Home > Uncategorized > Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642

Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642

Source: Carl Bridenbaugh, Vexed and Troubled Englishmen 1590-1642 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

[page 128]

Six major provincial centers collectively made prime contributions to the nation’s life during the first four decades of the seventeenth century.  Varying in size from eight to twelve thousand inhabitants, Bristol, Norwich, Exeter, Salisbury, York, and Newcastle rapidly gained importance after 1500 as regional capitals remote from London.  Each of them was a city, that is, the seat of a bishop and the diocesan administration.  Each possessed a royal charter conferring upon its corporation certain powers of self-government.  Each also profited from the existence within its limits of industrial and commercial facilities that accounted for most of its wealth; and, with the exception of Norwich and Salisbury, each had either its own harbor or access to the sea through a seaport close by.  Year after year, too, each of these provincial cities increased in social distinction as more of the upper gentry chose to leave their country seats in the winter season and occupy town houses.

Bristol, having been set apart from Gloucestershire in 1373 by King Edward III, and in keeping with its role as the metropolis of the West Country, enjoyed the status of a county.  “Bristoll is even a little London for Merchants, shipping, and great and well furnished Marketts, etts., and I think second to it in the kingdom of England for these perticulers and others” was Peter MUNDY’s opinion after a visit in 1639.  Its merchants extended the old Bristol-Ireland shipping to include the ports of Dublin, Galway, and Coleraine; and commerce with Spain, long quiescent, began to flourish again after the peace of 1604.  By 1610 the traffic with Spain, Portugal, and the Atlantic Islands equaled that of the 1550’s, and energetic merchants also discovered new sources of gain in a three-cornered trade to Newfoundland for codfish, which their ships carried to markets in the Peninsula and the Mediterranean, and thence returned with spices, fruits, olive oil, and wine (“Bristol Milk” was already well known in 1634).  Further evidence of the venturesomeness of the citizens could be observed

[page 129]

after 1620 when cargoes of tobacco from Virginia and the Caribbean, together with cotton and indigo from the latter region, came up the Avon in ever-larger quantities; and, after 1637, the refining of raw West Indian sugar became a prominent industry in the city.  By 1640 Bristol was unchallenged as the greatest English seaport after London.

Manufacturing played its part in Bristol’s rising prosperity.  The making of cloth, which had accounted for much of the city’s advance during the Middle Ages, had declined rapidly after 1550, but starting about 1620 cloth again began to figure prominently in export cargoes.  Fabrics woven locally from Welsh wool and, even more, those collected from villages of South Gloucestershire made up most of the outbound shipments.  The Kingswood coal pits supplied fuel for the manufacture of brass pins, and from 1612 onward, the processing of sugar from the Atlantic Islands and the Caribbean not only added another source of income for the city, but increased the demand for coal.  Olive oil from southern Europe and train oil from the Newfoundland fishery were imported for the use of eleven soap houses; these flourished until a royal order of 1633 limited the city to an annual production of a mere 600 tons.

All of this feverish enterprise called for both labor and leadership.  The result was that Bristol attracted workers from the adjacent western counties, South Wales, and the Marches, and, occasionally, lads even came from the Eastern Counties, the Midlands, and London to serve apprenticeships.  A census of 1607 gave the city 10,549 inhabitants, and those of the out-parishes raised the number to around 12,000. […]

[page 206]

West of these open fields lay Devon, one of the largest shires.  On its miles and miles of waste lands and vast moors, the peasants had become a pastoral people; even though the flocks were not as large as those in other counties, John HOOKER thought Devon contained more sheep.  Elsewhere the landscape was divided into small, irregular fields, often no more than one acre, enclosed by hedgerows, and between the rows, traversing the countryside, ran a network of country lanes.  As early as 1599, a fine apple cider produced from the fruit of the many orchards was preferred to beer for long voyages into southern waters; it kept better and was cheaper than wine.  In general, however, farming did not prove remunerative.

The hinterland of Bristol, an extensive rural and agricultural region, included the populous counties of Somerset, Wilts, and Gloucester.  Somerset farming was mixed, with sheep grazing and grains well balanced.  Though the crop failures of 1622-23 created alarming shortages of corn, the peasants fared well.  A country of open fields, Somerset experienced little disturbance over enclosures; in this respect it differed from Gloucester, Wiltshire, and Dorset, where the Great Rising over the enclosures of the Royal Forests took place in 1629-31.

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