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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: December 2009

2 - St German's world


If the last chapter's arguments are basically correct, then fifteenth-century England had a legalistic culture, but not, in the narrower sense of the word, a ‘constitutionalist’ politics. The achievement of the Tudors was to extend the reach of law still further, until it threatened to subsume all aspects of the role of monarchy. In doing so, they built upon what foreigners saw as an enviable position. As Giovanni Botero (1544–1610) reported in 1592,

In England the nobility possess few castles or strong places environed with walls and ditches, neither have they jurisdiction over the people. The dignities of dukedoms, marquesses and earldoms are no more but mere titles, which the king bestoweth on whom he pleaseth, and peradventure they possess never a penny of revenue in the place from whence they take their titles.

This had probably long been Italian conventional wisdom. Almost a hundred years before, a Venetian had reported, with the same implied surprise, that territorial names were meaningless: ‘the jurisdiction, both civil and criminal, and the fortresses remain in the hands of the crown’. Italian travellers were not wrong to seize upon this simple observation, for nothing about England was more striking than the sheer feebleness of noble power. After the battles of Bosworth and of Stoke (in both of which the rebels enjoyed the aid of foreign mercenaries), the military capacity of even the greatest magnates appears to have been rather unimpressive; from the great Cornish rising of 1497 to the rebellion of the Northern Earls in 1569, every significant revolt depended on appealing to ‘the commons’.