hence the Norman Conquest, and what a good investment that proved to be. Over the next 250 years England’s resources increased several times over. Just when the expansion began is hard to discover, but it certainly predated the Conquest. Norwich, it has been estimated, covered fifty acres in 900 and 200 in 1066. It is much easier to describe the features of the expansion, which embraced much of western Europe, than it is to detect its underlying causes, though these included the opening up of new European supplies of silver, the absence of plague and, more tentatively, a slightly warmer climate than that prevalent before 900.

At the heart of the expansion in England lay a rise in population, although this is the subject of much debate. Domesday Book, as we have seen, recorded some 270,000 heads of rural households, but what, to arrive at a total number, should be the multiplier for their families – 3.5 or, as most historians now seem to think, between 4.5 and 5? And how accurate are estimates of the urban population and how many people have to be added in for unnamed under-tenants, bailiffs, monks, priests, household retainers and castle garrisons, as well as for the people of Northumberland of which there was no survey? Depending on the answers to these questions the population can be put as low as 1.1 million and as high as 2.5 million. Recent considerations of the subject have arrived at a population of around 2 million, a figure which currently commands fairly wide acceptance.

In the 200 years after 1086 the evidence for a significant rise in the population is abundant. Willingham’s tenants in 1086 (including the slave) numbered 23. A survey of the manor in 1251 put the number at 79, a 3.4 times increase. At Martham in east Norfolk there were 74 tenants in 1086, 107 around the middle of the twelfth century and 376 in 1292, a fivefold increase. At Taunton (here getting away simply from tenants) the adult male population rose from 612 to 1,448 between the years 1209 and 1311. Expansion was not universal, however, for it depended very much on local conditions, to which we will return. Between 1086 and 1279 the population of six villages in the Warwickshire hundred of Stoneleigh rose by a factor of 3.6 and eight new settlements appeared. But in the adjoining hundred of Kineton the population hardly rose at all. Unfortunately the Hundred Roll survey from which the 1279 figures come survives (sometimes in fragmentary form) for only six counties, namely Warwickshire, Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. Arriving at overall figures for the population increase is therefore a highly speculative exercise. One approach has been to work back from the 1,386,196 males and females over fourteen revealed by the poll tax of 1377. Allowing for evasion, paupers and children, this could, on one estimate, convert into a population of 2.5 to 3 million. Allowing then for a 40–50 per cent death rate in the plagues in and after 1348, the population might have been between 5 and 6 million on the eve of the Black Death, having already, in one view, been reduced from its 1300 peak by the terrible famines of 1315 to 1317.

There is, however, clearly much that is speculative about a proposed 5 to 6 million population for 1300, and in recent years some historians have suggested a markedly lower total. B. M. S. Campbell, in particular, while accepting a figure of around 2 million for 1086, has argued that England in 1300 could not have supported a population much in excess of 4 to 4.25 million. Yet while this view is based on a detailed consideration of land use and yields both in 1300 and 1086, it is admittedly provisional and subject to revision. The evidence from individual properties, when viewed as a whole, may well point to a rather higher rate of increase between 1086 and 1300 than that envisaged by Campbell. A population level in 1300 of 5 or even 5.5 million retains powerful advocates. In the current state of research, all we can say is that the population at the very least roughly doubled between 1086 and 1300, rising from around 2 to 4 million plus. A higher rate of increase and a larger total in 1300 is by no means out of the question.

Whatever the precise rate of growth, the rising population was the engine driving forward the economy in these centuries. Food was not imported in any significant quantities; fundamentally England had to feed itself. Hence the stimulus to production. More peasants necessitated greater peasant production, both for food and rent. More peasant mouths to feed also encouraged lords to increase their own production, for – and this is a crucial fact – a large and growing proportion of the peasantry were certainly not self-sufficient. They, like the increasing numbers of townspeople, needed to buy food, a rising demand from which lords, seeking more opulent lifestyles, could profit by increasing their own production and thus their marketable surpluses.

Food, but of what type? The countess of Leicester’s accounts in 1265 show her household consuming bread (always a staple), fish (300 herrings from stores one Friday), meat (oxen, pigs, sheep, kids, calves and hens), and dairy products (cheese, milk, and hundreds of eggs a day), all washed down with ale and wine. Lower down the social scale, wine disappears and the supply of meat diminishes. An elite peasant yardlander at Bishop’s Cleeve in Worcestershire, where peasant budgets have been reconstructed by Christopher Dyer, had perhaps a pig for bacon, a couple of cows for cheese, around thirty sheep (primarily for the sale of their wool) and draught oxen. But the far more numerous cottagers probably had no more than a solitary cow. Indeed, nearly 50 per cent of the tenants on some bishopric of Winchester manors in the thirteenth century possessed no animals at all. Fundamentally (although this would not be the case in largely pastoral areas) the great bulk of the peasantry lived off bread and pottage, a kind of porridge made from oats and pulses; bread was by far the largest component in the diet of harvest workers at Sedgeford in Norfolk in 1256. Considerable efforts were certainly made in this period to improve animal husbandry. At Rimpton in Somerset, new farm buildings, better feeding and a professional bailiff improved the fertility and survival rates of the lord’s cattle and pigs, and maintained those of sheep at an impressive level. But all the evidence suggests that the primary need was for corn production; that was where life and profit lay. Indeed, in calorific terms (according to one calculation) corn accounted for 93 per cent of agricultural output.

Throughout this period, therefore, gargantuan efforts were made by both lords and peasants (it is often difficult to distinguish between their efforts) to bring new land under the plough. North of Trent in 1086 lay a great deal of under-utilized land, partly through Yorkshire’s depopulation after its ravaging by William the Conqueror. Even in the heavily manorialized midlands and the south there were swathes of waste and woodland between villages which could be taken in, a ‘drive to the margins’ which ultimately created a sea of arable with the fields of one village hard up against those of the next. Very large inroads were also made into the royal forest, which around 1200 covered a third of the country. The abbot of Peterborough, his knights and free tenants created 450–600 acres of new arable in the soke of Peterborough in the first quarter of the thirteenth century. Twelfth-century clearances in the soke had already spawned the new village of Paston and the attendant hamlets of Dogsthorpe and Cathwaite, an indication (and there are many others) that colonization involved the foundation of new settlements as well as the expansion of old ones. The greatest enterprises, however, involved drainage – of the Somerset levels, of the Essex marshes, of Romney marsh in Kent and above all the East Anglian fens. In Lincolnshire the men of the Holland district reclaimed over 100 square miles from the sea and converted it, in the words of the Crowland chronicler, into ‘good and fertile arable’.

The landscape of England was being transformed, yet the end result can nowhere near have doubled, let alone tripled, the area under cultivation. The need to sustain, and the desire to profit from, the rising population also inspired efforts to cultivate the land more efficiently. This is related to the whole question of how lords ran their estates.

At the time of Domesday Book many of the new Norman knights were probably keeping their manors in hand and seeking to reorganize and expand the demesnes or home-farms within them. Great lords, on the other hand, while treating some of their property in that way, seem more generally to have followed a policy of leasing out both whole manors and parts of the home-farm sections of the manors they kept in hand. In the second half of the twelfth century, this pattern began to change as great lords increasingly shifted out of leases. In 1176 all Peterborough abbey’s manors were leased; by 1210 all were in hand. This process of resumption began on big ecclesiastical estates like Peterborough’s and was probably inspired by worries over the permanent loss of property through leases becoming hereditary. It was also believed that in-hand manors could yield much more profit than those let out on ancient leases. One of Bury St Edmunds’ manors, Tilney in the Norfolk fenland, had formerly been leased at £4 a year. By resuming it in the 1180s Abbot Samson increased the revenue to an annual £20 to £25. Probably here and elsewhere the property had gained in value as it gained in population. Meanwhile, another factor came into play in the early thirteenth century which encouraged lords both to take manors in hand and expand their home-farms. This was an economic event of overarching importance, one which was also central to politics and royal finance, namely the great inflation.

