The Tudor period saw the beginnings of that commercial expansion which was to make the people of England the wealthiest in the world. Hitherto she had not been distinguished by commercial enterprise. She had prospered largely because, since the time of the Conquest, she had never been devastated by a foreign invader, and, since the anarchy of Stephen, she had been free from the destruction wrought by private wars between the nobles — an immunity to which Europe offered no parallel. For short periods in the reign of John, of Henry III, of Edward II, of Richard II, and of Henry IV, she had been troubled by civil conflicts; but in none of these, nor even in the War of the Roses, had such havoc been wrought as had been suffered by every district on the Continent at the hands of foreign invaders or of warring factions.
English commerce had indeed progressed during the last two centuries; but the Netherlanders, the Venetians, the great maritime cities of Italy and the great trading cities of Germany were, commercially speaking, much more conspicuous than England. In maritime activity she was excelled by many rivals, although for military purposes the fleets of her coast towns held their own in the narrow seas.
The great change came, though not immediately, as a consequence of the enterprise of other peoples. England reaped where she had not sown. A Genoese sailor in the service of Spain discovered America when he was looking for India, and the Portuguese discovered the ocean route to the Far East, hitherto cut off from the Western world by the Mohammedan rampart in Asia. The sea, hitherto regarded as a barrier, shutting out the foreigner indeed but shutting the nation in upon itself, was turned into a vast highway where English sailors above all learnt to find a new field for enterprise. But at the outset the prizes went to Portugal and Spain.
This was in some sort an accident as far as Spain was concerned, for it is not impossible that Columbus would have sailed from England instead of Spain but for the fact that his brother Bartholomew, sent to entreat assistance from Henry VII, was captured by pirates, and the.great Genoese made his bargain with Isabella of Castile instead. And even so, England was only just behind.
The energy of Bristol merchants had already sent expeditions in unsuccessful search for new lands across the Atlantic when Columbus sailed; and it was an English expedition, though one under the command of the Genoese or Venetian captains, John and Sebastian Cabot, which first touched the American mainland — five years after Columbus discovered the West Indies and a year before Vasco da Gama reached India by the Cape route.
But Spain had struck upon a region conspicuously productive; whereas the English discoveries in the Far North seemed altogether unpromising. Henry, interested at first, refused to be drawn into heavy and extremely speculative expenditure. English exploration was not pushed, and no serious protest was made when Pope Alexander VI. drew a line from North to South down the map of the world, and pronounced that all which might be discovered on one side of that line belonged to Spain and everything on the other side of the line to Portugal.
So in the course of less than half a century, Portugal set up a maritime empire in the East and Spain established her American empire in the West without interference from England. England's own oceanic expansion did not set in till the reign of Elizabeth.
But if England lagged behind at the beginning of that race in which she was ultimately to distance all competitors, it was not because her king underrated the value of commerce. Henry was not in advance of the economic theories of his day, but more than any of his predecessors he realised the importance of increasing the wealth of the country over which he ruled; and he made it the direct aim of his policy to increase that wealth; treating commercial development as an end in itself, an object of State policy, but also applying commerce and commercial regulations as a means to obtaining political ends.
There are those who believe that a policy of "protection" is always right, that the home producer should be artificially aided in competition with the foreigner. There are those who believe that protection is always wrong, and that the best aggregate results are obtained by absolutely unfettered competition. But it is common ground that the strongest case for protection arises in those countries whose industries are endeavouring to enter a field of which other competitors are already in possession. This was England's case.
At the close of the Middle Ages no one had challenged the doctrines of protection; it was assumed that the foreign competitor should be shut out, or admitted only in return for reciprocal privileges. Henry made it a special object of his diplomacy to obtain privileges from foreign Powers and to reduce to a minimum the privileges enjoyed in England by foreign mercantile corporations. Monopolies hitherto enjoyed by the Hanseatic League were broken through, the Hanse towns were forced to admit English traders, and the Hanse merchants in England found their own privileges practically curtailed.
