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.




Edward VI (1547-1553)
Another great "if" for English history was presented by the early death of Edward. At the time, no one could possibly see that the greatest Tudor monarch of them all would turn out to be Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the ill-fated Ann Boleyn. English hopes for a strong monarchy centered on Edward's survival. During his minority, despite Henry's wish that a council of ministers should govern, the Duke of Somerset (Edward's uncle) made himself Lord Protector. He continued the late king's policy of religious changes, furthering the Protestant reforms. Cranmer's "Book of Common Prayer" was made compulsory in all churches and the Latin mass abolished. These acts that were strenuously resisted in many Catholic areas of the country, not to mention Ireland, forever faithful to Rome, and because of this, Ireland was forever suspect in English eyes as a center of rebellion.

In England, attempts to impose the new Prayer book led to a serious revolt in Cornwall and Devon. This was joined by another uprising in Norfolk against rising prices and social injustices. To add to Somerset's woes, he embroiled England in a war with Scotland, as ever allied to France, and got himself defeated in battle and deposed and executed at home. Of the state of affairs, Sir Thomas Moore regarded the fight for influence and spoils between the great families of England as nothing more than "a conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of a commonwealth."

After Somerset's death, however, the country was then run by a much more able administrator, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland. He extricated his country from the disastrous war with Scotland, returned Boulogne to France and re-established social order in England. Protestantism now became official with the new Prayer book of 1552 and a new Act of Uniformity passed. But sickly Edward was dying.

To Northumberland's great chagrin, the rightful heir to the throne was Mary, Henry's only surviving child by Catherine of Aragon and a committed Catholic. He thus persuaded Edward to declare Mary illegitimate and to name Lady Jane Grey as heir (the granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister and married to his son Dudley). Poor Lady Jane, shy and unsuited for her role, was not supported by the country, who rallied to Mary, a Tudor and thus rightful sovereign. Mary arrived in London to great acclaim to take her throne.

Mary Tudor (1553-1558)
Mary took her throne with high hopes of restoring England to Catholicism. It has been said that she took her religion too seriously. In any case, she was too late, the Reformation had taken firm root throughout Northern Europe and in much of England, where her sacred duty to return the country to the Catholic fold was sure to be violently opposed. There were not too many in England who wished to return to a church that, as late as 1514, had condemned a dead man for heresy. To further her aims, Mary, already middle-aged, married Philip of Spain, the son of Charles V, who had defended her mother Catherine's marital rights. To most Englishmen, this act presaged an inevitable submission of their country to foreign rule. It was not a popular marriage.

Pious Mary then set about having Parliament repeal the Act of Supremacy, reinstate heresy laws and petition for reunion with Rome; the Latin Mass was restored and Catholic bishops reinstated. Rebellion was inevitable, and though easily crushed, the peasant uprising of Thomas Wyatt convinced the Queen that obedience to the throne had to be established by fire and sword. The orgy of burnings of heretics began.

The fires that Mary ordered to be lit at Smithfield put to death such Protestant leaders and men of influence as Cranmer, Ridley, Latimer and Hooper, but also hundreds of lesser men who refused to adopt the Catholic faith. The entire country became enraged and fearful. Mary's failure as Queen was ensured. Her marriage to Philip only made matters worse for it intensified the English hatred of foreigners, and by this time, of Catholicism in general. Parliament was rushed to declare that should Mary die without an heir, Philip would have no claim to the English throne. The Hapsburg Philip himself spent as little time in "obstinate" England as possible, got himself all involved in war with France in which Calais, England's last continental outpost, was lost forever. Calais hadn't been much of a possession but its loss was a grievous insult to the English nation. When "Bloody Mary" died in November, 1558, it seemed as if the whole country rejoiced.

