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The Progress of the Nation

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The century of which we have just traced the events was a period marked by vast progress, and by changes which were the springs of still more wonderful progress in after ages. Though the character of the Tudors was essentially despotic, no dynasty since the days of Alfred and Magna Charta wrought out such revolutions in the constitution of England. These revolutions were effected by the very efforts of the Tudor monarchs to establish their own power and gratify their own self-will. They were wrought by Providence: and Providence works in his great scheme of the world's progress, by bending the stiffest spirits and the most tyrannical aspirations under the weight of those influences of the universe which are at the moment predominant. These revolutions extended not only into the political constitution of the nation but into its religious one; into its literature, its philosophy, and its morals; and that simply because the spirit of the age was of that tone and strength, that though outward powers could agitate it, nothing but its own momentum could direct its tendency. Henry VII., with an indifferent title, succeeded to the crown because the nation was weary of the long conflicts of the York and Lancaster monarchs, and longed for peace, which his disposition promised. Cold, cautious, and penurious, he took care lot to raise a fresh race of powerful barons in place of that which the Wars of the Roses had destroyed, but hoarded up money; and beyond the injustice practised in is collection, left his people to pursue their trades and their agriculture, and thus renew their strength. Henry VIII., violent, passionate, sensual, and intensely arbitrary, but fond of parade, and in his youth boastful of his prowess, gratified the pride of the nation whilst he ruled it with a rod of iron. In the gratification of his lusts he did not hesitate to renounce allegiance to that great spiritual power which for above a thousand years had ruled haughtily over Europe and all its kings and warriors. By this act he set free for ever the mind and conscience of this nation. In vain did he endeavour to bind them down in a knot of his own making. Though he hurled his fiercest terms against those who claimed a universal liberty which he intended only for himself, he had broken the mighty spell of ages - a power and a mystery before which the world had bowed in impotent awe; and no chains which he could forge, no creed which lie could set up, no hierarchy which he could frame, could possess more than the strength of the fire-scorched flax against the will of the enfranchised people. He had let loose the flood of religious desire, which had age-long been dashing moodily against the old mounds of superstition; and he might as well have attempted to stem the current of the Thames with a hurdle as to re-imprison the public mind. It had tasted that sweetness which never again dies from the palate; it had breathed that air which makes the memory of the dungeon atmosphere intolerable: and though he struck lustily right and left whenever the million-headed apparition of free-will showed itself - though he gave full employment to the headsman, the hangman, and the bigot with his fiery stake - he succeeded only in teaching the national will to seek shelter from the passing tempest, well assured that it must blow over. He only deluded himself; his triumph was hollow and unreal. Beneath the hushed roofs and the closed shutters of the dwellings of the people, outwardly wearing an aspect of obedience, there lived unbroken and glowed uncrippled the freedom of the heart and the resolution to be free. The moment that he perished, the soul of the nation showed itself alive. The very Reformers around his throne, who had cowered beneath the fell and deadly ire of the tyrant, rose, with Cranmer at their head, and under the mild auspices of the religious Edward, gave free vent to the spirit and the doctrines of the Reformation. The return of theologic despotism under Mary only added force to the spirit of reform, by showing how terrible and bloody was the animus of ancient superstition. The fires of Smithfield lit up the dark places of spiritual tyranny to the remotest corners of the nation, and gave the blow to the tottering Bastile of restringent faith in this country. Elizabeth, with all the self-will of her father, lived to see, both in people and Parliament, a spirit that made her lion-heart shrink with awe, and own, however reluctantly, a power looking already gigantically down upon her own. She felt more than once, in the pride of her power, the terror of that national will which, in less than half a century from her death, shattered the throne of her successor, and gave to the world the unheard-of spectacle of a king decapitated for treason to his people.

The grand underlying impulse of the forward movement of this age was that of the general progress of the world in knowledge - knowledge of its rights and the powers inherent in popular association. The restoration of classical literature, and especially of the Greek, had rekindled the lofty and independent sentiments of antiquity; but still more, the knowledge of the doctrines, principles, and promises of the Bible, which had been disseminated amongst the people by the 'Reformers, had spread like a flame amongst them, and had given them totally new ideas of human prerogative and dignity. Henry VIII., after being induced to make public the Scriptures, saw so clearly their effect that he withdrew the boon as far as was possible, and pronounced the most severe penalties on any of the common people consulting that Divine fountain of truth and freedom. Throughout the civilised world, far even beyond the countries in which the Reformation had established itself, the stimulating boon of this knowledge was diffused, and gave a perilous and uneasy feeling to the most slavish nations and despotic sovereigns.

