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The 16th – 17th centuries

THE TUDORS (1485 - 1603).Henry VII is less well-known than either Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. But he was far more important in establishing the new monarchy than either of them. During the 15th century, but particularly during the Wars of Roses, England’s trading position had been badly damaged. The strong German Hanseatic League, a close trading society, had destroyed English trade with the Baltic and northern Europe. Trade with Italy and France had also been reduced after England’s defeat in France in the mid 15th century. The Low Countries (the Netherlands and Belgium) alone offered a way in for trade in Europe. Only a year after his victory at Bosworth in 1485, Henry VII made an important trade agreement with the Netherlands which allowed English trade to grow again.

The authority of the law had been almost completely destroyed by the lawless behaviour of nobles and their armed men. Henry used the “Court of Star Chamber”, traditionally the king’s council chamber to deal with lawless nobles. Local justice that had broken down during the wars slowly began to operate again. Henry encouraged to use heavy fines as punishment because this gave the Crown money. He also raised taxes for wars which he then did not fight. He was careful enough to keep the friendship of the merchant and lesser gentry classes. Like him they wanted peace and prosperity. When Henry VII died in 1509 he left behind the huge total of 2 million$, about 15 years’ worth of income. The only thing on which he was happy to spend money freely was the building of ships for a merchant fleet, because he understood that England’s future wealth would depend on international trade.

Henry VIII was quite unlike his father. He liked to rule by fear, executed his opponents and ordered the destruction of beautiful buildings, libraries and works of art. To historians, Henry remains one of the most important monarchs to have ruled the English and Welsh. He lasted almost 4 decades, during which he presided over the foundation of the Church of England, a remodelling of the machinery of government and of taxation, a major growth in the importance of Parliament, the incorporation of Wales into the regular system of English local administration, the establishment of the Kingdom of Ireland, the arrival in England of Renaissance modes of art and literature, and a major building programme which included colleges, palaces and fortresses. In public memory, also, he is remembered as a colossal figure. He has probably been portrayed in the cinema more often than any other English king. The fact that a Cockney could provide a recognisable representation of him gives away part of his enduring appeal; in national memory, Henry was one of the lads, the only English king to have his achievements celebrated in a long-popular music hall song.

He was the second son of Henry VII, and throughout his childhood was overshadowed by his older brother Arthur. He stayed with his mother, Elizabeth of York, living a sheltered existence of strong maternal love, while Arthur was paraded before the kingdom as its heir. Suddenly both Arthur and Elizabeth died in quick succession, leaving the old king half-crazed with grief and Henry deprived of affection. He was the last monarch for over a century to attend the debates of the House of Lords, and in his last 7 years he personally gave 108 interviews to foreign ambassadors. He wanted all state documents drawn up with large margins and spaces between lines so that he could scribble comments. Henry possessed an amazing memory, he was able to recall the names of every servant employed by the royal households and all the grants of land or money which he had ever signed. On the other hand, he did not care to attend the deliberations of his council of advisers, kept postponing major decisions of policy, and hated to read or write long documents. He was a chronic annotator, editor and commentator, loving the detail of government but disliking the main business.

Some claims could be made for him as a cultured monarch. He was quite a good musician, and possessed a library of almost a thousand books, which he certainly read as he scribbled all over them. He had a real understanding of fortification, ballistics and shipping, and could discuss mathematics and astronomy on equal terms with experts. His only conventional vices were gluttony, ostentation and gambling: in two years he lost £3,250 on cards and by his death he owned a record 50 palaces.

