If we seek a reason for so sudden and complete a revolution, we find it in the disappearance of that organization of society in which our constitutional liberty had till now found its security. Freedom had been won by the sword of the Baronage. Its tradition had been watched over by the jealousy of the Church. The new class of the Commons which had grown from the union of the country squire and the town trader was widening its sphere of political activity as it grew. But at the close of the Wars of the Roses these older checks no longer served as restraints upon the action of the Crown. The baronage had fallen more and more into decay. The Church lingered helpless and perplexed, till it was struck down by Thomas Cromwell. The traders and the smaller proprietors sank into political inactivity. On the other hand, the Crown, which only fifty years before had been the sport of every faction, towered into solitary greatness. The old English kingship, limited by the forces of feudalism or of the religious sanctions wielded by the priesthood, or by the progress of constitutional freedom, faded suddenly away, and in its place we see, all-absorbing and unrestrained, the despotism of the new Monarchy. Revolutionary as the change was, however, we have already seen in their gradual growth the causes which brought it about.
The social organization from which our political constitution had hitherto sprung and on which it still rested had been silently sapped by the progress of industry, by the growth of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment, and by changes in the art of war. Its ruin was precipitated by the new attitude of men towards the Church, by the disfranchisement of the Commons, and by the decline of the Baronage. Of the great houses some were extinct, others lingered only in obscure branches which were mere shadows of their former greatness. With the exception of the Poles, the Stanleys, and the Howards, themselves families of recent origin, hardly a fragment of the older baronage interfered from this time in the work of government. Neither the Church nor the smaller proprietors of the country, who with the merchant classes formed the Commons, were ready to take the place of the ruined nobles. Imposing as the great ecclesiastical body still seemed from the memories of its past, its immense wealth, its tradition of statesmanship, it was rendered powerless by a want of spiritual enthusiasm, by a moral inertness, by its antagonism to the deeper religious convictions of the people, and its blind hostility to the intellectual movement which was beginning to stir the world.
Somewhat of their old independence lingered indeed among the lower clergy and the monastic orders, but it was through its prelates that the Church exercised a directly political influence, and these showed a different temper from the clergy. Driven by sheer need, by the attack of the barons on their temporal possessions, and of the Lollards on their spiritual authority, into dependence on the Crown, they threw their weight on the side of the King with the simple view of averting by means of the Monarchy the pillage of the Church. But in any wider political sense the influence of the body to which they belonged was insignificant. It is less obvious at first sight why the Commons should share the political ruin of the Church and the Lords, for the smaller county proprietors were growing fast, both in wealth and numbers, while the burgess class, as we have seen, was deriving fresh riches from the developement of trade. But the result of the narrowing of the franchise and of the tampering with elections was now felt in the political insignificance of the Lower House. Reduced by these measures to a virtual dependence on the baronage, it fell with the fall of the class to which it looked for guidance and support.
And while its rival forces disappeared, the Monarchy stood ready to take their place. Not only indeed were the churchman, the squire, and the burgess powerless to vindicate liberty against the Crown, but the very interests of self-preservation led them at this moment to lay freedom at its feet. The Church still trembled at the progress of heresy. The close corporations of the towns needed protection for their privileges. The landowner shared with the trader a profound horror of the war and disorder which they had witnessed, and an almost reckless desire to entrust the Crown with any power which would prevent its return. But above all, the landed and monied classes clung passionately to the Monarchy, as the one great force left which could save them from social revolt. The rising of the Commons of Kent shows that the troubles against which the Statutes of Labourers had been directed still remained as a formidable source of discontent. The great change in the character of agriculture indeed, which we have before described, the throwing together of the smaller holdings, the diminution of tillage, the increase of pasture lands, had tended largely to swell the numbers and turbulence of the floating labour class.
The riots against "enclosures," of which we first hear in the time of Henry the Sixth, and which became a constant feature of the Tudor period, are indications not only of a constant strife going on in every quarter between the landowner and the smaller peasant class, but of a mass of social discontent which was constantly seeking an outlet in violence and revolution. And at this moment the break-up of the military households of the nobles, and the return of wounded and disabled soldiers from the wars, added a new element of violence and disorder to the seething mass. It was in truth this social danger which lay at the root of the Tudor despotism. For the proprietary classes the repression of the poor was a question of life and death. Employer and proprietor were ready to surrender freedom into the hands of the one power which could preserve them from social anarchy. It was to the selfish panic of the landowners that England owed the Statute of Labourers and its terrible heritage of pauperism. It was to the selfish panic of both landowner and merchant that she owed the despotism of the Monarchy.