England’s Second Reformation

Despite the Duke of Somerset’s great victory at Pinkie—it might be just as fair to say because of that victory, or because of Somerset’s failure to follow up on his success—Scotland remained as big a headache as it had ever been. The death of Henry VIII had been followed, just weeks later, by that of his old friend and rival and enemy Francis I. In his final days, enfeebled by syphilis and wandering miserably from palace to palace in search of a peace that he seemed unable to find, the king of France had displayed not only a willingness to come to terms with the English but a kind of paternal solicitude for the child who now wore England’s crown. At the end he seemed accepting even of the Treaty of Greenwich, by means of which Henry had provided for the marriage of Edward VI to Mary, Queen of Scots, and the eventual union of England and Scotland.

Francis’s son, Henry II, was far less amenable. He saw what his father would have had no difficulty seeing when he was younger and more vital: that a Scotland unfriendly to England was a precious asset, a back door through which to threaten the English whenever they came out of their front door to threaten France. Henry disavowed the Greenwich agreement, and when the Scots asked for his help after Pinkie he sent shiploads of fighting men. His troops were soon making life a misery for the forces that Somerset had positioned in Scottish lowland garrisons, and his fleet took the five-year-old Scottish queen to France, where she was soon betrothed to the heir to the throne and Henry could proudly declare that “France and Scotland are now one.” Fighting continued in the border country between England and Scotland, but the whole situation had been turned into a humiliation for England and especially for Somerset, whose judgment was inevitably brought into question.

But Somerset clung stubbornly to his idea of controlling Scotland by maintaining a string of fortresses there, and in doing so he destroyed any possibility of coming to grips with the financial and economic problems inherited from Henry VIII. The magnitude of his blunder is evident in a few numbers. In the six years following Henry VIII’s death, a total of £335,000 was raised through parliamentary taxation, but during just the first three of those years Somerset’s government spent £580,000 on its campaign to subdue Scotland—£350,000 on manpower alone. Somerset found it necessary to import mercenaries—nearly 7,500 of them, by common reckoning—from Ireland, Spain, Germany, and Italy, even from Hungary and Albania. The treasury being empty and the Crown deep in debt when Somerset became protector, financing his wars (not only in Scotland but also in France, where the virtually useless city of Boulogne could be defended only at great expense) was totally beyond the Crown’s capacity. Thus the duke found himself unable to reverse Henry’s debasement of the coinage and in fact was driven to worsen the problem, skimming £537,000 from the mint in four years. The hundreds of thousands of additional pounds needed to meet the government’s obligations were secured through the plundering of pockets of church wealth that had remained untouched until now (more about that shortly), extensive sales of Crown lands, and further borrowing at the high rates of interest that lenders demanded because of the sorry state of the treasury and the shriveling value of English coins.

Another problem that the lord protector encountered, one far less avoidable than the conflicts with Scotland and France but at least as dangerous, was the kingdom’s ever-more-serious division along religious lines. Statistical precision is impossible, but at midcentury perhaps 20 percent of the population of London was in some meaningful sense evangelical, while the new religion had scarcely penetrated many other parts of the kingdom. Though radical reformers from Cranmer down had the approval of the Somerset faction and were therefore increasingly influential in the setting of Crown policy, and though the dispersion of the monastic lands was creating a new landowning gentry class that would have felt threatened by any move in the direction of Rome, the Pilgrimage of Grace had demonstrated the dangers of imprudently aggressive reform. The fall of Norfolk and Gardiner—both remained in prison—had sealed the ascendancy of the evangelicals, who responded to their victory not with satisfaction but with redoubled determination to rid the kingdom of papistry. Having supported Edward Seymour when he set out to make himself protector, governor, and duke, they now demanded to be repaid. And what they wanted was the dismantling of all the legal defenses that King Henry had erected around traditional doctrine. One of Somerset’s greatest challenges was to maintain the support of his radical allies without sparking a reaction akin to the Pilgrimage of Grace.

He proved unequal to the task. What he lacked above all was firmness—the ability to face his problems cleanly and decisively, lay down clear policies, and thereby secure the acquiescence if not the active support of people who might themselves have preferred a different course. He appears to have believed that it was possible to be all things to all people. As a result, he left uncertainty in his wake and allowed difficulties that might have been dispatched quickly to linger and grow worse.

His brother Thomas was quick to exploit his weakness. In the first weeks of the protectorate, smarting from Somerset’s failure to bestow upon him offices and honors commensurate with what he saw as his deserts, the fortunate but sullenly ungrateful Baron Seymour of Sudeley set out to advance himself through matrimony. According to various reports he set his sights on Princess Mary (now a mature woman and unlikely to have any interest in an upstart evangelical), on Princess Elizabeth (barely more than a child, quite young enough to be impressed), and even on poor Anne of Cleves, now living quietly on her estates and enjoying her status as a peripheral member of the royal family. He found, however, that his best prospects lay with the Dowager Queen Catherine Parr, whom he probably would have married years earlier if the king had not swept her up first. Catherine for her part was eager enough: childless after three marriages (all of them to men much older than herself), yoked most recently to a fat, sick, and prematurely aged king whose every word and act was overhung with menace, she must have seen in the virile, wolflike Seymour a last chance for something like a normal life. Soon he was paying secret visits to her residence, arriving late at night and slipping away quietly before sunrise.

When Somerset learned of his brother’s activities, he reacted angrily, declaring that neither of them was a suitable mate for the daughters or widows of kings. The council, too, found the proposed marriage to be unthinkable. But Seymour had been currying favor with his nephew the king, supplying him with money—as much as £40 at a time—with which he could confer gifts on the preachers, musicians, and other retainers to whom he wished to show favor. At Seymour’s direction, Edward wrote a letter worded, cleverly, to suggest that he was asking Catherine to take his uncle as her husband—not only expressing his approval but allowing the queen to believe that if she agreed she would be doing her sovereign a favor.

