commercial revolution

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

This preceded major industrialization by two centuries and encompassed great upsurges in overseas trade. There were three long periods of growth, separated by virtual stagnation. Between 1475 and 1550 existing markets for English broadcloths and other woollens grew rapidly, because the importing regions became more prosperous. In the second period, 1630–89, two general circumstances aided expansion. South European markets were won by the English and the Dutch in competition with one another. The second circumstance was the rise of virtually new trades because cheaper English re‐exports of sugar, tobacco, and calicoes created fresh markets. The third period, 1730–60, was linked to the growth of American and West Indian populations, production, and purchasing power.

In the first period English woollen cloth exports were the bulwark of overseas trade, the wool trade declining sharply after 1510. In a period of inflation the quantity of cloth exported more than doubled by 1550; London gained at the expense of provincial ports, as trade with Antwerp grew and was controlled by the Company of Merchant Venturers.

The second expansion in the 17th cent. can be largely attributed to the growth of exports to southern Europe. Demand increased in Spain and was supplemented from Portugal and Italy. Light cloths or ‘New Draperies’ were attractive to these markets and increasingly beat Dutch competition.

Several new imports in the period 1500–1750 provided exceptional profit margins. In the 16th cent. the chief imports were luxuries, especially French wine, but in the following century Spain and Portugal became important suppliers. Apart from wine, most imports were manufactures, bought in the Netherlands but produced in many parts of Europe. The gradual growth of British industry reduced the dependence on foreign manufactures in the 17th cent. Trade with the Baltic became more direct because of the activities of the Eastland Company (1579). In years of bad harvests Baltic corn was a standby, but after 1650 new raw materials were much more important. Amounts of timber, potash, tar, pitch, flax, and hemp increased as the navy and merchant marine grew, and Swedish iron also became important after 1650.

Trade with countries beyond Europe, insignificant before the Civil War, grew rapidly by 1700 when America and Asia accounted for a third of England's imports. The discoveries that Virginia could grow tobacco plants and that Brazilian sugar cane would flourish in the West Indies were fundamental to the later development of the Atlantic economy and of the triangular trade with Africa. The East India Company (1600) began trading principally in pepper and then in cotton cloth. Trade in slaves, sugar, coffee, tobacco, pepper, and oriental cottons underpinned the third great era of expansion in the 18th cent. before industrialization had proceeded far. Liverpool, Bristol, and Glasgow benefited most from these developments.

The Atlantic trade was controlled by merchant partnerships. If journeys were long or large capitals were required, the company form of organization was preferable. Once trade was established the return to trading by partnerships was general. The Russia Company (1555), the Levant Company (1581), and the Royal Africa Company (1672) all succumbed to this pattern; only the Hudson's Bay Company (1670) retained control over its territory. The East India Company also survived and was much the most important in terms of trade and capital employed.


Subjects: British History — Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500).

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.