Financial Dimension of Religion in Early Modern Britain

  January 26, 2022   Read time 3 min
Financial Dimension of Religion in Early Modern Britain
Between and within these groups the distribution of wealth remained conspicuously unequal. In 1530 the nobility and gentry, for example, ranged from a few great proprietors with extensive estates, and a select number of families with several manors each, down to the hundreds of minor gentlemen whose acres were comparatively few.

The Courtenays received some £1,500 per annum, and the Bassetts, Carews and Fortescues several hundreds, whereas lesser families might live on £50-100. Ecclesiastical incomes were similarly diverse. The Bishop of Exeter enjoyed some £1,600, mainly from property in Devon and Cornwall. The Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral received more than £1,000, and the incomes of a few well-beneficed clerics were substantial: in 1522 the goods of the vicar of Wendron were valued at £120. Most of the several hundred parish priests, by contrast, earned wages in the region of £10-20 per annum; chantry priests and other unbeneficed clerics invariably received less. The incomes of religious houses ranged from £986 at Tavistock Abbey to less than £29 at Kerswell Priory.

Other social groups were equally diverse. The distributive sector extended from a few great merchants like John Giles of Totnes, who was worth £520 in 1523, through to the multiplicity of lesser merchants and shopkeepers, and finally to their apprentices and employees. The tin and cloth industries, while enriching some entrepreneurs, brought but meagre reward to their labour force. A wide range was spanned also by the all-important agrarian sector. It extended from yeomen with substantial landholdings, usually freehold, down through a mass of husbandmen with smaller tenancies, leased from a landowner, and finally to the landless who laboured for others; these last received wages, and sometimes food or accommodation.

This pattern of acute differentiation - whereby at Exeter, for example, 50% of the property in 1524—5 was owned by 3% of the population - was never substantially altered by the major redistributions of property that characterized the mid-Tudor decades. The revenues of the Bishop of Exeter were drastically reduced, and those of the religious houses were totally removed, but the beneficiaries of these upheavals were primarily members of the already dominant social groups. The Russells, Rolles, Dennises, Grenvilles, Arundells and other established families made spectacular gains. Many more, like the Fulfords and the Drakes, significantly enlarged their estates. Relatively rarely were the beneficiaries merchants or clothiers.

Social differentiation appears indeed to have been increased rather than diminished by the economic trends of these years. Demographic expansion tended to raise both prices and rents, as the demand for essential commodities and for tenancies of land began to exceed the available supply. These processes were observed, for example, by a gentleman of Devon in 1549.3 It tended also to depress wage levels, as the pool of potential labour widened. The prime beneficiaries appear usually to have been gentlemen, substantial farmers and merchants.

By raising the rents and entry-fines due from their customary tenants, most of the gentry could probably match or exceed the rate of price inflation. Some, like the Champernownes and Godolphins, profited also from the boom in tin and shipping, and a few enjoyed the rewards of public office. The fortunate minority of farmers with freeholds or with long leases were secure from rack-renting, and they could profitably sell their produce on a rising market. Rising prices must similarly have tended to favour the mercantile community. In addition, gentlemen, farmers and merchants all benefited from the inability of their servants, labourers and other employees to demand a realistic increase in wages.

The general prosperity of the Tudor gentry is attested by its extensive rebuilding and modernization of country houses. Patrons included the Bluetts at Holcombe Rogus in about 1530 and the Haydons at Cadhay after 1545.4 Similarly suggestive is the reconstruction of farmhouses. This development became widespread after 1560, but for most farmers it must have been the culmination of a generation or two of capital accumulation. Examples in the parishes of Washfield, North Tawton and Highampton bear the dates 1564, 1567 and 1569. The material success of merchants like John Greenway and John Lane is equally evident in their lavish additions to the parish churches at Tiverton and Cullompton.