History has suggested many explanations for the sequence of dramatic events that were the reign of King Henry VIII. From the brutal judicial murders of Empson and Dudley; through the early wars; through the spectacles of Renaissance diplomacy and the Field of Cloth of Gold; through the King’s Great Matter and the Royal Supremacy; to the very last strike from his deathbed against his closest noble ducal allies in the house of Howard – Henry Tudor never lost his capacity to surprise. But of the all the explanations history suggests oddly the most satisfying one is wholly the king’s own…the quest for a legitimate male heir.
Henry VIII was a most dutiful monarch. He did his duty to his wife; he did his duty by the church he defended from heresy – as the Pope himself acknowledged in awarding him the personal soubriquet ‘Fidei Defensor’; and he did his duty by the realm – enlarging its prestige and influence.
In return the king had expected his due from God – a son and heir.
And King Henry had spared no effort in pursuit of his singular objective. From pilgrimages and masses to prayers and fasting; from alms to arms; from high days to holy days the king was never less than observant and always the most assiduous amongst Christian princes.
By 1527 – and by which time Henry had fallen under the spell of Anne Boleyn – these efforts had borne the solitary fruit of a daughter, aged eleven, and named Mary for his favourite sister; and no male heir. By then his first wife Catherine of Aragon was beyond childbearing. This left the Tudor dynasty facing an uncertain future. The king’s only other surviving child was Henry Fitzroy, his bastard by Elizabeth Blount.
As a consequence in Henry’s mind the alchemy that makes illegitimate into legitimate and vice versa became something of a preoccupation. And with his mind’s eye fixed upon his issue and the dynasty the king’s anxieties about the problematic nature of the succession became acute.
In the first instance Henry did what he had always previously done – he placed his problem into the capable hands of his friend and minister, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey. The cardinal did what he had always previously done for the king and applied pressure to the offending cause. But for all his pressing the queen was unimpressed. She was not minded either to take the veil or to be quietly set aside. Thwarted, the cardinal turned to Pope and to canon law.
The letter of the law is the law. The Dispensation which had enabled Katherine to marry Henry only dispensed from a consummated marriage. Katherine’s evidence was to the contrary. It gave Wolsey the grounds for hope. But in order to spring this trap upon the unwitting queen and her advisers Wolsey first needed both the power to try the marriage and the power to dispense the judgement. Before Wolsey’s crafty canonical concoctions matured Rome was sacked and the queen’s nephew, Charles V, was effectively over-seer to the Holy See. However, if Europe’s politics played the cardinal false, it was passion that cooked his goose and turned Wolsey’s solution to the King’s Great Matter into a recipe for disaster.
Henry had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn. This wasn’t an infatuation: it was the all encompassing passionate love that over-rules and over-whelms. Only those acquainted with love’s poetry and potency truly understand its intoxicating and ultimately destructive nature. True love truly moves the human spirit. In Henry’s case, it moved a man long reluctant to write his signature to write a series of love letters to Anne Boleyn. Whilst the king dabbled in poetics ambitious Anne Boleyn dabbled in politics.
Their intense but unconsummated affair became a roller-coaster of ups and downs; highs and lows; meetings and farewells. There is no reason to believe that both Henry and Anne were not – initially at least – equal parties in this destructive tryst. But Time tested their affections in differing ways and with different results.
Anne promised Henry the thing his heart most desired and persuaded him if only he would throw over his first wife he might readily have it. Henry took little persuading. He may indeed have already persuaded himself with that same implacable singularity of mind he brought to bear on all matters great and small when he chose to bestir himself and assert an interest in a subject. The king seems to have found the prohibition in Leviticus for himself and, as they say, the rest is history. And throughout what followed he clung to this text with his usual mixture of unreasoning obtuseness and brutal decisiveness.
In pursuit of love and in the name of Justice, first, the king set aside his wife; then the cardinal and finally his religion. When the church in Rome refused his grounds for divorce Henry found the means to make good his judgement; ratify his idiosyncratic interpretation of Leviticus and divorce himself from Queen Katherine. To separate himself from his wife it was necessary to legally separate England from Rome.
In this enterprise he was ably assisted by Thomas Cromwell; most of the noble and political estate led by the Howard dukes of Norfolk and their cadet branch led by Thomas Boleyn; and the supine Episcopal bench – led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and always firmly under the king’s rule of thumb.
By 1536 – two wives on – having ruptured both the secular and religious polities – Henry had no more to show than a second daughter, Elizabeth – named to honour his mother, Elizabeth of York. In January 1536 the death of his first wife afforded Henry with an opportunity to strike the second down in order to make a yet further fresh start.
