People's History - Growth of England Before Capitalism

Grant PetersonStarred Page By Grant Peterson, 9th Apr 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
Posted in Wikinut>Writing>Society & Issues

One of the major challenges of history is that what we know is taught by those that claimed victory, the truth may have a slightly different twist and history therefore differs according to the class of the person viewing it. With Britain (or more specifically England and Wales) being the origin of capitalism it is necessary as a background to the development of Capitalism as a system that is prevalent across the world today.


When I was a child, back in England, the mother of a good school friend gave him a book called "A People's History of England" by A.L. Morton. My friend read a few chapters, but he could always see I was interested, so I spent much of the summer holidays delving into that book, which was significant because it told a different story than the history of kings and queens that we were being taught at school, yet Morton's book reveals the inner conflict in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland through the generations - a conflict of class.

This is part one of a series of articles about the development of England covering the period between the early times and the Capitalist Revolution. This is an introductory article and is intended to give the background to the creation of capitalism, but leans much on Morton's work.

Early England till Roman Times

Morton starts by looking at tribal times discussing a map that shows the south western tip of Cornwall in close proximity to the Iberian peninsular and it seems the Irish sea was a part of a prehistoric trade route to the North Sea and the lands of the Baltic, with Iberian relics left along the Welsh and Irish coastal areas in the period of 2000 to 3000 BC (or perhaps earlier). About 700 BC Celtic tribes came to England, then to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland - they were fair-haired warlike tribes from the upper Rhine lands, others coming from Gaul to the southern counties These invaders brought with them the distinctiveness of the British people.

The Roman invasion came about because of the close relationship between some of the British tribes and Gaul. Yet this invasion suffered initial resistance by native tribes, leaving the Romans to conquer the country at a later period.

With the ultimate collapse of the Roman empire, there were various influences in pre-feudal England, including the Angels, Saxons, Norsemen, Christianity, Danes and others and as part of this came the foundation of feudal society with distinctions between royalty, the aristocracy (or landed gentry), squires, freedmen and surfs across every part of the land. England was very much an agricultural state and between the 4th and 9th centuries was a popular destination for the vast migration that was occurring through Europe and various parts of England were influenced by other cultures.

Growth of Feudal Rule & the Magna Carta

The Norman invasion in 1066 helped build momentum for the growing feudal system. At this time William setup the circuit courts, where judges would sit in the assizes in each town periodically, bringing about common law to give this flourishing feudal state a legal foundation.

The time between the conquest of 1066 and the year 1200 England experienced massive growth in state power with an autocratic king imposing his authority over the land. The Barons and other landed groups at this time became increasingly frustrated with the power of the crown early in the thirteenth century. King John eventually lost the support of the aristocracy, leading to the confrontation at Runnymede in 1215, where they forced John to accede certain powers under the Magna Carta, regarded by many as a turning point in English history. But Morton points out:

    It was not a 'constitutional' document. It did not embody the principle of no taxation without representation. It did not guarantee parliamentary government, since parliament did not then exist. It did not establish the right to trial by jury, since, in fact, the jury was a piece of royal machinery to which the barons had the strongest objections. What it did was detail the ways in which John had gone beyond his rights as a feudal overlord and to demand these unlawful practices should stop.

In securing the charter of rights through the Magna Carta the barons won their victory only by combining their power with that of other classes, in other words where they had been the natural allies of the king they changed societal relations in gaining their victory, a characteristic of future societal change.

The Decline of Feudalism

The victory of the Barons brought many changes in English society starting with a change to the agrarian landscape, Feudal structures were being dismantled with the development of capitalist style agriculture. Commutation occurred where labor services were replaced by monetary payments in place of barter with money playing an increasing role in society and towns would play an increasingly important part centered on trade and with their growth came the development of craft guilds which were the basis for the skilled tradesmen, alongside these grew merchant guilds to encourage trade of goods (including trade between towns and counties) thus trade became more complex, this period also brought about general taxation on land and other property.

After Runnymede The Barons to a large extent administered England in the Kings name. Remember at this time Wales, Scotland, and Ireland were still independently governed, although feudalism had spread across the English border and after many years of war the English finally conquered Wales in 1285, happening in parallel to other events described in this section.

Under the Great Council of the Barons the state apparatus grew in leaps and bounds and this process unified the aristocracy as a class controlling English society, despite Henry III's attempts to wrest control away from them, clashing on several occasions and trade was interfered with, making enemies not only of the barons, but also the trade and merchant guilds, united against the king. The Great council setup a broad range of committees governing segments of society with the intent to isolate the king further and continue the process of government, demanding the right to appoint sheriff's, chancellor, judicial, and other officers. At this time the council became known as a Parliament attempting to create a separation of powers.