Under this canopy of royal protection the wedding was allowed to take place, but it solved little. Soon the Seymours’ wives—one a duchess and wife of the lord protector, the other a former queen but now the spouse of a mere baron—were squabbling over which should have precedence at court. Seymour, insatiable, took control of his bride’s considerable wealth and tried to resist when she was ordered to return the jewels that Henry had given her during their marriage. He also began scheming to take from his brother the title of governor of the king’s body, and again he was able to make the king his accomplice. This led to his being called before the council and accused of plotting to overthrow the government. He refused to recognize the council’s authority until threatened with arrest, at which point his nerve failed him and he acknowledged that he had in fact done wrong.

His brother the duke, who might have spared both of them much future grief by seeing to it that Seymour was thoroughly chastised, instead not only forgave him but arranged for his income to be increased by £800. It is understandable if the younger brother came away from the episode believing that, almost whatever he did, the consequences would turn out to be greatly to his advantage. He was soon back at his old tricks, looking for ways to make himself more important and his brother less. When he and Catherine, who was now pregnant, took Princess Elizabeth into their household, Seymour was soon raising eyebrows by entering the girl’s bedchamber when she was still in her nightclothes and engaging in intimacies that went at least as far as playful slaps on her backside. The onetime queen, told of these high jinks, made light of them, but a storm erupted when she found the pair embracing. The rumor mill said that Seymour regretted marrying the king’s widow when he might have had a bride of royal blood. It said, too, that Elizabeth was not averse to her host’s advances.

When Parliament convened late in 1547, Somerset and the council presented it with a legislative agenda that was largely religious in content and aimed primarily at dismantling Henry VIII’s church. The Act of Six Articles, which the late king had labored to make a definitive statement of his theology, was repealed outright, as was the Act for Advancement of True Religion, which had offended the evangelicals by curtailing freedom to read the Bible. Also expunged were every one of the many felonies created during Henry’s reign, every one of his heresy laws, every treason law passed in the two centuries since the reign of Edward III, and the act that had given royal proclamations the force and legitimacy of parliamentary statutes. It was a thorough housecleaning, but it is not plausibly interpreted as a birth of religious liberty. Its effect was to free Cranmer and his fellow evangelicals not merely to preach and worship as they wished but to suppress all beliefs and practices of which they disapproved. One crucial piece of Henrician orthodoxy remained intact: it was still a capital crime to deny that the king was supreme head of the church.

But with the evangelicals now dominant, the young king supportive of everything they were doing, and England becoming a haven for continental reformers who would have risked their lives by entering the kingdom during the previous reign, supremacy now meant much more than separation from Rome. Now it was a tool to be used in the destruction of almost everything that remained of the old religion. Cranmer, confident of the backing of the lord protector and the king, forbade ceremonies that had been part of community life in England for so long that to most people they seemed eternal: the carrying and blessing of candles on Candlemas Day, for example, and of ashes on Ash Wednesday and palms on Palm Sunday. King Henry himself had inveighed against religious images—statues, pictures, whatever—where these were deemed to have become objects of worship, but few such images had been destroyed. Cranmer now ordered their wholesale removal. It was one of the earliest outbreaks of Puritanism in England, though the word Puritan had not yet been coined.

The most notorious act of the Parliament of 1547, one that Henry probably would have admired, transferred to the Crown two of the few repositories of church wealth not already expropriated: the endowments of chantries (small chapels that over the centuries had been established in almost incalculable numbers for the purpose of offering prayers for the dead) and the assets of guilds, fraternal associations of individuals and families designed to provide benefits such as burial insurance and funding for schools and charitable activities. By any reasonable reckoning the property of the chantries—much of it income-generating land—was private. If prayers for the dead made no sense to people with no belief in purgatory, the Crown’s claim on the money that generations of donors had provided for the saying of such prayers (as Henry VIII himself had done, on a characteristically lavish scale, in anticipation of his own demise) made even less. To argue that the property of the guilds did not belong to their members, or that the existence of the guilds was not of significant benefit both to their members and to the community, was equally implausible. The confiscation bill, when presented to Parliament, was defended as a way of making funds available for education, the relief of the poor, and the support of vicars and preachers. What had already happened to the wealth of the monasteries made such arguments so utterly incredible that even Cranmer objected at first, but when he saw which way the political winds were blowing he swiftly fell silent. The government was desperate for cash as usual, everyone from the lord protector down to the lowliest member of Parliament was eager for a share in fresh spoils, and cities that objected vigorously were bought off with promises of special exemption.

And so the bill passed. Commissioners rushed out to gather the gold and silver plate belonging to the chantries and deliver it to the mint to be melted down, blended with base metals, and thus converted into still more of the debased currency with which the government was—just barely—fending off bankruptcy. Much chantry and guild land went the way monastic land had gone earlier: into the possession of the Crown, then out again either to buyers or to those influential enough to claim such munificent gifts. All this was accomplished by the same Parliament that, as noted earlier, enacted a statute providing for the branding and enslavement of anyone found guilty of vagrancy. The English Reformation was hardening into the shape that would one day cause G. K. Chesterton, in his Short History of England, to call it “the revolt of the rich.” The target of this revolt was not established authority but the common people, the poorest definitely included.

