The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Reformation. Anglo-Spanish Rivalry. Colonial Expansion

Category: 16th century

The Wars of the Roses could not prevent the economic development of the country, where ever-growing trade and the loosening of feudal ties were rapidly bringing about the end of the feudal mode of production and the extension of the marketable goods. We have already seen that by the end of the 14th century the feudal lords were obliged to free the peasantry from the bonds of serfdom. But along with this liberation of the peasant from feudal labour there was an intensification of exploitation of the hired agricultural worker. Moreover, among the peasantry we observe marked class differentiation: some of the freeholders became wealthy, others became landless and were forced to give up tilling, being reduced to the status of agricultural labourer or migrated to the growing towns.

It was during the 15th century that England passed from being a producer of wool to being a manufacturer of cloth. The clothing industry became the decisive feature of English economic life. The cloth was exported. Most important of all, the cloth industry developed almost from the start on capitalist lines. Once the production of cloth was carried out on a large scale for the export market the small independent weaver fell inevitably under the control of the merchant who alone had the necessary resources and the knowledge to exploit the market. Wool growers had also been accustomed to sell their wool in bulk.

The clothier, as the wool capitalist came to be called, began by selling yarn to the weavers and buying back the cloth from them. Soon the clothiers had every process under control. A higher stage of concentration was reached when the clothiers began to collect a large number of artisans under a single roof and to carry out the whole industrial process there. This was the beginning of the manufactory, which is an initial form of capitalist production.

With the increasing demand for wool to satisfy the demands of the merchants, there arose yet another cause of the impoverishment of the peasants and their enforced removal from the land. This process is known as the ‘Enclosures’.

The feudal landowners, the gentry, and the merchants realized the commercial advantages of sheep rearing as against a subsistence peasant agriculture, and began to enclose the common village pasture land for the rearing of the landowner’s sheep. Under these circumstances many peasants lost their own fields altogether. In many places only the wealthier peasants and yeomen could continue as agricultural producers.

Without land, the peasant could not compete with the squire or landlord at all. Peasants who were turned out of their holdings seldom found work anywhere else on the land. Sheep require little labour. For such people there was no choice but to leave their village and go to the town. So the poor were sacrificed to the need for profit. Whole villages became deserted and died away.

Landless peasants and their families again appeared on the roads, forced there by the enclosure of their holdings or the common land. They were called ‘sturdy beggars’ — healthy and active people, able and willing to work, but for whom no work could be found. The sturdy beggar became a social problem and soon the first English Poor Law was enacted against these people.

By the end of the 16th century the industries and towns had absorbed a large part of the unemployed and the very growth of these towns had created an increased demand for agricultural produce. The result was that arable farming again became attractive and enclosures for sheep were checked. However, this movement was not merely from arable farming to pasture grazing and then back to arable farming. It was a development from peasant, small-scale arable farming to large scale sheep farming and then back to large-scale arable farming based on capitalist lines.

Thus, the historical significance of the enclosures of the 16th century was that they contributed to the development of capitalism in England. Karl Marx considered the enclosures to be the beginning of the previous accumulation of capital, which is the accumulation of capital previous to the capitalist method of production. This development was a major landmark of the 16th century, which furthered capitalist production and it was based on the expropriation of the peasant.

A parallel process was taking place in industry too, though it was a less painful development as compared with agriculture. The emergence of comparatively large-scale production inevitably ruined the free craftsmen which in its turn contributed to the growth of free labour. The clothing industry became the leading branch of the economy and woollen goods made up 80 per cent of English exports at that time. Under such conditions large trading companies emerged deriving tremendous profits from overseas trade. The free capital in its turn was reinvested in the expanding clothing industry. The scattered manufactory began to be substituted by the centralized manufactory — the predecessor of the future capitalist factory. Manufactories developed in other branches of industry too, such as silk, leather, glass, soap, etc. Metallurgy and coal mining, as well as shipbuilding began to make steady progress.

However, the existing feudal relations of production began to hamper economic progress and this became apparent both in industry and agriculture. The limitations of the old guild system which previously encouraged individual craftsmanship began to hinder industrial development. Feudal tenure in agriculture was another serious obstacle. Hence, the objective requirements of technical progress demanded the establishment of new capitalist relations. The old feudal forces checked these progressive tendencies in every possible way and the conflict between the old and the new became apparent in all spheres of human activity: in the economy, politics and culture. A major upheaval in this respect was the Reformation of the 16th century, the establishment of the Anglican church with the king as its head.

The Roman Catholic church had become one of the greatest supporters of feudal power in England and itself one of the greatest feudal landowners. Discontent with the church and especially its practices, of which most shameful was the widespread sale of ‘indulgences’ — forgiveness for sins, or wrong actions was widespread. One should remember that the first great challenge to the ideological power of the church came from John Wyclif and the Lollards.

The policy of the Papacy in Western Europe in the 16th century was that of an economic and political feudal power, seeking by means of intrigues to maintain a favourable position among the growing absolutist states of France, Spain and Austria. The Pope was anxious to use England to further his intrigues, but they led in the 16th century to the culmination of the long fight which had , continued ever since the 12th century between the English king and the pope. Neither the English king, who had become an absolute monarch, nor the English bourgeoisie, competing with their rivals in Europe to secure the expanding overseas colonial trade, could any longer afford to let the Pope intervene in English affairs. The question of Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was a convenient pretext to break away from Rome.

