by Jean Mason
- Henry VII (1485-1509)
- Henry VIII (1509-1548)
- Edward VI (1548-1553)
- Mary (1553-1558)
- Elizabeth I (1558-1603)
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Henry VII is generally considered to have restored the monarchy after the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses (although he built on the work of Edward IV.) Henry’s policies included keeping the country at peace, putting the monarchy and the country on a firm financial footing, and destroying the independent power of the great nobles. He married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV, and contrary to Josephine Tey, was not responsible for the deaths of the Little Princes. He was a very, very good monarch.
The most important development during the reign of Henry VIII was the breach with Rome and setting England on the path to becoming a Protestant nation. (If you’re interested, please click here for our article on the Puritans.) Henry was an important but not really a good king. He spent the wealth his father amassed on futile wars, executed hundreds of political opponents, including two wives and some of his best servants, and was not a nice person. Parliament became important during his reign.
Edward VI was a minor and his reign was marred by all the problems associated with a protectorate. Most significant is that his ministers furthered the Protestantism of England.
Bloody Mary tried to return England to Catholicism and might well have succeeded had she lived longer and produced a Catholic heir. Her marriage to Philip of Spain and her weak government left England nearly bankrupt.
Elizabeth (the Great) had her father’s ability to choose good councilors, but unlike him, was loyal to them. She was by default a Protestant and England became the leading Protestant power during her reign. This and other factors led ultimately to war with Spain and to the great victory over the Armada. She restored the country’s finances and prestige and presided over its greatest cultural age.
When Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, he became king of a country that had begun the hard recovery from the plague, expensive foreign wars, and a debilitating civil conflict. Edward IV had begun the process of recovery. His most important task had been to restore the finances of the royal government. This he did by reclaiming royal lands that had been given away during the reign of the weak Henry VI, overseeing the behavior of the sheriffs, extending the king’s control over justice (and its profits) and seeking to limit the private armies of the English nobility. Henry VII continued and expanded the policies of his predecessor.
Henry’s marriage to Elizabeth of York, Edward’s daughter, reconciled many of the Yorkist nobles to his rule. (It helped that there were no legitimate Yorkist claimants to the throne.) Henry was a very good king. He placed the royal finances on an even firmer footing and kept the country at peace. However, Henry knew that his dynasty was new and insecure and sought international recognition by betrothing his eldest son Arthur to the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. (BTW, the choice of Arthur as a name for the eldest son was an early example of public relations. Linking the dynasty with the mythic figure of Arthur was an attempt to suggest roots to the past.)
The early Tudor nobility was quite small, largely because they have been busily killing each other off for over fifty years. Henry was understandably suspicious of the nobility and sought to bring them under control. Most dangerous were those great nobles who had taken advantage of the competition between Lancaster and York and the weaknesses of the crown to make themselves almost little kings in their localities.
Of most concern to the king was the practice of livery and maintenance. To wear a great nobles livery meant that a gentleman or landowner would come to his support, bearing arms if necessary to overawe his enemies. In return, the great noble promised to maintain his own followers against any and all opponents. Often this meant appearing with an armed guard at a judicial hearing to threaten the judge to decide in the follower’s favor. This has often been referred to as “bastard feudalism.”
Henry used his royal power to check these practices. Nobles and others who threatened the prerogatives of the crown were brought before his Council which met in a room with a ceiling painted with stars. Since the usual protections against self-incrimination and judgement by peers did not apply to these proceedings, the king was able to impose his will on his over-mighty subjects. Interestingly, rather than executing the accused, Henry fined them or forced them to post high bonds for their good behavior. (BTW, arbitrary judicial proceedings have ever since been known as “Star Chamber Proceedings.)
The nobility and gentry lived much like their medieval predecessors. Their homes were still fortified and uncomfortable, but their lives had changed. The old knightly training that had characterized the upbringing of a century earlier was more and more anachronistic. Instead, young sprigs of the gentry and nobility were more likely to spend time learning law at the Inns of the Court in London. Disputes were much more likely to be settled not in the lists, but rather in the courts. The practice of fostering out continued, but the young men were more likely to spend their time practising courtly behavior than practising jousting and swordplay, although the military arts remained part of a young nobleman’s training.
The early Tudor age was, perhaps like every age, one of transition. Family and lineage remained the first concern and the great nobles continued to live public lives, with large retinues. Marriges were primarily still based on family interests, with no concern for individual preferences.
A significant social development of the era was the appearance of that class known as the gentry. These were landowners of some property, whose title, if any, was that of knight. These men constituted the bulk of the membership of the House of Commons. Yet neither they nor the Commons had yet found their voice or their importance. The king, much to the disgust of the nobility, did tend to depend on men from this class to carry on his government.