The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth l (1558-1603)
Elizabeth became Queen of England at the age of twenty-five determined to show that it was neither unholy nor unnatural for "a woman to reign and have empire above men." She had many problems to settle, for the whole nation had gone through a period of social discord, political shenanigans and international failures, and was still in a state of revulsion over the Smithfield martyrs. Fortunately, the determined, charismatic and reasoned woman was adequately equipped for the enormous tasks ahead of her. Furthermore, though insistent on restoring royal supremacy and severing the ties with Rome, she was also willing to compromise on certain religious issues, putting her in another league from the late unmourned Mary.

The new queen was astute enough to realize that she needed the support of the common people, the majority of whom were overwhelmingly Protestant and anti-Rome. Her own feelings had to be put aside, though she did allow some of the ceremonies associated with Catholicism to remain. The communion service could be a Mass for those who wished. The religious settlement may have not satisfied everyone, but it satisfied most; above all, there was to be no return to the great distress and acrimony of Queen Mary's unfortunate reign. Even the rebellion of the Catholic nobility in the North created no great trauma for the Queen, for her nobles were better Englishmen than Catholics. Loyalty to England, expressed through her Queen, was stronger than loyalty to Rome. Those who bucked the trend, such as the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland paid for their insolence with their heads.

Elizabeth was served well by loyal citizens. One of her greatest assets was her ability to choose the right people to carry out her policies. In this, she had the luck of her father Henry, but unlike him, she was also able to have such men serve her loyally and efficiently for life, rather than carry out their own self-serving policies. She was particularly fortunate in finding William Cecil, who served first as her principal secretary and later as her lord treasurer. He was a man of amazing talents and industry; quite simply, he made governing into an honored profession. It has been astutely pointed out that, unlike Lords Leicester and Essex and the others who flattered the Queen, Cecil was no court ornament. His ability to compromise in matters of religion also stood him in good stead, and put him, like Elizabeth herself, slightly ahead of his time.

It was obvious to Elizabeth that in order to govern effectively, she needed to find a middle way between the extremes of Geneva and Rome. As Queen, she insisted on the retention of royal privilege. Her anti-Catholicism was heavily influenced by her desire to keep her country free from domination by Spain, rather than by any personal dictates of conscience. She thus chose the middle way of the Anglican Church, rather than accept the harsh doctrines of such men as Calvin and Knox, who would destroy much that was precious and holy in men's minds.

John Knox had arrived back in Scotland in 1544 carrying his huge two-handed sword along with his Bible. From the teachings and intractability of such men, the Reformation in Scotland had taken a much different path than it was to take in England after Mary, for Elizabeth was no Calvinist. Remaining the head of the Church, she promised not to "make windows into men's souls," and her Supremacy Bill and the Uniformity Bills of 1559, that made the Church of England law, substituted fines and penalties for disobedience, not the usual burnings and banishment.

One irritating and persistent problem that Elizabeth had to face was that of Mary, Queen of Scots. We have noted the success of John Knox in Scotland, and when the Protestant Nobles attacked the French-backed government forces of Mary, Elizabeth was naturally delighted when the French were driven out of Scotland. Queen Mary was not so happy. In 1548, the Auld Alliance had been immeasurably strengthened when as little Princess Mary, she had ended her period of moving from place to place for safety by going to France as future bride of the Dauphin. "France and Scotland," stated the French King, (reportedly leaping 'for blitheness') are now one country."

Catholic Mary returned to Scotland as Queen in August 1561. Widowed at age eighteen, she was no longer Queen of France, but thoroughly French in outlook and education. Scotland had undergone a major transformation in her absence. Knox had done his work well. The Queen's sprightly, impulsive (and apparently highly-sexed) nature quickly put her at odds with the austere, Puritan divines who wished to keep a tight hold on the hearts and minds of the newly-converted majority of Scottish people.