For this purpose Henry VIII (1509—47) called parliament into session. This so-called Reformation Parliament, which stayed in session seven years (1529 — 36) aided him greatly in completing the separation from Rome. It passed several acts of which most important was the Act of Supremacy (1534) which recognized the Anglican church as the official church in the country with Henry VIII as its head. However, the new church differed little from the former Catholic church, which was a reason for further discontent in the country and which eventually led to the emergence of the Puritan movement in England. (.The gentry in the House of Commons, as well as the king remembered the vast income from monastic lands. Soon after the break with Rome Henry initiated the confiscation of all monastic lands. Henry appointed the secretary of his privy council, Thomas Cromwell, as his main agent for dissolving the monasteries. In 1539 Parliament legalized the complete dissolution of all the monasteries in the country. The squires, merchants, lawyers who had supported the king in parliament received most of the lands. Hence the Reformation in England together with the dissolution of the monasteries contributed to the growing wealth and power of the bourgeoisie and the gentry.

In the 16th century Spain and Portugal were the great colonial powers. However, by the reign of Elizabeth Tudor English merchants were challenging the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly. In the long run Spain became England’s main rival for Portugal’s role declined.

The English bourgeoisie having accumulated power and wealth at home was interested in colonial expansion. In these ventures the Tudor monarchs and especially Queen Elizabeth assisted the merchants and seamen-pirates by granting them charters and patents to trade and to found overseas settlements. The English seamen had started as explorers later than their two main rivals, the Portuguese and Spanish. In Henry VII’s reign an English shiphad searched for a north-west passage to China but it had been blocked by the north American coast. Then in the 1550s English merchants made a new effort to reach the wealth of Asia by sea. This time in 1553 they tried to sail north-east. Eventually they sailed into the White Sea. Although a ship was lost north of Russia, another reached the estuary of the North Dvina. In the winter of 1553 the leaders of the English expedition reached Moscow and were received by Ivan the Great. Thus trading links were first established with Russia. A ‘Muscovy Company’ was established for trade with Russia and for the next two hundred years Archangelsk, the northern outlet of Russia, was the main trading port with England.

Between 1577 and 1580 Francis Drake, under orders from Queen Elizabeth circumnavigated the globe on his famous ship, the Golden Hind. When Francis Drake arrived at home in 1580 he returned a profit of 1,500,000 pounds sterling on an investment of 5,000. The queen alone received 25,000 pounds sterling. Queen Elizabeth actively supported slave-traders like John Hawkins, who took slaves from Guinea on the west African coast and sold them to Spanish colonists in the West Indies. The shameful slave trade brought tremendous profits to the English merchants and the crown. Elizabeth I granted a charter to the East India Company for trading with India. The latter in the course of the next centuries succeeded in establishing its authority in India and became the main economic exploiter of the country, as well as its actual government.

John Hawkins, was the first of Elizabeth’s sea-dogs. With Elizabeth’s support the pirate tried to seize a share of Spain’s colonial trade. He was joined by Francis Drake. The English built galleons which were smaller than the Spanish galleons but which could sail and turn more quickly. The Spanish galleons depended on closing with the enemy and putting men on board. The English galleons depended more on fire-power. The rows of cannon between their decks were able to deliver terrible ‘broadsides’ — when all the guns on one side of the ship shot together.

Drake and the other sea-dogs now ranged across the Atlantic, from the coast of north Africa to the mainland of Spanish America, ‘the Spanish Main’. They attacked coastal forts, islands, and fleets of Spanish treasure-ships. They carried back to Plymouth and other English harbours cargoes worth thousands of pounds. Open war with Spain was coming near.

In England Spain supported the Catholic elements headed by Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots,_ who was next in line, after Elizabeth, to the English throne. The Catholic forces in England hoped to gain supremacy. Many plots were hatched in the country in which Spain was deeply involved. The plots were uncovered and the Spanish ambassador for his active part was sent home. When the English gave direct military support to the Netherlands which revolted against the Spanish yoke open war between England and Spain became inevitable.jjbjiin, king of Spain, began to build a huge fleet of galleons, an Armada. The plan was that this fleet should sail to Holland, pick up the Spanish army there, and from there invade England. Meanwhile Spain had conquered Portugal. Philip now controlled the world-wide Portuguese colonies together with Spain’s. He also controlled the excellent harbours of Portugal. In these he could gather together the ships of his Armada. After the death of Mary Stuart who was executed for her role in plotting against the state Philip of Spain openly claimed the English throne. To enforce his claim he in May 1588 sent a great fleet of 130 vessels against England.

The Spanish Armada was completely defeated by the English navy in 1588 in the English Channel. The surviving Spanish galleons were then scattered by a storm. The Armada was further broken by storms as it went round Scotland and Ireland to return home. Fewer than half returned to Spain. It was a great victory for England, though the war continued for some time. The victory of England meant the establishment of English naval supremacy, which was most important for the English bourgeoisie to expand its colonial ventures with great rapidity and success. Spanish colonial hegemony was coming to an end.

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