The underlying doctrine of the Tudor state was that some men were born to rule, and the rest to be ruled. This was how God set things up and this is how they would be. The Tudors, of course, were the chosen people to lead. And the leaders of this state, the heroes and writers and rulers and legends, may have visualized themselves as actors on a stage, performing their roles for God and country. How else to explain the otherwise inexplicable Tudor State? How could a state that destroyed Catholicism and beheaded queens because they did not give the king heirs and hanged people for witchcraft and burned others at the stake for ‘wrong’ religious beliefs, when ‘wrong’ changed periodically, how could this state also give us Shakespeare and Marlowe and Spencer and all of their fellow literary luminaries, or spawned such heroes as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh?
When Henry defeated the last of the Yorks, Richard III, in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth, and claimed the throne of England, he also “threw mud in the face” of the memory of Edward III because he was a direct descendant of John of Gaunt and Catherine Swinford, whom Edward betrayed from the succession. Nevertheless, Henry claimed the crown by force of arms and conquest, which he claimed was a sign from God that he should be king. After winning his throne Henry VII solidified his support by generously granting gifts to anyone and everyone he thought could help him. The burgeoning economy gave him the wherewithal and he took advantage. Using Parliament as his sword, he confiscated the lands of his enemies the Yorkists, increased incomes from his various kingly resources and squeezed the last silver penny out of his subjects. Some might describe his reign as one long campaign of filling the exchequer by every means possible. However, Henry was no mere money-grubbing fool. He recognized that to rule effectively, and to leave a viable legacy to his heirs, he must rule justly. He began the Tudor style of government, calculating, adaptable, smart, brutal, pragmatic and efficient. Enforcing the law was in reality more important than the law itself and the subject was expected to due his duty regardless of circumstance. Henry VII once more brought back the concept of enforcement of the law regardless of rank, a concept once cherished but lost in the previous hundreds years of greed and influence peddling. When Thomas Lord Dacre was hanged for murder instead of beheaded, as befit his rank as a noble, it gave notice to one and all that the king didn’t care about your rank, he cared about justice. People needed to know what the rules were to feel stable and to prosper. In the previous century they had given up faith in the law because money counted more than justice, unsettling the country and giving kings an unstable platform upon which to construct their kingdom. Henry VII changed that so that one and all could again know where they stood in relation to the crown. He forced English government to reform itself, however harshly it may have been accomplished. During his reign the Star Chamber was organized and answerable only to the king. On ascending the throne the nation’s coffers were low; at his death he left his son awash in money.
Henry VIII was a much different kind of king than his father. Diplomatically and militarily he put England back into European affairs, even if England was not the major player on the scene. In 1512 he began a war with France for no real reason other than personal glory; fighting France was something almost expected from a strong king. He defeated the Scots. Mostly, though, Henry occupied himself with matters of the succession and faith, although Henry may not have intended the complete religious revolution that he brought forth. The definitive movement of the Tudor State was the Reformation, when the kingdom of God on Earth was united with the Kingdom of the Realm in the person of the King. Henry was a Catholic to the end, but a Catholic who believed that he, as King of England, was head of the Church, not the pope. In other words, the Anglican Church would mostly be the Catholic Church with a different name, a few rules changes and the king acting as pope. This was necessary because of Henry’s overriding desire for male heirs to guarantee the succession and his penchant for marrying women he fancied, six in all. Or, at least, five, since he divorced Anne of Cleves because he did not fancy her. The showdown with Pope Clement VII and the Catholic Church had been coming for quite some time but when the pope would not grant Henry an annulment from his first wife, the king found his excuse for the ultimate break with Rome. Obviously, the Reformation dominated the century, but it was more the kingdom’s ability to hold in check the most radical elements of protestant society that allowed things to function as well as they did. Had it been allowed to revolutionize unchecked then the violence of later years might have come much sooner and had even greater long-term effects. Whatever Henry’s motives for breaking with Rome, be they diplomatic, religious or simply necessary for the succession, one gets the image of a man who started something revolutionary, then had to fight for the rest of his life to keep it from getting out of control.
The income from nationalized ecclesiastical lands was enormous but attacking the Catholic Church was also dangerous. The Church was a major stabilizing factor in the relationship of the king to his subjects and radical changes to the church might mean radical changes in the domestic political landscape, something Henry definitely did not want. Henry made defining the country’s religion, its doctrine and beliefs and methods of worship, the responsibility of the government in the person of the King. This resulted in some rather brutal executions, but those served more to put an exclamation point on the changes and discourage dissent. Henry’s firm hand ensured that nothing changed too much in the religion itself, as radicals on both sides wanted.
On Henry’s death his only son, Edward, aged 9, ascended the throne but had no real impact. Edward VI died aged 15 before he could rule on his own. Before his death, Edward and his advisors wrote a “Devise for the Succession”, a document aimed at preventing the return of Catholicism to England. Edward named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir and excluded his half sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Lady Jane Grey lasted only 9 days before she was deposed and executed, which brought Henry’s eldest daughter Mary to the throne. Mary seems to have tried to be a Tudor worthy of her father, but as the first Queen she was hamstrung, as a Catholic she was suspect and the revolution let loose by her father was not to be turned around, regardless of how much she tried. The past was gone forever and the day of Catholic England with it. Her marriage to a Spaniard did nothing to assuage the fears of her subjects of a Catholic resurgence, as having a Spanish king did not sit well with the English at all, which only exacerbated problems with Spain. She reigned for four years and earned the sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ somewhat undeservedly, but in truth she was unable to cope with the larger forces at work in the kingdom economically, politically and especially religiously.
