Frustration and Embarrassment

Getting rid of Catherine of Aragon was far from the only thing that Henry and Wolsey had to worry about as the 1520s drew to a close. They had a kingdom to manage and a not very happy one at that. Its propertied classes were fed up with the Crown’s incessant demands for money, and the population at large was staggering under the effects of several consecutive bad harvests. Relations with the continent required a good deal of attention as well. From January 1528 on into the following year, England in alliance with France was at war with the empire of Charles V. It was a peculiar conflict in the way that most wars of the time can seem peculiar to us: a tentative, distinctly limited affair in which England sent no soldiers across the Channel to do any actual fighting. But the stakes were not trivial. One of the ideas behind allying with France and helping to finance its armies was to isolate Charles and force him to join in the great pan-European peace that had long been Wolsey’s dream. Less loftily but no doubt more importantly from Henry’s perspective, the alliance was intended to weaken Charles to such an extent that the pope need have no fear in annulling the king’s marriage. Thus much of Europe was at war at least partly because of Henry’s “great matter.”

But alliances and treaties meant so little in sixteenth-century Europe that one almost wonders why anyone considered them worth making. War against Charles V meant war with a Hapsburg empire extending from Hungary to Spain and on to the New World, but where England was concerned the most important part of that empire was the Duchy of Burgundy, which included the so-called Low Countries or Netherlands, today’s Belgium and Holland. In the 1520s, the empire having grown far too unwieldy for any one man to manage, Burgundy was ruled by a regent, Archduchess Margaret of Savoy. Margaret, like Catherine of Aragon, was Charles V’s aunt. But she was the sister of Charles’s late father Philip the Handsome and therefore a true Hapsburg, whereas Catherine was the sister of Charles’s mother and therefore without Hapsburg blood. In her youth Margaret had been married briefly to Catherine’s brother, the short-lived Prince John. A bond of affection had formed between the two women; the archduchess supported her sister-in-law unreservedly and thereby made herself one of Henry’s most troublesome adversaries. But money can talk more loudly than family ties, not least when whole national economies are at risk. Margaret and her imperial nephew found themselves faced with the hard fact that England, a leading source of wool for Burgundy’s textile industry, was indispensable not only to the duchy but to the empire. North of the Channel, Henry and Wolsey came up against the other side of the same coin: if cut off from its markets in the Low Countries, a worrisome part of England’s economy would be in danger of collapse. The situation posed political dangers as well: merchants, manufacturers, and workers were not likely to passively accept the loss of their livelihoods for the sake of a distant and arcane war with little real meaning for any of them (if indeed it made much sense in any objective way). Nor could the royal treasuries on either side afford to lose the revenues brought in by tariffs on the wool and cloth trade and the taxes that the industry generated. A deal was quickly cut to permit the wool and cloth trade to continue as if there were no war. The leading powers of the time never indulged in total war. The defeat of the enemy, not his total destruction, was always the point.

King Francis of France, as charmingly amoral a rogue as was to be found in all of Europe, was prepared as usual to pursue whatever opportunities he could find regardless of alliances or declarations of war. He had reason to hate Charles V, who had imposed a humiliating peace after destroying his army in the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and taking him prisoner. Charles still held Francis’s two sons as hostages, and the strength of the Hapsburgs in Italy remained the one great obstacle to the expansion south of the Alps that Francis would lust after all his life. Nevertheless Francis now saw advantages in trying to come to terms with the empire, if only for the time being. If doing so might involve the betrayal (not for the first or last time) of his old friend Henry of England, that was a price that Francis, even more than most of the rulers of the day, would never hesitate to pay. And so by early 1529 representatives of France and Spain (Francis’s mother and Charles’s aunt Margaret prominent among them) were meeting to negotiate a peace. The English were not invited, and Wolsey was alarmed at finding himself excluded: the treaty being discussed would unite the two great continental powers, leave England without allies, and mean the ruin of everything he had been trying to achieve. Henry was little less troubled: by making peace with France, Charles would escape his isolation, and would be free to make himself the ally and patron, if perhaps not quite the master, of the pope.

