Stuarts: Commerce

Throughout the 17th century England’s economy remained largely based on agriculture and traditional industries. London, however, was at the centre of a growing international network of trade, both with the East and with colonies across the Atlantic.

The 17th-century gatehouse at Stokesay, Shropshire, the centre of a rich estate

The 17th-century gatehouse at Stokesay, Shropshire, the centre of a rich estate


Stuart London was the biggest and fastest-expanding city in Europe, drawing in about 6,000 newcomers from the provinces annually. Its population rocketed from about 200,000 in 1600 to about 575,000 in 1700 – 11% of the total English population.

Many of Stuart England’s much smaller provincial towns were also growing. Among the largest were Bristol – second only to London and the premier English seaport – Norwich and Newcastle. Growth hinged on commerce: Newcastle, with a population of about 16,000 by the 1690s, sent coal from the Durham mines to London.

Towns that drew their wealth from the traditional wool and cloth industries, such as Gloucester, metropolis of the Cotswold wool trade, continued to flourish. Rising industrial communities included cloth-weaving Manchester and metalworking Birmingham, whose population quadrupled to 8,000 in Stuart times. Fishing ports like Great Yarmouth in Norfolk also prospered, their harbours thronging with ships.

Dunster Yarn Market

Dunster Yarn Market, Somerset, was built in 1609 to provide a secure, sheltered space for trade in the local cloth. The demand for finished cloth had overtaken that for raw wool by the 17th century, but as Dunster cloth was woven in nearby mills, the village continued to prosper.


Early Stuart governments cashed in on commerce by selling exclusive ‘monopolies’ on trading in specific goods, thus fixing their retail price. Bitterly unpopular, monopolies were abolished in 1624 by James I’s last Parliament, but Charles I’s ministers, desperate for money, reintroduced them as ‘patents’.

Especially resented was the patent on producing soap, which allowed the suppression of supposedly inferior rival products. In Bristol, a laundress and a tavern maid publicly demonstrated that local soap washed whiter than patent soap.

Coat-of-arms of Great Yarmouth

Great Yarmouth’s long association with herring is reflected in the town’s coat of arms. The town prospered from its trade in herring, or ‘silver darlings’, especially in the 17th century; Yarmouth herring was consumed by all members of society, including the royal household.
© By kind permission of Great Yarmouth Borough Council


During the Civil Wars suppliers of weapons and military equipment prospered. They could not meet increased demand, however, and the Royalists in particular had to import foreign arms. To provide the food and clothing they needed for their armies, both Royalists and Parliamentarians relied on entrepreneurial general contractors, who ‘bought in’ at a profit from subcontractors.

Such contractors were already offering to equip emigrants to America with all they needed, from warm boat-cloaks and pickled pork to wheelbarrows. In the course of the 17th century over 300,000 people – both religious and economic migrants – left England, crossing the Atlantic to colonies in the West Indies and North America.

Trade with these colonies grew rapidly, especially after the Restoration, with imports including sugar, tobacco and other exotic foodstuffs such as cocoa. The Hudson’s Bay Company, chartered in 1670 by Charles II, grew rich through control of the fur trade: at one time it claimed 15% of the territory of North America, making it the largest landowner in the world.

Abingdon county hall, Oxfordshire

Abingdon County Hall, Oxfordshire, was built between 1678 and 1682 as a combined courtroom and market space. The town of Abingdon flourished in the 17th century thanks to its thriving wool trade. The hall was thus built both as a commercial and civic centre and as a symbol of the town’s growing status.


The vessels of the great trading companies, many established under Elizabeth I, expanded the English commercial empire eastwards too. The Muscovy Company traded with Moscow; the Levant Company prospered in Constantinople; and East India Company ships brought tea and silk, indigo and opium from India.

The Muscovy Company (which had been founded in 1552) was the first major joint-stock business, in which merchants banded together to share financial risks and thus take on more ambitious ventures. The origins of the London Stock Exchange can be traced to the trading of shares in these companies in 17th-century coffee-houses.


Though more people emigrated than immigrated during the 17th century, French Protestant Huguenots, fleeing persecution by Louis XIV, were making their mark on English commerce.

They included many skilled craftsmen, particularly silk weavers, and established colonies in Bristol, Canterbury and especially around Spitalfields and Soho in London. By 1700 they made up 5% of the capital’s population.

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