Once Parliament had finished its business, the authorities deemed it safe to release Stephen Gardiner from prison. But the bishop refused to behave himself; the abrupt swerve toward evangelicalism that began with the new reign had exhausted his considerable reserves of malleability. After his release he remained such an outspokenly disgruntled critic of this latest religious settlement that he was called before the council, of which he had long been a leading member. There he was ordered to appear outside St. Paul’s Cathedral on an appointed day and, in the presence of King Edward, deliver a sermon expressing his acceptance of the latest official orthodoxy. He was given a script and invited to use it instead of drafting his own, but he refused. Invited to show his text to the council before delivering it, he again refused, promising however that he would deal with the subjects that the council had prescribed. He was admonished to say nothing that could be considered controversial, but his sermon when he delivered it proved to be exactly what the council least wanted: an explanation of the traditional understanding of the mass and the Eucharist—possibly the first time in his life that Edward had been exposed to such ideas. The young king must have been horrified by such compelling evidence that the Antichrist had not yet been expelled from England.

Gardiner, accused of disobeying his instructions, replied that what he had said could not possibly be considered controversial because it expressed the beliefs of their late, great king and in fact was exactly what Cranmer himself had often preached during Henry’s life. Cranmer, outwitted, was no more amused than the king. Gardiner was sent back to prison, this time to stay. The number of bishops who followed his lead was surprisingly large in light of how he had been treated and how few had followed John Fisher less than two decades before; the innovations introduced under Somerset’s protectorate proved to be too radical even for many who had accepted the separation from Rome. Edmund Bonner was stripped of the see of London and joined Gardiner in prison. The bishops of Chichester, Durham, Exeter, and Worcester also were removed. Their dioceses, before successors were appointed, were stripped of much of their income.

But blood was no longer flowing. The English reign of terror was, at least for the time being, at an end. This has to be attributed to Somerset, who with all his faults (which were numerous and serious enough) was utterly lacking in the bloodthirstiness of the late king. He was scarcely less proud or greedy than Henry, and he became increasingly autocratic as problems pressed in on him, but he was never viciously and rarely unnecessarily cruel. This is perhaps the most attractive feature of his complex, almost inscrutable personality. It may also—one hesitates to say such a thing, because it can seem to excuse the enormities of Henry VIII’s reign—have been the most serious of his weaknesses. He lacked the toughness that his situation required.

He may also have lacked the needed intelligence. This would explain the tenacity with which he persisted in his bellicose approach to Scotland, where there was nothing to be gained after the removal of the child Mary Stuart to France, and his determination not to allow the French to have Boulogne in spite of the ruinous cost of defending it. It would also explain his fumbling and ill-conceived efforts to deal with England’s economic problems, notably the growing discontent over high inflation and declining wages. Somerset took a simplistic view of the economy, believing that the worst of its ills were rooted in the practice of enclosures, which had first become a cause of unrest long before he was born. Wolsey and Cromwell among others had attempted to stop them, but the profits of the wool and cloth trade made conversion difficult to resist and political power lay in the hands of those who owned the land.

Somerset decided to give it another try. He sent out commissioners to enforce the laws against enclosure and to look for evidence of corruption in their enforcement. Some of these commissioners were evangelists of a crusading bent, men committed not just to law enforcement but to creating a new and ideal England in which the pursuit of money would be replaced by brotherly love. Though they accomplished little or nothing in practical terms, the speeches in which they condemned the greed of the rich excited hopes and inflamed resentments among the common folk. This had different effects at different levels of society. Among the working poor, whose livelihoods were being jeopardized by changes in rural life of which the enclosures were just one aspect, Somerset came to be known as “the good duke,” the champion of the oppressed. There were scattered riots and attacks on property by mobs who thought their actions would be approved by the lord protector. The nobility and gentlemen farmers, the greatest of whom owned tens of thousands of sheep, naturally took a drastically different view. They were alarmed by the disturbances and angered by the protector’s role in fomenting them. They were angered, too, by a new tax on sheep and wool—a government attempt to encourage a return to the growing of crops. If the duke’s motives were noble, if he was really motivated by a desire to relieve the suffering of the rural poor, his actions were ineffectual. If on the other hand his intention was to make himself widely popular, he was successful in the most immediate sense but ultimately deeply foolish. The same gestures with which he was winning the affection of the impotent were costing him the trust of the classes with real power, the ones he needed in order to survive. Those classes would not have been impressed by expressions of sympathy for the peasantry under any circumstances, but when such expressions came from an upstart duke who was using his position to make himself the greatest private landowner in England, they could only snort in derision. Somerset was certainly vulnerable on that score. Ownership of a “manor”—the term refers to an estate of indeterminate size, originally large enough for the support of a feudal lord and his retinue—was generally sufficient to put a family well up among the gentry. Somerset, in just a few years as protector, helped himself to more than two hundred manors.

A kingdom broken into religious factions was now in danger of class warfare as well—or so it seemed, at least, to many of those with most to lose—and Somerset responded as indecisive men in positions of authority often will: by trying to please everyone. Arriving at some new kind of unity continued to appear as necessary as it had under Henry VIII, though that goal would remain unachievable as long as the government tried to enforce beliefs that most of the population found incomprehensible if not repugnant. Cranmer was instructed to bridge the gap between the conservatives and the radicals by doing something that no one could possibly have done in mid-sixteenth-century England—produce “one convenient and meet order, rite and fashion of Common Prayer” that everyone in the kingdom could accept. It was probably inevitable that the result—the first version of the Book of Common Prayer, a volume of prayers and church services so ambiguous in its treatment of controversial questions that no one was satisfied but not even the conservatives could find reason to reject it outright—led to rancorous debate among the bishops and in Parliament. (The very fact that the conservatives were not grievously offended evidently persuaded the evangelicals that what Cranmer had produced could not possibly be acceptable.) Unity, in any case, was not achieved. Cranmer’s prayers (beautiful compositions by one of the supreme masters of English prose) were embedded in a new Act of Uniformity, but the fact that they were in English rather than Latin ensured a skeptical reception in many places. Stiff penalties for failure to use the new service added resentment to the brew. An uneasy sense that all the old ways were under direct attack by people determined to force a religious revolution was heightened by passage of a statute making it lawful for clergymen to marry.

