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Piscatorial Politics Revisited: The Language of Economic Debate and the Evolution of Fishing Policy in Elizabethan England 1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 June 2017

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The historiography of Tudor economic legislation has been preoccupied with two questions: firstly whether any consistent economic planning, or simply expedient reactions to various problems, can be discerned in Elizabethan policy; and secondly whether and to what extent policy was imposed “from above” by William Cecil and the privy council, or influenced “from below” by local and factional lobbying. Since the 1980s the research of Geoffrey Elton and his successors has extended our understanding of Tudor parliaments; yet the standard accounts of Elizabethan policy-making have on the whole paid insufficient attention to contemporaries’ perceptions and interpretations of economic change, upon which their suggested solutions and arguments for reform were based. As several studies of particular policies have shown, such as Norman Jones’ analysis of usury statutes, and Paul Fideler’s work on poor relief, the evolution of economic policy in sixteenth-century England can fruitfully be approached by cutting through the rhetoric of preambles and policy statements, and by focusing on the strategies of persuasion underlying debates in Parliament and beyond.

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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 2003

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The author thanks Ian Archer, Pauline Croft, and the participants in the Tudor and Stuart History Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, for their valuable comments.


2 Elton, G.R., The Parliament of England 1559–1581 (Cambridge, 1986)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Dean, David M., Law-Making and Society in Late Elizabethan England: The Parliament of England, 1584–1601 (Cambridge, 1996)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hartley, T. E., Elizabeth’s Parliaments: Queen, Lords and Commons 1559–1601 (Manchester, 1992)Google Scholar; Loach, Jennifer, Parliament under the Tudors (Oxford, 1991)Google Scholar; Dean, David M. and Jones, Norman, eds., The Parliaments of Elizabethan England (Oxford, 1990)Google Scholar.

3 Jones, Gorman, God and the Moneylenders: Usury and Law in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1989)Google Scholar; Fideler, Paul A., “Poverty, Policy and Providence: The Tudors and the Poor,” in Political Thought and the Tudor Commonwealth: deep structure, discourse and disguise (London, 1992), pp. 194222 Google Scholar; idem, “Societas, Civitas and Early Elizabethan Poor Relief,” in Charles Carlton, et al, eds., State, Sovereigns and Society in Early Modern England: Essays in honour of A.J. Slavin (Stroud, 1998), pp. 59–69; other examples include Michael Zeli, “Parliament, the Textile Industry and the Mid-Tudor Crisis,” in ibid., pp. 71–84; Laura Hunt Yungblut, Strangers Settled Here Amongst Us: Policies, Perceptions, and the Presence of Aliens in Elizabethan England (London, 1996).

4 5 Eliz. I. C.5, Statutes of the Realm, 4:1, 422–23 (hereafter cited as 575); the earliest attempt to enforce fish days with “political” justification was an Edwardian proclamation of January 1548, Tudor Royal Proclamations, ed. Paul L. Hughes and James F. Larkin, 3 vols. (New Haven, 1969), no. 297; see also nos. 368, 386 (hereafter cited as T.R.P.), and a statute of 1549, 2&3 Ed. VI. c. 19, SR, 4:1, 65–66; earlier navigation acts did not mention fishing, for example the “Act for the Maintenance of the Navy” of 1540, 32 Hen. VIII. c.14, SR, 3: 760–63.