Henry’s only hope was to secure his annulment before France and the Empire came to terms. A new field of opportunity suddenly appeared to open up when, in February, word arrived of the death of Pope Clement. Henry went quickly into action, instructing his agents in Rome that everything possible should be done to secure Wolsey’s election. He had attempted this same thing on earlier occasions; long before deciding to repudiate his marriage, he had seen the advantages of placing an Englishman on the throne of St. Peter. That Wolsey himself felt any compelling desire to become pope is not at all clear; his exalted position in England appears to have satisfied even his voracious appetite for power. But things had never gone as badly for him as they were going in 1529, and he seems to have sensed that unless he seized the papacy his career, even his life, might be over. So he prepared to campaign as never before. Henry, meanwhile, was telling his agents that if Wolsey’s election proved impossible, they were to prevent the election of any of the several possible candidates answerable to Charles V. But then fresh news arrived: Clement was not dead at all, but only very sick. Several weeks passed before he recovered sufficiently to resume his meetings with England’s representatives in Rome. The senior member of the embassy, Stephen Gardiner, was a youngish priest-courtier of the sort that had for centuries played a central role in the government of England. Earlier Gardiner had served as Wolsey’s secretary and had won the king’s favor by energetically supporting the case for the annulment. Now, having traveled to Italy on Henry’s behalf and accomplished nothing, he was desperate for a success of some kind to report back to England. To the papal court he repeated Wolsey’s warnings that Henry, if thwarted, might ally himself with the reformers who were tearing the church apart in Germany. Audaciously, he urged Clement to consider the consequences for his own soul should he die without having given Henry the justice to which he, as king, was entitled. The pope, as he unfailingly did when pressed in this way, offered sincere but useless assurances that he wished to be as helpful to the English monarch as it lay within his power to be.

Henry and Wolsey were growing desperate too. Blocked in Rome, and frustrated by how badly their proxy war with the empire was going (the supplies of gold they were sending to France were not preventing Charles from winning one military victory after another), they once again focused their hopes on the tribunal for which Cardinal Campeggio had been sent from Rome months before. All was in readiness for the hearing—the trial—that Campeggio was still under secret orders to delay by every possible means. The king’s case had long since been ready. Catherine, too, with the assistance of English advisers including Bishop John Fisher and canon lawyers sent from Flanders by Margaret of Savoy, had made extensive preparations. In the course of doing so, however, Catherine had lost whatever hope she originally had of receiving an impartial hearing. From Wolsey she could obviously expect nothing. And Campeggio, she now feared, was so eager to accommodate the king and had been so entangled in Wolsey’s machinations as to be no longer capable of independent judgment. And so, early in March, arguing that the tribunal lacked the authority to hear the case and could not be expected to proceed without bias, she sent a letter asking Clement to recall the question to Rome. The pope, around whose neck the case now hung like a rotting corpse, did nothing in response. Catherine’s appeal had no effect on Henry’s determination to move forward, Campeggio could offer no justification for further delay, and on May 28 a license for the tribunal to begin its business was issued under the king’s Great Seal.

The tribunal met for the first time three days later at Blackfriars Abbey in London, a full seven months after Campeggio’s arrival in England. It remained in session for a month, producing drama of the highest order. On June 18, the first day on which Catherine’s representatives were expected to appear, the queen arrived in person. She repeated the complaints that she had already directed to the pope, telling the legates that their proceedings were inherently illegitimate and she herself was at a hopeless disadvantage, and that she therefore intended to offer no defense. She demanded that Wolsey and Campeggio send the case back to Rome.

