The Tudor Reformation and the Harrying of England
“I am thy father’s spirit,Hamlet, Act I Scene V
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.”
There is a great deal of recorded gossip and precious little real history surrounding the romance of Owen Tudor and the widow of brave Henry V. Whether he was in fact the father of Edmund Tudor, father of the usurpatious Henry VII, is considered open to debate, since the Dowager Queen was known to shown great affection to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, and possibly gave herself to him sometime in 1427. This affair notwithstanding (it is but a small part of the air of scandalous gossip surrounding the Valois queen), Edmund Tudur would be comfortable claiming descent from the Anglophile Welsh house of Tudur, as his son, Henry, would from France consciously bear the mantle of William of Normandy, bringing Frenchman, Norman, Breton, and Briton together to remake the Kingdom of England. Within two generations, the changes this new dynasty would effect would so fundamentally alter the fabric of English society and culture that it is possible to speak of a Tudor Revolution, and, perhaps, of a new nation.
The Plantagenet dynasty was never one wholly at peace with itself, from the Anarchy that placed Henry II on the throne to the assassination of the sodomite King Edward II by his wife and son. The Wars of the Roses, though, occurring the midst of an ongoing conflict with France, marked a unique period of upheaval in English political history which could not help but result in a wholesale alteration of the country and its people. The result would be the formation of a conscious English nationhood, and the coalescing of the principal cultural groups who would spend the next three hundred years in contest for domination of the national character of Great Britain, the eldest of Europe’s self-aware nations (for its self-definition and nationalistic character preceded the birth of the French and German nations by almost one hundred fifty years). The complexity of the change owes itself to European events like the sundering of the Papacy and the Black Death as well as localized English politics, chief among which were the Hundred Years’ War with France, following the end of the Age of Crusade and destruction of the Templars, and the dynastic Civil War which mimicked the chaos of the Western Schism that had only just been resolved when the first blood was drawn between Lancaster and York.
The Fall of the House of Plantagenet
There is much to be said about these Wars of the Roses, as they have come to be called in retrospect (partly as a result of the Tudor rewriting of history which ascribed a red rose to House Lancaster, which is apocryphal – only the white rose of York is historically attested), but most central to our concerns is the fact that they are regarded, in error, by many scholars as a result of vestigial Saxon inheritance practices among the Plantagenet Dynasty. The practice, however, of Norman primogeniture in at least half-hearted imitation of Salic Law cannot be ignored, and in the midst of the war between two cadet branches of the Plantagenet House, there was also a war between French and English custom of inheritance.
This was mostly the concern of the nobility and royalty of the Kingdom, of course. To the ordinary Englishman, who would increasingly come to matter as he was informed, misinformed, cajoled, tricked, and nurtured by different factions of the emergent intellectual urban elites, the dynastic conflict mattered little. His concerns during the reign of Edward III, whose death precipitated the whole affair, orbited the Great Mortality – the Black Death which entered England in the year 1348 and by 1350 had transformed the landscape of politics, labour, religion, and social hierarchy, though in fundamentally different ways than it had on the continent.
Edward III was well-regarded by those whose opinion in such things mattered, and for good reason: he was an effective war-leader against the French, a good administrator and delegator of administration, and further he was gifted with a rare foresight to the crises of his day. His Ordinance on Labour of 1349, and subsequent acts of his Parliament to control wage growth, temporarily staunched the uncontrolled explosion of wages and social upheaval they created on the continent. A moral argument may be made against the law, but on the grounds of efficacy, the laws by and large accomplished their desired results, preventing the collapse of the Dynasty and the Kingdom that occurred in Valois France and elsewhere in Europe. Change came, but at a rather typically English pace, Edward having bought his inept grandson Richard the time needed to address the peasants directly and on his own terms. Richard flubbed the opportunity, unfortunately, when the Great Rising led by Wat Tyler finally came, a black mark against him to accompany numerous other failures of judgement that would result in his overthrow by his more popular cousin Henry Bolingbroke.
The rebellion of Wat Tyler and John Ball represents the birth of the earliest Yankee notions of messianic egalitarianism which would later become the dominant religious and social views in East Anglia as the Tudor Reformation drew to a close. The Rebellion is said to owe itself largely to the enforcement of the Labour Laws of 1348-1351, which by the 1380s had begun to show their age as the depleted population found itself unable to pay the flat taxes levied on them by the officers and barons under Richard II. The King himself, distant to affairs of state and unable to reignite the war with France that had ground to a halt as a result of the Plague, did little to quell the growth of rebellion in what was essentially his own backyard. His uncle, John of Gaunt, was little better equipped to handle the whole affair.
