Imaginative Ancestry #4: Shakespeare’s England 1485-1603

The beginning of the reign of Henry Tudor in 1485 did not signal the end of the Medieval period in English history, and nor did William Shakespeare live across the entire span of Tudor monarchs up to the death of Elizabeth in 1603. But like many writers after him, such as Pepys, Boswell, Fielding, Jane Austen, Trollope and of course Dickens, Shakespeare was surely the greatest of them all in providing descriptions of the social life of our ancestors. This is why I have named this new post in my Imaginative Ancestry series after him, especially as I think about the social antics of Falstaff from the productions I enjoyed at Stratford and London’s Globe Theatre.

My current reading of G.M. Trevelyan in English Social History spans 4 chapters across the merging medieval and Tudor periods from 1485 to 1603, and I have tried here to imagine how the changes across this “golden age” affected my Cornish and Kentish ancestors specifically as well as all Englishmen generally.

There seems to have been five massive areas of development affecting England socially; Religious Upheaval, Coinage Debasement, Expanded Education, Geographic Agriculture, and Sea Power & Trade. Only 150 years later my ancestors were occupied as copper and tin miners, agricultural workers, a carpenter, a tailor, a butcher, and a cordwainer, so how did these social changes in Shakespeare’s time affect them, and those of us who followed, because many medieval and Tudor aspects of that time still survive? This is Imaginative Ancestry!

1. Religious Upheaval

Probably the greatest religious revolution was seen in this period in England with the Dissolution of the Monasteries being the issue we all learned about in school. As the main theory went, Henry VIII did this because of two things; a tantrum with the Pope who wouldn’t annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon plus his greed for the wealth that had been accumulated by the church system. Removing papal rule may have begun with Henry’s lust for Ann Boleyn, but it developed into something of much greater importance. In a TV series I watched last Christmas (and blogged about here Medieval Marketing ) the brilliant historian Dr David Starkey painstakingly guided us through many documents from that time, several written by the monarch himself, showing Henry’s meticulous dismantling of the right of the Pope to rule physically and spiritually over every Englishman. Exit catholicism, enter protestantism and The Church of England. There were several ways in which my ancestors were affected by this; the monasteries had been places of refuge in many cases for the sick, the infirm, and the poor and this was now vanishing. The destitute and sick would now have to seek aid elsewhere. It was shortly after all this that we had the beginnings of the English Poor Law created in the time of Elizabeth I, a law which would be adapted many times and not fully abandoned until around 1947! In addition of course direct religious practice changed for the masses too with the diffusion of the English Bible and the destruction of much idolatry and relic-worship. At Oxford and Cambridge there were “curriculum” changes too with a switch to Renaissance scholarship away from canon law for example. But by the time of Elizabeth we had more changes with a further splintering and the country was greatly disturbed by the religious differences of neighbours. This was to lead to a civil war in England around a century later and then the onset of non conformism in the 18th and 19th centuries via Methodism for example which certainly my Cornish and Devonian ancestors followed. To quote Trevelyan:

“The Jesuits flitted about in disguise and hid in priest holes, ….. the Puritans worked hard from within to overturn and remodel the church, ….. weekly attendance at church was a duty enforced by the State, there was a fine on absentees, …..”

“It was the younger generation, brought up on Bible and Prayer Book, who became the most fervent Protestants. Bible readings and family prayer were becoming the customs of the English.”

“Yet it was utterly vain to try and enforce a single religion on England, and it meant another hundred years of strife and hatred ….. with blood tragically shed on the battlefield and the scaffold. AND OUT OF ALL THAT MISERY, it was destined that there should be plucked the flower of our civil liberties and our parliamentary constitution”!