All the chickens came home to roost in 1549. The protector’s brother Thomas, who had learned nothing from his earlier escape from the consequences of his own recklessness, now intensified almost to the point of insanity his efforts to advance himself at Somerset’s expense. When his wife, the former Queen Catherine, died shortly after giving birth in September 1548—inevitably it was rumored that he had poisoned her—Seymour turned his attention back to King Edward’s half-sister Elizabeth. Meanwhile he was taking a cut of the profits of the pirates that it was his duty as lord high admiral to suppress, conspiring with the vice-treasurer of the royal mint to divert a steady stream of gold and silver into their own pockets, and trying so indiscriminately to buy allies that his activities inevitably became widely known. The council had no choice but to respond. Summoned, Seymour declined to appear until a more “convenient” time, thereby making his arrest inevitable. When six weeks of investigation and the interrogation of numerous witnesses resulted in a bill of attainder charging him with thirty-three counts of high treason, he haughtily refused to defend himself. In March he was beheaded. Somerset had freed himself of his most relentless enemy, but not necessarily of a terribly dangerous one; Seymour had been too undisciplined, his ambition and resentment too wildly unfocused, to pose a lethal threat. It would have been wiser of the protector to put him in prison and keep him there, or perhaps to exile him. By executing his own brother (or perhaps only by not stopping the council from having him killed, we don’t really know), this man who had ended Henry VIII’s bloodbath gave his critics an excuse to complain that he no less than the old king was capable of killing anyone. Such a perception could not have alleviated the distrust and fear that he had already aroused among the gentry and the nobles.

None of which might have mattered if the kingdom had not suddenly convulsed in a series of spontaneous uprisings. These were widespread and uncoordinated, communication across long distances still being little more advanced than it had been in the time of the Caesars, and most of them subsided or were put down without leaving much record of their exact cause, who led them, or what they were intended to achieve. Wiltshire, Sussex, Surrey, Hants, Berkshire, Kent, Gloucester, Somerset, Suffolk, Warwick, Essex, Hertford, Leicestershire, Worcester, Rutland—these and other counties experienced violent outbreaks of discontent in May 1549. After a period of quiet, trouble then broke out in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Devon, and Cornwall. In all these places except Oxfordshire, where enough of the government’s Italian mercenaries happened to be on hand to help the local authorities restore order and send a dozen ringleaders to the gallows, the threat quickly assumed dangerous proportions.

In Devon in the far west the trouble has been known ever since as the Prayer Book Rebellion. On Whitsunday (the feast of Pentecost, when the priest traditionally wore white vestments), in obedience to the new Act of Uniformity, the vicar of the church at Sampford Courtenay used Cranmer’s new Book of Common Prayer instead of following the customary Latin liturgy. This provoked nothing worse than grumbling at first, but discontent somehow turned overnight into hot anger, and on Monday the townsfolk demanded celebration of the old rites. Resentment must have been smoldering throughout the region, because as word of what had happened spread, people from distant places began converging on Sampford Courtenay. Within a few days a ragtag army of ten thousand had formed and was on the march. An experienced soldier named Humphrey Arundel, a member of a landowning family with no liking for the evangelical reforms, made himself its leader. Lord John Russell, upon arriving at the head of a body of government troops, realized that he was hopelessly outnumbered and did what the Duke of Norfolk had done at Doncaster when faced with the Pilgrimage of Grace: he offered to negotiate. The insurgents presented a list of demands, all of which dealt with religious issues. They wanted a restoration of the Latin Mass, Henry VIII’s Six Articles, images in church, and at least two abbeys in every county. Perhaps most remarkably, and demonstrating that even in the most remote corners of the kingdom there could be detailed understanding of England’s doctrinal struggles and the personalities involved, they demanded that Reginald Pole be brought home from exile and given a place on the Privy Council.

Archbishop Cranmer, when these demands reached London, wrote a lengthy response that expressed contempt for the rebels and their presumption in addressing such weighty questions. Somerset issued a series of proclamations. He offered a pardon to every rebel who submitted to the Crown. He declared that the lands and other possessions of any rebels who declined to submit could become the property of any loyal subject who chose to seize them, that anyone responsible for an unlawful assembly was to be put to death, and, rather curiously, that his commissioners were to proceed with the undoing of illegal enclosures while seeing to it that they themselves were free of guilt. There was no reason to think that enclosures had been a significant factor in the rising. The attention that Somerset gave them at this juncture raises questions about whether he understood what was happening in the west country, or whether he was sufficiently focused on crushing this challenge to the council’s authority to satisfy men of property. In any event he was lucky. Instead of advancing eastward into counties where they would almost certainly have been able to attract recruits, the rebels laid siege to the city of Exeter, where the Crown’s garrison troops held them immobile for forty days. When a royalist force made up largely of Somerset’s German and Italian mercenaries arrived on the scene at last, the rebels were forced to break off their siege and then were crushed in a series of increasingly lopsided battles. In the end nothing remained but a panicky mass of fleeing peasants. As many as four thousand men were dead by the time it was all over, most of them killed in combat but the last executed. A striking feature of the whole episode was the extent to which the Crown had to use foreign mercenaries to save itself from its own subjects.