When she and Henry were ordered to appear on June 21, both did so, the king no doubt eagerly and with high expectations, the queen under protest. The few accounts of that day’s proceedings differ as to whether the king or the queen spoke first, but they agree about what was said. Henry delivered an oration, a reprise of the things he had said earlier to the dignitaries assembled at his court. He had asked the pope to commission a tribunal, he said, not because of any fault in Catherine—again he rhapsodized about what a good wife and queen she had always been—but because the promptings of his conscience left him with no choice. Perhaps because he knew he was rumored to be a mere pawn of Wolsey in this matter, more likely to assert Wolsey’s ability to serve as an impartial judge, he claimed that from the beginning he had proceeded not on but against the cardinal’s advice. To the extent that he had followed the counsel of anyone, he said, it had been that of his confessor and of certain learned (but unnamed) bishops in England and France. He repeated his transparently absurd assertion that nothing would make him happier than a finding in favor of the legitimacy of his marriage, saying again that he intended to accept the tribunal’s decision whatever it turned out to be.

Wolsey’s contribution that day was to announce that he and Campeggio had found against Catherine’s protest, so that the case would not be returned to Rome—not, at least, by them. He assured all assembled that he was in no way prejudiced against the queen and wanted nothing except a just resolution of the case. Campeggio must have struggled to follow the proceedings; his knowledge of English was so limited that since his arrival he had had to communicate in French and Latin.

At some point, possibly before Henry gave his speech—though it makes a better story to assume (as Shakespeare later would) that she acted in response to what the king had said—Catherine rose from her chair, crossed the room to where Henry sat, and dropped to her knees before him.

“Sir,” she began in the accent that had not left her in a quarter-century in England, “I beseech you to pity me, a woman and a stranger, without an assured friend and without an indifferent counselor. I take God to witness that I have always been to you a true and loyal wife, that I have made it my constant duty to seek your pleasure, that I have loved all whom you loved, whether I had reason or not, whether they were friends to me or foes. I have been your wife for years. I have brought you many children. God knows that when I came to your bed I was a virgin, and I put it to your own conscience to say whether it was or was not so. If there be any offense which can be alleged against me, I consent to depart with infamy. If not, then I pray you do me justice.”

It was at least as much a challenge as an appeal. Catherine waited for a response, but Henry said nothing. Finally she stood, a short, stout woman, aging and careworn but totally in control of herself, her dignity anchored in the knowledge that she herself was descended from kings of England and was the daughter not only of a powerful king but of a great queen. After bowing deeply in Henry’s direction she made for the exit. When an attendant attempted to call her back, she paused and spoke again. “I never before disputed the will of my husband,” she declared to the silent chamber. “I shall take the first opportunity to ask pardon for this disobedience.” With that she was gone, ignoring further demands for her return. Neither on that occasion nor at any other time did the king attempt to contradict Catherine’s assertion that she had been a virgin on the day they were wed.

Catherine refused all future summonses to appear or to send representatives, and the tribunal declared her “contumacious” for doing so. The hearing therefore unfolded as an entirely one-sided affair, with the king’s attorneys arguing his case and receiving no rebuttal. Basically that case rested on three main points: that the marriage of Arthur and Catherine had in fact been consummated (unproven at best); that the dispensation permitting Henry to wed Catherine had been obtained under false pretenses (the evidence for this complicated claim was even less impressive than the witnesses who testified to Prince Arthur’s alleged boast, the morning after his wedding, that he had spent a hot night “in the midst of Spain”); and finally that a document produced by Catherine to prove that her father had known her first marriage to be unconsummated was a forgery (extremely improbable, and if true not possibly decisive). Weak as the king’s position was, the fact that his was the only case being presented must have heightened Henry’s expectation that the matter would soon be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. Poor Campeggio, largely dependent upon Wolsey and others to explain what was being said by the attorneys and witnesses, must have wondered how he was going to avoid making a final ruling. He wrote to Clement, plaintively adding his voice to those asking for a recall of the case to Rome.

