IN the course of the sixteenth century English art broke with much of its past and made a belated entry into the ranks of the Renaissance. It has been customary to explain this change as the result of English contacts with Italy, and later with France and Flanders, and of the import of Continental artists and publications. Attractive as this theory is in its simplicity it does not account for the delay of over a hundred years, years in which there were multifarious contacts with Italy, before the Renaissance had any welcome in England. Renaissance art would never have appeared here if it had not first existed abroad, but whether and when and in what forms it would come were determined at least as much by social and intellectual developments in this country as by artistic changes on the Continent. 'The history of learning', it has been said, 'is not a free field; it is the history of society.' The same is true of art, and the art historian must indicate to his reader, however briefly and generally, his conception of the nature and development of the society whose art he is discussing.
Such an indication must indeed be summary, undocumented, and second hand; anything else would involve writing several books instead of one. It will be clear to anyone acquainted with the period how much I owe--to mention some recent writers only--to the work of R. R. Bolgar, F. Caspari, Maurice Dobb, Christopher Hill, Eleanor Rosenberg, P. N. Siegel, Lawrence Stone, R. H. Tawney, and H. R. Trevor-Roper. At the same time I must make it equally clear that I do not know whether any one of these would agree with all or anything that I have written. In mentioning their names I acknowledge a debt; I do not buttress my credit.
By the middle of the sixteenth century there had developed in England a centralized monarchy whose power against any one, or any section, of its subjects was so great that, despite parliamentary institutions and occasional armed uprisings, it could act in most circumstances as an absolute State. Its authority was based upon