The "End" of the Middle Ages and the Coming of the Tudors

Trevelyan's "ENGLISH SOCIAL HISTORY" (Penguin 2000 reprint) offers the following rather enlightening passage about the end of the Middle Ages and the coming of the Tudors. See text in bold type for the crux of the extract.

.... under Grocyn and Linacre, Colet and More, the English friends of Erasmus. Their work, more than all Wolsey's pride, was preparing the future, but it was not much altering the present. None of those friends thought that their new knowledge of the classics and of the Greek Testament would destroy the 'medieval' Church, which they hoped to liberalize and to reform. More radical was the intention of William Tyndale, as in penury and danger he translated the Bible into words of power and beauty that unborn millions were to have daily on their lips, and to interpret in a hundred different ways disruptive of the past.

In the secular sphere, Henry VII restored order to the countryside, and put down retainers (i.e. the lawless hirelings of the lords). That was an important social change, but it was not 'the end of the Middle Ages'; rather it was the belated fulfilment of a hope of medieval Englishmen. One medieval institution indeed, Parliament, was in grave danger under Henry VII and under Wolsey of perishing through disuse; but in England, unlike France and Spain, the medieval Parliament was destined to be revived and strengthened by Henry VIII for modern purposes. So, too, another great medieval institution, the English Common Law, survived the Tudor period to become the basis of modern English life and liberty.

In the early sixteenth century, English trade, though again on the increase after a period of relative stagnation, still ran in its old medieval channels along the coasts of northern Europe, with a new thrust into the Mediterranean, for vent of cloth. In spite of Cabot's voyage from Bristol to Newfoundland in the reign of Henry VII, the wider outlook across the Atlantic did not greatly affect Englishmen before Elizabeth was on the throne. Until the reign of her sister Mary, the English were still a French-hating, not a Spaniard-hating, people, for the quarrel about the Inquisition and about the possession of the New World had not yet arisen.

It is indeed useless to look for any date, or even for any period, when the Middle Ages 'ended' in England. All that one can say is that, in the thirteenth century, English thought and society were medieval, and in the nineteenth century they were not. Yet even now we retain the medieval institutions of the monarchy, the peerage, the Commons in Parliament assembled, the English Common Law, the Courts of Justice interpreting the rule of law, the hierarchy of the established Church, the parish system, the universities, the public schools and grammar schools. And unless we become a totalitarian state and forget all our Englishry, there will always be something medieval in our ways of thinking, especially in our idea that people and corporations have rights and liberties which the State ought in some degree to respect, in spite of the legal omnicompetence of Parliament. Conservatism and Liberalism, in the broadest sense, are both medieval in origin, and so are trade unions. The men who established our civic liberties in the seventeenth century, appealed to medieval precedents against the 'modernizing' monarchy of the Stuarts. The pattern of history is indeed a tangled web. No simple diagram will explain its infinite complication.

As to the economic side of things in town and country, Mr Tawney, the social historian of the sixteenth century, regards the Tudor epoch as a 'watershed' whence things moved downward with ever increasing momentum towards the big estates and farms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the industrial capitalism of modem times. This may well be true. But it is a question whether 'the end of the Middle Ages' might not as well be sought in the consummation of economic and social change in the reign of George III, as in the Tudor beginnings. Nor in fact did these things begin first under the Tudors: as noted in former chapters of this book, 'capitalism' was established in some important trades long before. So too the emancipation of serfs and the consequent break-up of the medieval manor system had actually been accomplished before ever Bosworth Field was fought. Where then shall we place the end of medieval society and economics - in the fourteenth, the sixteenth, or the eighteenth centuries? Perhaps it matters little: what does matter is that we should understand what really happened. It is probable that ere long a new perspective of periods in the past will replace the old. Owing to the mechanization of life, man has changed more in the last hundred years than in the previous thousand. It is not unlikely therefore that the real beginning of 'modern' times' - if `modern times' are to include our own - will be allocated to the growth of the Industrial Revolution rather than to the Renaissance and Reformation. And even in the realm of thought and religion, the impact of science and Darwin may come to seem as memorable as the impact of Erasmus and Luther.

It is of course the Renaissance and the Reformation of which people are chiefly thinking when they ascribe the end of the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century1. In the spheres of thought and religion, of clerical power and privilege, we may indeed say that the medieval scheme of things was abolished in Tudor England. Yet even this is not true without qualification about the land that Elizabeth ruled. The Protestantizing and secularizing of England was not complete till after the Puritan rebellion and the Whig-Tory revolution - or rather it has never yet been made complete. The Church of England, both in its organization, its privileges, its ceremonies, and in its thought has always remained in part `medieval'.

The Elizabethan system, the grand finale of Tudor triumph, was as much a triumph of the Renaissance as of the Reformation. The two became one, and partly for that reason Shakespeare's England had a charm and a lightness of heart, a free aspiring of mind and spirit not to be found elsewhere in the harsh Jesuit-Calvinist Europe of that day. And at the same auspicious moment England's old song of the sea became a new ocean song. The Elizabethan adventurers - Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins, Ralegh, and the rest - were sailing the wide world, discovering `islands far away', opening to their countrymen at home new realms of hope and fancy - committing indeed crimes in Ireland and in the slave-trade but without knowing that they were crimes or what the dreadful consequences were to be in the deep of time. The music of the Elizabethan madrigal and the lyric poetry to which it was wedded expressed the reasonable joy in life of a people freed from medieval and not yet oppressed by Puritan complexes and fears; rejoicing in nature and the countryside in whose lap they had the felicity to live; moving forward to a healthy agricultural and mercantile prosperity, and not yet overwhelmed by the weight of industrial materialism.

All this found its perfect expression before it passed away - in Shakespeare's plays. In them we see the immense step forward that had been taken in the realm of thought and feeling, away from the ancient limits. The play of Hamlet, that at least is modern. Also in the English, church service in every parish, and in the wide study of the English Bible in the homes of rich and poor, we can say the English mind and imagination had in those respects already ceased to be medieval. But society, politics, and economics still very much more closely resembled those of the fourteenth than of the twentieth century; the author of Richard II and Henry IV found it easy to understand and portray that not very distant world.

If all aspects of life are taken into consideration, we may perhaps agree with the historian of the reign of Henry VIII that 'of all the schisms which rend the woven garment of historical understanding, the worst is that which fixes a deep gulf between medieval and modern history.'

But before this brief golden age corresponding to the lifetime of Shakespeare (1564-1616), Tudor England had known a long period of malaise. She did not, indeed, suffer from 'wars of religion' such as devastated France, because here monarchy was stronger and religious fanaticism less strong. But the Tudor Reformation was not carried through without attendant misery and violence. And the disturbances caused by the quick changes of ecclesiastical policy under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary coincided with a grave economic crisis in trade and agriculture, due chiefly to a rise in prices. That rise we must ascribe partly to world causes and partly to Henry's wanton debasing of the coinage. Of these things, among much else, it will be my business to deal in the chapters that follow.


1. Another alleged reason is the 'rise of National Monarchies'. But England, unlike France and Spain, had already been a 'national Monarchy' in the days of Crécy and Agincourt. No doubt Henry VIII's assumption of religious power carried nationalism one step further.

2. From It was the great scholar Erasmus who decried the obscene wealth of the great religious houses in England, writing of them in his well-read "Enchiridion" (1504), that "the monastic life should not be equated with the virtuous life "and that the monasteries themselves were "a backward-looking anachronism, out of date, out of sympathy, and ripe to fall."

Created 9th Feb 2003