Far to the east, in Norfolk, an even bigger rebellion was playing itself out almost within striking distance of London. As if to illustrate the breadth of the problems facing the Crown, this one rose out of complaints completely different from those that had sent the west up in flames. As in Devon, a trivial incident had mushroomed into a general uprising, and this time not ten but twenty thousand men joined. Their demands, like those of the Prayer Book rebels, were essentially conservative, expressive of a yearning to get back to what once had been, but here the focus was economic rather than religious. An extraordinary figure named Robert Kett, a wealthy tanner and landowner, though fifty-seven years old and a grandfather, had not only joined the rebellion but made himself its leader and spokesman. He announced a number of demands: an end to enclosures (a much bigger issue here than in the west country, obviously), a rollback of rents, freedom for bondsmen or serfs (of whom there were few in Norfolk by this time), punishment of corrupt officials, and the replacement of incompetent priests and royal councilors “who confounded things sacred and profane and regarded nothing but the enriching of themselves with the public treasure, that they might riot in it during the public calamity.” The last demand was, all too clearly, a challenge to the authority of the council ruling in King Edward’s name. When the rebels were offered pardon if they would disperse, Kett replied indignantly that pardons were for criminals, not for subjects loyal to their king. With that, the rebels left themselves with no alternative to a fight to the finish, which is what Kett’s Rebellion became.

Somerset, who had preparations for another invasion of Scotland under way at this point, sent William Parr, the late Queen Catherine’s brother and now the Marquess of Northampton, to Norfolk with a mixed force of English and Italian troops. Parr, no soldier, made the mistake of leading his men into Norwich, then the largest city in England after London, where the narrow streets made it impossible for them to mass against the rebels. They were bloodily driven out. Somerset meanwhile was increasingly isolating himself, refusing to confer with the other members of the Privy Council and sending out signals that confused rebels and loyalists alike. With one proclamation he condemned destruction of the hedges with which formerly common lands had been enclosed, and with the next he promised pardon to those who committed such acts so long as they expressed sorrow for their deeds. New local risings continued to erupt—in Kent, in Surrey, in Sussex—and increasingly the violence was directed at the property of the wealthy. When Somerset cried out in near-hysteria that the demands of the rebels were “fair and just,” his fellow councilors concluded, not unfairly, that he was cracking under pressure.

Norwich remained the epicenter of the crisis, so dangerous by now that Somerset had no choice but to call off his Scottish campaign and summon to center stage the next great figure in the Tudor saga, John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. The reader will recall that at the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII, when the young king and his councilors were eager to dissociate themselves from the unpopularity of Henry VII, the lawyers Edmund Dudley and Richard Empson had been attainted and executed on a ridiculously implausible charge of having plotted to seize control of the government. Their real offense—which probably involved no violation of the law, was largely if not entirely aimed at the acts of bona fide lawbreakers, and certainly was done with Henry VII’s knowledge—was to have been their royal master’s all-too-visible instruments as he went about the hard business of extracting money from the most prosperous and powerful of his subjects. Edmund Dudley, whose professional and political skills propelled him into the speakership of the House of Commons and a seat on the Royal Council, had accumulated an impressive fortune as reward for his services. He had also boosted his social status by marrying a viscount’s daughter. Attainder meant that all the fruits of his success were confiscated by the Crown, so that his widow and their three sons and one daughter, of whom the six-year-old John was the eldest, were ruined.

But just a year after Dudley’s execution, his widow entered into an advantageous second marriage with Arthur Plantagenet, an illegitimate son of King Edward IV. A half-brother of Henry VIII’s mother, Elizabeth of York, Plantagenet was such an amiable soul that, in spite of being more than twenty years older than the new king, he became one of his closest companions. In short order Edmund Dudley’s attainder was posthumously revoked, perhaps a tacit admission that he had never been guilty but more likely an easy way of enriching King Henry’s bastard uncle: the part of the Dudley estate that remained in the Crown’s possession was awarded not to the dead man’s widow or children but to Plantagenet. For reasons unknown to history, the boy John became the ward not of his stepfather but of a soldier and courtier named Edward Guildford. At some point in early adolescence he was admitted to court as a page, a humble first step on the ladder of royal service but one that was naturally much coveted. In due course he made the acquaintance of another young courtier-in-training, Edward Seymour, the future Duke of Somerset.

The lives of the two were intertwined from that point. Both participated in King Henry’s invasion of the continent in the early 1520s, and both were knighted in France in 1523. Thereafter Dudley began to advance more rapidly than Seymour in spite of being younger by four years. His success may have been owing at first to the prominence at court of both his stepfather Plantagenet (who by the time of the French war was Viscount Lisle and a member of the council) and his onetime guardian and then father-in-law, Guildford. Later, however, the talent he displayed in martial arts including jousting, one of the king’s favorite pastimes, would have brought him to the fore. By 1524 he was an esquire of the body, an honor that Seymour did not achieve until 1531, and in 1534 he became a member of Parliament. He and Seymour were among the first courtiers to affiliate themselves with evangelical reform, becoming associates of Cromwell in doing so. That they were more than casual acquaintances is suggested by the fact that, in 1532 or thereabouts, Dudley signed as guarantor of a loan taken out by Seymour.

The door to wealth and power opened wide for both of them in 1536, but from then on, thanks to his sister Jane’s marriage to the king, it was Seymour who took the lead while Dudley followed doggedly in his tracks. When Seymour became an earl and member of the Privy Council, he helped to secure Dudley’s appointment as vice-admiral with responsibility for driving pirates from the English Channel. When Seymour took command of King Henry’s invasion of Scotland, Dudley assumed the key supporting role of warden-general of the Scottish marches. But Dudley was far more than a mere sycophant riding the crest of his friend’s good fortune. In the chronicles of the time he seems to pop up everywhere: as envoy between the king and the Duke of Norfolk during the Pilgrimage of Grace, delivering to Henry the terrible news of Catherine Howard’s confession, negotiating treaties, commanding troops. Wherever he was sent, he was effective. In 1543 Dudley (himself a viscount by now, having been given the title vacated by the death of his stepfather) was made lord high admiral and a knight of the garter, and he joined Seymour on the Privy Council. No one could doubt that he had earned these honors. Nor could anyone have been surprised when, after Henry’s death, Dudley joined with Seymour in dominating the executors of the king’s will, became Earl of Warwick when Seymour made himself Duke of Somerset, and commanded the frontline troops when Somerset again attacked Scotland. In alliance with Cranmer, who looked after their interests where the church was concerned, Somerset and Dudley had control of nearly everything.

