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The History Of England - A Study In Political Evolution
The Progress Of Nationalism
by Pollard, A. F.


1485-1603

England had passed through the Middle Ages without giving any sign of the greatness which awaited its future development. Edward III and Henry V had won temporary renown in France, but English sovereigns had failed to subjugate the smaller countries of Scotland and Ireland, which were more immediately their concern. Wycliffe and Chaucer, with perhaps Roger Bacon, are the only English names of first importance in the realms of medieval thought and literature, unless we put Bede (673- 735) in the Middle Ages; for insular genius does not seem to have flourished under ecumenical inspiration; and even Wycliffe and Chaucer may be claimed as products of the national rather than of the catholic spirit. But with the transition from medieval to modern history, the conditions were altered in England's favour. The geographical expansion of Europe made the outposts of the Old World the entrepôts for the New; the development of navigation and sea-power changed the ocean from the limit into the link of empires; and the growth of industry and commerce revolutionized the social and financial foundations of power. National states were forming; the state which could best adapt itself to these changed and changing conditions would outdistance its rivals; and its capacity to adapt itself to them would largely depend on the strength and flexibility of its national organization. It was the achievement of the New Monarchy to fashion this organization, and to rescue the country from an anarchy which had already given other powers the start in the race and promised little success for England.

Henry VII had to begin in a quiet, unostentatious way with very scanty materials. With a bad title and many pretenders, with an evil heritage of social disorder, he must have been sorely tempted to indulge in the heroics of Henry V. He followed a sounder business policy, and his reign is dull, because he gave peace and prosperity at home without fighting a battle abroad. His foreign policy was dictated by insular interests regardless of personal glory; and the security of his kingdom and the trade of his people were the aims of all his treaties with other powers. At home he carefully depressed the over-mighty subjects who had made the Wars of the Roses; he kept down their number with such success that he left behind him only one English duke and one English marquis; he limited their retainers, and restrained by means of the Star Chamber their habits of maintaining lawbreakers, packing juries, and intimidating judges. By a careful distribution of fines and benevolences he filled his exchequer without taxing the mass of his people; and by giving office to ecclesiastics and men of humble origin he both secured cheaper and more efficient administration, and established a check upon feudal influence. He was determined that no Englishman should build any castle walls over which the English king could not look, and that, as far as possible, no private person should possess a franchise in which the king's writ did not run. He left to his son, Henry VIII, a stable throne and a united kingdom.

The first half of Henry VIII's reign left little mark on English history. Wolsey played a brilliant but essentially futile part on the diplomatic stage, where the rivalry and balance of forces between the Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France helped him to pose as the arbiter of Christendom. But he obtained no permanent national gains; and the final result of his foreign policy was to make the emperor master of the papacy at the moment when Henry wanted the pope to annul his marriage with the emperor's aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Henry desired a son to succeed him and to prevent the recurrence of dynastic wars; he had only a daughter, Mary, and no woman had yet ruled or reigned in England. The death of all his male children by Catherine convinced him that his marriage with his deceased brother Arthur's widow was invalid; and his passion for Anne Boleyn added zest to his suit for a divorce. The pope could not afford to quarrel with Charles V, who cared little, indeed, for the cause of his aunt, but much for his cousin Mary's claim to the English throne; and in 1529 Henry began the process, completed in the acts of Annates, Appeals, and Supremacy, by which England severed its connexion with Rome, and the king became head of an English church.

It is irrational to pretend that so durable an achievement was due to so transient a cause as Henry's passion for Anne Boleyn or desire for a son; vaster, older, and more deeply seated forces were at work. In one sense the breach was simply the ecclesiastical consummation of the forces which had long been making for national independence, and the religious complement of the changes which had emancipated the English state, language, and literature from foreign control.