On the mainland of Europe, meanwhile, the ground was shifting in ways that Henry could not have welcomed and must have cost Wolsey sleep. On June 21—the day of Catherine’s challenge to Henry—the forces of the empire met a French army at Landriano and routed it. This was the second time in four years that Charles had inflicted a devastating defeat on Francis in Italy, and it convinced the French king to push the talks then in process forward to completion. The resulting Peace of Cambrai, signed on August 3, left Italy under Hapsburg control. The triumphant emperor, a canny diplomat as well as one of the best generals of the day, wisely began dealing not only gently but magnanimously with the pope, allowing his return to Rome and the rebuilding of the city’s ruined defenses. Clement at this point had every reason for wanting the friendliest possible relations with Charles, who had never been less than respectful in his dealings with the papacy and was its strongest, most dependable ally in the endlessly difficult struggle with the Protestants of Germany. Among the forces drawing pope to emperor was the fact that Charles, once again master of Italy in the aftermath of Landriano, had it in his power to decide whether the pope’s Medici kinsmen would be allowed to rule in Florence. Clement declared, not surprisingly, that he was now a committed “imperialist.”

Therefore it was probably for a grab bag of reasons—the appeals not only of Catherine and her supporters but of Cardinal Campeggio, the complexities of the case and questions about the authority of the legatine tribunal, the shift in the continental balance of power in favor of the House of Hapsburg—that the pope signed an order recalling the case to Rome. Time would show, however, that this order did not signal any readiness on Clement’s part to find against Henry. In any case, the order had not yet reached England when Campeggio adjourned the tribunal and, using the rather far-fetched excuse that the papal courts would not be in session until October and he and Wolsey must adhere to the Roman schedule, announced that it would not reconvene for nearly three months. This fresh delay intensified Henry’s and Wolsey’s frustration, but it became irrelevant as soon as they learned of what the pope had done.

Henry’s life had turned into a series of setbacks and embarrassments. Even before being adjourned, and even in the absence of a defense by Catherine’s counsel, the tribunal had failed utterly to advance his agenda. On June 28, one of the several occasions when the queen refused a summons to attend, there occurred an exchange that was almost as damaging as her last appearance to Henry’s hopes of winning public opinion to his side. The king himself was present that day, and in the course of the proceedings he asserted that all the bishops of England had affixed their signatures and seals to a document calling for a formal inquiry into his marriage, thereby showing that they regarded the validity of that marriage to be questionable at least. When this was confirmed by Archbishop Warham, John Fisher angrily denied that it was true. “No, my lord, not so,” he told Warham. “Under your favor, all the bishops were not so far agreed, for to that instrument you have neither my hand nor seal.” Warham, pressed, admitted that he had signed for Fisher and used Fisher’s seal, claiming that he had done so with Fisher’s consent. “No, no, my lord,” said Fisher again, “by your favor and license, all this you have said of me is untrue.” He was ordered by the king to say no more. The impression left with onlookers was that the king and the archbishop had resorted to forgery in order to misrepresent Fisher’s position, and that when caught out they had denied him an opportunity to put the record straight. In all likelihood there had been no intent to deceive. Old Warham, a man of good character and certainly no clumsy forger, had probably misunderstood Fisher’s position before signing for him. In any case the public contradiction of the king’s claim to the unanimous support of the bishops did his cause no good.

Fisher himself was deeply frustrated, and before the end of that same day’s session he erupted. Henry had said that he wanted a just resolution of the question at issue and had asked his subjects to shed whatever light they could on it; therefore he, Fisher, owed it to the king to state openly what he had learned in studying the matter for two years. He felt obliged to do this (so Campeggio wrote to Rome a day later, describing Fisher’s speech as “appropriate” and with that one word revealing a great deal about his own sentiments) “in order not to procure the damnation of his soul” and “not to be unfaithful to the king, or to fail in doing the duty which he owed to the truth, in a matter of such great importance.” On the basis of what he now knew, he said, he was prepared “to declare, to affirm, and with forcible reasons to demonstrate to them that this marriage of the king and queen can be dissolved by no power, human or divine; and for this opinion he declared that he would even lay down his life.” He described himself as prepared to die just as John the Baptist, in the New Testament, had sacrificed his life by condemning the marriage of Herod and Herodias. These were shocking words, especially from a man of Fisher’s stature, a prelate long associated with the royal family. By unmistakable implication, the bishop was drawing a parallel between the king of England and a despot complicit in the death of Jesus. It is especially striking to see Fisher, at this stage in his long conflict with Henry, already speaking of his own death as a possible consequence of that conflict. Evidently he knew the king well enough to understand where this drama was likely to lead.

