Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
England’s Growth in Commerce and Comfort under Elizabeth
By John Richard Green (1837–1883)
From ‘History of the English People’

A MIDDLE class of wealthier land-owners and merchants was fast rising into importance. “The wealth of the meaner sort,” wrote one to Cecil, “is the very fount of rebellion, the occasion of their indolence, of the contempt of the nobility, and of the hatred they have conceived against them.” But Cecil and his mistress could watch the upgrowth of national wealth with cooler eyes. In the country its effect was to undo much of the evil which the diminution of small holdings had done. Whatever social embarrassment it might bring about, the revolution in agriculture which Latimer deplored undoubtedly favored production. Not only was a larger capital brought to bear upon the land, but the mere change in the system of cultivation introduced a taste for new and better modes of farming; the breed of horses and of cattle was improved, and a far greater use made of manure and dressings. One acre under the new system produced, it was said, as much as two under the old. As a more careful and constant cultivation was introduced, a greater number of hands came to be required on every farm; and much of the surplus labor which had been flung off the land in the commencement of the new system was thus recalled to it.  1
  A yet more efficient agency in absorbing the unemployed was found in the development of manufactures. The linen trade was as yet of small value, and that of silk-weaving was only just introduced. But the woolen manufacture was fast becoming an important element in the national wealth. England no longer sent her fleeces to be woven in Flanders and to be dyed at Florence. The spinning of yarn, the weaving, fulling, and dyeing of cloth, were spreading rapidly from the towns over the country-side. The worsted trade, of which Norwich was the centre, extended over the whole of the Eastern counties. Farmers’ wives began everywhere to spin their wool from their own sheeps’ backs into a coarse “homespun.” The South and the West, however, still remained the great seats of industry and of wealth, for they were the homes of mining and manufacturing activity. The iron manufactures were limited to Kent and Sussex, though their prosperity in this quarter was already threatened by the growing scarcity of the wood which fed their furnaces, and by the exhaustion of the forests of the Weald. Cornwall was then, as now, the sole exporter of tin; and the exportation of its copper was just beginning. The broadcloths of the West claimed the palm among the woolen stuffs of England. The Cinque Ports held almost a monopoly of the commerce of the Channel. Every little harbor from the Foreland to the Land’s End sent out its fleets of fishing-boats, manned with bold seamen who were to furnish crews for Drake and the Buccaneers. Northern England still lagged far behind the rest of the realm in its industrial activity. But in the reign of Elizabeth the poverty and inaction to which it had been doomed for so many centuries began at last to be broken. We see the first sign of the revolution which has transferred English manufactures and English wealth to the north of the Mersey and of the Humber, in the mention which now meets us of the friezes of Manchester, the coverlets of York, the cutlery of Sheffield, and the cloth trade of Halifax….  2
  Elizabeth lent a ready patronage to the new commerce; she shared in its speculations, she considered its extension and protection as a part of public policy, and she sanctioned the formation of the great merchant companies which could alone secure the trader against wrong or injustice in distant countries. The Merchant-Adventurers of London, a body which had existed long before, and had received a charter of incorporation under Henry the Seventh, furnished a model for the Russia Company and the company which absorbed the new commerce to the Indies. But it was not wholly with satisfaction that either the Queen or her ministers watched the social change which wealth was producing around them. They feared the increased expenditure and comfort which necessarily followed it, as likely to impoverish the land and to eat out the hardihood of the people. “England spendeth more on wines in one year,” complained Cecil, “than it did in ancient times in four years.” In the upper classes the lavishness of a new wealth combined with the lavishness of life, a love of beauty, of color, of display, to revolutionize English dress. Men “wore a manor on their backs.” The Queen’s three thousand robes were rivaled in their bravery by the slashed velvets, the ruffs, the jeweled purpoints of the courtiers around her. But signs of the growing wealth were as evident in the lower class as in the higher. The disuse of salt fish and the greater consumption of meat marked the improvement which had taken place among the country folk. Their rough and wattled farm-houses were being superseded by dwellings of brick and stone. Pewter was replacing the wooden trenchers of the early yeomanry, and there were yeomen who could boast of a fair show of silver plate. It is from this period indeed that we can first date the rise of a conception which seems to us now a peculiarly English one,—the conception of domestic comfort. The chimney-corner, so closely associated with family life, came into existence with the general introduction of chimneys, a feature rare in ordinary houses at the beginning of this reign. Pillows, which had before been despised by the farmer and the trader as fit only “for women in childbed,” were now in general use. Carpets superseded the filthy flooring of rushes. The loftier houses of the wealthier merchants, their parapeted fronts and costly wainscoting, their cumbrous but elaborate beds, their carved staircases, their quaintly figured gables, not only contrasted with the squalor which had till then characterized English towns, but marked the rise of a new middle class which was to play its part in later history.  3