The Catholic church naturally resisted its disintegration, and the severance was effected by the secular arms of parliament and the crown. The nationalism of the English church was the result rather than the cause of the breach with Rome, and its national characteristics-- supreme governance by the king, the disappearance of cosmopolitan religious orders, the parliamentary authorization of services in the vernacular, of English books of Common Prayer, of English versions of the Bible, and of the Thirty-nine Articles--were all imposed by parliament after, and not adopted by the church before, the separation. There were, indeed, no legal means by which the church in England could have accomplished these things for itself; there were the convocations of Canterbury and York, but these were two subordinate provinces of the Catholic church; and, whatever may be said for provincial autonomy in the medieval church, the only marks of national autonomy were stamped upon it by the state. York was more independent of Canterbury than Canterbury was of Rome; and the unity as well as the independence of the national church depends upon the common subjection of both its provinces to the crown. This predominance of state over church was a consequence of its nationalization; for where the boundaries of the two coincide, the state generally has the upper hand. The papacy was only made possible by the fall of the Western Empire; in the Eastern Empire the state, so long as it survived, controlled the church; and the independence of the medieval church was due to its catholicity, while the state at best was only national. It was in defence of the catholicity, as opposed to the nationalism, of the church that More and Fisher went to the scaffold in 1535, and nearly the whole bench of bishops was deprived in 1559. Henry VIII and Elizabeth were bent on destroying the medieval discord between the Catholic church and the national state. Catholicity had broken down in the state with the decline of the empire, and was fast breaking down in the church; nationalism had triumphed in the state, and was now to triumph in the church.

In this respect the Reformation was the greatest achievement of the national state, which emerged from the struggle with no rival for its omnicompetent authority. Its despotism was the predominant characteristic of the century, for the national state successfully rid itself of the checks imposed, on the one hand by the Catholic church, and on the other by the feudal franchises. But the supremacy was not exclusively royal; parliament was the partner and accomplice of the crown. It was the weapon which the Tudors employed to pass Acts of Attainder against feudal magnates and Acts of Supremacy against the church; and men complained that despotic authority had merely been transferred from the pope to the king, and infallibility from the church to parliament. "Parliament," wrote an Elizabethan statesman, "establisheth forms of religion...."

But while Englishmen on the whole were pretty well agreed that foreign jurisdiction was to be eliminated, and that Englishmen were to be organized in one body, secular and spiritual, which might be called indifferently a state-church or a church-state, there was much more difference of opinion with regard to its theological complexion. It might be Catholic or it might be Protestant in doctrine; and it was far more difficult to solve this religious problem than to effect the severance from Rome. There were, indeed, many currents in the stream, some of them cross-currents, some political, some religious, but all mingling imperceptibly with one another. The revolt of the nation against a foreign authority is the most easily distinguished of these tendencies; another is the revolt of the laity against the clerical specialist. The church, it must be remembered, was often regarded as consisting not of the whole body of the faithful, but simply of the clergy, who continued to claim a monopoly of its privileges after they had ceased to enjoy a monopoly of its intelligence and virtue. The Renaissance had been a new birth of secular learning, not a revival of clerical learning. Others besides the clergy could now read and write and understand; town chronicles took the place of monastic chronicles, secular poets of divines; and a middle class that was growing in wealth and intelligence grew also as impatient of clerical as it had done of military specialists. The essential feature of the reformed services was that they were compiled in the common tongue and not in the Latin of ecclesiastical experts, that a Book of Common Prayer was used, that congregational psalm-singing replaced the sacerdotal solo, and a communion was substituted for a priestly miracle. Religious service was to be something rendered by the people themselves, and not performed for their benefit by the priest.

