Sunday, January 2, 2011

"The Age of Plunder" A Book Review--Henry VIII's Disastrous Reign

The Age of Plunder: The England of Henry VIII 1500-1547 by W.G. Hoskins is part of the Social and economic history of England series edited by Asa Briggs and published by Longman in the 1970s.

W.G. Hoskins was a pioneer in local history and landscape history and held positions at both the University of Oxford and the University of Leicester.

I do not usually find social and economic history that exciting: all those statistics, tables, and interpretations of data. I know it is very necessary and provides excellent background. Hoskins provides all the requisite graphs and charts but he also summarizes his interpretation in sometimes trenchant comments:

At the beginning of the book he quotes Thomas More, whom he calls "that great man whose life redeems the squalid reign of Henry VIII": "So God help me, I can perceive nothing but a certain conspiracy of rich men procuring their own commodities under the name and title of a Commonwealth" (Utopia) and continues with that theme as he describes the underpopulated, underdeveloped, and oppressed country throughout Henry VIII's reign.

Commenting on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which he includes in a chapter titled "The Plunder of the Church" he says, "In these matters the only true god is Mammon. The sixteenth century showed it abundantly in every decade. Catholic or Protestant, what did it matter when Mammon was sitting in the seat of power?" (p. 131)

He summarizes Henry VIII's economic effects on his country as disastrous in every way, noting that Henry VII left his heir a massive personal fortune and that Henry VIII wasted it on useless foreign wars and excessive building, oppressing his people with taxation and military service.

When discussing exports and imports during Henry's reign, he states, "To put it simply, Henry VIII inherited a healthy trading position from his father, besides an immense personal fortune, and squandered all his inheritance in foreign wars and madly extravagant building at home. He was, apart from all else, an economic disaster for his country." (p. 181)

He notes that Henry's reputation as a tyrant and a loathsome character was publicly stated after Elizabeth I's death, quoting Sir Walter Raleigh's comment that if no one knew what a merciless prince was, one look at Henry's reign would provide the pattern. As he concludes:

"It was [James Anthony] Froude in the nineteenth century who produced the myth of a noble Henry 'the architect and saviour of the English nation'. One look at the Holbein portrait, with its ruthless and porcine face, should have made him think afresh: but even to the economic and social historian, not directly concerned with Henry's sadistic brutalities, he appears at the end to have been a disaster for his country, impoverishing its resources and stunting its growth for the sake of his futile wars, leaving it an empty treasury; and leaving its government in the hands of the most unprincipled gang of political adventurers and predators that England had seem for many centuries." (p. 233)

Hoskins is referring to James Anthony Froude's History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, in which Froude's anti-Catholicism informed his view of Henry VIII as the great hero who freed England from the oppression of the Church of Rome. Froude was the younger brother of Richard Hurrell Froude, Blessed John Henry Newman's great Oxford Movement friend. When Newman and John Keble gathered Richard Hurrell Froude's works into a volume called the Remains, it was cause celebre in Oxford, because of Froude's opposition to the English Reformation, expressing the desire it had never occurred. James Anthony Froude at first had been a member of the Oxford Movement, but then turned to more unorthodox religious and spiritual sources like Spinoza, Strauss, Emerson, and Carlyle. He took a position completely opposite his brother's, claiming that the English Reformation was absolutely necessary as "the salvation of England".

The "unprincipled gang of political adventurers and predators" were of course the Seymours, Richard Rich, Dudley, et al.

This is an excellent study of farming, industry, trade, work, land ownership, taxation, etc during the reign of Henry VIII.


  1. I'm delighted to have just found your blog (via Gareth Russell's), but I have to demur on one major point, Henry VIII's wars.

    It is conventional now to dismiss them as horrendously expensive juvenile showboating, but did contemporaries so regard them? Nick Machiavelli was impressed by his first French war, which may not hold much moral weight but surely says something about contemporary views of the realpolitik involved.

    By period standards they went rather well. Henry did not end up a rival's prisoner, as Francis I did after Pavia; nor did his wars leave the English crown literally bankrupt, as Charles V's did. In spite of his big talk of emulating Henry V, he never went all-in, scaling his actual ambitions to his resources.

    I suspect that Henry's foreign and military policy tends to be viewed more in terms of his awful personal reputation than we would normally judge those policies on the part of a late medieval or early modern king.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Hoskins judges Henry's wars on the basis of their effect on the domestic economy of England. His chapter on taxation, with the inappropriately named "Benevolence" and "Amicable Grant"--the latter was neither amicable nor a grant--demonstrates how Henry taxed, levied, forced loans and demanded funds in the 1520s and 1540s. Hoskins states that Henry drained "the economy of nearly all its money" and concludes that he was almost always short of both money and men to fight his wars. He also opines that Elizabeth I's reluctance to engage in warfare may be traced to the state of the treasury at the end of her father's reign. Remember that Somerset continued Henry's war policies, further using up resources during the first part of Edward VI's reign.