28 February, 1567
Pardon for Thomas Yonger (alias Crathorne) and Nicholas Gybson ‘Yeoman’
So that they forthwith go over to Ireland there to serve the Queen in her wars and other business and do not return to England without her special licence.
Calender of Patent Rolls, Elizabeth 1566-69
For the average Englishman, the reign of Henry the Seventh, first of the Tudor dynasty, was an age of prosperity. Although the later Tudor period has generally attracted more attention from historians, an analysis of surviving economic records show that it was in the day of Henry VII that conditions for the working Englishman were at their best. The 1490s in particular stand out: things had never before been so good, and they would not be again for over 300 years. (1) In real terms, the average worker in the late 15th century had a purchasing power approximately one-third greater than that of his Elizabethan counterpart, judged by the number of everyday items a worker could purchase with their wage. Things did not get any better over the 17th century, and not until the Agricultural Revolution of the early decades of the Eighteenth Century was there any substantial improvement, and even then, only for a few decades. The reason for this stark difference was due to an unusual alignment of favourable circumstances occuring in England at the dawn of the Tudor era.
At the close of the 15th century, the population of England is estimated to have been around 2.5 million, a considerable drop from the 4 million or so who are estimated to have lived in the same kingdom two centuries earlier. When Henry VII came to the throne, the population of England had not recovered from a series of disasters that had struck the kingdom from the 14th century: the famine of 1315-17, the Black Death in 1349-50 and the two great wars of late Medieval England, The Hundred Years wars against France and the subsequent War of the Roses. Of these disastrous events, the famine and plague had wrought the greater devastation, though the successive wars served to curtail any subsequent population growth.
For England, the one positive aspect of the wars was that they were not particularly destructive, causing minimal economic damage to the kingdom. As such, when things stabilised in 1485, everyday economic life was able to resume the same pattern it had taken in an earlier, more irenic age. But the much reduced population ensured labour was in demand. An employer in these circumstances generally had little choice but to pay an attractive wage to a labourer, or else go to great trouble to find someone else willing to work for less. This combination of demand for labour, and the presence of the economic infrastructure which had been long present in England, would result in an unusually bountiful time for the majority of England’s population.
The deterioration of conditions from the high of the 1490s was gradual process, which more or less correlated with the reign of Henry VIII. The surviving historical data reveal that there were still some individual good years: 1519, 1523, 1526, & 1542. But whereas good years had been common in the time of Henry VII, they had now become a rarity. This was the start of a long decline in demand for labour in England, continuing into the second half of the 16th century and on into the 17th century. The purchasing power of the average worker in 1542, the last of the good years of the Tudor period, would only be matched again in the 1730s. For the typical English worker, the intervening years were a grim period to live through.
The cause of the deteriorating standard of living was in part due to rising population: Henry VIII was no pacifist, but the wars fought by England in his reign against France & Scotland (1513, and again from 1544) and in Ireland during the Fitzgerald revolt (1534-35) were not grinding affairs, and while these were important regional wars, they did not result in large English losses. The early Tudor period was also free of major occurrences of disease, with the last major outbreak of plague in England having taken place in 1479. There was also, however, a second important factor which played a part in exacerbating the declining living standards. From the 1540s, the Spanish had started to ship large quantities of precious metals, particularly silver, from the Zacatecas mine in Mexico and the Potosi mine in Peru (2)The impact of this would be a gradual reduction in the value of coin. Not only did a worker have to contend with increasing competition due to a rising population, the value of the coin that they received as pay ended up being continually eroded by the flow of precious metals from the new world.
By the early Elizabethan period, the gate house tower of London Bridge was typically adorned by the rotting heads of as many as thirty executed felons, and criminals could also be commonly seen chained to the nearby riverbank. (3) Such sights were a demonstration of the increasingly harsh attitude to law and order by the ruling elite. Although practices such as spiking heads went back to before the Middle Ages, in the Tudor era societal stresses ensured that such displays would become increasingly common.
By the 1540s, the expansion of England’s population was already becoming a concern to the highest levels of government. Increasing numbers of masterless men began to move across the countryside, some heading to the towns and cities in search of employment, others seeking adventure. The population of beggars in large centres began to noticeably increase, and it is likely that criminal activity also became more common, as desperate men and women found themselves cut off from the opportunities that had been formerly been available. The overall effect of this was to create a ‘siege mentality’ amongst the ruling elite.
The fears of the elite were reflected in increasingly draconian legislation directed at miscreants starting around the middle of the 16th century. The 1530, ‘Act concerning Egyptians’ (Gypsies) is one of the earliest examples. The Gypsies had spread across Western Europe in the 15th century, and in England as elsewhere they were blamed for robberies and deceits. This act stipulated that any Gypsies in England were required to depart within sixteen days, otherwise they could be imprisoned and have their possessions divided between the king and whoever apprehended the gypsies. (4) Later, the act was modified to the effect that any Gypsy who had not left within forty days was to be executed. This harsh measure seems to have had the desired effect, though eventually the Gypsises made a return to England.
Not long after, similar severe measures were enacted against brothels: As houses of vice, they were inevitably associated with criminality. In 1546, in an unexpected move, the King attempted to shut down the brothels in London, and legislated for the branding of all those found to be working as whores. As with the attempted expulsion of the Gypsies, this attempt at prohibition was unrealistic, and when the King died the following year so did any efforts to enforce the ban. However, it would not be long before other Monarchs would move to make legislative assaults on other disliked groups of the lower class.
In 1566, in a work titled A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds, the author Thomas Harman gave thanks to god that through wholesome laws the memory of gypsies had been clean extinguished and wished for a like fate to the home-grown vagabond. (5) The views of Harman must have reflected the prevailing mood, for not long after, the attention of the authorities would be directed at the very group named by Harman.