Home  »  Volume IV: English PROSE AND POETRY SIR THOMAS NORTH TO MICHAEL DRAYTON  »  § 2. Elements in the Rise of Nationalities—Patriotic Sentiment, Democratic Self-Government, National Resources as the means of gratifying National Ambitions

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XV. Early Writings on Politics and Economics

§ 2. Elements in the Rise of Nationalities—Patriotic Sentiment, Democratic Self-Government, National Resources as the means of gratifying National Ambitions

Students of political science in recent times have been inclined to classify and compare different types of polity, with the view of elucidating the strong points of each and of noting their various contributions to the sum of political wisdom; but the early writers in England on political subjects seem to have felt no need of adopting this method. They concentrated their attention on England, almost as if it were the only type of polity worthy of consideration, and they discussed its characteristics. The example was set by Fortescue in his De Laudibus Legum Angliae, but the same tone prevailed among Elizabethan and Jacobean writers. Sir Thomas Smith, who, like Sir Henry Wotton after him, had seen much of foreign lands, does, indeed, in his Discourse on the Commonwealth of England recognise a more general study of politics and alludes to other states, ancient and modern; he has some difficulty in classifying the realm of England under any of the Aristotelian divisions; but, while he assigns a very high place to regal power, he does not, like Bodin, treat England as an example of monarchy, but includes it among the democracies. On the whole, he is prepared to justify the institutions of his country as superior to those of any other land, and to regard it as a well organised commonwealth, in which the crown, the nobility and gentry, the burgesses and yeomen, have each their part to play. The free co-operation of distinct classes for the good of the community is a characteristic feature on which he insists; and a similar political ideal appears to have been in Shakespeare’s mind. There is a striking speech in Troilus and Cressida, act I, sc. 3, in which Ulysses insists on the importance of degree, and its necessity in well ordered society:

  • Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
  • Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
  • The primogenitive and due of birth,
  • Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
  • But by degree, stand in authentic place?
  • Take but degree away, untune that string,
  • And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
  • In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
  • Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
  • And make a sop of all this solid globe:
  • Strength should be lord of imbecility,
  • And the rude son should strike his father dead:
  • Force should be right: or rather, right and wrong,
  • Between whose endless jar justice resides,
  • Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
  • Then every thing includes itself in power,
  • Power into will, will into appetite;
  • And appetite, an universal wolf,
  • So doubly seconded with will and power,
  • Must make perforce an universal prey,
  • And last eat up himself.
  • Shakespeare, too, seems to recognise the supreme importance of the kingly office in a well-ordered community. The conversation between king Henry and his soldiers on the eve of Agincourt is very instructive on this point; and it is clear that his political ideals were closely connected with his conception of the English constitution. The glory and greatness of the English monarchy, as a controlling power in the English realm, is eloquently set forth in the speech assigned to Cranmer at the baptism of queen Elizabeth. A similar conception runs through Bacon’s writings; and he also calls attention to the importance of the personal qualities of the prince, since, “in the great frame of kingdoms and commonwealth, it is in the power of princes or estates to add amplitude and greatness to their kingdoms.” Selden, who was by no means inclined to exalt the kingly office unduly, yet recognises it as the source from which the various titles of honour and grades in the higher ranks of society spring. This well-ordered community, with a monarch at the head, was habitually spoken of as the respublica or commonwealth; and this last was a current term for the English realm long before it was officially adopted under the Long parliament. The importance of a strong personality at the head of a state was apparent in the reigns of Henry VIII and his children; the personality of Elizabeth, in particular, and her success in rallying round her the loyalty of her subjects and in guiding the affairs of state, continued to give actual shape to the vague political ideas of cultivated Englishmen, so that Massinger, in The Maid of Honour, pointed to the English monarchy as a model for less fortunate peoples.