But by the summer of 1549, with Kett’s rebels in possession of Norwich and disturbances continuing to erupt in many places, it was all in danger of falling apart. Somerset’s behavior became more and more erratic, his leadership more and more confused. He appeared to be sinking into a paranoia that made it impossible for him to trust even his oldest allies. In a pair of mistakes either one of which might have been enough to doom him, he distanced himself both from William Paget, the canny master of court politics who had steered him through the first days of the protectorate, and from Dudley. He had refused to restore Dudley to the post of lord high admiral, an assignment Dudley loved and took seriously, after the execution of Thomas Seymour left it vacant. He had forced Dudley to give up Warwick Castle, a demand that made no sense unless he regarded the new Earl of Warwick as too untrustworthy to be left in possession of such a mighty stronghold. Dudley by now was himself an immensely wealthy landowner—that followed more or less automatically from political success in the Tudor kleptocracy—and so had much to lose. Like his whole class, he was alarmed by the rebellions and convinced that Somerset was encouraging and condoning them.

It may have been distrust that caused Somerset to send the inexperienced William Parr rather than Dudley to put down Kett’s Rebellion, but whatever the reason it was another of the duke’s mistakes. Parr’s ignominious expulsion from Norwich left Somerset with no alternative to Dudley unless he were willing to take command himself, which would have destroyed the image that he had built for himself as the special friend of the people. And so Dudley advanced on Norwich with an army of some eight thousand men, a quarter of whom were German cavalry. His performance there confirmed his reputation for courage and resolution and his image as a charismatic commander. Upon arrival he offered the rebels pardon in return for their abandonment of the struggle, and when they refused he attacked, penetrating the city’s outer defenses. The city fathers of Norwich, fearful that if the rebels bested Dudley as they had Parr they would go on a rampage of destruction, implored him to take his campaign elsewhere. Instead he gathered his lieutenants and in a moment of high drama kissed his sword, made the sign of the cross, and swore to fight to the death rather than surrender or withdraw. When his subordinates took the same oath, the spines of the townsfolk were stiffened and the fighting resumed. Step by bloody step Dudley’s men bludgeoned Kett’s out through the city gates and into open country. The rising ended with the last of the rebels surrounded and shouting defiance at a final offer of pardon. They didn’t believe the offer to be genuine and said they would rather die fighting than on the gallows. Dudley, in probably the noblest act of his life, rode forward to tell the rebels face-to-face that if they would lay down their arms he would personally guarantee their safety. They decided to believe him, and Dudley was as good as his word. Kett was executed, inevitably, and so were ten other rebel leaders, but that was the end of the killing. When the landowning gentlemen of the neighborhood said they wanted revenge, Dudley asked if they intended to do their own planting after their tenants had been exterminated.

When Dudley returned to London, he was the hero of the governing class, the one man who had proved capable of restoring order. Somerset by contrast, though the rural peasantry continued to revere him, was so discredited in the eyes of the elite, so alienated even from a majority of the Privy Council, that he found it necessary to leave the capital and withdraw with his nephew the king to Hampton Court. There ensued a power struggle of great complexity. After first and briefly allying himself with the religious conservatives, Dudley embarked on a purge of those same conservatives as soon as he no longer needed them, thereby freeing himself of a connection that the young king could never have found acceptable. The turmoil continued for months, with many twists and turns. In October Somerset was deprived of the protectorship and became a prisoner in the Tower. Four months later he secured a pardon by confessing on his knees that he had abused the powers of his office. Still later he was readmitted to the council, and eventually he achieved such an advanced state of rehabilitation that his daughter Anne was married to Dudley’s eldest son. Like his late brother, however, Somerset proved incapable of being satisfied. He wanted to be lord protector again, and with that in mind he plotted a marriage between King Edward and another of his daughters, a girl bearing the name of her aunt Jane Seymour. Dudley could not possibly trust him; in practical terms it was becoming difficult even to permit him to remain alive. Dudley arranged to have himself elevated to Duke of Northumberland in October 1551, which put him on an equal footing with Somerset at the apex of English nobility, and a few days later Somerset and his wife and most powerful allies all were arrested. Somerset was charged with having committed treason by planning to capture or murder Dudley, and of having feloniously involved others in his plot. He was tried in the House of Lords and somehow found guilty of the felony but not of treason. The outcome was inevitable in any case: early in 1552 he was beheaded on Tower Hill before a crowd of thousands of his lowborn admirers. The execution was a scene of immense tension, with the onlookers appearing to be on the verge of turning on the authorities.

Thus the king, in early adolescence now, lost a second uncle to the headsman’s ax. As with the first of those losses, there is no record of his having been affected emotionally to even the smallest extent. It is not clear that Edward had much capacity for affection, which is understandable in light of how little he appears to have received in the course of his young life and how many of the people to whom he might have been close had gone to their graves. Two of the closest friends of his childhood, the sons of the Duke of Suffolk and the woman he had married after the death of King Henry’s sister Mary, had been carried off by the sweating sickness. Another had been sent off to study in France. Of his two half-sisters, he appears to have been closer to Mary, who was old enough to be his mother, but as he matured Edward came to regard even her with a prim and prudish disapproval. Mary insisted on remaining a papist, after all, and therefore, sadly, was damned. Nothing Edward said, nothing he did to pressure her, could deflect Mary from having the old Catholic mass said regularly in her private quarters. That had to be a cause of deep distress to a boy schooled to be very serious about his role as supreme head, and to take nothing so seriously as his duty to show everyone in England the way to the true religion.

