Earlier this week in an A-level History revision session, I covered the breakdown of society during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509). This involves an overview of the feudalist structure, with further focus on the hierarchy and influence of the Catholic Church. I haven’t seen any questions relating to this on previous exam papers (the 1C Tudors module on the AQA exam board), but we did manage to find one in a revision guide:

‘The Church was more influential than the nobility in the years 1485 to 1509.’ Assess the validity of this view.

This isn’t the type of question I enjoy getting my teeth stuck into, primarily because it is far too general in order to do an answer any justice. What’s more, the recommended accompanying student textbook simply doesn’t have enough information to utilise. However, the student in this revision session is always up for a challenge, and so we decided to break it down.

My first idea was to consider how these two groups – the Church and nobles – were of importance to Henry VII. However, it was pointed out to me that the question did not mention Henry VII himself, just the timeline of his reign. After that, we then outlined the ways in which the Church and the nobility were influential, before then considering limitations to these points.

After popping up our ideas on a PowerPoint slide (for the use of all students in the group), we were able to develop a conclusion: the Church, on a whole, were far more influential in this period, because of their wide reach over all sections of society. A day later, whilst invigilating a mock exam, I typed up a full response to the question, which is what is shown below.

‘The Church was more influential than the nobility in the years 1485 to 1509.’ Assess the validity of this view.

Both the Church and the nobility played incredibly key roles in English society in the period 1485-1509. They were both crucial pillars of helping Henry VII establish consolidation of his rule, and both were vitally important for the running of wider English society. However, it is clear that the Church had greater influence due to its wider reach within politics, society, and religion.

In terms of political importance, the influence of the Church can be demonstrated with the number of churchmen who occupied the high offices of state. This is illustrated with the key role that Richard Fox served in the Tudor state; he was a bishop of several places (such as Exeter and Durham) during this period, and also served Henry VII in a variety of diplomatic roles (such as helping to reach a peace settlement with Scotland in 1497 in the form of the Treaty of Ayton). Furthermore, the Archbishop of Canterbury – William Warham – similarly served Henry on diplomatic missions of importance.

The influence of the Church can also be seen in Henry VII’s efforts to obtain the support of the papacy in confirming his rule over England after the Battle of Bosworth. The Pope’s endorsement helped him to consolidate his throne, as Henry had stated that his victory at Bosworth was a clear sign of God’s favour.

However, there are examples when Henry VII went against the wishes of the papacy, particularly when dealing with Yorkist threats. In 1486, Henry abused the principle of sanctuary when he ordered that the rebel Humphrey Stafford be removed, which led to a series of protests. This shows that Henry would undermine the Church for higher priorities, such as maintaining control of his kingdom.

But beyond the political sphere, the Church’s influence can be seen with its involvement in a high number of aspects of English life. The social calendar revolved around the Church, as shown in the number of festivals and saints’ days, as well as a wide range of sacraments (such as baptisms, marriages, and funerals). The Church was chiefly responsible for maintaining social control during this period, with people – from the nobility down to the peasantry – regularly attending church services. This is illustrated with the use of doom paintings from the period, impressing upon the people how to find salvation and the door to heaven or hell.

In terms of the nobility’s influence, it is clear that they were crucial for the running of the country. Although the Church was responsible for the faith of the English, it was the nobles who maintained the status quo by operating clearly within the feudalist structure of the period. Key nobles, such as the Stanleys, maintained control over different regions within the kingdom; Thomas Stanley was responsible for the north-west and an area of the Welsh marches. This ensured that stability was maintained.

Furthermore, the king’s relationship with the nobility was important in allowing Henry VII push through policies and govern. For example, when tax was needed to raise an army to deal with the Scottish invasion of England (1496-97), the nobility initially agreed to the amount and then enabled the collection of the money. Also, as with churchmen, many nobles performed important governmental and diplomatic roles for Henry; the Earl of Surrey was sent on diplomatic missions, as well as leading armies in battle (as against the Scottish in 1497).

But yet despite their important function, Henry had a clear mistrust of the nobility. This is evidenced in the reduction of peers during his reign, decreasing from 62 to 45. This was due, in part, to dealing with dissident Yorkist nobles (such as John de la Pole with the Lambert Simnel rebellion), but also in his not wanting to create a noble that could rival his power. As such, a series of policies restricting their power was passed, notably acts of attainder, as well as bonds and recognisances. This all helped Henry to control the nobility, and also shows that the nobles were not as influential as they were in earlier reigns during the Wars of the Roses.

In conclusion, the Church – its role and purpose – was far more influential to those in England during the period 1485-1509. Although the nobility was important in helping Henry VII govern, the Church influenced all aspects of every day life, from top to bottom. This is illustrated in the sacraments and attendance to church services, as well as in the important political roles that churchmen undertook.