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Causes of the Tudor power- Increased influence of the commons Change of the aristocratic for the democratic element Effect of this changeSubserviency of the lords-Increase of parliamentary privilege - Tudor policy-Improved condition of the agricultural labourer-Rise of pauperism, and first institution of poor-laws - Their influence on the moral and social condition of the people-Over-population Revolutions in France in connection with the absence of a poor-law-Compulsory and voluntary principles.
THE century during which the house of Tudor occupied the throne of England was a period of great social change as well in politics as religion. The crown having overthrown the authority of the nobles and absorbed that of the church, was exceedingly arbitrary; but the power which was to control it was secretly growing up. This new power was the commons: those who in reality had withstood the prerogative of the Plantagenets were the ancient nobility, the feudal aristocracy, beneath whose protection the house of commons acted against the crown: under the Tudors the people set limits to the royal prerogative. Thus in the sixteenth century the aristocratic element of the fifteenth was exchanged for the democratic, which has ever since been gaining influence; tempered indeed by aristocratic tendencies, but essentially democratic.
The first consequence of this change was an excess of power on the part of the crown. The commons, weak and deserted by their natural leaders, were unable to exercise the same control over the sovereign as the barons had formerly done, and their dependence in a great measure on the crown still further crippled the energy of this infant assembly. The influence exercised over elections was beyond the control of the commons, and by adding new boroughs in the royal interest, as was frequently done by the last three Tudors, the crown was sure of a majority in that house. But the charge of pusillanimity does not lie so much against the commons as the lords. It was in the upper house that parliament manifested so humiliating a subserviency to the royal will. The newly created nobility, owing their titles and honours to the favour or munificence of the crown, dreaded to incur its displeasure, and seldom, if ever, ventured on an
independent course. "The terror," says lord Brougham,* "of the prince's vengeance confounded all opposition,-every man feared to be made the sacrifice, were he to move first; as no one in a mob will rush willingly on, till forced by those behind him, upon a single individual armed with a pistol, because each knows that though it can kill but one, he may be the one. Who could venture to protest for a moment against any of Henry VIII.'s worst schemes of profligacy and cruelty, when he felt that an attainder being suddenly propounded against himself, should he oppose the attainder pressed upon the legislature, he must be the sacrifice to the honest discharge of a public duty?"
So far as the commons were concerned, they had never been accustomed to interfere with criminal jurisdiction, which was therefore left to the upper house; but on those questions of supply and expenditure which formed their peculiar province, we trace no submissive spirit; on the contrary, the sole right of parliament to impose taxes or levy subsidies had never been rendered of universal application, till under Elizabeth it became practically as well as theoretically established.
With regard to parliamentary privilege, the movement had evidently been progressive. Whereas in the fifteenth century the commons had punished, with the sanction of the crown, those who had arrested members during the session, this in the sixteenth century became a common assertion of privilege, and both strangers and members were severely punished for contempts of the house and its jurisdiction, without the displeasure of the crown; thus showing that the brilliant prerogative of the Tudors was no regular organization of tyranny, but the result of great mental energy in the prince, at a time when the ordinary restraints on the royal power were in abeyance: the extension too of the elective franchise, and the greater number of representatives admitted into parliament, tended to enlarge the base of the constitution. Edward VI. added 17 new members, Mary 27, and Elizabeth no less than 62 borough members, who, however subservient to the crown, must eventually have enlarged the sphere of the representation, and consequently increased the power of the house of commons. The position of the electors had also improved; instead of being tenants of a superior lord, they had become either free-holders or copy-holders; and the whole nation had participated in this improvement, the condition of serfdom. had ceased to exist, and the whole of the population was in the enjoyment of personal freedom. But with this advance a new danger had arisen, which the government found it requisite to guard against. The lord of the manor was no longer answerable * Brougham, Essay on the Constitution, p. 74.
for the offences committed on his estates, nor the baron for the conduct and maintenance of his retainers. The labouring population were thrown on their own resources, and although the condition of free labour was certainly preferable to that of compulsory servitude, there were occasions when the poor found it exceedingly difficult to procure a livelihood. In the seasons of scarcity which occurred in the reigns of Edward VI. and Elizabeth, and during the distress caused by fear of the Spanish invasion, large numbers of men were thrown out of employment, and it being found impossible to repress depredations by proclamations of martial law, or compulsory regulation of the markets, Elizabeth at length procured the passing of a law requiring compulsory assessment to be made in each district for the support of the indigent poor, the origin of our poor-law. It may seem strange to those only accustomed to modern statistics, that when England contained only about twice the present population of London, there should have been any deficiency in the supply of food or fear of over-population, but such was actually the case. Not to instance early times, numerous statutes were passed in Elizabeth's reign to prohibit the exportation of corn, and regular returns were instituted by the sheriffs of all the available produce in the hands of farmers, so that it might be distributed in such proportions as the exigencies of the kingdom required.
