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Wardship and Marriage under Elizabeth I

J. Hurstfield analyses social conditions in the Elizabethan age.

In his delightful description of Elizabethan England, the Reverend William Harrison reminds us that “by the especial grace of God and bounty of our princes ... if any come hither from other realms, so soon as they set foot on land, they become so free in condition as their masters.” The diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, writing his description of the Commonwealth of England in the fifteen sixties, while he was en poste in France, had paid tribute likewise to the liberty of Englishmen. Feudalism, he tells us, involved the use of two kinds of bondmen: slaves bound in their person and villeins bound to the soil. “And of the first,” he goes on, “I never knew any in the realm in my time; of the second so few there be that it is not almost worth the speaking.” With this and other evidence before them, it is not surprising that historians have been inclined to see the decline of feudalism more or less keep pace with the decline of the Middle Ages. By the Tudor period, it would appear, the substance had gone out of feudalism though some of its shadows remained.

An English exile or a foreigner might see things rather differently. Cardinal Allen and Count Olivares, drawing up a programme of reform which the victorious Spanish Armada should carry out, referred to the manner in which Queen Elizabeth was exploiting her feudal rights and declared that “it would be a most glorious way for a new prince to solemnize his entry if he were to abolish this evil tax.” This was no isolated opinion. “Grave abuses have crept in,” wrote the Venetian Ambassador in London in his description of the feudal revenues in the early years of the next century, “and the subjects cry aloud to heaven.” They “do all they can to avoid such an inheritance, which brings a plague and ruin upon their estates!”

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