Just how great commercial development was in Stuart England is open to argument. Some, such as Professor Nef, argue that commercial development was a major factor and should be seen as such.
Land and the ownership of land was a major destabilising factor in the lead up the civil war. The commercialisation of land took on a different form in early Stuart England and did not just rely on farming. Copyholders were men who were less able to uphold their rights of land ownership and they lived in fear of minerals being discovered on their land. J U Nef argued that the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown between 1540 and 1640. Nef believed that the scientific advances seen in this time span were such that the hundred years involved should be seen as a revolution as significant as the ‘real’ Industrial Revolution years later. Nef examined the coal industry. Between 1558 and 1688, coal production in England, Scotland and Wales rose by fourteen times. Shipments of coal from Newcastle rose by nineteen times. Coal imports into London (usually from Newcastle) rose by thirty times. Nef argued that the growth in coal mining in northeast England was so great that it has to be viewed as the first large-scale bulk producing industry in the western world. In 1650, England produced 80% of Europe’s coal and Newcastle had the nicknames ‘Black Indies’ and ‘Black Peru’ – a reference to the value of the coal mined there. The production of coal led to many spin-off industries such as gunpowder, salt, glass and metal goods.
However, though the figures for the increase in coal production look impressive, the starting figure was small, so any halfway decent increase in production would always look impressive. Nef also used specific individual years to back his claims while research on a ten year by ten year growth basis of coal production in Newcastle shows an increase of three times and the amount sent to London increased fifteen time. Also the major features associated with the Industrial Revolution – mass migration and urbanisation – were not seen in Stuart England. The bulk of the population still worked in agriculture. The textile industry was worth far more than coal.
Coal was to have a political importance though. The movement of coal was by barges from the northeast to London as the primary market. This made the trade vulnerable to attack. In the 1630’s, Dunkirk pirates were a major problem for the colliers and the Royal Navy, despite Ship Money, seemed unable to cope with these attacks. The lack of sufficient coal getting to London pushed up its market price so that it became too expensive for the poor – the bulk of London’s population – and expensive for those who could afford it. Shopkeepers had to increase prices to compensate and this had an impact on inflation. It is little wonder that Charles found few who would help him in London when he went to arrest his five most vocal critics in Parliament or that he lost London when the civil war broke out. In 1639, when the Scots invaded England they camped on the coalfields of the northeast. Realising the importance of the coalfields, they demanded to be paid to leave them. Charles had only just balanced his budget and could ill afford such an expense. He had to re-call Parliament and thus ended the so-called ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’.
The Reformation had led to a great deal of land coming into the ownership of entrepreneurs. These men had paid out a great deal for their land and they wished to exploit that land to recoup their loss as quickly as possible. Therefore, there was an increase in the mining of minerals and new farming techniques were tried. The coal mined in the northeast was found on land that had belonged to the monastery at Tynemouth. The land of the Margam Abbey in Glamorgan was bought by the Mansell family and proved to be a very lucrative purchase. All those who bought former church land had a vested interest in supporting Protestantism. Therefore, even the slightest hint that there might be a return to Catholicism or that the authorities might go easy on Catholics caused ripples. The marriage of Charles to Henrietta Maria of France should have been a cause for celebration. Instead, it stirred up trouble. What religion would their children be brought up as? What impact would this have on any future monarch? While it is easy to see the clash between Crown and Parliament as being one based on the right to govern and religion, there were many who had very good economic reasons to back Cromwell – men who wanted to keep hold of their valuable investments. These men were well represented in the House of Commons and were a potent force.
Any commercial development from 1620 on faced major problems. The Thirty Years War had started in 1618 and made Europe a difficult market. Local magnates tampered with coinage devaluing them with the result that silver and bronze coins did not have the value that they were meant to have. The Cockayne fiasco in the cloth trade had done a great deal to harm the commercial standing of England in Europe and had led to major economic difficulties at home. England had an unfavourable balance of payments record as her exports declined. These commercial difficulties provoked further tension between the Crown and Parliament in the 1620’s. During the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’ Parliament did not sit so there was no watchdog to check economic policy.