5 Elton, G. R., “Piscatorial Politics in the early Parliaments of Elizabeth I,” in McKendrick, N. and Outhwaite, R. B., eds., Business Life and Public Policy: Essays in honour of D. C. Coleman (Cambridge, 1986), pp. 120 Google Scholar; Dean, David M, “Parliament, Privy Council, and Local Politics in Elizabethan England: The Yarmouth-Lowestoft Fishing Dispute,” Albion 22 (1990): 3964.Google Scholar

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7 Wrightson, Keith, Earthly Necessities: Economic Lives in Early Modern Britain (New Haven, 2000), pp. 11558.Google Scholar

8 Public Record Office, State Papers 12 27/71 is a draft of the speech with numerous additions in Cecil’s hand; all further citations are from the transcription in Hartley, T. E., ed., Proceedings in the Parliaments of Elizabeth I, 3 vols. (Leicester, 1981), 1: 10307.Google Scholar

9 Glasgow, T., “The Navy in the First Elizabethan Undeclared War, 1559–60,” and “The Navy in the French Wars of Mary and Elizabeth I,” Mariners Mirror 54 (1968): 2338; 28196 Google Scholar; “The Maturing of Naval Administration, 1556–64,” Mariners Mirror 56 (1970): 30–26; Loades, David, The Tudor Navy: An Administrative, Political and Military History (London, 1992)Google Scholar.

10 Tudor Economic Documents, ed. Tawney, R. H. and Power, Eileen, 3 vols. (London, 1924),Google Scholar 1: 330 (hereafter cited as TED).

11 T.E.D., II, 99; Barnabe, a merchant of London, had been Thomas Cromwell’s agent in France and gathered various information as well as carrying on his business under the protection of safe conducts granted by Henry VIII and Edward VI.

12 PRO, SP 11 1/23, ff. 59–60, is an undated document of c. 1558–63 listing “ships decayed since the xxxvjth year of King Henry VIII,” which possibly formed the basis of the figures quoted by Cecil in his 1563 speech; Letters & Papers Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII, 4: 2, 5101 (1528), endorsed by Cecil, lists 149 ships of several ports engaged in the Iceland voyage, plus 222 north sea crayers, and 78 crayers for Scottish voyages; other early sixteenth-century documents he probably used include: L&P Hen. VIII, 4: 1, 1380 (1533); and L&P Hen. VIII, 19: 1, nos. 109, 114–17 (1543-15); PRO, SP 12 28/3, ff. 4–5 is a “certificate of shipping in the V portes, as it was xxx yeares past and as it is at this present [1563],” endorsed by Cecil: “decayed”; evidence that he may have cited further figures not recorded in the draft of his speech remains in a jotting taken down by the clerk, transcribed by Neale, J. E., “The Commons Journals in the Tudor Period,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 3 (1920): 139, n 3.Google Scholar

13 Hartley, Proceedings, 1: 103; this was a reference to a ban imposed in 1561 following clashes between pirates at Bilbao in Spain; the situation was temporary, but there was already an underlying deterioration of diplomatic relations which proved worrying to Cecil; Ramsay, G.D., The City of London in International Politics at the Accession of Elizabeth: The End of the Antwerp Mart, Part I (Manchester, 1975), p.137.Google Scholar

14 Hartley, Proceedings, 1: 104.

15 Elton, G. R., The Parliament of England 1559–1581, pp. 25861.Google Scholar

16 PRO, SP 12 31/41, ff. 75–76 contains notes amended by Cecil in which he lists the Wednesdays already counted as fasts, and calculates the number of new fish days; he also refers to the legalization of “white meats” (dairy produce) in Lent, as a further reason for the decline of fish-eating; T.R.P., no. 177.

17 Elton, “Piscatorial Politics,” p. 8; Elizabeth’s first biographer, William Camden, wrote that “least she shoulde breake the Ecclesiasticall fast in Lent, shee solemnly asked licence every yeere of the Archbishop of Canterbury, for eating of flesh”; however, this note was omitted from all but two of the English editions of the Annales of Princess Elizabeth, edited by Norton (1635), pp. 7–8, and Heame (1717), 1: 34; Collinson, Patrick, “One of Us? William Camden and the making of history,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th ser., 8 (1998): 13963.Google Scholar

18 The bill finally passed by 149 votes to 77 ( Neale, J. E., Elizabeth I and her Parliaments, 2 vols. [London, 1953], 1: 116)Google Scholar.

