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English Lifeways - England, circa 1600

image name: eng_life.jpg

"Dixton Harvesters," artist unknown, circa 1725, oil on canvas.
Courtesy of Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museums, Gloucestershire, UK/Bridgeman Art Library.

The English

England was home to approximately three million people in 1600. Located on an island across a narrow channel from western Europe, it was one of what had been in the medieval period three distinct kingdoms. Wales was a separate kingdom until England annexed it 1536. Scotland and England united under one monarch in 1603 when Queen Elizabeth I of England, lacking a direct heir, left the throne to her nephew James of Scotland, the first of the Stuart kings. (The Act of Union in 1708 formally united the two countries under a single monarch.) Although England had nominally ruled the neighboring island of Ireland since the twelfth century, its control of this country was tenuous at best.

The English were a people on the move throughout the seventeenth century. Population levels that had dropped in the wake of famine, the Black Death, and other epidemics during the previous century recovered and surged to new levels. The price of labor declined as growing numbers of people sought employment. Changes in agricultural and industrial practices and in trade patterns displaced people from ancestral homes and regions, forcing them to seek opportunity elsewhere. Many people traveled to regional market towns and ports such as Bristol, Plymouth and Portsmouth, but London received the bulk of this in-country migration. Between 1550 and 1600, London's population ballooned from approximately 80,000 to over 200,000 inhabitants. This number was especially striking considering that the unhealthy conditions of the city meant that any population growth came from immigration; London's death rate far exceeded its birth rate. Nevertheless, the vast majority of England's people continued to live and farm in small rural villages in the countryside: more than 90% of England's population lived in villages and towns of 5,000 people or less.

The Scene

This scene illustrates the lifeways of many English people. The majority of the population farmed land that had been under cultivation for many centuries. In addition to growing grains such as wheat, rye and barley, they raised domestic animals and livestock including cows, pigs and sheep. These animals were valued as a source of meat, dung for fertilizer, dairy products (principally butter and cheese) as well as leather and wool. The hillier, upland areas tended to produce more wool and dairy products while the more fertile lowland counties produced more grain. Although a few people, sometimes called yeomen, owned land in this period, most English people did not possess the land. The majority of the population, like the men and women in this illustration, rented the land they worked. Fine houses belonged to gentlemen who held the leases to the land. The income of most gentlemen and nobles came from the rents received from tenants. Gentlemen composed but a tiny proportion of the entire population.

Merchants were valued members of society. They brought wealth into the kingdom by exporting English goods abroad. However, their prosperity was not derived from land, the true measure of power in this society. Thus, even the greatest merchants ranked below propertied gentlemen. Doctors, lawyers and clerics were respected as learned, professional men who did not have to work with their hands.


By 1600, English people had begun emerging from the cycle of plenty and famine that dominated the local, subsistence-level economy of the earlier, medieval period. Bread was the staff of life. Those who could afford it ate wheat bread, while the less fortunate made bread from rye, barley, oats and other less desirable grains. Meat, or flesh, was the second most sought-after food. A contemporary observer, Gregory King, estimated that about half the population ate meat every day, and believed that even the poorer half ate meat with their bread at least once or twice every week. Animals were butchered in the fall, and the meat was heavily salted to preserve it for use during the rest of the year. Most of the fruits grown in England today were known in the 1600s. Cherries and apples were particular favorites. Oranges were very popular, and the English imported large amounts of them. Vegetables were considered far less essential than meat and bread, although meat might be cooked with them. The South American potato was not yet cultivated outside of the Americas. A weak beer made from barley known as small beer was the principal beverage, although wealthier people also drank wine. Popular beliefs and the medical science of the day held that drinking water or fresh milk was an unhealthy practice. Given the sanitary and hygienic beliefs and practices of the time, this was probably the case.


