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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 11. The Complaynt of Roderyck Mors

The triumph of the reformation under Henry VIII and the suppression of the monasteries had raised great hopes in those churchmen who looked on Rome as the root of all evil. But the disorganisation of society always brings abuses to the surface and the venality of judges, the chicanery and delays of law-suits, the tyranny of the powerful and the oppression of the poor and defenceless, now became doubly apparent. The prevailing clear-sightedness as to the evils of both past and present found vigorous expression in Brinkelow’s Complaynt of Roderyck Mors. Brinkelow’s sectarian hatred of popery precludes the slightest regret for the abolition of the old religion; in fact, he laments that the “body and tayle of the pope is not banisshed with his name.” At the same time, his sense of justice and righteousness keeps his eyes open to the fact that ecclesiastical and state administration are no better under the new order and that the social conditions are a great deal worse. A marked feature of the tract is the constant appeal to the king’s divine authority to rectify social and legal abuses. Henry’s practice differed greatly from the ideas of his conscientious supporters. The riches he appropriated from the monasteries were not devoted to the relief of the economic situation, as Brinkelow urged him to use them (chap. XXII). Part went to the king’s middle class favourites, who now availed themselves of the fall of noble families and the eviction of abbey-lands, to speculate in agriculture and buy country estates. This upstart squirearchy knew nothing of the old baronial practice of hospitality, and the passing away of the ancient ideal added, in some measure, to the pessimism of the times. Some ballads have come down to us lamenting the new order, such as John Barker’s, printed 1561, with the burden:

  • Neibourhed nor love is none,
  • Treu dealyng now is fled and gone.
  • Besides neglecting the claims of good fellowship, the nouveau riche introduced methods of commercial competition into land speculation. The rearing of cattle was found to be more profitable than the leasing of farms. Thus, neither the lords of the manor nor freehold tenants hesitated, when it was advantageous, to abolish the small homesteads that had supported the yeomanry of baronial England. Evicted tenants were forced to become vagabonds or seek a livelihood in manufacturing industries, thus further disorganising the labour market; and, all this while, the reckless extravagance of the court raised the general cost of living, and the debasement of the currency and increase of taxation made poverty more acute.