Social Origins of Democracy: Religious freedom laid the foundations for political freedom

New forces arose to threaten the old patterns of religious life. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Roman Catholicism was moving towards its peak, with the old ways more and more in disharmony with new forces. Individualism, nationalism and secularism contributed to a climate of opinion hostile to the continuation of privileges and abuses in the church. They had been tolerated so long because they were bound up with feudal traditions. The Lords and the Commons were more hostile to the papal authority than the king. Reformers like John Wycliffe emphasized the importance of the individual and his ability to effect direct contact with God. He attacked the intermediary role of the priest between individual and God.

The Reformation reduced the prestige of the Roman papacy and heightened that of the monarchy. Reformation was at its core a fight for freedom from religious oppression. By drawing a line of demarcation between polity and religion, it paved the way for the establishment of secular government.

Further, the Protestant theology appealed to the individualism of the middle class. The phrase ‘the individual’ in its modern sense dates from the late 16th or early 17th centuries. By raising the voice of the laity against that of the clergy, Protestantism contributed to the development of democratic thinking. Individual liberties, which were asserted first with respect to man’s dealings with God, came to be regarded as important in human beings’ dealings with each other as well.

Dissolution of monasteries led to redistribution of wealth

After the Reformation, the Tudor kings (1485-1603) pursued a policy of confiscating the monastic estates. This led to great changes in the economic history of England by weakening royal authority and heightening the power of the Parliament. The Crown’s need for great sums of ready money between 1540 and 1546 to meet the expenses of war with France forced the Tudor monarchs to sell seven-eighths of the confiscated monastery estates by the time of Henry VIII. The need for cash compelled the various later Tudor sovereigns to repeat Henry VIII’s practice of selling church land. Usually, the Crown sold its properties at twenty times the annual rental value. Those who purchased land on these terms exacted higher rents from their tenants. Further, the sale of church lands increased the mobility of land. Cheap land was available in plenty to anyone who had the capital to invest. By 1600, the gentry were leasing land from the king in order to produce for the market.

The new aristocracy created by the acquisition of church lands became a powerful support to the Tudor throne and a bulwark of economic interest against any aristocratic or religious revolts. This further strengthened the political and economic power of the kingdom. The new aristocracy rooted in agriculture, commerce, industry changed the nature of the English nobility from static conservatism to dynamic enterprise. This new class was responsible for spreading the ideas of liberty and equality in the 17th century.

Upward social mobility reduced medieval social stratification.

Medieval English society was feudalistic and militaristic. Social hierarchy, based on the holding of land, prevented upward social mobility. But with the rise of a money economy and the shift in the status of land from a source of power to a source of wealth, English society lost its rigidity. The mobility it permitted shattered the elements of stratification and spurred the evolution of democracy. Sixteenth century English society was not static. Social grades were more flexible and less sharply defined than they were in other parts of Europe. Wealth and education could bring a man to the upper ranks of the society. Many of the most successful merchants came from the poorer, underprivileged groups but were accepted into the upper ranks of the society. Leading figures of Stuart England were grandchildren of London aldermen.

The peers and gentry did not scorn trade and industry as their counterparts did in France. In fact, they themselves engaged in commerce. (The laws of primogeniture forced the younger sons of nobility to move out of the villages and pursue trade or practice law.) The demand of the Tudor State for men of competence to fill the new positions in court and other fields of royal administration also helped increase the social mobility. The price rise also accelerated social mobility i.e.; money was used to acquire peerages. Between 1640-50, not only merchants but also even men of humble origin had joined the ranks of the landed gentry.

Source: MSS Research