Individual participation and private judgment in religion were indeed the essence of Protestantism, which was largely the religious aspect of the revolt of the individual against the collectivism of the Middle Ages. The control exercised by the church had, however, been less the expression of the general will than the discipline by authority of masses too illiterate to think for themselves. Attendance at public worship would necessarily be their only form of devotion. But the general emancipation of servile classes and spread of intelligence by the Renaissance had led to a demand for vernacular versions of the Scriptures and to a great deal of private and family religious exercise, without which there could have been no Protestant Reformation. Lollardy, which was a violent outburst of this domestic piety, was never completely suppressed; and it flamed out afresh when once political reasons, which had led the Lancastrians to support the church, induced the Tudors to attack it.

Most spiritual of all the factors in the Reformation was the slow and partial emancipation of men's minds from the materialism of the Middle Ages. It may seem bold, in face of the vast secularization of church property and other things in the sixteenth century, to speak of emancipation from materialism. Nevertheless, there was a distinct step in the progress of men's minds from that primitive condition of intelligence in which they can only grasp material symbols of the real conception. Rudimentary jurisprudence had confessed its inability to penetrate men's thoughts and differentiate their actions according to their motives; there had been a time when possession had seemed more real than property, and when the transference of a right was incomprehensible without the transference of its concrete symbols. There could be no gift without its manual conveyance, no marriage without a ring, no king without a coronation. Many of these material swaddling-clothes remain and have their value. A national flag stimulates loyalty, gold lace helps the cause of discipline. Bishop Gardiner, in the sixteenth century, defended images on the ground that they were documents all could read, while few could read the Scriptures. To unimaginative men there could be no priest without vestments, no worship without ritual, no communion of the Spirit without the presence of the Body, no temple not made with hands, no God without an image. To break the image, to abolish the vestments and the ritual, to deny the transubstantiation, was to destroy the religion and reverence of the masses, who could only grasp matter and worship with their senses.

Protestantism was, therefore, not a popular religion, and to thousands of educated men it did not appeal. Few people are so immaterialistic that they can dispense with symbols; many can idealize symbols in which others see nothing but matter; and only those devoid of artistic perception deny the religious value of sculpture, painting, and music. Protestantism might be an ideal religion if men were compounded of pure reason; being what they were, many adopted it because they were impervious to artistic influence or impatient of spiritual discipline. It will hardly do to divide the nation into intelligent Protestants and illiterate Catholics: the point is that the somewhat crude symbolism which had satisfied the cravings of the average man had ceased to be sufficient for his newer intelligent needs; he demanded either a higher symbolism or else as little as possible. Some felt the symbol a help, others felt it a hindrance to the realization of the ideal; so some men can see better with, others without, spectacles, but that fact would hardly justify their abolition.

Henry VIII confined his sympathies to the revolt of the nation against Rome and the revolt of the laity against the priests. The former he used to make himself Supreme Head of the church, the latter to subdue convocation and despoil the monasteries. All civilized countries have found it expedient sooner or later to follow his example with regard to monastic wealth; and there can be little doubt that the withholding of so much land and so many men and women from productive purposes impeded the material prosperity of the nation. But the devotion of the proceeds to the foundation of private families, instead of to educational endowment, can only be explained and not excused by the exigencies of political tactics. His real services were political, not religious. He taught England a good deal of her insular confidence; he proclaimed the indivisible and indisputable sovereignty of the crown in parliament; he not only incorporated Wales and the county palatine of Chester with England, and began the English re-organization of Ireland, but he united England north with England south of the Humber, and consolidated the Borders, those frayed edges of the national state. He carried on the work of Henry II and Edward I, and by subduing rival jurisdictions stamped a final unity on the framework of the government.