It is the task of the historian to remind the lay reader than men must be regarded within their time and context; it is easy to speak of the failures of great men, to point out, as Theodore Roosevelt said, “where the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better”. That Richard II and John of Gaunt did not know how to properly confront the situation in the aftermath of the Black Death tells us much more about their time than about their characters – though Richard is not without his grave faults. England was uniquely afflicted by the Great Mortality, suffering a tremendous loss of life in certain social and geographic sectors that disrupted the state of life among common people, but leaving the upper reaches of society largely untouched. While in Europe, therefore, one can see the lesson of Poe’s “Masque of Red Death” playing out, the wealthy dying with the lepers outside the city gates and thereafter a great leveling, attempts to argue the same outcome in the Kingdom of England have largely failed.
Examinations of death rates reveal three things: first, the claim that the clergy died at higher rates is not universally true, though where deaths were higher among the ordinary laity, death rates were likewise higher among the clergy; second, there is a concentration of death in those areas with the most contact with the continent, especially East Anglia; finally, the ability to insulate themselves against the Mortality among the upper nobility created a tremendous sense of stability in the midst of terrible instability among the ordinary populaltion, to include both the first and third estates.
All of the actions of the royal court, therefore, from Edward III’s labor laws to Richard II’s response to Wat Tyler, must be seen in this light. The disparate impact felt in England would set back what little progress had been achieved of assimilating the Norman upper classes with the still largely Saxon peasantry and gentry. Likewise, the breakdown in the clerical population in an uneven way meant that the Church lost power and influence in some areas while keeping or even gaining it in others – contrary to the popular assumption that the Black Death led people to question and doubt the Church and therefore paved the way for a much needed Reformation.
In locales where priests and monasteries were few, the blind sought desperately the one-eyed man to be their king. They found him in John Wycliffe, an eccentric scholar of scripture whose idiosyncratic views made him, briefly, a favourite of John of Gaunt and, in all likelihood, spared him the axe after Wat Tyler’s Rising. His followers, the Lollards, were much like the Cathars of the lange d’oc, insubordinate of Church authority who preached an ideology of egalitarianism with apocalyptic urgency and messianic fervour. The comparison to the Hussites in Bohemia, who seemed influenced by Wycliffe, is apt, though for reasons unrelated to theology. The Lollards like the Hussites tapped into a latent national feeling, a tribal drive for separation from a foreign ruling elite, but so thoroughly shaped by that same elite that they would be unrecognizable to their forebears.
The Czechs who made war on Kaiser Sigismund were as similar genetically to the Slavs who received Ss. Cyril and Methodius as they were temperamentally and culturally different. Precisely the same can be said of the Saxon-born Lollards of Kent and East Anglia so thoroughly divorced from the battle-born hierarchy of social standing and deep ritual dug up at Sutton Hoo, inculcated instead with a Scandinavian lex talionis , whereby all a man had was forfeit before the man who could take it from him by force. The Anglo-Saxons could be awed by the arcane rites and saintly hymns of St. Augustine when he first entered the court of Æthelbehrt of Kent when their Norse counterparts could only wonder at the worth of the gold candlesticks on the altar. The Lollards, like their Puritan successors, had an Anglo-Norse conception of religion, giving to God only what their minds and mouths could produce, and keeping all that was tangible for themselves. Hierarchy and rite meant little to them; Wycliffe “ordained” his “poor priests” as preachers of a religion with much that was worldly and little that was mysterious.
The result was a movement with all of the ferocity and dedication of the Crusades with none of the high-minded goals. Richard II, however, was no Saladin, and his weakness and the inability of his court to see where the core values of the Great Rising actually resided resulted in the rebels gaining their core demands – the end of serfdom – and surrendering only their outward trappings as confessing Lollards when the religious movement was suppressed and Wycliffe declared excommunicant. All in all, Wat Tyler must be remembered as a martyr of a very successful cause indeed. The Norman overlords of England, meanwhile, could count their days numbered when the Barons and the peasants joined together in recognizing the usurper Henry Bolingbroke as King Henry IV and Richard II lost the crown.
