The following revisionist history of the English Civil War comes from Chapter 6, “A Divided Century,” in the author's British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History, which relates the changes in British diet and cuisine to a wide range of political and economic factors, in the process providing a history of the nation (or nations) from a fascinating point of vantage. — George P. Landow

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he explanations for the Civil War have been grossly simplified and given religious labels, when in fact at the heart of the dispute were money, commercial trading and land. Under the first two Stuart Kings the issues of land and the monopoly system were at the centre of social unrest and discontent, for land meant food and your family’s survival, while the monopoly system, which touched every aspect of life, kept power, patronage and commercial wealth within the monarchy and the immediate court circle. The social mobility that the commercial age of the Tudors had started made government uneasy and suspicious; the rapid enrichment of capitalists and the fluctuations of the market, which led to unemployment and social unrest, caused great unease among the nobility, who sought to control it by granting privileges and placing hindrances in the way of mobility and freedom of movement and contract. So at the beginning of the Stuart period governments thought it their duty to regulate industry, wages and working conditions. They tended to slow down industrial development, controlling it through guilds and monopolies. The industries that held these court-granted monopolies, like the drapers of Shrewsbury and Oswestry, the shoemakers and glovers of Chester, and the metallurgical industry around Birmingham, were unsurprisingly Royalist in the Civil War. The nobility who had been refused under the monopoly system became Parliamentarians. The monopoly system made the mar inflexible, unable to react to the demands of a free market. Monopolies were only available to those with influence at court. . .

Butter, currants, red herrings, salmon, lobsters, salt, pepper, vinegar, wine : spirits, and every other foodstuff imaginable, were owned by different monopolies which blocked anyone else attempting to trade or produce the goods. Not only the food but the clothes, the soap, starch, feathers, lace, linen, leather, and gold thread were monopoly-owned; so were the lute strings which played the music, the Bibles and Latin grammars, the coaches and sedan chairs, and even the mousetraps and lighthouses. In 1621 there were 700 different monopolies. They affected the life of hundreds of thousands of Englishmen and by the end of the 1630s they were bringing nearly £100,000 a year into the Exchequer. Business could not endure to be bled in this way; increases in the price of the produce only caused a decline in sales and and resentment and rage when it was known that not only the monarch was enjoying percentage but so were, as happened in the soap monopoly, foreign Papists. In 1664 when a Bill before Parliament proposed to revive a pin monopoly, a member declared that the late King had lost his head for granting such patents and the Bill was allowed to drop. The Civil War was about trade and commerce. Religion gives convenient labels to a ragbag of resentments; it is commercial injustice that makes men fly to arms. The struggle succeeded in wresting control of capital from the crown and allowed the entrepreneur to have a free hand. . . . Abolition of feudal tenures and the Court of Wards turned lordship into absolute ownership, so that lands could now be bought, sold mortgaged, making long term investment in agriculture possible for the first time. This was the decisive change in English history that made it different from that continent. [134-35; emphasis added]

References

Spencer, Colin. British Food: an Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.


Created 15 September 2015