Life in the Seventeenth Century - Part 1
Being a brief background on everyday English life for use in living history
From ECW Notes & Queries (Caliver Books/Partizan Press)

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This series of articles are for use as knowledge about your living history background. These articles should be a great help when talking to various public about the period in general. Therefore, you may want to save these articles for future reference.


The English Civil War lasted nine years, divided into three main episodes: 1642-6, 1648 and 1650-51, not to mention the Scot's, or Bishop's, Wars from 1639-40. There is a tendency to view this period in a colorful and romantic light, but for the people involved it was no less horrific than civil wars of more modern times. Recent estimates put the national death toll at around 185,000 men and women.

No less traumatic was the grinding effect of repeated plundering and the disruption caused by the relentless progress of hungry armies of both sides as they roamed across the countryside heading for London, Oxford, Chester, Newark or wherever the focus of action happened to be at that time. The garrisons could only support themselves by plundering the neighborhood so that loyalty to one cause or another soon wore thin for the local population. The movement of armies also led to skirmishing and, perhaps more importantly for the inhabitants, heavy charges in the cost of maintaining such forces (of both sides) either through 'free-quarter' or simply from plundering. Or, indeed, the relentless demands for money that sucked vast amounts out of the local economy, or the conscription of local working men into the armies. Up to one-quarter of the male population may have been brought into the struggle at one time or another.

Indeed, the whole history of the Civil War as contemporaries have passed it down to us is a fascination study in the use of propaganda. In 1642, the presses of London produced over 2,000 different pamphlets and tracts. The official documents - account and minute books, parish registers, etc. - provide only limited details of particular aspects of the period, concentration on financial arrangements. The history of the war is enlivened and enriched by various surviving personal accounts, especially of campaigning soldiers such as Nehemian Wharton, Richard Symonds and Sir William Brereton. Although none of these was an unbiased source. Pamphlets and news-sheets are more obvious forms of propaganda, but ones that can give a good flavor of the emotions of the time. Many of these are preserved in the important collection of Thomason Tracts in the British Library.

Archaeology should offer a more objective source in support of the documentary evidence, although study of this period is still in its infancy. Archaeology is a study of the physical evidences of the past, in this context particularly the remains of defenses and siegeworks, and of fragments of military equipment. Such physical evidence can therefore complement the administrative and campaign details obtained from the documents. Archaeology can also provide evidence for everyday life, over which the particular history of the times ebbed and flowed.

Agriculture & Industry

Farmers, carters, consumers and manufacturers all formed part of a closely knit economic system, through which the armies of the Civil War passed like a swarm of ravenous locusts. Men such as Andrew Yarranton, later the author of England's Improvement by Sea and Land (and a Parliamentary officer in the Third Civil War), were probably already thinking about improvements in agriculture and industrial innovation. Yarranton promoted crop rotation. With hindsight, we can also see this period as the last phase of the county, changing the look of the countryside as enclosed fields had already been progressing gradually across the country.

Most trades were mainly connected with agriculture, but with strong interests in the metal-working, clothing and salt industries. Wheat was a popular crop, as part of a rotation system with barley and peas or beans. Rye was also grown. This was all part of a mixed farming system, with cattle and sheep grazing on the open fields after harvest. The war years have been regarded as generally producing good harvests, but unfortunately, harvest time coincided with the main campaigning season, with the armies scavenging the local farms for the corn, peas, sheep, cows and fruit. Of equal value were the teams of oxen and horses that normally pulled the ploughs and carted the produce to the network of markets and fairs in small towns. Farming was; of course, much more labor intensive than it is today, and conscription must have hit local communities very hard. Townsfolk and village craftspeople also retained an interest in agriculture.

The towns were important as markets for agricultural produce. The clothing industry was in some decline in the 1640's, which was in itself a contributory factor in the rising tensions in the country. Many craftsmen had other incomes as well.

The River Severn was one of the key trade routes of the country, carrying both long-distance and inter-port trade between the Bristol estuary and Pool Quay (near Welshpool) in Wales, with Bewdley acting as the necessary transfer point into smaller vessels. The river carried raw materials, such as iron ore, lead and timber, and a wide range of manufactured goods, including calf skins, cheese, salt, cotton, linen, tobacco and groceries.

The importance of the river was enhanced by its 'free status'. It was, not subject to tolls, theoretically at least - although the ports of Gloucester and Worcester regularly tested theory during the seventeenth century. These cities tried to impose tolls on any vessel passing under their bridges. The war brought great disruption to this river trade, with some vessels being seized.

As in many parts of the country, the roads were in a dreadful state even before the tramp of thousands of army feet and the passage of convoys of heavy wagons and artillery trains. Nehemial Wharton complained in 1642 of marching on roads "so base that we went up to the ankles in thick clay". Their maintenance was a regular headache for the authorities. Bridges regularly collapsed through lack of maintenance.

Social Conditions & Housing

There was a serious problem with poverty, especially in the towns. Dealing with this was a major element of seventeenth century administration. There were those who were chronically poor, unable to support themselves even in a good economic climate - people such as the sick, old and widows - and those low-paid landless workers who were vulnerable when crops failed or product demand collapsed. The latter class may have included journeymen, fearful of competition from lower-paid workers, and also wandering vagrants. The latter were treated very harshly in order to move them on. Such men provided a ready source of recruitment, at least initially, the for armies that were to mobilize across the country.