Another important development was the growth of trade and of the commercial classes. Henry’s policies of peace and good government encouraged prosperity and trade flourished. The wealth of the country increased and most people benefitted. Yet there were costs. The population had begun to grow and it was ever harder for many to find ways to support themselves. Moreover, the new nascent capitalism led many landowners to enclose their fields to produce the profitable wool that was the staple of England’s trade. These two factors led to a growing population of unlanded vagabonds who seemed a threat to the social order. For the first time, the issue of the plight of the poor was brought to the fore and men like Sir Thomas More compared the idleness and luxury of the rich with the suffering of the dispossessed.
Despite the success of his policies, Henry was not a particularly popular king. Since he insisted on collecting the taxes and rents due him and was very efficient about insuring that the money be paid, he got the reputation of being avaricious. Moreover, his refusal to embark on foreign wars was viewed unfavorably by his nobles who still saw themselves as a warrior elite and dreamed of plunder and glory.
Henry’s last years were unhappy. The death of his eldest son was followed shortly by the death of his beloved wife Elizabeth in childbirth. A man who had enjoyed music and dancing and art became increasingly morose until his death in 1509. He left his country united, prosperous and at peace. He left the monarchy stronger than it had been in a century. He left his treasury full.
His son’s policies would bankrupt the treasury, divide the country, impoverish his people, and lead England into futile foreign adventures. Yet such was the foundation which Henry VII built that the Tudor dynasty remained unshaken.
Henry VIII was 18 when his father died and he became king. He had only been heir apparent since his brother’s death; before, he had been intended perhaps for a career in the church – Archbishop of Cantebury and wouldn’t that have been interesting!) He was well educated in the emerging Renaissance tradition – the classic and modern languages, music, and the manly or military arts. He was, by all reports, a handsome young man – tall, well-built, with red gold hair and regular features. His ascension to the throne was greeted with delight by the English.
Henry, however, previewed his future ruthlessness when he arrested and executed Dudley and Empson, two of his father’s most faithful servants. Since the two had been in charge of collecting taxes and controlling the nobility, this was a popular act. It was, however, completely illegal since neither was guilty of the acts charged. But this would never worry Henry in the future either.
Almost immediately after ascending the throne, Henry married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. There are many questions as to why he did so, especially considering the fact that she was eight years older than the young king. Some suggest that he wanted to keep her dowry; others that he wanted to maintain the relations with Spain. Others of a psychological bent suggest that he had always been jealous of his elder brother and wanted to possess everything that Arthur had possessed. Some say that he was taken by the mature beauty and calm wisdom of the princess. Certainly, in the early years of his marriage he behaved much like a courtly lover, extolling his bride in poem and song and acting like a besotted husband.
Catherine introduced many of the ideas of the emerging Renaissance into England, especially when it came to educating women. Herself very well educated, she made the idea of providing women with more formal training fashionable. Her adviser, Juan Luis Vives, drew up the first treatise in England on female education and devised a very demanding curriculum for the young Princess Mary. Thus, many of the daughters of the gentry and nobility had greater access to education than ever before. The daughters of Sir Thomas More were reknowed as the best educated women in England, but they were exceptional only in the depth of their learning, not for having access to education.
Henry almost immediately abandoned his father’s pacifist policy and embarked on a war with France. I will not try to detail the complex maneuvering that characterized European dynastic politics during this era. Suffice it to say that Henry went to war with France largely because English kings traditionally went to war with France, and that his foreign policy had little or nothing to do with England’s real interests. Nor was the king very successful as a military leader. England made no gains from his early (or later) wars. (BTW, England’s greatest military success during his reign, the victory over the Scots at Flodden Field, took place while he was gallivanting in France and can be attributed to his wife and the Duke of Norfolk.)
One result of Henry’s military efforts was the rise of Thomas Wolsey to the position of the king’s chief advisor and minister. Wolsey first came to Henry’s attention when he oversaw the arrangements for the meeting between the king of England and the king of France at the so-called “Field of Gold,” a parlay to end the fighting. For the next fifteen years, the government of England would be more of less in Wolsey’s capable hands and the cleric became both Archbishop of York and papal legate.
By the 1520s, the bloom was off the rose of Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Part of the reason was the failure of the queen to provide the requisite male heir to the throne, despite numerous pregnancies, most of which led to still births. Only Princess Mary survived infancy. Partly the growing estrangement can be attributed to age and temperment differences. Henry took a series of mistresses; Catherine turned to her religious faith. Then Anne Boelyn appeared on the scene.
