England’s Agricultural Revolution

Seventeenth century agricultural innovations included new cropping patterns, intensive and diversified fertilization techniques, extensive land reclamation, and new crops for human consumption and forages for livestock. In conjunction with increasingly complex marketing strategies and evolving industrial activity, these techniques elevated the overall nutritional levels of enlarging Western European populations. In England in particular, a favorable parliamentary environment encouraged this revolution.

Summary of Event

Nineteenth and early twentieth century historical accounts of the European Agricultural Revolution suggested 1760 as a starting date for the emergence of new agricultural practices. In fact, however, a number of processes—political, scientific, demographic, and economic—had coalesced more than a century earlier, ushering in a gradual institutionalization of new, primarily English, agrarian procedures. All areas of English agriculture were impacted, and agrarian evolution proceeded simultaneously with and provided both support and impetus for incipient industrial activity. [kw]England’s Agricultural Revolution (17th cent.)
[kw]Revolution, England’s Agricultural (17th cent.)
[kw]Agricultural Revolution, England’s (17th cent.)
Agriculture;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
Economics;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
Science and technology;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
Trade and commerce;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
England;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
Europe;17th cent.: England’s Agricultural Revolution[0070]
Agricultural Revolution, England

British scientists were among the first Europeans to use scientific observation and experimentation to investigate the potential for increased agricultural productivity. Francis Bacon Bacon, Francis initiated the study of soils and seed germination. Robert Boyle Boyle, Robert also worked on soil chemistry and authored The Sceptical Chymist
Sceptical Chymist, The (Boyle) (1661, rev. 1679). In 1662, Boyle contributed to the founding of the Royal Society Royal Society . Another early member, John Evelyn, Evelyn, John wrote the first British monograph on soil, A Philosophical Discourse of Earth
Philosophical Discourse of Earth, A (Evelyn) (1676), while the London physician Nehemiah Grew Grew, Nehemiah published The Anatomy of Vegetables Begun
Anatomy of Vegetables Begun, The (Grew) (1672), by virtue of which he is considered one of the founders of the field of plant anatomy. These men and others, such as John Woodward Woodward, John (1665-1728), whose quantitative studies of plant physiology provided a basis for an understanding of plant nutrition, provided literate landowners with a comprehensive history of agricultural accomplishments, and their analyses made clear what other advances would be necessary before higher crop yields could be realized. Botany;plant nutrition

The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) English Civil Wars (1642-1651) allowed certain Royalist landowners to travel to the Low Countries, where varied farming and land reclamation practices were observed and ultimately imported to Britain. New crops in rotation and nitrogen-fixing plants were described in publications such as Walter Blith’s Blith, Walter
The English Improver Improved: Or, The Survey of Husbandry Surveyed
English Improver Improved, The (Blith) (1653). Multiple techniques were utilized by English farmers, including increased tillage, drainage, irrigation, and higher levels of manuring.

England’s agricultural community profited from government support in the seventeenth century. After the Restoration of Charles II Charles II (king of England);Restoration of in 1660, Parliament included several influential members of the landed gentry who favored legislation that promised to enhance agricultural profit and productivity. The Corn Law of 1670 Corn Law of 1670 provided for duties on imported wheat to be determined by local pricing of English wheat. The Corn Bounty Act (1688) Corn Bounty Act (1688) , on the other hand, subsidized corn exports.

A series of Parliamentary acts beginning in 1604 allowed for the creation of enclosures, that is, the physical enclosing of agricultural land with fences or hedges, thereby amalgamating previously community-controlled holdings into larger, privatized, profit-oriented enterprises. Gradually, new crops and cropping patterns appeared, as did greater numbers of animals, which enhanced soil fertility. Animal numbers in pre-enclosure times were limited by the availability of common use pastures. Enclosures created more acreage for experimentation and gradually divorced farmers from ancient, community-oriented practices. Thus, the Agricultural Revolution altered England’s rural social structure and land-use patterning, while increasing the supplies of food.

Incremental improvements and introductions defined the seventeenth century Agricultural Revolution, rather than mechanical breakthroughs. The enduring achievement of the century was the realization that livestock and cereal agriculture could be united by introducing new crops such as turnips, clovers, and grasses. The new crops coupled with new tillage practices raised outputs, elevated soil fertility, and complemented labor and cultivation inputs.

Francis Bacon was the first Englishman to apply scientific methods to the study of agriculture.

(Library of Congress)

The seventeenth century witnessed more land under the plow, a positive remedy for both weedy fields and certain livestock diseases. Gradually, a tillage revolution came about whereby formally permanent grassland and inconsistent cultivation were replaced by up-and-down husbandry, that is, the plowing and sowing of new grassland. After several years of grazing or harvesting, the process was repeated. Hence, a rotational system replaced the medieval multifield pattern. Upon the grass, sheep and beef cattle were fattened, while milk and butter were produced in dairy areas. Greater supplies of animal forage meant that larger numbers of animals could be kept through the winter, thereby increasing supplies of manure as well as raising farm profits through new marketing strategies.

