British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

Narrative History of England
Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration (cont'd.)
by Peter N. Williams, Ph. D.




Henry VIII (1509-1547)
After the reign of the avaricious, duplicitous Henry Tudor, it was a welcome relief when he was succeeded by the amiable, athletic Henry VIII. He was a man who loved music, the military arts, and was interested in building England's navy. Considered by his contemporaries as a true renaissance prince, Henry proved just as ruthless as his father, a man who brooked no opposition, real or imagined. Right away he began his policy of "dynastic extermination," showing his bent by getting rid of the Duke of Buckingham, the Countess of Salisbury (sister to the Earl of Warwick) and in 1546, the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, the grandson of Buckingham.

In understanding the spate of executions and the ridding of even those with the slightest of claims to the throne, we have to remember the infertility of the Tudors, a curse that was to haunt them. All male children born to Catherine and Henry had died. Henry had no heir of his own other than Princess Mary; it was unthinkable at the time that a woman should rule England. As Henry had married his brother's widow, the solution seemed simple enough: he would have to get his marriage annulled and marry the young, attractive, willing and it was to be hoped, fertile Anne Boleyn. But the king had not reckoned on the obstinacy of Charles V, the most powerful monarch in Europe, the nephew of Catherine and, more importantly, the virtual keeper of the Pope. Henry was just as obstinate, and those who failed to support his efforts to have the marriage annulled were quickly to feel his wrath.

Cardinal Pole, son of the Countess of Salisbury led the opposition to the king; thus his family was chosen for elimination. Pole had earlier gone to Paris in 1529 to seek a favorable opinion of Henry's claims in the matter of the divorce. He later sided with Charles V against the king, becoming elected cardinal for his spirited attack on the English monarch. He then appeared as a legate at the Council of Trent and played no significant part in English affairs until the accession of Mary. In the meanwhile, the son of an Ipswich butcher began his rapid rise to some of the highest offices in the land.

Thomas Wolsey joined the king's council in 1509, the first year of Henry's long reign. As the king enjoyed other pursuits, he left much of the administration in Wolsey's able hands, appointing him Lord Chancellor in 1515. The ambitious Wolsey then acquired other offices in rapid succession, including those of Archbishop of York, Cardinal and Papal Legate, in the words of a Venetian ambassador, "ruling the kingdom." It was in Henry's own interest to give free reign to his chief minister, but only so far.

Wolsey, like so many others in the kingdom, was completely undone by his failure to get Henry his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Again, it was the Emperor Charles V that presented the biggest obstacle, for he had just defeated his major European rival Francis l and taken Pope Clement VII prisoner. To be fair to Charles, he was more interested in Italy than what happened to his aunt, but Henry had been given the title "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Clement for his efforts to keep the forces of Protestantism at bay in England. Charles was not the only one who obviously felt that monarchs should live up to their titles, however earned.

In his passion for the beautiful Anne and his desire for a male heir, Henry made it quite plain that he wished for a quick divorce. Because of Wolsey's failure in the matter he was banished from court and eventually summoned to trial on a charge of treason. He died on his way to face the king. All his acquisitions of wealth and power had come to nought to the king's benefit, however, Wolsey had greatly increased the work of the Court of Chancery and the Star Chamber, a court by which the nobility was kept in check. On two occasions, he tried to get himself elected Pope, but the dilemma of the royal divorce ultimately proved too much for him. He was thus discarded when he was no longer useful to the king. His dismissal and the charges against him also point out only too well the declining influence of the universal Church in politics. The growth of nation-states independent from Rome would be a recurring theme of Europe for the next few hundred years.

Perhaps the break away of England was inevitable. The medieval church was moribund, in a fossilized state, out of touch with the vast changes that had been taking place in economics, politics and social conditions. We have already had an inkling of what was to come when John Wycliffe, during the reign of Edward III, had preached his revolutionary idea that grace could come from a reading of the Bible and not from the benefit of Church and clergy. Dissenters known as the Lollards were also increasing their attacks on the malpractices of the Catholic bishops, and William Tyndale was busy translating the New Testament into English. Now, with Henry at variance with the imprisoned and demoralized Pope, and the Catholic Church in disarray, with the teachings of Martin Luther reaching into all corners of Europe, the floodgates of the Reformation were let loose.