The advisers of Edward VI embarked on the more difficult task of making this organization Protestant; and the haste with which they, and especially Northumberland, pressed on the change provoked first rebellion in 1549 and then reaction under Mary. They were also confronted with social discontent arising out of the general substitution of competition for custom as the ruling economic principle. Capital amassed in trade was applied to land, which began to be treated as a source of money, not a source of men. Land held in severalty was found more profitable than land held in common, large estates than small holdings, and wool-growing than corn-growing. Small tenants were evicted, small holdings consolidated, commons enclosed, and arable land converted to pasture. The mass of the agricultural population became mere labourers without rights of property on the soil they tilled; thousands lost employment and swelled the ranks of sturdy beggars; and sporadic disorder came to a head in Kett's rebellion in Norfolk in 1549, which was with difficulty suppressed. But even this highhanded expropriation of peasants by their landlords stimulated national development. It created a vagrant mobile mass of labour, which helped to meet the demands of new industrial markets and to feed English oversea enterprise. A race that sticks like a limpet to the soil may be happy but cannot be great; and the ejection of English peasants from their homesteads saved them from the reproach of home- keeping youths that they have ever homely wits.

Mary's reign, however, checked the national impulse towards expansion, and thrust England for the moment back into the Middle Ages. First she put herself and her kingdom under the aegis of Spain, to which in heart and mind she belonged, by marrying Philip II. Then with his assistance she restored the papal jurisdiction, and England surrendered its national independence. Those who repudiated their foreign jurisdiction were naturally treated as contumacious by the papal courts in England and sent to the stake; and English adventurers were prohibited, in the interests of Spain and Portugal, from trespassing in the New World. Finally England was plunged into war with France in order to help Philip, and lost Calais for its pains. Mary's reign showed that in a sovereign good intentions and upright conversation exaggerate rather than redeem the evil effects of bigotry and blindness. She had, however, made it impossible for any successor to perpetuate in England the Roman jurisdiction and the patronage of Spain.

Elizabeth was a sovereign more purely British in blood than any other since the Norman Conquest; and to her appropriately fell the task of completing her country's national independence. Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy and Edward VI's of Uniformity were restored with some modifications, in spite of the opposition of the Catholic bishops, who contended that a nation had no right to deal independently with ecclesiastical matters, and suffered deprivation and imprisonment rather than recognize a schismatic national church. Elizabeth rejected Philip's offers of marriage and paid no heed to his counsels of state. She scandalized Catholic Europe by assisting the revolted Scots to expel the French from North Britain; and revenged the contempt, in which England had been held in Mary's reign, by supporting with impunity the Dutch against Philip II and the Huguenots against the king of France. She concealed her aggressions with diplomatic artifice and caution; but at heart she was with her people, who lost no opportunity, in their new-found confidence, of plundering and insulting the Catholic powers in their way.

The astonishing success of England amid the novel conditions of national rivalry requires some attempt at explanation. It seems to have been due to the singular flexibility of the English character and national system, and to the consequent ease with which they adapted themselves to changing environment. Indeed, whatever may be the case at present, a survey of English history suggests that the conventional stolidity ascribed to John Bull was the least obvious of his characteristics; and even to-day the only people who never change their mind at general elections are the mercurial Celts. Certainly England has never suffered from that rigidity of social system which has hampered in the past the adaptability of its rivals. Even in feudal times there was little law about status; and when the customary arrangement of society in two agricultural classes of landlord and tenant was modified by commerce, capitalism, and competition, nobles adapted themselves to the change with some facility. They took to sheep-farming and commercial speculations, just as later on they took to keeping dairy-shops. It is the smallness rather than the source of his profits that excites social prejudice against the shopkeeper in England. On the Continent, however, class feeling prevented the governing classes from participating in the expansion of commerce. German barons, for instance, often with only a few florins a year income, could not supplement it by trade; all they could do was to rob the traders, robbery being a thoroughly genteel occupation. Hence foreign governments were, as a rule, less alive and less responsive to the commercial interests of their subjects. Philip II trampled on commercial opinion in a way no English sovereign could have done. Indeed, complaints were raised in England at the extent to which the commercial classes had the ear of parliament and the crown; since the accession of Henry VIII, it was said in 1559, they had succeeded by their secret influence in procuring the rejection of every bill they thought injurious to their interests.