Sheep's wool was England's most important export in 1600, and most English people dressed in woolen clothing, regardless of the season. Linen and cotton were more costly, and thus less commonly worn. The cut and style of clothing as well as the type and quality of fabric denoted the rank of the man or woman wearing it. Men and women of all classes wore long shirts (known as shifts for women) that doubled as sleeping attire and undergarments. Women and men covered these shirts with waist-length, close-fitting jackets. Women wore ankle-length skirts called petticoats. Both sexes wore long stockings tied with garters. Children wore long, gown-like garments and did not begin dressing like their parents until they reached the age of five. Adults generally referred to children under this age as "infants". People of every age wore caps or hats, in bed as well as during the day. Caps helped protect heads in damp, drafty houses and kept dirty, often lousy hair away from the face. Members of the upper classes kept their own hair cut close and wore long, elaborate periwigs. Bathing was uncommon.

Entertainment and Leisure

English people relished entertainment. Hunting and cards were fashionable pursuits among the gentry and at court. These activities affirmed the wealth and status of their participants. Dancing and singing were popular with both the upper and lower orders. Bear baiting and cock fights were popular, as well. Villages affirmed community and settled disputes through games and seasonal festivities that often dated back centuries, such as Morris dancing. English village life was intensely communal. If the behavior of an individual did not meet the expectations of his neighbors, they joined together to enforce community standards, by force if necessary. Such customs usually involved some form of public humiliation known as "rough music": women known as scolds were tied to ducking stools and dunked in the village pond. Communities humiliated men seen as cuckolds or dominated by their wives by parading them in effigy through the street. The effigy faced backward on a horse while being beaten with a ladle held by a woman sitting next to him in a ritual known as "riding Skimmington."


English people were, as a rule, intensely proud of their heritage and tended to be correspondingly suspicious of all non-English peoples. Friction alternated with open hostility between England and its closest European neighbor and rival, France. Both kingdoms had spent much of the preceding 1500s and would continue for the next two hundred years vying for economic and political dominance over the other. Religious animosities between Catholic France and Protestant England intensified this centuries-old rivalry.

English society was essentially hierarchical in 1600. The society as a whole was modeled upon the family unit. The typical household was more or less nuclear but it included young unmarried people who, according to the custom of the time, hired themselves out under contract to serve in other families. The head of the household was the father, who ideally protected, provided for and ruled over his dependents. These included his apprentices and servants as well as his wife and children. The household head was responsible for the behavior of his household as well as for the debts they incurred.

The ability to support such a household determined the age at which most people married, if they married at all. Ordinary women tended to marry in their mid-twenties; women from noble families might marry much younger in order to create or cement alliances between powerful families. Men typically married in their mid-to-late twenties. Parish registers reveal that many brides were pregnant at marriage, but the illegitimacy rate was quite low.


The monarch was the patriarchal head of the kingdom. His subjects were his children and the kingdom ideally functioned as a vast household. The king (or queen) strove to exercise absolute authority over his subjects, protecting them, regulating their behavior and chastening them when they erred. As the wealthiest member of the kingdom, the king derived power from his ability to grant land and other forms of patronage to nobles and other members of the gentry. Similarly, the power of England's tiny elite was inherited. Blood determined those whose wealth and status permitted them the leisure, the power and, theoretically, the talent to rule as members of the English Parliament's House of Lords or Commons.

The patriarchal-style authority of the English monarch did not go unchallenged. Henry VIII's decision in 1541 to break away from Rome and establish himself as the head of a new Church of England had met with stiff resistance from members of the gentry as well as the common people. Not until the reign of his third child, Elizabeth I, could England be considered a truly Protestant kingdom. Meanwhile, the aristocracy and gentry that made up the English Parliament were becoming a force with which to be reckoned. James and the other Stuart monarchs struggled repeatedly to rule without Parliament, but lacked the ability to raise revenue without it. Nor had the kingdom's Protestant Reformation gone far enough for many English people. English society divided increasingly over religion, with stricter Protestants demanding reforms in or the elimination of traditional customs and behavior to which their more traditional neighbors clung. The Protestant emphasis on reading the Bible generated communities founded upon literacy that were often at odds with older oral and community traditions. Religious strife combined with the economic pressures of overpopulation and underproduction drove ordinary men and women off of the land, onto the roads, and into cities and towns. These stresses produced a society of what one historian has referred to as "vexed and troubled Englishmen." The solution for many of these people was to emigrate abroad. Lured by the promises of what they considered a "New World," many English men and women hoped to find the sense of security and prosperity that had eluded them in England.


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