Below, I’ve listed a very brief timeline with just a few of the events that I feel most effected the lives of the common people in Buckinghamshire from the completion of the Thirty Years’ War until the close of the 1800s. (This section is just starting and will be expanding. Check back in the future for more information.) I haven’t attempted to provide a comprehensive history or to describe the events in full, but have only given a short description of Buckinghamshire’s part in these events. Some other useful books and websites with more information are included in the “Useful Sources and Links for Buckinghamshire” section.
The Roots of England’s Ruling Body – the Glorious Revolution of 1688
The ruling body of England functioned in a much different way than ruling bodies in other European countries. By the 1800s, England had a relatively stable and open government. The roots of this stretched back centuries earlier to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution. At this time, dissatisfaction with King James II and fear of Catholic rule led members of the English Parliament to offer the throne to the king’s Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, Prince William of Orange. Mary and William accepted, bringing about a revolution without bloodshed.
As a prerequisite to accepting the English crown, William and Mary had to agree to the Bill of Rights. Its provisions put important limitations on the power of the crown, such as confirming Parliament’s right to make laws and to hold discussions without interference. The Bill of Rights began the gradual shift of power away from the monarchy and towards Parliament. It also set the conditions that later led to common people having more freedom and more voice in their government.
Industrial Revolution (1780 onward)
A century after the Glorious Revolution, another revolution occurred in England. This one didn’t involve politics and military, but economics and production. This revolution, known as the Industrial Revolution, eventually reached beyond England to change the entire world.
The Industrial Revolution, which began around 1780, reshaped life for English peasants. As industrialization progressed, the distribution of employment underwent significant changes. In 1801, two-fifths of workers could be found in manufacturing and ancillary occupations. By 1880, this number had risen to two-thirds. Similarly, as more people left agricultural jobs for jobs in the growing industrial sector, England experienced a migration from the rural villages to cities and towns. While only twenty-five percent of the population lived in towns in 1800, eighty percent lived in these urban centers in 1880. The increasing numbers of factories also drew more women and children to work outside their homes. Industrialization meant a higher standard of living and a larger variety of consumer products available. All these changes happened earlier in England than other places on the European continent.
Yet, change still took some time to penetrate into the lower classes. Throughout the early 1800s, England remained an agricultural nation. In the 1851 census, agricultural laborer was the largest occupation category. In addition, the higher standard of living and increased consumption mostly affected the middle and upper classes. Most lower class families had little or no disposable income available to purchase the products. And, while industrialization led women and children to find employment in factories, both of these groups had certainly worked before. Prior to industrialization, all members of a family worked on the farm and at home.
The Reform Act of 1832
War with France had filled the early years of the nineteenth century. With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, many hoped that stability would settle on the country. They were disappointed.
The end of war and wartime production as well as the disturbance to the economy that had occurred because of Napoleon’s Continental System left England reeling. In addition, the radical ideas of freedom and equality that had shaken mainland Europe reached England, too. Intellectual leaders took the opportunity to call the masses to action. Widespread protests against wealth and power spread throughout England. Only an economic recovery beginning in 1820 saved the country from further distress – although only temporarily.
Soon after, renewed discontent with the government began to fester. Poor harvests as well as rising unemployment and prices again brought distress to the country in 1829. This, combined with the fall of the ruling Tory government, the death of the King, disorder in France and other nearby countries, and the widespread belief that the electoral system was unfair, led to sweeping calls for change. The defeat of two reform bills in Parliament increased the agitation of the people. Rural unrest, particularly in the southeast, continued to grow. One historian concluded that England was never closer to revolution than during this time period.
Recognizing that compromise was the only way to avoid rebellion, Parliament finally passed the Reform Act of 1832. This Act made important, yet limited, changes in the political system such as redrawing electoral voting boundaries and making representation more even and fair. It also extended the vote to include all adult males owning more than ₤10 worth of property, amounting to about one in seven adult males.
The act represented a victory of sorts for the conservatives. They had made concessions, yet the power of the privileged remained protected. The immediate crisis was diffused. Although periods of unrest would flare up again, England wouldn’t experience the far-reaching rebellions that hit continental Europe over the next couple of decades.
The working class had also achieved some advancements. Still, many felt bitterly disappointed, believing progress had not extended nearly far enough.
Unrest and Reform: Chartist Movement and Corn Laws (1837-1846)
Economic crisis again shook the country in 1837 to 1838, the years immediately prior to their arrival in Steeple Claydon. Poor harvests, a sharp fall in the price of wheat, and an end to the trade boom led to a serious recession. A slight recovery lasted only briefly until another dip hit the economy in 1842. Ups and downs continued throughout the decade. These fluctuations led to great instability in the lives of working class people. Wages, along with the availability of employment, changed from year to year. Prices for other goods also fluctuated. Financial security remained an elusive goal for most people.
The working class population responded to the floundering economy with more unrest and protest. But some, in combination with those in other social classes, also responded with organized action. Two powerful special interest groups in particular gained the attention of the country. James was certainly aware of these two groups and may have supported them or even participated in their meetings.
One group, the Chartists, were largely made up of working class people. In May of 1838, the London Working Men’s Association composed a document entitled “People’s Charter.” Supporters of the document, known as Chartists, called for a more democratic government through such steps as extending the vote to all men over twenty-one, striking down property qualifications for those running for office, and implementing secret ballots. The group took their petition to Parliament three times, in 1838, 1842, and 1848, but was defeated each time. Although the Chartist Movement received widespread support, many middle class people backed away when Chartism became identified with radicalism and linked to several outbreaks of violence.
The other group, comprised more of middle-class people, fought to repeal the Corn Laws of 1815. The Corn Laws protected the profits of landowners by guaranteeing a certain price on wheat before foreign imports were allowed into the British market. From the beginning, the Corn Laws met with protest as they were seen as blatant class legislation, protecting the aristocracy at the expense of the common people. In 1838, the Anti-Corn Law League formed to lobby for the repeal of the laws. With prominent leaders, popular circulations, and widely publicized meetings, the league drew a large following.
Unrest, combined with the disastrous Irish potato famine that struck in the mid 1840s, led some government leaders to believe change was necessary again. Led by Sir Robert Peel, the well-known Prime Minister of the early 1840s, Parliament passed several reform acts, culminating with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Fierce opposition to his efforts caused Peel to resign.
Many demands of the working class people remained unmet, yet once again the reform was enough to diffuse the crisis. This allowed England to remain relatively calm even as revolution and rebellion swept through many Western European countries. Despite another economic downturn that year, stability prevailed in England.