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Life in England in the 16th and 17th Century

At the start of the 16th century England was benefiting from the stability provided by the Tudor dynasty. England at that time was similar to most of Western Europe, a catholic country whose wealth was mostly held by the nobility, the monarchy and the church. The economy was largely agricultural and mainly rural population; poor harvests could spell disaster especially for the poor.

Population growth was greatest between 1525 and 1541rising from 2.26 million to 2.77 million. Expanding population put increasing pressures on land and resources but speeded up urban and economic developments. By the 1650s the population had doubled from 1541, rising to over 5 million despite the effects of the civil wars. One side affect of England’s smaller population was the virtual extinction of serfdom and a weakening of feudalism that meant social and economic changes occurred earlier than elsewhere. Peasants were free and could find it easier to move to the towns.

Perhaps the biggest gainers during this period were the country gentry and the town merchants who gained social, economic and political influence. It was the gentry that moved from living in huts and into brick houses intended to be like manor houses. The gentry also demanded a greater range of goods than before and some of them would invest their surpluses into different trades and industries. It was the more astute amongst the gentry and merchants that took advantage of the dissolution of the monasteries that supported the religious changes of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I and it was the gentry in the House of Commons that caused such problems for the Stuarts. It was the largest transfer of land and wealth England had ever experienced.

Before the Reformation another way in which villages and small towns used their increased prosperity was to build new churches or rebuild their existing churches into the Gothic style. For instance Bodmin in Devon had a new church and Solihull in Warwickshire had one rebuilt. Religion and the local church were important to most local communities particularly the rural ones. Church attendance only became compulsory with the various acts of uniformity passed in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. Elizabethan clergy would commonly complain about the rudeness of congregations that attended their services. Whilst those that did not attend would go to public houses or be watching cock fighting or football. That was despite non-attendance being punished with a shilling a week fine. Of course the Reformation would eventually turn most of England Protestant, popular opinion turning against Catholicism as a result of the Marian persecutions, war with Spain and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

A rival to the church as local focal point emerged, the village public house. Public houses not only offered social attractions, they also offered fermented beers and wines that were safer to drink than most water supplies especially in urban areas. Local parishes were important for economic as well as spiritual reasons, for they were responsible for the administration of poor relief alongside the monasteries prior to their dissolution. Local parishes relying on those later known as local ratepayers could find it difficult to provide effective poor relief during good times let alone bad times. The principle problem was that there was not enough paid work for everybody all of the time and not enough money to help all that needed it. Distinctions were drawn between those that could work and those that were unable to do so such as the old and the infirm, sturdy as opposed to impotent beggars. Governments tried to improve poor relief as early as the Statutes of Cambridge in 1388. It was the severity of the food shortages during the 1550s and 1590s that led to further legislation in the Poor Law of 1601. Relief was overseen by Justices of the Peace often members of the gentry.

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