Commercial Crisis and Change in England: 1600-1642

By B. E. Supple | Go to book overview

5. PLAGUE AND POLITICS, 1625-1632

(i) PLAGUE AND THE OLD DRAPERIES, 1625

Early in 1625 James I informed the trade commissioners that since their original appointment the customs had increased, wool prices had risen, and cloth sales had been much greater.1 In July the Solicitor-General was able to report on the satisfactory state of the cloth trade; after years of gloom and depression the traditional textile industry was enjoying a modicum of prosperity: 'the trade in cloth is now so quickened as that cloth cannot be so fast made as it is sold and vented . . . [in addition] there hath been no complaint all this time either by clothiers or workmen in the new manufactures for lack of work . . . [and] . . . the dyed and dressed cloths [are] now better vented than they were.' In addition, wool had risen in price and various grievances had been alleviated.2 We know too that the Merchant Adventurers' exports of unfinished cloths under licence in 1624 exceeded those of 1622 by 21,000,3 which must have been a great stimulus to the western counties. Certainly there was a partial return to relative prosperity, but in the summer of 1625 internal events ruffled what calm there was.

The accession of the first two Stuarts each coincided with a severe outbreak of bubonic plague. In 1603 the resulting social dislocations had caused a temporary slump in textile exports. In 1625 the worst attack of plague in the early seventeenth century produced a deeper crisis and demonstrated even more conclusively that the arrangements by which London had come to control the cloth trade had become, dangerous as this development was, indispensable to the prosperity of the textile industry. From May to November 1625, 35, 417 people died of plague in London. By mid-June the sickness had spread to all parts of the City, the Trinity Term was adjourned, and mercantile communications were disrupted when, on the petition of Bristol merchants, the Privy Council forbade London traders 'with their goods and merchandizes' to go to the Bristol Fair in July. Late in July deaths stood at over 2,000 per week and Parliament was adjourned to Oxford. August (the worst month, with 4,000 weekly mortalities) saw a direct blow to the cloth trade with the closing of Stourbridge and Bartholomew Fairs.2

____________________
1
Document in W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce ( 3rd ed., 1903), 111, 900-1.
2
S.P.D. Jas. I, 180/78; S. R. Gardiner (ed.), House of Commons Debates in 1623 ( 1873), pp. 39-40.
2
Creighton, 1, 508; C.S.P.D. 1625-1626, pp. 44, 51; Steele, 1, nos. 1434, 1438, 1439, 1442; A.P.C. 1625- 1626, p. 109.
3
Some 59,000 as against 38,000. Mr R. T. Spence kindly gave me the former figure.

-99-

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