Benchmarking medieval economic development: England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, circa 1290

Benchmarking medieval economic development: England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, circa 1290

By Bruce M. S. Campbell

Paper given at the 14th International Economic History Congress (2006) and later published in Economic History Review, Vol.61:4 (2008)

british isles

Abstract: Estimates are assembled for England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and for Britain and Ireland as a whole, of the numbers of religious houses, regular clergy, parishes, towns of more than 2,000 inhabitants, and townspeople, and the value of dutiable exports and volume of currency at the watershed date of circa 1290. Absolute and relative levels of economic development are then compared. These show the measurable volume of economic activity in England to have exceeded that of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland combined. Densities of religious houses, parishes, and towns were also significantly higher in England than any of her three ‘Celtic’ neighbours, which implies a more intensive exploitation of available resources. A range of possible population estimates are considered and corresponding set of per capita estimates thereby derived. An estimated population for England in 1290 of c.4.0m. is shown to be more consistent with what is known about the populations and economies of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, than the higher figures of 5.0-5.5m. proposed by some historians. In particular, high population estimates for England imply, either, a far larger Scottish population than most historians of Scotland are prepared to countenance, or, higher per capita levels of trade, money supply, and material well-being in Scotland than England, which seems unlikely. The results highlight significant differences in the pattern of economic development between and within these four countries and emphasises the depressing effect upon the English economy of the regional problem of rural congestion in much of eastern England.

Introduction: The 1290s constitute ‘a major turning point in later-medieval economic history’. Across much of Europe, long-established processes of economic and demographic expansion and commercial integration attained their secular climax and countervailing tendencies first began to register a significant impact. In the histories of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland this decade proved to be particularly pivotal. When it opened relations between England and Scotland had not yet been soured by the dispute that flared following final rupture in September 1290 of the Scottish direct line of succession. In Ireland the tide of English power was more-orless at its height, the threat from resurgent Gaelic clans was just about contained, and the Lordship was a modest source of profit to the Crown. And Wales had recently been conquered and pacified and was in the process of being encastellated and colonised. For the first time it is possible to speak of England and Wales as de facto a single political and economic unit and from the 1290s Welsh exports of wool and hides were subject to the same duties as those levied since 1275 in England and Ireland. The lay subsidy levied in England in 1290 and, uniquely, extended to both Wales and Ireland the following year, yielded more revenue than any subsequent medieval tax.

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Already, however, receipts from the Crown’s Irish Lordship were past their peak and from 1294, following bankruptcy of the king’s agents and bankers, the Riccardi of Lucca, the Lordship’s finances began to implode with serious consequences for the security of English lands in Ireland. The same year the Welsh revolted and, more ominously, war broke out with France. The following year the Scots repudiated Edward I’s high-handed demands for men and taxation and concluded an alliance with the French against the English. This provoked Edward into launching a full-scale invasion of Scotland in 1296. Hereafter protracted and escalating warfare with all its attendant direct and indirect economic costs both nationally and internationally added greatly to the mounting economic insecurity of the times. Meanwhile, serious dearth consequent upon the bad harvests of 1294 and 1295 heralded the onset of more unsettled environmental conditions, an important component of which was a series of devastating epidemics of animals and eventually humans. At the height of the ensuing economic and demographic crisis English real wage rates, already under pressure from an over-supply of labour, sank to their medieval nadir.

Click here to read this article from the University of Helsinki


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