Did Economic Grievances Cause Early Modern Popular Rebellions?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


The rejection of Marxist arguments by many historians to explain the causes of the Civil War has arguably led historians to overlook the role of social conflict and material factors in engendering popular rebellion during the early modern period. Recent historiography, however, has argued that redefining what constitutes the ‘political’ enables historians to accommodate a corresponding analysis of the social dimensions to popular protest, as it becomes clear that conflict over resources were themselves inherently political. The role played by economic factors and social conflict is particularly convincing when one considers the long-term social conflict and economic changes occurring during the sixteenth century, namely the time lag between the end of feudalism and the establishment of agrarian capitalism as a dominant mode of production and the resulting conflict between landlord and tenant over relations of production and modes of exploitation in the intervening period. Inequalities of wealth and power, therefore, have a place in narrative explanations of popular rebellion.

Religion certainly had a role to play in the Pilgrimage of Grace (1536), which saw some 20,000 rise up from the six northern counties of England to protest against the decision by Parliament to early 1536 to dissolve all minor monastic houses in England and Wales, the removal of the church plate in 1536, and the threat to traditional religion posed by the Ten Articles in July. Historians such as Bush, however, have also stressed that role played by taxation in engendering large-scale revolt. The 1534 Act, for example, furthered the process by which the crown, rather than parliament, had the right to appoint assessors and permitted tax to be levied for reasons other than war. Attempts to reform the fifteenth and the tenth in the 1534 tax grant also contributed to the Pilgrimage of Grace, namely the abolition of the rebate of poverty, which, on its removal raised the overall levy by 18 per cent.

The 1536 rebellion was also brought about by social conflict within the localities themselves. As Wood points out, although the October 1536 rebellion involved all social ranks, it also presented itself as a rising of the ‘commons’ and in the border counties, the rebel host was led by anonymous ‘Captains’, one of whom took the name ‘Captain Poverty’.

Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 was also caused in part by pre-existing social divisions. Wood, for example, has identified a seigneurial offensive underway in early sixteenth-century Norfolk, increasing rent, enclosing the commons, and manipulating customary fold course arrangements. The rebels thus demanded a polity based on monarchic lordship and popular sovereignty in which small communities would form autonomous entities. And yet the rebellion would not have been possible without the other corresponding factors which helped to engender a ‘crisis of hegemony’. This included the impact of the Reformation which undermined the traditional modes of legitimation, particularly the role played by the Church in the justification of social inequality, while the dissolution of the monastic houses and the chantries was seen as part of a wider assault on the traditional social order.

However, the impact of other micro-economic changes meant that economic grievances after 1549 struggled to give rise to popular rebellions, which declined under Elizabethan and Stuart rule. This does not mean that economic grievances did not continue to form a central component of political consciousness among the commons, but that other forms of remedial action became more effective, namely the use of the litigation and the rhetoric of moral economy. The micro-economic changes which undermined a sense of agency fostered within communities included the gradual retreat of wealthier villagers and townsfolk, namely the yeomen, from the organisation of large protest. It is also important to acknowledge that after the earlier sixteenth-century rebellions, the state began to respond differently in times of dearth.

Furthermore, dearth could actually strengthen the social order, which can be seen when one looks at the indictment of the middlemen in the victualling trade as central to popular thinking about death and its causes. In this understanding, shortages were not the result of harvest failure but the deliberate creation of those who sought to profit from exploitation. The government chose to reinforce this understanding, explaining dearth as the result of the evil practice of the uncharitable and requiring the justices to control the activities of the middlemen and to ensure the supply of corn to the poor. By legitimating the demands of the crowd, the government lessened the need for the commons to resort to riot or rebellion.

Moreover, rebellions in the early modern period were as much about remedying economic grievances as they were about concerns surrounding religion. The two often worked together in the sixteenth century as the Reformation helped to delegitimise the social order in ways that complemented the commons’ desire to subvert ingrained local hierarchies of lordly authority to access perceived rights to common land. Nevertheless, the growing divisions among the commons and the government’s changing response in times of dearth undermined the commons’ ability to organise popular rebellions as they had done in the earlier part of the sixteenth century.

Further reading:

  1. A. Wood, Riot, Rebellion and Popular Politics in Early Modern England (2002)

  2. A Wood, The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (2007)

  3. B. Sharp, ‘Popular protest in seventeenth century England’ in B. Reay (ed.), Popular Culture in Seventeenth Century England (1985)

  4. C.S.L. Davies, ‘Popular Religion in the Pilgrimage of Grace’ in A. Fletcher and J. Stevenson (eds.), Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (1995)

  5. K. Wrightson and J. Walter, ‘Dearth and the Social Order in Early Modern England’, Past and Present, 71 (1976)

  6. M.L.Bush, ‘Tax Reform and Rebellion in early Tudor England’, History, 76 (Oct. 1991)