There was no feeling of caste to obstruct the efficiency of English administration. The nobility were separated from the nation by no fixed line; there never was in England a nobility of blood, for all the sons of a noble except the eldest were commoners. And while they were constantly sinking into the mass of the nation, commoners frequently rose to the rank of nobility. Before the end of the fourteenth century wealth derived from trade had become an avenue to the House of Lords. The justices of the peace, on whom the Tudors relied for local administration, were largely descended from successful city men who had, like the Walsinghams, planted themselves out in the country; and Elizabeth herself was great-great-granddaughter of a London mayor. This social elasticity enabled the government to avail itself of able men of all classes, and the efficiency of Tudor administration was mainly due to these recruits, whose genius would have been elsewhere neglected. Further, it provided the government with agents peculiarly fitted by training and knowledge to deal with the commercial problems which were beginning to fill so large a sphere in politics; and finally, it rendered the government singularly responsive to the public opinion of the classes upon whose welfare depended the expansion of England.

Englishmen likewise took to the sea, when the sea became all-important, as readily as they took to trade. English command of the Narrow Seas had laid France open to the invasions of Edward III and Henry V, and had checked the tide of French reconquest before the walls of Calais. English piracy in the Channel was notorious in the fifteenth century, and in the sixteenth it attained patriotic proportions. Henry VII had encouraged Cabot's voyage to Newfoundland, but the papal partition of new-found lands between Spain and Portugal barred to England the door of legitimate, peaceful expansion; and there can be little doubt that this prohibition made many converts to Protestantism among English seafaring folk. Even Mary could not prevent her subjects from preying on Spanish and Portuguese commerce and colonies; and with Elizabeth's accession preying grew into a national pastime. Hawkins broke into Spanish monopoly in the West Indies, Drake burst into their Pacific preserves, and circumvented their defences; and a host of followers plundered nearly every Spanish and Portuguese colony.

At last Philip was provoked into a naval war for which the English were and he was not prepared. Spanish rigidity embraced the Spanish marine as well as Spanish theology. Clinging to Mediterranean and medieval traditions, Spain had failed to realize the conditions of sea-power or naval tactics. England, on the other hand, had, largely under the inspiration of Henry VIII, adapted its navy to oceanic purposes. A type of vessel had been evolved capable of crossing the ocean, of manoeuvring and of fighting under sail; to Drake the ship had become the fighting unit, to the Duke of Medina Sidonia a ship was simply a vehicle for soldiers, and a sea-fight was simply a land-fight on sea. The crowning illustration of Spain's incapacity to adapt itself to new conditions is perhaps the fact that only a marquis or duke could be made a Spanish admiral.

England had disposed of similar claims to political and military authority in 1569, when medieval feudalism made its last bid for the control of English policy. For ten years Elizabeth had been guided by Sir William Cecil, a typical "new man" of Tudor making, who hoped to wean the common people from dependence upon their lords, and to complete the destruction of feudal privileges which still impeded the action of national sovereignty. The flight of Mary Queen of Scots into England in 1568 provided a focus for noble discontent with Cecil's rule, and the northern earls rebelled in 1569. The rebellion was easily suppressed, but its failure did not deter the Duke of Norfolk, the earls' accomplice, from joining Ridolfi's plot with similar ends. He was brought to the block in 1572, and in him perished the last surviving English duke. For more than half a century England had to do its best--defeat the Spanish Armada, conquer Ireland, circumnavigate the globe, lay the foundations of empire, produce the literature of the Elizabethan age--without any ducal assistance. It was left for James I, who also created the rank of baronet in order to sell the title (1611), to revive the glories of ducal dignity in the persons of Ludovic Stuart, Duke of Richmond, and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham (1623).

