Saturday, April 21, 2012

The State of England, 1509

Since Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, died on April 21, 1509, his 18 year old son, Henry, succeeded him on this date. His wedding with Catherine of Aragon and their coronations would follow on June 11 and June 23, respectively.
A recent popular history of the Tudor dynasty (The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty by G.J. Meyer) passes quickly over Henry VII as not being as interesting as the subsequent Tudors. He does not even merit his own chapter! I think that is an error, in part because Henry VII’s desire to protect the Tudor succession certainly established the policy and pattern of imprisoning and/or executing any rivals or threats that Henry VIII and his heirs would follow. But now, a new biography of Henry VII redresses that neglect.
David Knowles, in his study of the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Bare Ruined Choirs, establishes the significance of Henry VII’s reign—and the succession of Henry VIII as taking full advantage of certain trends—on a much more profound level:

". . . the minds of the early Tudor age found security in two pillars of strength. The one was the common law of the land, tangible, acknowledged by all, and applied by experts taken from their midst. The other was the command of the sovereign, drawing its strength from his claim of obedience in conscience."
Knowles points out that the authority of the sovereign had hitherto been limited or countered by the Church and canon law, by natural and divine law, and by the very limitations of centralized government – but:
"At the end of the fifteenth century all these limiting factors had vanished or diminished; all that was now wanting was a king with sufficient intelligence, tact, and self-assurance to supply his subjects with the governance they desired and with the sense of security they needed. A firm government that did not outrage too violently the proprieties of common law and the material interests of the propertied classes could draw on a limitless fund of loyalty and submission."*
With Thomas Wolsey’s help as Chancellor, Henry VIII fulfilled that model early in his reign, earning trust and obedience from the propertied classes. One of the economic aspects of the English Reformation is that with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Henry VIII was able to distribute wealth to members of that class, binding them more surely to him in loyalty and submission.
Knowles comments that such a generalization about the intellectual and cultural milieu of late fifteenth century England shares the usual burden of generalization—that there are exceptions. If he is accurate in his depiction of the situation, however, it goes a long way to explaining why so many of the ruling class went along with Henry VIII in his commandeering of the Church as a part of the State. As long as it did not violate the common law as it affected them, they saw no reason to protest.

*David Knowles, Bare Ruined Choirs: The Dissolution of the Monasteries (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1976), page 6.

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