English Poetry in the Sixteenth Century

By Maurice Evans | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II

SOCIETY AND THE POET

GREAT changes of thought do not occur in a vacuum, and the ideas of the XVIth century which had taken at least two centuries to ripen were accompanied and, in part, caused by a social revolution equally profound and equally gradual. A glance at the bloody catalogue of the Mirror for Magistrates will show how conscious were the Elizabethan historians of the selfdestruction of the old Feudal Nobility in the Wars of the Roses. In its place, a new power was forming, the Bourgeoisie, consisting of the merchants, the well-to-do guildsmen, the minor scions of noble families, the lawyers and professional classes who had quietly extended their privileges by judicious loans, or struck an opportunist blow on the winning side during the barons' wars and who, at the end, were ready to fill the gap caused by the decay of the old nobility. The Dissolution of the Monasteries hastened their rise to political ascendancy by throwing onto the market large quantities of Church lands in which the middle class quickly invested their money. Their sons went to the university and Inns of Court in increasing numbers, and marriage into the remnants of the old nobility rapidly produced a new nobility and a new landed gentry. Men of this class, like Thomas Cromwell, were especially useful to the Tudors since they were free from the inherited loyalties of the Wars of the Roses, and under Elizabeth they formed the great new families from which she drew her counsellors. The Sidneys, the Herberts (an illegitimate branch of an old family raised to new nobility under Edward VIth), the Dudleys (descended from Henry VIIIth's notorious tax-collector), the Cavendishes, the Cecils and the Greshams all rose in this way. Few of the great Elizabethan families could trace their titles back further than the reign of Henry VIIth.

The new class inevitably supported the reformed religion, since in many cases the fortunes of its members had been founded

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