Although evidence is limited, prices in the twelfth century seem to have been fairly stable. Those of wheat, by far the most important saleable commodity, moved upwards in the ten years either side of 1180, but in the 1190s fell back to their old levels. Then in the four or five years from 1200 prices rocketed. Although this was followed by some falling back, the old levels were never recovered and prices remained at at least twice their twelfth-century level, ultimately, in the last quarter of the thirteenth century, averaging between three and four times as much. Prices of other items, like oxen, followed comparable trends. The reasons for the inflation, which was an English, not a continental phenomenon, have been much debated. One hypothesis has explained it in terms of a flow of silver into the country to pay for English wool, but it is difficult to see how this could account for a sudden rise in prices around 1200. Another suggestion is that in the early 1200s numerous hoarders of coin suddenly decided to spend their money and save less than before, the inflation again being monetary but the money coming from a different source. The hoarders acted in this way, it is said, because they had lost confidence in a currency much debased by clipping and general wear since the last major recoinage in 1180 (hence the need for King John’s recoinage in 1205). Coin hoarders, however, are not the kind of people who need to eat more bread. They would have spent their money on goods other than corn, and would that have released such a quantity of coin as to create a general rise in prices? By far the most likely cause of the inflation, at least when it came to the price of wheat, the commodity which dominated the market, was that given at the time by Ralph, abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Coggeshall in Essex. He blamed the very high prices in 1205, which he contrasted with those in the time of Henry II, on the freezing weather which had destroyed the harvest. Chroniclers also commented on the bad weather of 1201. Almost certainly it was a succession of poor harvests which drove up corn prices, with perhaps the release of hoarded coins affecting those of other commodities. The subsequent failure to resume earlier price levels may well have been due to longer-term factors, namely the influx of silver, which certainly fuelled a large increase in the money supply from the 1180s, and the demands of a rising population outrunning the supply of corn.

Whatever the cause, while inflation did not begin the move to take manors in hand, for that had begun earlier, it certainly consolidated the trend and with it the related move to develop the demesne or home-farming side of activities. This did not mean that rents were unimportant. In the thirteenth century, some lords (like the archbishop of Canterbury) continued to lease individual manors. Once a manor was in hand, lords were keen to raise the rents paid by free and unfree tenants. They also increased their income through commuting rent owed in labour to rent paid in cash, in the process often imposing heavier burdens on the peasantry. On some estates, lords still received more money from rents than from selling corn on the market. Nor was the market the destination for all produce, that coming from manors near a lord’s principal residence often being consumed rather than sold. None the less, for all these qualifications the thirteenth century does stand apart as an age where lords directly exploited their manors and made money by selling the produce on the market, thus profiting from the high prices produced by inflation. To have as large a surplus as possible to sell, the lords strove to expand and consolidate the home-farm portions of their manors through purchase and exchange, a process well documented in numerous charters. In farming more efficiently they were aided by a growing army of professional estate stewards, some of whom wrote treatises on estate management, the most famous being Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, a veritable ‘good dung guide’.

Just how far yields per acre were increased as a result of this expertise and activity is hard to know. A comparison with those at the time of Domesday Book is simply unavailable. Figures from lordly demesnes in the thirteenth century are often not encouraging. On the estates of the bishop of Winchester yields of wheat remained around eight to twelve bushels per acre (a bushel is thirty-six litres), where on modern farms they are in the seventies. The yields from barley and oats actually declined. Perhaps the Winchester administrators, having greatly expanded the area of the demesne arable and with it the bishop’s income, felt no pressure to farm it more intensively. Elsewhere in the country attitudes were different. In parts of fertile eastern Norfolk yields were three times those of the Winchester estates, thanks to intense use of labour and flexible cropping which virtually eliminated fallow. Although in lowland England there was no general shift from a two- to a three-field rotational system, thus reducing the amount of land lying fallow, the distinction between the two systems became blurred as portions of fallow fields were kept in cultivation. Whether peasant productivity equalled or exceeded that of lords is impossible to say as there are no figures. The need to cultivate increasingly marginal lands and the soil exhaustion due to lack of manure – a lack, as at Holland in Lincolnshire, arising from new arable eating into meadow and pasture – may have particularly affected peasant agriculture. On the other hand, with yields literally a matter of life and death peasants must surely have farmed with absolute commitment. There was plenty of labour to weed and to spread what dung there was. Indeed in eastern Norfolk the ratio of labour to land on peasant holdings was some six times that on demesnes.

Part and parcel of these developments in farming was an accentuation of regional specialisms. There were areas of intensive arable production like East Anglia; various balances between production of corn for the market and for personal consumption in the common fields of the midlands and the south; in the south-west, as at Rimpton, corn production was combined with quite extensive sheep rearing; and of course sheep and other cattle were the speciality of the pastoral uplands, where the Cistercian monasteries, founded in the twelfth century, entered the sheep business on a large scale. Sheep indeed were everywhere, kept both by prosperous peasants and great lords. If the rising population was the main engine behind the expansion, the Flemish cloth industry’s demand for wool provided a powerful auxiliary motor. England already boasted many sheep at the time of Domesday Book, and thereafter their numbers multiplied. The contribution to cash income varied but was rarely insignificant: on three great ecclesiastical estates at the end of the thirteenth century it amounted to between 11 per cent and 35 per cent, the rest coming from corn sales, rents and various rights of jurisdiction. By this time England had probably 10 million sheep. Here too the countryside had been transformed.

* * *

There is virtually no statistical evidence from which to compute the populations of Wales and Scotland. The population of Wales around 1300 has been hazarded at 300,000 and of Scotland at 1 million, largely by reference to a likely 5 to 6 million in England, which itself, as we have seen, is open to debate. However, there can be no doubt that the Welsh and Scottish populations substantially increased. Indeed Gerald of Wales specifically commented on the rise in that of Wales in the twelfth century, the only contemporary ever to refer to the subject of population increase.

In Wales, growth was related to other changes in the economy. These were partly the result of the Norman conquest of much of the southern lowlands from Gwent through to Dyfed, which began soon after 1066 (see below, p. 110). To protect their lands the Norman lords built castles, and to exploit them they set up manors very similar to those in England, the first time, as we have seen, such institutions had appeared in Wales. As a consequence there was a considerable increase both in cereal production and the number of nucleated villages. Some of the sites developed were probably new, others (like Carew, just east of Pembroke) were very old. The peasants on whom the working of the new manors depended were both native Welsh and, in substantial numbers, Anglo-Saxons introduced from England. The balance between the two peoples varied, something reflected in the way personal and field names shifted from English to Welsh between the east and west of coastal Gwent. In parts of Dyfed lived a different people altogether because in the early twelfth century Henry I opened the area up for Flemings, who had been displaced from their native land by flooding and over-population. These men may well have been recruited and settled by professional agents acting for lords, hence the way in which some of the new villages (Templeton is an example) seem to have been formally planned with plots set in rows beside a street. Throughout the conquered south there is plenty of evidence of expansion. Around the castle at Carew two new settlements grew up, Carew Newton and Carew Cheriton. In the wetlands of coastal Gwent, the Norman lords seem to have laboured to re-colonize and rehabilitate areas which the Romans had once reclaimed from the sea, rebuilding the sea wall in the process.

