For all the pride which it engendered among contemporaries, who saw in the Tudor fisheries a nursery for English seamen and even a hallmark for the national identity, the fishing industry in the sixteenth century has received scant attention from English historians. This neglect has been doubly unfortunate. On the one hand, it leaves us in general ignorance of the industry itself: its organization, personnel, productivity, and economic importance in both national and regional terms. On the other, it has denied us the opportunity to observe a tradition-bound industry of considerable antiquity as it faced the political, economic, and technological changes of the post-medieval era.
The format of an essay cannot reasonably encompass a detailed study of a major industry, but the selection of a particular case for study can at least present a helpful paradigm for the whole, and fill part of the void in the existing literature. The fishing industry of Great Yarmouth seems an appropriate choice. The fact that herring collected off the mouth of the River Yare each September for as far back as man can remember has made the association of Yarmouth and fishing as old as it is logical. Fishermen plied those grounds from at least the sixth century, making the town one of the earliest recorded fishing centres of Northern Europe, and well before the Conquest townsmen had dedicated their parish church to St. Nicholas, patron of fishermen. Throughout the Middle Ages Yarmouth stood alone as the chief supplier of herring, a dietary staple to the English market, and ranked near the top of the European fishing industry.