Anne Boelyn is one of history’s most fascinating and significant women. She had been raised in the sophisticated court of France and when she returned to England in 1527, she attracted the king’s interest. But she was unwilling to accept the role of mistress, a role previously held by her sister, among others. She repulsed the king’s advances and in doing so, enhanced his fascination. His letters to her suggest a man in the throes of romantic love as well as sexual frustration. The idea of putting away Catherine to find a wife who could provide the needed heir was not a new one (Catherine was clearly beyond her childbearing years). But the appearance of Anne on the scene created a new sense of urgency and Henry began the process of seeking not a divorce, but an annulment of his marriage.
The Church did not recognize divorce. But it was possible to annul a marriage, that is, to discover some impediment that meant that the marriage was null, that is, a true marriage had never existed. Henry was far from the first European monarch to seek to put away a wife for reasons of state or personal prediliction. But Henry’s case had some problematic wrinkles. First of all, Catherine refused to “go gently.” She refused to accept that her marriage had been invalid because this would have had the effect of “bastardizing” her beloved daughter. Secondly, the pope, who would have had to grant the annulment, was under seige from many sides. The Church was trying to come to terms with the growing schism that became Protestantism. And the pope himself had seen Rome sacked by the troops of the Emperor Charles V and was his virtual prisoner. And Charles was Catherine’s nephew.
Equally significant were the grounds upon which Henry insisted on using for his appeal. He held that his marriage to Catherine was invalid because she had previously been married to his brother, a marriage forbidden by canon law and, in Henry’s view, by God’s law as set forth in Leviticus. However, this problem had been recognized at the time of the marriage and the then pope had issued a dispensation. Henry argued that the pope could not issue such a dispensation, but no pope could accept this argument that the papacy lacked this power. But Henry had discovered the Leviticus text and was convinced that it explained his lack of a legitimate son. He refused to consider any other approach.
The consequences of Henry’s determination to shed Catherine and marry Anne had world historical consequences. It led ultimately to Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy which declared the king to be the “Supreme Head” of the English church and denied the Pope’s authority. Perhaps such an act would have not been so significant a century earlier, but in the 1520s, the Lutheran Reformation was well underway, challenging the very basis of the medieval church and the authority of the papacy. While Henry at first tried to retain the traditional structure and theology, ultimately the breech with Rome led to England’s becoming a Protestant country.
Apparently Anne held off Henry for five years, but finally, late in 1532, she gave in, convinced that events had proceeded so far that she would achieve her goal. She was very soon pregnant and events moved swiftly. The new Archbishop of Cantebury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry’s first marriage void, Henry married Anne, and she was crowned queen. In September, the long awaited child was born, a girl! Anne’s position was already shaky. (Apparently Henry was one of those men for whom the chase is everything and once the quarry is in hand, he loses interest.) When Anne miscarried of a son the following year and when Catherine of Aragon died, thus leaving the coast clear, her fate was sealed. She was accused of adultery, incest and witchcraft and beheaded as a traitor. Henry immediately married wife number three, Jane Seymour.
Jane died bearing Henry his dearly wished for son. (Her death reflects the state of obstetrical care in the 16th century. She had the best physicians in the land and they probably killed her.) His subsequent marital career is the stuff of legends (or tragedies.) He married Anne of Cleves for reasons of state, found her physically unattractive, and apparently couldn’t consummate the marriage. They were divorced and Anne received a palace and a pension and the title of the king’s “dear sister.”
Then he fell in love with the young and vivacious Catherine Howard. At eighteen, Catherine was already sexually experienced and she certainly did not find the aging monarch with his increasing bulk and ulcerated leg her knight in shining armor. There seems little doubt that she committed treasonous adultery and she paid the price by losing her head. (She was as much a victim of the vicious court politcs of the time as anything else. She had been her family’s way to regain political power and one of the victims was the king’s greatest minister, Thomas Cromwell, who went to his death to clear the path for the Howards’ return to power.)
Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, was a twice-widowed mature woman in her thirties. There seems little doubt that she was a good choice. She minstered to the king’s illnesses and provided him with a peaceful homelife. She brought all three of his children back to court. But she was likewise caught in the crossfires of court politics. She was a well-educated woman with reformist tendancies and the Catholic element at court more than once tried to bring her down by accusing her of heretical tendancies.
The reign of Henry VIII was characterized by massive political, religious, economic and social change. The court remained the cockpit of political power and there the great nobles competed for the king’s favor. It was a very dangerous game. Unlike his father, Henry VIII had no hesitation about executing those who displeased him. His great minister, Cardinal Wolsey died on his way to his trial for treason. His greatest servant Thomas Cromwell died at Henry’s behest as did his most famous servant, Thomas More. Henry executed bishops, earls, duchesses, nobles, gentlemen, priests and ordinary folk whom he perceived to be his enemies.
