What was England like in 1500?

In 1500 the population of England was about 3 million. Due to yearly outbreaks of plague and sickness the population stayed at about this number. There was a general shortage of labourers which meant wages were high and rents low. All classes therefore enjoyed a reasonable standard of living. 

London 1500
Tower of London – late 15th Century

The only towns with a population over 10,000 were Norwich, Bristol, Newcastle and London. The city of London, with a population of around 60,000, extended from Aldgate and the Tower of London in the east to Fleet Street and Temple Bar in the west. The village of Holborn was the northern extreme and the town of Southwark across the river marked the southernmost point. The only bridge across the river was London Bridge. The city was dominated by St Paul’s Cathedral which was situated on the top of Ludgate Hill. It was built in the Gothic style with a square Gothic tower.

Much of London was covered with green fields and on Sundays and feast days Londoners used to come into the fields for recreation. At Spitafield, Moorfield and Smithfield, football, hockey or handball were played. Butts were set up so that men could practice with the longbow. Smithfield was also the site used for horsefairs and the burning of heretics. On all fields annual fairs were held where outdoor entertainers, mummers, minstrels and puppeteers performed.

Professional gamblers, minstrels and players would be found in the taverns and although officially disapproved of, men from all walks of life could be found singing bawdy songs, applauding mummers and losing money at cards, shuffleboard, dice or tables (backgammon and draughts). 

The streets of London were narrow and dirty and the upper floors of the city houses often overhung the roads. The roads were not paved and when it rained heavily they became bogs. All houses were made of timber and if a fire broke out then large areas could be destroyed. If this happened then the community worked together to rebuild the dwellings that had been lost. 

The houses were packed so closely together that many of the inhabitants of the city knew each other. Noblemen, bishops and leading merchants all kept large establishments in the city. The church, which was free from municipal control, owned houses, tenements and plots of land all over the city. All the religious orders were represented in the capital but their presence was increasingly resented by merchants who were losing business due to lack of premises to do business. 

The political and social life of London was largely dominated by the twelve great companies – mercers, grocers, drapers, fishmongers, goldsmiths, skinners, salters, ironmongers, tailors, haberdashers, vintners and clothworkers. The aldermen and Lord Mayor of London were usually chosen from members of these twelve companies. Each trade had its own area: there were 52 goldsmiths in the Strand, the largest street in London, and the skinners’ workshops were to be found in Walbrook ward. Many leading members of these guilds were also members of the Merchant Adventurers. These men dealt in a variety of commodities and were agents for both imports and exports. They made frequent trips to Calais and Antwerp to haggle prices of wine, wool and cloth and quickly became very wealthy citizens.

Tudor House
Artist’s impression of a Tudor wattle and daub house

Wealthy citizens across England could afford the best houses and many lived in two storey wattle and daub houses. These were made by creating a timber frame then filling in the spaces between the timbers with woven twigs covered with a mixture of mud and clay which was left to bake hard. The wooden timber was coated with black tar to help preserve it and prevent it rotting, while the daub was often painted with limewash to make it look whiter. Houses were furnished with basic furniture, tables, chairs, and wooden beds. 

The English cloth trade was booming and demand easily exceeded supply meaning that cloth could fetch a high price. Cloth was mainly produced in Somerset, The Cotswolds, East Anglia and Yorkshire. Clothiers from these areas travelled to the capital with their laden pack horses. They unloaded their wares in Blackwell Hall, Basinghill Street where the bales were sealed and weighed by market officials. These clothiers were forced to haggle prices with the market buyers who, knowing they had a monopoly for buying cloth, set low prices. In a bid to make more money, many wealthy merchants bought their own country estates and filled the land with sheep so that they could control every stage in the manufacture of the cloth.

For centuries people had worked happily on the land but recently there was some concern about the amount of agricultural land being used to enclose sheep. The increase in the wool trade with Burgundy and the general upsurge in the cloth trade meant that more sheep were needed. 

Travel was not easy because most of the roads were dirt tracks which only remained visible and free from growth because of frequent use. Most carts and wagons had spiked wheels and blacksmiths usually set up their forges near the roads and made a good trade shoeing horses and repairing wheels. Travel was most hazardous in the winter months when rain or show could obliterate the dirt tracks. Villages were few and far between and signposts a rarity. Travellers venturing into unknown areas would often employ a guide. People tended to travel in groups whenever possible for protection against being robbed by highwaymen. 

All English men were subject to sets of laws which controlled all aspects of their lives from the colour clothes each class was allowed to wear to the number of dishes each should have for dinner. In 1495 a law had been passed to regulate the number of hours a labourer could work. During the summer months (mid March to mid September) they would begin work by 5am and work until 7pm or 8pm with a half hour break for breakfast and an hour for lunch. In the winter they would begin work at sunrise and work until sunset with the same breaks.

Battle Abbey
Battle Abbey gave help to the poor

For those that did not work there was no support. Some were able to get help from the monasteries but others had no choice but to beg. There were also those that chose not to work but instead made a living from travelling from town to town begging or making a living from gambling. In 1494 Henry VII had introduced the Vagabonds and Beggars Act to try to stop working people from being exploited. The Act meant that any vagabonds and beggars that were caught would be put in the stocks for three days and only be given bread and water. Unfortunately the act did not distinguish between those who were unable to find work and those that deliberately avoided work. 

Most people tried to obey the law since punishments for breaking laws were harsh. All classes, except peers, could expect to be tortured during investigations and if they were found guilty of treason the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. Only peers were allowed the luxury of beheading. Women of any class could expect to be burned at the stake if found guilty of either treason or the murder of their husbands. 

During the year there were 40 feast and Saints’ days. It was law that everyone attend church on Sundays and Holy days unless they obtained a special dispensation. It was forbidden to eat meat, butter or cheese on Fridays, Saturdays, during Lent, during Advent or on the eve of Holy days. Dispensations had to be paid for. A fee had to be paid to the king and it was usually necessary to bribe the priest or clerk granting the dispensation. Many priests were corrupt and lived openly with concubines and had fathered children despite it being law that they remained celibate. 

Our Lady at Walsingham
Statue of Our Lady at Walsingham

Most English people attended mass daily and truly believed that the priest had the power to make the body of Christ. Two shrines were focal points for pilgrimages: the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral and the shrine of our Lady at Walsingham. These shrines had become very wealthy because of the large numbers of jewels and stones that had been left by pilgrims.

A very small number of people did not believe that the Catholic religion was the true religion. They believed that every man should have the opportunity to read the Bible and interpret it as he saw fit. These ideas stemmed from the Lollard movement and were deemed heretical. If any of these heretics were caught they were given the opportunity to recant their beliefs but if they refused they were burned at the stake. 

Education had become increasingly important by the year 1500 and most large towns had a grammar school where the sons of those that could afford to pay for schooling learned Latin grammar. A knowledge of Latin grammar was essential for merchants who wished to trade across Europe and also for those that wished to pursue a legal or religious career. Lessons started at sunrise and often did not finish until sunset. Lessons had to be learned by heart and those that did not complete their studies to the teacher’s satisfaction would be punished, usually by being whipped.

 

Harvard Reference for this page:

Heather Y Wheeler. (2017). What was England like in 1500? Available: http://www.tudornation.com/what-was-england-like-in-1500 Last accessed July 23rd, 2018

 

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