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THE TUDOR SYSTEM
HE situation during the third quarter of the fifteenth century is in some respects not unlike that which had prevailed before the Conquest. An old disease called for an old remedy. The Lancastrian regime had left England thoroughly undisciplined. The might of government was scarcely felt, and great nobles were able to set it at defiance with impunity. Godwin himself scarcely held a stronger position than the Kingmaker, and the letters of the Paston family are evidence of a state of lawlessness, which was none the better for incessant litigation. In the Church there was a decay of godliness and learning, the monastic chroniclers ceased from their labours, a worldly and luxurious apathy became characteristic alike of priest and monk, and though relics of primitive sanctitude were found even up to the catastrophe of the Reformation, the Church had ceased to be more than a dead image of the ideals for which she had stood in the days of her vigour. Literature, whose brightness glows or is quenched with the spirit of nations, was in a parlous way, and except for Malory, and possibly Pecock, the work accomplished is perhaps interesting, but hardly great.
The worst trial of all, the shame and incompetence which darkened the reign of the Royal Saint, drew to a close. With suicidal fury, the magnates who had failed. to hold France turned upon each other, and struck a
deadly blow at their own order. The War of the Roses was essentially aristocratic, and though the first manifestation of armed discontent had been the rebellion of Jack Cade, the common folk were surprisingly little affected, except during Queen Margaret's dash southward upon London, which began in triumph at Sandal Castle, and ended in the snowstorm of Towton, and the little Yorkshire stream which ran blood for three miles. Towards each other the nobles displayed unrelenting savagery, and, as if they were consciously co-operating with England's good destiny, they let the poor go. Even when the devilish Crookback was cut down on Bosworth Field, the purging was not complete. It was a combination of nobles that had put Henry Tudor on the throne, and a similar combination might upset it. A spirit of anarchy was abroad, and it was easy to rally armies to the banners even of a Lambert Simnel or Perkin Warbeck.
As in a former Royal Saint's days, the thing that England needed above all others was strong government. Even Fortescue, whose doctrines on the eve of Tudor despotism seem so strangely liberal, was conscious, at least in part, of this necessity. The Crown, according to him, must be strong, and rich enough to give it the advantage over any subject, however powerful, and even if, by weakness or imprudence, its resources have been alienated, they ought to be resumed. How to establish and maintain themselves in such a position was the problem that confronted the two able, but not lovable monarchs, who raised their power upon the ruins of the House of York.
In judging of their achievement, we must be on our guard against prejudices born of conditions other than theirs. It is a maxim of politics so obvious in itself as to merit the reproach of platitude, that the greater the danger to which a government is exposed, the less the scope
for liberty as against the government. An extreme case is that of martial law, which is strictly speaking no law at all, and under which men may be punished without trial, and the innocent made to suffer for the guilty. It was the lesson of the French Revolution, that the most plausible forms of Constitution will not survive the ordeal of invasion and rebellion combined. We cannot get a clear view of this Tudor period, unless we look upon it as one of such extreme peril as practically to constitute a continuous state of siege.
The two Henries were so thoroughly successful, that we are tempted to think too lightly of the task they had to perform. But, in truth, the position of a King of England was one of fearful insecurity, and a weak or mediocre man could hardly have failed to go under. Bound up with the fortunes of her rulers were those of England, and never were they more critical. To the eye of a patriot, no prospect could have been much more disheartening than that of his country after the civil war. It is true that the arch-tyrant had gone to his account, but the petty anarchs, though diminished, were unsubdued. The state of the country afforded little food for hope. England had sunk to an insignificant position in European politics, and in thought and spirit she was equally barren. A fair amount of brute courage had been revealed during the course of the war, but this was about the only virtue that could be placed to the national credit. Treachery, cruelty, and absolute lack of patriotism or any other ideal had marked the conduct of the principals. The Yorkists had indeed given England a government more efficient than the one it superseded, but Edward IV was a disappointing ruler. He was certainly as fine a soldier as such a struggle was capable of producing, and he could be as firm and skilful, when he chose, as Henry VI was weak and silly, but he was too bad a man to turn his gifts to account. The secret of his misrule is bewrayed in that
full, sensual face, with its blend of the heroic and the beastly, a Moloch and a Belial rolled into one. He could rouse himself to win a campaign, but he had not the strength of character to apply himself to the serious business of government, and he had fought his way to a crown, not to impose his ideals upon his people, but to give scope to the lusts which were moulding every full curve of lip and throat. Nevertheless, what work he did is not to be despised. He was at least a king, and after the death of Warwick he was able to set his will above that of any man or body of men in the nation. But he did not use his power to set up an irresponsible tyranny, and this would have been easier for him than for any of the Tudors. After Tewkesbury he had the nation at his feet, and it was too much exhausted to be capable of resistance to the power which had struck down king and kingmaker. It is conceivable that an energetic ambitious man, such a one as Crookback, might have contrived, had he been in Edward's shoes, to have set up such an autocracy as was coming into existence across the Channel and beyond the Pyrenees. But he was too lazy, and perhaps too shrewd, to seek for more than the present substance and enjoyment of power. He courted and obtained popularity, and his burly, good-humoured presence was as dear to the Londoners, as that of the Merry Monarch was to be two centuries later. Few men like a saint, except in books, and most Englishmen prefer a genial sinner who is strong enough for them to respect, and the honour of a few City wives was not held too dear a price for such a one. So Edward kept within the forms of law, and thus the Constitution, that most precious heritage of medieval England, was preserved intact through the dawn of the Modern Age.
It is a peculiarity of England that she has, in more than one field, contrived to combine liberty and order in a way that might justly be the envy of other nations.
We shall see how she, and she alone, has solved the problem of Empire by the application of "Imperium et libertas." Equally meritorious was the way in which she contrived to satisfy her need for strong government, without detracting from her liberties, though she held them in abeyance. In France, the States-General was preparing for its volcano slumber; in Spain, the liberties of the provinces were trampled one by one; in Italy, republics became despotisms, and Michelangelo's Evening Goddess flung herself, writhing in marble agony, before the form of her hero who might have been. Too much has been talked about Tudor despotism. The wonder is that in such an age, and with sovereigns so able, the liberties wrested from Plantagenet and Lancaster should have been preserved practically intact.
The political philosophy of the sixteenth century was soon to find its exponent in one of the frankest and most lucid of masterpieces, which was to be the counsellor of every civilized prince, and the butt of every moralist. To what sinister associations do we not link the name of Machiavelli ? Old Dr. Johnson growled out, with conscious exaggeration, that the first Whig was the Devil, but the slang of the whole nation has decided that Old Nick is the Devil. Even Macaulay, who undertook a partial vindication, rested his case upon the ground that the nature of Italians was so destitute of moral sense, as to applaud cunning for a virtue in itself, and to make a pattern man out of Iago. When we remember how Englishmen had made their Cœur de Lion a cannibal, we need not find anything inherently impossible in the idea that Italians should err as much on the side of cunning as Englishmen on that of savagery. But as a matter of fact, there is no need to accuse the countrymen of the Borgias of a less scrupulous conscience than those of Richard III and Louis XI. The principles of Machiavelli's treatise were not Italian but European, and it is owing to