Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 15. Rise of Prices and advance of Trade and Industry

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XIV. Some Political and Social Aspects of the Later Elizabethan and Earlier Stewart Period

§ 15. Rise of Prices and advance of Trade and Industry

The general increase of commercial and industrial activity had led to a rise of prices, which, as a matter of course, benefited the money-making part of the community, though not the whole of it in the same degree. Primarily, this rise was to the advantage of the great merchants of London and of the other chief ports of the country, and persons engaged in large farming operations, such as landlords of the old style had shrunk from undertaking. Smaller tradesmen, and the middle classes in general, to some extent profited by the change—chiefly by obtaining more comfortable conditions of life. Not so the labourers, whose wages long continued stationary, while the cost of necessaries advanced. This rise of prices, although partly due to the influx of silver from “old Philip’s treasury,” may, no doubt, be dated from the time when protective restrictions were applied to the importation of foreign goods, and was advanced by the buying-up processes of the “bodgers” and other tricks and frauds of the corn market. The price of corn rose wildly, and, no doubt, it was more than once thought that “there will soon be no wheat- or rye-bread for the poor.” A serving-man is cited, about 1598, as declaring that, in his lifetime, ordinary articles of wear have trebled in price, “and yet my wages not more than my great grandfathers, [he] supplying the same place and office I doe.”

Usury—a remedial process in times of dearth which rapidly accomodates itself to the needs of any and every class—had become a crying evil of the age which Greene and Lodge sermonised in A Looking Glasse for London and England, and established itself as one of the ordinary themes of the satire of English comedy. Of old, loans had usually been made without interest being demanded, and any demand of this sort had been illegal; but, after the principle of the illegality of interest had been abrogated by parliament in 1545, Elizabeth’s government had proved unable to revive it. About the middle of her reign, ten per cent. was the legal rate; but twelve per cent. was quite common. Under James I, the ordinary rate sank to eight per cent.

Though the general condition of the labouring classes does not appear to have changed very much for the worse during the reign of Elizabeth, it was, on the other hand, not materially raised from the low point to which it had sunk by the sixth decade of the century. In some parts of the country, the poor were so much at the mercy of the rich that small houses seem to have been almost swept off the face of the ground; and a general decay of towns set in, of which, however, the statistics, as is frequently the case in the matter of depopulation, hardly admit of being either accepted or rejected. Yet, in defiance of such phenomena, mercantile enterprise swept forward on its course, made possible, in the first instance, by the wise initial policy of the queen’s government in establishing coinage on a sound basis, and continuously expanded, thanks to the farsighted intelligence of those who watched over both the emancipation and the development of English trade. Crown and city co-operated, with a notable concurrence of insight, in this policy, which, during a considerable part of the queen’s reign, was under the guidance of Thomas Gresham, as great a minister (though without a portfolio) as has at any time taken charge of the commercial interests of a modern state. Largely under the influence, or through the personal agency, of this “merchant royall” English trade had been freed from subjection to that of the Hanseatic league, and to that of the great Flemish towns; colonial enterprise on a comprehensive scale was encouraged, and great merchant companies were established, which came, it was said, to absorb the whole English trade except that with France. At the same time, the home trade and the home industries on which that trade depended were actively advanced—especially those which, like the crafts of the clothier, the tanner and the worsted-maker, might be trusted to bring money into the country. Companies of craftsmen under the authority of the crown took the place of the old municipal guilds; attempts at a better technical education (not for the first time) were set afoot; and a select immigration of skilled foreign workmen in special branches of production was encouraged. English trade abroad, so far as possible, was protected, and a vigorous banking system—the sovereign instrument for the facilitation of commercial and industrial activity at home and abroad—was called into life. Thus, while English merchants became familiar visitors in distant lands, the goods, domestic or imported, with which the English market abounded were countless in their mere names—“all men’s ware.”

The point which we have reached in this fragmentary survey seems to allow of a brief digression concerning one of the causes of that engrossing love of wealth in which many observers recognised one of the most notable signs of the times. Among these observers were the comic dramatists, and those of them—Ben Jonson above all—who wrote with a didactic purpose recognised in this master passion one of the most dangerous, as from an ethical point of view it was one of the most degrading, of the tendencies of the age. Yet, even the love of wealth for its own sake has aspects less ignoble than those which belong to the pursuit of it for the sake of a luxurious way of living unknown to earlier generations or less affluent neighbours. In his whole conception of luxury, as well as in the names which he bears, Sir Epicure Mammon is the consummate type of the man whose existence is given up to this worship of the unspiritual.