Apparently nothing had been gained by the Great Revolt of 1381. Many servile dues were still exacted, and as late as 1537 the House of Lords rejected a bill for the final manumission of all serfs.9 The enclosure of “commons” was accelerated; thousands of displaced serfs became propertyless proletarians in the towns; the sheep, said Thomas More, were eating up the peasantry.10 In some ways the movement was good: lands approaching exhaustion were renitrogenated by the grazing sheep, and by 1500 only 1 per cent of the population were serfs. A class of yeomen grew, tilling their own land, and gradually giving to the English commoner the sturdy independent character that would later forge the Commonwealth and build an unwritten constitution of unprecedented liberty.
Feudalism became unprofitable as industry and commerce spread into a national and money economy bound up with foreign trade. When the serf produced for his lord he had scant motive for expansion or enterprise; when the free peasant and the merchant could sell their product in the open market the lust for gain quickened the economic pulse of the nation; the villages sent more food to the towns, the towns produced more goods to pay for it, and the exchange of surpluses overflowed the old municipal limits and guild restrictions to cover England and reach out beyond the sea.
Some guilds became “merchant companies,” licensed by the King to sell English products abroad. Whereas in the fourteenth century most English trade had been carried in Italian vessels, the British now built their own ships, and sent them into the North Sea, the coastal Atlantic, and the Mediterranean. The Genoese and Hanseatic merchants resented these newcomers, and fought them with embargoes and piracy; but Henry VII, convinced that the development of England required foreign trade, took English shipping under governmental protection, and arranged with other nations commercial agreements that established maritime order and peace. By 1500 the “merchant adventurers” of England ruled the trade of the North Sea. With an eye to commerce with China and Japan, the farseeing King commissioner] the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto, then living in Bristol as John Cabot, to seek a northern passage across the Atlantic (1497). Cabot had to be content with discovering Newfoundland and, in a second voyage (1498), exploring the coast from Labrador to Delaware; he died in that year, and his son Sebastian passed into the service of Spain. Probably neither the sailor nor his King realized that these expeditions inaugurated British imperialism, and opened to English trade and colonists a region that would in time be England’s strength and salvation.
Meanwhile protective tariffs nourished national industry; economic order reduced the rate of interest sometimes to as low as 5 per cent; and governmental decrees rigorously regulated wages and the conditions of labor. A statute of Henry VII (1495) ruled
that every artificer and labourer be at his work, between the midst of the month of March and the midst of the month of September, before five o’clock in the morning, and that he have but half an hour for his breakfast, and an hour and a half for his [midday] dinner, at such time as he hath season for sleep... and that he depart not from work... till between seven and eight of the clock in the evening.... And that from the midst of September to the midst of March every artificer and labourer be at their work in the springing of the day, and depart not till night.... and that they sleep not by day.11
However, the worker rested and drank on Sundays, and on twenty-four additional holidays in the year. “Fair prices” were set by the state for many commodities, and we hear of arrests for exceeding these figures. Real wages, in relation to prices, were apparently higher in the late fifteenth century than in the early nineteenth.12
The revolts of English labor in this age stressed political rights as well as economic wrongs. Semi-communistic propaganda continued in almost every year, and workingmen were repeatedly reminded that “you be made of the same mold and metal that the gentles be made of; why then should they sport and play, and you labor and toil?—why should they have so much of the prosperity and treasure of this world, and ye so little?”13 Riots against enclosures of common lands were numerous, and there were periodic conflicts between merchants and artisans; but we hear too of agitations for municipal democracy, for the representation of labor in Parliament, and for a reduction of taxes.14
In June 1450, a large and disciplined force of peasants and town laborers marched upon London and camped at Blackheath. Their leader, Jack Cade, presented their grievances in an orderly document. “All the common people, what for taxes and tallages and other oppressions, might not live by their handiwork and husbandry.” 15 The Statute of Labourers should be repealed, and a new ministry should be formed. The government accused Cade of advocating communism.* 16 The troops of Henry VI, and the retainers of certain nobles, met the rebel army at Sevenoaks (June 18, 1450) To the surprise of all, the rebels won, and poured into London. To appease them the King’s Council ordered the arrest of Lord Saye and William Crowmer, officials especially hated for their exactions and tyranny. On July 4 they were surrendered to the mob that besieged the Tower; they were tried by the rebels, refused to plead, and were beheaded. According to Holinshed the two heads were raised on pikes and carried through the streets in joyous procession; every now and then their mouths were knocked together in a bloody kiss.17 The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Winchester negotiated a peace, granting some demands and offering amnesty. The rebels agreed and dispersed. Jack Cade, however, attacked the castle of Queens-borough in Sheppey; the government outlawed him, and on July 12 he was mortally wounded while resisting arrest. Eight accomplices were condemned to death; the rest were pardoned by the King, “to the great rejoicing of all his subjects.”18