Edward VI protestant reforms book of common prayer catholic sir thomas moore john dudley lady jane grey mary tudor act of supremacy bloody mary virgin queen Elizabeth I smithfield martyrs william cecil john knox church of england auld alliance mary queen of scots In 1565, Mary's complete lack of foresight caused her to marry her younger cousin, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, who had practically nothing to commend him either as husband or king. It wasn't only Protestants who were furious. When Darnley, immature and seemingly completely lacking in wisdom and intelligence, stabbed to death Mary's Italian secretary Riccio in a fit of teenage jealousy, the fires were lit for a never-ending saga of intrigue and misfortune. In 1567, Darnley's body was found in the wreckage of his house at Kirk o Field which had been destroyed in a mysterious explosion. He had been strangled to death.

Heavily implicated in the murder was a "bold, reckless Protestant of considerable charm" James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, Lord High Admiral of Scotland. Mary then made her second grievous error: she married Bothwell. Now it was the turn of Mary's Catholic subjects to be furious. The young Queen, upon whom so many hopes had depended, had managed to alienate everybody. A Protestant army was raised to force Mary to abdicate and at age twenty-four, after she had been led in humiliation through the streets of Edinburgh, Mary Queen of Scots gave up her throne in favor of her baby son, who was immediately crowned as James VI. Bothwell's life was saved only by his escape to Norway. The Earl of Moray, Mary's half-brother James Stewart, now became Regent.

Mary, who had been held prisoner by the Scottish lords, made her escape from Lochleven Castle, but the small army she managed to raise was defeated by Moray. She then made another grievous error when she fled to England to seek refuge with the proud and easily jealous Queen Elizabeth who promptly imprisoned her unfortunate cousin. Mary should have gone to France, for as long as she lived, her own claim to the English throne made her a potentially deadly rival to Elizabeth l. Her endless schemes to recover the Scottish throne and to depose Elizabeth, including the Ridolfi Plot that got the unwise Duke of Norfolk executed for complicity, and the Throgmorton Plot, in which Pope Gregory XIII may have been involved, finally ensured her execution in 1587.

Elizabeth had far less trouble with Wales, peaceably incorporated into the realm of England by the Acts of Union under Henry VIII. Welsh men were found in strategic positions in court, specially favored by the Queen. Welshman William Cecil and others were included in the partnership that was forming a new and imperial British identity. In the expansion of England overseas, Welshman John Dee played an important part, for his accounts of Prince Madoc's supposed voyages to the New World were eagerly seized by Elizabeth's Court officials as justification for their war against Spain and proof of their legitimacy of their involvement in the Americas. Dee claimed that Elizabeth was rightful sovereign of the Atlantic Empire.

Welsh people were proud of their contributions to the nation. They were also people of "the Book," having received the Holy Bible in their own language and any attempts to make the Counter-Reformation productive in Wales failed miserably. William Salesbury had published his translation of the main texts of the Prayer Book into Welsh in 1551. When John Penry pleaded with the Queen and her Parliament to have the whole Bible translated, he found a sympathetic audience, for by this method, Protestantism could be firmly established in Wales, a country that formed a natural bulwark between England and the ever-rebellious Ireland.

Wales got her Bible in 1588, the brilliant achievement of Bishop William Morgan eleven years after Jesus College had been founded at Oxford to channel the flood of Welsh scholars flocking to the universities. With its own Bible and its language secure, there was little need for the Welsh to join in the fight to try to restore England to Catholicism. Besides, in the Tudors, they had members of their own national clan in firm charge of the whole nation.

The difficulties with Wales and Scotland were smoothed out. Ireland remained a problem. It was a far different country, almost a different world, one in which time had stood still for centuries. Fiercely tribal, loyal to the Catholic Church, it was a country that resisted all attempts to impose Protestantism. It was a country that England did not know how to govern, for it was a country that did not know how to govern itself. Yet, England's war with Spain meant that Ireland had to be controlled somehow, and it was somehow that Elizabeth extended her authority over a wide area of her Western neighbor. Sorrowfully, the Elizabethan dream of creating a loyal, modernized state of Ireland, perhaps in the Welsh model, completely failed despite the well-intended efforts of some of her most able men.