Marrying again, for a third time, he chose another young English girl from Anne Boleyn’s retinue. And, third time was lucky. In October 1537 Queen Jane (Seymour) obliged him with the son for which he had long desired and for which he had hazarded so very much.
A week later Queen Jane was dead but his son and heir, was alive and well….and that changed everything.
Henry now embarked – with his lead minister Thomas Cromwell – upon a series of policies designed to ensure that the future would belong both to his son and to the House of Tudor. Too far in to turn-back, Henry relentlessly drove-on with religious reform. Opposition from all quarters was ruthlessly crushed. He even legally humiliated both his daughters with statutory declarations of their bastardy.
The religious opposition had been emboldened by Anne Boleyn’s spectacular fall and struck out in the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry struck back. Cannily he tempted his opponents to their destruction. And having destroyed them by arms he made victory doubly certain by the monastic dissolutions that forever broke the power of the church and forever changed Northern England.
Stand in the ruined choir of Fountains Abbey or Rievaulx and look about at the ruins of an entire world of thought, beauty and learning that were despoiled and sacrificed in the name of Henry‘s loves. Priceless manuscripts and the artistic and architectural wonders wherein they were housed were only part of the price paid for Anne Boleyn’s coronation. North of the Trent the dissolutions destroyed an entire social and economic structure. The North didn’t fully recover from the trauma until the eighteenth century.
Political historians note that the Pilgrimage of Grace saw only hundreds rather than thousands hanged as traitors…. their bodies strung up along the Great North Road…the route followed by our contemporary AI – but the true human cost was measured at least in thousands, perhaps tens of thousands. The mid-Tudor laws against vagabondage and the later Elizabethan Poor Laws were markers of the true scale of social and economic dislocation that followed.
Some modern historians choose to see in Queen Anne Boleyn something of a heroine or even proto-feminist. This analysis often rests heavily on the quasi-hagiography written later on the eve of and after her daughter’s accession in 1558. These portraits represent Anne as uniquely gifted intellectually and hint that she is the political brilliant behind Henry’s government after 1530. Her death is seen as a loss to History of a quiet reformer devoted to the cause of truth. This is nearer the tragic Anne Boleyn of grand opera dear to the heart of Gaetano Donizetti and his nineteenth century audiences than to History’s.
Anne Boleyn was many things and in her time she spared none in fulfilling her ambitions to be Henry’s wife and England’s queen. On her way she made many enemies and in time’s fullness none of them spared her. Her own father betrayed her and publically condemned her. Whatever the wrongs that were done personally to Anne Boleyn it must be remembered as many and more had been called upon to pay as high a price in order to make her England’s queen. It was her personal vanity to believe this was a price worth their paying. History’s judgement necessarily must be more equivocal.
Nevertheless, the annexation of the lands of all the Regular Orders was Cromwell’s stroke of genius. The cardinal’s former factotum had watched Wolsey use monastic dissolution as the means to finance the foundation of Cardinal College (Christ Church). Cromwell saw he could employ the same means to endow the king with new and permanent income.
The monastic dissolutions should have permanently freed the Tudor monarchy from the historic limitations imposed by the insufficiency of its ordinary income. However, like many a well-intentioned bureaucrat’s careful plan it took little account of the practical realities. Giving Henry vast sums money merely fed his vaster appetite to spend it – wisely or unwisely as the case may be.
Building had long been one of the king’s passions – an interest Henry had shared with Wolsey but in the late 1530s the ready monies from the destruction of pilgrim-shrines and the monastic dissolutions transformed it into a compulsive addiction. Not only were there castles and fortifications, there were renovations of churches and colleges, and, above them all, the ceaseless expansions of and furnishings for all the Tudor palaces – culminating in one of the most expensive projects of the sixteenth century – the palace of Nonesuch.
It was as its name suggests a by-word for extravagance.
Meanwhile, as the politics of the Supremacy dragged the king towards parley with the Lutheran reformers Cromwell and others used this opportunity to push their own religious agenda. The Great Bible, the attack on shrines and images and finally the Bishop’s Book (1537) tugged England towards a Lutheran faith and on its heels Cromwell tugged the king to agree to a fourth marriage to the sister of the Lutheran Princes of Cleves.
But whichever way the king’s heart was moving – his head had already moved in the opposite direction. Bishop Stephen Gardiner and the duke of Norfolk persuaded Henry to support a new religious formulation – the Act of Six Articles in the last months of 1539. Cromwell was easily outmanoeuvred and a reaction to the reformers was as quickly underway. There was a show trial over which the king personally presided – dressed entirely in white – a royal-pope come to judgement.
