The English lagged somewhat behind other European nations in the exploration of the New World. Finally, however, a combination of economic and social incentives convinced them to look west.
So, for a long time, England wasn’t particularly interested in expansion, where other European nations were. So, while Spain and France were more involved in colonization and exploration, England wasn’t for a while.
They lagged behind. But then, they decided that it would be in their best interest to explore the New World on their own. And let’s look at a few of the reasons that there was this new interest in the New World.
For one thing, the enclosure movement in England had made land very scarce. And the practice of primogeniture meant that only the eldest son could inherit the land. For these reasons, many Englishmen moved to the New World for the promise of cheap land. So, let’s look at this. For one thing, the enclosure movement in England made land very scarce. England had been divided up to where there were big, open pieces of land known as the commons, and people could grow crops there, and the land didn’t really belong to anyone. If you lived on the land, you didn’t own it, but you could grow crops on it, and then take that food for yourself.
But the enclosure movement started to enclose parts of these commons, and once they were enclosed in a fence, they belong to someone, usually a wealthy landowner or a noble, and once the land was enclosed, not just anyone could farm it anymore. And many of the people who owned land chose to grow the sheep business because many people wanted the wool from sheep in England, and that was a big trade item for England at that time. So, instead of using the land for agriculture, they would use it as grazing land for sheep and sometimes other cattle, but primarily sheep because the wool was very valuable at that time.
So, as more land was taken up, that sent people who had lived on the land and farmed on it, but now, it wasn’t common anymore. They couldn’t live there, they had to leave. And so, there was this landless class of people, and they went to go work in the bigger cities and kind of fuel the Industrial Revolution as the workers for that. But they had to change their living. So, this enclosure movement made land very scarce, only people who owned land now could live on that land because almost all the commons had been enclosed. There wasn’t land for people to just live on anymore.
Then the practice of primogeniture is the practice of letting your oldest son inherit everything. So, only the oldest son could inherit the land of his father. So, any younger sons and any daughters would have to look elsewhere. The daughters would have to marry people who already had land, or they would be out of luck. And the younger sons wouldn’t inherit any land, so they could maybe live on the same land if their brother let them, or they’d have to go find work or home elsewhere. So, these practices made it very easy for Englishmen to say, “You know what, I’ll go to the New World. There’s plenty of land there, and so, I can get cheap land and have my own land and my own home, grow my crops, let cattle live there, raise sheep if I want to.” But they could own their own land, which was not something that anybody was able to do in England. Only people who had land right away and then inherited it as the movement continued generation to generation.
Let’s look at another incentive. England also had a large population at this time. So, you have this large population with the enclosure movement going on, and sending people into the cities, that was going to mean that your urban areas were going to be somewhat overpopulated. And the government viewed the New World as a good place to send the criminals and beggars. They didn’t have enough prisons to hold the criminals, they didn’t want to have to feed the criminals. They didn’t want to have to take care of the beggars and make sure they were fed, or give them somewhere to live, so they shipped them off to the New World to live there or to work there, and there they may have gotten land of their own, and may have done better than they had in England, with new resources available, and kind of a fresh start. But, in any case, that was a solution to England’s population problem at that time.
And another reason for the increase interest in America was the Protestant Reformation. You had all the Reformers during this time, and people who were reforming from Catholicism, and kind of breaking away from that faith and saying, “We can talk to God ourselves. We can read the Bible ourselves. We don’t need the priests to do this for us.” Those people were considered Protestants. They were breakaways from the Catholic Church. And then, you had England who decided to form the Church of England. King Henry VIII said, “I’m going to make my own church. I will be the head of it. This is the Church of England.”
So, you had English Catholics who were solid Catholics and wanted to hold true to the Catholic Church and to the Pope and to Rome, and they didn’t agree with the Church of England. And then you had Protestants who also didn’t agree with the Church of England because the Church of England had broken away from the Catholic Church, but they weren’t 100% reformed to where they were saying, “Oh, everyone can read this. Oh, you can talk to God yourself. We’re not going to function like the Catholic Church did.” The Church of England was still similar or more similar, at least to the Catholic Church than to the Protestant churches that were popping up.
So, Protestants didn’t feel comfortable with the Church of England. English Catholics who were holding strong to the Catholic faith didn’t feel comfortable with the Church of England, and they felt alienated by it. Sometimes even persecuted if they didn’t agree with the Church of England precisely. And they wanted to find a place where they worship more freely. So, rather than continue to be alienated or persecuted for their faith, they immigrated to the New World and could start a new life there. Start their own churches, have more freedom of religion there.
So, at first, England lagged behind in exploration of the New World, but with these economic and social incentives, they finally realized the value of exploring America for themselves.