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

XV. Chroniclers and Antiquaries

§ 8. Sir Thomas Smith

What the travellers did for their country, Sir Thomas Smith, in his Common Wealth of England (written in 1565, printed in 1584), did for its law and government. No treatise ever written owed less to ornament. As the author himself says, he has “declared summarily as it were in a Chart or Map” the form and manner of government and the policy of England. His is no feigned commonwealth such as never was nor shall be, no vain imagination, no fantasy of philosophers, but England as she

  • standeth and is governed at this day the eight and twentie of March, Anno 1565, in the seventh yeere of the Raigne and Administration thereof by the most religious, virtuous, and noble Queene Elizabeth.
  • In style and in substance the book is as concise as a classic. It wastes no words and betrays few emotions. Only once or twice does Sir Thomas Smith permit himself a touch of humanity or a hint of observation. The yeomen of England, the good Archers, “the stable troupe of Footmen that affraid all France,” arouse him to a fitful enthusiasm, and, in the discussion of England’s malefactors, he reveals a flash of real insight, namely that Englishmen, while they neglect death, will not endure torture. “The nature of our Nation is free, stout, hault, prodigall of life and blood,” says he, “but contumely, beating, servitude, and servile torment, and punishment it will not abide.” The popularity of the book is easily intelligible. It appealed to a people hungry for knowledge of itself, but it gives no hint of the erudite Greek professor, the adroit ambassador, the wise secretary of state, the curious astrologer, all whose parts Sir Thomas Smith played with distinction and success.