The social background
The former hereditary noblemen were now in many instances being replaced by rich merchants and yeomen. A new energetic middle-class was running the country as civil servants and local administrators. The Awsiters were of this kind, but the Dacres had not been. It is true that the Chesemans had also been commoners, but they had been much closer to the king’s person than any subsequent lords of the manor were to be until the Jerseys. In a sense the Shoredyches, who had made their fortune as goldsmiths, were ahead of their time.
While the aristocracy had been impoverishing itself during the War of the Roses, the wool trade was expanding, and with it other industries prospered. Landowners now found it more profitable to enclose stretches of land for pasture rather than to cultivate it strip by strip in the huge open fields which were the rule during the Middle Ages. Many villeins who had had their own strips were dispossessed, and only those few who could make quick profit from the change received any benefit. Many manors increased their estates by taking over monastic lands.
Until this time commerce had not really been an important means of livelihood outside towns. Most people were engaged in agriculture which provided their food, clothing and shelter, or else they gave direct service as millers, blacksmiths or wheelwrights to those engaged in agriculture. They rarely left their villages unless conscripted, and indeed, a peasant outside his village was probably up to no good. Communications were slow and difficult, so the aim of government at local level was to keep the peace and regulate the process of agriculture – the cultivation of the fields, animal pasture, wood-cutting, turf-digging and so on. There was no clear distinction between the administration and the judiciary. Towards the end of the Middle Ages the judicial powers of county sheriffs and manor lords were transferred to justices specially appointed by the crown: in the course of time these justices became the virtual rulers of counties and were often (as at Southall) drawn from the ranks of the manor lords.