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The Tudor Commonweal and the Sense of Change

  • Arthur B. Ferguson


The key to early Renaissance thought in England has often, and rightly, been sought in that twilight zone which is both medieval and modern in character, yet is, in a sense, neither. In that indistinct area the early Tudor view of society expressed in the concept of the “very and true commonweal” constitutes a prominent but equivocal landmark. Any student of the period knows that the idea was conservative, even reactionary in its implications, inspired in large part by a suspicious distaste for the changes that were taking place in early sixteenth-century England. Those, on the other hand, who have read at all carefully the comments made by these same Englishmen on the state of their own society know that they accepted in varying degrees the facts of change, subjected them to an often searching analysis, and in several important instances arrived at constructive policies on the basis of their analysis of social cause. What, then, is one to make of this paradox presented by constructive realism deployed in the cause of a reactionary social ideal, exploration of change conducted within an ostensibly static framework? Perhaps, as with so many aspects of early Renaissance thought, the difficulty is more apparent than real. Perhaps the commonwealth idea was not so nearly static as it appeared. Perhaps, indeed, the traditional formulas in which it ordinarily found expression simply mask a new sense of change, a dawning awareness of social process.

Failure to understand the true nature of the ambivalence that seems at times to be built into the thought of the period, failure in particular to allow for the divergence between traditional theory, part of the rich legacy of medieval thought, and fresh attitudes prompted by actual experience in a time of revolutionary change, has too often resulted in failure also to appreciate the significance of the early Tudor pamphleteers and commentators of various sorts who examined their society with an eye both critical and constructive.



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1. This aspect of their work has been examined tentatively in the author's paper, Renaissance Realism in the ‘Commonwealth’ Literature of Early Tudor England,” J.H.I., XVI (1955), 287305.

2. The best treatment of the commonwealth ideal is still to be found in Allen, J. W., Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1928), Pt. 2, ch. iii.

3. John Gower, for example, finds it impossible to hold the survey of society he undertakes in the Mirour de l'Omme and in Vox Clamantis within the traditional framework and instead recognizes a wide variety of vocations and interests.

4. Morison, Richard, A Remedy for Sedition, ed. Cox, E. M. (London, 1933), p. 20. On Morison and his authorship of this tract see Zeeveld, W. G., Foundations of Tudor Policy (London, 1948).

5. See especially Crowley, Robert, An information and petition agaynst the oppresours of the pore Commons in Cowper, J. M. (ed.), Select Works of Robert Crowley [E.E.T.S., extra series, No. 15] (London, 1872), p. 157, and RobertCrowley, One and Thyrtie Epigrammes, in ibid., pp. 47, 50.

6. Morison, Remedy for Sedition, and Cheke, John, The Hurt of Sedition, in Holinshed's Chronicles (London, 18071808), III, 9871011.

7. For example, Lever, Thomas, “A Sermon preached at Paules crosse the xiii daie of December, … 1550,” in Three fruitfull Sermons (London, 1572), S.T.C., 15551; Hooper, John, Early Writings, ed. Carr, S. [Parker Society] (Cambridge, 1852), pp. 452, 505–06.

8. Allen, , Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, p. 151.

9. For Cromwell's relation to the humanists of his period, see Zeeveld, Foundations of Tudor Policy. Encouragement of writers in or out of the King's service in the period of Somerset's ascendancy was probably more indirect, taking the form of a relaxation of the laws against treasonous utterances; but there may well have been a closer relationship between Somerset and the intellectuals.

10. A few representative definitions may be found in the following works: Brinkelow, Henry, Complaynt of Roderyck Mors, ed. Cowper, J. M. [E.E.T.S., extra series, No. 22] (London, 1874), pp. 5152; Crowley, , Information and Petition, pp. 168–69; [Armstrong, Clement], How the Comen People may be set to worke an Order of a Comen Welth, ed. Pauli, B., Drei volkswirthschaftliche Denkschriften (Göttingen, 1878), p. 52, see also note 58 below; Elyot, Thomas Sir, The Boke named the Gouernour, ed. Croft, H. H. S. (London, 1880), I, 1 ff.; Cheke, , Hurt of Sedicion (London, 1549), S.T.C., 5110, Sig. Eiiij; Morison, , Remedy for Sedition, pp. 1920; Dudley, Edmund, The Tree of Commonwealth, ed. Brodie, D. M. (Cambridge, 1948), pp. 9, 15; Starkey, Thomas, A Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, ed. Burton, K. M. (London, 1948), pp. 6263; Hales, John, Defence, in A Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, ed. Lamond, E. (Cambridge, 1893), intro., p. lx; SirSmith, Thomas, De Republica Anglorum, ed. Alston, L. (Cambridge, 1906), p. 20.

