The University of York, Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past (2010)
The traditional thesis regarding demography was that towns experienced a decline in both wealth and population in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, for example, as was the case in York. However, other towns were prospering at their expense. Halifax and Wakefield in the West Riding were experiencing growth in the textile industry, while Newcastle and Hull were exporting cloth to the continent, again at the expense of York, which lost out on both manufacturing and mercantile activities. Scholars have now revised their interpretation of the condition of early modern towns to be regional phenomena – that is, economic prosperity or decline was experienced by a town and its surrounding countryside, rather than as a town versus rural divide.
The demography and social structure in England was also in flux in this period. Towns were either growing or shrinking in size depending on their location and their economic situation. By the Elizabethan period, even those towns that had been experiencing a decline in population under Henry VIII were beginning to recover, if not surpass their previous levels. The rise of mercantile activity in the towns also had an impact on the composition of the social structure – what historians have traditionally referred to as ‘the rise of the middle class’. Merchants and professionals, such as lawyers, became wealthier and more numerous and established themselves in the social hierarchy by purchasing land and estates, which remained the most important characteristic for determining social status and accessing political participation.