2. Coinage Debasement

This may not be on most people’s radar, but one of the “tricks” of Henry was the debasement of all English coinage. At that time there was no universal exchange rate or national control of the value of coins by a central bank: the value of a coin depended on the amount of precious metal in the coin itself whether that be silver or gold. Typical coins from the era included sovereigns, crowns, half crowns, groats, pennies, half pennies and farthings; in my own lifetime 5 of them still existed! So as an example, the silver content of the relevant coins was reduced from 92% to as little as 25%. That meant that a half crown now only had about 35% of its purchasing power and you could only buy 1/3 of your goods as previous. Even worse, a great deal of the economy was based on land ownership and the renting of that land to peasant farmers with owners being forced to increase rents or face ruin. Imagine that happening today …… I can’t imagine the detailed effect on my ancestors, can you? But my agriculture employed ancestors generally will have seen a reduction in wage payment daily, and those who rented or leased land must have been desperate too as the cost of holding some land rocketed. It was Henry’s son Edward VI who stopped the debasement further, but it was Elizabeth who slowly built up the value of coinage again and reversed the debasement completely. It was a combination of this debasement plus the dissolution of the monasteries that caused much poverty and destitution, with “an army of beggars roaming the land”! Incredibly this had a POSITIVE effect eventually, with the state beginning to provide work for the genuine unemployed who were able plus charity for those who were not. The Poor Law was strengthened.

3. Expanded education

The increase in education opportunities which had begun in pre Tudor-times continued with more and more schools being created following increased funding from mostly the merchant classes. But there was also “education” being created by the increase in varying crafts and the associated apprenticeships. Masons, tinsmiths, goldsmiths, cordwainers, carpenters, tailors, butchers and many more all needed a sustained period of learning, including 7 years as a bonded apprentice, then working as a journeyman within the craft before becoming a master craftsman. The ability to read, write, measure and calculate was spreading and no doubt at some time my leather working, wood working, suit making ancestors benefited from such education. Parents undoubtedly began to encourage their children to pursue such trades, provided they could afford it, and this certainly continued up to my day as my parents in the 1950s encouraged me to “get a trade”. Take a look at this list of Guilds, most of which were formed by the end of the 16th century with over 100 surviving in our towns and cities today. And if there are any Guild Anoraks reading this, the prolific research by Tom Hoffman in 2011 shows that my ancestors guilds of Cordwainer, Butcher and Tailor still exist in Durham!

4. Geographical agriculture

By the end of the Tudor era the population had passed 4 millions with 80% living in rural areas. Many worked in “industry” supplying goods needed by a village such as a blacksmith, but with most of these working for a general market such as miners, quarrymen, clothiers. The bulk of the population cultivated the land or tended sheep. Major changes were about to occur though for the agricultural workers partly caused by increasing enclosure of land for sheep, partly caused by the destruction of woodland and forests for metal smelting and working, and massively caused by the increasing population who couldn’t work the land to feed themselves. The answer was growing crops for sale in a general market, and this needed a style and scale of organisation not seen before but taken for granted by us today. Walk into any English supermarket and examine a label or two of fresh produce grown in England (if you can find any!) …… apples from the West Country, strawberries from Kent, cabbages from Norfolk, asparagus from Worcestershire. Back in Tudor times the national demand specifically was driven by London which initially affected the use of land in the home counties initially and then further afield. Kent became “the garden of England”, East Anglia for barley, Kent and Essex for hops, North of England for oats, Worcestershire for pears and perry, Somerset and Gloucestershire for apples and cider.

More work was available as the great market of London helped to change agricultural methods by inducing districts best fitted for one particular crop to specialise in it, but this needed ever increasing land enclosure too which affected the poorest who were losing their “strips” of land for personal use. But overall the average diet of the average Englishman was improving. Meat and bread were the main foods, vegetable were eaten a little with meat and cabbage helped make pottage, the thick stew which was a staple of the times. Let’s face it, this is a far cry from the medieval serfdom and subsistence farming, the age of the Yeoman Farmer is upon us, a title I find amongst some of my ancestors two centuries later.