19 PRO, SP 12 27/72 is a draft of certain exemption clauses in Cecil’s hand; Hartley interpreted these equivocations as a sign that Cecil himself believed that extra fish days “could have no substantial effect on the strength of the navy”; however, this claim is not supported by reference either to the speech or to Cecil’s notes on related topics, but on the contrary, evidence that Wednesday fasts were close to Cecil’s heart can be seen in his Memoryall on “The State of the Q. and the Realm” (1585), PRO, SP 12 184/50, ff. 135–46v.

20 Anon., Libelle of Englyshe Polycye (c.1436), ed. G. Warner (Oxford 1926), p. 47; Dee, John, General and rare memorials pertctyning to the perfect arte of navigation (1577)Google Scholar STC 6459, sig. G4v; Nashe, Thomas, Nashes Lenten stuffe, containing the description and first procreation and increase of the towne of Great Yarmouth in Norffolke: with a new play neuer played before, of the praise of the red herring (1599)Google Scholar, ed. McKerrow, R. B., Works, 5 vols. (Oxford, 190410), 3: 158.Google Scholar

21 See above, note 12; Elizabethan surveys of shipping in various major ports may be found in PRO, SP 12 11/27 (1560), British Library, Harleian MS 168, f. 248 (1568), PRO, SP 12 96, ff. 267–73 (1572), PRO, SP 12 111/30 (1577), and PRO, SP 12 156/45 (1582); PRO, SP 12 107/68 (1576) details 140 fishing vessels built since 1571; Loades, The Tudor Navy, pp. 178–82.

22 Israel, Jonathan I., The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806 (Oxford, 1995), p. 117.Google Scholar

23 The Dutch had perfected the art of salting herring using a method attributed to the folkloric figure, Beukels; Unger, R. W., “The Netherlands Herring Fishery in the Late Middle Ages: The False Legend of Willem Beukels of Biervliet,” Viator 9 (1978): 33556 Google Scholar; an English alternative, and a speciality of Yarmouth, were smoked “red herring,” or kippers.

24 Tittler, Robert, “The English Fishing Industry in the Sixteenth Century: The Case of Great Yarmouth,” Albion 9 (1977): 5657 Google Scholar; attempts to foster a domestic salt industry through the granting of patents met with little success in this period ( Hughes, E., “The English Monopoly of Salt, 1563–71,” English Historical Review 40 [1925]: 33450)Google Scholar.

25 Glasgow, T., “The Shape of the Ships that Defeated the Spanish Armada,” Mariners Mirror 50 (1964): 17788.Google Scholar

26 Scattimeli, G. V., “Ship Owning in the Economy and Politics of Early Modern England,” Historical Journal 15 (1972): 385107.Google Scholar

27 Loades, David, England’s Maritime Empire: Seapower, Commerce and Policy, 1490–1690 (London, 2000)Google Scholar; Hope, Ronald, A New History of British Shipping (London, 1990)Google Scholar; Oppenheim, M., A History of the Administration of the Royal Navy and of Merchant Shipping in Relation to the Navy, 1509–1660 (London, 1896), pp. 88177 Google Scholar; Burwash, D., English Merchant Shipping, 1460–1540 (Toronto, 1947)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Scammell, G. V.English Merchant Shipping: Some East Coast Evidence,” Economic History Review 13 (1961): 32741 Google Scholar; Williams, N. J., The Maritime Trade of the East Anglian Ports, 1550–1590 (Oxford, 1988)Google Scholar.

28 Micheli, A. R., “The European Fisheries in Early Modern History,” in Rich, E. and Wilson, C. H., eds., The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, 8 vols. (Cambridge, 1977)Google Scholar, V: The Economic Organization of Early Modern Europe, pp. 135–40).

