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Henry VIII tries to take control of Britain


Few events in England have rippled out to create a tsunami affecting the whole of the British Isles as much as those of 1534. In this year Henry VIII, who had divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, completed his break with the pope by getting Parliament to acknowledge him as Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England. This meant that Henry had the right to appoint the bishops, vet the articles of faith and impose his will on the monasteries, all of which he did. To enforce his new powers, Henry revised and extended the treason law. Anyone disputing the royal supremacy, even by words alone, would be put on trial. To winkle out opposition, he set a test: an oath of supremacy and allegiance to the king and the ‘imperial crown’, to be taken by those holding offices in Church and State, sitting in Parliament, or who were in religious orders until he dissolved them.

Historians like to debate whether Henry ushered in a reign of terror, but this misses the bigger picture. The effects were not just confined to England. To justify his actions, Henry announced a new theory of kingship based on biblical and classical prototypes, giving an extra layer of meaning to the phrase the ‘imperial crown’. In a nutshell, he claimed imperium (empire) with expansionist territorial overtones. When the duke of Norfolk discussed this with a bemused Spanish ambassador, he cited the precedent of King Arthur, ‘emperor of Britain, Gaul, Germany and Thrace’. The ambassador could barely keep a straight face, saying it was a pity that Arthur hadn’t also been ‘emperor of Asia’.

Soon no one was laughing. In 1534, Henry began a radical overhaul of provincial government. Implemented in its initial stages by Thomas Cromwell, its focus was Wales, Ireland, the northern borderlands, and finally Scotland. All but Scotland were Tudor dominions, although more in name than in fact. The crown’s writ ran unevenly north of the river Trent and was ignored in Wales and Gaelic Ireland: the people who really mattered in the outlying regions were the territorial magnates.

Scotland was, of course, an independent kingdom ruled by the Stewart king, James V, except that he was Henry VIII’s nephew. This encouraged Henry to believe in Scotland’s dynastic dependency, awakening dreams of Anglo-Scottish union. Earlier in his reign, Henry had revived Edward I’s claim to be ‘superior’ and ‘overlord’ of Scotland. In and after 1534, he believed that Wales, Ireland and (increasingly) Scotland were ‘within the orb of the “imperial crown” of England’.

No grand theory of state formation underpinned Henry’s policy. He acted mainly out of fear. The northern border was a constant problem: it was vaguely defined and thieves crossed to and fro. Local magnates such as the Cliffords, Dacres or Percys kept the peace, but held their posts almost on a hereditary basis and were regarded by some as fifth columnists. While such criticism was often unfair, Henry was listening to their enemies. He especially questioned the loyalty of Lord Dacre of Gilsland, against whom charges of treason had been made.

A paranoid Henry came to believe that a group of nobles was plotting to overthrow him. Ireland posed the greatest threat, since outside the Pale (the area around Dublin where English rule was concentrated), the Gaelic lords were Catholics who refused to pay taxes or abandon Brehon law or customs (whereby disputes were arbitrated by Gaelic judges, the Brehons). Hitherto, their loyalty was secured by delegating royal power to a trusted magnate family: the Fitzgeralds, earls of Kildare. By combining a sufficient following in the Pale with their power in the Gaelic community, they had performed a juggling act that had kept Ireland stable for almost thirty years.

Wales was closer and the gentry more malleable, but still dangerous. English law was disregarded in the principality and border marcher lordships, where conflicts of jurisdiction enabled suspects to flee from one lordship to another. Jurors could easily be corrupted, and guns had been fired into the courts. Henry regarded Wales as a haven for insurgents. He was the more concerned because Welsh levies and horses formed the backbone of the royal army, and the favoured route for transporting troops to Ireland was through the (then) port of Chester. In 1534, Henry pounced on Lord Dacre and the Fitzgeralds in a pincer movement. Dacre was put on trial for treason and surprisingly found not guilty, the only nobleman to be acquitted by his peers during the reign. This did not deter Henry. As soon as Dacre walked free, he was re-arrested and returned to the Tower. He paid an astronomical fine of £10,000 and undertook not to go more than ten miles from London without the king’s written permission.

By then, Henry had the ninth earl of Kildare in custody, intending to charge him with treason, but his detention sparked a spectacular revolt. Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly (‘Silken Thomas’), the earl’s heir, denounced Henry as a heretic and ordered those born in England to leave Ireland on pain of death. He threatened to ally with the pope and the king of Spain, and claimed that 12,000 Catholic troops were on their way to Ireland. Soon the country was convulsed: Dublin Castle was besieged and the rebels went on an orgy of looting and burning, terrifying the citizens. It took a huge army until August 1535 to suppress the revolt, costing 1,500 English lives and £40,000. Henry executed the ringleaders, but their revolt had turned the struggle into something approaching a Gaelic war of independence, committing him to a costly interventionist policy of ‘Anglicizing’ Ireland. This explains why, in 1541, he altered his official style from ‘lord’ to ‘king’ of Ireland. He was incensed by Irish taunts that his ‘regal estate’ there was granted by the pope, referring to Adrian VII’s bull Laudabiliter, which had granted lordship over Ireland to the Anglo-Normans and implied that Henry held Ireland as a papal fiefdom.

In Scotland, Henry meant to prevent James V from allying with Spain or France, if those alliances meant Scotland continuing to support the pope. Opponents of the divorce from Katherine of Aragon had already fled across the border. So had James Griffydd ap Powell, a silvertongued Welsh rebel who had talked his way out of the Tower of London promising to buy horses in Ireland for Anne Boleyn. Instead, he fled to Scotland, where he asked James V to aid a Welsh uprising against Henry.

