Agriculture in Britain Pt. 1 – 1500-1750

We thought we’d start this blog off by talking about the history of Agriculture in Britain. Obviously agriculture has a history dating back thousands of years, but it would be a massive subject to cover and this blog isn’t dedicated just to that, so we’ve decided to focus specifically on Britain.

Agriculture in Britain Before 1500

Farming was first introduced to Britain by Mesolithic people from Syria, and after 2,000 years was practiced across the British Isles. The majority of crops were Wheat and Barley which were grown in household crops, small enough for a family to tend to, and to feed them during the year. Cattle was introduced from the European Mainland, while native wild hogs were domesticated into pigs to keep for meat and animal byproducts.

While society changed from mostly hunter-gatherer to agricultural, there were times when the two mixed and traded items between them. There is no agreement on when the switch from predominantly hunter-gatherer to agricultural society took place,  but it would have been after the early neolithic period.

When the Saxons and Vikings invaded Britain, they practiced an open-field farming system. This was where a village would have 2 or 3 large fields for farming, which would be divided into narrow strips of land. These strips were then tended to by the peasants or serfs that were housed on the land of the Lord.

Once the Normans and Plantagenets came to power, they created larger amounts of farmland for the ever growing population, by reducing woodland and draining fens. However, when the Black Death hit Britain in 1349, a third of the population died out, leaving large swathes of farmland unattended and derelict. This is part of what caused the Feudal System to break down.

As there was much less population having to do much more work, these peasants then started to revolt and demand better wages and living conditions. The lords had no choice as if the peasants and serfs didn’t tend the fields, they would have no food with which to feed themselves. Following the Plague, the population did not recover until the 1500’s.

Agriculture in Britain 1500-1750

In 1531, King Henry VIII delcared himself the head of the Church of England. He started the dissolution of the monasteries, and this had a great impact on agriculture in britain. The monasteries owned much of the land around Britain and this land – amounting to around 2,000,000 Acres was transferred to the Crown.

Henry VIII then sold most of this land in order to fund his military campaigns in Europe, mostly Spain and France. The land was sold to the Landed Gentry and members of the aristocracy.

By 1650, Grain prices increased sixfold, while transportation improved on the rivers and coasts, which meant that Beef and Dairy produce could make its way to London. This caused the agricultural industry in Britain to boom.

Around 1707, when the Kingdom of Great Britain was established, Jethro Tull created the rotating-cylinder seed drill. This would impact productivity in such a large way, that it changed the future of agriculture and methods used in the industry.

At around the same time, Charles Townsend also introduced the farming of Turnips on a large scale. This then lead to the four-crop rotation system, in which Wheat, Turnips, Barley, then Clover would be farmed. The reason this had such a major on agriculture is because it made the most efficient use of land, leaving very little fallow land. Clover increases the amount of nitrogen in the soil, while livestock feed on Clover and Turnips, which means their manure fertilizes the soil.

We’ll leave today’s blog post there and pick up on 1750-1939 in the next blog post!