Tudors: Commerce

The most important industry of Tudor England was the manufacture and sale of woollen cloth, exports of which reached their zenith in the mid-16th century. In Elizabeth I’s reign, globetrotting explorers laid the foundations of an international trading empire.

Baconsthorpe Castle, Norfolk, used as a wool processing factory in the 16th century

Baconsthorpe Castle, Norfolk, used as a wool processing factory in the 16th century

FOR RICHER, FOR POORER

Much of the high-quality broadcloth produced in the West Country, East Anglia and elsewhere was sent abroad to be dyed and finished. Many other types of cloth were also produced in large quantities for the home market, with each cloth-producing region having its own specialities.

Later in the period, Protestant refugees from the Low Countries and France introduced new weaving techniques and lighter types of cloth, known as the ‘new draperies’.

Landowners and merchants took every opportunity to grow rich from the cloth trade. Gloucester Blackfriars was turned into a cloth factory, as was a wing of Baconsthorpe Castle, Norfolk. The enclosure of common land for sheep grazing, and the conversion of huge areas of ploughland into sheep pastures, brought hardship to the rural poor, however.

At Wharram Percy Deserted Medieval Village, North Yorkshire, for example, the few remaining arable farmers were displaced in 1527.

When Gloucester Blackfriars was dissolved in 1539, a local alderman bought the friary, converted the church into a mansion and the remaining buildings into a cloth-weaving factory.

When Gloucester Blackfriars was dissolved in 1539, a local alderman bought the friary, and converted the church into a mansion and the remaining buildings into a cloth-weaving factory.

MINING AND NEW MARKETS

Other exports included coal – chiefly from Newcastle, which also serviced the insatiable appetite of London for coal fires – and pewter, lead, tin and copper.

In the Weald of Kent and Sussex, iron-smelting using charcoal from the local woodlands reached its peak. Its products included cast cannon for Henry VIII’s coastal forts, and the ships which defended England and sought new trade routes.

Henry VIII’s break with Rome isolated Protestant England from Catholic Europe, and most crucially from the war-torn and then Spanish-ruled Netherlands, which for centuries had been England’s principal trading partner. The Spanish destruction of Antwerp, hitherto the financial capital of Europe, prompted the establishment of a London ‘stock market’, the Royal Exchange, in 1571.

But new outlets for English goods were needed, as was a more direct route to the fabled riches of Asia.

RICH DISCOVERIES

In 1497 John Cabot, an Italian mariner sponsored by the merchants of Bristol and Henry VII, sought a ‘north-west passage’ to India but instead reached Newfoundland’s rich fishing grounds.

Backed by a papal decree, Spain had already claimed the ‘New World’ of the Americas as its own private property. But Elizabethan adventurers like Sir Francis Drake completely disregarded this claim. In 1577–80 he circumnavigated the globe in the Golden Hind, plundering Spanish settlements and treasure-ships along the way.

Queen Elizabeth’s half-share in the profits of his enterprise more than doubled the Crown’s income in 1580. And four years later an expedition sponsored by Sir Walter Ralegh reached and claimed the land they named ‘Virginia’ after Elizabeth, the ‘Virgin Queen’.

Fragments of tobacco pipes found at Berry Pomeroy Castle

Very early small-bowled tobacco pipes (from about 1580–1610) excavated at Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon. At a time when tobacco imported from the New World was an expensive luxury, smoking was both fashionable and a powerful status symbol. Surrounding the pipes are fragments of excavated pottery and Chinese porcelain.

TRADING EMPIRE

Sometimes slave traders and oftentimes pirates, Elizabethan explorers were also the founders of England’s international trading empire. In 1589 Richard Hakluyt, chronicler of their voyages, could claim they had no rival as ‘searchers of the most remote parts of the world’. They had traded with Persia and with Goa in India, and had set up trading posts in north Africa and the Middle East.

And despite all the might of Spain, they had also ranged along the coasts of South America, visited Java and the Philippines, and returned via the Cape of Good Hope ‘richly laden with the commodities of China’.

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