Academic journal article Albion

Piscatorial Politics Revisited: The Language of Economic Debate and the Evolution of Fishing Policy in Elizabethan England (1)

Academic journal article Albion

Piscatorial Politics Revisited: The Language of Economic Debate and the Evolution of Fishing Policy in Elizabethan England (1)

Article excerpt

The historiography of Tudor economic legislation has been preoccupied with two questions: firstly whether any consistent economic planning, or simply expedient reactions to various problems, can be discerned in Elizabethan policy; and secondly whether and to what extent policy was imposed "from above" by William Cecil and the privy council, or influenced "from below" by local and factional lobbying. Since the 1980s the research of Geoffrey Elton and his successors has extended our understanding of Tudor parliaments; yet the standard accounts of Elizabethan policy-making have on the whole paid insufficient attention to contemporaries' perceptions and interpretations of economic change, upon which their suggested solutions and arguments for reform were based. (2) As several studies of particular policies have shown, such as Norman Jones' analysis of usury statutes, and Paul Fideler's work on poor relief, the evolution of economic policy in sixteenth-century England can fruitfully be approached by cutting throug h the rhetoric of preambles and policy statements, and by focusing on the strategies of persuasion underlying debates in Parliament and beyond. (3)

The Elizabethan period saw the first comprehensive statutory regulation and protection of the English fishing industry. All forms of sea-borne enterprise, from fishing and shipping to exploration, began from mid-century onwards to be perceived as a sector of the national economy in need of encouragement, resulting in a series of regulatory initiatives such as the controversial policy of "political Lent" in the second half of the century. There was debate about fishing and fish days and dialogue between idealistic reformers, local factions, and policy makers. Competition between various groups--wholesalers and retailers, center and localities, and native and foreign suppliers of fish--influenced negotiations over policy. This article draws attention to the use of a language of economic debate and shows how the terms in which complaints were framed and addressed by different groups resulted in the formation of particular policy solutions.

The story of statutory regulation of fishing begins in 1563 with an "Acte towching certayne politique constitutions made for the maintenance of the navye." This consolidated disparate initiatives of Edwardian experimental policies of "political Lent," the compulsory restriction of the nation's diet to fish on certain days of the week, together with earlier precedents in the regulation of shipping for maintenance of the navy. (4) The arguments advanced in favour of this act, in particular by William Cecil, will be examined in the first section in order to establish the primary context of debates about fishing and shipping: maintenance of the navy and the protection of national honor in international competition. Some of the provisions of the 1563 act were misconceived, and the flaws in its underlying assumptions will also be addressed, revealing why it ultimately failed to fulfill its makers intentions. The act had several consequences which ensured that fishing remained the subject of controversy and debate i n ensuing decades. It drew attention to the fishing industry, especially as a result of introducing extra fish days, which were unpopular and were blamed for causing inflation in the price of fish; it also provoked powerful vested interests, such as the corporation of Great Yarmouth, to lobby for changes in policy that would benefit the town's herring fishery.

The influence of private lobbying by Yarmouth and other interested parties upon later Elizabethan fishing legislation has been discussed in articles by Geoffrey Elton and David Dean; the second and third sections of this article build upon their findings by investigating further the persuasive strategies and appeals to "commonwealth" ideals that such interest groups were able to deploy in debates about policy. (5) By the end of the period tension arose between central regulation of economic behavior, and the rights, granted through royal letters patent, of chartered corporations and companies. …

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