England no longer sent her fleeces to be woven in Flanders and to be dyed at Florence. The spinning of yarn, the weaving, fulling, and dyeing of cloth, was spreading rapidly from the towns over the countryside. The worsted trade, of which Norwich was the centre, extended over the whole of the Eastern counties. Farmers' wives began everywhere to spin their wool from their own sheep's backs into a coarse "home-spun." The South and the West, however, still remained the great seats of industry and of wealth, for they were the homes of mining and manufacturing activity. The iron manufactures were limited to Kent and Sussex, though their prosperity in this quarter was already threatened by the growing scarcity of the wood which fed their furnaces, and by the exhaustion of the forests of the Weald. Cornwall was then, as now, the sole exporter of tin; and the exportation of its copper was just beginning. The broadcloths of the West claimed the palm among the woollen stuffs of England. The Cinque Ports held almost a monopoly of the commerce of the Channel. Every little harbour from the Foreland to the Land's End sent out its fleet of fishing-boats, manned with the bold seamen who were to furnish crews for Drake and the Buccaneers. But in the reign of Elizabeth the poverty and inaction to which the North had been doomed for so many centuries began at last to be broken.
We see the first signs of the revolution which has transferred English manufactures and English wealth to the north of the Mersey and the Humber in the mention which now meets us of the friezes of Manchester, the coverlets of York, the cutlery of Sheffield, and the cloth trade of Halifax.
The growth however of English commerce far outstripped that of its manufactures. We must not judge of it, indeed, by any modern standard; for the whole population of the country can hardly have exceeded five or six millions, and the burthen of all the vessels engaged in ordinary commerce was estimated at little more than fifty thousand tons. The size of the vessels employed in it would nowadays seem insignificant; a modern collier brig is probably as large as the biggest merchant vessel which then sailed from the port of London. But it was under Elizabeth that English commerce began the rapid career of developement which has made us the carriers of the world. The foundation of the Royal Exchange by Sir Thomas Gresham was a mark of the commercial progress of the time. By far the most important branch of our trade was with Flanders; Antwerp and Bruges were in fact the general marts of the world in the early part of the sixteenth century, and the annual export of English wool and drapery to their markets was estimated at a sum of more than two millions in value. It was with the ruin of Antwerp at the time of its siege and capture by the Duke of Parma that the commercial supremacy of our own capital was first established.
A third of the merchants and manufacturers of the ruined city are said to have found a refuge on the banks of the Thames. The export trade to Flanders died away as London developed into the general mart of Europe, where the gold and sugar of the New World were found side by side with the cotton of India, the silks of the East, and the woollen stuffs of England itself. Not only was much of the old trade of the world transferred by this change to English shores, but the sudden burst of national vigour found new outlets for its activity. The Venetian carrying fleet still touched at Southampton; but as far back as the reign of Henry the Seventh a commercial treaty had been concluded with Florence, and the trade with the Mediterranean which had begun under Richard the Third constantly took a wider developement. The trade between England and the Baltic ports had hitherto been concluded by the Hanseatic merchants; but the extinction at this time of their London depot, the Steel Yard, was a sign that this trade too had now passed into English hands.
The growth of Boston and Hull marked an increase of commercial intercourse with Scandinavia. The prosperity of Bristol, which depended in great measure on the trade with Ireland, was stimulated by the conquest and colonization of that island at the close of the Queen's reign and the beginning of her successor's. The dream of a northern passage to India opened up a trade with a land as yet unknown. Of three ships which sailed under Hugh Willoughby to realize this dream, two were found afterwards frozen with their crews and their hapless commander on the coast of Lapland; but the third, under Richard Chancellor, made its way safely to the White Sea and by its discovery of Archangel created the trade with Russia. A more lucrative traffic had already begun with the coast of Guinea, to whose gold-dust and ivory the merchants of Southampton owed their wealth. The guilt of the Slave Trade which sprang out of it rests with John Hawkins, whose arms (a demi-moor, proper, bound with a cord) commemorated his priority in the transport of negroes from Africa to the labour-fields of the New World. The fisheries of the Channel and the German Ocean gave occupation to the numerous ports which lined the coast from Yarmouth to Plymouth Haven; Bristol and Chester were rivals in the fisheries of Ulster; and the voyage of Sebastian Cabot from the former port to the mainland of North America had called English vessels to the stormy ocean of the North. From the time of Henry the Eighth the number of English boats engaged on the cod-banks of Newfoundland steadily increased, and at the close of Elizabeth's reign the seamen of Biscay found English rivals in the whale-fishery of the Polar seas.
What Elizabeth contributed to this upgrowth of national prosperity-was the peace and social order from which it sprang, and the thrift which spared the purses of her subjects by enabling her in ordinary times to content herself with the ordinary resources of the Crown. She lent, too, a ready patronage to the new commerce, she shared in its speculations, she considered its extension and protection as a part of public policy, and she sanctioned the formation of the great Merchant Companies which could then alone secure the trader against wrong or injustice in distant countries. The Merchant-Adventurers of London, a body which had existed long before, and had received a charter of incorporation under Henry the Seventh, furnished a model for the Russian Company and the Company which absorbed the new commerce to the Indies. But it was not wholly with satisfaction that either Elizabeth or her ministers watched the social change which wealth was producing around them. They feared the increased expenditure and comfort which necessarily followed it, as likely to impoverish the land and to eat out the hardihood of the people. " England spendeth more on wines in one year," complained Cecil, "than it did in ancient times in four years." The disuse of salt-fish and the greater consumption of meat marked the improvement which was taking place among the country folk.