29 Loades, The Tudor Navy, p. 7.

30 Rappaport, Steve, Worlds Within Worlds: Structures of Life in Sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 14344, 40607.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

31 Cogan, Thomas, The haven of health (1584) STC 5478, sigs. S3r-Tlv.Google Scholar

32 Nashes Lenten stuffe, McKerrow, Works, 3: 179, Nashe’s italics; PRO, SP 12 147/82, “Rate for the diet of a man for the fish days and the difference in price of flesh,” shows fish to be cheaper than meats such as beef or mutton.

33 Worlds Within Worlds, pp. 140–44, 403–07.

34 Description of England, ed. Georges Edelen (New York, 1968, repr. 1994), p. 374; this comment was added to the second edition (1587), perhaps in response to the 1581 act, whereas in the first edition (1577) only a margin note had remarked that “neuer was our salted and fresh fishe so deare as now sith men must neds haue it,” STC 13568, sig. P5r.

35 PRO, SP 12 78/35, ff. 232–33 (misdated in CSPD to 1571) is a planning document in Cecil’s hand detailing this stipulation and other clauses; it is probably the minutes of the committee Cecil chaired; Elton, The Parliament of England, p. 260.

36 Erasmus, “On the Eating of Fish” in Colloquia (1526), in The Essential Erasmus, ed. Dolan, J. P. (New York, 1964), pp. 271326 Google Scholar; An epystell of ye famous doctor Erasmus of Roterdam vnto the reuerende father & excellent prince Christofer bysshop of Basyle, concemyng the forbedynge of eatynge of flesshe, and lyke constitutyons of men, &c, tr. Thomas Godfray (c.1534) STC 10489; Becon, Thomas, A fruitful treatise of fasting, wherin is declared what ye Christen fast is, how we ought to fast, and what ye true vse offastyng is (1551) STC 1722.Google Scholar

37 Bodleian, MS Tanner 50, ff. 43r-44r.

38 Thomas Elyot, The costei of helth (1541) STC 7644, sig. E4r; Andrew Boorde, A compendyous regyment or a dyetary of helth (1542), ed. Furnivall, F. J., EETS Extra ser., 10 (London, 1870), p. 271 Google Scholar; and Thomas Cogan, The haven of health (1584), sigs. S2r-S3v.

39 Fortescue, John, The Governance of England (c. 1470), ed. Plummer, C. (Oxford, 1926), p. 114 Google Scholar; Anon., “Polices to reduce this realme of Englande vnto a prosperus wealthe and estate” (1549), TED., 3: 328–29; William Forrest, “The pleasaunt poesye of princelie practise” (1548), T.E.D., 3: 41.

40 Anon., “Polices to reduce this realme,” T.E.D., 3: 335.

41 Wriothesley, Charles, A Chronicle of England… 1485–1559, ed. Hamilton, W. D., Camden Society, 2 vols. (London, 1877)Google Scholar, 2: 68; Machyn, Henry, The Diary of Henry Machyn, Citizen and Merchant Taylor of London, from 1550–1563, ed. Nichols, J. G., Camden Society, o.s. 42 (London, 1847), p. 253.Google Scholar

42 PRO, SP 12 77/69, f. 174; SP 12 147/82, ff. 145–48; proclamations for “enforcing of abstinence from meat” were re-issued annually at Lent, see T.R.P., no. 477 (1561).

43 Beresford, Maurice, “The Common Informer, the Penal Statutes and Economic Regulation,” Economic History Review 10 (1957): 22138.Google Scholar