Industrial crops were grown experimentally, and then, if they proved successful, their culture was intensified. Woad, a dye crop, was extensively grown between 1590 and 1660. A by-product of the woad plant could be fed to sheep, so woad provided numerous benefits, including forage, ready cash through industrial sales, and a rationale for increased tillage. Additional crops destined for industrial usage included hemp, flax, and hops. Fertilized grassland provided up to four times the nutrients available in old common-use pastures. Forage productivity during the seventeenth century allowed livestock numbers to quadruple. Increased livestock numbers ultimately channeled more products into the industrial community, which in turn could provide those products, such as tallow, horn, and hides, more efficiently to existing markets, as well as developing new markets. Wool, long an important British product, was selectively altered during the seventeenth century to create a coarser type, destined for worsted cloth.

Soil fertility was a major concern of the agrarian program—manure, both animal and green manure, was liberally applied to the fields. Lime and marl, and any degradable material—bone, rags, ashes, chalk, and industrial wastes—were hauled to crop fields and tilled in.

Some farmers fattened sheep; mutton production rose. Others fed cattle or hogs on grasses, grains, and forage by-products. Marketable field crops included mustard, peas, beans, barley, lentils, carrots, peas, tobacco, and potatoes. Acreage devoted to English tobacco increased throughout the seventeenth century. Potatoes, previously grown in the sixteenth century for household usage, became an important crop for the cattle feeder by 1650. Turnips, initially a household root-crop, became a desirable crop for the cattle feeder and dairy farmer after 1660. By 1720, turnip cultivation accounted for about 8 percent of all tilled acreage. In the following century, the politician and agriculturalist Charles Townshend, Townshend, Charles second Viscount Townshend of Raynham (1674-1738), popularized the use of turnips as winter fodder and championed the four-course rotation system.


The seventeenth century witnessed the dawn of specialization in English agriculture. Dairy farming, cattle feeding, industrial cropping, and sheep farming all appeared as specialties or as components in diversified farm operations. Market gardening of fruits and vegetables enhanced the profits for farmers living in proximity to growing urban areas. Population growth in England was yet another force that affected agricultural innovation: The 1540 national population of 2.8 million had enlarged to 5.2 million by 1650. In London as well, population growth mirrored the rise of nonfood producers; a population of 60,000 in 1534 rose to about 530,000 by 1696. Population growth;England

The challenge to achieve higher levels of agricultural efficiency was singularly addressed by England and Holland. The benefits of their innovations were legion. Foremost among these was a more balanced and nutritious diet, available not only to urbanites but to rural folk as well. Vitamin and caloric intake rose appreciably as the year-round availability of eggs, fruit, cereals, vegetables, and red meats, in addition to preserved foods, became commonplace.

Arable land benefited from increased fertilization practices and drainage. Land reclamation, ongoing since the Middle Ages, accelerated during the seventeenth century. Wetlands and fens were drained, and inland canal systems were improved, which in turn facilitated proto-industrial activity. Dutch engineers aided English landowners in technique; however, the revolution was largely an internal process, employing English resources and ingenuity and reinterpreting traditional and emerging problems.

The product of these labors was a more scientific, more productive form of agriculture. In the next century, mechanization would become widespread in planting and harvesting equipment.

Further Reading

  • Beckett, J. V. The Agricultural Revolution. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. A thought-provoking survey examining English crop patterns, livestock systems, enclosures, productivity, and labor.
  • Kerridge, Eric. The Agricultural Revolution. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967. A classic study of English agrarian systems that concludes that the Agricultural Revolution was an English phenomenon transpiring between 1560 and 1690. Includes extensive bibliography and appendixes.
  • Mingay, G. E. The Agricultural Revolution: Changes in Agriculture, 1650-1880. London: A. & C. Black, 1977. A general history including forty-six separate documents attesting to Britain’s primacy in agricultural change.
  • Riches, Naomi. The Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk. 2d ed. London: Frank Cass, 1967. An analysis of evolving Norfolk agrarian systems from the twelfth through the nineteenth centuries. Includes maps.
  • Russell, Sir E. John. A History of Agricultural Science in Great Britain, 1620-1954. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966. A comprehensive treatment that focuses upon scientific research in English agriculture.
  • Spencer, Colin. British Food: An Extraordinary Thousand Years of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. A scholarly investigation into social dynamics, technology, the forces of proto-industrialization, and changing cuisines. Includes appendices.
  • Zuckerman, Larry. The Potato. New York: North Point Press, 1998. Historical review of the diffusion and importance of the tuber in Western culture.

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