The great Irish chieftains were courted by Elizabeth in the hope that they could be used to bridge the gap between the native Irish and those that were sent from England on their "civilizing" mission. One of them, Hugh O'Neill, the second Earl of Tyrone (who was a personal friend of Sir Philip Sydney), in return for his loyalty to the Crown, demanded that chieftain rule be preserved and that the Irish people should be allowed freedom of worship as Roman Catholics. Elizabeth's refusal forced Tyrone to appeal to Philip of Spain for help.

Though the armada sent by Philip was turned back by storms, it encouraged the Irish to rebellion, driving out the English from all their lands except the Pale, a small strip along the east coast. The Queen's response to this threat of an independent Ireland under Spanish patronage was to send the Earl of Essex at the head of a large army. He failed miserably and returned to England in disgrace. It was left to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, to restore the situation, and his successful attempts at pacification and the surrender of Tyrone in 1603 completed the Elizabethan subjugation of Ireland. The best we can say about the whole sorry adventure is that those who were busy trying to bring civil order to Ireland used the experience in their planting and colonizing of the New World, where they found a population far less able to withstand these ventures.

Alongside that of the ever-troublesome, unsolvable Irish question, how to deal with Mary, Queen of Scots, and the problem of the religious settlement, Elizabeth also had the task of defending the realm. This meant a twenty-year war against Spain, the most powerful nation in Europe. Again, the Queen of England was lucky, for Philip II of Spain had proved his incompetence as a ruler time and time again. He had practically ruined Spain in material resources, despite the bounty of wealth streaming in from South and Central America.

The theocracy that was Spain, decadent and moribund, despite its large armies and uncountable wealth, would prove no match for the vibrant, economically self-sufficient, fiercely proud and loyal island nation that was England under Elizabeth. Her navy, grown modern and efficient under Henry VIII was able to run rings around the cumbersome, ill-led, poorly trained forces put out by Philip in his attempt to conquer England. In 1588, the defeat of the seemingly-invincible Armada, though aided by the intolerable English weather, was inevitable. Its defeat also sealed the fate of any Catholic revival in England; from now on, a return to Rome would be out of the question. (A lesson that the later Catholic Stuarts were slow to learn).

It was thus that England was saved from domination by foreign powers, be they that of Rome or that of Spain (or a combination of both) or even Scotland. Elizabeth's long reign also saw her country undergo a remarkable economic growth, and a complete sea-change from the financial and political chaos (in addition to the religious quagmire) that had been the norm when she first took the Crown. Industry and trade prospered under the guidance of men such as Secretary Cecil (later Lord Burghley), one of the most efficient administrators that England was ever privileged to enjoy. His son Robert was one of the chief ministers responsible for carrying out the policies of James l. And in an interesting note, one of the same family, Lord Cranborne, a senior hereditary peer in the House of Lords, was dismissed from the shadow cabinet of that august body by Tory leader William Hague in December, 1998 for agreeing to a compromise deal with Labour leader Tony Blair over the reform of the House.

Remarkably free from corruption, Cecil became rich and prosperous in the service of the Crown and his loyalty was assured. It didn't do his economic policies any harm either, when the Duke of Alva began his reign of terror in the Netherlands, for the bankers and capitalists of Antwerp flocked to London to find a new and more secure international money and credit market. Only a year after the Northern Rising, Thomas Gresham had opened his new institution in London, the Royal Exchange, later to make the city the financial capital of the world. Cecil also encouraged the fishing industry, the source of England's navy and backbone of its sea power. Compulsory weekly fish days were increased from two to three "so the sea coast should be strong with men and habitations and the fleet flourish."

With such encouragement, English sailors began their mastery of the world's oceans. If William Cecil can be regarded as the great conservator of the Queen's strength, her seamen can be seen as its great expanders. It can be safely said that whatever Cecil did as pilot of the ship of state was made possible through English sailors. Though little more than pirates, these seamen laid the foundations of their nation's naval superiority which was to last, with few exceptions, for centuries and which later led to the acquisition of Britain's vast overseas empire. One of them, Sir John Hawkins, from the Plymouth family of sailor adventurers, was the first to show that English mariners could outmatch those of Spain, and it was not too long before the so-called Spanish monopoly in the New World was successfully challenged. The papal grant of 1493 that had divided newly-discovered lands and oceans between Spain and Portugal was conveniently ignored by Englishmen, and not just for religious reasons.