There were also new and expanding settlements in native Wales. By the end of the thirteenth century Llysdulas (Dulas) in northern Anglesey had thrown up a series of subsidiary farms and hamlets. At Aberffraw, further south, by tradition the principal seat of the rulers of Gwynedd, the llys boasted an impressive complex of buildings while the maerdref had spawned four outlying hamlets. Some of the llys/maerdref complexes in the thirteenth century, like the manors in the marcher lordships in the south, were linked to substantial demesne farms, with the cultivation relying on the services of the peasant ‘bondmen’ in the maerdref. At both Aberffraw and nearby Rhosyr there were over 600 acres of land in hand, and at nearby Llan-faes thirteen carucates were valued at £20 10s. a year. Tax records from the end of the thirteenth century show that at Aberffraw wheat was grown extensively, indeed the balance between wheat and oats was better than in some parts of Oxfordshire.

In Scotland there was also a substantial increase in the arable area through inroads into forest, wasteland and moor, although most of the exiguous evidence is confined to the south-east between the Tweed and the Mounth. There the process is reflected in the name Aithmuir (‘oat moor’) in Perthshire. Further north at Arbuthnott in Mearns, sometime before 1206, a lord seems to have removed peasant pastoralists and ploughed up their lands. Scottish lords still derived far more income from rents than from demesne farming, judging from evidence both from the earldom of Fife and the monasteries of Lothian in the 1290s, but some great abbeys did have extensive demesnes: at Swinton that of Coldingham priory extended to around 500 acres.

Despite these developments, the wealth of Wales and to a lesser extent of Scotland remained in flocks and herds. Properties with substantial arable were usually attached to pastures running back up into the hills. Here the wool trade brought important developments. Welsh wool was not of the highest quality, but the Cistercian abbey of Strata Florida was already exporting it in the early thirteenth century. Scottish monasteries became involved with sheep on the grandest scale. In the late thirteenth century Melrose abbey, another Cistercian house, could provide fifty sacks of wool a year for Italian merchants, which implies a flock of over 12,000 sheep.

* * *

Changes to the rural economy were inseparable from those in the commercial sector which were nothing less than revolutionary. A developing network of markets, fairs and towns, together with their associated trade and manufacture, provided lords with goods to buy and centres where they could sell their produce in order to make the money to do so. The ability to procure thus stimulated the effort to produce. Peasants too used markets. They sold corn to raise money for their rents. They also bought corn on which to live if they were not self-sufficient, and other items if they were. A peasant yardlander might have an annual surplus of around £2 to spend. None of this would have been possible without money itself.

The only coin in Britain for nearly all this period was the silver penny, of which there were twelve in a shilling, 240 in a pound, and 160 in a mark (two thirds of a pound). Shillings, marks and pounds were simply terms of account. There were no coins of those values. Large sums of money had to be transported in barrels full of thousands of pennies. In England there were recoinages involving significant changes in design in 1158, 1180, 1247 and 1279, with the previous types being demonetized. A large number of regional mints were involved in such recoinages but at other times most minting in the thirteenth century was concentrated at London and Canterbury, much of it to change coin brought in by foreign merchants. The money supply in this period is necessarily a speculative subject. Down to 1205 it has to be deduced from coin hoards; thereafter, more reliably, on mint records. The increase in the supply was certainly stupendous, and was supported by an influx of silver to pay for English and Scottish wool. According to the estimates of Nicholas Mayhew, in England in 1086 there were £37,500, or 9 million pennies, in circulation, 4½d. per head if the population stood at 2 million. In 1300 the circulation was £900,000, or 216 million pennies, 54d. a head for a population of 4 million, and 36d. per head for a population of 6 million. There was therefore a twenty-four-fold increase in the money supply between 1086 and 1300, most of it taking place after 1180 when there were perhaps £100,000, or 24 million pennies, in circulation. When allowance is made for inflation, which would reduce the real value of money in 1300 by a factor of three or four as compared with 1086, the change is both less spectacular and more significant. Even a penny was a valuable coin – a day’s wages for a labourer. Although it could be cut into halves and quarters (in 1279 Edward I at last minted halfpennies and farthings) there was no way, throughout this period, one could simply go into a tavern and buy a drink. At that level it remained a barter (or credit) economy. The diminishing value of money, however, and its greater supply must have monetized and debarterized a whole range of transactions, in the process stimulating production and exchange. The increasing money supply also enabled the velocity of money, that is the speed with which it circulated, to slow down. Money had to work less hard. This facilitated commerce because it meant cash balances could be built up and purchases take place immediately rather than one transaction having to wait upon another.

There was one other factor which worked in the same direction, namely the increasing use of credit, much of it provided by the Jews. William the Conqueror had brought Jews from Rouen and established them in London, the first known settlement in England. By 1159 there were communities in at least nine other towns. The Jews probably acted, as they had in Rouen, both as moneylenders and dealers in coin, plate and bullion, doing good business changing into English money the silver that flowed into the country to pay for the export of wool. Under Henry II (1154–89) the Jews began to concentrate primarily on moneylending, and became England’s main source of credit. The opportunity had been created both by Henry II reducing the number of mints and moneyers, thus removing one traditional source of credit, and by the disappearance of the great Christian financiers (like William Cade) from whom Henry and many others borrowed money early in his reign. Perhaps such men were discouraged by the increasing hostility of the church to open usury and the king’s threat that its practitioners, on death, would forfeit their property to the crown, as apparently Cade did. The Jews were ideally placed to fill the gap. As tightly-knit communities with connections throughout England and the continent, they easily formed business partnerships. They also enjoyed both the king’s protection and help in collecting their debts. Since in law the Jews were regarded as crown property, Henry II quickly realized that he did not have to take loans from them; that would be like taking loans from himself. He could simply tax them instead, but for there to be anything to tax he and his successors naturally ensured that money borrowed from the Jews was indeed repaid.

The total number of Jews remained small, probably fewer than 5,000, but by 1190 there were significant communities in seventeen towns, and smaller settlements in many others. The majority of loans were of small amounts advanced to townsmen and free tenants of minor importance in the immediate vicinity of the towns. But most of the money (for the individual amounts were much larger) was loaned to great lay and ecclesiastical lords. Cade, who died around 1166, had lent at least £5,000 to clients, including some of the most important men of the realm. The greatest of his Jewish successors, Aaron of Lincoln (and most Jewish wealth was in the hands of a few plutocrats), was owed on his death in 1186 some £18,466, a sum not far short of the annual revenue of the crown. Religion and usury made the Jews deeply unpopular, but until their wealth was destroyed in the second half of the thirteenth century they were a vital lubricant to the economy and adjunct to the money supply.

Intimately related to the expansion of that supply was an entirely new infrastructure of markets, fairs and boroughs. Within that structure, speed and range of contact for both lord and peasant were increased by the greater use of horse as opposed to ox haulage, arguably a revolution in transport. Markets and fairs were usually established and run by lords with the aim of profiting from tolls paid by traders. Markets were held weekly on a specified day. Most had a largely local function, being a forum for buying and selling corn and other wares from the surrounding fields and villages. Others, however, like Henley, an entrepôt for supplies for London, were also involved in inter-regional trade. Fairs, which were held for longer periods though usually only once a year, also served inter-regional functions, particularly as centres for trade in livestock. At the top of the scale in the thirteenth century were half a dozen great international fairs, held at Winchester, Northampton, Stamford, St Ives, Boston and King’s Lynn.

