I’ve recently been focussing on finishing the first year scheme of work for the AQA module on The Tudors. Year one is spent focussing on the first two generations of the Tudors – Grandpappa Tudor (Henry VII) and Daddy Tudor (Henry VIII) – before pausing in the summer to begin coursework. The second year will then pick up from the death of Henry VIII to oversee the three reigns of his three children: Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. All in all, a solid century of history with lots of deaths and drama to feast upon.

However, the course also wants the student to focus on all of those other areas that aren’t of immediate interest, such as the economy. Such lessons in the past are generally quite dull, perhaps because not much significant or drastic is happening in any one year. Yes, the 1500s are notable for the decline of feudalism and the rise of capitalism, but there isn’t one trigger event to dissect. Instead, it is gentle change across the century; evolution, rather than revolution. As such, Henry VII’s decision to change from the Exchequer to the Chamber system isn’t entirely riveting.

This recent lesson focussed on the changes that took place in the economy during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547). Yes, we had a look at enclosure; yes, we had a look at the cloth trade; yes, we even had a look at the debasement of the coinage. All of which is, admittedly, dry. But the student and the historian must look behind the initial event or trade activity to understand more of a picture of this society. Such data can reveal hidden patterns within the Tudor period, and allow us to ask bigger thematic questions of the 1500s.

So, here we have some events that led to perceived improvements in the Tudor system:

1) The population began to grow significantly. This indicates a healthier, prosperous people
2) From the 1520s agricultural prices rose significantly. This indicates that there was an increase in farming incomes. [This was enhanced by engrossing]
3) Debasement of the coinage (1540s) Created an artificial boom and stimulation to the economy.

The initial change in the left hand column only tells us about the event; we must go further and ask of it: “What did it lead to?” Population growth can be clearly traced throughout the sixteenth century, and we need to develop this to understand why this was so and what this might have led to. If population grows, then we can deduce that the people in that society must be more content, happier, and prosperous. Generally people have children when they have reached a level of stability (in a relationship and in a community). Furthermore, income must have been a factor to allow children to grow, of feed them, to pay for medicine when required.

However, we must advance this further, beyond the “why” to ask what impact such growth might have had. An increased population would have resulted in a strain on local communities, perhaps greater competition for jobs, and an ultimate rise in poverty. By the end of the Tudor period – in the 1590s – poverty and vagrancy was on the rise (which led to a governmental response in the form of the Elizabethan Poor Laws).

John Guy believes that:

 ‘England was economically healthier, more expansive and more optimistic under the Tudors than at any time since the Roman occupation’.

Much evidence can be found to support such a statement, especially in terms of a rise of a new middling culture and group, and in terms of greater opportunities that became available. But it is not the whole story, as the table below indicates:

1) Bad harvests (1520-21 & 1527-29) Led to temporary but significant increases in food prices. Food prices almost doubled during Henry’s reign.
2) Real wages declined This affected many in society, and became prominent after the debasements of the coinage.
3) Growing unemployment amongst rural labourers Rural workers had to move to urban areas to find work, which impacted rural communities and urban ones.
4) Impact of engrossing on agricultural workers losing land Increase in homelessness.

Of course, we would expect positives and negatives within any age, with clear winners and losers. Either way, the general point remains the same: although dull on the surface, the Tudor economy provides us with a clearer understanding of the age. Patterns can become clear, and with this comes greater awareness as to the real triggers and motives of kings, ministers, and peasants in the sixteenth century.