Politically, the most significant development was the growing power of the Parliament. Henry used parliament to enact his revolutionary religious program and, in doing so, made that body much more central to the English government. Before, parliament met infrequently and years could pass without calling it into session. Thereafter, parliament was a regular part of the government.
Economically, Henry’s reign brought hard times to many Englishmen. His expensive foreign wars had to be paid for as did his expensive court. The weather was frequently unseasonably cold, leading to hunger and death. And the problems of a growing, landless class were not solved.
Socially, the changes that occurred were momentous. As Supreme Head of the English church, Henry used his authority to “reform” its traditional institutions, especially its monastic establishments. The monasteries and convents were dissolved, the monks and nuns pensioned off, and their estates seized by the crown. Cromwell had the dream of using the monastic wealth to strengthen the king’s finances and to establish schools, hospitals, almshouses, and other institutions to replace the services previously performed by the old church. Instead, when Henry once more led his country into futile foreign wars during the 1540s, his pressing financial needs led him to sell off most of these lands to whoever could afford to pay the price. Thus the gentry, in particular, added to their wealth and position (and also became firm upholders of an independent English church.)
Underpinning all the above were the religious changes that revolutionized England. Theologically Henry was not a Protestant. He had no sympathy with the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith or the priesthood of all believers. He continued to believe in the efficacy of works; indeed, his will provided for a thousand masses to be said for his soul (and he needed every one of them!) But his breech with Rome threw him into the arms of men who desired even greater religious reformation than Henry was willing to countenance. Especially after the Pilgrimage of Grace, a vast popular uprising that was fueled both by hard economic times and resistence to religious innovation, the “Protestant” element among his advisors became stronger.
Most Englishmen and women probably opposed the new religious ideas and practices. They preferred the old church and the old ways. But Protestant ideas had their greatest appeal amongst those classes who were increasingly influential – the gentry, the intellectuals at Oxford and Cambridge, the commercial classes, the townspeople, and especially, the Londoners. And while the king executed more than a few more radical Protestants during his reign (Henry was an equal opportunity executor since he executed more than a few supporters of the old order as well), his own actions in breaking from Rome had opened a door to the new ideas which he could never slam shut.
Perhaps the most important intellectual and psychological effect of the new religious ideas was the emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship with God. The scriptures were translated into English so that everyone could read God’s word directly. This encouraged the spread of literacy. The mass was now performed in English and its mysterious, miraculous elements rejected. Thus, the separate status of the priesthood was eliminated. This new faith could call into question the entire social order. If each individual stood before God and was judged on the basis of his own reception of God’s grace, why should the individual be subjected to familial or social demands in private life? The Protestant potential for subversiveness would not come into full flowering for over a century, but it was inherent in these new religious doctrines.
Henry VIII died in 1548 after nearly 40 years on the throne. He left as his heir a frail boy of ten, and empty treasury, a restless people, and a greedy and ambitious nobility. He was not mourned.
The Little Tudors (Edward & Mary):
When Henry VIII died, he left as his heir a ten-year-old boy, Edward, son of Jane Seymour. Henry also left a will in which he declared that should Edward die without issue, his daughter Mary should ascend the throne and should Mary likewise be childless, Elizabeth should inherit. This, of course, ignored the fact that by his actions, Henry had made both his daughters technically bastards.
Henry had tried to prepare for his son’s early ascension. He had provided Edward with a fine education; interestingly, given his own religious beliefs, he had had his son taught by scholars of the Protestant persuasion and young Edward was a confirmed believer in the reformed religion. Henry had also removed most of his pro-Catholic advisers from their positions of power immediately before his death. It was almost as if he had decided that England’s future lay with the Protestant faith.
Henry’s will had provided for a council of regency to rule England during his son’s minority, but the Privy Council almost immediately set this provision aside and made Edward’s uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, the Lord Protector and regent. Royal minorities are by definition, dangerous times. The regent is not a king, and does not carry the almost mystical sanction that kingship continued to possess. The country’s other great nobles ask themselves why one of their own should be raised above the others. The regent, in a weak position, has to try to keep the other nobles happy and is always in danger that someone will seek to usurp his position. (It was the reckless behavior and possibly treasonous actions of Edward’s other uncle, Thomas Seymour, that led to his execution. He married the Queen Dowager, Catherine Parr, without sanction and seemed to be courting the young Princess Elizabeth. Given his limitless ambition and jealousy of his brother’s power, a clash was inevitable.)