Given Henry's status as father of the English Reformation, it is remarkable how little personal piety is revealed by his annotations of religious books. His damage to traditional Christianity in England is obvious: his policies resulted in the destruction of hundreds of beautiful buildings and works of art, incalculable damage to libraries, and the execution of the Englishmen mostly widely respected in Europe for their godliness. Henry never showed any capacity as a general, and his foreign policy was a failure. He repeatedly attempted to reconquer parts of France, and ended up with Boulogne. He tried to conquer Scotland, and only forced the Scots to become allies of his enemies the French. Two real successes of his reign - the assimilation of Wales and the pacification of Ireland - were not matters in which he displayed personal interest. The splendid string of fortresses which he built to guard the English coast were a sign of panic, at having united all the strongest powers in Western Europe against himself by rejecting Catholicism. The overhaul of governmental structures and taxation undertaken by his ministers was driven by the need to raise money for his wars, where it was spent to little result. His reputation among 20th century historians has generally been low, but in his own time it stood much higher. He was feared, and admired, and his death was marked by more obvious public grief than that of any other Tudor.

The break from Rome.The Act of Supremacy (1534) confirmed the break from Rome, declaring Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The Dissolution of the Monasteries lasted 4 years to 1540. Two thirds of all the land was sold to the laity and the money squandered in vanity wars against France. With the destruction of priceless ecclesiastical treasures it was possibly the greatest act of vandalism in English history but also an act of political genius, creating a vested interest in the Reformation: those now owning monastic lands were unlikely to embrace a return to Catholicism. Further doctrinal reform was halted by the Act of Six Articles in 1539 and following Cromwell's sudden fall the next year the court hung between religious conservatives and radical reformers. The 1539 Act was repealed, priests were permitted to marry - creating another vested interest - and more land was confiscated.

Changing attitudes.Becoming Queen in 1553 Mary, was always going to have a tough time undoing twenty years' work. Mary did her best, reinstating Catholic doctrines and rites, and replacing altars and images, but she handicapped herself by martyring almost 300 ordinary men and women, as well as bigger names like Cranmer.Burning bodies, Spanish courtiers all fuelled further Protestant propaganda and confirmed fears of the Catholic menace that had been threatened since 1534. Fighting France for Philip, Mary lost Calais in 1558 - England's last territory in France. Tension mounted, Thomas Wyatt was rebelling in Kent, and religious civil war seemed not too far away.However, chance rolled the dice once more. Mary died childless in November 1558: the only heir was Elizabeth: a moderate Protestant, she inherited a nervous kingdom where Catholicism dominated everywhere but the major cities, the South East and East Anglia. She had to inject some stability. The religious settlement of 1559 was intended to be inclusive. It restored Royal Supremacy and the Act of Uniformity but, reintroduced clerical vestments and a more Catholic Eucharist.

A lasting legacy.In reality, however, the settlement was very Protestant: it reissued Cranmer's Prayer Book of 1552 and its 39 Articles were closely modelled on his work in 1553. All but one of Mary's Bishops were removed from office after refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, replaced by men hand-picked by Elizabeth's chief minister, Robert Cecil. Most were far more radical than their Queen, as were the clergy who filled the parishes vacated by resigning Catholic priests. The church was further bolstered in 1563 when another Act of Uniformity made refusal to take the oath, or the defence of papal authority, a treasonable offence. But this time the foreign threat was real: a revolt in 1569, the papal invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth's excommunication and the arrival of priests from France all underlined the insecurity of the Anglican Church. The severity of the Treason Laws increased alongside anti-Catholic sentiment, effectively killing it as any real force by driving it underground for the rest of her reign.And it was the length of her reign that secured Anglicanism and established it as Protestant. After the stop-start policies of Edward and Mary, it had 45 years of Elizabethan rule to bed down. Had she succumbed to smallpox in 1562, a religious civil war might easily have followed. But luck struck again, and by her death in 1603 the country was united as had not been possible in the previous century, both by a common religion and a common enemy. Patriotism and Protestantism were two halves of the same coin, a coin baring Henry's title, 'Fidei Defensor'. They still do.

The English Reformation. Despite the zeal of religious reformers in Europe, England was slow to question the established Church. During the reign of Henry VIII, however, the tide turned in favour of Protestantism, and by the 1600s the new Church held sway over the old. How did all this come about?

