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It was not from lack of opportunity that the England of the early Tudors missed creative greatness. It is a habit too frequent among modern critics to trace, in abundant detail, this or that foreign influence in native literature, and then to talk as if these foreign influences were the sole or main source of its beauty. No people has ever kindled the white heat of inspiration unless by the fire in its own soul. Foreign artists and authors have often suggested new and beautiful methods of expression, but to no purpose unless there was something to express. Surely no age has ever been so rich as our own in the spoils of all time, and surely never has age produced so little work of the first order. In what was Æschylus richer than Seneca, or Shakespeare than Pope?
The early Tudor period is a case in point. Never, looking at the matter from what we may call the purely literary point of view, was England so ripe for a revival. She had already native models in abundance, the ease and melody of Chaucer, and the prose, faultless in its own sphere, of Malory. Not only was the old known and honoured, but the free thought of the Renaissance was everywhere beginning to penetrate and leaven the more cultured part of the nation, to the disgust of such critics as the Duke of Norfolk, who declared that it had never been merry in England since the new learning came in. Never had the zeal for education been so intense, and it was the dream of Cardinal Wolsey to be the founder of a university in his own native town. The greatest of all the humanists found a home in England, and English scholars travelled eagerly to Continental centres of learning, and rivalled their instructors in all manner of erudition. Royalty itself honoured and patronized the new learning, and such names as Linacre, Colet, Grocyn, and More himself were duly honoured in a nation commonly supposed to be indifferent to the claims of intellect.
With such a wealth of talent, and such laudable
enthusiasm, we can scarcely refrain from surprise at the meagreness of the results. We may not withhold a tribute of honour from those gifted and selfless men, who passed their lives, without ostentation and without any taint of charlatanry, in the quest for truth, nor may we dispute the ultimate value of their labours. They sowed, if they did not reap. When the day of awakening dawned, when Shakespeare walked unguessed at, in the streets of London, and the cannon of Philip was heard in the narrow seas, then it was that the harvest of these scholars was garnered by labourers more fortunate. Then it was apparent how the language had been transformed and enriched since the days of Chaucer, and how, in a thousand ways, the new learning supplied new channels of expression. But that time was as yet distant by more than half a century. Not even the Lancastrian period is quite so barren as that of the early Tudors in works of immortal beauty. With one single exception, the English humanists are but names to the ordinary Englishman. The extant works of Grocyn might almost be comprised on Mr. Balfour's half-sheet of notepaper, and who now reads Colet or Lily or Linacre? As for More himself, his reputation with posterity reposes not upon an English, but upon a Latin work. In poetry, all the impulse of humanism could not even produce a work in any way comparable to the "Battle of Maldon" or the "Cuckoo Song," still less to the "Canterbury Tales." Towards the end of the reign we have some graceful lyrics from Wyatt, and some interesting experiments on the part of Surrey, but nowhere any work of commanding genius, nowhere anything in the grand style. Not all the scholarship of all the humanists could clothe with inspiration the dry bones of English literature.
The early triumphs of Henry VIII were transitory and unproductive. The nation was pleased with anything calculated to tickle its vanity, but its soul was not in
military adventure, and when it came to paying, even Henry's power proved insufficient to bend it to his purpose. Besides, it was soon apparent that very little was to be achieved by force of arms, and the chances were that England would merely be pulling the chestnuts out of the fire for the more skilful but no less scrupulous diplomatists of France and Spain. Henry's real work lay at home, and we must return to the task of unification to which he and his father devoted their chief energies. Already the power of the nobles had been taken in hand, and their capacity for mischief had sensibly diminished since the Wars of the Roses. Henry VII had curbed them with severity and even injustice, and no consideration of past service, nor present hospitality, was of any avail for him who set the law at defiance. One of the wisest and most successful measures was the institution of the Star Chamber, a court powerful enough to try the most exalted offender without having anything to fear from intimidation. The method of dealing with great offenders was that of martial law, to strike the moment they became a source of danger, without troubling overmuch about the formalities of justice. It is the habit in lawless communities, when a man moves his hand towards his pistol, to fire first, if possible, without further ceremony, and this was the principle upon which these Tudor kings acted.
Especially severe was the treatment of any one whose birth placed him near enough to the crown to put him under the suspicion of aiming at it. If a Lambert Simnel could wage sharp war against the King in his realm, how much more dangerous was an undoubted scion of the House of York? Few stories are more pathetic than that of the young Earl of Warwick, imprisoned in the Tower for no crime, allowed to languish without freedom and without knowledge, and finally judicially murdered on some trumped-up charge. Scarcely less cruel seems the
case of Sir William Stanley, who had put the crown upon the King's head, and forfeited his own for no ascertainable reason, except that he was under suspicion of being a dangerous man, and was supposed to have let fall some remark or other to the effect that if Perkin Warbeck really had been the son of Edward IV, he would not have put on armour against him. Henry VIII's victim, the Duke of Buckingham, seems to have been no more than a vain and shallow young man, with an unruly tongue and a dislike of Wolsey, but he was conceited and incautious enough to draw attention to himself, and at once he was marked down for destruction. A nobleman's life could not have been a happy one, when the idlest word might be his death-warrant. Among the articles of Buckingham's indictment for high treason, we find it alleged that a certain monk had told the Duke he should be King, on which the Duke said he would be a righteous prince if it came to pass; and again that he wished the nobles would break their minds, for few of them were contented, so unkindly were they handled. The two Henries did in fact create, upon a smaller scale, the same kind of "terror" as prevailed during the French Revolution, and with much the same excuse. The peril from potential rebels was conceived to be so great, that necessity, which may be the plea of patriots as well as tyrants, was considered strong enough to warrant the striking down of any conceivably dangerous character without mercy, and upon suspicion.
In another way the Tudors essayed to break the power of the nobles; by placing the reins of government in the hands of new men, entirely dependent upon the Crown. It must have been bitter indeed to such scions of old houses as poor Buckingham, to see a butcher's son lording it over them and out-dazzling their splendour. One of his offences, perhaps the one which really sealed his fate, was that he had said something about cutting off the
Cardinal's head. In the old days, when a royal favourite had presumed so far upon his master's favour as to beard the nobility, vengeance had been swift and terrible. But now these upstarts assumed more than royal magnificence, and the nobles could only grumble, not too loudly, and submit. The system had another advantage. The new man was utterly at the King's mercy. Once the royal favour was withdrawn, for any cause or caprice, he was left naked to his enemies. The ministers were a buffer between the throne and the people, for if the King's policy was unpopular, it was always possible to throw the blame, and even the punishment, upon the favourite.
The Star Chamber was but one phase of the prerogative jurisdiction that was developed so freely by the Tudors. It was fortunate that Henry chose this way of evading the Common Law, rather than direct frontal attack. A suggestion had come from Reginald Pole, that he should push the Tudor system to its logical conclusion by making Roman law the law of England. Perhaps Henry knew better than to assail that impenetrable forest. It was not the Tudor habit openly to defy national sentiment, and the law was deeper rooted than the Papal Supremacy. But few were inclined to murmur at the Common Law being supplemented and held in check by what, if an irregular, was an essentially popular jurisdiction. For beside the Star Chamber, that terrible engine for breaking the proud, stood the Court of Requests, which represented a genuine effort on the part of the Crown to provide a cheap and speedy remedy for poor men against the rich, and even went so far as to send the rich man to gaol, to make him think better of evicting the poor man. Such a case is on record.
The reign of law was far from being the recognized thing it has since become. On one occasion the assizes of Taunton and Bridgwater were broken up by armed ruffians, and outlaws of a less attractive stamp than