Somerset faced other problems beyond a restless nobility. Henry had left a bankrupt treasury; the weather was unusually cold and crops were poor; taxes were high; and religious dissension was abroad in the land. To meet the crown’s pressing financial needs, Somerset made further seizures and distributions of the church’s property. He debased the coinage and looked for other ways to raise revenue. His actions did not make him popular. Probably his most important action was to move England still further along on the road to Protestantism. It was during his rule that the Book of Common Prayer was issued and imposed on the clergy and laity on pain of fines or imprisonment.
Somerset fell afoul of his noble opponents and was deposed and executed. The Duke of Northumberland, Edward, replaced him Dudley. Northumberland was a man of vast ambitions and some talent. A much more personable and charming man than his cold and aloof predecessor, he made himself popular with the young king and had hopes that he could use his position to make himself the indispensable man. However, his future depended on the king’s favor and Edward was a sickly youth. The young king was intellectually gifted and truly pious; he was also probably consumptive and was dying by degrees.
Northumberland was desperate. If Edward died and Henry’s will was honored, his declared enemy Mary Tudor would come to the throne. Casting about for a way to save himself, he married his youngest son to Lady Jane Gray, the king’s cousin. Lady Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and after Henry’s daughters, the next heir to the throne. Unlike both Mary and Elizabeth, no question of legitimacy marred her claim. Northumberland induced the dying Edward to make a will disinheriting his sisters and naming Jane his heir. When sixteen-year-old Edward died, Northumberland declared the sixteen-year-old Jane Queen of England.
It was not to be. Northumberland had too many enemies who did not wish to see him continue in power. Moreover, popular opinion, as much as it could be determined, rejected Northumberland’s machinations. The nobles, gentry and common people rallied to Mary. Northumberland was arrested and executed, and Lady Jane was imprisoned in the Tower. Mary Tudor, at the age of 38 ascended to the throne.
Queen Mary had had a tragic life. For her first thirteen years she had been the heiress presumptive to the English throne. She had loved her mother deeply and had been her father’s pet. Then, with the appearance on the scene of Anne Boelyn, her whole world collapsed. She was sent from court, denied the ability to see her mother, declared a bastard, and treated with cold cruelty by her once fond father. She had been terrorized into accepting her father’s second marriage and his religious innovations. And she had been made to serve as lady-in-waiting to the infant Elizabeth and was kept short of funds and continually under surveillance by hostile courtiers.
Mary’s only consolation was her religion and she was known to retain her allegiance to the old ways. (One reason that Edward had been moved to disinherit Mary and Jane to accept the throne was in defense of the reformed religion.) She came to the throne on a wave of popular approbation, which probably deceived her into thinking that her countrymen shared her beliefs and predilections.
Mary’s first goal was to reverse Henry’s religious settlement. Cardinal Pole was sent by the Pope to grant England forgiveness for her apostasy and to restore the country to the “true” church. The Act of Supremacy was repealed and England once more looked to Rome for religious leadership. But Mary found that she could not restore what had been lost. Parliament refused absolutely to restore the lands that had been seized from the church and even insisted on limits to the pope’s complete control over the English church.
Moreover, the reformed faith had gained much strength in the two decades since Henry broke with Rome. Many English were unwilling to accept the restoration of the old faith. Some sought exile on the continent; others, unable to flee, stayed to become martyrs to the queen’s determination to extirpate heresy. Several hundred were burned at the stake, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, several other bishops, many clergymen, and many, many ordinary English people whose only crime was to refuse to give up their faith. Even those who were more willing to bend with the prevailing winds were appalled that the continental practice of mass burnings had been introduced to England.
Mary’s second goal was marry a Catholic prince and to bear an heir who would assure a Catholic successor. Mary chose to marry Philip of Spain, the heir to Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. More than a decade younger than his bride, Philip made the alliance to bring England into the ongoing war between the Hapsburgs and France. Mary was entranced with her husband and declared that he should be known as King Philip of England. He brought with him in his train a retinue of proud and haughty Spaniards who became immediately unpopular with the English nobles. (He was also believed to have been responsible for the burnings of heretics, since this was a common Spanish practice. In fact, he had advised his wife to follow a more conciliatory path with her dissenting subjects.)
The Spanish marriage, as much as Mary’s religious policies, led to the queen’s growing unpopularity. When a courtier, Thomas Wyatt, raised a rebellion against the crown, it was a very near thing for the queen. Only the loyalty of London saved her. But Mary, rather than becoming more moderate, redoubled her efforts to impose her religion on England. She was convinced that she was doing God’s work, since He had rewarded her with a pregnancy at her advanced age. And indeed, the queen’s belly was expanding. But the months passed, and no child was born. Mary was probably suffering from uterine or stomach cancer.