44 Hartley, Proceedings, 1: 251; Commons Journal, 1: 89–90; Elton, “Piscatorial Politics,” pp. 4–5.

45 Tittler, “The English Fishing Industry,” pp. 40–60.

46 Manship, Henry, The History of Great Yarmouth, ed. Palmer, C. J. (London, 1854), p. 101.Google Scholar

47 PRO, SP 12 41/58 (1566); misdated to 1581 in T.E.D., 2: 124–27.

48 PRO, SP 12 75/16, f. 33v.

49 Hitchcock, described by John Dee as being “of the Middle Temple” was also responsible for publishing a military treatise, The arte ofwarre (1591), and for translating The quintessence of wit (1590), a book of “politick conceites” out of Italian; in these sources he outlined his career, starting with the command of “200 pioneers in the fortifications at Berwick in 1551,” after which he “served the Emperor Charles V in his warres” in 1553, gaining experience which he again put to use in the Low Countries in 1586; he petitioned the queen on military matters on numerous occasions, see BL, Lansdowne MS 113/10; Lansdowne MS 119/3; and Lansdowne MS 389; Elton, “Piscatorial Politics,” pp. 6–8.

50 BL, Add. MS 18035 (1570), dedicated to Leicester.

51 BL, Add. MS 20042 (1588), see ff. 18r-19v on fishing and trade.

52 The earliest extant version of his scheme is BL, Lansdowne MS 14/30, dated 1572, although it may have originally been devised and presented to the earl of Leicester as early as 1570.

53 Tollitique platt (1581) STC 13531, sig. F4r.

54 Digges, Thomas, “A briefe discourse declaring how honourable and profitable… and how necessary and commodious the making of Dover Haven shall be…” (1582), repr. in Archaeologia 11 (1792): 21254 Google Scholar; Dee, John, General and rare memorials, refers to “R.H.,” sig. A4r.Google Scholar

55 Pollitique platt, inserted between sigs. E4v and Fir.

56 Pollitique platt, inserted between sigs. F3v and F4r; the perceived link between fishing and the wine trade is also apparent in earlier policy and planning, such as Cecil’s memorandum on a wine licensing act, PRO, SP 12 41/58 (1566).

57 Pollitique platt, sigs. A2r, Air, Alv.

58 General and rare memorials, sigs. A4v, C4r-v; Loades, The Tudor Navy, pp. 191–3, argues that Dee’s proposals were “almost feasible.”

59 Hartley, Proceedings, 1: 104; see above, notes 12, 21.

60 Thomas, Keith, “Numeracy in Early Modern England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th ser., 37 (1987): 109.Google Scholar

61 Elton, “Piscatorial Politics,” pp. 11–14.

62 Ibid, p. 13

63 Ibid., p. 16.

64 PRO, SP 12 148/29, f. 128.

65 27 Eliz. I. c. 11; this was achieved as part of an “Acte for the reviving, continuance, explanation and perfecting of divers statutes,” but not without a considerable clash between the two Houses, with Burghley, now in the Lords, trying to prevent its passage by putting it to a special conference. Elizabeth personally sent a message to the speaker, that she “thowghte that the continewance of the Wedensdey to be fishe deye was verye necessary and commended yt to the Howse.” But the Commons resisted: “we on the contrarye stoode to the meyntenawnce of that we had passed; and neyther parte seemed satisfyed”; Hartley, Proceedings, 2: 77, 78, 91, 95, 96, 99; Lords Journal, 2: 100, 103, 106; the repeal did not prevent the continued issuing of proclamations enforcing 5 Eliz. I. c.5 for the observation of other fish days (Fridays, Saturdays, Lent, etc.), for instance T.R.P., no. 800.

66 Hartley, Proceedings, 2: 68, 112.

67 Ibid., p. 112; exactly the same arguments were recited in an anonymous “Discourse of corporations” (c. 1587–89), T.E.D., 3: 267, 274.

68 Ibid., 2: 387, 396, 497; in 1589 the Fishmongers accused their adversaries of being “fisshers in satén dobletes with gold and silver,” but the epithet could have applied to themselves; ibid. 3: 98, 116, 121, 126, 127, 174; in 1593 the Fishmongers’ bill was obstructed at the last minute by Thomas Vavasour, a gentleman pensioner with a privilege for importing cod and ling notwithstanding the statute; Archer, Ian W., “The London Lobbies in the Later Sixteenth Century,” Historical Journal 31 (1988): 38.Google Scholar

69 39 Eliz. I. c.10; SR, 4: 2, 910–11.

