Henry VII., and the Beginning of Modern Times
The word "Renaissance" means "re-birth," and we use it to name the period when men's minds awakened to new activities after the slumbers of the Middle Ages.
It took the form of new interest in the literature, art, and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome, for in these men found the same spirit of free inquiry, and the same appreciation of beauty, which they now felt within their own breasts. With this "revival of learning," as it is called, came also a development of painting, sculpture, and architecture. Gunpowder and the compass, were introduced from the East; printing was invented; Columbus and Vasco da Gama discovered America and the ocean route to India; and correct ideas of the earth's form and place in the solar system began to replace the mistaken ideas of the Middle Ages.
In every line, men's minds worked more freely and more accurately, and the result was a rapid change in almost every line of human endeavor.
This movement began in Italy, about one hundred and fifty years before Henry VII. became King. Gradually it spread from that land to the countries north of the Alps, and by the time of Henry VII. the movement was making itself felt in England also. A few Italian scholars had come to England, and a few Englishmen had gone to Italy, to study there, and bring back to England the newly revived learning. Then, from the University of Oxford as a center, there slowly spread, in England, a knowledge of Greek, a sounder understanding of the old Latin masterpieces, and a more sensible way of looking at all questions.
The invention of the art of printing did a great deal to aid the movement. In the Middle Ages all books were laboriously written with the pen, letter by letter, usually by monks or nuns; as a result, they were rare and expensive, and only a very few persons could learn what they had to teach. But, at about the time that the Wars of the Roses began, a German man named Gutenberg invented a method of casting movable metal types, and made possible the printing of a large number of copies of a book, with little more labor than it would require to write out by hand a single copy. Then the types could be separated, and used again for printing other books. The value of the new invention was at once seen. Before the century ended printing presses were set up in more than two hundred places.
The first to introduce the new art into England was William Caxton, a London cloth merchant who had lived in Flanders. While there he became interested in an old French book, which told the story of the siege of Troy by the Greeks more than two thousand years before that time. To please the Duchess of Burgundy, who was the sister of King Edward IV., Caxton completed a translation of the book into English. Then, since many people wanted copies of his translation, he learned the new art of printing, at the cost of much pain and expense, and printed it, under the name Histories of Troy. This was the very first book ever printed in the English language.
In 1477, Caxton returned to England, with type purchased abroad, and set up the first printing office in England. The first book printed there was The Sayings of the Philosophers.
In the fourteen years which followed, Caxton printed eighty separate books, including histories, stories, poems, and religious works; and twenty-one of these he himself translated from French into English.
By always using in his translations the cultivated speech which was used at London and the court, Caxton helped to fix the literary language of England. The dialects which were spoken in distant parts of the kingdom were so different, that it was often impossible for a person who came from one district to understand the speech of another. To show this, Caxton tells a story of some merchants sailing down the Thames river from London, who were becalmed at its mouth, and went ashore seeking provisions.
"And one of them," says Caxton, "came into a house, and asked for meat, and specially he asked for 'eggs.' The good wife answered the she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he, also, could speak no French; but he would have eggs, and she understood him not. And then at last another said that he would have 'eyeren' (another word for eggs). Then the good wife understood what he wanted."
The differences in spelling and pronunciation were as great as the differences in words, and it was long before a standard of correct English was established.
It was in the reign of Henry VII., too, that Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in the service of Queen Isabella, and discovered the New World of America. Soon after that (in 1497), Henry VII. sent forth a Venetian seaman, named John Cabot, with permission to sail "to all places, lands, and seas, of the East, West, and North," and discover what lands he could. After discovering land near the mouth of the St. Lawrence river (which was called "the New-found-land"), Cabot coasted along a part of the mainland of North America, and thus laid the foundation of the claim to this land which England put forth a hundred years later. In the account books of Henry VII., we may still read the entry: "To him that found the new isle, £10." This seems a small reward for so great a service; but Henry VII. was careful of money, and the value of the new discovery was then not known.
For many years Henry's chief attention was directed to putting down risings of the Yorkists.
In the first of these, a ten year old boy named Lambert Simnel was made to play the chief part. He was the son of a baker, but he was trained to act the part of a Yorkist prince who was then imprisoned in the Tower, but who was falsely said to have escaped. Simnel was crowned King at Dublin, in Ireland; and then, with Irish and German troops, a landing was made in England. Scarcely an Englishman joined the Yorkists, and their troops were easily defeated. Lambert Simnel was pardoned, and was made a "turn spit" in the King's kitchen. Lord Lovel, who was one of the leaders, disappeared. Long afterwards, in an underground chamber, some workman accidentally discovered the skeleton of a man seated in a chair with his head resting on a table; and this, it was said, was the body of the missing man, who had hidden there, and through the faithlessness of a servant was left to die of starvation.
A few years later another pretender appeared, in the person of a young man named Perkin Warbeck. He claimed to be the younger of the two sons of Edward IV., who really had been murdered in the Tower by Richard III. For five years he played this part, and was received in Ireland, Flanders, and in Scotland, where the Scottish King found him a wife of noble birth. But, in 1497, he rashly landed in England, and was speedily captured and shut up in the Tower. He soon escaped, with the real prince whom Lambert Simnel had impersonated; and Henry VII. seized the opportunity to rid himself of both rivals, the true and the false, by sending them to execution.
Henry VII. had laws passed forbidding the practice known as "livery and maintenance," by which the great nobles kept at their call large bands of men, who wore the badges of their masters and were ready to support them, if need be, by force of arms. At one time the King visited the Earl of Oxford, who had been one of his strongest supporters. When he went away he found a great band of men, wearing the Earl's badge, drawn up to show him honor.
"I thank you for your good cheer," said Henry to the Earl, "but I cannot endure to have my laws broken in my sight. My attorney must speak with you."
For his disobedience to the law, the Earl was afterwards fined the great sum of £10,000.
Another means of breaking the power of the great lords was the development of a court, called (from the place where it met) the Court of Star Chamber. It was composed of high officers of the King's service, who could not be bribed or bullied, as the local juries could; and it did an excellent service in bringing to justice great men who escaped punishment in the ordinary courts. In later years, when the power of great lords no longer disturbed the land, other Kings made this court an instrument of tyranny, and it was then abolished.
Henry VII. died in 1509. He had ended the Wars of the Roses, increased the power of the crown, and gathered great sums of money into the royal treasury. But, most of all, he is to be remembered because it was in his time that the Renaissance was established in England, and the way was paved for the changes which produced the Reformation of the English Church.