A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume I (of 6)

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  1. A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume I (of 6)
  2. A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume I (of 6)
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The food and wool from the village began to sell far afield: the spinsters and the husbandmen were turned into commodity-producers for a national market. In I, moreover, Christopher Columbus had discovered America. English merchants followed him there, and also penetrated overseas to India and Russia.

As industry and commerce developed, as the, overseas market for English cloth expanded, some areas ceased to be economically self-sufficient, and had to be fed and supplied with wool for their looms. So we get the beginnings of a specialised division of labour. In the south of England — then the economically advanced part of the country — different regions began to concentrate on producing particular commodities.

A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume I (of 6)

Those Echo had money began to keep large flocks of sheep, to grow. And very well they did out of it, too. For prices were going up. Silver had been discovered in America and began to flow into Europe at a time when commerce was expanding and money relations between landlord and tenant, employer and workman, were replacing the old relations based on payment in goods or labour services. Prices rose all through the sixteenth century; between and food trebled in England, and textiles rose by percent. This had the same effect as an inflation in our day. Those with fixed incomes got poorer, those living by trade and production for the market grew richer.

So the middle classes prospered, the high feudal aristocracy including the King and the bishops and the smaller peasantry and wage labourers grew relatively poorer, except for the few individuals from those classes who were lucky enough to get in on the racket. There was another factor. In , in what is called the Reformation, the monasteries of England had been dissolved and their property confiscated.

This was part of the struggle by which the national independence of England was established against the power on of the Catholic Church, and so enthusiastically supported by the bourgeoisie and Parliament. Nor did they do badly out of it, for a great quantity of valuable and hitherto inaccessible land confiscated from the Church was thrown on to the market. All these happenings were changing the structure of English rural society. Land was becoming a highly attractive field for investment of capital. People who had money wanted to buy land with it, and there were more and more people with money.

In feudal England land had passed by inheritance from father to son, cultivated all the time in traditional ways for the consumption of one family; it had changed hands comparatively rarely. But now, the law adapting itself to the economic needs of society, land was beginning to become a commodity, bought and sold in a competitive market, and thus capital heaped up in the towns spilt over into the countryside.

A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century, Volume I (of 6)

The northern and western parts of England remained relatively untouched by the new commercial spirit radiating from London and the ports; but in the south and east many landowners were beginning to exploit their estates in a new way. Both in the Middle Ages and in the seventeenth century the first importance of an estate was that it supplied a land owner through his control over the labour of others with the means of livelihood.

But over and above this, the large estates had in the Middle Ages maintained with their surplus agricultural produce a body of retainers who would on occasion act as soldiers, and so were the basis of the political power of the feudal lords. Now, with the development of the capitalist mode of production within the structure of feudalism, many landowners began either to market that portion of the produce of their estates which was not consumed by their families, or to lease their lands to a farmer who would produce for the market.

So landowners came to regard their estates in a new light: as a source of money profit, of profits that were elastic and could be increased. This was in itself a moral as well as an economic revolution, a break with all that men had held right and proper, and had the most disturbing effects on ways of thought and belief. Codes of morals are always bound up with a given social order.

Feudal society had been dominated by custom, tradition. Money had been comparatively unimportant. But what did moral problems matter to the new type of lessees? They forced their incomes up to meet the rise in the prices of the goods they had to buy. They were able to evict tenants unable to pay the new rents, whose small holdings, perhaps, stood in the way of consolidating an estate into a large compact block for profitable sheep-farming on a large scale. Often rents were raised because the estate itself had been bought or leased at the competitive prices prevailing in the land market.

And then the speculative purchaser or lessee wanted to get back in profits the capital he had laid out in his purchase money, in equipment and in improved methods of cultivation.


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A new kind of farmer was thus emerging in the Home Counties — the capitalist farmer. He might be a pirate or a slave-trader, a respectable City merchant who had done well in currants or a country clothing capitalist. In any case he was looking for a safe investment for his profits, and one that would at the same time give him social standing. For landowners controlled local government, as lords of manors or as justices of the peace. Only gentlemen were elected by their fellow landowners to represent the county in Parliament. The boroughs, too, came more and more to be represented in the House of Commons by a neighbouring gentleman.

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But the new farmer might be a feudal lord drawn by the pull of a near-by market and able to raise capital to reorganise the management of his estates; or he might be a lessee from the richer stratum of the peasantry. Many of the latter class — the yeomen — were able by their wealth and ability to keep possession of their plots of land, to extend and consolidate them, to share in the new opportunities offered where they had access to a market.

In the sixteenth century numbers of yeomen and gentlemen were consolidating their scattered strips of land, converting unenclosed arable to pasture or increasing their output of corn, fruit, vegetables, dairy produce for the town market. They were changing old-established tenures — turning copyholds into leaseholds, letting their lands for shorter periods — and ruthlessly evicting tenants unable to pay the new economic rents demanded. His right to possession was not always recognised by the common law courts.


