The founder of the new Monarchy was Edward the Fourth. As a mere boy he showed himself among the ablest and the most pitiless of the warriors of the civil war. In the first flush of manhood he looked on with a cool ruthlessness while grey-haired nobles were hurried to the block. In his later race for power he had shown himself more subtle in his treachery than even Warwick himself. His triumph was no sooner won however than the young King seemed to abandon himself to a voluptuous indolence, to revels with the city-wives of London and the caresses of mistresses like Jane Shore. Tall in stature and of singular beauty, his winning manners and gay carelessness of bearing secured him a popularity which had been denied to nobler kings. But his indolence and gaiety were mere veils beneath which Edward shrouded a profound political ability- No one could contrast more utterly in outward appearance with the subtle sovereigns of his time, with Louis the Eleventh or Ferdinand of Aragon, but his work was the same as theirs, and it was done as completely. While jesting with aldermen, or dallying with his mistresses, or idling over the new pages from the printing-press at Westminster, Edward was silently laying the foundations of an absolute rule.
The almost total discontinuance of Parliamentary life was in itself a revolution. Up to this moment the two Houses had played a part which became more and more prominent in the government of the realm. Under the two first Kings of the House of Lancaster Parliament had been summoned almost every year. Not only had the right of self-taxation and initiation of laws been yielded explicitly to the Commons, but they had interfered with the administration of the State, had directed the application of subsidies, and called royal ministers to account by repeated instances of impeachment. Under Henry the Sixth an important step in constitutional progress had been made by abandoning the old form of presenting the requests of the Parliament in the form of petitions which were subsequently moulded into statutes by the Royal Council; the statute itself, in its final form, was now presented for the royal assent, and the Crown was deprived of its former privilege of modifying it. But with the reign of Edward the Fourth not only does this progress cease, but the very action of Parliament itself comes almost to an end. For the first time since the days of John not a single law which promoted freedom or remedied the abuses of power was even proposed.
The necessity for summoning the two Houses had, in fact, been removed by the enormous tide of wealth which the confiscations of the civil war poured into the royal treasury. In the single bill of attainder which followed the victory of Towton, twelve great nobles and more than a hundred knights and squires were stripped of their estates to the King's profit. It was said that nearly a fifth of the land had passed into the royal possession at one period or another of the civil war. A grant of the customs was given to the King for life. Edward added to his resources by trading on a vast scale. The royal ships, freighted with tin, wool, and cloth, made the name of the merchant-king famous in the ports of Italy and Greece. The enterprises he planned against France, though frustrated by the refusal of Charles of Burgundy to co-operate with him in them, afforded a fresh financial resource; and the subsidies granted for a war which never took place swelled the royal exchequer. But the pretext of war enabled Edward not only to increase his hoard, but to deal a deadly blow at the liberty which the Commons had won.
Setting aside the usage of contracting loans by the authority of Parliament, Edward called before him the merchants of London and requested from each a gift or "benevolence," in proportion to the royal needs. The exaction was bitterly resented even by the classes with whom the King had been most popular, but for the moment resistance was fruitless, and the system of " benevolence " was soon to be developed into the forced loans of Wolsey and of Charles the First. It was to Edward that his Tudor successors owed the introduction of an elaborate spy-system, the use of the rack, and the practice of interference with the purity of justice. In the history of intellectual progress alone his reign takes a brighter colour, and the founder of a new despotism presents a claim to our regard as the patron of Caxton.
Literature indeed seemed at this moment to have died as utterly as freedom itself. The genius of Chaucer, and of the one or more poets whose works have been confounded with Chaucer's, defied for a while the pedantry, the affectation, the barrenness of their age; but the sudden close of this poetic outburst left England to a crowd of poetasters, compilers, scribblers of interminable moralities, rimers of chronicles, and translators from the worn-out field of French romance. Some faint trace of the liveliness and beauty of older models lingers among the heavy platitudes of Gower, but even this vanished from the didactic puerilities, the prosaic commonplaces, of Occleve and Lydgate. The literature of the Middle Ages was dying out with the Middle Ages themselves; in letters as in life their thirst for knowledge had spent itself in the barren mazes of the scholastic philosophy, their ideal of warlike nobleness faded away before the gaudy travestie of a spurious chivalry, and the mystic enthusiasm of their devotion shrank at the touch of persecution into a narrow orthodoxy and a flat morality. The clergy, who had concentrated in themselves the intellectual effort of the older time, were ceasing to be an intellectual class at all.
The monasteries were no longer seats of learning. " I found in them," said Poggio, an Italian traveller twenty years after Chaucer's death, "men given up to sensuality in abundance, but very few lovers of learning, and those of a barbarous sort, skilled more in quibbles and sophisms than in literature." The erection of colleges, which was beginning, failed to arrest the quick decline of the universities both in the numbers and learning of their students. Those at Oxford amounted to only a fifth of the scholars who had attended its lectures a century before, and " Oxford Latin" became proverbial for a jargon in which the very tradition of grammar had been lost. All literary production was nearly at an end. Historical composition lingered on indeed in compilations of extracts from past writers, such as make up the so-called works of Walsingham, in jejune monastic annals, or worthless popular com-pendiums. But the only real trace of mental activity is to be found in the numerous treatises on alchemy and magic, on the elixir of life or the philosopher's stone, a fungous growth which most unequivocally witnesses to the progress of intellectual decay.