England during the Price Revolution: cause & effect

The Golden Age of the English Peasant came to an end in the sixteenth century. The population rose sharply and so did prices, with prices something like five and a half times higher by the end of the Tudor century than the start. In many ways it could be argued that economic life in England during the Tudor period was more expensive and healthier that at any time since the Roman times. The revitalization of a pre-industrial economy is essentially a matter of recovering population, and this is something that England had failed to do on a large scale ever since the Black Death. After 1525 the population finally started to rise sharply - it was a mere 2.26 million in 1525, but it was 4.10 million by 16011. This steep rise in population was the result of a complex and in part unknowable process, of which three factors may be highlighted -

  1. Decline in disease. Population had stagnated in the fifteenth century largely due to disease in both town and countryside. England was generally healthier during the sixteenth century. By the reign of Elizabeth I the annual death rate was never more than 2.68% of the population.
  2. Higher fertility rates. During the fifteenth century many people were dying unmarried or without male heirs. Because of the increased prosperity this afforded the peasantry (supply and demand applies to labour as well: when there are fewer workers they can demand better terms) fertility rates may well have risen.
  3. Earlier marriage. Another result of people being more prosperous was that they could marry earlier. This meant they were much more likely to have children, or more children. Demographers have also calculated that the chance of survival at birth was getting higher (again, perhaps down to the increased prosperity).

You might well ask what any of this has to do with a "price revolution". Well, when aggregate demand increases sharply across an economy and output remains fairly static, demand-pull inflation2 occurs. Grain prices increased between five and six times over the Tudor century. The cost of living rose and people found themselves with an increasingly low standard of living. Wage rates went down as the available labour pool steadily rose and inevitably there were more people looking for work on the land than there were jobs for them to take. In part this fuelled the growth of the cities, where people would go to seek work, and the growth of "cottage industry" (often outside the traditional control of the guilds). Yet one of the remarkable things about Tudor England was its ability to feed itself amidst the general decline in standards of living. There was never an instance of mass mortality and Multhusian checks failed to kick in to keep the population low. Commercial farming by and large rose to meet the challenge.

Other factors than population growth contributed to the price rise, but the extent of their effect is much debated. The debasement of the coinage to pay for Continental war, especially that carried out by Henry VIII and Protector Somerset, decreased the value of coin in circulation (Gresham's Law, bad coin drives out the good: people horde the valuable coin and only use the least valuable)3. Inflation was certainly European wide (which is what made people eventually realise something so massive in scale could not be caused by trivial things like enclosure), and this has been put down to bullion flowing in from the New World and increased output from the silver mines of Bohemia.

The enclosure movement was much resented by contemporaries, and many blamed it for the general decline in their standard of living. In fact, the term "enclosure" is a bit of a blanket description for a few distinct practices, some of which were beneficial to the rural economy, and some beneficial to the national economy. Sometimes a small freeholder, often of villein stock, would buy up strips of land adjacent to his own and put a hedge around them, thus cutting them off from the open land, in a process called engrossing. This was not a new practice and it could increase the productivity of this land considerably. But the gentry began to engage in a practice that was more odious for their locale, but one which they were driven to by the price rise (their costs were rising but rents were static, so they had to do something to avoid going bankrupt). A gentleman might buy, as an outside speculator, large estates or stretches of open pasture, evict the tenants, and engross them. This depopulated the area and increased local unemployment, although the national economy benefitted from this consolidation. Finally, in very specific areas, a gentleman might enclose the common land, thus depriving everyone else of its benefit. This didn't very happen very often, but it was one of the specific agrarian grievances of Ket's rebellion.

Less enterprising gentlemen who did not wish to engage in the vicissitudes of commercial farming could try that trusty old expedient of rack-renting (raising rents or increasing the fine charged when one tenant succeeded the next). His ability to do this varied greatly on a case by case basis because there were many different types of agreements between landlord and tenant. A tenant-at-will was most vulnerable, because he essentially had no legal rights, and only held his land so long as his Lord willed it so. A "customary tenant" had specific rights and obligations as laid out in the manorial court roll, whereas a copyholder had a copy of his rights and obligations which he could produce in the King's courts. He was the most secure, but unless he possessed an 'estate of inheritance' then the Lord could impose an arbitrary fine on his heir when he wished to succeed to the land. This made it easy for a Lord to force the tenant out and switch to commercial farming practices if he wished, or force the tenant out and sell to an outside speculator.

The fluidity of the land market produced what amounted to a revolution in the agrarian life of England. There was great wealth in some areas and great poverty in others. Overall the national life prospered and the nation became wealthier. The revolution was certainly needed to lay down the path for easier times to come, and the stimulation provided by the high inflation - it stimulated because it created hardship - led to vital structural change and the final collapse of the feudal order in the South (there were instances in the conservative North of peers going bankrupt rather than give up the established order!). As in all other spheres of national life, the Tudor century contained much of the turmoil needed to consolidate things for the stability ahead.

1. The source for this is the Wrigley-Schofield Index from The Population History of England, 1541 - 1871: A reconstruction.

2. It's a pretty primitive form of demand-pull inflation. In an industrial economy this sort of inflation is accentuated greatly because as prices rise, costs rise, which forces prices to rise, and so on... if you don't understand this, don't worry too much. In an agrarian economy, greater aggregate demand for a static amount of grain is clearly going to push grain prices up as it becomes scarcer.

3. Cardinal Wolsey, who started this, was in a way just following in the rest of Europe's footsteps. English coin contained much more silver than Continental coin at the start of the sixteenth century, the result being an inequity when trading it (Continental coin was worth less).

Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors 2nd. ed.: Methuen & Co, 1974.

Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Helm, P. J. England under the Tudors and Yorkists: 1471-1603: Bell & Hyman, 1968.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.

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