To understand how difficult her position was we must remember what sort of constitution England had when the germ of the United States was forming. The Roman Empire was one constituent whole from the emperor down. The English-speaking peoples of to-day form constituent wholes from the electorate up. In both cases all parts were and are in constant relation to the whole. The case of Elizabethan England, however, was very different. There was neither despotic unity from above nor democratic unity from below, but a mixed and fluctuating kind of government in which Crown, nobles, parliament, and people formed certain parts which had to be put together for each occasion. The accepted general idea was that the sovereign, supreme as an individual, looked after the welfare of the country in peace and war so far as the Crown estates permitted; but that whenever the Crown resources would not suffice then the sovereign could call on nobles and people for whatever the common weal required. Noblesse oblige. In return for the estates or monopolies which they had acquired the nobles and favored commoners were expected to come forward with all their resources at every national crisis precisely as the Crown was expected to work for the common weal at all times. When the resources of the Crown and favored courtiers sufficed, no parliament was called; but whenever they had to be supplemented then parliament met and voted whatever it approved. Finally, every English freeman was required to do his own share towards defending the country in time of need, and he was further required to know the proper use of arms.
The great object of every European court during early modern times was to get both the old feudal nobility and the newly promoted commoners to revolve round the throne as round the centre of their solar system. By sheer force of character for the Tudors had no overwhelming army like the "Roman emperors' Henry VIII had succeeded wonderfully well. Elizabeth now had to piece together what had been broken under Edward VI and Mary. She, too, succeeded and with the hearty goodwill of nearly all her subjects.
Mary had left the royal treasury deeply in debt. Yet Elizabeth succeeded in paying off all arrears and meeting new expenditure for defence and for the court. The royal income rose. England became immensely richer and more prosperous than ever before. Foreign trade increased by leaps and bounds. Home industries flourished and were stimulated by new arrivals from abroad, because England was a safe asylum for the craftsmen whom Philip was driving from the Netherlands, to his own great loss and his rival's gain.
English commercial life had been slowly emerging from mediaeval ways throughout the fifteenth century. With the beginning of the sixteenth the rate of emergence had greatly quickened. The soil-bound peasant who produced enough food for his family from his thirty acres was being gradually replaced by the well-to-do yeoman who tilled a hundred acres and upwards. Such holdings produced a substantial surplus for the market. This increased the national wealth, which, in its turn, increased both home and foreign trade. The peasant merely raised a little wheat and barley, kept a cow, and perhaps some sheep. The yeoman or tenant farmer had sheep enough for the wool trade besides some butter, cheese, and meat for the nearest growing town. He began to 'garnish his cupboards with pewter and his joined beds with tapestry and silk hangings, and his tables with carpets and fine napery.' He could even feast his neighbors and servants after shearing day with new-fangled foreign luxuries like dates, mace, raisins, currants, and sugar.
But Elizabethan society presented striking contrasts. In parts of England, the practice of engrossing and enclosing holdings was increasing, as sheep-raising became more profitable than farming. The tenants thus dispossessed either swelled the ranks of the vagabonds who infested the highways or sought their livelihood at sea or in London, which provided the two best openings for adventurous young men. The smaller provincial towns afforded them little opportunity, for there the trades were largely in the hands of close corporations descended from the mediaeval craft guilds. These were eventually to be swept away by the general trend of business. Their dissolution had indeed already begun; for smart village craftsmen were even then forming the new industrial settlements from which most of the great manufacturing towns of England have sprung. Camden the historian found Birmingham full of ringing anvils, Sheffield 'a town of great name for the smiths therein,' Leeds renowned for cloth, and Manchester already a sort of Cottonopolis, though the 'cottons' of those days were still made of wool.
There was a wages question then as now. There were demands for a minimum living wage. The influx of gold and silver from America had sent all prices soaring. Meat became almost prohibitive for the 'submerged tenth' there was a rapidly submerging tenth. Beef rose from one cent a pound in the forties to four in 1588, the year of the Armada. How would the lowest paid of craftsmen fare on twelve cents a day, with butter at ten cents a pound? Efforts were made, again and again, to readjust the ratio between prices and wages. But, as a rule, prices increased much faster than wages.
All these things the increase of surplus hands, the high cost of living, grievances about wages and interest tended to make the farms and workshops of England recruiting-grounds for the sea; and the young men would strike out for themselves as freighters, traders, privateers, or downright pirates, lured by the dazzling chance of great and sudden wealth.
'The gamble of it' was as potent then as now, probably more potent still. It was an age of wild speculation accompanied by all the usual evils that follow frenzied ways. It was also an age of monopoly. Both monopoly and speculation sent recruits into the sea-dog ranks. Elizabeth would grant, say, to Sir Walter Raleigh, the monopoly of sweet wines. Raleigh would naturally want as much sweet wine imported as England could be induced to swallow. So, too, would Elizabeth, who got the duty. Crews would be wanted for the monopolistic ships. They would also be wanted for 'free-trading' vessels, that is, for the ships of the smugglers who underbid, undersold, and tried to overreach the monopolist, who represented law, though not quite justice. But speculation ran to greater extremes than either monopoly or smuggling. Shakespeare's 'Putter-out of five for one' was a typical Elizabethan speculator exploiting the riskiest form of sea-dog trade for all and sometimes for more than all that it was worth. A merchant-adventurer would pay a capitalist, say, a thousand pounds as a premium to be forfeited if his ship should be lost, but to be repaid by the capitalist fivefold to the merchant if it returned. Incredible as it may seem to us, there were shrewd money-lenders always ready for this sort of deal in life or life-and-death insurance: an eloquent testimony to the risks encountered in sailing unknown seas in the midst of well-known dangers.