Two acts of oppression and greed on the part of Henry VIII stand out in history as remarkable, not only for the autocratic power on the part of the King which they exhibit, but also for the far-reaching effect which they had on the development of English furniture and woodwork. The first of these is the suppression of the monasteries, which began, in the case of the smaller establishments, as early as 1536; the other is the debasing of the coinage, a further description of which, together with some of its effects, will be given in the following chapter.
During the fifteenth century, the power and size of the Church and the monasteries had grown to an enormous extent. Figs. 1 and 2 give an idea of the number of buildings which clustered round St. Alban's Abbey. Trading on the love, but still more, the superstition of the people, the abbeys and convents had been so enriched by gifts either bequeathed at a donor's death or extorted under dire threats of spiritual punishment, that at the close of the century it has been calculated that they possessed one-third of the landed wealth of England. These establishments were, with few and notable exceptions, dens of gluttony and vice, but they included in their orders practically all the lawyers, architects, physicians, scribes, teachers and craftsmen of the Middle Ages. Knowledge may be said to have been non-existent apart from the Church. As Thorold Rogers has stated so well in Chapter VI (Domestic Clocks) of his "Six Centuries of Work and Wages" : " We know but few of the men who designed the great cathedrals, churches, and castles of the Middle Ages, - those buildings which are the wonder of our age for their vastness, their exquisite proportions, and their equally exquisite detail. But when we do know, as it were by accident, who the builder was, he is almost always a clergyman. It seems as though skill in architecture, and intimate acquaintance with all which was necessary, not only for the design of the structure, but for good workmanship and endurance, were so common an accomplishment, that no one was at the pains to proclaim his own reputation or to record the reputation of another. It is known that we owe the designs of Rochester Castle and the Tower to one ecclesiastic. It is recorded that William of Wykeham was Edward the Third's architect at Windsor, as well as his own at Winchester and Oxford, and of various handsome churches which were built during his long episcopate. It is probable that Wayneflete designed the beautiful buildings at Magdalen College; and it is alleged that Wolsey, in his youth, planned the matchless tower, which has charmed every spectator for nearly four centuries. But no one knows who designed and carried out a thousand of those poems in stone which were the glory of the Middle Ages, and have been made the subjects of servile and stupid limitation in our own."
The illustrations of Bodiam Castle in this chapter are from photos by Messrs. Everett and Ashdown of Tenterden, Kent.
Henry, whose extravagance was boundless, had cast longing eyes on the wealth of the Church, and when he began his act of suppression, in 1536, on the plea of the Church's vice and mismanagement, he had no other idea than to capture these riches for his own private use. Like all thieves, he had to dispose of the produce of his robberies in the worst market; in other words, to find receivers for the stolen goods, who were prepared to deal, if the terms were sufficiently attractive to the buyer, and ruinous to the seller. The result was that the proceeds of the royal thefts were dissipated in about four years, and the King had to turn his attention to the currency of the realm to replenish his exhausted treasury.
By these means the condition of the artisan was steadily deteriorated, both by Henry and afterwards by his son, Edward VI.1 With the suppression of the monastic establishments a horde of monkish vagrants was let loose on the highways and byways of England, men who possessed nearly all the skill in woodwork, in masonry, in carving, illuminating, writing and the other arts. They were turned away "with forty shillings and a gown per man " as Burnet pithily remarks, in his "History of the Reformation." The vagrancy laws were stringent; a craftsman could not roam beyond his place of habitation or employment without the consent of his Guild and of the Lord of the Manor, without the gravest risk of being apprehended as a "masterless man," - a rogue and a vagabond, and the punishment for vagrancy was death, if not mutilation. There were over a hundred offences in the calendar for which a man, in the fifteenth century, could be put to death (stealing a sheep was one of them) and hanging was, perhaps, the kindest punishment in the penal code. Tortures and mutilation were many and ingenious. With these unfrocked monks departed the skill in building and woodwork, which had made the fifteenth century the Golden Age. Forbidden to work, denied any rights of citizenship, these monks deteriorated into thieves and outlaws, where they did not escape beyond the seas, to follow their crafts in other, and more tolerant, countries.
1 See note at end of chapter. 10
To quote Thorold Rogers again : "We have been able to trace the process by which the condition of English labour has been continuously deteriorated by the acts of government. It was first impoverished by the issue of base money. Next it was robbed of its guild capital by the land thieves of Edward's regency. It was next brought in contact with a new and more needy set of employers - the sheep-masters who succeeded the monks. It was then, with a pretence, and perhaps with the intention, of kindness, subjected to the quarter sessions assessment, mercilessly used in the first half of the seventeenth century, the agricultural labourer being still further impoverished by being made the residuum of all labour. The agricultural labourer was then further mulcted by enclosures, and the extinction of those immemorial rights of pasture and fuel which he had enjoyed so long. The poor law professed to find him work, but was so administered that the reduction of his wages to a bare subsistence became an easy process and an economical expedient. When the monarchy was restored, his employers, who fixed his wages by their own authority, relieved their own estates from their ancient dues at the expense of his poor luxuries by the excise, tied him to the soil by the Law of Settlement, and starved him by a prohibitive corn law. The freedom of the few was bought by the servitude of the many. Fletcher of Saltoun, an ardent republican for a narrow class, suggested hopeless slavery as the proper doom of the labourers, argued that the people existed only to 11 work, and that philosophical politicians should have the power to limit their existence by labour. Throughout the eighteenth century the most enlightened men gave the poor their pity, occasionally their patronage, sometimes would assist them at the cost of other workers; but beyond a bare existence, never imagined that they had rights or remembered that they had suffered wrongs. The weight of taxation fell on them in every direction, and with searching severity. To crown the whole, the penalties of felony and conspiracy were denounced against all labourers who associated together to better their lot by endeavouring to sell their labour in concert, while the desperation which poverty and misery induce, and the crime they suggest, were met by a code more sanguinary and brutal than any which a civilised nation had ever heretofore devised or a high-spirited one submitted to."1