Taking the whole period from 900 to 1516, around 1,550 markets and 2,060 fairs are known to have existed in England. Of these, only 13 per cent and 3 per cent respectively can be discerned before 1199. In the next century a revolution appears to have taken place. Between 1199 and 1272 the king licensed the establishment of some 770 markets and 920 fairs, 47 per cent of the total number. Up to a point these figures are misleading. Some of the new institutions had an earlier existence, the licence being simply a precaution now that the king was insisting on his right to sanction new establishments. Market and commercial growth early in the twelfth century is certainly reflected in Winchester fair, whose permitted duration increased from three days in 1096 to sixteen in 1155. Yet there is little doubt that the majority of the markets and fairs licensed in the thirteenth century were genuinely new. The statement, common in inquiries into episodes of violence and sudden death, that ‘he recovered from his wound and went to markets and taverns as usual’ shows just how much the market had entered the fabric of everyday life.

Some new markets never really got going, others grew quickly into boroughs, or (like Stratford-upon-Avon in 1196) were planned as part and parcel of new boroughs from the start. The proliferation of towns was indeed another cardinal feature of the expanding economy. M. W. Beresford has listed 172 towns established in the medieval period, of which eighty-eight belong to the years from 1154 to 1250. The initiative was again that of the lords (including the king), and many new boroughs were established beside castles or ecclesiastical institutions. With an existing population to supply, and usually on a strategic site, they were ideal situations for craftsmen and traders. The north in 1066 had been virtually an urban desert. By 1150 seven boroughs had appeared, including Newcastle upon Tyne, Durham, Berwick and Carlisle. The years 1150 to 1199 saw another fifteen. Even more spectacular was the growth of east-coast towns on the back of the wool trade and fishing (Kingston upon Hull, Boston, King’s Lynn, Yarmouth). Yet the expansion equally embraced settled inland areas. By 1348 twenty-seven new towns had appeared in Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire to add to the original Domesday six.

As new towns were founded, old ones grew in size. The growth was both extensive, so that Bristol rebuilt its walls to take in the new settled areas, and intensive, so that frontages in Winchester’s High Street averaged as little as eight feet in width. Estimates of town populations are as chancy as those of the population as a whole and indeed can slide up and down in relation to them. By 1300, at the bottom of the scale, there were perhaps 550 market towns with an average population of 750. At the top of the scale, leaving aside London, were around twenty towns with populations of over 5,000 and four more (Norwich, Bristol, York and Winchester) with over 10,000. This was small beer compared with northern Italy where there were as many as thirty-five towns of at least 100,000 inhabitants. Yet it was still a great change from the situation in 1086 when only 111 boroughs were mentioned in the Domesday Book and only four towns, not including London, had putative populations of over 5,000. One calculation gives the towns between 6 and 7.5 per cent of the total population in 1086, and between 10 and 15 per cent in 1300. The urban sector had thus grown more quickly than the economy as a whole.

This period was equally important for the consolidation of London’s position as ‘the queen of the whole kingdom’, to quote the Gesta Stephani written in the 1150s. Situated in a low river basin, sheltered by the friendly surrounding hills of Blackheath, Brockley, Richmond and Hampstead, location had long ago made it England’s pre-eminent town. Its place on the eastern side of the country opened it to merchants from continental Europe. The great river enabled those merchants to unload (before seeking refreshment at the famous cookhouse), not at some Channel port, but already well inland. And the bridge, the most seaward over the river, meant that from London one could move north and south, as well as west along the Thames itself, which was navigable as far as Lechlade in Gloucestershire. What was new in this period was London’s emergence as the political and governmental capital. The might of kingship at the Tower (keeping in check the unruly Londoners), the majesty of kingship at Westminster (symbolized by the Confessor’s abbey and Rufus’s great palace hall), meant that already in 1170s William fitz Stephen could describe London as ‘the seat of the monarchy of England’. The move around this time of the exchequer and treasury from the old capital, Winchester, to Westminster confirmed the change, as did the emergence from the 1190s of the court of common bench, hived off from the exchequer, which became the central law court of the kingdom. These factors, together with the end of the cross-Channel state in 1204, and the king’s devotion to Edward the Confessor, ensured that Henry III spent more time at Westminster than any previous king.

London’s population has been estimated at around 25,000 in 1086 and 40,000 in 1200. Thereafter the city may have grown more slowly than some provincial towns, especially those on the east coast, which were more favoured by wool merchants. But with changing trading conditions at the end of the thirteenth century, London quickly recovered. By 1334 it had five times the assessed wealth of its nearest rival, Bristol. Its population around 1300 can be variously estimated at between 60,000 and 100,000, half the size of Paris, perhaps, but still one of the great European cities. London in the early fourteenth century had 354 taverns and 140 parish and other churches. Here indeed one could recover from wounds and ‘go to markets and taverns as usual’.

Growth in the size of towns was accompanied by important developments in the structure of their government largely under licence, that is by charter of the king, a phenomenon discussed later (see below, p. 392). Town growth naturally had an impact on the countryside, for a start by recruiting from its population, a process reflected in the famous rule found already in the customs of Newcastle upon Tyne, c. 1135, that peasants who spent a year and a day in a borough would thenceforth be free to remain there. Most towns drew the bulk of their population from within a twenty-mile hinterland, but London reached out to between twenty and forty miles. Towns, of course, required food as well as people, and this stimulated agricultural production. The feeding of London generated intensive cultivation of fruit and vegetables in the immediate vicinity and pulled in corn from counties as far distant as Oxfordshire, with Henley and a ring of other market towns acting as local depots. In return, townsmen supplied the countryside (and also, of course, themselves) with a range of goods, the dominant occupations in most places being trade and manufacture related to food, drink, clothes, shoes and metal.

Most trade and manufacture was simply for local needs, but some towns gained a national reputation for their wares. ‘Herring of Yarmouth, plaice of Winchelsea, merling of Rye, cod of Grimsby’ ran one thirteenth-century doggerel about places and their associations. (It also included the prostitutes of Charing, soon to be Charing Cross.) Herrings in particular, salted and with no sell-by date (hence in the countess of Leicester’s stores), were widely distributed. The doggerel also tripped through ‘scarlet of Lincoln, hauberge of Stamford, blanket of Blythe, burne of Beverley, russet of Colchester’, enumerating some famous cloths and their places of manufacture. Cloth manufacture was an expensive and many-staged business which often came under the control of the dyers at the end of the process. The towns, however, faced stiff competition from imports, especially from Flanders, and from work in the countryside, of which more later. It was in the countryside too that England’s extractive industries were situated. Here too there was significant growth.

‘Marble of Corfe’, ‘iron of Gloucester’, ‘tin of Cornwall’ all featured in the doggerel. The first, from the Isle of Purbeck, was just one of many building stones quarried in England from which (with some imports) the great castles and churches of the period were built. Gloucester’s iron (for horseshoes, wheel rims and so forth) came from the ore mined and forged in the Forest of Dean, which accounted for a fifth or a sixth of the country’s total output. The number of bloomeries throughout the kingdom increased perhaps fivefold between 1086 and 1300 with production reaching 1,000 tons a year. Cornwall’s tin, judging from a remark by Henry of Huntingdon, was marketed at Exeter in the early twelfth century, as it probably had been for centuries. In the 1150s fifty to sixty-five tons a year were mined, rising to over 600 in 1214, although production may then have levelled out.