God for England, Harry, and St. George
Like so many other Kings of England bearing that name, Henry IV was a dynamic ruler, effective administrator, and dashing warhero. He, and even more so his son, Henry V, joined a long line of legendary Kings of England, with Henry II Plantagenet, Richard I Cœr-de-Leon, Edward I Malleus Scotorum, and later Henry VIII and William III, whose reigns defined the English as a people. He also set into motion a conflict that would eventually break into open warfare between the two cadet branches of the failed Plantagenet line, between the descendants of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and the descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence and Edmund, Duke of York*. Henry IV and Henry V were likewise models for the young Henry Tudor, grandson of Catherine of Valois who opened this discussion, and likewise for Henry VIII, who would remake England in his desperate attempt to avoid dynastic war and prevent himself from becoming the weak link of his dynasty as his forerunner, Henry VI, had been. Saddled with the kingship upon the death of his elder brother Arthur – a name pregnant with the clear intent of Henry VI to establish a lasting dynasty rooted deep in English identity – the young King Henry VIII was a bard, a scholar, brilliant jouster, and completely dedicated to at least matching and possibly exceeding the reputation of his namesake King Harry whose contemporary popularity would be immortalized by Shakespeare during the reign of Elizabeth I (a fitting tribute to her father).
Poor Henry VIII, none of his plans came to the fruition he desired. His Spanish bride failed to produce a son, his wars with France, which he and his father had hoped to win with the help of their Spanish alliance, were consistently at a stand-still, and his scholarly defense of Rome against the Reformation was met with loud approval but no material support from the Pope. Worse still, as he tried to fix these errors, he only created new ones: divorcing the Spanish princess won him a war with the Church and rebellion from his closest advisers, his struggling finances from the war with France led him to dissolve the monasteries, shattering a focal point of social stability and obliging him to devise entirely new means of creating national, religious, and social cohesion in a nation that had only barely made it out of the war his father had ended. Woman after woman failed to produce the son he knew was the only way to secure his father’s dynasty. He was doomed to be the weak link, the end of the shortest Dynasty in English history, never living up to what his brother could have been.
One wonders if Henry was plagued with such doubts – if he was, he rarely let on. We do have evidence that his idealistic assumptions about the ways of the world, influenced by his fixation on courtly romances, ruined his marriage to the ignorant (though fortunate – she escaped the axe) Anne of Cleves. Introducing himself to his solution to his new problem of a queenless Kingdom (his dead wife had finally given him a son), Henry disguised himself to present a gift to his future bride, assuming that she would recognize him, her true love, and confirm the Divine Providence that had brought them together. After all, that’s how it worked in his beloved romances. Unfortunately, Anne had never seen Henry before and, in addition to being unliterarisch, was really rather dull-witted, so she missed his whole game and left him red-faced and bewildered. The farce reveals much about Henry, especially with the unfortunate results it had for Cromwell, perhaps the most conniving of all the players in the tragedy that the English Reformation was. It was a manifestation of the personality of the King himself: beginning with a personal failure, Henry’s assumptions, disproved by reality, created bewildered anger and an attempt to force reality to fit literary conceptions of the world, each fresh failure resulting in more heads on the chopping block – literally.
The Reformation was, of course, far more than the cartoon vision of a tyrant king making his kingdom dance as marionettes for his own comfort and satisfaction – indeed, the driving force in the remaking of English society could hardly be ascribed to Henry personally. Rather, like most of history, the inevitable logic of culture and civilization limited the choices the poor players could make as they strutted and fretted their parts upon the stage. The Norman upper class had long been ill at ease with the Papal paymaster whose patronage had granted them an island kingdom to rival their cousins in the Mediterranean. The willingness of John of Gaunt to sponsor John Wycliffe until the latter was implicated in rebellion against his nephew the King points to this fairly starkly.
Among the English people, however, even after the Black Death that is supposed to have shattered faith in Catholic Christianity, Lollardy was an isolated movement that faded quickly after the Papacy was restored at Constance, regarded more positively as a political phenomenon than a religious one. As Eamon Duffy highlights, core tenets of the Lollard belief system, such as iconoclasm and denial of the Real Presence, were fringe beliefs in 15th century England, a land dominated by pilgrimage to pray before relics, high Mass attendance, and other home and community liturgics which placed heavy emphasis on the rite of Baptism, held by Lollards to be unnecessary to Salvation. Cementing the popularity of Henry VIII in the early years of his reign, the Defense of the Seven Sacraments would earn him a title so essential to the legitimacy of his rule that he clung to it after he had spit in Rome’s eye – defensor fidei, Defender of the Faith.