Henry obtained his divorce regardless of Charles V and the Pope. He simply used the authority of the state and the so-named Reformation Parliament that was first called in 1529 and that, for the next seven years, effectively destroyed the medieval church in England. In 1533, Henry married the pregnant Anne Boleyn and upon the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed Thomas Cranmer to do his bidding in that office. The official break with Rome came in April 1533 with the passing of the Act of Restraint of Appeals that decreed "this realm of England is an empire." One month later Archbishop Cranmer declared that the Kings' marriage to Catherine of Aragon was null and void. Ann Boleyn was duly crowned Queen, giving birth to Elizabeth but three months later. The Pope duly excommunicated both Cranmer and Henry.

After 1534, events moved even more rapidly. The Act of Supremacy of that year declared that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England and the Pope officially designated merely as the Bishop of Rome. There was no Catholic uprising in Britain; Henry still considered himself a staunch Catholic, retaining his title of "Defender of the Faith" and obviously proud of such an appellation. There was no break with Rome on matters of dogma, the king himself had no great desire for a complete separation, but matters came to a head with the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell, considered by many to be the architect of the English Reformation.

Cromwell was ruthless in carrying out the policies of Henry, but it is safe to say he probably sneaked in many of his own. Though Sir Thomas Moore, a man initially beloved of the king and Bishop Fisher were executed for refusing to acknowledge Henry's claim as Head of the Church in England, twenty-two other Englishmen were also burned at the stake for refusing to accept Catholicism. Then, when fears arose of an expected invasion from France, the dissolution of the monasteries in Britain proceeded at a rapid pace, for they were an easy target to satisfy Henry's need for vast amounts of money for coastal defenses and for the strengthening the navy. Wolsey himself had begun the matter, mainly for ready cash to found chanceries and schools, but the work was willingly carried to a rapid fruition by Cromwell.

The picturesque ecclesiastic ruins found all over the English landscape can give but little hint of the former grandeur and wealth of the great monasteries. Perhaps they had owned as much as one quarter of the arable land of the nation, and the amount of jewels, church plate, relics and gold artifacts they also possessed must have been enormous, to say nothing of their vast herds and flocks and huge swathes of the best arable land in the country. Henry was determined to have it all, thus the monasteries were destroyed and their lands taken over by the Crown. In three years, two acts of dissolution brought to an end hundreds of years of monastic influence in the island of Britain. A feeble protest from Catholics in the North, known as the Pilgrimage of Grace was easily suppressed.

An orgy of iconoclasm now took place in the land. In 1538, the same year that the last monasteries were dissolved, Henry's chief minister and architect of the Reformation in England issued injunctions stating that every parish church should have an English bible and shrines were to be destroyed. Thomas Cromwell relished his new duties in seeing that the crown replaced the pope as the arbiter of religious affairs throughout England. The destruction of so much that was a priceless heritage of an ancient nation is to be lamented. The value of so much art, books and architecture meant nothing to those who carried out Cromwell's work and the smashing of holy places even included the shrine of Thomas Becket, perhaps the holiest place of pilgrimage in all of Britain.

Many beside the king and his nobles were happy to see the monasteries disappear and the power of the Church diminished. Abbots lived like princes; their dwellings were more like baronial palaces than religious houses. Piety seemed notably absent from their magnificent edifices and vast land holdings. The bishop's house at St. David's rivaled the cathedral itself in grandeur. It wasn't only the great scholar Erasmus who decried the obscene wealth of the great religious houses in England, writing of them, in his well-read "Enchiridion" (1504), that "the monastic life should not be equated with the virtuous life "and that the monasteries themselves were "a backward-looking anachronism, out of date, out of sympathy, and ripe to fall." And fall they did. Their vast land-holdings were now sold off to those who could afford them and a new, rich landed aristocracy was set in place to dominate England's rural scene for centuries.

As the long period of monasticism ended in England, the nation of Wales also lost any hopes of regaining its independence. An expression that describes a Welshman who pretends to have forgotten his Welsh or who affects the loss of his national identity in order to succeed in English society or who wishes to be thought well of among his friends is "Dic-Sion-Dafydd." The term was unknown in 16th century Wales but, owing to the harsh penal legislation imposed upon its inhabitants, after the revolt of Owain Glyndwr in the previous century, it had become necessary for many Welshmen to petition Parliament to be "made English" so that they could enjoy privileges restricted to Englishmen, including the right to buy and hold land according to English law.

Such petitions may have been distasteful to the patriotic Welsh, but for the ambitious and socially mobile gentry rapidly emerging in Wales and on the Marches, they were a necessary step for any chance of advancement. In the military, of course, Welsh mercenaries, no longer fighting under Glyndwr for an independent Wales, had been highly sought after by Henry V for his campaigns in France, and the skills of the Welsh archers in such battles as Agincourt are legendary. Such examples of allegiance to their commander, the English sovereign, went a long way in dispelling any latent thoughts of independence and helped paved the way for the overwhelming Welsh allegiance to the Tudors.

When Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII, the foundations of the great Welsh landed-estates had been laid and much of the day-to-day affairs of the nation were controlled by its landed squires, many of whom had descended from English families and intermarried with their Welsh counterparts. Their loyalties were with the Crown or Parliament or both, but not with their native country; they came to associate the latter with loyalty to the Tudor sovereigns. Either the Welsh realized the hopelessness of their position; or their leaders, in true "Dic-Sion-Dafydd" style, were too busy enjoying the fruits of cooperation with London. The year 1536 produced no great trauma for the Welsh; all the ingredients for its acceptance had been put in place long before.

The so-called "Act of Union" of that year, and its corrected version of 1543 seemed inevitable. More than one historian has pointed out that union with England had really been achieved by the "Statute of Rhuddlan" in 1284. The new legislation was welcomed by many in Wales, by the gentry, commercial interests and religious reformers alike, and why not? Didn't it state that "Persons born or to be born in the said Principality ... of Wales shall have and enjoy and inherit all and singular Freedoms, Liberties, Rights, Privileges and Laws ... as other the King's subjects have, enjoy or inherit."

By the Act, "finally and for all time" the principality of Wales was incorporated into the kingdom of England. A major part of this decision was to abolish any legal distinction between the people on either side of the new border. From henceforth, English law would be the only law recognised by the courts of Wales. In addition, for the placing of the administration of Wales in the hands of the Welsh gentry, it was necessary to create a Welsh ruling class not only fluent in English, but who would use it in all legal and civil matters.

Thus inevitably, the Welsh ruling class would be divorced from the language of their country. But, as pointed out earlier, their eyes were focused on what London or other large cities of England had to offer, not upon what remained as crumbs to be scavenged in Wales itself. The Welsh people were without a government of their own, a capital city, or even a town large enough to attract an opportunistic urban middle class, and saddled with a language "nothing like nor consonant to the natural mother tongue used within this realm." A language that persistently refused to die.

The rise of the Welsh middle classes was mirrored in England, where the political privileges of the old nobility were being drastically curtailed and a new class was rising rapidly. Through his chief ministers, Henry continued to increase the powers of the Star Chamber at the national level, and saw to it that the Justices of the Peace, recruited from the gentry, carried out the king's commands at the local level. The king's foreign intrigues meant that he was forced to sell off most of his newly acquired monastic possessions. The landed gentry were the beneficiaries in more ways than one; for the king's repeated demands upon them for cash, and their repeated insistence on the granting of privileges in return, led only to an increase in the powers of parliament at the expense of the Crown. In 1544, the name "The House of Lords" first appeared, an indication of the rapid rise of the other, lower house "The House of Commons," which from now on was always ready to challenge the Lords' power (as well as the King's).

Much of Henry's need for money came from his wars in Scotland during the years 1542 and 1546 and with Scotland's ally, France. In 1488 in Scotland, James IV had come to the throne at the age of fifteen, with Earl Douglas acting as Regent. The EarlÍs cronies and conspirators received rich rewards for their services. One of these was the minor Laird Hepburn of Hailes, who became Earl of Bothwell and Lord High Admiral. We shall read more about the Bothwell later.

James IV had grand ambitions. His country enjoyed enormous prestige holding the balance of power between constantly warring England and France. He believed that Scotland could lead the way in the glorious cause of freeing Constantinople from the Turks. Accordingly, as a start, he had a large fleet built, including the mighty warship the Great Michael. He thus began a Scottish ship building industry that would become the envy of the world in a later era. In order to carry out his grandiose schemes in Eastern Europe, James first had to establish peaceable relations with England, his powerful neighbor to the south.

In 1501, James was twenty-eight years old. It was time to marry. He chose Margaret Tudor, the fourteen year-old daughter of Henry VII, following an agreement signed between the two monarchs that promised to be a treaty of perpetual peace. The Pope undertook to excommunicate whoever broke his pledged word. The ceremony took place at Holyrood Palace, Edinburgh, attended by many dignitaries from England. All seemed well.

James continued to use his kingdom as peacemaker between England and France. His efforts gave him the title "Rex Pacificator." When the Pope, the King of Spain and the Doge of Venice formed a Holy League against France, it was joined by Henry VII of England, the father-in-law of the King of Scotland. James did not join the league, however; he was convinced that the survival of France was essential to the stability of Europe. Thus he renewed the Auld Alliance that had begun in 1422 under the Regency of Albany. When France appealed to Scotland for help, as it had done when Buchan responded so magnificently in an earlier time, James unwisely sent an ultimatum to the English king.