In the time of Edward VI. there had been great complaints of the conversion of arable land into pasture, on the appropriation of the church lands; and several statutes in the reign of Elizabeth seem to show that a similar process was still going on: but why a decline of tillage should have accompanied a fall in the labourmarket does not so easily appear. It is, however, by no means certain that the produce of England had declined; the average yield of the same acreage in cultivation has greatly varied at different periods. In the Saxon times it is estimated that there was two-thirds as much land in England in cultivation as in the reign of George III., and within the last thirty years as great an increase has been obtained in the average yield as if the whole productive surface of England had been doubled.* Thus it does.
*In the year 1837 the average yield of wheat in the large farms of England was only 21 bushels, and the highest average for any one county was no more than 26 bushels. The highest average since claimed for the whole of England is 30 bushels, or, according to Inglis, the produce of the seed is seldom less than twelve-fold, but if drilled, fourteen-fold, and if dibbled, sixteen-fold. The introduction of the rotation system of cropping has also obviated the necessity of letting the land lie fallow every fourth or fifth year, and in most instances the value of the green crops exceeds that of the farinaceous, so that there can be no exaggeration if we estimate the produce of England as doubled in the last thirty years.
CONDITION OF THE PEOPLE.
not follow that the diminution in the proportion of arable land was necessarily accompanied by a corresponding decrease in the amount of produce, but the change from a period of great abundance, as that at the end of the fifteenth century, to one of comparative scarcity like the middle of the sixteenth, must necessarily have produced a considerable pressure in Europe, notwithstanding the growth of commerce and national industry.
The rise of the poor-law in England at such a time is certainly a significant fact; it shows the necessity of some resource on which the labouring class who depend on their exertions from day to day can fall back in case of extremity: the monasteries and religious fraternities in ancient times had supplied this want so far as it existed under the organization of vassalage; but in times when this source of relief had ceased to exist, a more comprehensive system was found requisite; and this excited the attention of the legislature to improve the condition of the poorer commons. It was evident to the farmer and the landholder, who alone constituted the county electors, that in proportion to the number of the poor in each parish, so was the chance of their being called upon to pay a rate for their relief; and hence the commons devised every expedient to free themselves from this burden: a law was passed prohibiting the erection of cottages without four acres of land attached to each, and restraining the increase of building in London and other large towns, so as to check, if possible, the increase of a dependent population. It was now to their interest to raise the condition of the working classes, as in the preceding century it had been to repress them. For in the reign of Richard III. we find the wealthy commons declaring that rather than see the serfs liberated "they would suffer death, all in one day;" and actually taking the most stringent measures to prevent their acquiring learning, or raising themselves in the social scale. But these selfish motives of the upper class were defeated by the crown; and thus it was mainly to the tyranny of the Tudors, and their determination to break the power of the nobles, that the English peasantry obtained their freedom, and were raised to the condition of independent labourers. We have already dwelt too long on this subject; but as the question of poor-laws is one of momentous interest in the civilization of the world, and as it is first brought before our notice in this period, we cannot conclude without making a few inquiries as to its beneficial or detrimental operation on the community at large, more particularly as it is the general opinion both of divines and political economists, that the operation of the poor-law, as established in England, is detrimental to the constitution of society, by supporting an idle and discontented population on the labours
of the industrious and honest; and further, that it is the very worst way in which relief can be bestowed, since it makes those who are compelled to pay, give their money with reluctance; and those who are to receive, instead of looking with gratitude on the hand from which their wants are supplied, regard the bounty as their right, and only grudge that it is so inadequate to their demands.
It has been observed as a singular fact by several of our political economists, that the origin of pauperism and the commencement of the large farm system were contemporaneous; but we are not justified in regarding these two conditions as cause and effect without more explicit knowledge than we at present possess, certain it is that up to the time of Henry VIII., the support of the people mainly depended on the cultivation of the land, which was parcelled out into small holdings, either as copyhold or tenancy: but on the fall of the feudal aristocracy and the rise of the mercantile class in the reign of Elizabeth, the large farm system became almost universally adopted; and the serfs, who had lived on the estates of their lords, performing menial services for their lands, were now engaged as day-labourers by the sub-farmer, to whom the lord of the manor had let his lands at a fixed rental: this necessarily economized labour, but it is more than doubtful whether the increased skill and capital, brought to bear on the cultivation of the soil by the large farmer, ever counterbalanced the loss of care and self-interest displayed by the cottier on the cultivation of his little plot. "If," says Mr. Thornton, "the imputation of scanty produce is without foundation, what are we to say to the libel which charges the sin of idleness against the 'petit culture?"" When we look at the reclaimed sand-hills of the Low Countries, or the ungrateful mountain soil of the Swiss cantons, so faithfully described by Mr. Inglis, we cannot for a moment doubt the comparative merits of the two systems. "Not a foot of waste land," says he, "exists on the Engadine, the lowest part of which is not much lower than the top of Snowdon. Wherever grass will grow, there it is, wherever a rock will bear a blade, verdure is seen upon it,wherever rye will succeed, there it is cultivated:" and why do all these things happen? why does the hand of the husbandman so assiduously woo the reluctant favours of Nature? because "the whole of the land belongs to the peasantry." The same is observed by Mr. Howitt, of Germany,-Mr. Laing, of Norway,— and Sismondi, of the metayers of Lombardy. But there are evils as well as advantages attending the minute division of the soil: when the land, as in most of the continental countries, is par*Thornton, Plea for Peasant Proprietors.