The clashes with Henry III led to civil war in the 1260s with the king suffering defeat in 1264 in Lewes by parliamentary forces under the leadership of Simon de Montfort. His parliament was later described as a revolutionary assembly, the first of many clashes between the burgeoning capitalist class and the monarchy. De Montfort was eventually defeated by Henry's son Edward in 1266, but the new king adopted many of the rebel demands during the years that followed, but his son Edward II further aggravated the barons after loss in the battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and in 1327 was deposed by Parliament, showing the supremacy of Parliament for the first time.

Hundred Years War & Peasants Revolt

England had been involved in many wars, indeed it could be said that much of its development had been a demonstration of its worrier heritage, yet the Hundred Years War was fought on a different basis than those preceding it, reflecting the interests of merchant capital particularly in relation to wool and iron trades but it was also closely connected to societal changes in Flanders and Ghent where merchants saw they had similar interests to their English counterparts, at this time this area was controlled by the Kingdom of France and this was as much an economic campaign as it was a military one as demonstrated by the 1327 prohibition of of wool exports to Flanders which created an immediate crisis.

In 1348 the bubonic plague swept across Europe and killed approximately one third of the population. One of the byproducts was the end of the feudal organization of agriculture and increased prices universally in England, causing demands for higher wages, leading to the Peasants Revolt. Marx stated "the might of the feudal lord... did not depend on his rent roll... but on the number of his subjects" from each of whom he extracted tithes (rent).

Having made advances in the preceding years agricultural workers in England faced the prospect of losing everything they had gained, this amounted to a return to surfism (but under more totalitarian conditions) which drove many peasant movements during the 1370s until the eventual revolt in 1381. This represented a revolt of men who had already won certain measures of freedom and prosperity, and faced the prospect of losing it all, not surprising their demand for the abolition of serfdom.

Engels in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State makes the observation that once societal relations have changed it is impossible to go back to an earlier structure.

Prelude to Capitalist Revolution

Marx stated in Das Capital "the prelude of the revolution that laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production was played out in the last third of the 15th century and the first decade of the 16th" and a hundred years later there was still a state of conflict "in 1627 Roger Crocker of Front Mill was condemned for having built a cottage on the manor... without 4 acres of land" this was a throw-back to an old law, a pretext being used by the king in opposing the capitalist class.

The ongoing decline of feudalism not only affected the landed gentry and agriculture it impacted the towns and developing guild organizations, both the plague and hundred years war came as heavy blows to newly chartered towns. There had also been a corresponding growth in literacy, with the new merchant class being more literate than their predecessors, especially with the advent of Caxton's printing press making printed material more widely available. Overall the 15th and 16th centuries brought both chaos and prosperity at the same time, with attempted coup d'êtat and secret parliamentary committees and the eventual creation of the "House of Commons" - a place where common people would be represented differently from where the Barons and aristocracy met. Yet with the pressures of the hundred years war created many reactionary movements this time was unstable. The 1606 plot by Guy Fawkes represented a movement that demanded to return of both Catholicism and Feudal rule, its failure actually showed the extent of change favoring new monetary conditions.

The levying of a poor rate in 1572 made each parish responsible for its poor (making basic welfare a component of capitalism, but at the same time the Justices of the Peace were responsible for setting the maximum daily rate of pay, limiting working peoples pay.

Yet by the end of the 16th century the bourgeoisie, that is the new capitalist class, had a weapon ready for their use the new House of Commons which assisted the merchant classes during their ascendency in the early 17th century building on the clothing revolution of the 15th century, through the discovery of the Americas and the opening up of trade routes across the globe from Arctic Russia, India, China and other lands increasing the wealth of the merchant class.

Of course this was an important aspect in respect of the break between Henry VIII and the papacy, which changed the relationship between the church and the new merchant class. The capitalist revolution was not yet complete, but it was well on its way.

Other related work

"Global Capitalism, Imperialism and the Power of the Corporation" is the first part of a series that takes a look at the current crisis of capitalism, See also "The Growth of Global Capitalism, Imperialism and Need for True Democracy" which brings all the parts together.

Imperialism versus Fundamentalism (US and Allies Attack Syria)
In the Middle of the Road: The Failings of Liberalism
Death Agony of Capitalism: The Need for Revolutionary Change

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author avatar Retired
14th Apr 2015 (#)

An interesting analysis.

Would you agree that Capitalism and Communism have similar roots - namely the refusal of people to be ruled by others when it comes to earning their livings and being prosperous?

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author avatar Grant Peterson
14th Apr 2015 (#)

That is an interesting question John and central to this series. It amazes me that few pro-capitalist commentators know about the formation of capitalism and the movements surrounding it and this has to be taught by Marxists, who seek the abolition of the capitalist regime. When it comes to class relations the capitalist and working class do have similar roots in needing to rid themselves of their oppressors in order to take control of their own destiny.

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author avatar Ptrikha
14th Apr 2015 (#)

Interesting history. Is this book still freely available?

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author avatar Grant Peterson
14th Apr 2015 (#)

As far as I know the book is still available.

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author avatar writershirley lopez
15th Apr 2015 (#)

Very interesting read, thank you for this information.

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