Serious crime was relatively rare, mainly sheep and cattle rustling with occasional assaults. The range of trivial matters brought before the various local Leet Courts suggest that gossip was one of the chief amusements of the day. Life was hard, enlivened by entertainments such as travelling thespians and musicians. There were sharp disagreements as to the propriety of innocent, and not so innocent, pleasure (the subject of another article - Sex in the Seventeenth Century!)

For example, in some parishes it was illegal to play football, and generally it was unlawful to play any game on the Sabbath Day. Even the clergy could be accused; In 1642, in Alvechurch, the newly appointed vicar - a Royal appointee - was accused by parishioners of being a frequenter of alehouses, spending time there on Sundays and with "idle and riotous company". He was accused of quarrelling, fighting and "is greatly famed of incontinence with his neighbors wives": "incontinence" being the seventeenth century term for adultery. The vicar was also accused of being "accompanied with a dangerous and armed papist". The puritan sympathies of the parishioners were clear. Such activities had been curtailed elsewhere by a successful rising tide of Puritanism in official circles.

By-laws tried to stamp out "unlawful games" and "tippling" (drinking) on Sundays and festivals (religious days). Taverns and alehouses were searched during Sunday services to seek out "householders and men of worth" who should have been at church and offenders were reported to the Bishop. This did not endear the over-zealous clergy to the lower classes who were thereby encouraged to take the Royalist side against the puritans.

Conditions were unsanitary by modern standards. Latrine pits might be constructed within the houses, or in the back yards. In towns, they were frequently shared between neighboring properties (a privy in Trinity, Worcester, served twenty-four almshouses). These arrangements were supplemented by the use of pottery chamber pots. Rubbish disposal was rudimentary, largely consisting of stone- or timber-lined pits dug in back yards, or piled into heaps, for periodic collection. Thereafter spread on the fields as manure (the filth did actually have a value in an age that depended on natural fertilizers or used dung as a building material.) Urine might also be collected for use in the fulling, dyeing and tanning processes. There were other unpleasantries. As a consequence, the dangers of disease of one form or another were always with the people, especially in the towns. Subsequently, there were regular outbreaks of plague in the seventeenth century.

From the late sixteenth century there had been notable improvements in living standards. Until the later seventeenth century, most houses were essentially of timber construction; stone was used for footings and some brick for details such as fireplaces. Roofs were supposed to be tiled to lessen the fire risk. The surviving houses, typically timber-framed with overhanging jetties onto the street frontage, tend to be those of the better quality. Archaeology is only just beginning the process of uncovering the houses of the otherwise anonymous urban poor.

Many families would have lived in a single room, cheek by jowl with much wealthier neighbors in both the town and the extensive suburbs. Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of the Civil War was the readiness with which whole areas of housing could be sacrificed to clear ground around the defenses of a town or castle.

There was a wide variety of house types in the towns, from the very large to single-roomed houses measuring only 10' x 10'. The most common type of house probably had a two-roomed plan with a living room/kitchen and bedroom. All would appear draughty and damp to modern eyes, but from the later sixteenth century, there had been an increasing trend towards greater room specialization, notable the appearance of distinct bedrooms and a wider range of movable goods. This process was offset by the tendency to subdivide existing properties under pressure from an increasing population. Even during the war itself, there is evidence of builders taking up leases on vacant ground in order to speculate with new building.

Analysis of surviving inventories of properties illustrates the wide range of lifestyles within the class wealthy enough to have had possessions recorded at their death. Having scraped together what luxuries were possible, many suffered the trauma of a plundering army demanding quarter and goods in lieu of pay. The richest had estates of over 2,000 Pounds. To illustrate what goods were at risk from marauding soldiers, the estate of Francis Denice (d.1645), possibly a weaver, was valued at L14 12s 8d (including L12 owed to him). He had only one bed, one sheet (and four others described as 'old'), and one each of a pewter pot, brass pot and a small kettle.

Pottery - that basic form of archaeological evidence - is rarely mentioned in such inventories or other documents. It was evidently considered of little value at the time. Thus, chamber pots are rarely mentioned in inventories, but are a frequent find on archaeological sites. However, the greater variety of pottery vessels in the archaeological record also points to increased sophistication in this period, through new cooking habits and tastes, with easier access to imported sugar and spices. This was all made possible through improvements in cooking methods brought about by more efficient brick-built fireplaces incorporating ranges and ovens.

There is other evidence of a greater sophistication in people's lives at this time. Many were literate, eagerly devouring the political pamphlets being printed in huge numbers in London. There were strong contacts with the capital. Many merchants maintained warehouses in London. So inhabitants were probably well attuned to the debates and conflicts emerging across the land.

This was a society very much unprepared for war. There was no standing army before the Civil War. Defense was in the nominal hands of the various 'Trained Bands'. These were intended to be a middle-class force, with gentry officers to protect as much against internal riot as invasion, but it was an unpopular service and it proved difficult to recruit men of the expected caliber. Training was confined to an annual muster and other occasional training days. For many, it was only an excuse to escape the routine of normal life, and discipline was a severe problem. A commonly held view was that the 'Trained Bands' were "the main support of the realm and its bulwark against unexpected invasion, [they] were effeminate in courage and incapable of discipline, because they're whole course of life was alienated from warlike employment".

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