But in England many other causes had co-operated to raise the power and condition of the people. The long civil wars had, by the time of the accession of Henry VII., reduced the old nobility to a mere fragment. Such extraordinary specimens of baronial wealth and dominion as the Warwicks, Beauchamps, and Shrewsburys, no longer existed. In the first Parliament of Henry VII. the peers amounted to only twenty-eight; in that of Henry VIII. they had risen only to thirty-six. With their extinction had lapsed their vast estates to the Crown, and this property had in part been sold to defray the costs by which the throne had maintained its struggles against various claimants and their factions, Henry VII., as we have said, carefully kept down this haughty class to the limits into which it had fallen. His son, Henry VIII., like him, pursued the policy of Edward IV., who had established a system of fine and recovery to cut off entails; and by liberal use of attainders, with their consequent forfeitures of title and estate, made the nobility entirely subservient to the Crown, which augmented its wealth and power on their ruin. By conferring their estates in part on new aspirants to the peerage from the families of the lesser gentry, and in many cases - as in those of Wolsey and Cromwell - from the ranks of the common people, he divided the aristocracy against itself, and thus added fresh influence to the throne. The old nobles looked with a jealous and disdainful eye on the new ones; the new ones repaid the scorn by an equal scorn of imbecile antiquity, and by the most assiduous endeavours at rise in affluence and official dignity to a parity with them, and even an ascendancy over them.

This predominance of the Crown once established, Henry VIII. proceeded to a still more startling blow at a power hitherto equal and often paramount to that of the Crown - the Church. To the terror and astonishment of the whole of Papal Christendom, he stretched his hand not only against the supreme rule, but the vast property of that august and time-honoured institution. In 1532 he abolished the annats, or first-fruits, before that time paid to the court of Rome - an act in itself proclaiming his independence of that court. In the following year he declared by Act of Parliament that his subjects might discuss the claims and condemn the acts and opinions of the Pope without incurring any charge of heresy. Another year, and he caused himself to be proclaimed "Supreme head of the Church" in his own realms; and prohibited not only all payments to the Pope, but all appeals to or recognition of his authority. In 1535, the very next year, he confiscated the property of the lesser monasteries; and this course, once begun, never stopped till he had made himself master of the whole vast demesnes of the monasteries, the collegiate churches, hospitals, and houses of the order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem; the bulk of which he appropriated to his own use, turning adrift 150,000 monks, priests, and nuns into the world. So daring a sweep of ecclesiastical property, power, and privilege never was made by any other man or in any other era of the world; and nothing could have emboldened even this impious and lawless monarch to so astounding a deed but the clear consciousness that the spirit of the age was with him, and that there was a host of candidates for the spoils of this ancient corporation, who would do battle to the death for his object, which was still more their own.

By this unexampled coup-d'etat Henry made himself master of 644 convents, 90 colleges, 2,374 chantries and free chapels, and 110 hospitals; the whole of which property, with very trifling exception, was speedily conveyed to the vast swarm of hungry parvenus, the Russells, the Brownes, the Seymours, &c., who rapidly bloomed into aristocratic greatness, and constituted an army of invincible defence against any restoration of this great and affluent but corrupt ecclesiastical princedom.

These new men, in their turn, were necessitated to subdivide a portion, more or less, amongst their followers, to establish their own position; and other great extents of lands were sold in minor amounts to the successful merchants and traders, so that by this means there grew up a new power in the country - that of small but sturdy freeholders, who, at once independent of the Crown and the aristocracy, soon made their might felt in the community, and added to the House of Commons that popular infusion of authoritative life which speedily electrified the Government by its tone, and prostrated it by its measures.

