Last Updated 02 Apr 2020

Two factors which affected the Stuart economy of 1600-1660

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The Stuart economy is always difficult to analyse. Unfortunately due to incomplete records we only have a rough idea of the economic growth that England underwent during this era. For example we do not have fully accurate records that state the exact population size at the time. We also therefore do not have accurate records on the economy either but from parish records and events during this period it is still possible to make informed conclusions on what the economy was like, and the factors that stimulated it.

The first thing that is important to study when discussing the economy is the population size. According to records found in parishes at the time population was generally on the increase and rose from 4 to 5 million between 1600 and 1660. However although the population did rise considerably it was certainly not a steady increase and went through phases of decline as well as increase. Surprisingly, according to information now available, some year's burial rates were actually higher than baptism rates, suggesting a population decline.

However due to the fact that these records are sometimes incomplete it is not possible to give completely accurate figures about the changes in population during this era. Some historians argue that these changes in population growth point to the fact that the Stuart economy was vastly agrarian. This theory is widely accepted as being true, it successfully answers the reason for very drastic changes in the population size in some areas as agrarian economy can be easily dislocated by bad winters and poor harvests.

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Also the records of bad harvests coincide with drops in population during this period, suggesting that the economy of the Stuart era was finding it very difficult to keep up with demand. In order to combat this rise in demand, farmers would need to innovate and experiment with new crops in order to compete. Some historians argue that this period due to the population increase led to a 'farming revolution' as there is evidence that many villages adopted the concept of enclosure in order to become more productive.

This commercialisation of farming is thought by many to be more popular than the previously adopted method of subsistence farming. (Growing enough to feed you and your immediate family. ) This technique of enclosure meant farmers were able to be more productive and meet higher demands and is generally accepted as a more efficient system than subsistence farming. This enclosure method of once community owned fields is thought to be the start of early capitalism in England, the commercialisation of the fields is therefore thought to be brought about by the pressures of a population on the increase.

But were farmers of this period willing to innovate, experiment and try new techniques? Evidence found in the diary of an ordinary farmer of the period is a strong argument that farmers were willing to trial new crops. Robert Loder left a diary concerning his farming and the changes he made to his techniques and crops. It is possible to assume that this ordinary farmer was one of many who experimented in order to boost their production. However it is still possible to argue that there was a strong amount of conservative farmers who did not adopt these new techniques but there is no evidence to suggest this.

Some historians also use examples such as the adoption of tobacco crops in England as a key piece of evidence for how adventuress and innovative farmers could be once convinced of the potential of the new farming enterprise. Despite the evidence presented for innovation and experimentation there is strong evidence that suggests that farmers struggled to keep up with demand. Sources found for some areas of England suggest that there were huge rises in prices during this period due to inflation. This evidence is known as the Phelps Brown price index.

Although this is one of the most commonly used sources, due to lack of information it only covers certain areas of England, mainly the south meaning that it is hard to generalise these price rises across England however it is the best information available. This rise in prices is evidence suggesting that the farmers of the Stuart economy had great difficulty despite all their innovation and experimentation to keep up with demand. However some historians still disagree. So the key question still unanswered is whether the farmers were able to keep up with constantly growing demand.

Obviously it is highlighted by bad harvests how susceptible the agrarian economy was to very cold long winters and the obvious problems this could create. However equally it can be argued that through innovation and experimentation farmers managed to meet demand, however evidence of heavy inflation during the Stuart period leads many historians to the conclusion that resources were scarce and that the economy due to reliance on uncontrollable variables such as weather was not able to keep up with demand.

However on the other hand it is argued by some that the farmers willingness to implement new techniques and methods of farming lead to increased productivity and was able to keep up with increased demand. However due to lack of concrete evidence this issue is still in many historians' opinions open to interpretation. Another key factor in the development of the Stuart economy was industry. Although industry only made up for around 10% of the economy it is still an important area to analyse to have a full understanding of the economic changes to took place in the Seventeenth century.

Firstly it is commonly thought that the English industrial techniques were inferior to those of Europe. Most goods were thought to have been produced at home and sold locally. This technique of production suggests an undeveloped industry in England, however these limitations in manufacturing were overcome via exportation to the advanced Europe. The main industry in England at this time was textiles, located in East Anglia.

In this period unfinished woollen cloth would be produced and then exported to other countries in order to create a finished product, such as the Netherlands who were thought to be the leading industrial nation of the times. The reason for exporting was purely because England lacked the techniques and resources to manufacture such products. As farming was the leading source of income in England it is thought that many industrial workers were involved in agriculture as well as the manufacturing of textiles.

Although many combined farming with manufacturing and production some did seek industry as full-time employment usually through the 'putting-out system'. Besides textiles England also produced coal, mainly mined in the north-east of England. As London grew in population the North East was able to produce more and more coal to meet demands, although limitations in technology prevented mining below the surface. However transporting vast quantities of coal is thought by many historians to have been a problem.

Roads in this period were thought to be in quite a bad state, and therefore much of the coal mined was transported by sea. This transportation via sea is important. In order to transport such great amounts of coal England you would need a merchant fleet and Royal Navy to provide protection. Despite these measures the fleets that travelled between the North-East and London still suffered attacks during the wars England had with the Dutch. This is evident when we look at the prices of coal and see that prices doubled during this period suggesting heavy losses from attack.

In conclusion it is probably right to suggest that industry looked for short-term solutions to meet the demands it faced, although no new techniques or technological advances are evident, this period did see the development of external trade, a key feature of the Stuart economy with the development of overseas colonies. However it can be argued that changes in agriculture and innovation were more significant, however it is still somewhat important to understand that the Stuart economy did not just rely on agriculture alone.

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