Hawkins was no John Cabot, who had discovered Newfoundland in 1497 in search of a Northwest Passage; he was no more than a slave trader, in search of riches. But so was Martin Frobisher, who made a series of voyages to Canada in the 1570's. So were those intrepid sailors and merchants who braved the Baltic to establish the Muscovy Company in 1555 to trade with Russia. On one of his voyages of plunder, some of Hawkins' ships had been captured in the Gulf of Mexico by the Spanish viceroy. Only two ships escaped, but one of them had young Francis Drake aboard.

A Spanish embargo then had the effect of the English rag-tag navy playing havoc with Spanish merchandise and shipping in the English Channel. Drake, now an experienced mariner grown bold, and others of his ilk then turned their attentions to disrupt the Spanish treasure fleets returning from South America. There followed a veritable explosion of English maritime achievements. For example, Drake's search for treasures led to his circumnavigating the globe (1577-78), Sir Humphrey Gilbert took settlers to Newfoundland in 1583; Sir Walter Raleigh organized his expedition to Virginia four years later, John Davis travelled into the northern regions of the world, John Cavendish emulated Drake's epic voyage by sailing around the world, the East India Company was founded and English culture and ideas spread east and west.

In the midst of all these successes, in which England thought of herself as divinely favored, perhaps we should also point out, that the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 showed only too well that in the midst of prosperity and the rise of a wealthy middle class, poverty was everywhere rearing its ugly head in the land. The transition of the English landscape by the enclosures of land (mainly to aid the wool industry) had thrown the traditional life of the yeoman farmer into turmoil.

The large market for English cloth on the Continent, brought in through Antwerp, increased the speed of land enclosures. The acquisition of vast land holding became a commercial venture and unemployment became rife. Thousands of landless peasants were now thronging into the cities and towns looking for handouts. It is astonishing that the Queen and her Council were able to ride out the climate in which a major revolt seemed inevitable. Fear of foreign intervention played its part in keeping England internally peaceful. It had also experienced a remarkable artistic renaissance, perhaps made possible by the growth of a large, new lawyer and gentry class.

Young Henry VIII had been considered a "Renaissance Prince," skilled in the military arts, deeply interested in music, theology and learning. Under Elizabeth, herself skilled in music and master of more than a few languages, courtiers became patrons of the arts, inviting great European artists such as Holbein and Hillard to paint their portraits. Traditional medieval music gave way to new forms of composition and performance under the skilled guidance of William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. Great houses such as Longleat, Hatfield, Hardwick Hall followed Wolsey's magnificent palace at Hampton Court, in which to show off the new paintings, decorative arts and advances in architectural technique. There were great achievements in literature and drama.

Poetry was led by Edmund Spenser (1552-99) whose masterpiece The Faerie Queen was inspired by Elizabeth herself, and in which she is portrayed as a symbol of the English nation. In addition to producing Spenser, her reign was the age of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Raleigh, Sir Philip Sydney, Francis Bacon and John Donnne, to mention a few of those who would have been great in any age. In the midst of this outpouring of talent, the Virgin Queen found herself replacing the Virgin Mary as an object of devotion among many of her English subjects.

A Golden Age indeed, yet at the time of Elizabeth's death in 1603, it was possible to see the end of the Tudor system of government. The high costs of wars, years of depression brought on by high taxes, bad harvests, soaring prices, peasant unrest and the resulting growth of parliamentary influence and prestige in becoming the instrument by which the will of the landed classes could not only be heard but carried out against the royal prerogative meant that great political changes were afoot in the land. The Stuarts were to suffer from the increase in Parliamentary power and the diminution of the royal prerogative.

Resource Information

Part 6: From Reformation to Restoration, continued




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