Having not had the chance to teach any Tudors related history in the classroom over the past year or so, I decided on bringing in a new module on the Access to Higher Education Humanities programme that I teach on. Last year, two of the four modules focused on Nazi Germany, and on reflection I think it was far too heavy on this one period of time. So, I decided to scrap the module about the rise of the Nazis and traded it in for one relating to the Mid Tudor Crisis period.
The Mid Tudor Crisis is an historiographical debate that argues how the Tudor state was on the point of possible collapse during the middle of the 16th Century. The historian Whitney Jones outlined the problems at the end of Henry VIII’s reign to his death in 1547, the entirety of Edward VI’s reign (which was dominated by two nobles: the Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Northumberland in the years 1547-53), as well as Mary I’s time in power from 1553-1558.
In particular, the problems include:
- End of Henry VIII’s reign: expensive wars with Scotland and France; unstable economy; religious divisions (having broken with Rome in the 1530s); factional disputes.
- Edward VI under the Duke of Somerset (1547-49): continuing problems with war with Scotland and France; increasingly unstable economic situation; increased Protestant reforms which divided society; two large-scale rebellions (the Great Prayer Book Rebellion and Kett’s Rebellion – both in 1549).
- Edward VI under the Duke of Northumberland (1550-53): many consider Northumberland to have been an able administrator (such as the likes of Dale Hoak), however, the Devise for the Succession in 1553 highlights Northumberland’s lust for power and provides an interesting snapshot of political instability.
- Mary I (1553-58): despite coming to power on a popular wave, her religious policies led to sharp division (particularly the deaths of almost 300 Protestants); very poor harvests; a terrible economic situation; and war with France led to the loss of Calais (the last remaining continental possession).
After 1558, with Elizabeth I’s accession, the argument states that many of the problems were resolved, leading to a triumphant long reign. However, other historians – such as David Loades – dispute this interpretation. Although the Tudor state faced many problems, this view suggests that when comparing to other periods of time there was nothing here out of the ordinary; for example, the English government during the early modern period faced rebellions, suffered from economic hardship, and factional political divides were constant. Loades and others argue that the term “crisis” is over-egging the reality of the period: the Tudor state was never close to collapse. In fact, it dealt with the various problems and problems well; this is shown with the Devise of the Succession in 1553 – the plan was to pass over Mary in order to give the throne to Lady Jane Grey. However, despite this clear coup in the order of succession, ultimately the government and the people kept their allegiance with Mary I, the rightful queen.
I thought it would be interesting to explore the Mid Tudor Crisis in a series of posts, outlining useful contemporary sources, as well as clashing interpretations. And so, what better way to begin than with a source from 1547, at the start of Edward VI’s reign.
This source – the Homily on Obedience – was issued to all corners of the kingdom after the death of Henry VIII. Clearly the royal council realised that they faced a rocky road ahead: despite his failings, Henry was a popular monarch who had been in power for decades (since 1509), and the accession of a boy king had not boded well in England’s past. The last child monarch was Edward V: someone who had reigned for a handful of weeks in 1483 before being snatched (and most likely murdered) by his uncle, Richard III. And now, in 1547, there was another uncle who had designs on building his power base during the minority years of the new king; Edward Seymour was the king’s uncle, via Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour in the 1530s.
Seymour obtained the support of other nobles in order to have himself proclaimed as Lord Protector, placing him in a position above all others (even providing himself with the title of Duke of Somerset). However, he realised that his plan to rule as virtual monarch needed to be fully understood by those across the nation; this led to the formation of the Homily on Obedience, which was circulated and read out in churches across the land.
Take away Kings, Princes, Rulers, Magistrates, Judges, and such estates of God’s order, no man shall ride or go by the highway unrobbed, no man shall sleep in his own house or bed unkilled, no man shall keep his wife, children, and possession in quietness, all things shall be common, and there must needs follow all mischief, and utter destruction both of souls, bodies, goods, and commonwealths.
Therefore, let us subjects do [the duties to which we are bound], giving hearty thanks to God, and praying for the preservation of this godly order. Let us all obey even from the bottom of our hearts, all their godly proceedings, laws, statutes, proclamations, and injunctions, with all other godly orders. Let us consider the Scriptures of the Holy Ghost, which persuade and command us all obediently to be subject, first and chiefly to the King’s Majesty, supreme governor over all, and the next to his honourable counsel, and to all other noble men, magistrates, and officers, which by God’s goodness, be placed and ordered.
It is clear that Seymour was worried about his hold on power, hence the need to emphasise how to rebel against the rule of the king was the worse thing a royal subject could do. And Seymour was right to be concerned: his short-sighted policies eventually led to the rise of two rebellions in 1549, which brought about his fall from power (he was imprisoned, before being released and rehabilitated, and then eventually killed in 1552).
Therefore, we could view the issuing of this Homily on Obedience as a desperate attempt to bring about support from the kingdom. Seymour failed, but traditional arguments – from those such as Whitney Jones – might contend that any person would have failed during a period of continual crisis. But yet revisionists to this argument would note that failure and death was the usual fate of a Tudor noble who dared to grab hold of the reins of power.