Mary’s last months were tragic. Her husband had returned to the Continent and ignored all her pleas to return to her. The war her marriage had led to went badly for England and the country lost its last continental possession. The country was nearly bankrupt. The queen and her religion had become unpopular because of the fires of Smithfield. (She was already being called “Bloody Mary”.) And as it became clearer that there would be no child, her only heir was her sister Elizabeth, daughter of the hated Anne Boelyn, and hope of the reformed religion. She died as tragically as she lived.
The ten years between the death of Henry VIII and the ascension of Elizabeth I is a largely fallow period in English social and political history. There were few if any significant departures in English life. These were hard times for most Englishman, made harder by the failures of the government. Desperate for money, first to keep the greedy nobles and gentry happy and then to pay for a foolish war, the government borrowed heavily, taxed heavily, confiscated more wealth from the Church, and debased the coinage. Inflation was rampant and ordinary Englishmen found it increasingly difficult to support themselves and their families.
Politically, Parliament demonstrated that it had become an integral part of the government and that it would thwart even the monarch’s deepest held wishes to protect the property of the classes it represented. First the minority of Edward and then the unpopular policies of Mary brought the monarchy into considerable disrepute, especially when the rulers were unable to check the depredations of the upper classes who used their position and power to enrich themselves at the expense of the Crown, the church and the people.
Religiously, the impact of this decade was paradoxical. Certainly the policies under Edward VI gave a more reformed character to the English church. However, it seems quite clear that the political classes were quite willing to accept Mary’s rapprochement with Rome, provided their interests were protected. Had Mary followed a more conciliatory course and – most importantly – had she produced an heir, who knows what the religious future of England would have been?
Instead, the fate of England rested in the hands of a twenty-five year old woman who inherited a country had fallen to a nadir unequalled since the unhappy times of the fifteenth century. Economically bankrupt, politically weak, religiously divided, and intellectually sterile, England was far from a great power. How fortunate that, although no one knew it at the time, the greatest Tudor and perhaps England’s greatest monarch had just assumed the throne.
In 1558 a twenty-five year old woman ascended the throne of England. She was the last and the greatest of the Tudors. That Elizabeth Tudor became queen of England was something of a miracle. The only surviving child of Anne Boelyn, her childhood and adolescence had been marked by uncertainty and danger.
Elizabeth was only two years old when her father executed her mother. She was declared a bastard, denied the title princess and removed from court. She lived mostly with her own establishment at Hatfield, but occasionally, at the instance of one or another of her stepmothers, she would return to court. When Catherine Howard became queen, she made much of her cousin’s daughter. Elizabeth was at court and heard Catherine’s screams as the king’s guard dragged her away to her execution.
Elizabeth’s happiest days came when her father married Catherine Parr. Henry’s sixth wife brought all three of his children to court, treated them kindly, and oversaw their lives and educations. Elizabeth was a prodigiously well-educated young woman. She knew Latin, French and Italian, read the classics, studied history and theology, and developed a well-honed mind.
When Henry died, Elizabeth was given into the custody of the Dowager Queen. Catherine, in short order, married Thomas Seymour, the Lord High Admiral and uncle of the king. Fourteen year old Elizabeth was apparently charmed by her new step-father, and engaged in all manner of high jinks with him. When Catherine Parr died in childbirth, rumors began to circulate that Seymour had plans to marry the Princess Elizabeth. Certainly Seymour was jealous of his brother’s position and probably conspired against him. Thomas was arrested and Elizabeth was subjected to house arrest and intense interrogation regarding her relationship with the accused traitor. She steadfastly insisted on her (and the admiral’s innocence) and confounded her interrogators by her calm demeanor. When Seymour was executed, her only remark was “Today died a man of much wit and little wisdom.”
The early death of Edward made Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary the queen. Mary and her advisors understandably saw Elizabeth as a potential threat. Heavy pressure was placed on the young princess to publically accept Mary’s religious policies and formally convert to Catholicism. Elizabeth cleverly resisted such pressure; she knew implicitly that her popularity was tied to the perception of her as the Protestant hope.
Mary’s pro-Catholic and pro-Spanish policies and her marriage to Phillip of Spain created considerable discontent. This discontent errupted into open rebellion and the queen suspected that her sister was involved. Certainly the aim of the rebels had been to place Elizabeth on the throne. The princess was arrested and taken to the Tower where she was interrogated at length. But if Elizabeth had known of Wyatt’s plans, she had already learned discretion. There was no evidence to link Elizabeth to the rebels. Many of Mary’s advisors wanted to execute the princess, but fear of the response to the execution of such a popular figure stayed the queen’s hand. Elizabeth was allowed to retire to the country where she lived quietly until the queen’s death.
So the young woman who ascended the throne had learned early the dangers of high position. She had learned to trust few people. She had learned to keep her own counsel. And she had learned that her popularity with the ordinary English people was her greatest safeguard.