And so, at last, came Elizabeth I, a protestant by practice but no revolutionary, a practical monarch with a shrewd sense of politics. At a time when women were judged as unfit to do much of anything except give birth, she ruled a kingdom, oversaw and managed a religious revolution that could have overthrown her rule, but did not. Under her rule the Church of England was officially established in 1563. Yet she was exceedingly tolerant, even of her enemies, such as the scheming Mary Stuart, as her policy of tolerance was extended to both the religious and political fields. She avoided extremes. She fought a war with the richest country on Earth at the time, Spain, and won. Or survived, which is the same thing. She kept Parliament from becoming the ruling force of government. She gave the kingdom stability when economic forces were converging that might have torn it apart. She oversaw the sapping of power from the old nobility and the vast expansion of power for her government.
The ingredients stewing in the boiling pot of change in sixteenth-century England were many and varied, some of the Tudors own making, others independent of them. One of the factors accounting for the economic prosperity, and influencing the political, social and cultural changes of sixteenth century England, would be the transition that occurred from the export of raw wool to the manufacture and export of broadcloth, which allowed merchants to increase their wealth and use it to purchase land. The English did not at first understand that this economic prosperity helped fuel inflation, as did shortages of food and land as a result of the expanding population, an abundance of gold and silver, and the overwhelming demand for consumer goods. All of these set the stage for social upheaval as the gap widened between rich and poor. Rural areas were changing too, as manorial lords began the process of enclosure for sheep herding as well as better farming techniques.
Among the major factors influencing Tudor history, inflation had the potential to do the greatest damage. Prices increased 6 fold between 1300 and 1600. As the 16th century progressed the value of gold and silver, i.e. money, plummeted. Discovery of new silver and gold mines in the colonies of the European powers, mostly Africa and South America, made sure that a veritable torrent of precious metals and jewels were heading for the treasuries of the colonizing nations. And although it was 1574 before the English belatedly woke up to the causes of the inflation, not evil, greedy men, but the scarcity of land and abundance of wealth, the economic factors had been at work for a long time. The expansion of the economy, growth of cities and population and the sheer speed of how money changed hands lead to upward price pressure. The debasement of the currency in 1547-49 almost destroyed the Tudors. Inflation, declining wage values and uncertainty plagued the economy, yet the Tudor state did its best to control all aspects of economic life, as part of the orderly Tudor world view. The Tudor reign also saw the rise of the merchant clothiers out of the wool trade. As sheep began to take over England, it lead to land that once grew grain crops being converted to sheep runs, de-forestation and the soaring value of land but simultaneous plunging of labor value. Instead of lots of peasants working a manor’s lands it only took a shepherd and his dog to make the land profitable. This lead to lord’s evicting and trying to evict peasants who had worked his land for generations. And yet the seeming contradiction of increasing food supply matching a huge population spike can only be explained by new agricultural techniques, which revolutionized farming, such as ‘up and down’ farming and ‘floating’ meadows. Having enough food goes a long way to satisfying a king’s realm.
The state’s outlook was still essentially feudal. Elizabeth in particular went out of her way to try and provide a decent lifestyle for all of her citizens, from baron to lowest peasant. Her motives were a mixture of benevolence, Christian charity and political pragmatism. Contented subjects did not revolt or cause trouble, which is largely responsible for how the Tudors maintained order without a standing army or a police force. With the mass of people happy, or at least well fed and employed, the state could spend money on other things. And so the mechanics of government became involved in helping the population. The Privy Council, in particular, became interested in more than just who could have liveried servants and who couldn’t, involving itself in helping wounded war veterans and zoning squabbles and trying to improve sanitation and the like. Actions such as these were more visible to the population and could not help but make the government more popular with the lower classes. And since the Tudor State believed in a well-ordered society, one where every man and woman had a place and a task, where a divine order was at work and it was up to the government to make sure that it was followed, that meant the upper classes must also fulfill their roles. Granted, it took until the very end of Elizabeth’s reign for the crown to finally, and reluctantly, provide for the poorest of the poor in even the barest of minimums. But with the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 the government, in the form of barons and taxpayers and M.P.s, recognized that it was dangerous to allow large numbers of unemployed and starving people to fester and rot in their hovels, not to mention it wasn’t the most Christian of attitudes. Action did begin to fill promises.
Education among the gentry and their sons lead to an explosion of creativity in a number of fields, but most importantly it aided prosperity by increasing the quality of the kingdom’s work force. Aside from all of the other benefits increased literacy brings, records beginning in this period increase dramatically as laws and deeds and all manner of legal devices were recorded because the parties involved could now read them. The invention of the printing press gave a population that was learning to read availability to new thoughts and ideas, a veritable glut of knowledge never before widely available outside of the clergy. Oxford and Cambridge catered to these new students and shifted from educating the clergy to training professional bureaucrats to run not only the government but new businesses as well. Nor can the unifying effect of English as the national language, triumphing over French, be overestimated. This allowed the English to see themselves as a people united, not a conglomeration of cultures; this may well have been the greatest advantage that the English had, this homogenous national outlook centered on a common language.
And yet none of this endured. What the Tudors wanted in a kingdom, orderly life and society, was in the end held together more by force of will than anything else. The religious revolution that Henry VIII created, and then fought to control, threatened to explode with the Puritan movement. Parliament started to see itself as a ruling body, not simply an advisory one. Foreign affairs refused to cooperate, although the defeat of Spain saved the realm. The Tudor State was more a state of personality than most of England’s kingships had been. That is, the imposing personalities of its three great rulers, the two Henry’s and Elizabeth, shaped it to their liking and stamped it as their own, perhaps more than any other ruling period in English history.