John Dudley, now the Duke of Northumberland and rapidly becoming the richest man in England thanks to an appetite for church and Crown lands no less voracious than Somerset’s, knew that he needed the king’s favor in order to maintain his place. He was adroit at winning that favor and at keeping it. He dared make no claim to the title of lord protector—that had never been held by anyone outside the royal family—but he adopted and made good use of “lord president of the Privy Council.” He invited the king to attend council meetings, seeing to it that he was briefed in advance on matters to be discussed and even given words to say at the appropriate times (words that the boy, always conscientious, would memorize for delivery). In so doing he encouraged Edward to believe that he was not merely participating in the governance of the kingdom but beginning to rule. At the same time, Dudley embraced the increasingly Calvinistic theology of the king and his tutors. It would be unfair to accuse Dudley of adopting whatever beliefs were most certain to please the king; he had been, as we have seen, a member of the evangelical faction before Edward was born. Still, he was a man of action, and his proper arena was that in which power, not ideas, was in play. It is not impossible that he would have become a conservative if doing so would have helped him to maintain control of king and council.

Be that as it may, King Edward was a sincerely fervent evangelical, and Dudley, by displaying his own fervor in the same cause, found it possible to have things almost entirely his way. And he was never as feckless as Somerset in the exercise of his power. He gave up Boulogne, and though many Englishmen thought the terms he accepted from the French were humiliating, doing so was vastly wiser than continuing a struggle that the kingdom could not afford and could gain nothing from. Peace with France brought peace with Scotland, too, and after a final, desperate devaluation of the coinage (the Crown remained in terrible financial condition), Dudley began taking painful steps to restore it to respectability. The conservatives were required to absorb blow after blow: the venerable Cuthbert Tunstal was losing not only his bishopric but his freedom, the altars were being torn out of every church, and a revised and unmistakably Protestant Book of Common Prayer was made compulsory while attendance at mass became unlawful. But justifications for such acts seemed in good supply. To the victors go the spoils, after all. And there was no reason to think that the conservatives wouldn’t have been just as vindictive if given the chance. Religious tolerance remained inconceivable: in sixteenth-century Europe almost no one could imagine a kingdom surviving while its people were separated into camps with incompatible beliefs.

Dudley had achieved everything that an Englishman not of royal blood could ever have imagined achieving. He was rich beyond the dreams of avarice, he was so powerful that no one dared challenge him, and he had five fine and faithful sons to whom to pass on what he was building. And if it all depended on the goodwill of the king, he had every reason to expect that the king, if properly handled, would continue indefinitely to be Dudley’s fine and faithful instrument.

It was all perfect. And from the point in the spring of 1552 when the king was briefly bedridden with measles and smallpox, it was all doomed.



WHEN EDWARD VI BECAME KING, MARTIN LUTHER HAD been dead for thirteen months and the Lutheran part of the Reformation had largely run its course. After changing the world, the former Friar Martin had withdrawn into a relatively quiet life as the father of a growing family and a writer of biblical commentaries. In the last decade of his life he was tortured by constipation, hemorrhoids, and kidney stones, plagued by the scandal that had erupted when he endorsed bigamy, and increasingly consumed by a virulent anti-Semitism. (Three days before his death he preached a sermon urging the expulsion of the Jews from Germany.) His theology, having conquered half of Germany and all of Scandinavia, had been overtaken on the cutting edge of the religious revolution by newer varieties of Protestant belief.

Edward became king, therefore, at the point where a second generation of evangelical thinkers, based in Switzerland rather than Germany, was making itself heard. Its increasingly dominant member was a Frenchman living in Switzerland, John Calvin, one of history’s most paradoxical figures. In assuming the leadership of a revolt against the authority of the Roman church, Calvin came to claim for himself more power than any Renaissance pope had ever dared to do. He not only declared himself to be something very like the infallible head of a one true church of his own devising—any lunatic might have done that, and one or two of the sixteenth century’s more interesting lunatics did—but through willpower, sheer force of intellect, and unshakable integrity he largely made good on that claim. In the little city of Geneva, a place not particularly friendly to reform, he constructed a regime that came about as close as anything in Europe ever had to an enduring totalitarian theocracy. In laying down the rules by which the people of Geneva (and, by implication, the whole Christian world) were to live, and more important by articulating a rationale for the validity of those rules, he made himself one of the most influential theologians in history. In places as remote from his home base as Scotland (where his disciples transformed not only the church but the culture) and England (where his teachings triggered the Puritan movement), it was Calvin more than Luther who defined what it was to be Protestant. The reach of his ideas is evident in the fact that from 1550 to 1650, a century that encompassed the careers of Shakespeare and other writers of gigantic stature, Calvin was England’s most published author. This happened although Calvin never set foot in England, rarely showed more than passing interest in its affairs, and was reviled by an Anglican church that persecuted his followers and attempted to suppress his teachings.

Both in background and in temperament, Calvin was profoundly different from Luther. He was trained in the law rather than in theology, and much of his impact was rooted in a lawyerly impulse to systematize, to impose order on what can sometimes seem the disorder, the emotional excess, of Luther’s attacks first on the abuses of the church and then on some of its doctrines. Born in 1509 (the family name was Cauvin, Latinized as “Calvinus” when young Jean began putting his ideas in writing), he was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother but came of age in a France that was being shaken apart by the disputes that Luther had ignited. He was drawn to the cause of reform while still a student in Paris, where he began acquiring the mastery of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew that would make him one of Europe’s most formidable Scripture scholars. The beliefs that he adopted at this early stage were, not surprisingly, almost identical to what Luther was then preaching. Thus he agreed with Luther’s view that original sin had so damaged the human soul as to make it impossible for anyone to merit salvation and that man was therefore entirely dependent upon a divine grace that cannot be earned. Like Luther, he repudiated most of the traditional sacraments (all, in fact, except baptism and the Eucharist) along with the practices (celibacy, fasting, pilgrimages, and indulgences, for example) that the Catholic Church had long offered as ways of winning divine favor. Throughout his public life Calvin displayed a hatred of Rome at least as intense as Luther’s, but he never descended to the kind of childishly scatological rhetoric with which the German reformer defaced so much of his own writing. (Thomas More and others, to their own everlasting shame, answered him in kind.)

