Joint-Stock War

Valerie Pearl

  • The Age of Elizabeth: England Under the Later Tudors 1547-1603 by D.M. Palliser
    Longman, 450 pp, £13.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 582 48580 0
  • After the Armada: Elizabethan England and the Struggle for Western Europe 1588-1595 by R.B. Wernham
    Oxford, 613 pp, £32.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 19 822753 1
  • The Defeat of the Spanish Armada by Garrett Mattingly
    Cape, 384 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 224 02070 6
  • The First Elizabeth by Carolly Erickson
    Macmillan, 446 pp, £9.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 333 36168 7
  • The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland: Essays in Honour of Gordon Donaldson edited by Ian Cowan and Duncan Shaw
    Scottish Academic Press, 261 pp, £14.50, March 1983, ISBN 0 7073 0261 7

Dr Palliser’s The Age of Elizabeth is the latest volume in a series which seeks to relate English and British economic and social history from the Anglo-Saxons to the Welfare State. Its initial and terminal dates as given in the title appear to follow a publisher’s or general editor’s dictum under which successive volumes will start to cover the precise date on which a previous author closed his account. Hence the ‘age of Elizabeth’ appears to begin from 1547 with the reign of Edward VI. Such concessions to historical ‘tidiness’ (or are they concessions to the continuing draw of Elizabeth’s name?) are small matters. The author does not allow himself to be too closely confined by artificial boundary posts.

The debate about the date when society became ‘modern’ will not be resolved by Dr Palliser’s judicious survey of the age. He recognises the many primitive features of that society: persecution of so-called witches increased; royal and ministerial encouragement was given to alchemical fantasies; astrologers and soothsayers flourished; religious intolerance hardly abated. Politically, too, the tide of parliamentary government did not run ever-widening towards a Whig horizon – occasionally it flowed the other way: ‘no 16th-century parliament dared impeach a royal minister, or insist on nominating the royal council, but parliaments had done both in the 15th century and were to do so again in the 17th.’ Indeed, although the role of her ten Parliaments should not be dismissed, the House sat for only about a hundred and forty weeks during the 45 years of Elizabeth’s reign. Economically, progress was patchy. Terrible famine years occurred near the end of the period, although these were partly due to disastrous weather; patents and monopolies granted by the Queen’s prerogative brought dubious benefits, perhaps at best the introduction of foreign skills; an inadequate taxation system favoured the well-to-do and starved the royal and public purse.

And yet there are plenty of signs in the age of Elizabeth of substantial changes, pointers to England’s later rise to commercial and industrial prominence. As Dr Palliser says:

Politically, a state which had been reduced almost to a pawn in the Habsburg-Valois struggle in the 1550s recovered sufficiently to threaten Philip II, the most powerful ruler in Western Europe. Culturally, a land once considered backward and even barbarous by Italians became famous for its music, drama and literature. By the end of the century English actors were touring Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands and English was influential throughout Northern Europe. Industrially, too, there was progress, even if Nef’s ‘industrial revolution’ is too strong an expression. Mining output grew considerably and manufactures like armaments and the New Draperies, taught to Englishmen by immigrants in the mid-16th century, were within fifty years being widely exported instead of imported.

Many portents of such future trends are discussed by Dr Palliser: the rise of London to the rank of a world capital, legislation for social relief, the beginnings of oceanic exploration and colonisation (almost neglected in an earlier age when the Spaniards and Portuguese were carving up the globe between them), the founding of English trading settlements and overseas trading companies, an open door to political and religious refugees who happily brought with them new skills and entrepreneurial enterprise, improvements in the use of the land, a widening distribution of political power and influence, the growth of a consumer economy and a remarkable surge in population.