The ascension of Elizabeth Tudor shaped the future and character of England. England became once again and for always a Protestant nation. The circumstances of Elizabeth’s birth made this inevitable. According to the Catholic Church, Elizabeth was a bastard and had no right to the throne. Indeed, Mary Queen of Scots, then dauphiness of France, was to Catholics the legitimate queen of England and Mary immediately claimed the English throne by quartering the royal arms of England on her standard.
Elizabeth’s own religious beliefs remain something of a mystery. She certainly rejected the claims of papal supremacy and many of the beliefs of the old Catholic faith. But she was not attracted to the militant Protestantism of Calvin’s Geneva that was gaining many adherents in England, Scotland, and parts of France. Rather, Elizabeth sought a religious settlement that would be a “middle way” between Rome and Geneva, one that would establish a church and institute religious practices that would be widely acceptable to her subjects. She had no desire “to make windows into men’s souls,” and was willing to accept a certain amount of religious diversity as long as people conformed minimally to the church and accepted the legitimacy of her crown. The Elizabethan Settlement established the Anglican Church and that church satisfied the religious needs of most Englishmen.
But England had problems beyond the religious undertainty. The crown was bankrupt, the economy was in shambles, the coinage was devalued and there was widespread suffering and hardship. Like her father, Elizabeth had a gift for picking able ministers; unlike her father she remained faithful to her servants. Her most able minister was William Cecil. With his assistance, Elizabeth instituted policies that reversed England’s economic decline. The government increased its revenues, paid off its debts, and actually managed to live within its means. However, this happy state of affairs could only continue if England remained at peace and although Elizabeth did all she could to avoid war, events beyond her control made this an impossibility.
The relative serenity of Elizabeth’s rule was ended in 1568 when Mary Queen of Scots fled her rebellious subjects and sought sanctuary with “her cousin of England.” Mary’s experiences in Scotland deserve their own recounting. Her presence in England would cause problems for Elizabeth for the next twenty years.
Mary Stuart was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII and, as noted above, the legitimate queen of England in the eyes of Catholic Europe. Mary was a woman of overarching ambition and an inveterate conspirator. Her prescence in England was a continual danger to Elizabeth. This potential threat became real in 1569, when there was a rebellion in the conservative and still largely Catholic North of England headed by the Duke of Norfolk who hoped to dethrone Elizabeth, marry Mary and assume the throne jointly with his proposed wife. There seems to be little doubt that Mary encouraged these ambitions. The rebellion was put down, Norfolk was executed and Mary was moved south and placed under closer confinement.
The danger was greatly increased in 1570 when the pope issued a bull formally recognizing Mary as Queen of England and calling on all Catholics to renounce their allegiance to the false queen and to do all in their power to insure that the rightful ruler gain the throne. At a stroke, the pope made all English Catholics potential traitors, since support of Elizabeth was now a sin and a threat to their immortal souls.
Mary became a center of conspiracy after conspiracy. Plots were devised to assassinate Elizabeth and her ministers. Those around the queen wanted to execute Mary as early as 1570, but the queen refused. She was unwilling to shed the blood of an anointed monarch. But despite Elizabeth’s mercy, Mary continued to plot her cousin’s death. She plotted with the French, with the Spanish, with the English Catholics. Finally, with incontrovetible evidence that Mary had conspired to have her murdered before her, Elizabeth signed a death warrant. Her ministers ordered it sent immediately, lest the queen once again change her mind. Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle in January, 1587. She claimed that she was a martyr to her Catholic faith; in reality she was a victim of her own ruthless ambition and foolish pride.
When Elizabeth assumed the throne in 1558, England was a minor player in European politics. When she died in 1603, England was well on the way to becoming a world power. Clearly, Elizabeth was a master diplomat and an examination of her foreign policy demonstrates her subtlety and brilliance.
Elizabeth’s primary goal early in her reign was to keep England at peace. This was not an easy ambition to achieve. Europe in the 16th century was a dangerous and violent place. This was an era of dynastic and religious wars. The Hapsburgs (kings of Spain and emperor of Austria) and the Valois (kings of France) were engaged in a bitter struggle for European hegemony. England had traditionally been allied with the Hapsburgs, who controlled the economically important low countires. However, the Hapsburgs (and especially the Spanish Hapsburgs) had become identified with the aggressive Catholicism of the emerging Counter Reformation. Could traditional ties survive religious differences?
Elizabeth maneuvered brilliantly between the two opposing dynasties. She used her single status as an effective foreign policy tool. Everyone assumed that the young queen would marry and Elizabeth continually dangled the possibility of marriage before one power or another, thus defusing any outside threat.