England exported tin, as it did cloth and grain. But one export stood out above all others: wool, largely for the Flemish cloth industry, though it also went elsewhere, notably to the Rhineland. Hard evidence for the volume of exports only comes after 1275 with the introduction of customs duties, but exports had almost certainly multiplied several times over in the previous 200 years. By the early fourteenth century they averaged some 35,000 sacks a year, each sack being the product of roughly 200 to 250 fleeces. With additions for the home market, this is the basis for the calculation that England had 10 million sheep. Much of the wool was paid for in silver, so that the dramatic expansion of the money supply is a rough measure of the expansion of wool exports. But of course England also imported, if largely for the wealthy: building stone (especially from Caen in Normandy), fine cloths, silks, and spices (the countess of Leicester had cinnamon in her sauces). Merchants of Norway supplied Geoffrey de Buketon with goat skins, chests full of miniver and fifty-seven ox-hides. Yet just as there was one pre-eminent export, so there was one pre-eminent import: wine, the aristocracy’s principal beverage. In the twelfth century the great bulk of wine drunk in England came from Anjou and Poitou. The loss of these provinces in 1203 and 1224 was the making of Gascony and the start of England’s love affair with claret. In the 1300s (according to surviving records) exports from Bordeaux had reached 100,000 tonnes a year (double the amount exported in 1956) and a quarter of this went to England, being unloaded at Bristol, Portsmouth and Southampton.

A great deal of England’s trade was in the hands of foreign merchants from Norway, the Rhineland, and above all from Flanders. In the second half of the thirteenth century Italian merchants too came to play a large part in the business of wool exports. But the same period also sees the emergence of some great English merchants; many prominent London citizens were heavily engaged in both exporting wool and importing wine. In 1273 English merchants were licensed to export 8,100 sacks of wool. Between 1331 and 1335 their exports averaged annually 24,000 sacks. In 1303 Edward I summoned together merchants from forty-two towns. An English merchant class was emerging.

* * *

The commercial revolution in Wales and Scotland was even more striking than in England given that it started from a much lower base, with no towns and little currency. The crucial change in Wales took place in the thirteenth century, hence the extraordinary contrast between the 10,000 cows, forty warhorses and sixty chasers which Llywelyn the Great of Gwynedd promised King John in 1211 (clearly he had little money), and the £9,166 (or perhaps £12,500) which his grandson actually paid Henry III between 1267 and 1271. Coins were not minted by the Welsh rulers, who were doubtless fearful of the king of England’s likely response. Rather the rise in the money supply resulted from English coins coming across the border, doubtless reflecting the sharp rise in the money supply in England itself. By the 1300s there were around eighty places in Wales with urban characteristics. Most prominent were the towns founded by the Normans in the south, in a sweep from Chepstow round to Pembroke. Cardiff, Carmarthen and Haverford, with populations significantly more than a thousand, were the largest towns in Wales. There were also urban developments in the native principalities; Welshpool in southern Powys, with its trade across the English border, was the largest town. In Gwynedd there were burgesses at Nefyn, while Llanfaes (in Anglesey) had a twice-yearly fair and a port. Wales imported cloth and salt, and in years of bad harvest was dependent on English corn. From Llanfaes wool and hides were exported to Scotland and Ireland. There were certainly native merchants because the agreement between the Welsh and Scottish rulers in 1258 made provision for those of both sides. Continental merchants made their appearance too, for both Italians and Flemings dealt in Welsh wool.

For all these changes, the commercial sector in Wales remained small. That was not the case in Scotland, richer as it was, and facing continental Europe. Rough calculations from coin hoard evidence in Scotland suggest the following expansion of the money supply:

Date

Value of pennies in circulation

mid twelfth century

£12,500–20,800

1247–51

£50–60,000

1278–84

£130,000–£180,000+

Even if the threefold increase between 1247 and 1284 needs scaling down, the growth in Scotland between these dates was still probably larger than that in England in the same period. Indeed, according to one possible calculation, in the 1280s there were more coins in circulation per capita north of the border than there were south of it. The great majority of the coins in question were English, but Scottish coins made a contribution, for King David had minted them in his own name from 1136 and his successors followed his example. Central to this remarkable expansion were wool exports, which reached perhaps 20 per cent of those of England. Italian and Fleming merchants established bases in Berwick, as did fifteen religious houses which supplied much of the wool. It was the Berwick mint, significantly, which produced by far the largest part of Scotland’s own coin; the next most important for the recoinage of 1250 were the mints at Perth and Edinburgh.

Perth, Edinburgh, Berwick. Scotland had also gained an urban infrastructure. By 1300 there were around fifty burghs. Of these, Berwick and Roxburgh appear before 1124, Edinburgh, Dunfermline, Stirling and Perth are mentioned between 1124 and 1130, while the first datable reference to Glasgow is with the dedication of its cathedral in 1136. Glasgow was very much an ecclesiastical burgh, its lord the bishop. St Andrews likewise was episcopal. The great majority of the important burghs, however, were established at royal centres: both Edinburgh and Stirling sheltered at the foot of ancient rock fortresses. King David (1124–53), with his upbringing in England, saw such towns as a way of making money (they were one of his few sources of cash income) and encouraged them by conferring the kind of privileges coveted by boroughs in England. Certainly that was the practice of later kings, the customs of Newcastle upon Tyne being particularly imitated. Thus the Scottish burgesses gained freedom of tolls, control over their courts and responsibility for paying their monetary dues to the king. There were also merchant guilds, nineteen being known by 1300. The majority of Scottish burghs served the same kinds of local functions as those in England. Where they gained a wider importance it was thanks again to location. Ayr imported corn from Ireland. Aberdeen (with fish exports reaching Cologne and Flanders) was the centre for the whole hinterland beyond the Mounth. Perth, which grew in area roughly fourfold between the 1120s and the fourteenth century, was on the Tay at a point where it was navigable, fordable and also (by the early thirteenth century) bridgeable. Berwick-on-Tweed was the port of entry from England, receiving herrings and corn from King’s Lynn, while exporting wool. Those exports were not all in the hands of foreign merchants. By the 1290s the Scots had their own quarters in Bruges and a stretch of canal was named after them: ‘Schottendyc’.

* * *

During this period there had, therefore, been considerable expansion in the English economy. Estimates of gross domestic product (GDP) are, of course, extremely hazardous but Campbell, assuming a population increase between 1086 and 1300 of 2 million to 4.25 million, suggests a growth of real GDP (adjusted for inflation) of some 130 to 150 per cent. Mayhew, on the basis of a population rise from 2.25 million to 6 million, puts the increase at over fourfold. The expansion also embraced Wales and Scotland, as we have seen. Indeed, square mile for square mile, the diocese of St Andrews in the 1290s was almost as wealthy as that of Winchester. There had also been important changes in the form of this wealth: far more of it was in money. Hence in many parts of Britain the commutation into money of rents previously paid in labour and kind; hence too the evident cash resources of Llywelyn prince of Wales, Alexander III of Scotland and Edward I of England. Without the expansion of the money supply Edward could never have raised some £661,400 in lay and clerical taxation between 1290 and 1307.