Not that ‘Anglocentrism’ is carried too far in Dr Palliser’s survey. We are rightly warned against exaggerating the degree of European importance and progress achieved by England by 1603. The great cities of Italy, Germany and the Netherlands were still the commercial centres of the Continent; the beginnings of factory production, sometimes described as peculiar to England with the rise of the putting-out system, flourished in that form in Germany and were spreading throughout the Mediterranean region. Germany, the Bohemian lands and a few other areas were still the largest and most advanced centres of mining and metallurgy and English miners and metalworkers relied heavily on German and to a lesser extent French technology and personnel. National strength among the European states, which continued to be thought of largely in terms of respective manpower, also showed England’s comparative inferiority. In population, England was greatly outnumbered (as it was to be for centuries) by some of its neighbours: in the case of France by around four times, in the case of Germany by nearly as much. But population size did not necessarily correlate with political and economic power. Germany and Italy were weakened by their political fragmentation, France was racked by civil wars in the second half of the 16th century, and a small power, the United Provinces, the rebel states of the northern Netherlands, developed, from the later part of the century, a highly urbanised, literate and commercial society which was the wonder of Europe. He goes on to show how with the benefit of hindsight one can recognise England’s advantages (mostly political and social rather than economic), which were to give it a crucial lead over the Dutch as well as the French.

It had for long enjoyed a strong central government, a flexible social structure and a relatively light burden of state taxation ... No social group enjoyed a de jure exemption from taxation, as did some Continental aristocracies, and the tax system was relatively equitable. Despite under-assessments, the rich paid most of the direct taxation, and the poor none at all. Englishmen suffered almost none of the indirect taxation of necessities common elsewhere.

The consequence was a broad diffusion of prosperity, which is not to deny the existence at times of deprivation and want among the not inconsiderable numbers of the very poor. There have been efforts, not very successful, to measure the general standard of living of different classes. These efforts are examined by Dr Palliser, who found that the ‘almost continuous inflation ... vitiates any comparisons of prices and incomes over time,’ and that ‘although society contained extremes of wealth and property, it was not one in which a tiny number of enormously wealthy men dominated a mass of paupers.’ Such a widespread ‘diffusion’ of the wealth of the nation, if the extremes are excluded, is attested by many contemporary witnesses, among them foreign travellers. If William Harrison, from whose Description of England of 1587 much in this book is drawn, can be believed, one visiting Spaniard thought that the cottagers of England enjoyed a diet unparalleled in Spain or France – the equal of that of a monarch. A member of Philip’s entourage in the 1550s, he expressed his wonder at the contrast between their ‘homely’ abodes and their ‘large diet’: ‘these English have their houses made of sticks and dirt but they fare commonly so well as the king.’ This was possibly a traveller’s tale swelled by English patriotism, but in good times it contained some truth, and that it could be uttered and believed in its day is itself significant.

Dr Palliser shows that one reason for low taxation was England’s good fortune in being at peace for over half the period under review, although he ascribes too little damage to the war with Spain. Other benefits flowed from a distracted Continent. War and religious persecution encouraged a migration of skilled craftsmen, professionals of various kinds, entrepreneurs and artists, who, it is generally agreed, played an important part in the improvement of English industry, commerce and culture. There is less agreement among historians that the substantial population growth during Elizabeth’s reign (perhaps as much as 35 per cent) was economically beneficial. In weighing up the different views, Palliser inclines to an optimistic interpretation of the later 16th century as a period when population did not outstrip resources and the total production of agricultural, industrial and consumer goods rose considerably, although there is no evidence to tell us whether production and consumption per capita rose or fell. But it is plain that the home market expanded, exports grew, and the balance of trade appears to have been favourable for most of Elizabeth’s reign: the large amounts of Spanish bullion arriving at the Mint and the substantial increase in the money supply point conclusively in that direction. Dr Palliser concludes that a ‘combination of relatively broadly spread prosperity, and only a small proportion of the population wholly dependent on wages, limited the degree of impoverishment’. Even allowing for those hardest hit, the distressed smallholders and the landless labourers, the story here is not one of unrelieved depression. Forced by rising prices ‘to run faster to stay in the same place’, many men or their wives and children took up additional employments to increase the family income, especially the making of consumer goods: the new or enlarged manufactures such as stockings, nails, pins, starch, soap and beer are themselves evidence of a large home demand.

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