Henry was angry with James for allowing Scots to join the Irish revolt. In 1534, he knew he could not fight on two fronts, so he tried conciliation. He admitted his nephew to the Order of the Garter and sent him a letter justifying his theory of kingship and royal supremacy. When James ignored it, Henry switched to threats, provoking James into his own ‘imperial’ claims and marriage to a French princess in 1537. When she died, James quickly chose another, Mary of Guise. Thereafter, Henry’s determination to conquer Scotland by fair means or foul preoccupied him until his death.

In 1534, Cromwell sent a taskforce into Wales with orders to root out ‘papists’ and try treasons and felonies using English law. His efforts culminated in Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 that assimilated the medieval principality and marcher lordships into twelve shires subject to English common law, complete with parliamentary representation at Westminster and a legal system modelled on the English assizes.

Henry VIII’s vision of ‘imperial’ kingship meant that royal ecclesiastical supremacy was closely linked to an expansionist, centralizing impetus throughout the territories of the British Isles and Ireland – a highly explosive cocktail. In the longer term, the Reformation largely succeeded in England and Wales, whereas in Ireland the extirpation of Catholicism was always unrealistic. Tudor policy in Gaelic Ireland became identified with conquest and colonization, whereas in Wales the gentry traded their cooperation for patronage. In Scotland, there was a Reformation but no royal supremacy: when eventually the Presbyterian Kirk came into conflict with the Anglican ecclesiastical supremacy, the results could trigger sectarianism almost as bitter as that between Catholics and Protestants. Even in the minds of anglophile Scots, England’s royal supremacy was a fundamental obstacle to union.

While Thomas Cromwell’s taskforce was busy in Wales, its members travelled to Chester. At five o’clock in the morning of 15 September 1534, an earthquake shook the castle, which ‘rocked like a cradle, to the great fear of us all therein’. This seismic event, creating panic as far away as Shrewsbury, might well be a metaphor for the half-century. When Henry VIII attempted to govern the outlying regions by a centralized system of command and control from Westminster, he bit off more than he could chew. He shoulders a large share of responsibility for what historians call the ‘British’ or ‘Three Kingdoms’ problem: the dilemma faced when the actions of political elites in one or two of these kingdoms trigger a hostile reaction in another, or when cross-border (especially religious) alliances could subvert or defeat crown policy. A major theme until the twentieth century, the problem lingers on in contemporary debates about ‘Britishness’, the future of Northern Ireland, and Scottish and Welsh devolution.


1509 Accession of Henry VIII. Henry began his reign by courting popularity. He imprisoned Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, ministers and debt collectors for Henry VII, for a year before executing them. Henry VIII promised full redress of subjects’ grievances, but carried on almost exactly as his father had done. He would need even more money to pay for wars and new palaces, and to finance his dreams of conquests in France and Scotland. No attention was paid to Ireland.

1515 Wolsey made lord chancellor. Henry’s first minister was Thomas Wolsey, who had risen to power as supremo for military procurement. Wolsey used Church patronage to climb the ladder, but the key to his success was his seeming ability to achieve everything that Henry desired. He was the first to experiment with the printing press for government forms and propaganda. He would diagnose the need for reforms in Ireland, but reverted to supporting the Fitzgeralds when his attempts failed.

1517 Bad outbreak of ‘the sweat’. A viral pulmonary disease swept through the land on a terrifying scale. The symptoms were myalgia and headache, leading to abdominal pain, vomiting, unbearable headache and delirium, followed by cardiac palpitation, paralysis and death, all in under twenty-four hours. Henry VIII fled to the countryside. Ten thousand people died of it during the year, including 400 Oxford students in a week. The first outbreak had been in 1485, the last was in 1551.

1520 The Field of Cloth of Gold. Wolsey organized a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in search of a ‘universal peace’. Held just outside Calais, the kings talked to little lasting effect. The event was mostly about magnificent displays of power and wealth. The English built a temporary palace crammed with artworks, with fountains dispensing free wine or beer. The main activities were dancing, banqueting, and a full-scale tournament. Francis beat Henry at wrestling.

1527 The divorce comes into the open. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn; he was in love and wanted a legitimate male heir. Wolsey had to fix it, but Pope Clement VII was a virtual prisoner of Charles V, Katherine of Aragon’s nephew, and refused to give dispensation. Wolsey’s position was further eroded by a rebellion in East Anglia caused by his foreign policy, and Henry increasingly took charge.

1536 Pilgrimage of Grace. Anne Boleyn was executed for alleged adultery and incest. Cromwell started dissolving the monasteries and issuing articles and injunctions for the new Church of England. He triggered a massive revolt in Lincolnshire and the north. Forty thousand rebels wore pilgrim badges to show they were loyal to the Catholic faith and supported the monasteries. They would be brutally dispersed, but Cromwell was fatally undermined.

1542 Battle of Solway Moss. Henry’s army defeated the Scots at the battle of Solway Moss. James V died shortly afterwards. His daughter, Mary Stewart, was queen at six days old; her mother, Mary of Guise, acted skilfully to protect her. Henry VIII was determined to betroth Mary Stewart to Prince Edward, his young son by Jane Seymour. When the Scots frustrated his efforts, he would invade Scotland, poisoning Anglo-Scottish relations.

1549 Overthrow of Protector Somerset. When Henry VIII died, his son Edward VI was 9 years old. For two years, Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, was in charge. He too tried to conquer Scotland, but failed. Meanwhile, his push towards full-blooded Protestantism, currency debasements and inept social and economic reforms caused chaos. Mass protests in East Anglia were the closest thing to a Tudor class war. Somerset was overthrown, and the duke of Northumberland restored stability.

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