Portrait Of Britain: 1500

Steven Gunn looks at the condition of Britain at the beginning of the Tudor era, and finds a society that was increasingly cohesive, confident and cosmopolitan.

Britain in 1500 was for the most part an old-settled but, by the standards of much of contemporary Europe, an under-populated landscape. As an Italian visitor put it, ‘The population of this island does not appear to me to bear any proportion to her fertility and riches’. A steady recovery from the steep population decline of two centuries of plague was only just beginning. England and Wales had perhaps 2.25 million people, Scotland and Ireland about a third of that number each. Lack of population pressure meant that living standards were comparatively high. Sir John Fortescue, writing in the 1470s, mocked French peasants for their diet of ‘apples and very brown bread made with rye’ when Englishmen of all classes ate ‘every kind of flesh and fish in abundance’. An English builder’s wage in 1500-9 bought more food than in any decade until the 1880s. Serfdom was withering away as tenants held a strong hand in negotiating with their lords. Richer peasants in southern England were able to build substantial timber-framed houses on stone foundations with several rooms, fireplaces, separate barns, sometimes even slate roofs. Thousands of them survive to this day.

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