But it was not merely to obtain or to extend commercial privileges that Henry employed this instrument. When Burgundy gave shelter to a pretender or threatened to be politically troublesome, Henry fought a commercial war with decisive success. The trade between England and Flanders was practically stopped, to the heavy loss of the English wool-trade for the time being, but to the ruin of the Flemish manufacturers, who suffered much as- Lancashire suffered from the cotton famine brought about by the American Civil War in the reign of Queen Victoria.
Philip was forced to surrender, and the treaty called the Inter-cursus Magnus for a while established something very like free trade between England and the Netherlands. At a later stage, when Philip again seemed likely to be troublesome, and accident forced him ashore in England when he was on his way to Spain, Henry extorted from him a new treaty of an altogether one-sided character, which had subsequently to be modified when it became obvious that the commercial ruin of Flanders would mean the lost of a valuable market for English goods.
A conspicuous feature of Henry's economic policy was the revival of Richard II's Navigation Act. As before, however, the object was not so much the commercial one of capturing the carrying trade as that of developing the English marine for military purposes. Although Henrv did not create a royal navy, he was alive to the increasing importance of fleets when England's political horizon ceased to be practically bounded by France. English shipping had so far developed that the renewed Acts were not, like the old ones, absolutely a dead letter.
Although the Navigation Act was to some extent a check upon commerce, it increased the amount of English shipping and the number of seafaring men, and thereby gave an impulse to the development of English seamanship. Yet even in the sixteenth century such statesmen as Wolsey and Lord Burleigh were inclined to regard the Act as tending indirectly to defeat the end to which it was directly aimed.
Henry's commercial policy was a symptom as well as a cause of the development of commercial enterprise during his reign. A new spirit was abroad, which was exemplified by those "adventures" of the Bristol merchants to which reference has already been made. The companies of Merchant Adventurers were pushing themselves everywhere, without as well as with the direct countenance of the State, thrusting into new markets by illegitimate methods if legitimate means were wanting; their ships were seen in the Baltic and the Mediterranean, Commercialism was responsible for another change of which the immediate effects were anything but beneficial.
Almost throughout the Middle Ages farming had been carried.on for subsistence, with very little idea of accumulating profit. But the commercial spirit attacked the landowners, who began to seek to make the maximum of profit out of the land. Accident had turned them to the extension of sheep-farming when it was not worth while to restore to tillage lands which had fallen out of cultivation owing to the Black Death. But when landowners began to seek for profit, and realised that their sheep-runs were paying them much better than their arable land, and that there was an immense market for wool which cost little to produce, they began to turn themselves to the actual conversion of tillage into pasture.
So began the great process of enclosing, which was twofold. It meant in the first place the legal or illegal appropriation and enclosing of common lands, and in the second place the enclosure of the open fields. It will be remembered that under the old system the cultivated land of which each village and manor-house was the centre consisted of open fields cut up into strips of an acre or half an acre, separated not by hedges but by balks, ridges which were left unploughed.
The villein with thirty acres probably had thirty strips none of which were contiguous, although there was a tendency for the lord of the manor to consolidate the demesne lands. The tendency now was for the lord to endeavour to evict the occupiers of strips lying within the demesne lands, in order to complete the consolidation and to provide large enclosed fields for grazing instead of narrow unenclosed strips which could not be put under sheep. The enclosure of commons deprived the peasants of the ground on which they had kept their little supply of live stock.
The evictions when they could be carried out with any colour of law, turned the occupiers adrift. The conversion of arable into pasture meant that few labourers were required where many had been employed before. Thus great numbers of labourers found themselves without employment; and the diminution of tillage, the reduced production of food-stuffs, raised the price of food. Hence the country began to swarm with men for whom there was no employment, since the former agricultural labourer could not betake himself to the urban industries, which sought rigorously to exclude new-comers.
By the middle of the reign of Henry VII, as we may learn from Sir Thomas More's Utopia, he swarms of sturdy vagabonds who might be willing enough to work but could get no work to do were already becoming a serious pest, and for more than half a century the evil was continuously on the increase.