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Strange turn of events.For much of the 16th century England and Scotland hated each other with all the passion of warring neighbours. Yet in 1603 a Scottish king would ascend the English throne with the connivance and general approval of the English ruling elite. This unlikely turn of events owed much to the eccentricities of the Welsh Tudor dynasty that had occupied the English for almost precisely that century: the determination of the father, Henry VIII, to marry often and the equal determination of the daughter, Elizabeth, not to marry at all. But it also owed a great deal to Protestantism. There was little that bound together the English aristocracy and the Scottish king. It was a determination to preserve England as a Protestant nation.

A powerful reforming party emerges at Court.As Henry's health failed in the last years of his life it became clear that his own actions had encouraged the growth of a powerful evangelical party at Court. On his death in 1547 they moved quickly to establish their supremacy in the regency government made necessary by the youth of the new king, Edward VI (1547-1553). So, the short reign of Edward VI saw a determined attempt to introduce a full Protestant church polity into England, modelled on that of the Swiss and German Reformed churches and driven on by a powerful alliance of Archbishop Cranmer and the Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset.In the 5 years of the king's life, much was achieved: two evangelical Prayer Books, a new English order of service and the stripping of the remaining Catholic paraphernalia from the churches. But time was too short to put down roots. On Edward's death in 1553, the changes were reversed easily by his Catholic half-sister, Mary (1553-1558). Only Mary's devotion to the papacy, and her determination to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain, provoked a half-hearted reaction. English Protestantism was reduced once again to a persecuted remnant; many of its ablest figures taking refuge abroad, to avoid martyrdom - the fate of those whom remained behind.

From Mary to Elizabeth.So, in 1558 Elizabeth acceded to a troubled throne. Elizabeth I is considered one of the country's most successful and popular monarchs. Clever, enigmatic and flirtatious, she rewrote the rules of being Queen. But what was Elizabeth really like? And was her success down to her own skill and judgement - or an intuitive grasp of public relations? Print this page

The reign of Elizabeth I is often thought of as a Golden Age. It was a time of extravagance and luxury in which a flourishing popular culture was expressed through writers such as Shakespeare, and explorers like Drake and Raleigh sought to expand England's territory overseas. The 16th century was also a time when the poor became poorer, books and opinions were censored, and plots to overthrow the Queen were rife. Elizabeth's ministers had to employ spies and even use torture to gain information about threats to her life.In 1558 the Protestant preacher John Knox wrote, 'It is more than a monster in nature that a woman should reign and bear empire over man.' So was he right? Were women fit to rule the country? The people had lived through the unpopular reign of Mary I, known as 'Bloody Mary' for her merciless persecution of Protestants. Lady Jane Grey was Queen for only a matter of days before being toppled and eventually executed. And Mary Queen of Scots made a series of ill-judged decisions which led her to the executioner's block in 1587.Elizabeth was a different kind of Queen: quick-witted, clever and able to use feminine wiles to get her own way. Elizabeth could be as ruthless and calculating as any king before her but at the same time she was vain, sentimental and easily swayed by flattery. She liked to surround herself with attractive people and her portraits were carefully vetted to make sure that no physical flaws were ever revealed.She had a formidable intellect, and her sharp tongue would quickly settle any argument - in her favour.A new era was dawning, the age of Elizabeth I.As soon as her Council had been appointed, Elizabeth made religion her priority. She recognised how important it was to establish a clear religious framework and between 1559 and 1563 introduced the acts which made up the Church Settlement. This returned England to the Protestant faith stating that public worship, religious books such as the Bible and prayers were to be conducted in English rather than Latin. Elizabeth was known as a Queen who executed another Queen - Mary.To execute any Queen was a precedent. Catholic Europe reacted swiftly to the news and the Pope urged Philip of Spain to invade England. Mary's execution would be one of the factors contributing to the Spanish Armada the following year. Her death took a heavy toll on Elizabeth.The 1590s proved a difficult decade for Elizabeth. The question of how to govern Ireland had created terrible problems for the Queen over the years but 1594 saw the start of the Nine Years War in which hundreds of English troops were killed. On 24 March 1603 Elizabeth died and the crown passed to the Protestant King James VI of Scotland who became King James I of England.