Henry's response, though typical of the English monarch, must have startled James and the whole of Scotland. He declared himself to be "the verie owner of Scotland," a kingdom held by the Scottish king only "by homage." This was too much for a proud Scot to bear, and it was answered by James's march on England at the head of a large army in September 1513. So much for the peace treaty that was "to endure forever." The result was Flodden, one of the most disastrous battles in Scottish history.

James' own natural son, Alexander, thousands of the best and brightest young men, many of its bravest and strongest Highland chiefs, great Church leaders, and many Earls and Lords lost their lives in the calamitous battle at Flodden. Though no one knows what happened to James's body, a legend quickly developed in Scotland to match those in Wales concerning Arthur and Glyndwr, he was not dead, but one day James would return to lead his country again. Thus a typical Celtic myth grew out of what people saw as the refusal of a Welsh King (Henry VIII) to secure a proper burial for the body of a Scottish king (James IV).

Scotland now had no king and no army. As James V was still a baby, Queen Margaret assumed the Regency. However, in 1514, in a move that brought a surprising change of fortune for the country for which she showed little affection, she married the Earl of Angus and was succeeded as Regent by the French-educated Duke of Albany, the nephew of James III. Albany (who headed the National or French Party), continued the alliance with France, a country that had somehow extricated itself from its previous grave danger by the failure of its enemies to formulate a united front. After a series of plots against Albany by Margaret and her husband were foiled, the miserable, unfortunate Queen was forced to flee to England (the couple had planned to kidnap the young James V). This gave Margaret's brother Henry one more excuse to continue his policies of interfering in Scottish affairs. In 1524, Albany returned to France.

Chaos returned to Scotland. A series of battles between the Douglases and the Hamiltons, including one fought in the streets of Edinburgh, had left the mighty Douglas clan in control of the young king and thus of Scotland. James, however, who had declared himself ready to rule at the age of fourteen, escaped his captors and arrived at Stirling. He vowed vengeance against Angus Douglas whom he drove out of Scotland to seek refuge with the English king. James V could now begin to restore order to his suffering nation. He started by wisely agreeing to a truce with England.

In the meantime the effects of the Reformation were beginning to have their serious and long-lasting effects upon Scotland. In the struggle of Protestantism versus Catholicism, there was a mad scramble for a marriage alliance with the Scottish king. Keeping the idea of the Auld Alliance in mind, he elected for Madeleine, the daughter of the French King Francois I and when she died six months later, he took as his bride another French princess, Marie de Guise-Lorraine. Sadly for future Scottish history, she bore him no sons.

Henry VIII of England had the same seeming misfortune in lacking a male heir. He became more and more aggressive in his policies toward Scotland. By 1534 he had broken with Rome, was getting ready to totally absorb Wales into the English realm and had plans to turn Scotland against France by making it into a Protestant nation. When James was offered the crown of Ireland in 1542, Henry took an army north and proclaimed himself Lord Superior of Scotland. He met with and defeated the small, dispirited army of James at Solway Moss.

From his retreat at Falkland, the sad King James heard the news that his longed for heir was not to be; his wife had given him a daughter. Upon his consequent death, the young girl was proclaimed Queen of Scotland. So in 1542, Mary, Queen of Scots entered the world in much the same sad circumstances as she was to leave it forty-five years later. After James' death, Mary's mother, Marie de Guise, was determined to rule with a strong hand, but by her attempts to stamp out Protestantism in Scotland, she only invited further English activities in her country. Marie failed, for though an invading English army arrived too late to rescue a Protestant garrison holed up at St. Andrew's, it crushed the Royal Scottish army at Pinkie, near Edinburgh. Further hostilities were ended in 1549 by the Treaty of Boulogne between England and France that also effected the withdrawal of English troops from Scotland.

By that time, Henry VIII had been dead for two years. Jane Seymour had died soon after giving birth to Edward and Henry had remarried three times. Thomas Cromwell then chose Anne of Cleves as a bride for Henry, a bad choice for the Lord Chancellor and for the king, who despised his plain "Flanders Mare." The marriage was never consummated and quickly annulled by Parliament. Cromwell lost his head over the affair, but he had done his work for his master the king. The Reformation had been firmly established in England and the power of the Catholic Church irrevocably broken. The aging, gout-ridden, obese Henry had then married Catherine Howard, soon to be beheaded for adultery and Catherine Parr, his last wife, who outlived him.

Resource Information

Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration, continued




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