The period also saw striking increases in the cash resources of the great lords. The wealth of the Scottish church, when assessed for taxation, seems roughly to have doubled over the thirteenth century. In England the net income of the bishop of Ely rose as follows:

1086

£484

1171–2

£920

1256–7

£1,930

1298–9

£2,550

The 2.7-fold increase here between the 1170s and the 1290s would probably be a broad average for many ecclesiastical estates. It is more difficult to get figures for the laity but groups of estates studied by Sidney Painter yielded a median baronial income of £115 a year between 1160 and 1220, and £339 for the years 1260 to 1320, the respective averages being £202 and £668. Most of the English earls in the mid thirteenth century had incomes of between £2,000 and £3,000 a year. In Scotland the annual income of the earl of Fife in the 1290s was £500 less than those of the English earls, but still significant.

This rise in income, made possible by the growing population and by inflation, was also driven by lords themselves, from the king downwards. Quite apart from the ravenous demands of warfare, they wanted extra money to impress in finer clothes, to reward followers with cash rather than land, to live and worship in more splendid buildings, and to eat and drink with more abundance and refinement. Contemporaries noticed the changes. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis wrote of the new cathedrals, monastic buildings and village churches which were built during the peace of Henry I. Likewise the Life of Gruffudd ap Cynan (d. 1137) spoke of the prosperity of Gwynedd in his time: people began to live off the fruits of the earth, and limewashed churches glittered ‘like the firmament of the stars’. The result of Queen Margaret’s labours in Scotland (according to her Life) was a novel variety of dress among the Scots, and a new splendour and refinement at court. The biography of William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, noted that in the 1160s even a king’s son rode with his cloak rolled up behind his saddle. Now (in the 1220s) a mere esquire had a baggage animal: ‘The world was not then so proud as it is on our days.’ On his hunting expeditions in the 1260s and 1270s Llywelyn as prince of Wales had 500 followers, 200 more, it was said, than his grandfather, Llywelyn the Great.

Standards of living had been rising before 1066, but the Conquest arguably boosted the aristocratic demand for cash and raised expectations of the kind of lifestyle that cash was to fund. To a much greater degree than before the attitudes of the nobility were shaped by the religious, military and chivalric ethos of the continent, a natural development, since it was from the continent that the new nobility had come. Nobles needed revenue in cash rather than in kind because that was the form in which it could easily be shipped home, but they also wanted to spend their money in a continental way in England. Although there was a precedent in Edward the Confessor’s Westminter Abbey, William of Malmesbury was surely right to think that the Conquest spurred on the construction of new abbeys and cathedrals as well as parish churches. It also brought to England an entirely new form of fortified residence, administrative centre and status symbol: the castle. There were over 500 of them by 1100. While pressed peasant labour could throw up the early mottes, the stone keeps and fine timber halls which followed needed money and lots of it. William of Malmesbury again contrasted the ‘mean and despicable houses’ of the Anglo-Saxons with the ‘noble and splendid mansions’ of the Normans and the French, a contrast well illustrated by the way in which the Anglo-Saxon residence at Goltho in Lincolnshire was rebuilt on far grander lines after 1066. It was rebuilt indeed several times because lords, lay and ecclesiastical, were never content. Churches, castles and manor houses were constantly refashioned. And around lordly residences the landscape too was transformed by the creation of hunting parks for the excitement of the chase, the pleaure of the venison and the prestige of the jurisdiction. Between 1227 and 1258 the king granted no less than 630 charters of ‘free warren’ allowing lords to set up such private parks.

That the nobility had progressively more cash in this period and embraced a more opulent lifestyle seems clear. Yet one must be careful about claiming too much. The fivefold increase in income enjoyed by the bishops of Ely between 1086 and 1298–9 becomes less impressive when adjusted for a three- to fourfold increase in prices in the intervening period. For the same reason, the £661,400 levied by Edward I in taxation over and above his ordinary revenues between 1290 and 1307 was hardly worth more in real terms than the £214,500 raised from taxation to pay off the Danes between 1002 and 1018. This may not be a fair comparison. The sums for 1002 to 1018, even if the figures from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can be believed, were effectively squeezed from the kingdom by invading armies. A better marker might be the £24,000 which was certainly Henry I’s revenue in 1130, but this sum too in real terms Edward rarely bettered on any regular basis, even with the heavy taxation of the last years of his reign. If, moreover, one takes into account the increase in GDP between 1100 and 1300, then Edward I was taking a significantly smaller share of GDP than Henry I.

* * *

To understand why this was so takes us back to the condition of the peasantry. Here the period after 1066 saw important changes, the first being the end of slavery in England and of both slavery and the slave trade in Wales and Scotland. The trade was gradually killed off by ecclesiastical censure during the course of the twelfth century. Slavery itself gave way to changing economic conditions, though the process is really only traceable in England. In England, Domesday Book mentioned some 28,000 slaves. If, as seems likely, some had families they may have accounted for anything up to 10 per cent of the rural population. Slaves worked to their lord’s orders (men were often ploughmen and women dairymaids), and could be punished by death or mutilation. Some lived in the manor house complex, others (probably the great majority) in the village. A hundred years later, when the king’s lawyers were defining status, they made no mention of slaves at all. The population was either free or unfree, and the latter, while restricted in many ways, were certainly not punishable by their lords in life or limb as slaves had been. ‘The bodies and members of serfs belong only to the king,’ declared the king’s judges in 1244. Apart from that difference, some lords in the thirteenth century (as at Cuxham in Oxfordshire) maintained labourers, living in the manor house complex, whose position seems comparable to that of earlier slaves. But these were but the remnants of a much larger group whose numbers had been in decline long before the snapshot in Domesday Book. This was why twelfth-century lawyers could ignore and in effect abolish the category. The decline was not primarily because of the teaching of the church. The church certainly forbade the trade, and regarded the manumission of slaves as an act of piety, but it accepted the continuance of the institution: there were slaves on its own estates. Rather the reason for the decline was economic. Slaves were more trouble than they were worth, largely because, with no land of their own, the lord had to support them. In the relatively stable economic conditions in the tenth century, and then again after Cnut’s conquest, lords probably deemed it easier and more profitable to grant land to slaves in return for labour services and rents, integrating them, therefore, into the rest of the peasantry, something which also happened in Wales and Scotland. The Normans, keen on money rent because they were absentees and with land in abundance on which to settle slaves, probably took this view even more strongly.

The disappearance of slavery meant that a larger proportion of the rural population had land, and no one was at his lord’s mercy in matters of life or limb. Other changes, however, were less favourable. Domesday Book shows that between 1066 and 1087 many counties saw a sharp fall in the number of sokemen and free peasants. Probably they had been turned into villeins, an alteration which meant a loss of status, for they were now obliged for the first time to perform significant labour services. The change may well have been brought about as new Norman lords reorganized their manors, creating home-farms worked by peasant labour.

A century after the Conquest another reduction in the status of the peasantry was being introduced. The king’s lawyers, with far more precision than ever before, began to define exactly who was unfree. As a result, by 1200 a sharp line had been drawn dividing the free and the unfree in England. ‘The villeins’, to use what was now the technical term for the unfree, were all those who held land in return for labour services. The consequences of unfreedom were likewise codified for the first time. A lord could sell his villeins with their land ‘like oxen and cows’, and exact ‘merchet’ from them, a payment for a daughter’s marriage. He could also tax his villeins and increase their rent and labour services at will. As Bracton, a law book of the 1220s, put it, villeins did not know in the evening what they would have to do next morning. However unreasonable the lord’s conduct, the villein had no legal redress in the courts of the king. Those courts were closed to him for any matter concerned with land and the terms of its tenure.