The question of how to govern Ireland was one of the most difficult and sensitive issues of Elizabeth's reign. By the time of her death, the country had forged a new and distinct identity of its own. But what kind of policies did her government pursue and how did the people of Ireland react?

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Tudor Parliaments. The Tudor monarchs did not like governing through Parliament. Henry VII had used Parliament only for law making. He seldom called it together. Henry VIII had used it first to raise money for his military adventures and then for his struggle with Rome. His aim was to make sure that the powerful members from the shires and towns supported him, because they had a great deal of control over popular feeling. Perhaps, Henry himself didn’t realise that by inviting Parliament to make new laws for the Reformation he was giving it a level of authority it never had before. Tudor monarchs were certainly not more democratic than earlier kings, but by using Parliament to strengthen their policy, they actually increased Parliament’s authority. Parliament strengthened its position again during Edward VI’s reign by ordering the new prayer book to be used in all churches and forbidding the Catholic mass. Only 2 things persuaded Tudor monarchs not to get rid of Parliament altogether: they needed money and they needed the support of the merchants and landowners. Today Parliament must meet every year and remain “in session” for three-quarters of it. This was not at all the case in the 16th century. In the early 16th century Parliament only met when the monarch ordered it. Sometimes it met twice in one year, but then it might not meet again for 6 years. In the first 44 years of Tudor rule Parliament met only 20 times. Henry VIII assembled Parliament a little more often to make the laws for Church Reformation. But Elizabeth, like her grandfather Henry VII, tried not to use Parliament after her Reformation Settlement of 1559 and in 44 years she only let Parliament meet 13 times.

During the century power moved from the House of Lords to the House of Commons. The reason for this was simple. The Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Commons represented richer and more influential classes than the Lords. In fact, the idea of getting rid of the House of Lords, still a real question in British politics today, was first suggested in the 16th century. In order to control discussion in Parliament, the Crown appointed a “Speaker”. Even today the Speaker is responsible for good behaviour during debates in the House of Commons. His job in Tudor times was to make sure that Parliament discussed what the monarch wanted and that it made the decision which he or she wanted. Until the end of the Tudor period Parliament was supposed to do 3 things: agree to the taxes needed; make the laws which the Crown suggested; and advise the Crown but only when asked to do so. In order for Parliament to be able to do these things, the Members of Parliament were given important rights: freedom of speech, freedom from fear of arrest and freedom to meet and speak to the monarch. By the end of the 16th century Parliament was beginning to show new confidence and in the 17th century, when the gentry and merchant classes were far more aware of their own strength, it was obvious that Parliament would challenge the Crown. Eventually this resulted in war.

Language and Culture. At the beginning of the Tudor period English was still spoken in a number of different ways. There were still reminders of the Saxon, Angle, Jute and Viking invasions in the different forms of language spoken in different parts of the country. Since the time of Chaucer, in the mid-14th century, London English had become accepted amongst the literate population. For the first time people started to think of London pronunciation as “correct” pronunciation. Until Tudor times the local forms of speech had been spoken by lord and peasant alike. From Tudor times onwards the way people spoke began to show the difference between them. Educated people began to speak “correct” English, and uneducated people continued to speak the local dialect. Literacy increased greatly during the mid-16th century. In fact, by the 17th century about half the population could read and write.

Nothing, however, showed England’s new confidence more that its artistic flowering during the Renaissance. In the early years of the 16th century English thinkers had become interested in the work of the Dutch philosopher Erasmus. One of them, Thomas More, wrote a study of the ideal nation called Utopia. Literature, however, was England’s greatest art form. Playwrights like Christopher Marlowe, Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare filled the theatres with their exciting new plays.

Date: 2015-12-17; view: 1449

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