Steep increases in fuel bills are not just a modern problem, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains…
The picture sounds all too familiar: rapidly rising fuel prices; people on low incomes struggling to heat their homes; concerns about long-term supplies; and suspicions of profiteering by those in a position to manipulate the market. But these aren’t the woes of 2023. We’re talking about the reign of Elizabeth I – and the fuel in question was wood.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of wood for the Elizabethan economy. It was used for all kinds of construction, from houses to ships (a vital consideration in the era of the Spanish Armada). Converted into charcoal, it was the principal fuel employed in industry to produce everything from iron and glass to salt. Domestic heating still depended on it. However, wood was not immune to prevailing inflationary pressures, and during these decades market prices saw at least a threefold increase. As the London MP Sir Rowland Hayward explained to the House of Commons in 1572, lengths of firewood known as billets, which had cost 4s. 8d. per thousand thirty years earlier, were now being sold for anything between 10s. and 25s. Moreover, increases on this scale were helping to drive up inflation generally. As Hayward’s colleague Thomas Norton warned the House, ‘the raising of the price thereof will make all other things rise for company’ (Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I ed. T.E. Hartley, i. 370).
It was widely agreed that the root cause of these price rises was a shortage of timber. However, there were numerous theories about how this problem had developed. The antiquary William Harrison, in his 1587 Description of England, suggested a range of different factors. These included poor management of woodlands, the clearing of trees when land was enclosed for pasture, excessive sales of timber by landlords seeking to offset falling income from other sources, more extravagant architectural fashions, and above all wasteful consumption by the iron, glass and brick industries. Convinced that fuel supplies were running out, Harrison lamented that ‘if woods go so fast to decay in the next hundred years … as they have done and are like to do in this, … it is to be feared that … straw, sedge, reed, rush, and also … coal will be good merchandise even in the city of London’ (W. Harrison, Description of England ed. G. Edelen, 281). And these shortages spawned further problems. As the stocks of timber near England’s towns and cities grew scarce, supplies had to be sourced further afield, and the additional transport costs helped to push up prices. There was also concern that purveyors, officials empowered to buy up supplies for the royal court at reduced prices, were exacerbating the general dearth of timber, and making it more expensive for everyone else. It didn’t help that purveyors were widely believed to be corrupt, demanding artificially low prices in the monarch’s name, but then selling on the timber at a profit to line their own pockets.
Parliament began to address these concerns in the final years of Henry VIII’s reign. An Act of 1544, noting ‘the great decay of timber and woods universally within this … realm of England’, imposed limitations on the size of trees that could be felled, restricted the conversion of woodland into pasture, and offered some protections to poor people who relied on common land for their fuel supplies. In 1553 a further Act updated regulations for the sale of firewood in London, in a bid to stop customers being overcharged, while two years later an almost complete ban on exports of timber was introduced.
These measures failed to allay concerns, and during Elizabeth I’s reign more than 30 bills were introduced in Parliament to address the fuel crisis. Roughly a third of these proposed general reforms to conserve existing woods and forests, effectively continuing the approach adopted in 1544. Another five bills advocated updates to the 1553 retail Act. This tactic finally bore fruit in 1601, when a new ‘Act concerning the assize of fuel’ provided further safeguards for purchasers of firewood, and ruled that wood which failed to conform to the new standards should be confiscated and distributed to the poor. Following on from the 1555 Act, one bill in 1563 proposed restrictions on coal exports, while another in 1593 called for imports of certain types of planking, both measures aiming to ease the pressure on stocks of English timber.
However, in a clear sign of rising tensions over fuel shortages, 15 of these bills addressed specific local supply problems. In 1571 legislation was presented to the Commons to ban the excessive felling of young trees within 20 miles of London. This sparked a debate on the abuses of purveyors, as a result of which the bill was scrapped and a replacement drafted to tackle both problems nationally. Unfortunately, that new measure then ran out of time in the Lords. The next year the London MPs tried again, this time seeking to prevent timber in the capital’s environs from being used to supply iron foundries with charcoal – but that bill also failed in the Lords. Finally, in 1581 an Act was passed to safeguard London’s firewood supplies by banning the iron industry from cutting timber for charcoal within 22 miles of the city, and up the Thames valley into Oxfordshire. As Elizabeth’s reign progressed, iron and glass manufacture, both of which required huge amounts of charcoal, came to be seen in Parliament as a serious threat to timber reserves, and they were targeted accordingly. At this time both industries operated primarily in south-east England, especially in Sussex, Kent and Surrey, and a string of bills sought to preserve woodlands in these counties, and to prohibit the construction of new furnaces. And over time attitudes hardened. A 1559 Act restricted charcoal manufacture around the country generally, but exempted Sussex and surrounding districts. A subsequent Act in 1585 aimed to conserve stocks of timber specifically in that region, and placed the blame for local shortages firmly on the iron industry.
So was all this legislative activity effective in tackling the decline of England’s woodlands? William Harrison had his doubts: ‘a man would think that our laws were able enough to make sufficient provision for the redress of this error and [the] enormity likely to ensue. But such is the nature of our countrymen that, as many laws are made, so they will keep none’ (Harrison, 281). That issue aside, we now know that the proposed solutions were based on flawed analysis. As at least a few contemporaries recognised, it was south-east England which experienced timber shortages most acutely; in many other parts of the country supplies were actually quite healthy, and the real problem was the logistical challenge of exploiting the more remote forests. Furthermore, Parliament took no account of underlying factors such as a rapidly increasing population; the burgeoning demand for timber in London was surely linked to the city’s growth during these years from around 120,000 residents to roughly 200,000. Consequently, those four bills which were ultimately enacted failed to deliver the desired outcome. By the early seventeenth century the price of wood was rising faster than ever, and Harrison’s prediction proved to be correct. Ultimately the early modern fuel crisis was resolved only when timber was replaced by coal – and a new set of problems.
William Harrison, Description of England ed. Georges Edelen (1968/1994)
The Agrarian History of England and Wales 1500-1640 ed. Joan Thirsk (1967)
Read more from our First Elizabethan Age blog series here.