By Barbara Freese
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Extra resources for Coal: A Human History
We will never know, though, because in 1527 King Henry VIII decided to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, whom he blamed for failing to produce a male heir; this decision changed much in England, including the coal industry. Upon the pope’s refusal to grant Henry an annulment, Henry made his famous break with Rome. Among the many THE BEST STONE IN BRITAIN 29 consequences of this momentous step was that it led to one of the greatest property shifts in English history. The church owned at that time perhaps a ﬁfth of the nation’s land and wealth, and it had an income nearly three times that of the crown—a dangerous position to be in when the king is desperate for money and when anticlerical feelings are running high.
In the 1600s, though, this precaution was still centuries away. At that time, dogs were the only animals used to help detect the presence of poison gases, and they were sometimes lowered down a mine shaft suspected of containing choke damp. According to one 1662 report, however, mine operators did not bother to lower a dog down the shaft unless the ﬁrst person sent down on the rope was killed. Choke damp and white damp took a regular toll in miners’ lives, but they were nothing compared to the carnage caused by the third gas, “ﬁre damp,” which appeared more frequently as mines got deeper in the 1600s and 1700s.
Later, as the forests continued to shrink, the fuel shortage might have slowed the population growth of the entire nation. Demographic studies show that in preindustrial England, tough economic times caused people to marry later, lowering birthrates. But the energy crisis never got that severe for one reason: coal. Domestic coal use surged in the 1570s, and before the end THE BEST STONE IN BRITAIN 33 of Elizabeth’s reign, in 1603, coal had become the main source of fuel for the nation, though not without complaint.