5. Sea power and trade

During this era there were two pressures on ships and sea travel; the rise of international merchant trade and the prospect of war with Spain who seemed to want to rule the world! In the early parts of Elizabeth’s reign, trade into Europe was enabled through Calais, Bruges, Hamburg and the Netherlands, each at different times as they were each prevented or driven out by the French, the merchants of the Hanse Towns, and finally the Spanish rulers of the Netherlands. Naturally this caused great difficulties affecting manufacture, employment and the economy generally. Did Elizabeth seek a “Withdrawal Agreement” to bow down to Europe …… did she hell! There was a two pronged strategy that led to England becoming the world’s leading sea power and mercantile nation. Firstly, new trading companies were formed in London pushing trade into “Russia, Prussia, the Baltic, Turkey and the Levant (Middle East)” and secondly a radical new design of ship was implemented which moved away from the “bigger is better” philosophy which was based on carrying larger amounts of goods to trade plus the ability to carry the biggest number of fighting men as ships came close to grapple and slaughter each other. To hell with that, Elizabeth’s new ships were built for speed and cannon-fire power which now enabled them to carry goods faster around the markets and better protected too. Sometime later, if the storm hadn’t wrecked most of the Spanish Armada, this speed and fire power which included motivated, well seasoned, patriotic and angry Englishmen would have obliterated it! The new attitude of world-wide merchant adventurers rescued the trade of England from European protectionism and greed, an attitude inbred into the capitalists of the City of London, the quality of the English seamen and sea captains, and the enterprise of English explorers.

A great quote from Trevelyan “Medieval England had been “traded with” by Italians, French and Germans, but now England herself traded with remote shores. We had ceased being the anvil commercially …. we had become the hammer”!

Once again opportunities galore for the general population in manufacturing, craftsmanship, and the new navy. There was a pride in the country and a bloody-mindedness too. The sea-war had promoted a feeling of freedom across these sections of society arising from a spirit of self confidence and self reliance. The seamen who fought the Spanish and various pirates were rough customers, no respecters of anyone in church or state, but they were faithful to their sea captains …. the greatest of whom was their Queen!

And to finish off, in case you’re wondering about the specific ancestral connection ……. the two greatest nurseries of the new English seaman were ……… miners and fishermen, both plentiful in Cornwall and Devon!!



Categories: 1500s, Imaginative Ancestry

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15 replies

  1. This reinforces what I read in Follett’s book. I’ve heard of these modern-day guildsmen (and women) who tramp around Europe, but I’m not sure I’ve seen them in my travels.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this snippet which increased my understanding of British history. The book you mentioned sounds fascinating…so many books to read, so little time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, so much depends on time of life, lifestyle, interests …. We are well into retirement and have our mutual plus own hobbies so …. it works. As for books, I probably read 10 or so per month, many non fiction around 60% as a rough guess. Current reference to Trevelyan is a book I finished reading a while ago but marked up relevant passages to help blogging plus specific incidents I though would affect my ancestors so all I have to do is dip into it depending on era and location.


  3. Enjoyed reading this. It give me a ‘picture’ of life as it was when my ancestors left England for the colonies.


  4. An interesting approach to understanding history Brian.
    Only just relevant to your post but I watched a programme on TV last week about Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar. One statistic was jaw dropping. I can hardly believe it is true. The cannons on HMS Victory (and other ships as well) had more fire power than the entire ammunition available to Wellington’s artillery at Waterloo!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think it’s very relevant Andrew and sound confirmation of what Elizabeth I did strategically as guided by her experts, Raleigh, Drake and especially Hawkins who she appointed as boss over the dockyards and ship design. They were far sighted and knew they couldn’t win a war against Spain who had a massive standing army we didn’t have so had to sink the buggers before they got within grappling range. The French lagged behind too and paid for it when Nelson arrived.


  5. Some great history here. I love the connection to your ancestors as well as how these events affect the British population today.

    Liked by 1 person

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