11. See esp. Bk. 1, ch. x.

12. Morison, , Remedy for Sedition, p. 19.

13. Ibid., p. 12.

14. There is a reference to this sort of thing in ibid., p. 12.

15. Elyot, , Book Named the Governor, I, 1 ff. Cf. Lehmberg, S. E., Sir Thomas Elyot, Tudor Humanist (Austin, 1960), pp. 40 ff; Caspari, Fritz, Humanism and the Social Order in Tudor England (Chicago, 1954), p. 104.

16. Elyot, , Book Named the Governor, I, 1.

17. Ibid., I, 4-8.

18. Starkey, Thomas, Dialogue between Reginald Pole and Thomas Lupset, esp. pp. 55, 57-58, 6264.

19. Ibid., pp. 62-63.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p. 24.

22. Ibid., p. 147.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid., pp. 64-65.

25. Ibid., pp. 184 ff.

26. Ibid., pp. 23, 26.

27. Ibid., pp. 28-29.

28. Ibid., p. 31.

29. Ibid., p. 33.

30. Ibid., p. 106.

31. Herrtage, S. J., England in the Reign of Henry VIII: Starkey's Life and Letters [E.E.T.S., extra series, No. 23] (London, 1878), p. x; cf. p. lxxiv.

32. Starkey, , Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset pp. 22, 108, 175.

33. Ibid., p. 175.

34. On this subject see Pocock, J. G. A., The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (Cambridge, 1957).

35. On Fortescue, see the author's paper, Fortescue and the Renaissance: a Study in Transition,” Studies in the Renaissance, VI (1959), 175–94. For the threat to English law from the Roman Civil Law, Maitland, F. W.'s essay, English Law and the Renaissance (Cambridge, 1901), is still worth attention.

36. Starkey, , Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, p. 108. See also pp. 105-08. In ibid., pp. 109-11 Starkey deals similarly with the authority of a lord over a minor who has inherited land held from him by knight's service.

37. Ibid., p. 106.

38. Ibid., pp. 110-11.

39. Ibid., pp. 102-03.

40. Ibid., p. 108.

41. Ibid., p. 140.

42. Ibid., pp. 65-69.

43. Baumer, F. L., “Thomas Starkey and Marsilius of Padua,” Politica, II (1936), 188205; Previté-Orton, C. W., “Marsilius of Padua,” Proceedings of the British Academy, XXI (1935), 137–83.

44. Starkey, , Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, pp. 2331.

45. Ibid., pp. 143-44. See also Zeeveld, , Foundations of Tudor Policy, pp. 250 ff.

46. Starkey, , Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, pp. 2728.

47. Ibid., p. 60; cf. p. 22.

48. Elyot, , Book Named the Governor, I, 117; cf. 83.

49. Hawes, Stephen, The Pastime of Pleasure, ed. Mead, W. E. [E.E.T.S., original series, No. 173] (London, 1828), lines 876-91. See also Wilson, Thomas, Arte of Rhetorique (London, 1553), S.T.C. 25799, preface; Forrest, William, Pleasaunt Poesye of Princelie Practice, ed. Herrtage, S. J., in England in the Reign of Henry VIII, p. lxxxv. Somewhat the same idea emerges in More's, Utopia [Everyman, ed.] (London, 1910), pp. 49, 8182.

50. Starkey, , Dialogue between Cardinal Pole and Thomas Lupset, pp. 2931.

51. Ibid., pp. 34-39.

52. Ibid., pp. 36-37; cf. 40.

53. Ibid., pp. 60-61.

54. An exhortation to the people instructynge theym to vnitie and obedience (London, 1540?), S.T.C. 23236. For a treatment of the subject in its larger aspects as well as with reference to Starkey's contribution, see Zeeveld, Foundations of Tudor Policy, ch. vi.

55. Not only did More's classical learning give him, as it did many others of that relatively late generation of humanists, a point of cultural comparison with his own day, he may also have had some knowledge of the exotic cultures of the new world. See Morgan, A. E., Nowhere was Somewhere (Chapel Hill, 1946).