Cecil's drastic methods of dealing with the opposition lords left the door of government open to men like Walsingham, who were determined to give full play to the new forces in English politics. Discontented reactionaries were reduced to impotent silence, or driven abroad to side openly with the enemy. Pius V's bull excommunicating and deposing Elizabeth (1570) shattered in a similar way the old Catholic party. The majority acquiesced in the national religion; the extremists fled to become conspirators at foreign courts or Jesuit and missionary priests. The antagonism between England and Spain in the New World did more, perhaps, than Spanish Catholicism to make Philip the natural patron of these exiles and of their plots against the English government; and as Spain and England drew apart, England and France drew together. In 1572 a defensive alliance was formed between them, and there seemed a prospect of their co-operation to drive the Spaniards out of the Netherlands. But Catholic France resented this Huguenot policy, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew put a violent end to the scheme, while Elizabeth and Philip patched up a truce for some years. There could, however, be no permanent compromise, on the one hand, between Spanish exclusiveness and the determination of Englishmen to force open the door of the New World and, on the other, between English nationalism and the papal resolve to reconquer England for the Catholic church. Philip made common cause with the papacy and with its British champion, Mary Queen of Scots, while Englishmen made common cause with Philip's revolted subjects in the Netherlands. The acquisition of Portugal, its fleet, and its colonial empire by Philip in 1580, the assassination of William of Orange in 1584, and the victories of Alexander of Parma in the Netherlands forced Elizabeth into decisive action. The Dutch were taken under her wing, a national expedition led by Drake paralyzed Spanish dominion in the West Indies in 1585 and then destroyed Philip's fleet at Cadiz in 1587, and the Queen of Scots was executed.

At last Philip attempted a tardy retaliation with the Spanish Armada. Its naval inefficiency was matched by political miscalculations. Philip never imagined that a united England could be conquered; but he laboured under the delusion, spread by English Catholic exiles, that the majority of the English people only awaited a signal to rise against their queen. When this delusion was exploded and the naval incompetence of Spain exposed, his dreams of conquest vanished, and he continued the war merely in the hope of securing guarantees against English interference in the New World, in the Netherlands, and in France, where he was helping the Catholic League to keep Henry of Navarre off the French throne. Ireland, however, was his most promising sphere of operations. There religious and racial hostility to the English was fusing discordant Irish septs into an Irish nation, and the appearance of a Spanish expedition was the signal for something like a national revolt. England had not been rich enough in men or money to give Ireland a really efficient government, but the extent of the danger in 1598-1602 stimulated an effort which resulted in the first real conquest of Ireland; and Englishmen set themselves to do the same work, with about the same amount of benevolence, for the Irish that the Normans had done for the Anglo-Saxons.

So far Tudor monarchy had proved an adequate exponent of English nationalism, because nationalism had been concerned mainly with the external problems of defence against foreign powers and jurisdictions. But with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the urgency of those problems passed away; and during the last fifteen years of Elizabeth's reign national feelings found increasing expression in parliament and in popular literature. In all forms of literature, but especially in the Shakespearean drama, the keynote of the age was the evolution of a national spirit and technique, and their emancipation from the influence of classical and foreign models. In domestic politics a rift appeared between the monarchy and the nation. For one thing the alliance, forged by Henry VIII between the crown and parliament, against the church, was being changed into an alliance between the crown and church against the parliament, because parliament was beginning to give expression to democratic ideas of government in state and church which threatened the principle of personal rule common to monarchy and to episcopacy. "No Bishop, no King," was a shrewd aphorism of James I, which was in the making before he reached the throne. In other respects--such as monopolies, the power of the crown to levy indirect taxation without consent of parliament, to imprison subjects without cause shown, and to tamper with the privileges of the House of Commons--the royal prerogative was called in question. Popular acquiescence in strong personal monarchy was beginning to waver now that the need for it was disappearing with the growing security of national independence. People could afford the luxuries of liberty and party strife when their national existence was placed beyond the reach of danger; and a national demand for a greater share of self- government, which was to wreck the House of Stuart, was making itself heard before, on March 24, 1603, the last sovereign of the line which had made England a really national state passed away.

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