Robert Barnes views on the Eucharist were confounded and declared heretical. Cromwell discretely intervened to save his protégé. Cromwell, so often so astute, misread the king’s mind. Barnes burned and with him the hopes of the reformers went up in smoke.
Anne of Cleves arrived in January 1540.
Henry was still vain enough to consider himself dashing; he dashed to Dover in disguise to meet his new wife; the sight of her dashed his hopes for happiness. He was horrified by the ‘Flanders’ mare’. There was no way out of the marriage which Archbishop Cranmer duly solemnised. It was an unhappy union both for Henry and Cromwell – it cost the king another divorce and cost Thomas Cromwell his head.
Fortunately in the wings another young filly from the duke of Norfolk’s stable was waiting to console the king. Henry married Catherine Howard and promptly found his old self restored to youthful vigour; and with that restoration a religious restoration came in her train. In a short time Catherine Howard’s indiscretions called into question her sexual continence. A trembling Archbishop Cranmer broke the news to the king. Henry wept. In his bitter disappointment he turned once more to securing his son’s succession.
In an attempt to deter invaders Henry had already created a series of massive defensive fortifications. From Dover to Hever and beyond west and North to Kingston-on-Hull and Newcastle the king built, rebuilt and built bigger and built bolder than any of his predecessors. The king now also commissioned ships – bigger ships like the Great Harry – and as with his castles and other land defences he armed all with the latest firepower.
Artillery joined new suits of armour and once fully armed the king was ready for battle. By war – the feat of kings – Henry VIII hoped to make England secure and thereby secure his son’s safe succession and secure his own place in History. And compared to his earlier military endeavours Henry’s later wars brought tangible results. From the war with France Henry won Boulogne – upon which the king lavished another small fortune entire in refortifications – and the war with Scotland nominally gave his son Edward the hand in marriage of the young queen of Scots, Mary Stewart – who at the age of three days had become Scotland’s and Great Britain’s first queen regnant.
Henry’s wars were rewarded by fame. Potentially, they gave Henry the means of uniting Britain’s kingdoms under Tudor governance.
By the middle of the 1540s having married six times, the last time finally to Catherine Parr; having raised and spent several large fortunes; superficially, it appeared that Fortune had finally smiled upon the king. In these declining years the restless royal giant had imagined on a mammoth scale and, accordingly, and in character, eschewing half-measures Henry VIII had invested everything in making his dreams a reality. And to achieve his ends the king spared neither means nor manpower. But these projects consumed more than the English state had ability to finance.
Fortunately, as before in his reign at the right moment the right man was at the king’s right hand. As Wolsey had given Henry his place in Europe and Cromwell his place at the Head of the Church so, the quiet nondescript, Sir Edmund Peckham, was to furnish the king with all the money he required.
Peckham, Cofferer of the Household, was made High Treasurer of the Mints in 1544. His task was to mastermind and then manage what history calls ‘the great debasement.’ And by the method of calling-in old and issuing new coin Henry’s Royal Mints struck gold – by striking debased silver. The debasement of the coinage provided money upon an unimaginable scale. Something in excess of £1.5 million pounds was raised and spent by this method. Henry’s government was able to pay for all the king’s projects – war included – by this means.
The scale of the debasement is almost unimaginable. It dwarfed the dissolutions. It was at first as if the government had finally found the bankers’ equivalent to the philosopher’s stone – a mechanism that turned base metal into silver. By the end of the decade the debasement has undermined the means of exchange.
Hugh Latimer makes this withering judgement in his Second Sermon before Edward VI in March 1549.
We have now a pretty little shilling: indeed a very pretty one. I have but one, I think, in my purse: and the last day I had put it away, almost for an old groat, and so I trust some will take them. The fineness of the silver I cannot see: but therein is printed a fine sentence that is, ” Timor Deifons vite velsapientit:” The Fear of the Lord is the fountain of life or wisdom. I would God this sentence were always printed in the heart of the King in chosing his wife, and in all his officers.
The preacher is obviously threatened with imprisonment for his trouble yet boldly returned to the question in this third sermon a week later:
Thus they burdened me ever with sedition. So this gentleman cometh up now with sedition.
And wot ye what ? I chanced, in my last sermon, to speak a merry word of the
New shilling to refresh my auditory how I was like to put away my new shilling for an old groat: I was herein noted to speak seditiously. Yet I comfort myself in one thing, that I am not alone, and that I have a fellow: for, it is consolatia miserorum. It is the comfort of the wretched to have company.