70 43 Eliz. I. C.9; SR, 4: 2, 973–74.

71 Nelson, Thomas, The device of the pageant: set forth by the companie of Fishmongers for Iohn Allot, established Lord Maior of London (1590) STC 18423, sig. A2r.Google Scholar

72 Dean, “Parliament, Privy Council, and Local Politics,” p. 48.

73 Yarmouth continued to demand special assistance long after the reign of Elizabeth; Gruen-felder, J. K., “Great Yarmouth, its haven and the crown, 1603–1642,” in Norfolk Archaeology 43, (1998): 14354 Google Scholar; Patterson, , Urban Patronage in Early Modern England, pp. 11419.Google Scholar

74 Yarmouth’s high stewards in this period included the earl of Leicester, succeeded by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and the earl of Essex; Lowestoft were supported by Suffolk peers ( MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Suffolk and the Tudors: Politics and Religion in an English County, 1500–1600 [Oxford, 1986], pp. 21314)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 Dean, “Parliament, Privy Council, and Local Politics,” pp. 39–64.

76 Norfolk Record Office, Y C36/7/13, Lowestoft’s first petition, 1595.

77 NRO, Y C36/7/14, Yarmouth’s answer tc/Lowestoft’s allegations (n.d.).

78 NRO, Y C36/7/15, Lowestoft’s second petition (n.d.); an exchange of petitions, answers and appeals continued with much repetition of the original articles; NRO, Y C36/7/16, 17.

79 NRO, Y C36/7/2, 3 are copies of the certificate of the judges; A.P.C., XXV, 400–04.

80 NRO, Y C36/7/6; other drafts of the same material are NRO, Y C36/7/7, 8, 9, 18, 19.

81 Nashes Lenten stuffe (1599), McKerrow, Works, 3: 145–226.

82 NRO, Y C36/7/6.

83 Anon., “Discourse of corporations” (c. 1587–89), T.E.D., 3: 273–75.

84 A bill was proposed in 1598 to ban exports when the price of herring rose above certain limits, but it was defeated after a division in the Commons; Hartley, Proceedings, 3: 236, 237.

85 PRO, SP 12 48/83, ff. 204–05, “The humble peticon of the poore inhabitantes of the coastes of Norffolk and Suffolk for the relyef and mayntenance of the navigacon.”

86 BL, Lansdowne MS 65/29 (1590); the anonymous author of this document alleged that “Yarmouth men synce the statute of Navigation have yearely imployed themselves and wealth most about herring faire not to serve the Reaime as they were wont to doe but to transporte them only…whereby London markettes haue bene without herring commonly by halfe lent past.”

87 35 Eliz. I. C.7, SR, 4: 2, 854–56; PRO, SP 12 282/42 (3 Nov. 1601) and 282/63 (26 Nov. 1601); Hartley, Proceedings, 3: 318, 400.

88 Dean, Law-Making and Society, pp. 165–67; Jennings, A briefe discouery (1590) STC 14486; a draft of this pamphlet is BL, Lansdowne MS 101/22.

89 The volume of pamphlet literature on the subject continued to grow in the seventeenth century, although it was increasingly targeted at promoting individual enterprise rather than at government policy-makers; for example, Tobias Gentleman, Englands way to win wealth (1614) STC 11745; E.S., Britaines busse (1615) STC 21486; Dudley Digges, The defence of trade (1615) STC 6845; Robert Kayll, The trades increase (1615) STC 14894; Keymor, John, Observation made upon the Dutch fishing about the year 1601 (1664) Wing K390.Google Scholar

90 Peck, Linda Levy, Northampton: Patronage and Policy at the Court of James I (London, 1982), pp. 14045.Google Scholar

91 For examples of ships or the sea being described as a defensive wall see Hartley, Proceedings, 1: 506; 2: 274, 3: 430, 479.

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