English Economy and the Wars of the Roses

   Although the WARS OF THE ROSES caused political instability and, at least among the governing classes, some social disruption, the conflict had little direct effect on the English economy. Military campaigns were brief, and incidents of plunder and deliberate destruction of property were few and localized (see Military Campaigns, Duration of). Except for members of the PEERAGE and GENTRY whose involvement in the wars led to confiscation of their estates through acts of ATTAINDER, the livelihoods of most English people were unaffected by the civil wars. Because it reduced the overall wealth of the kingdom and alienated the people the contending houses of LANCASTER and YORK sought to rule, military action that damaged or destroyed the resources or economic wellbeing of any area of the country was rarely in the best interest of either party. Most such destruction occurred during the first phase of the civil wars, during the years 1460 and 1461. In the north in 1460, supporters of the family of Henry PERCY, third earl of Northumberland, looted estates owned by the rival NEVILLE FAMILY and by the Nevilles’ ally, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York (see Neville-Percy Feud). In the first weeks of 1461, the army of Queen MARGARET OF ANJOU, marching southward after the Battle of WAKEFIELD (see March on London), plundered property and towns belonging to or associated with York or his ally Richard ENGLISH ECONOMY AND THE WARS OF THE ROSES 89 NEVILLE, earl of Salisbury. Although fear and Yorkist PROPAGANDA likely exaggerated the destructiveness of the advancing Lancastrians in the minds of southern residents and LONDON citizens, such unrestrained pillaging was rarely seen again during the conflict. Even areas that saw numerous campaigns and battles, such as northeastern England in the early 1460s, suffered little material damage. Despite frequent Lancastrian incursions from SCOTLAND; sustained campaigning around ALNWICK, BAMBURGH, and DUNSTANBURGH castles; and the pitched battles of HEDGELEY MOOR and HEXHAM, surviving monastic and estate accounts for northeastern England between 1461 and 1464 indicate little economic disruption and give only slight evidence that the area was an ongoing war zone (see North of England and the Wars of the Roses).
   One cause of economic distress during the Wars of the Roses was the lingering demographic effect of epidemic disease, both the devastating depopulation caused by visitations of the Black Death in the fourteenth century and the more localized depopulations caused by smaller disease outbreaks in the fifteenth century. The resulting labor shortages undermined the unfree status of rural peasants (villeins), who by manorial custom were to remain on the land on which they were born, paying customary dues in labor or produce to their customary landlords. Competition for scare labor often meant better terms for peasants but declining rents for landlords. Another cause of economic hardship arose from fluctuations in foreign trade. Many English people were involved in some aspect of the wool and cloth trades—noble or gentle landowners raised sheep and town or peasant families produced woolen cloth, either for the domestic market or for export to the cloth-making towns of BURGUNDY. Foreign wars; trade embargoes, such as those undertaken by the HANSEATIC LEAGUE; shrinking demand in foreign markets; or the restrictive or retaliatory trade policies of the English or Burgundian governments could affect the health of the English export trade in wool, cloth, or grain, the three major English exports. A recession in continental markets in the early 1460s spread to England by 1465, forcing EDWARD IV to devalue the coinage and causing more economic distress in the country than was ever caused by the civil wars themselves. By the 1480s, improvement in European markets helped the English market rebound, even though RICHARD III’s 1483 usurpation of his nephew’s throne revived the Wars of the Roses at about the same time (see Usurpation of 1483).
   Further Reading: Bolton, J. L., The Medieval English Economy, 1150-1500 (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1980); Britnell, R. H.,“The Economic Context,” in A. J. Pollard, ed., The Wars of the Roses (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), pp. 41–64; Hatcher, John, Plague, Population and the English Economy, 1348-1530 (London: Macmillan, 1994); Munro, J. H.,Wool, Cloth and Gold (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972).

Encyclopedia of the Wars of the Roses. . 2001.

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