Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

Economy and Society  in the Fifteenth Century

Steve Muhlberger

Following William Shakespeare, the Wars of the Roses  are often presented as a great tragedy
John Gillingham, in his recent book on the subject, quotes Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the First World War, as saying that the Great War was the worst tragedy for Britain since the Wars of the Roses. As Gillingham points out, this is a somewhat ludicrous comparison. The Wars of the Roses were not a gigantic paroxysm that slaughtered the young men of an entire generation.

Indeed, the Wars of the Roses weren't even comparable to the ever larger and more expensive wars on the continent in the same period.  These wars  demanded a tremendous organizational and financial commitment: It is no accident that standing armies were reinvented in France in this period.

The Wars of the Roses were not like that. Compared to wars in France and Italy, the English ones were mere military coups, some successful, some not. Small armies were gathered by nobles attached to one party or another, and used in brief campaigns. The goal was to subdue or eliminate key persons on the other side, and to alter the shape of the royal government. Thus the wars were flashpoints of domestic tension -- not a continuous business or way of life.

Most English people were scarcely affected by the wars. Even the peers, those nobles with hereditary seats in Parliament, were not obsessed with the ongoing political competition between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions.

There is a sturdy myth that intense rivalry between noble families wars led to the extinction of the old Norman aristocracy, which had to be replaced later by a new Tudor creation. Certainly some families lost all their male heirs, and therefore their separate identities. But this was not unusual at any time in the Middle Ages, and very few extinctions can be traced to the battlefield or the scaffold. Many peers opted out of politics quite early, and stayed out. No single leader, neither Henry VI nor the Duke of York, inspired enough confidence to make the average peer chose sides if he could avoid it.

Bosworth Field in 1485, where Henry VII killed Richard III and took his throne, was a battle attended by scarcely less than two dozen peers, all of whom where very close associates of the contenders. Everyone else stayed home, willing to acknowledge whichever uninspiring claimant to the throne emerged victorious.

The point of all this is not to minimize the Wars of the Roses to insignificance, but to point out that they were not a great bloodbath; rather they were an erratic struggle between a few noble clans, during which most of England minded, and was allowed to mind, its own business.

The rural economy

The fifteenth century was not an era of social or economic crisis. Quite the reverse. To economic historians, the fifteenth century appears to be a period of relative ease and prosperity between two periods of overpopulation.

By 1400, the population had been falling for a hundred years -- it probably continued to fall until 1450.  Basic foodstuffs, especially grain, had made the fortune of the high farmers. But with a falling population, basic foods were no longer in great demand. Not only prices but rents fell.
Labor was scarcer than it had been for generations, so wages went up, despite legislation to the contrary. Also exploitation of the peasantry was no longer very profitable for the lords, because the kind of work that could be demanded -- plowing and harvesting -- was no longer needed.

More peasants could hope to have farms of their own. Those with labor to sell could eat pretty well on the wages they received. Real wages were high, because prices were low. And the disabilities of villeinage almost disappeared because landlords did not enforce their unprofitable rights. They became free tenants, whose personal and economic rights could be defended before the king's justices.

Yet this era was not  a bad time for landlords as a class.

Those who were adaptable found that there was profit to be made. In many parts of England, lords turned from grain production, to a business that was both less labor intensive and more lucrative -- wool.  This is the time of the first enclosures, when the formerly plowed fields of nearly empty villages were fenced in to be used for sheep runs.

The progress made by the peasantry in this period was not permanent.  Unfree peasants had
enjoyed security of tenure. When fifteenth century tenants became personally free, however, they lost that security. A few of the most fortunate converted their lands into freehold land -- land  they rented perpetually. These fortunate peasant families had gained security that was comparable to the security of a knight's family.

But most peasants had merely a leasehold or copyhold on their land. Leases under leasehold were like modern leases. They ended at a certain time, and the landlord could renew it, change it, or just take back the land. Leaseholders had no security at that point.

Most former villeins, or their descendants, had copyholds, called this because their leases were copied onto the manorial roll of the landlord. Most copyholds were good for  three [tenants'] lifetimes, which estate managers, calculated to be only twenty-one years. At that point, the agreement was void, and had to be remade. Also, many copyholders paid entry fines that the lord could raise at will, meaning their tenure was threatened at every tenant's death.

In the fifteenth century, tenants were not excessively insecure because land was plentiful. Landlords had no leverage against them. But in the 16th century, rising population made land scarce again.
The early modern period in England is notorious for the sturdy beggar -- the unemployed countryman who had no where to go but to town, where he begged -- and for the enclosures that pushed peasants off land that lords could exploit more profitably.

The urban and industrial economy

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as population, production, and commercial penetration of the countryside all grew, new towns were built and old ones grew greatly. During the fourteenth and fifteenth century, this urban expansion slowed in most places. Indeed, the period has the reputation as one of stagnation.