The time had not yet arrived, however, when refusal to believe what the king believed could result in death. That time would come, but just now it was Wolsey, not Fisher, whose life was in danger.



A CONSIDERABLE EXERCISE OF THE IMAGINATION IS REQUIRED, even of people who live in England today, to get a sense of what the kingdom was like during the reigns of the first Tudors.

It was economically simple, almost backward, even by the standards of its time. It had little manufacturing aside from the cloth and leather-goods industries that had arisen as offshoots of England’s huge numbers of sheep (vastly greater than the human population) and the extraction, still on a minuscule scale, of its rich reserves of coal, tin, lead, timber, and stone. An overwhelming majority of the population grew its own food on land that it did not own, living in cottages that we would regard as hovels. Almost no specimens of the homes of ordinary people survive from the fifteenth century or earlier, because they weren’t built to last much longer than their occupants. The walls, typically, were made of webs of interwoven sticks coated with mud or clay. Few houses even had chimneys; smoke from the cooking fires had to escape through holes in the thatched roofs.

Foreigners commented on the filthiness of English homes. The great humanist scholar Erasmus, who as an honored visitor from the continent would likely have entered few houses except those of the privileged, observed more than a generation after Bosworth that “the floors are made of clay and are covered with layers of rushes, constantly replenished, so that the bottom layer remains for twenty years harboring spittle, vomit, the urine of dogs and men, the dregs of beer, the remains of fish, and other nameless filth.” The quantities of alcohol consumed (in the form of beer and ale mostly, wine being too expensive for the majority of people) also provoked comment. Bathing was scarcely feasible much of the year, but its absence does not appear to have been much lamented. In England as elsewhere, May was a popular month for weddings because, with winter well past, brides and grooms could be given a scrubbing without undue discomfort or perceived risk. Any odors not removed by a plunge into the nearest stream could be camouflaged, or such was the hope, behind a wedding bouquet.

As with so many aspects of life at the end of the Middle Ages, the extent of literacy is impossible to measure. Schools as we understand the term were uncommon except in cathedral towns and the larger market towns (a category that included any community with a few thousand inhabitants), where reading and even writing were often part of the training of choirboys. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that illiteracy was nearly universal. The fifteenth century saw a great increase in primary education; it was provided by the parish churches to be found in all but the tiniest villages, by clergy connected with “chantries” (chapels, commonly attached to parish churches, established primarily to provide prayers for the souls of the families that endowed them), and the numberless guilds to which people throughout the kingdom belonged. By the first Henry Tudor’s time, elementary schooling of this kind, a grassroots phenomenon neither promoted nor supported by the central government, was widespread. Grammar or secondary schools, though less common, also were spreading and attracting increased numbers of students not preparing for careers in the church.

Nothing worthy of being called medical science existed. The wealthiest classes probably had the worst of it, because they had the misfortune of being able to afford the services of university-trained physicians, whose education was focused on the works of ancient authorities and on acquiring a mastery of astronomy (it being considered essential to understand how the stars and planets affected various sicknesses and the efficacy of remedies). These worthies commonly prescribed without ever seeing their patients, depending instead on the examination of urine specimens. Below them were the surgeons, essentially craftsmen with no more education than, say, carpenters or stonemasons. In 1518 London’s surgeons joined with one of their peer trades to incorporate as the royally chartered “Masters or Governors of the Mystery and Commonalty of Barbers and Surgeons.” Even their services were generally beyond the financial reach of mere villagers, who were required to make use of folk remedies of which little is known; in all likelihood they were better off for it. Life expectancy was short. Thirty was the portal to middle age, and those who lived to fifty had reason to think of themselves as fortunate—and as old.

