Some Notes on the Elisabethan Economic Crisis

I’ve been doing some reading on stuff by James Sharpe (University of York), regarding the economic crisis and hardship experiences during Elizabethan times. I found it quite interested me, and this is usually not my bag, so I thought I would do a little update regarding the subject.

I think what attracted me to this topic was that, this is really not the sort of thing we think of when we picture Elizabethan period, right? Well, according to Dr Sharpe, there are many accounts that report severe issues during this time, particularly in the provinces. Edward Hext and William Lambarde seem to be key for this discussion. The former was associated with the Somerset Justice of peace, whilst the former was a veteran for the same in Kent. They reported people stealing more than they were at work, and the paint a picture where living in vagrancy in the urban areas was not uncommon. Moreover, the do suggest that people living in the countryside were seriously struggling to survive. It is acknowledge that the harvests of 1594 and 1595 were particularly bad, but it is the one from 1596 that has disastrous consequences for the population. As a result, Elizabethan society sees the price of grain increase to its highest level in all of the 16th century. This struggle is also reflected in the population levels. In 1500 there was a reported figure of 2.5 million whilst by 1650 the number was doubled, and we find a 5 million magic figure. It does appear that the country was unable to cope with such a population growth, and this was mostly due to the lack of resources and infrastructure. The real wages people were earning were not able to cover the costs and prices of good at the time. At the same time, England also experiences a higher unemployment rate as the chances to find work are diminished. These are the reports of the south though, so what about the rest of the country?

Perhaps unsurprisingly we see that by 16000 the Midlands saw a massive divide between people. The rich and locally powerful were sitting at the top, then we see a modest class of yeomen farmers just about managing, and then a mass of poor people unable to survive. Funny enough, London reports also suggest things were not all so peachy even in the capital. The harvest did have a real big impact which is seen in the population toll. An average year would see the number of burials just above that of birth, however in 1597 twice as many Londoners were buried than baptised…The pattern does confirm a time of seasonal death that indicates the reason behind these extravagant number of passings was the famine. But a place that shows these evidence as well is perhaps something many of us did not suspect: prisons. And it is amongst the inmate waiting trial that the numbers get spooky. There was a livelihood of death whilst waiting in jail due to the inhumane and appalling health and sanitary conditions of such facilities were the treatment was rough at best. But we see an increase in the number of dead prisoners throughout Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Sharpe advises that the average number for these deaths normally would have been around 33. Yet between 1596 and 1597 the staggering 117 can only suggest many of these were the cause of starvation due to bad harvest which is enhances by the contraction of maladies and disease.

Moreover, remember this is the Elizabethan period and war was certainly present at home. With the country at conflict with the Netherlands and Spain we find a major social disruption as those who return from war have nowhere to go. Unsurprisingly these men go into a stage of homelessness, vagrancy, and eventually crime. Theft and grain riots in all of south of England is more than evident, although often forgotten due to their relative lack of success. Such an example is the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. The situation was by then somewhat contained but the pressure still existed on the government to get things right, which is for sure one of the things that promotes the enactment of the Poor Law Act (1601).

I think the reason why it interest me, had something to do with my own teaching of the period from the perspective of the Golden Age of Spain. My students are probably sick and tired of hearing about war, famine and death in the Spanish Empire, where the British Isles always look so much better off…Yet, it was not so golden times over the shores on the other side of the Channel I suspect. I think this really help us understand the biases of national histories and the things we assume to be Golden Ages.


2 thoughts on “Some Notes on the Elisabethan Economic Crisis

  1. Poverty was indeed acutely harsh in the Elizabethan era. I always say that the “Golden Age” wasn’t necessarily Golden for everyone.

    There is a great online course lecture (available for free) that outlines some of these issues. Its class name is ‘Early Modern England’, and the particular lecture I’m thinking of is “A Polarizing Society, 1560-1640.”

    A quote from the lecture that might be relevant to your interests:

    “England’s increasing income was very unevenly distributed. It was an expanding economy but one with an expanding problem of structural poverty. It was a commercializing society in which there were great opportunities, but many of those who had nothing to sell but their labor were in a poor competitive position and in an exceedingly risky environment. Of course, some aspects of those insecurities were perennial, but at times they could become particularly acute. And the times that stand out are the 1590s, which was a time when the harvest failed four years in a row, food prices rocketed, the weaknesses in the economy were revealed, and there was widespread misery. Indeed, in the years 1596 to 1598 there was actual famine in the most vulnerable areas; parts of the far north, north-west in particular, and parts of the far west. There’s evidence of actual death from starvation.”

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