England had passed through the Middle Ages without giving any sign of the greatness which awaited its future development. Edward III and Henry V had won temporary renown in France, but English sovereigns had failed to subjugate the smaller countries of Scotland and Ireland, which were more immediately their concern. Wycliffe and Chaucer, with perhaps Roger Bacon, are the only English names of first importance in the realms of medieval thought and literature, unless we put Bede (673-735) in the Middle Ages; for insular genius does not seem to have flourished under ecumenical inspiration; and even Wycliffe and Chaucer may be claimed as products of the national rather than of the catholic spirit. But with the transition from medieval to modern history, the conditions were altered in England's favour. The geographical expansion of Europe made the outposts of the Old World the entrepôts for the New; the development of navigation and sea-power changed the ocean from the limit into the link of empires; and the growth of industry and commerce revolutionized the social and financial foundations of power. National states were forming; the state which could best adapt itself to these changed and changing conditions would outdistance its rivals; and its capacity to adapt itself to them would largely depend on the strength and flexibility of its national organization. It was the achievement of the New Monarchy to fashion this organization, and to rescue the country from an anarchy which had already given other powers the start in the race and promised little success for England.

Henry VII had to begin in a quiet, unostentatious way with very scanty materials. With a bad title and many pretenders, with an evil heritage of social disorder, he must have been sorely tempted to indulge in the heroics of Henry V. He followed a sounder business policy, and his reign is dull, because he gave peace and prosperity at home without fighting a battle abroad. His foreign policy was dictated by insular interests regardless of personal glory; and the security of his kingdom and the trade of his people were the aims of all his treaties with other powers. At home he carefully depressed the over-mighty subjects who had made the Wars of the Roses; he kept down their number with such success that he left behind him only one English duke and one English marquis; he limited their retainers, and restrained by means of the Star Chamber their habits of maintaining lawbreakers, packing juries, and intimidating judges. By a careful distribution of fines and benevolences he filled his exchequer without taxing the mass of his people; and by giving office to ecclesiastics and men of humble origin he both secured cheaper and more efficient administration, and established a check upon feudal influence. He was determined that no Englishman should build any castle walls over which the English king could not look, and that, as far as possible, no private person should possess a franchise in which the king's writ did not run. He left to his son, Henry VIII, a stable throne and a united kingdom.

The first half of Henry VIII's reign left little mark on English history. Wolsey played a brilliant but essentially futile part on the diplomatic stage, where the rivalry and balance of forces between the Emperor Charles V and Francis I of France helped him to pose as the arbiter of Christendom. But he obtained no permanent national gains; and the final result of his foreign policy was to make the emperor master of the papacy at the moment when Henry wanted the pope to annul his marriage with the emperor's aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Henry desired a son to succeed him and to prevent the recurrence of dynastic wars; he had only a daughter, Mary, and no woman had yet ruled or reigned in England. The death of all his male children by Catherine convinced him that his marriage with his deceased brother Arthur's widow was invalid; and his passion for Anne Boleyn added zest to his suit for a divorce. The pope could not afford to quarrel with Charles V, who cared little, indeed, for the cause of his aunt, but much for his cousin Mary's claim to the English throne; and in 1529 Henry began the process, completed in the acts of Annates, Appeals, and Supremacy, by which England severed its connexion with Rome, and the king became head of an English church.

It is irrational to pretend that so durable an achievement was due to so transient a cause as Henry's passion for Anne Boleyn or desire for a son; vaster, older, and more deeply seated forces were at work. In one sense the breach was simply the ecclesiastical consummation of the forces which had long been making for national independence, and the religious complement of the changes which had emancipated the English state, language, and literature from foreign control.