That a large number of such men of substance, whose wealth was the produce of industry, existed at the period, is an indication that the nation had grown rich by trade, and had also advanced in population. When we talk of the England and other countries of Europe of former ages, we are scarcely aware of what extremely different countries they were, both in regard to the cultivation of their lands, the arts, aspects, and habits of their cities, their general knowledge, their polish of speech, and their amount of population. It will scarcely be credited, that at the close of the Wars of the Roses, the whole population of England and Wales did not exceed two millions and a half - less than the present population of London. But in 1575, that is, in the seventeenth year of Elizabeth, the men fit to bear arms alone amounted to 1,172,674, and the entire population to not less than 5,000,000. Harrison, in his "Description of England" at this time, says that "Some do grudge at the great increase of people in these days, thinking a necessary herd of cattle far better than a superfluous augmentation of mankind. They laid," he says, " the cause upon God, as though he were in fault for sending such increase of people, or want of wars that should consume them; affirming that the land was never so full." So little did they comprehend that the multitude of people, properly employed, were the strength and wealth of the nation.

But we shall have occasion to notice that with this wealth and strength there also co-existed much poverty; owing to the derangements of society in the days of Henry VIII., and to the great tendency to leave the land in pasture to supply the great growth of wool necessary for the largo demand for the Netherlands, and the rapidly growing one at home, where the manufacture of both coarse and fine cloths had been increasing from the time that Edward III., at the instigation of his queen, Philippa of Hainault, invited the weavers of fine woollens over from that country. Still the rise in the value of all kinds of articles of life, including wages, during the whole of this period, is a proof of the enlarged demand for skilled workmen, and the capacity to pay much more than formerly, which could only be the case with augmented means in the bulk of the population. At various times, as in 1496 and 1514, acts were passed with the vain object of keeping down wages - attempts which, though they show very little progress in political economy, show with equal clearness that employers were more numerous than they had been in proportion to labour. In 1500 the wages of a master mason were 6d. a day; in 1575 they were doubled; and in 1590 they had reached Is. 2d. The wages of common labourers had risen from 6d. a day to 10d. In 1511 the salary of a domestic priest was 3 8s. 8d.; in 1545 it had risen to 4 14s. 6d. In 1544 the wages of sailors were advanced from 5s. per month, in the Royal navy, to 6s. 8d., and all other trades and professions exhibited the like advance of payment.

This, of course, was the result of the like advance in the prices of provisions, rents, and clothing - another proof that the people had, become not only more numerous, but more luxurious, and, therefore, exigent of better diet and accommodation. Wheat, the great staple of the people's food, had advanced from 3s. 4d. a quarter in 1485 to 17s. in 1589; 2 2s. in 1596; and 1 7s. in 1599. It is true the price of wheat varied a great deal in this period, but except in a very few seasons it never approached the low price of the previous century; and in 1587, a year of scarcity, it rose to 5 4s. In 1500 a dozen pigeons were 4d., in 1541 they were 10d., in 1590 they were Is., and in 1597, a year of scarcity, 4s. 3d. In 1500 a hundred eggs could be had for 6d., in 1541 they were Is. 2d., and in 1597 they were 3s. A good fat goose in 1500 was only 4d., but in 1541 it was 8d., in 1589 it was Is. 2d. A fat sheep in 1500 was Is. 8d., in 1549 from 2s. 4d. to 4s., and in 1597, the dear year, it could not be had under 14s. 6d. In 1500 an ox could bo purchased for 11s. or 12s., in 1541 its price had advanced from 1 to 2; in 1597 a single stone of beef was 2s., and a whole fat ox upwards of 5.

In "Stafford's Dialogue," published in 1581, all the speakers agree in respect to this advance of prices in. their time. "I am fain," says the capper, "to give my journeymen twopence in a day more than I was wont to do, and yet they say they cannot sufficiently live thereon." "Such of us," says the knight, "as do abide in the country, still cannot, with 200 a year, keep that house that we might have done with 200 marks but sixteen years past. Cannot you, neighbour," he adds, addressing the farmer, "remember that within these thirty years I could in this town buy the best pig or goose that I could lay my hand on for 4d., which now costeth 12d., a good capon for 3d. or 4d., a chicken for 1d., a hen for 2d., which now costeth me double and triple the money? It is likewise in greater ware, as in beef and mutton. I have seen a cap for 13d. as good as I can get now for 2s. 6d.; of cloth ye have heard how the price is risen. Now a pair of shoes costs 12d., yet in my time I have bought a better for 6d. Now I can get never a horse shoed under 10d. or 12d., when I have also seen the common price was 6d."

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