Trade and industry were the backbone of England’s economic strength under Henry VII. The most valuable commodity in the reign of Henry was woollen cloth that made up 90% of England’s exports. Traditionally English wool was viewed as the best in Europe and when it was exported raw, the Crown put high duties on it to exploit the demand for it. At the start of Henry VII’s reign in 1485, the amount of raw wool exported had fallen by 50% and was being replaced by the finished article. That sheep rearing was becoming highly profitable, took some of the sting away from the move from arable to pasture farming. Work in the woollen industry was seasonally based and agricultural workers tended to work in both. While sheep were being reared, work was based on a farm. After shearing, work was based around carding, a spinning jenny and a loom found in a home. When the wool left a house it was for fulling (a cleaning process) and dyeing. Wealthy wool merchants financed the whole operation.
The three main areas for woollen cloth making were the West Riding of Yorkshire, East Anglia and the West Country. As 90% of overseas trade was wool based, it could be argued that these three areas were the most important areas for overseas trade in England. But such a dependence on overseas trade had major potential drawbacks. A major European war, even if it did not involve England, could seriously disrupt trade, as could an outbreak of plague on the continent. Therefore, while woollen cloth was a highly valuable commodity, it was also a fragile one to base a nation’s wealth on.
As the reign of Henry continued, other aspects of textile production developed, but all on a small-scale. Linen was produced in Lancashire, while hand-knitted stockings was done in the Lake District and the Cotswolds. But woollen cloth was the dominant feature and continued to be so for many years.
A few other commodities were exported but the records from the time show that England imported a great deal and placed her trading faith in woollen cloth. Lead and tin were mined and what was not required in England was exported – but this tended to be done on a small-scale when compared to the growth witnessed in the wool trade. Some coal was also exported. The number of people involved in these was small and they were very open to the vagaries of the time – war, plague, cheaper markets etc. While they developed greatly in future years, in the reign of Henry VII they have to be viewed as being peripheral in terms of their economic importance.