At Cromwell's death the success of his policy was complete. The Monarchy had reached the height of its power. The old liberties of England lay prostrate at the feet of the King. The Lords were cowed and spiritless; the House of Commons was filled with the creatures of the Court and degraded into an engine of tyranny. Royal proclamations were taking the place of parliamentary legislation; benevolences were encroaching more and more on the right of parliamentary taxation. Justice was prostituted in the ordinary courts to the royal will, while the boundless and arbitrary powers of the royal Council were gradually superseding the slower processes of the Common Law. The new religious changes had thrown an almost sacred character over the "majesty" of the King. Henry was the Head of the Church. From the primate to the meanest deacon every minister of it derived from him his sole right to exercise spiritual powers. The voice of its preachers was the echo of his will. He alone could define orthodoxy or declare heresy. The forms of its worship and belief were changed and rechanged at the royal caprice. Half of its wealth went to swell the royal treasury, and the other half lay at the King's mercy.
It was this unprecedented concentration of all power in the hands of a single man that overawed the imagination of Henry's subjects. He was regarded as something high above the laws which govern common men.
[Authorities. - For the close of Henry's reign and for that of Edward, we have a mass of material in Strype's "Memorials," and his lives of Cranmer, Cheke, and Smith, in Mr. Pocock's edition of "Burnet's History of the Reformation," in Hayward's Life of Edward, and Edward's own Journal, in Holinshed's " Chronicle," and Machyn's " Diary " (Camden Society). For he Protectorate see the correspondence published by Mr. Tytler in his "England under Edward VI. and Mary"; much light is thrown on its close by Mr. Nicholls in the "Chronicle of Queen Jane" (Camden Society). Among outer observers, the Venetian Soranzo deals with the Protectorate; and the despatches of Giovanni Michiel, published by Mr. Friedmann, with the events of Mary's reign. In spite of endless errors, of Puritan prejudices and deliberate suppressions of the truth (many of which will be found corrected by Dr. Maitland's " Essay on the Reformation,'), its mass of facts and wonderful charm of style will always give a great importance to the "Book of Martyrs " of Foxe. The story of the early Protestants has been admirably wrought up by Mr. Froude (" History of England," chap, vi.)].
The voices of statesmen and of priests extolled his wisdom and power as more than human. The Parliament itself rose and bowed to the vacant throne when his name was mentioned. An absolute devotion to his person replaced the old loyalty to the law. When the Primate of the English Church described the chief merit of Cromwell, it was by asserting that he loved the King "no less than he loved God".
It was indeed Cromwell, as we have seen, who more than any man had reared this fabric of king-worship; but he had hardly reared it before It began to give way. The very success of his measures indeed brought about the ruin of his policy. One of the most striking features of his system had been his revival of Parliaments. The great assembly which the Monarchy, from Edward the Fourth to Wolsey, had dreaded and silenced, was called to the front again by Cromwell, and turned into the most formidable weapon of despotism. He saw nothing to fear in a House of Lords whose nobles cowered helpless before the might of the Crown, and whose spiritual members his policy was degrading into mere tools of the royal will. Nor could he find anything to dread in a House of Commons which was crowded with members directly or indirectly nominated by the royal Council. With a Parliament such as this Cromwell might well trust to make the nation itself through its very representatives an accomplice in the work of absolutism. It was by parliamentary statutes that the Church was prostrated at the feet of the Monarchy. It was by bills of attainder that great nobles were brought to the block. It was under constitutional forms that freedom was gagged with new treasons and oaths and questionings.
But the success of such a system depended wholly on the absolute servility of Parliament to the will of the Crown, and Cromwell's own action made the continuance of such a servility impossible. The part which the Houses were to play in after years shows the importance of clinging to the forms of constitutional freedom, even when their life is all but lost. In the inevitable reaction against tyranny they furnish centres for the reviving energies of the people, while the returning tide of liberty is enabled through their preservation to flow quietly and naturally along its traditional channels. On one occasion during Cromwell's own rule a "great debate" on the suppression of the lesser monasteries showed that elements of resistance still survived; and these elements developed rapidly as the power of the Crown declined under the minority of Edward and the unpopularity of Mary. To this revival of a spirit of independence the spoliation of the Church largely contributed. Partly from necessity, partly from a desire to build up a faction interested in the maintenance of their ecclesiastical policy, Cromwell and the King squandered the vast mass of wealth which flowed into the Treasury with reckless prodigality.
Something like a fifth of the actual land in the kingdom was in this way transferred from the holding of the Church to that of nobles and gentry. Not only were the older houses enriched, "but a new aristocracy was erected from among the dependants of the Court. The Russells and the Cavendishes are familiar instances of families which rose from obscurity through the enormous grants of Church-land made to Henry's courtiers. The old baronage was hardly crushed before a new aristocracy took its place. "Those families within Or without the bounds of the peerage," observes Mr. Hallam, "who are now deemed the most considerable, will be found, with no great number of exceptions, to have first become conspicuous under the Tudor line of kings, and, if we could trace the title of their estates, to have acquired no small portion of them mediately or immediately from monastic or other ecclesiastical foundations." The leading part which the new peers took in the events which followed Henry's death gave a fresh strength and vigour to the whole order.