The plague, which affected everyone equally the first few times around, became an occasional, almost predictable hazard of town life. The impression of over-all decay is aided by the fate of a couple of well-known places. Lincoln, an important town since Roman days, the seat of the largest diocese in England, and a trading center for centuries, lost most of its population in our period.

Adding to this impression is the fact that many towns that got impressive privileges in charters granted on spec before 1300 never fulfilled their promise.   Parliamentary boroughs kept the right to send men to parliament even if no one lived there anymore -- something that actually happened in the case of old Sarum near Salisbury.

The new towns of the fourteenth and fifteenth and even later centuries were not given royal charters,  thus grew up without ever gaining official recognition of their importance.

J.R. Lander provides the example of an industrial district in the west country known as Stroudwater, where waterpower attracted the cloth industry. Entrepreneurs were moving in to set up in business. But Stroudwater had no legal identity of its own. It was split between the manors of Bisley and Minchinhampton, one owned by an abbey, the other by the Duke of York. Far from exploiting the development of the area, the landlords were completely oblivious to it. All the profit went to subtenants. It was officially invisible.

In later medieval England, a lot of places of no importance in earlier eras that took off.

Such places often grew up in response to the expansion of the wool industry. Before the mid-14th century, the bulk of English wool was exported to Italy, France and the Netherlands, where it was made up into cloth in the bigger industrial cities. During the later Middle Ages, war taxes on the export of raw wool encouraged English landlords to direct their wool to the domestic industrial sector, which grew immensely. England became more of an exporter of industrial goods.

Much of the new development took place not in the established towns, but in the countryside. The availability of water (for the mechanization of fulling an essential operation in cloth production, fulling).

But established towns were unattractive to new weaving businesses because were dominated by a few rich merchants and artisans who regulated trade and labor within the walls for their own advantage. It was not a place for a new investor to get started. So the new weaving centers were out in the country where only the landlord need be consulted -- or where he, she or it took the lead.

Compared to many European countries, England, though far from stagnant, was very much a rural country, or at least a country with only one real urban center, London, which continued to enhance its dominant position. In most of the country, political and economic leadership belonged to the landed class. This means the peers, of course, but also knights and squires, the lower aristocracy, some of whose members rivaled the lesser barons for wealth and influence.

Knights and squires, lay culture

The knights and squires largely kept their heads down during the Wars of the Roses -- as did most barons -- but they solidified their position in parliament. During the fifteenth century, most borough representatives were actually landowners from the nearby countryside, not townsmen.
After the Lancastrian usurpation, few could doubt the right of the commons to speak on issues of policy. Only in unusual circumstances would the commons hold the political initiative, but their role was established. Playing to the commons was an important tactic of the rivals during the Wars of the Roses.

Also, knights and squires took a greater than ever part in the local operations of the royal government. The crown, at least in name, was doing more than ever before at the local level, through men who held various commissions from the crown. The most important were the justices of the peace, who held court in the king's name, and judged the cases -- nearly all the important cases -- that were reserved to the crown. There were commissioners of array, who raised troops; there were commissioners who maintained ditches and levees in swampy areas like Lincolnshire. All kinds of local matters were dealt under royal auspices -- but through the efforts of local dignitaries, not by salaried outsiders.

Rather than absolutism (making some progress on the continent), it was (for the upper class at least) self-government by the king's command.

The lay ruling class of England was increasingly confident in this period, partly because more of them were educated.  English (rather than French or Latin) was increasingly used for all sorts of practical business.  The highest levels of education were still restricted to those who knew Latin. But many lay people were going to university, some to take degrees, without any intention of becoming clerics.

A great many more went to the lesser schools that clustered around the universities without actually being part of them. For instance, in London, the Inns of Court supplied a specifically English and lay type of learning -- learning in the peculiar law of England.

We have a big collection of surviving letters from the Pastons, a 15th century family from the "squirearchy."  The letters tell us all sorts of things about people of their rank.

The letters themselves show literacy in the common English tongue was commonplace, and a vital tool.

One of them, Margaret Paston, did a great deal of business by letter, but never wrote one with her own hand.  The male members of her family had a great deal of schooling:

Of course the Pastons were rich, just one step below the peerage. But by 1500, it has been estimated that between 40 and 60% of London householders could read English, and fair number Latin as well. When William Caxton set up the first printing press in England in 1476, he found an eager market for books in English, mostly translations of older classics.

It is interesting that despite this lay interest in literacy and literature, there was not much Italian humanist influence.  Classical models in writing, speaking, and art was introduced more than once, but did not really take. English culture continued along paths developed in previous centuries.
Some of the greatest triumphs of English architecture were created in the Gothic style in the 15th and 16th centuries, in a period where that style was dead and reviled on the continent.

This kind of continuity, (exemplary of English conservatism?), shows as much as anything that this century was not one of basic disruption. It was one of further development of trends introduced before.

England was culturally and (in the second half of the century) politically disengaged from the continent:   which may have had the benefit of keeping the country out of continental wars.

In some ways, as a result, the era of the Wars of the Roses was a peaceful one, without basic disruption.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.