“No ruler in the history of the world has ever been able to afford a war. They’re not affordable things.” — Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
“How much was that in today’s money?” is a frequent question modern readers* ask when the topic of wages and prices pops up in historical contexts.
[* It’s weird to think that we are only “modern readers” today, and then, in 50 years, we will no longer be modern readers, but readers from the past. This may be something only I think about.]
Money is such an integral part of our lives, and yet it’s not fungible, a word I’m uncomfortable using but I’m trying something new. It doesn’t sound right. Fungible, to me, sounds sponge-y and inexact, whereas the word actually means the opposite. (I know you know this already; you are smarter than I am.) As it turns out — and I am very much not an economist at all — what we spend money on effects how the money itself is valued.
So while we may not be able to accurately recreate a Tudor-era economy, we can get a little close with just a few data points.
- Folks in 16th century England spent most of their income on food and clothing, though many people were able to get by providing their own basic needs without relying on a regular wage.
- A laborer could earn around £5 – 9 a year.
- A carpenter would earn wages of £13 each year
- A landowner could see £17
- A parson would earn wages of £20 each year
- A merchant would earn wages of £100 each year
- A nobleman would earn (only in the literal sense of the word; noblemen weren’t working) wages between £1500 to £3000 each year
(Information sourced here: Tudor Money)
Thomas Cromwell’s income would have been based on fees, wages, land (selling), land (rents), percentages from the spoils of liquidating the monasteries.