Elizabethan Economy

By Christopher W. Taylor


At the time Elizabeth inherited the throne of England, the English treasury had virtually no money, mostly because of the cost of financing the wars of Phillip II (the husband of Mary I, Elizabeth’s predecessor) (Weir 3). According to Heather Thomas, he was the most powerful ruler in the world at the time Elizabeth was a monarch (par. 2). After Elizabeth became the queen, nevertheless, England’s relationship with Spain gradually became sour. In addition to this problem, most of the three to four million people in England (Weir 3) dealt with poor living standards. There were many beggars and vagabonds due especially to the dissolution of religious houses by Henry VIII (3). The average life expectancy of an English person was about forty years (5). Things started to improve, however, after Elizabeth succeeded. Slowly, a unique and prosperous economy emerged.


The most important commodity in the English economy was woollen cloth (3). Miniature portraitures just started to flourish in the Elizabethan Age, due, in part, to the efforts of Nicholas Hilliard (7). These were popular with the middle and upper classes (7). Architecture also prospered, with the growth of the English Renaissance style (7). The iron industry of England flourished in the Elizabethan Age. In addition, tin was mined in Cornwall and copper was mined in Cumberland (Taylor 30). Oxford and Cambridge were the only universities in England (84). But Inns in London were also important for the training of lawyers (84). The most common occupation in Elizabethan England was farming, but there were also bakers, basket-makers, blacksmiths, bowyers, Carmen, carpenters, fletchers, fruiterers, glaziers, glovers, saddlers, tallowchandlers, waxchandlers, and wheelwrights (113). In 1593, the Statute of Apprentices made long indentures mandatory, thus helping to bring stability to industry and farming (9). Continental Europe introduced lace-making, silk weaving, engraving, and needle- and thread-making among other things to England (9).


The center of trade in Europe during the Elizabethan Age was Antwerp (in the Netherlands), but eventually London grew enough to claim the title (Thomas, par. 12). London, the largest city in and capital of England, had a population of about 200,000 people (Weir 5). In London, there were many markets. Cheapside, with its goldsmiths, was the most interesting (6). Along the Thames River, were the town houses of some of the nobles and the first theaters, such as “The Globe” (6). The coinage produced in the Elizabethan Age was produced in the Tower of London, which also served as a prison (Taylor 16). Other large and prosperous cities in England were Norwich and Bristol (Weir 6)


Elizabeth had a major hand in the English economy. To the detriment of England, she largely increased the number of monopolies (Burham 204). Vincent Ponko, Jr., has shown that the Privy Council of Elizabeth did not explicitly pursue a planned economic program, but they did do many things for England, including receiving foreign ambassadors, dealing with law suits, giving instructions to English agents abroad, supervising the maintenance of the English army, and making war and peace (Ponko 3).


Not everything, however, in Elizabethan England was up to par with modern standards of living. England had no firefighters, and robbery and violence was commonplace (Taylor 23 and 24). Some of the old religious houses, such as St. Bartholomew’s and St. Thomas’s, were kept as hospitals (25). In addition, the public had no postal service (25). The benefits that the English people received from their hard work were not without consequences. Greed resulted in little respect for the lower classes, and bribery became a mainstay in the court (Weir 9).


Tobacco consumption became a costly habit after sea knights and explorers such as Sir John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, and Sir Walter Ralegh helped to popularize it (Gately 43). Despite the efforts of tobacco critics, the demand for tobacco increased remarkably throughout the Elizabethan Age. Smoking tobacco was particularly popular in Elizabeth’s court, where the queen herself even tried it (Gately 46). In the 1590’s tobacco cost three shillings an ounce (Weir 9).


One source of revenue for England was the piratical raids of some of the important English sea knights (Hibbert 108). When England defeated Spain and Portugal in sea battles, they stole whatever treasure the ships were carrying. Ralegh, for example, was instrumental in recovering the cargo of a fine Portuguese carrack for Elizabeth that consisted of spices, pearls, silks, ivory, silver, and gold (Aronson 121).


The Elizabethan Age was associated with the exploration and acquisition of many products of the New World. After Ralegh had sent crews to the New World he planted potatoes and tobacco in the Garden of Cecil House (Hibbert 129). According to historian D. B. Quinn, there were three major reasons for England to expand to the New World: the supplementary economy, the complementary economy, and the emigration thesis. The supplementary economy meant that the New World could produce what England did but in greater quantities; the complementary economy meant that the New World would provide commodities that England could not produce; and the emigration thesis meant that some of the population on the crowded island of England could move to the New World (qtd. in Knapp 33).


The English economy started out in a bad position, but with the leadership in the Elizabethan Age, the economy got out of its hole. Elizabeth, one of the first female English monarchs, thus changed the fate of her nation (Walker 1).


Works Cited


Aronson, Marc. Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado. New York: Clarion Books, 2000.


Gately, Iain. Tobacco: The Story of How Tobacco Seduced the World. New York: Grove Press. 2001.


Thomas, Heather. "Elizabethan Europe." The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth I. 9 Apr. 2007. <http://www.elizabethi.org/us/europe/>.


Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. Cambridge: Perseus Books. 1991.


Knapp, Jeffrey. “Elizabethan Tobacco.” Representations 21 (1988). University of California Press. 17 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.


Ponko, Jr., Vincent. “The Privy Council and the Spirit of Elizabethan Economic Management, 1558-1603.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 58.4 (1968). The American Philosophical Society, 9 Mar. 2007 <http://www.jstor.org/>.


Taylor, Duncan. Living in England: The Elizabethan Age. Great Britain: Roy Publishers, 1968.


Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.


Walker, Julia M. The Elizabeth Icon, 1603-2003. New York: Palgrave, 2004.