Theologically, Calvin soon went beyond Luther. He is best known for making explicit something that had remained implicit in Luther: the conclusion that, because fallen man has no free will and can do nothing to win salvation or escape damnation, some are predestined to be saved while others are predestined for hell. The saved are the elect, in Calvin’s system. Though they can be recognized by their acceptance of divine truth, their love of the Eucharist, and their upright conduct, these are not the means by which they achieve salvation but rather a sign of election. Calvin’s notion of “double predestination”—of some being marked for damnation just as surely as others are fated for salvation—has too often been regarded as the centerpiece of his theology. It is said to have made his God a kind of insanely cruel monster and to explain the severity of the regimen that Calvin imposed upon Geneva. In fact, however, Calvin regarded predestination as logically inescapable but otherwise beyond human understanding and in practical terms not of great importance. It was his followers who, after his death, moved predestination closer to the center of “Calvinist” belief. Calvin’s own view was that the idea of predestination should make it possible for believers to set aside their anxieties about earning salvation and put their trust in the mercy of a gentle, compassionate divine father (who was also, Calvin suggested, a loving mother). Calvin was generally disinclined to take a passionate interest in theological questions that consumed many of his contemporaries but seemed to him to have little practical value in addressing the needs of the elect. He finessed one of the most contentious of issues, for example, by declaring that Christ was really present in the Eucharist but only in a “spiritual” sense, and letting it go at that. He regarded the heart as more important than the intellect in establishing a right relationship with God.

What separated Calvin from the Lutherans most radically, at least in terms of practical consequences, was his approach to the governance of the church as well as—church and state being inextricably connected in his system—the civil society. Luther, in renouncing the traditional church, had discarded Catholic belief in a priesthood endowed with special authority and unique sacramental faculties. In its place he offered a “priesthood of all believers,” and while acknowledging the church as a legitimately distinct element of society, he emphatically subordinated it (especially after the Peasants’ War) to civil authority. For Calvin, by contrast, the church and its clergy retained a unique authority, with not only the right but the duty to reshape the world in such a way as to make it a fit habitation for the elect. Hence one of the defining characteristics of Calvinism (and the Puritanism to which it gave rise in England): a zealous commitment to making the world a fully realized part of Christ’s kingdom. Curiously, people who believed they could do nothing to alter their eternal destinies nevertheless dedicated themselves to making everyone in the world conduct themselves in a holy manner as Calvin defined holiness. This was a matter of duty, and its aim was not to save souls but to protect the elect from the doomed.

Calvin’s whole career was an expression of commitment to a Christian reordering of society. He came early to be certain not only that Catholicism was a gross perversion of the gospel—his contempt for the old religion appears at times to border on the pathological—but that he himself, by reading Scripture correctly, had found in it truths that European Christianity had either intentionally suppressed or, more charitably, remained blind to for more than a thousand years. Among his recovered truths were highly specific instructions as to how the church and the community of believers should be organized and managed. It was of course extraordinary, his conviction that virtually all of Christendom had been grievously in error almost from the beginning and that he alone was free of error. On its face it was outlandish. But in the theological confusion of the sixteenth century, Calvin’s impregnable self-confidence and the clarity of his ideas brought him an eager audience.

Most of his core ideas were already in place when, in 1536, Calvin happened to make an overnight stop in Geneva and was persuaded to remain there and join the embattled local forces of reform. He quickly showed himself to be the most unhesitating and uncompromising of crusaders, answering disagreement with scorn and demanding that everyone in the city either assent to his beliefs or face excommunication and expulsion. During his first months in Geneva he published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which as it evolved would become arguably the most important single work in the history of Protestantism. When after two years he insisted that the city council submit to the authority of the clergy—to his authority, in effect—he found that he had overreached. Now it was he who was sent into exile.

Geneva remained a religious cockpit, however, and the most ambitious of its reformers soon were yearning once again for strong leadership. In 1541 Calvin was invited to return. He did so on very nearly his own terms, demanding that the council enact and enforce his Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and from that point until the end of his life twenty-three years later he outmaneuvered one after another of his adversaries until Geneva became the Sparta of Protestant Europe. His rules were not only given the force of law but declared “holy doctrine”—infallible, or something not easily distinguished from it. The regime that he imposed was democratic in the sense that church members chose their pastors, but once chosen, those pastors, working with and through lay elders, were able to rule virtually unchallenged. Eventually Calvin’s consistory, an ecclesiastical court presided over by the pastors, was empowered to investigate and discipline anyone in the city. Not only drunkenness, gambling, and sexual promiscuity but dancing, singing outside church, swearing, and failing to attend sermons became crimes. Catholic practice, of course, was absolutely forbidden. Punishments ranged from reprimands and public confession to beatings, banishment, even execution. In a five-year period toward the end of Calvin’s career, fifty-eight Genevans were sentenced to death, seventy-six exiled.

Calvin became a major force in England’s religious evolution without really trying to do so. Many of the evangelicals who could not accept Henry VIII’s quasi-Catholic Church had taken up exile in Geneva, where Calvin’s mind and personality powerfully affected their beliefs. When they flooded back into England after Edward VI’s accession, they carried a white-hot Calvinist fervor with them. They formed the nucleus of what would become a potent new element in English national life. They sparked a movement that knew what it wanted, knew that it was right, knew that its opposition was damnably wrong in the most literal sense, and was not inclined to compromise.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!