There are few periods in our annals from which we turn with such weariness and disgust as from the Wars of the Roses. Their savage battles, their ruthless executions, their shameless treasons, seem all the more terrible from the pure selfishness of the ends for which men fought, the utter want of all nobleness and chivalry in the struggle itself, of all great result in its close. But even while the contest was raging the cool eye of a philosophic statesman could find in it matter for other feelings than those of mere disgust. England presented to Philippe de Commines the rare spectacle of a land where, brutal as was the civil strife, "there are no buildings destroyed or demolished by war, and where the mischief of it falls on those who make the war." The ruin and bloodshed were limited, in fact, to the great lords and their feudal retainers. Once or twice indeed, as at Towton, the towns threw themselves into the struggle, but for the most part the trading and agricultural classes stood wholly apart from it. Slowly but surely the foreign commerce of the country, hitherto conducted by the Italian, the Hanse merchant, or the trader of Catalonia or southern Gaul, was passing into English hands.
English merchants were settled at Florence and at Venice. English merchant sliips appeared in the Baltic. The first faint upgrowth of manufactures was seen in a crowd of protective statutes which formed a marked feature in the legislation of Edward the Fourth. The general tranquillity of the country at large, while the baronage was dashing itself to pieces in battle after battle, was shown by the remarkable fact that justice remained wholly undisturbed. The law courts sate at Westminster. The judges rode on circuit as of old. The system of jury-trial took more and more its modern form by the separation of the jurors from the witnesses. But if the common view of England during these Wars as a mere chaos of treason and bloodshed is a false one, still more false is the common view of the pettiness of their result. The Wars of the Roses did far more than ruin one royal house or set up another on the throne. If they did not utterly destroy English freedom, they arrested its Drogress for more than a hundred years.
[Authorities. - Edward V. is the subject of a work attributed to Sir Thomas More, and which almost certainly derives much of its information from Archbishop Morton. Whatever its historical worth may be, it is remarkable in its English form as the first historical work of any literary value which we possess written in our modern prose. The "Letters and Papers of Richard III. and Henry VII.," some "Memorials of Henry VII.," including his life by Bernard Andre of Toulouse, and a volume of "Materials" for a history of his reign have been edited for the Rolls Series. A biography of Henry is among the works of Lord Bacon. Halle's Chronicle extends from Henry IV. to Henry VIII. Miss Halstead, in her " Life of Richard HI.," has elaborately illustrated a reign of some constitutional importance. For Caxton, see the biography by Mr. Blades].
They found England, in the words of Commines, "among all the world's lordships of which I have knowledge, that where the public weal is best ordered, and where least violence reigns over the people." A King of England - the shrewd observer noticed - " can undertake no enterprise of account without assembling his Parliament, which is a thing most wise and holy, and therefore are these Kings stronger and better served" than the despotic sovereigns of the Continent. The English kingship, as a judge, Sir John Fortescue, could boast when writing at this time, was not an absolute but a limited monarchy; the land was not a land where the will of the prince was itself the law, but where the prince could neither make laws nor impose taxes save by his subjects' consent. At no time had Parliament played so constant and prominent a part in the government of the realm. At no time had the principles of constitutional liberty seemed so thoroughly understood and so dear to the people at large. The long Parliamentary contest between the Crown and the two Houses since the days of Edward the First had firmly established, the great securities of national liberty - the right of freedom from arbitrary taxation, from arbitrary legislation, from arbitrary imprisonment, and the responsibility of even the highest servants of the Crown to Parliament and to the law.
But with the close of the struggle for the succession this liberty suddenly disappears. We enter on an epoch of constitutional retrogression in which the slow work of the age that went before it was rapidly undone. Parliamentary life was almost suspended, or was turned into a mere form by the overpowering influence of the Crown. The legislative powers of the two Houses were usurped by the royal Council. Arbitrary taxation re-appeared in benevolences and forced loans. Personal liberty was almost extinguished by a formidable spy-system and by the constant practice of arbitrary imprisonment. Justice was degraded by the prodigal use of bills of attainder, by the wide extension of the judicial power of the Royal Council, by the servility of judges, by the coercion of juries. So vast and sweeping was the change that to careless observers of a later day the constitutional monarchy of the Edwards and the Henries seemed suddenly to have transformed itself under the Tudors into a despotism as complete as the despotism of the Turk. Such a view is no doubt exaggerated and unjust.
Bend and strain the law as he might, there never was a time when the most wilful of English rulers failed to own the restraints of law; and the obedience of the most servile among English subjects lay within bounds, at once political and religious, which no theory of King-worship could bring them to overpass. But even if we make these reserves, the character of the Monarchy from the time of Edward the Fourth to the time of Elizabeth remains something strange and isolated in our history. It is hard to connect the kingship of the old English, of the Norman, the Angevin, or the Plantagenet Kings, with the kingship of the House of York or of the House of Tudor.