European trade expanded enormously with the discovery and colonisation of the Americas, and in the latter half of the sixteenth century, with the growth of the Dutch and English fleets. These new sea-powers challenged the trading supremacy of the Hanseatic League which had previously dominated northern European trade.

Historically, England’s chief trading partner had been Burgundy and the Low Countries, based on a two-way trade in which English wool went to Antwerp, Bruges and other cities to be woven into cloth and sold back. This long-standing alliance between England and the Low Countries, caused enormous difficulties when, having embraced the Reformation, the Low Countries tried to throw off the rule of Spain and requested military help.

Scotland, less urbanised, and generally poorer, had more limited trade, even within its own borders. Its exports were mainly salt, fish and sea-coal and its major trading partners were the Low Countries and France. Foreign trade was controlled by the Royal Burghs which limited growth, and exacerbated the problems of poor harvests and high inflation in the later years of the century.