Zeal Monachorum Online

england past

  • There'll always be an England,
  • While there's a country lane,
  • Wherever there's a cottage small
  • Beside a field of grain.

Well, let's hope there'll always be an England, as it says in the song by Ross Parker and Hugh Charles during World War 2. There hasn't always been one. How many country lanes, cottages small and fields of grain will be concreted over by the likes of Blair, Prescott and cronies, is another matter.


During much of the 4.6 billion years since Earth began England as a land mass did not exist. Formation of continents took 2 billion years. Even then it was awash, under tropical and subtropical seas. 500-million years ago 2 main supercontinents existed. England and Wales were on a separate one from Scotland. They joined around 408 million years ago. After more than 100 million years it became a desert for about 50 million years. Again underwater by 208 million years ago, its first dinosaurs lived on scattered areas of dry land. Fossilised corals and the woodlouse-like trilobites from this time are found in rocks here today. The climate was tropical; oxygen levels were lower than today.


England had many large land mammals from some 700,000 years ago. Their rise, which followed the fall of the reptiles 65 million years ago, saw a great increase in their size. They included Cave Bears, Cave Lions, elephants, hippos, hyenas, mammoth, panthers and tigers. Then, hunter-gathering Men arrived about 12,000 years ago. Half the megafauna went extinct in the next 2,000 years. The rest went with settlement, around 5-6,000 years ago.


Infectious diseases began with settlement. Life expectancy for hunter-gatherers has been estimated at 40-50-years. Their nutrition was better and they had more leisure. The switch to agriculture brought back-breaking physical labour and poorer diets, besides spread of disease. The trade-off was increased family size. After 7,000 years of agriculture, an early C14th peasant was likely to be dead well before age 30, already crippled by arthritis. However, the (guesstimated) population had increased from 1-5,000 to about 1 million.

Mediaeval Warm

For 300 years, from 900-1200 AD, the population saw (relative) plenty. Warm summers meant that the harvests were more often good than not. Months of May were largely frost-free. Winters were mild. Famine was less frequent than usual. Previously unoccupied land was built on and cultivated. Vineyards flourished in southern England and the Welsh borders. Numbers increased: from about 1 million to 5 million.

Mediaeval Cold

Early years of the C14th brought quite sudden but fluctuating change. Incessant heavy summer rains battered the crops. The poor soils which had been productive during the Warm period, were so no longer. Erosion swept away their top soil. Deforestation for agricultural expansion during the same period, now left fields prone to flooding. Villages were abandoned. Sunless summers were followed by bitter winters. Cultivation of grapes ceased in 1450. Hunger gave way to famine, then starvation. Grain prices rose steeply.


Since the C3rd price-inflation in southern England has averaged 1% per year. Great fluctuations exist within this figure. Mediaeval inflation rates were calculated by the changing price of grain. An increased population, combined with poor or failed harvests, drove prices up. In the years 1315-17 food-price inflation surpassed 200%. Famine broke out, then epidemics. Numbers decreased.

Black Death

Waves of plague came during 1300s-1600s. Research suggests the Black Death was a haemorrhagic fever (similar to Ebola) and nothing to do with rats or their fleas. With diminished numbers food was less scarce and prices fell.

Wage Inflation

Shortage of labour led to higher wages, and freedom and paid work for many serfs. Peasants worried that local lords would revoke these arrangements. They also objected to doing church labour free. So, in 1381 came the Peasants Revolt. They marched on the Tower of London. These were expensive times. An extra Poll Tax was needed to pay for the normal business of waging war. The Revolt failed; but the Poll Tax was abandoned and manorial lords were compelled by market forces to pay higher wages. It was the beginning of the end of serfdom.


Epidemics happened less frequently as the C15th rolled on. Population grew again. Prices stabilised for a while. Complaints were heard that this place or that was impossibly overcrowded with people. Waves of inflation would re-emerge in the C16th, C18th and C20th. In between would be periods of price stability. In 1750 the estimated population was 5,600 million.


England was the first country to industrialise. Its start, around 1850, arguably marked the end of the Little Ice Age. Child labour and industrial injuries were commonplace. There was a huge growth in the size of towns and cities. The 1801 census recorded 10,500 million; that of 1901 38,237 million. It's now 60 million.


Ammonites: marine animals living 434-65 million years ago
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