The strongest supporters of Henry VIII early in his reign could be found in the North and West, and his chief concern prior to the Pilgrimage of Grace (coming from the Midlands) was the abortive rebellion against the Amicable Grant in 1525. Here a unique case of mercy won momentary good will for the Tudor King. An organized Army of 10,000 men was formed in East Anglia, particularly around Cambridgeshire, the largest rebellion since the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 in roughly the same region. Here the population had always been set apart from the rest of England – first by the violence of the Danelaw, then by those fleeing the Harrying, then by the Black Death which afflicted the region disproportionately, each time depleting the region and creating a population made up of the disaffected and displaced, forced to farm some of the swampiest land in England.
Likewise, the piratical spirit of the Dane and the egalitarian spirit of the Umbrian, combined with distrust of Crown and Crozier alike to form the earliest larva that would, after Henry’s death, pupate into the Puritan before assuming its final and terrible form as the International Yankee. Cardinal Wolsey, himself a man of the East, begged for pardon of the rebels, and very little blood was shed in the aftermath – permitting the leaders to return to their communities. The act won Henry himself some begrudging good will that would be multiplied when he broke with Rome, allowing the lingering undercurrent of Lollard heresy and increasingly anti-clerical feelings in the East to flourish in a way unlike any where else in England, to the detriment of Henry’s Stuart successors twenty years on.
The infestation that took root in East Anglia would find itself a ready host in the expanding Tudor bureaucracy, already impressive when Henry took the throne from his father, whose court life was defined by utter distrust of everyone close to him, leading him to lean more heavily on functionaries than traditional advisers and courtiers for his administration of the country. With the need to incorporate the equally impressive ecclesiastic bureaucracy into the emerging English State, the result was an immensely powerful and complex system of administrators suited to replacing the ruined machinery of infrastructure and social cohesion that, until the Reformation, had largely been the realm of the ecclesiastical courts, parish churches, and local monasteries.
The symbol of this system, St. Thomas Becket, who was martyred in defense of ecclesiastic legal rights in particular, was dragged out of his church by Henry and posthumously executed as a traitor before having his relics burned and his shrine demolished. It was a typically Henrician gesture – a hamfisted and irrevocable statement that the power of the King was now as absolute and irresistible as the Pope himself, whose edicts were eternal, changing past, present, and future. Henry wielded his bureaucracy with ruthless caprice, and his people got the message – conformity to the new order became a survival mechanism for the majority, who were happy to trade their primers, offices, and statuary for Bibles and plain crosses to keep their families fed and themselves alive.
Men like Thomas Cromwell and Richard Rich, themselves probably more ruthless than even their King, took full advantage to empower themselves and their positions, paving the way for the almost entirely administrative reign of Elizabeth I, who would be the first real figurehead monarch of England, cultivating her cult of personality in deliberate imitation of the cults of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a facade to hide the buzzing hive of professional functionaries who made the stability and domestic peace of her reign possible.
This rise of the early administrative State, whose perfection Hobbes would call for in his Leviathan after the bloodletting of the Civil War, coupled with the flourishing of the Puritan mindset that forced the young English church to find a compromise between the moderate and the extreme Protestant rather than between moderate Catholic and moderate Protestant, forced the English public and English spirit towards its current form, and gave birth to the three principal factions who would vie with the Scotch Borderlanders for dominance over the New World and the Empire that would first begin to take shape after the death of the last Tudor monarch and the rise of the short-lived Calvinist Stuarts.
This New World almost became the means whereby the British race corrected itself; the ancient spirit of Wessex, however, was unable, ultimately, to resist the more world-wise Anglo-Puritan, and would find himself trampled abroad as he had been trampled at home in two subsequent Civil Wars, failing first as advocates of union against a new mercantile republic and again some ninety years later as a seceding nation from the same republic as they watched their fears realized and prophecies fulfilled. We will deal with the South and the last great struggle against the Eternal Anglo from within in our next installment.
*Edmund and Lionel are both founders of the House of York through Edmund’s son and Lionel’s great-granddaughter, whose son Richard of York was regent during the reign of the feeble-minded Henry VI. His son would become King Edward IV.