The occasion for the change was almost certainly the introduction of new legal procedures in the 1160s and 1170s, which enabled plaintiffs to bring civil actions against their lords (see below, p. 242). By specifying that those plaintiffs had to be free, and by establishing the labour service test for unfreedom, the judges made the procedures unavailable to a large part of the peasantry. The wider social and economic background gave such a ruling particular importance, for this was the very moment when lords were increasingly taking their manors in hand and embracing demesne farming, making the ability to control and discipline the peasant workforce all the more important.

Just how far these changes really worsened the lot of the peasantry has been questioned by historians. A significant proportion of peasants remained free – the sokemen who had survived in eastern England, and the numerous peasants on many manors who had always held their land by rent. By the late thirteenth century the unfree represented at most 60 per cent of the peasantry. The distinction between free and unfree was also blurred, though not removed, by the movement to commute labour services into money, either permanently or on an ad hoc basis. In general, by the end of the thirteenth century heavy weekly work was probably exacted from only a third of the unfree peasantry. It was still exacted at Cuxham, but at Willingham roughly half that owed was sometimes commuted. Parallel changes were also taking place in Scotland, and in Wales where many peasants in the maerdref in which the ilys was situated no longer provided labour for the cultivation of the lord’s demesne. In England, moreover, the peasants who were deemed legally unfree were hardly deprived of benefits they or their ancestors had once enjoyed; few can ever have brought legal actions against their lords. In practice those performing labour services had long been regarded as bound to the manor and very much their lord’s property. The Norman kings issued writs helping lords recover ‘fugitive’ peasants, and an imitative procedure was introduced by King David in Scotland where indeed ‘fugitive’ became a generic term for peasant. Although the English definitions of unfreedom were never introduced in the rest of Britain, the peasants in Scotland, and in Wales where they were aptly named ‘bondmen’, were certainly no better off.

It has also been argued that in thirteenth-century conditions there were even some positive advantages in being unfree. A freeman, especially if taking land on a new lease, was exposed to the full force of market conditions, which given the shortage of land could dictate very high rents. Villeins, on the other hand, whatever the legal theory, were sometimes protected from radical changes in their conditions by the force of manorial custom, a custom enshrined in the procedures of the manorial court. Walter of Henley in hisHusbandry advised that the level of fines imposed by the court should be determined by a peasant’s ‘peers’, in other words not by the lord’s will, and records show this was often indeed the case.

These qualifications, however, go only so far. There are numerous examples of landholders great and small (like the queen’s uncle Peter of Savoy or the knightly lords of Rycote in Oxfordshire) imposing heavier burdens on their villeins in the thirteenth century. Such lords frequently justified their actions on the grounds that their tenants were indeed unfree and so had no protection against greater burdens. Clearly they were determined to exploit their legal rights, whatever manorial custom. Many peasants, moreover, wanted the benefits of freedom – rents rather than labour services, and access to the king’s courts; large numbers bought their freedom in the century, and (alleging that they were free or specially privileged) initiated court cases against their lords to try and keep down the level of their rents and services. The courage and resource displayed by peasant communities in pursuing such actions over decades is one of the most inspiring and significant features of the thirteenth century.

If the legal position of many peasants deteriorated, what of their standard of living? This brings us to the most fundamental fact about the great expansion of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, indeed about Britain itself: while the economy expanded it did little or nothing to improve the living standards of the peasantry. The growth in GDP was real but of course it had to be divided among a growing population. Outside the noble elite, the achievement between 1086 and 1300 was at best to sustain more people at the same standard of living. For a large proportion of the peasantry, that level was the lowest possible compatible with sustaining life. In the occasional years of really bad harvest, life was not sustained for there was starvation. With these statements probably most historians would agree. More controversial, as we shall see, is the argument that far from simply failing to improve, the peasant lot actually worsened as the population began to outrun the ability of the land to support it.

For Wales and Scotland, lack of evidence makes these issues difficult to probe in any depth. In both there were numerous peasants with very small amounts of arable land. At the end of the thirteenth century one can see such men both in Meirionydd and in Berwickshire. Such peasants might also have flocks and herds in the hills but not ones of any great size if the evidence from Gwynedd is anything to go by. There, records from the 1290s suggest that the average tax-paying farmer and his family enjoyed but a bare subsistence. Alongside them were many others too poor to pay tax at all. In all of this there were close parallels with the situation in England. There the starting-point for any investigation of living standards is to ask how much land a peasant family (of 4.5 units) needed for bare subsistence. Of course this varied greatly but a plausible estimate for a typical open-field manor has put the figure at between ten and thirteen acres, depending on whether the rotation was between two fields or three. Now in E. A. Kosminsky’s samples from the Hundred Rolls, 26 per cent of the free and unfree peasantry had half-yardland holdings and thus achieved this minimum. Another 24 per cent had holdings of a whole yardland, that is between twenty-four and thirty acres, and apparently lived well above subsistence levels, at least if they had only one family to support. Sometimes peasants, exploiting village land markets, were able to build up more substantial holdings. A few indeed, like the Knivetons of Derbyshire, ultimately ascended into the knightly class. Yet if one half of the peasantry were in reasonable circumstances, Kosminsky’s figures reveal that the other half, some 46 per cent, were smallholders, usually holding well under ten acres of land. Surveys of manors from beyond the Hundred Roll area reveal a similar pattern. Outside the intensively cultivated areas of East Anglia such people cannot have supported themselves from their arable land. Their prospects seem grim.

Of course, they cannot have been fatally grim because then such people could not have survived, as manifestly they did. Clearly they had other sources of income apart from their arable land, though these sources differed according to region. At Willingham, for example, the numerous smallholders revealed in the survey of 1251 could place pigs, cattle and above all sheep in the three great common meadows created by reclamation from the fens. Likewise the forest of Arden could be exploited by the rising population of Stoneleigh hundred, as could Windsor forest by the many smallholders at Pyrton in Surrey. There was also in varying degrees the possibility of rural employment. It is noticeable how many of a small group of villein litigants at Beachampton (Bucks.) in 1286 had occupational surnames: Smith, Ironmonger, Carter, Marshal. One indeed had become a university professor, Master Henry of Beachampton. Most villages had brewers (who were often women), and there was employment at mills. Important too was the wide spread of the rural cloth industry. The initial preparation process, the washing, combing and spinning, was very labour intensive, accounting perhaps for between 45 and 70 per cent of total manufacturing costs. Here the countryside, with an abundance of cheap labour and streams suitable for driving fulling mills, had obvious advantages. In order to survive many smallholders must also have been wage labourers, perhaps needing (according to a calculation from Bishop’s Cleeve) 130 days’ work a year at 1½d. a day to achieve sufficiency. There certainly was work available. Even at Cuxham where the lord (Merton College, Oxford, by the second half of the thirteenth century) exacted labour services in full and where there was a permanent staff of demesne labourers, around 1,000 days of paid work were still required – enough to give 130 days’ pay for seven of the thirteen smallholders in the village. Where labour services were commuted, lords would have required more labour. Peasants holding substantial holdings of thirty acres and upwards might also be employers.

