Classic History Books


The History of England by A. E. Pollard

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

 

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