Swtan cottage, Anglesey

13: Society and politics in early modern Wales

Population and economy

In 1536 Wales had about 278,000 inhabitants. The number rose to around 360,000 in 1620 and to perhaps 500,000 by 1750. The chief cause of this rise was the intensification of rural settlement, the growth in trade aided by greater stability and the increasingly diverse nature of economic activity.

The raising of cattle and sheep and the processing of their products remained central to the economy, although lead-mining, coal-mining, iron smelting and a wide range of crafts and professions offered expanding opportunities.

The Poor Law was passed in 1601; it authorised every parish to raise rates to maintain the poor, to apprentice orphan children and to punish 'sturdy beggars'.

Class divisions

In the 16th century at least, population growth probably outpaced economic growth, lowering the standard of living of the mass of the population. Inflation - the fourfold rise in prices between 1530 and 1640 - made the situation worse, as did the increasing landlessness caused by the estate-building activities of the gentry.

The abject poor probably constituted 30% of the population. They dwelt in one-roomed hovels lacking windows and chimneys and were subject to the Statute of Labourers of 1563 which assumed that those without property were inherently unfree.

Fearing the instability they could cause, the Poor Law was passed in 1601; it authorised every parish to raise rates to maintain the poor, to apprentice orphan children and to punish 'sturdy beggars'.

About half the population was made up of the lesser farmers and smallholders. In favoured areas such as the Vale of Glamorgan, a smallholder could be relatively prosperous, but in the famine years, among them1585-7, 1593-7 and 1620-23, many of them lived on the edge of destitution. Members of the professions, merchants and the more substantial craftsmen and yeomen represented about 15% of the population. This was a class whose power was increasing.

By the 18th century doctors, lawyers, estate agents and government officials came to constitute a significant bourgeoisie and their substantial houses were an attractive feature of the towns of Wales. The more successful, the lawyers in particular, strove to join the ruling class - the 5% represented by the landed gentry.

There were many ways for a member of the ruling class to advance his interests: he could marry an heiress, he could amass money through office, royal favour, commercial venture - or, as a smuggler or a pirate - by resorting to bold lawlessness; he could break the spirit of a less wealthy opponent through relentless litigation; he could usurp the property of the church or the crown; he could grab the land of the lowly through naked bullying. Through such methods, the greater families added to their property.

By the 19th century, there were 20 Welsh families owning at least 20,000 acres apiece and the family with the largest estate, the Williams Wynns of Wynnstay near Wrexham, came to own 150,000 acres.


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