(Third Sermon before King Edward VI 1549)
His commentary points to a precipitous decline in the purchasing power of a shilling which had had come to equal that of an old groat (4d.). In other words by 1549 the coins had lost something like two thirds of their true value. This being the case it is little wonder the confidence had evaporated both in the coinage and in the government.
In this context the rebellions of 1549 might be regarded only as a surprise in so far as it seems to have taken so long for discontent to manifest itself in disorder.
A terrible inflation had followed-on from the manipulation of the coinage. At first the government of King Edward VI responded by a further series of ever more radical debasements – which only served to reinforce the inflationary tide. At the same time the court started to exact its rights to purveyance ever more aggressively. Eventually the financial and economic crisis overwhelmed both the government and the country. The appalling financial and economic legacy that flowed from the great debasement haunted the remainder of the Tudor age.
Henry VIII’s last months were sporadically devoted to ensuring his son’s political inheritance would be secure. To that end Henry carried out a final purge designed to sweep aside the Howard dynasty and leave none in place to challenge for Edward’s throne.
The final piece of this complex jigsaw was to be a Council of Regency which Henry appointed and which he designed to be a self-regulating body of the ambitious held in check by the countervailing ambitions of each of the councillors. He even excluded the one man – Bishop Stephen Gardiner – whom he felt had both the ability and ambition to upset the political balance amongst his handpicked first-rank of the second-rate.
For all his efforts to govern England from his grave, once dead, it quickly became apparent that the future belonged exclusively to the living. It took only hours for the men to whom he had entrusted his scheme to unpick their master’s brilliant design. By the time Edward VI was proclaimed the Council of Regency was entirely compromised. With bribes of titles and lands Edward Seymour, King Edward VI’s maternal uncle, bought himself primacy. The newly ennobled happily joined the pretence that all along it had been Henry VIII’s intention to make Edward Seymour the Lord Protector during his nephew’s minority.
But Seymour ambition also ran in the veins of the new Protector’s vain younger brother Thomas. Whilst the king’s giant body lay in its cold suppuration in the royal bedchamber, outside in the privy chamber the brothers coldly fought each other to a stand-still. Thomas wished to be the young king’s governor. The office would have given him virtual control of the privy apartment and of the king’s person.
Edward Seymour wasn’t for sharing the spoils of office and most particularly not with his brother Thomas. In the end Thomas was made Lord Admiral, created Baron Seymour of Sudeley and a made a full member of the council. Thwarted, Thomas took another route into the young king’s favour. He married the dowager queen, Catherine Parr, who herself had nourished her own ambitions to be King Edward’s Regent.
And England found itself with three courts – that of the king, that of the Lord Protector at Somerset House and that of Thomas Seymour and Catherine Parr at Chelsea. But whilst these two brothers had the means to seize power and the ambition to exercise it neither possessed the ability or skills or the imagination to hold it.
But behind them stood the incalculable calculation of another entirely different man – John Dudley. Son of the traitor Edmund Dudley – one of the first victims of Henry VIII’s taste for judicial murder – John Dudley had been made a royal ward and in time married into the Lisle family – powerful in Calais. In due course John Dudley was made a gentleman of the privy chamber and distinguished himself in war and was consequently made Viscount Lisle. In 1547 and by now newly made Earl of Warwick, John Dudley was a man with family ambition – he sought to do for the Dudley in respect of the Tudor dynasty what the Duke of Norfolk had done for the Howard. It was an endeavour that was to be both as successful and unsuccessful as that of the Howard’s.
However, whilst the councillors were filled with personal and family ambitions they were far from equal to the tasks bequeathed to the government. For the next five years they were doomed to struggle with the financial and economic crisis beyond their grasp. In these same years the costs involved in running the royal household, as good as any as a measure of the scale of the financial problems, increased to £200,000 per annum. However the politics of the Reformation excluded from the council and influence those most able to deal with the financial crisis. The traditionalist Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Sir Edmund Peckham together with Bishop Stephen Gardiner were amongst the regimes early victims.
The Protector had long been patron to the radical reformers. The king’s tutors; the king’s Godfather – Archbishop Cranmer; his step mother Catherine Parr and their household principles were all determined patrons of the reformers and they now exercised that patronage in appointing a stream of radicals – including Bucer – to prominent positions. Within weeks of the Coronation an iconoclastic outburst destroyed most of the images in the churches. Centuries of medieval art and carving was consigned to the fire. Within weeks Lutheran services were being illegally performed in English and in German inside London’s churches. The regime had unleashed a radical religious reformation that was to quickly run beyond their ready control.
And primed and educated to these radical standards by his tutors – Richard Cox and John Cheke – the young king vociferously supported the most radical of the reformers. And that was to prove the determining factor in all the events that followed…..