The Population of England and Europe

England's population grew rapidly between 1550 and 1650, rising from approximately three million people in 1551 to over four million in 1601, and over five million by 1651. This rapid expansion, unusual by pre-modern standards, led to a fall in real wages, and high levels of unemployment and vagrancy. These conditions convinced England's rulers that the realm was overpopulated, making overseas colonization an attractive proposition for relieving population pressure at home. Meanwhile diminished opportunities encouraged ordinary English men and women to migrate to the Americas in search of a better life.

Then in the 1660s the long period of growth ended. With the onset of more deadly epidemic diseases, England's population started to decline, reaching a low of 4.8 million in the 1680s. It did not regain the levels reached in the 1650s until 1720, and, with another onslaught of epidemic disease in the next two decades, did not reach six million until the 1760s. The drop in population raised real wages from the 1660s up to about 1750, reducing incentives for people to leave the country. Thereafter falling real wages again encouraged outmigration. Only in the 1790s, as the industrial revolution got underway, did the English population begin to grow at rates equal to or higher than those of the sixteenth century.

England's population remained well below that of other major west European countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1680 France (30.5 million people), Germany and Italy (both with just over 18 million), and Spain (8.5 million) all had significantly more people. Among England's rivals for empire, only the Netherlands had a smaller population (1.9 million). Scotland's population remained at between 1.1 and 1.3 million in the later seventeenth and much of the eighteenth century, and that of Ireland at around 2 million. The populations of Great Britain, Germany, and Italy reached a similar size (18 to 20 million) by 1820, exceeded that of Spain (14 million), but still lagged behind France (30 million).

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