56. Since Miss Lamond attributed the Discourse to John Hales (see her introduction to the Discourse), doubts have gradually been accumulating, and there has been a tendency to attribute it to Sir Thomas Smith. See Hughes, E., “The Authorship of the Discourse of the Common Wed,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, XXI (1937), 167–75, and le Branchu, Jean-Yves le, Écrits notables sur la monnaie (Paris, 1934), I, pp. lviixciv. Dr. Mary Dewar has recently been subjecting the problem to its most thorough scrutiny to date and correspondence with her has proved convincing concerning the very high probability that Smith was the author.

57. Discourse of the Commonweal, p. 98.

58. Armstrong, , How the Common People, pp. 5253. On Armstrong's authorship of this and other pamphlets here attributed to him, see Bindoff, S. T., “Clement Armstrong and his Treatises of the Commonweal,” Econ. Hist. Rev., XIV (1944), 6473.

59. Armstrong, Clement, How to Reforme the Realme in settying them to worke and to restore Tillage, in Tawney, R. H. and Power, E. (eds.), Tudor Economic Documents (London, 1924), III, 115-29, 126–27.

60. Armstrong, , How the Common People, pp. 5152.

61. Ibid., p. 53.

62. Armstrong, Clement, A Treatise Concerninge the Staple and the Commodities of this Realme, in Tawney, and Power, , Tudor Economic Documents, III, 9193.

63. Hales, , Defence, p. liv; cf. Crowley, , Information and Petition, p. 157 and Crowley, , Epigrams, pp. 47, 50. See also Allen, , Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century, p. 139.

64. Crowley, Robert, The Voyce of the Laste Trumpet, in Cowper, , Select Works of Robert Crowley, lines 1021-32.

65. Armstrong, , Treatise Concerning the Staple, p. 105.

66. See esp. [Anon.], Policies to Reduce this Realme of England vnto a Prosperous Wealthe and Estate, in Tawney, and Power, , Tudor Economic Documents, III, 311–45, and Cholmeley, WilliamThe Request and Suite of a True-Hearted Englishman, ed. Thoms, W. J. [Camden Society] (London, 1853), pp. 120, in Tawney, and Power, , Tudor Economic Documents, III, 130–48.

67. Cholmeley, , Request and Suite, p. 142.

68. Discourse of the Commonweal, p. 57.

69. Ibid., p. 53.

70. Ibid., p. 60.

71. See also letter, Sir John Mason to Cecil, 4 Dec, 1550, in Tawney, and Power, , Tudor Economic Documents, II, 188.

72. On these early foreshadowings of the idea of natural law in economic affairs see Chalk, A. F., “The Rise of Economic Individualism,” Jour. Pol. Econ., LIX (1951), 332–47. See also Hecksher, E. F., Mercantilism, tr. Shapiro, Mendel (London, 1935), II, 293-94, 312–14; Robertson, H. M., The Rise of Economic Individualism (Cambridge, 1933), pp. 65-66, 75.

73. The author has explored this idea in relation to the more informal political thinking of the fifteenth century in his The Indian Summer of English Chivalry (Durham, N. C., 1960), ch. iv.

74. For example, Dudley, , Tree of Commonwealth, p. 62; Brinkelow, , Complaint of Roderick Mors, pp. 4243; Forrest, , Pleasant Poesie, p. xcix; Crowley, , Last Trumpet, pp. 9599; Hooper, , Early Writings, p. 558.; Latimer, Hugh, Sermons, ed. Corrie, G. E. [Parker Society] (Cambridge, 1845), pp. 67, 193.

75. Smith, , De Republica, Bk. 2, ch. i, pp. 4849. The rather extensive literature on this subject has recently been summed up in Hinton, R. W. K., “English Constitutional Theories from Sir John Fortescue to Sir John Eliot,” E.H.R., LXXV (1960), 410–25. More pertinent to the argument herein presented is the author's paper “Fortescue and the Renaissance” and Mosse, G. L., “Change and Continuity in the Tudor Constitution,” Speculum, XXII (1947), 1828; see also Mosse, G. L., The Struggle for Sovereignty in England (East Lansing, 1950), ch. i.

The Tudor Commonweal and the Sense of Change

  • Arthur B. Ferguson


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