  A transformation of an even more striking kind marked the extinction of the feudal character of the noblesse. Gloomy walls and serried battlements disappeared from the dwellings of the gentry. The strength of the mediæval fortress gave way to the pomp and grace of the Elizabethan hall. Knole, Longleat, Burleigh, and Hatfield, Hardwick, and Audley End, are familiar instances of a social as well as an architectural change which covered England with buildings where the thought of defense was abandoned for that of domestic comfort and refinement. We still gaze with pleasure on their picturesque line of gables, their fretted fronts, their gilded turrets and fanciful vanes, their castellated gateways, the jutting oriels from which the great noble looked down on his new Italian garden, on its stately terraces and broad flights of steps, its vases and fountains, its quaint mazes, its formal walks, its lines of yews cut into grotesque shapes in hopeless rivalry of the cypress avenues of the South. Nor was the change less within than without. The life of the Middle Ages concentrated itself in the vast castle hall, where the baron looked from his upper dais on the retainers who gathered at his board. But the great households were fast breaking up; and the whole feudal economy disappeared when the lord of the household withdrew with his family into his “parlor” or “withdrawing-room” and left the hall to his dependents. The Italian refinement of life which told on pleasance and garden told on the remodeling of the house within, raised the principal apartments to an upper floor,—a change to which we owe the grand staircases of the time,—surrounded the quiet courts by long “galleries of the presence,” crowned the rude hearth with huge chimney-pieces adorned with fauns and Cupids, with quaintly interlaced monograms and fantastic arabesques, hung tapestries on the walls, and crowded each chamber with quaintly carved chairs and costly cabinets. The prodigal use of glass became a marked feature in the domestic architecture of the time, and one whose influence on the general health of the people can hardly be overrated. Long lines of windows stretched over the fronts of the new manor halls. Every merchant’s house had its oriel. “You shall have sometimes,” Lord Bacon grumbled, “your houses so full of glass that we cannot tell where to come to be out of the sun or the cold.”  4
  What Elizabeth contributed to this upgrowth of national prosperity was the peace and social order from which it sprang. While autos-da-fé were blazing at Rome and Madrid, while the Inquisition was driving the sober traders of the Netherlands to madness, while Scotland was tossing with religious strife, while the policy of Catharine secured for France but a brief respite from the horrors of civil war, England remained untroubled and at peace. Religious order was little disturbed. Recusants were few. There was little cry as yet for freedom of worship. Freedom of conscience was the right of every man. Persecution had ceased. It was only as the tale of a darker past that men recalled how, ten years back, heretics had been sent to the fire. Civil order was even more profound than religious order. The failure of the northern revolt proved the political tranquillity of the country. The social troubles from vagrancy and evictions were slowly passing away. Taxation was light. The country was firmly and steadily governed. The popular favor which had met Elizabeth at her accession was growing into a passionate devotion. Of her faults indeed, England beyond the circle of her court knew little or nothing. The shiftings of her diplomacy were never seen outside the royal closet. The nation at large could only judge her foreign policy by its main outlines, by its temperance and good sense, and above all by its success. But every Englishman was able to judge Elizabeth in her rule at home, in her love of peace, her instinct of order, the firmness and moderation of her government, the judicious spirit of conciliation and compromise among warring factions, which gave the country an unexampled tranquillity at a time when almost every other country in Europe was torn with civil war. Every sign of the growing prosperity, the sight of London as it became the mart of the world, of stately mansions as they rose on every manor, told, and justly told, in the Queen’s favor. Her statue in the centre of the London Exchange was a tribute on the part of the merchant class to the interest with which she watched and shared personally in its enterprises. Her thrift won a general gratitude. The memories of the Terror and of the martyrs threw into bright relief the aversion from bloodshed which was conspicuous in her earlier reign, and never wholly wanting through its fiercer close. Above all, there was a general confidence in her instinctive knowledge of the national temper. Her finger was always on the public pulse. She knew exactly when she could resist the feeling of her people, and when she must give way before the new sentiment of freedom which her policy unconsciously fostered. But when she retreated, her defeat had all the grace of victory; and the frankness and unreserve of her surrender won back at once the love that her resistance lost. Her attitude at home, in fact, was that of a woman whose pride in the well-being of her subjects and whose longing for their favor was the one warm touch in the coldness of her natural temper. If Elizabeth could be said to love anything, she loved England. “Nothing,” she said to her first Parliament in words of unwonted fire, “nothing, no worldly thing under the sun, is so dear to me as the love and good-will of my subjects.” And the love and good-will which were so dear to her she fully won.  5

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.