Indeed, Elizabeth’s choice of a husband was an ongoing matter of controversy. Her ministers and her parliaments both pressured her to marry, have children and thus secure the succession. But Elizabeth refused to wed. She was probably in love with her childhood friend and Master of the Horse, Robert Dudley. But Dudley had contracted a dynastic marriage during Edward’s reign, although he probably did in fact love Elizabeth. When his wife died under mysterious circumstances, there was a widespread belief that the queen would marry the man she loved. However, Elizabeth knew that such a marriage might well compromise her crown and, unlike her cousin Mary, she followed her head, not her heart. She remained the “Virgin Queen.”
Elizabeth’s decision not to marry was probably rooted in both political and personal motives. The queen knew that if she married a foreign prince, she would be “choosing sides” in the endemic wars of her day and she might be forced to abandon her peace policy. If she married a subject, she would be elevating one of her nobles above the others, which could only cause domestic discontent. Either choice could easily lead to problems.
But the queen also had personal motives for eschewing matrimony. Her formative experiences with marriage as a child had not been happy. She was well aware that her father had had her mother executed. She had heard her cousin, Catherine Howard’s screams as she was arrested. She knew how insecure Catherine Parr had been and then watched her beloved step-mother die in childbirth. Many of Elizabeth’s biographers suggest that she had a deep psychological fear of marriage. Also, if she married, her husband would expect to act like a traditional 16th century patriarch. He would expect to at least share in royal power, or perhaps even to exercise that power. Elizabeth was unwilling to share her authority with anyone.
Elizabeth walked a diplomatic tighrope for two decades, but by the 1570s her balancing act was becoming more and more difficult. By default, England had become Europe’s chief Protestant power and found herself on a collision course with Spain, the self-proclaimed defender of Catholicism. When Phillip’s Dutch Protestant subjects revolted against their Catholic monarch, they looked to Elizabeth for help and she felt compelled to provide support. Spain’s growing power seemed to threaten English interests and keeping the Spanish mired in the Netherlands offered a way of increasing England’s security.
But there were other causes of conflict between Spain and England. The English were becoming more and more self-confident and less and less willing to accept any limits to their expansionist ambitions. English merchants wanted to break into the lucrative American trade and the “Sea Dogs” like Sir Francis Drake preyed on Spanish trade, with the tacit consent of England’s queen.
Phillip decided to end once and for all the annoying interference of the English in Spanish affairs and at the same time, to win a victory for Catholicism. In 1588 he sent a huge expedition against the English, the Spanish Armada. Legend has it that the English victory over the Armada was a case of David versus Goliath, that the English success was a miracle. Indeed, the subsequent English conviction that “God is an Englishman” had its roots in their victory in 1588. In fact, the Spanish expedition was poorly planned, poorly coordinated and probably had not one chance in 1000 of succeeding, although superior English seamanship played no little part in their success. 1588 was clearly the apogee of Elizabeth’s reign.
The queen’s last fifteen years were not particularly happy ones. The war with Spain dragged on, placing intolerable burdens on the royal treasury. Elizabeth’s friends and associates died off – Dudley in 1588, Cecil a few years later. The old queen was increasingly out of touch with the younger generation. She couldn’t understand the thrusting ambition that the very success of her rule had created.
Elizabeth also faced economic and religious problems during her last years. In 1594, a climatic change which resulted in colder, damper weather resulted in a series of bad harvests, which led to widespread suffering and some discontent. The financial devices that the government had to use to pay for the costs of a chronic war became even more unpopular given the hard economic times.
The queen also faced problems in the religious sphere. A vocal minority in the church and in the country insisted that the Anglican church was not Protestant enough; they wanted to reform or purify the church of popish practices and bring it more in line with “true” Christianity preached by Calvin and his successors. These Puritans formed an embryonic opposition party in the House of Commons to try to force the queen to accede to their demands.
Elizabeth died in 1603. She was 70 years old and had ruled over her country for 45 years. The England that mourned the old queen’s death was a very different country from that that had celebrated her ascension. This new England was self-confident and creative. It was the England of Shakespeare and Marlowe, of Raleigh and Drake. It was an England that saw itself as God’s chosen one, with the world within its grasp. It was an England that had inflicted defeats on Europe’s greatest power and was ready to challenge all comers. It was an England whose ruling class was increasing self-confident, increasingly determined to have its say.
This England mourned Elizabeth sincerely, but also looked forward to a future under her successor James Stuart, King of Scotland and son of Mary Queen of Scots. The English had high hopes of James I. After all, he was an old experienced king, a Protestant and of the male gender. That these hopes were dashed and that the English would soon look back to Good Queen Bess’ reign as a golden age is another story.
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