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  6. One of the great struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that in which copyholders strove to win full legal security for their tenures, whilst lords of manors landlords strove to render their possession uncertain and to keep it subject to decision in the manor court, presided over by the lord of the manor or his steward. By all these means they enriched themselves in the same way as merchants and industrialists in the towns, and a class earning its wealth in a new way came to occupy a predominant position in some counties of southern and eastern England.

    INDUSTRY AND TRADE, 1500-1880

    This class was the basis of the famous squirearchy which was to govern England for the next three centuries. But they did not have things all their own way before , The structure of society was still essentially feudal; so were its laws and its political institutions. There were still many legal restrictions on the full unhampered capitalist utilisation of landed property, on free trade in land.

    These restrictions were maintained in the interests of the Crown, the feudal landowning class, and to a lesser extent, of the peasantry, anxious to live in the old secure way paying the old fixed dues. This legal network had to be broken through if rural capitalism was to develop the resources of the countryside to the full. Bad communications still prevented the full development of a national market, restricted the possibilities of division of labour and so of capitalist developments in agriculture.

    So there still persisted in many parts even of the south and east, and all over northern and western England, landowners who lacked either the ability, the capital, the psychology or the opportunity to exploit their estates in the new way. They were still attempting to maintain feudal pomp and ceremony, still running their estates in the traditional way.

    The largest landowner of this kind was the Crown itself, always short of capital.

    The bishops also were notoriously easy-going landowners, whose estates were developed, ff at all, by lessees. Times were hard for these parasites and rentiers. The rise in prices made it impossible for them to keep up their old standards of living, still less to compete in luxury with the merchant princes.

    They were continually in debt, often to some smart city business man who demanded a mortgage on their estate, and stepped into it when the debt fell due. The needy courtier, the proud but penniless younger son of a noble house, were commonplaces of popular derision and middle-class contempt. Yet this class was still a social and political power; the State was organised to safeguard its interests. Its inability to reorganise its estates was keeping a large amount of capital uninvested. Much of the richest land in England was not utilised to the full technical capacities of the time.

    The seventeenth-century English revolution by transferring State power to the bourgeoisie made possible the full development of all the resources of English society in the eighteenth century. A transition to socialism will be necessary to win the same result in England to-day.


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    There was an acute struggle of all classes to profit by the agricultural changes taking place. In general they made for greater productivity, and enabled some richer peasants and small landowners to rise in the world. But for many smaller cultivators they meant depression, the raising of rents and dues of various kinds, the enclosure of the common fields on which the villagers had for centuries pastured their cattle and geese. Many husbandmen whose small properties stood in the way of a farmer wanting to consolidate a large sheep farm were brutally evicted.

    Against this treatment revolt smouldered throughout the period; it broke out in open rebellion in , and , but each time the peasantry was beaten back into submission. The State is always an instrument of coercion in the hands of the ruling class; and landlords ruled sixteenth-century England. Others again provided a useful supply of cheap labour for expanding industries. Both these groups were without land to support them in independence in a bad year or when their employers went bankrupt.

    They were on their way to becoming proletarians, with nothing to offer in the market but their hour, at the mercy of all the fluctuations and insecurity of capitalism. We must be careful, however, not to antedate these developments, nor to exaggerate their extent: they are significant as the dominant tendency. Similarly the new progressive landowners and farmers catch the eye as the rising and expanding class perhaps more than could be justified statistically. The improving landlord was not typical before And we must remember what the agricultural changes in pre-revolutionary England were.

    They took place within a given system of technical equipment. There was no large-scale revolution in agricultural technique till the eighteenth century, though its first beginnings can be traced back to the revolutionary decades of the seventeenth century. The changes of the period before , which were enormously accelerated in the years between and , were changes in landownership, and in the volume of production rather than in the technique of production. So the changes had no revolutionary effect on -society as a whole.

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    The new class of capitalist farmers was there, thrusting its way forward, hampered by feudal survivals, without whose abolition it could not develop freely; in the revolution, in alliance with the urban bourgeoisie, it took over the State, creating the conditions within which further expansion was possible. On the other hand, not only did large areas in the north and west remain unaffected by the new changes, but even where these changes were taking place large sections of the peasantry still survived in as semi-independent cultivators.

    This important group found itself in temporary alliance with the dominant bourgeois forces in opposition to a Crown which did little to help it; but when it discovered, as it did after , what the real aims of its allies were, it began to fight, in company with other radical elements, to push the revolution leftwards.

    But because its instincts and social aims were to some extent pre-capitalist, looking backward to a stable peasant community, it was bound to be defeated. Though most English people before worked in the fields, changes no less important than those we have described were taking place in trade and industry, changes, indeed, which gave the impetus to the agrarian developments. Something like an industrial revolution took place in the century before , stimulated by capital liberated at the dissolution and plunder of the monasteries, or acquired by trade, piracy and plunder from the New World or by the slave trade.

    England had long been a great wool-growing country, exporting raw material to the Netherlands to be worked up into cloth.