It is easy, and a mistake, to think of medieval society as static and unchanging. In fact it underwent steady, sometimes convulsive change. England, from the fourteenth century, was literally transformed by disease. Like all of Europe, but for some reason more than many parts of the continent, England in the late fifteenth century was still staggering from the effects of the demographic catastrophe known as the Black Death. This was not a single epidemic but a series of outbreaks that first struck in 1348 (when it may have wiped out a third of all the people in England), returning in 1361, 1369, 1375, and six more times between 1413 and 1485. It was not one disease, almost certainly, but a combination of bubonic plague, pneumonic plague, septicemia, and finally yet another mysterious and fatal affliction, sweating sickness or “the sweat,” which arrived in England in the same year as Henry Tudor’s invasion force and may have been brought across the Channel by it. The population, which in the year 1300 had reached a total of approximately six million, fell to about a third of that by 1450 and to perhaps only three hundred thousand in all of Wales. (By way of comparison, more than sixty million people lived in the United Kingdom at the start of the present century.) By 1485 the population was again growing, but as plague, smallpox (never seen in England until 1514), and pneumonia continued to return at unpredictable intervals, the rate of increase was held to perhaps three percent per generation. The deserted remains of hamlets in which everyone had died were still scattered across the landscape, and towns were studded with long-abandoned houses.

Occasional famines, too, were an inescapable part of the experience of the common people. When the population peaked toward the end of the thirteenth century, it did so in part because it had reached a Malthusian ceiling: the agriculture of the day was incapable of feeding more. Even after the demographic collapse, many people lived on the margins of survival, vulnerable to going hungry or even to starving when not enough rain or too much rain caused crops to fail. They responded by deferring marriage until their mid-twenties or even later (the same pattern of behavior would occur in Ireland centuries later, in the aftermath of the potato famine), and this too contributed to keeping the population down.

The consequences were dramatic and far-reaching. Wages rose as labor became scarce, and landowners suddenly faced a shortage of tenants. Serfdom disappeared without being formally abolished: families that for centuries had been bound to the land by the old feudal obligations found it possible to pack up and go, moving to wherever they found opportunities to rent vacant land at attractive rates. Suddenly if temporarily, upward mobility became widely possible. Onetime serfs became free laborers and even tenant farmers, the most industrious of their children could rise to become yeomen, and within a few generations grandchildren of yeomen would be sufficiently prosperous to claim the status of gentlefolk. Landowning families, meanwhile, began converting acres traditionally used for growing crops into pastures for sheep, which required little labor. They found themselves profiting handsomely as a result: Europe, the cloth-making centers of Flanders especially, proved to have an insatiable appetite for good English wool.

Great fortunes were made in the wool trade, but for most people the good times were short-lived. As more and more arable land was given over to sheep and the population slowly resumed its growth, good farmland would again become scarce, wages would fall, and the “enclosures” would become a cause of instability as resentful rural communities demanded that they be stopped or even reversed. The old iron law of population imposed itself once again; agricultural output proved sufficient for the exporting of grain only when harvests were bountiful, and when harvests were sparse those who suffered nothing worse than months on short rations could count themselves lucky. The Crown found itself occupying an uncomfortable middle ground, unable to ignore protests about the enclosures but also unable to balance its books without the income that the tariffs on the wool and cloth trade provided.

