The Renaissance (1485 to 1603)

Portrait of King Henry VIII

Portrait of King Henry VIII

As England’s population rebounded after the Black Death, so too did its coal market. At the beginning  of the Renaissance, most coalfields were still controlled by the church. Without medieval feudalism, the church allowed merchants short-term leases to mine on their land. Unfortunately for the merchants, the coal was already proving harder to access. Without true ownership of the land, and as mines dipped below the water table, merchants lacked the motivation to install systems for mine drainage, and the coal trade stagnated until 1527 when King Henry VIII severed the ties between the crown of England and the Catholic Church.[1]

After divorcing Catherine of Aragon and renouncing the Catholic Church, Henry VII, with the help of the Parliament, dissolved the nation’s monasteries and seized their land to be sold to the public. The merchants, who had before only been able to acquire short-term leases of England’s mines, could now gain full ownership. The timing of this massive shift in land ownership could not have been better as the nation’s demand for coal would soon begin to boom.

Drawing of London in 1616

Drawing of London in 1616

Over the course of the 16th century, England’s urban population expanded dramatically. The population of London grew fastest. By the time of Queen Elizabeth I, the city’s population had doubled to about 200,000 people.[2] When Elizabeth ascended to power, England’s main export was wool. In order to support the nation’s wool market, forests had to be cut down to allow room for sheep pasture. The increased population also required more wood for fuel at home. Furthermore, each of England’s other industries needed enough wood to provide for the larger number of English.  By 1578, London’s brewers began complaining that there was simply not enough wood for them to continue their operation.[3] It is estimated that one brewery could use up to 20,000 wagonloads of wood for fuel in one years time.[4]

While Queen Elizabeth set up commissions to investigate solutions to the scarcity of wood, it appears that the public had already begun to find an alternative solution to their need for fuel. One English merchant in 1575 stated that, “wood being grown to dearth and the severity of it felt more every day, causes many of the said coals to be used for fuel in London and in other places in this realm by those who in time past used nothing but wood for fuel”.[5]

In the past, the common people of London used nothing but wood for fuel. Thanks to the advent of the chimney in the construction of 16th century homes, Londoners could begin to burn coal for heat while allowing for the evacuation of noxious fumes. As more homes in London began to burn coal, though, the city’s air quality began to steadily decline. In 1578, Elizabeth I claimed to be “greatly grieved and annoyed with the taste and smoke of sea-coales”.[6]  The problem would not subside, unfortunately. By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s death in 1603, which marked the end of the English Renaissance, coal had become the most used fuel in the nation.


[1] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[2] Judkins, David. “Life in Renaissance England.” http://www.UH.edu. University of Houston, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://www.uh.edu/~djudkins/life_in_renaissance_england.htm&gt;.

[3] Cowen, Richard. “Chapter Ten: Coal.” Chapter Eleven: Coal. UC Davis, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2012. <http://mygeologypage.ucdavis.edu/cowen/~GEL115/115CH11coal.html&gt;.

[4] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

[5] Hatcher, John. Before 1700: Towards the Age of Coal. Vol 1 of The History of the British Coal Industry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

[6] Freese, Barbara. “The Best Stone in Britain.” Coal: A Human History. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Pub, 2003.

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