Mid Tudor Crisis: Part 1

Mid-Tudor Crisis: Yes there was a Mid-Tudor Crisis

The Mid-Tudor crisis is the name given to the time of political and social upheaval in England between the long reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. During this time period 1547-1558 the monarch changed twice, not counting the nine days allotted to Lady Jane Grey’s time of ruler ship.

The key problems during this reign were those of religion and politics, changing the shape of England in a very small space of time and causing much upheaval and confusion. Edward, Henry’s son was a staunch puritan, of much stricter protestant beliefs than his father, while in contrast, his sister, Mary Tudor, was a devout Catholic. The practice at this time of punishing those who did not follow the religion of the ruler for heresy and blasphemy meant that this situation was rife with political strain, as rebellions sprung up and European allies were determined by religious compatibility.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his only legitimate son, Edward assumed the throne, becoming Edward VI. Popular conception is of Edward as a sickly child due to his early death, but there is little historical basis to support this fact. His Parliament was prepared to give him his Majority at an unprecedented sixteen instead of forcing him to wait until he was the usual eighteen. Historians have likened Edward to his grandfather, Henry VII. He was politically astute, quiet and clever, but this full intelligence and promise was never fully realised as Edward died an agonising death at just fifteen from what is thought to have been a combination of measles and tuberculosis.

Mary on the other hand took the throne in 1553 after being successful against the rebel plot to put Lady Jane Grey, a Protestant cousin, and the son of Lord Dudley on the throne in her stead. Although she is famously called Bloody Mary by history for the number of Protestants she had executed, the death toll was not significant by the standards of the day. In her own time, Mary was condemned far more for her marriage to Philip of Spain, born out of the perception of the time that a woman could not rule alone.

There were several major rebellions during this time period. When Edward ascended the throne in 1547, he was only a child of ten and, as such, was nothing more than a figurehead. The Regency was held by Lord Somerset who held the title of Lord Protector. He was later replaced by Lord Northumberland after Northumberland manoeuvred Somerset out of power. Somerset was eventually arrested and executed on trumped up charges manufactured by Northumberland in 1552.

Northumberland was, to all extents and purposes, in power between 1550 and 1553, but never took the title of Lord Protector. Instead, he encouraged Edward to take his majority and become kin in more than name. He did however, influence the boy into declaring Lady Jane, Northumberland’s daughter-in-law, his heir and was eventually executed by Mary Tudor for his role in this plot.

Another significant rebellion during this time was Sir Thomas Wyatt’s plot to depose Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne. It is thought to be this plot (which was one of four plots in the immediate aftermath of Mary’s succession) which caused her to be so brutal to Protestants later on. Wyatt’s rebellion continued even after it was discovered as he attempted to oppose the marriage of Mary to Philip of Spain, even if he was unable to remove her as Queen. The forces were defeated when, despite a force of approximately 3, 000 men, Wyatt was unable to raise further support in London itself. Although Elizabeth was suspected of being involved, both at the time, and by later historians, concrete proof has never been discovered. If the Princess was involved, possible, as she had much to gain from the plot, and equally, much to lose by Mary’s continued rule, she kept her identity well hidden and used much discretion.

These successions were not peaceful and easy because, as well as protecting their power interests, the nobility of England were caught in between to zealots from opposing religions. During his reign, many puritanical laws had been passed by Edward VI. He had, for example, repealed the Six Articles, which had been kept by Henry VIII which had, throughout Henry VIII’s conversion to Protestancy, kept many of the basic tenements of Catholicism in place. On her accession, Mary immediately sought to undo all of these religious changes, a fact which she found less than easy, and one which gave Elizabeth a chance to demonstrate her affinity for passive aggression by failing to convert to the now-lawful Catholicism, whilst not outwardly clinging so strongly to her Protestantism that Mary was forced to have her executed. It is these two violently opposed tactics which made Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement in 1559 so welcome.

There were also economic pressures such as the poor harvests in 1551 and 1555-6 causing additional; unrest within the lower classes. Poor harvests at this time were seen as a failure of the monarch who was perceived as being intricately connected to the land, and these poor harvests were undoubtedly attributed to moral failings or punishment from God. Emotionally, this was linked by many people in England to the phantom pregnancies suffered by Mary Tudor, as symbolic evidence that under this regime England was barren and had no future.

Another economic pressure which happened earlier in the Mid-Tudor crisis was the large expenditures of Somerset on his wars with both France and Scotland. The necessity of money to continue these wars led to high taxes, despite the high unemployment. These economic pressures continued under Mary who also required money to fund her necessary fight against the rebels who sought to over throw her and her desire to return the Church to its former Catholic glory before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Monasteries in the late 1530s.

Further disassociation from even the common English people and not merely the nobility came from the loss of Calais under Mary Tudor in a continuation of Somerset’s war. Calais had been the last foot hold the English held in France, despite a distant claim to the throne of France due to the intermarriages of European royalty. The final removal of the English’s military presence from France was a crushing blow to English morale, and another reason for the populous to despise Philip of Spain, who had failed to send adequate reinforcements and supplies even though this military action had been encouraged by him. This in turn reflected badly on Mary who had chosen to marry a foreigner who did not perceive English interests as important. The loss of Calais, alongside the fall of the Antwerp cloth market, drastically reduced England’s foreign interests and assets, leaving the country more confined and less involved with the rest of Europe in any meaningful way than it had been under Henry VIII.

Contrary to the views of many popular historians, the Mid Tudor crisis did not come close to completely destabilising the country. The many aspects which made up this crisis, the frequently changing Monarchy, religious changes, repealed laws due to the differing philosophies of the various ruling monarchs, rebellion, war and failed harvests, would have been little more than minor footnotes. What makes these aspects important is that they all happened in the same moderately short period, causing significant upheaval and distress. Whilst the country was hardly on the brink of a collapse equivalent to the fall of the Roman Empire, it is certainly true the stability and continuity of the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I are seen through the veil of disability and discontinuity. The effects of the Mid Tudor crisis can be vastly over estimated, but equally, the inherent problems caused during this period by the frequent change, bad luck, and external pressures, should not be under estimated and dismissed.

In my next post I shall examine the reasons for why there was not a Mid-Tudor crisis.

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