The exploitation of woodland and meadow, and income derived from crafts and labour, were all ways in which smallholders might obtain sufficiency, but it must often have been sufficiency of the barest kind. The most deprived peasants were probably those in the open-field manors in the midlands and the south, where the villages were like islands in seas of arable and there was little meadow and forest left to be exploited. Here and elsewhere employment in village crafts cannot have helped more than a minority. The problem with relying on wages came in years of bad harvest. If a labourer was paid in kind, as some were, then he was protected. But the many paid in cash, who needed it to buy corn or bread, were in a dangerous situation; there was no way their wages would respond to a sudden surge in prices consequent on harvest failure, and indeed wages (with labour abundant) had not kept pace with the general path of inflation. The only recourse was to find more work, and that may have been impossible.

In years of bad harvest, therefore, there was famine. The failure of the harvest of 1257 meant that by the early summer of 1258 the price of wheat was two and a half times what it had been in 1254–5. In the manor of North Waltham the bishop of Winchester gave relief to sixty ‘poor tenants’, 27 per cent of the smallholders with fewer than ten acres of land. The prevalence and utility of this kind of succour is hard to judge, as is the extent to which suffering within a village was alleviated by family or communal action (see below, p. 414). It is clear, however, that such remedies were often inadequate. In 1258 so many people wandering about searching for food died from starvation that the government relaxed the rules about the identification of bodies. Matthew Paris described the situation:

Such great famine and mortality prevailed in the country, that a measure of wheat rose to fifteen shillings and more… The dead lay about, swollen and rotting, on dunghills, and in the dirt of the streets, and there was scarcely any one to bury them; nor did the people dare or wish to receive the dead into their houses for fear of contagion.

The year 1258 was far from unique. On several occasions in the 1270s the price of wheat approached or exceeded the 1258 figure. In years of bad harvest and high prices smallholders were often forced to raise money by selling land, thereby undermining their position further. A great deal of thirteenth-century crime (and there was a widely held belief that it was increasing) was committed by ‘unknown’ vagabonds and malefactors, men quite probably forced out of village communities by these conditions. The chattels of identified criminals were nearly always pathetically small; many had no chattels at all. Life expectancy was short. For the peasants of the bishop of Winchester there was a crude annual death rate in the thirteenth century of seventy to seventy-five per thousand, as opposed to twelve per thousand in post-war England and Wales. In the second half of the thirteenth century, even the more substantial tenants amongst the Winchester peasantry had a life expectancy of only twenty-four years on reaching the age of twenty. For the smallholders it was probably far shorter.

The situation in the thirteenth century could be bad; was it getting worse? That certainly has been argued by historians, partly at least on the basis that a population which grew from 2 million to 5 or 6 million between 1086 and 1300 must have been outrunning the ability of the land to support it, especially if peasant productivity was affected by soil exhaustion. Campbell, by contrast, arguing for a population increase of only 2–2.25 million to 4–4.25 million, shows how much the same standard of living could have been sustained through the creation of new arable land and some small rise in productivity. Even if, however, the sustainable ceiling was indeed around 4.25 million, there is nothing in Campbell’s model which precludes the population having been pressed up hard against it, leaving a growing proportion of the peasantry living at bare subsistence levels and falling into danger in years of bad harvest.

There is indeed some evidence of this happening, most notably in the proliferation of smallholdings in areas where sources of income outside the arable had long been restricted. At Cuxham in Oxfordshire the process of wood clearance was complete by 1086. Meadow and pasture were very limited. None the less the tenant population rose from eleven to twenty-one between 1086 and 1279. But whereas the number of smallholders tripled from four to thirteen, those with half-yardland holdings increased by only one. Although some of the smallholders were subsequently given half-yardland holdings, these were on poorish land, much of it today rough grazing. Of course the smallholders were also wage labourers, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the villagers as a whole were worse off in 1279 than they had been in 1086. The same expansion in the number of smallholders can be seen on numerous other properties. In general they made up 33 per cent of the peasant population in Domesday Book and 46 per cent in Kosminsky’s sample from the Hundred Rolls. Indeed the 1279 survey may make things look better than they were, since many half- and whole-yardland holdings probably supported extended family groups, formal divisions being prevented by the lord’s desire to preserve the integrity of holdings. Where division was possible there is sometimes striking evidence for the proliferation of smallholdings: at Martham in Norfolk 1,066 acres were held by 107 tenants in the mid twelfth century and by 376 in 1292.

The growth in the population between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries was in large part a growth in the ranks of peasant smallholders, the latter therefore forming, as we have seen, a larger proportion of the population in 1300 than they had in 1086. Although alternative sources of income increased, they are unlikely to have offset the deterioration in living standards this implies. Lords still profited from the rents of the new smallholders. The king, save as a landholder himself, hardly profited at all. Roughly 60 per cent of the peasant population in the late thirteenth century were deemed too poor to pay taxation. That remarkable and chilling fact more than anything else puts the great expansion of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries into perspective. It is certainly the reason why the GDP could increase without commensurate benefit to the crown.

* * *

The economic transformation in these years was none the less very real and had been dependent upon developments on the continent, notably the growth of the Flemish cloth industry which fed on British wool and paid for much of it in silver, hence the explosion of the money supply. More generally, the rise in the population, the clearance of land, the growth of towns and the proliferation of coinage were all phenomena common to much of Europe. They were related to that process of expansion and homogenization which is the theme of Robert Bartlett’s book The Making of Europe – the expansion, that is, of a Franco-Latin Christian core, exporting as it went much the same military, social and ecclesiastical institutions. It was from France, as we mentioned in the last chapter (and will show more fully in the next), that castles and cavalry came to Britain through the agency of the Normans. Likewise it was from France and Italy that Britain received in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries both new religious orders and the structures of papal government of the church. These too helped to homogenize England, Wales and Scotland, and incorporate them into Europe.

One scene encapsulates something of this incorporation. It is 1188 in a remote valley in the uplands of central Wales. Gathered there are the Lord Rhys, ruler of Deheubarth, and his sons. They are dressed in the Welsh manner, indeed one son has his legs and feet left bare. Yet the scene is also very European. The group is close to the abbey of Strata Florida, whose monks by 1212 were exporting their wool overseas from English ports. The abbey itself is part of the great international Cistercian order in which every house has the same constitution and is subject to central control. Although founded by a lord of Norman descent, Robert fitz Stephen, Strata Florida has been embraced whole-heartedly by the Lord Rhys, and will become the mausoleum for many of his family. It is a substantial church, 200 feet long, and soon will have a remarkable round-arched, roll moulded western doorway, flanked by an elegant lancet window. Rhys and his party are being addressed by a group of high-powered ecclesiastics. One is Gerald of Wales, partly of native descent, yet shaped very much by his studies in Paris and his work in the Anglo-Norman world. Another, the leader, is the archbishop of Canterbury. He is the envoy of the pope and his mission, following the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, is to preach the crusade.

Within a few years of this peaceful scene, Rhys was attacking the Anglo-Norman lordships in south Wales. In 1212, a few months after licensing its exports, King John ordered Strata Florida to be destroyed for helping his Welsh enemies. Such conflict had its roots in the way the Normans had conquered important areas of Wales in the years after 1066. In many parts of Europe as the Franco-Latin centre expanded so it created tensions, both because of the very different cultures into which it cut, and because the cutting edge was so often violent. The response, in varying degrees, was resistance, submission and conformity. It was a response which differed across Britain, in part because the Normans came to Wales as conquerors and to Scotland by invitation of the king. In England itself they did not meet a culture ‘inferior’ to their own, save in one crucial area, that of military technology. Thanks to their military might the Normans would soon change the face of Britain.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!