Portrait Of Britain: 1600

John Miller describes the state of the British kingdoms as James Stewart waits to become monarch of the entire archipelago.

In many respects Britain in 1600 was much as it had been for centuries. Much of the country was covered with forest and heathland, moor and bog. Where the land had been cleared, much was unsuitable for arable farming and was grazed by cattle and sheep. Since 1500 the population had risen substantially. There were still outbreaks of plague, but they tended to be confined to towns and the biggest killer of the century was the influenza epidemic of 1556-58. As a consequence of population growth, much land which had fallen out of cultivation after the Black Death was reclaimed and more forest and scrub were cleared for grazing; in parts of  south-east England wood became scarce and there were complaints of shortages of timber for naval use.

The population growth was initially most apparent in the countryside. The great majority of people lived in villages and earned at least part of their living from agriculture. In arable villages especially, young people could find neither land to rent nor paid labour and moved on, to less crowded villages in forest or pasture regions or to the towns. Growing competition for land and food led to inflation. Rents and food prices rose. Small farmers, who produced barely enough to feed their families, failed to profit from rising food prices and faced increased demands for rent. In normal years they just about got by. They could survive a bad harvest by borrowing to pay the rent, but a run of bad harvests (as in 1594-97) ruined many. Meanwhile, landlords preferred to rent land out in larger units to farmers who produced a substantial surplus for sale and who could afford to pay higher rents. Farms tended to become larger and many small farmers were forced to give up their tenancies and work for wages, in agriculture or rural industry. But labour was plentiful. Wage rates lagged behind prices and underemployment was endemic. Regular work at a single occupation was the exception, not the rule.

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