The political and economic life of the time is incomprehensible without some understanding of how rare money was, and how valuable. In the fourteenth century the imposition of a poll tax of twelve pennies per person gave rise to the Peasants’ Revolt, because twelve pence equaled many workers’ monthly wage. Things were not greatly different in the early sixteenth century: more than a decade after Henry VII’s death the richest noble in England, the Duke of Buckingham, had a total annual income of £6,045. The incomes of most lords—and there were only about fifty in the entire kingdom—were little more than a fifth, even a tenth, of Buckingham’s. The kingdom’s five hundred or so knights received on average less than £200 per annum from their lands, but that was usually enough to make them the richest men in their localities. The thousand or so “esquires” (no more than one such personage existed for every ten villages) averaged about £80 annually. Landed income of £10 was enough to keep a family among the gentry, itself only a tiny part of the population. The wages of working people continued to be measured in pennies per day—a fewpennies per day, and even less when a meal or two came with the job. Cash was universally necessary, however, if only in the smallest denominations. Most houses lacked ovens for baking bread, few people made their own clothes or beer, and so small exchanges of pennies for goods and services were essential to the functioning of even the remotest districts.

As had been true throughout the Middle Ages, land continued to be the primary source of wealth and political power and was concentrated in very few hands. The king had so much land scattered across England and Wales that his income from it, when combined with the duties collected on foreign trade and the fees generated by the royal courts, was expected by the wealthiest prospective taxpayers (who, being human, had no wish to pay any taxes at all) to cover the costs of government except in time of special need—which meant in time of war. The church, taken as a whole, owned even more land than the Crown, possibly as much as a third of all the acreage in England, with most belonging to cathedrals, parish churches, colleges, hospitals, and the like—not, as is commonly believed, to the monasteries. The extent to which this ecclesiastical wealth can be considered scandalous varies with the uses to which it was put, and those uses covered a broad spectrum. Much church income went to provide the population with the only semblance of a social security system then in existence—meals and shelter for those in need, stores of food for distribution when harvests failed, lodging for travelers, care for the sick—and to support a network of schools that included the nation’s two universities. Conspicuous sums also went, however, to support those men at the top of the ecclesiastical hierarchy who chose to live in princely splendor.

England was hydrocephalic, its economic, political, and cultural life concentrated in London. By the late 1400s, thanks to its access both to the sea and to the exceptional prosperity and productivity of southeastern England, London had a population in the neighborhood of forty thousand and was one of the leading commercial centers of northern Europe. It was also growing fast. By the standards of England as a whole (only Norwich and Bristol had as many as ten thousand residents), London not only seemed to brim over with wealth but was uniquely cosmopolitan, crowded with Flemings, Germans, Italians, French, and Spaniards, merchants and bankers and tradesmen most of them, who had come to England to do business. For reasons that are obvious today but baffled the physicians of the sixteenth century, disease ravaged the city even more severely than the rest of the country. But despite the appalling mortality rate, London continued to grow as people displaced from the countryside were drawn to it by the magnetic power of money.

For most of the people of England, London must have seemed scarcely less remote and mysterious than Rome or Constantinople. Going to the big city meant going to Exeter, or Leicester or Leeds or York, and for many even that was a rare adventure. To have seen London and returned home was to have something to talk about as long as one lived. The great outlet for those who yearned to see something of the world remained the pilgrimage routes, of which there were several famous examples in England. The days of traveling all the way to the Holy Land, however, were as gone as the High Middle Ages.

Though vast inequality of wealth and power was one of the defining characteristics of the whole society, differences were narrowed by the fact that even the elites lacked comforts and conveniences that today are taken for granted throughout the developed world. The landless (and literally almost penniless) peasantry was, aside from the largesse extended to it by the church, simply ignored. “The people here are held in little more esteem than if they were slaves,” a visitor from Italy observed. “There is no injury that can be committed against the lower orders of the English that may not be atoned for by money.” That the two million people lumped together at the bottom of such a society might be tempted to protest when their situation became desperate is hardly surprising. But they were expected to know their proper place and accept it. Life had inured them to hardship, and any who even appeared to threaten the status quo could expect to be quickly and brutally cut down.

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