Politics and Religion in the Reign of Henry VIII: a historiographical Review by Nadine Lewycky Introduction

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Politics and Religion in the Reign of Henry VIII: A Historiographical Review

by Nadine Lewycky


Although this year represents the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s coronation and, accordingly, there is a large array of celebratory exhibitions and public events, Henry’s reign does not need hype to spark interest and debate amongst historians, and to fascinate the populace. Henry VIII’s reign, from 1509 until his death in 1547, is quite possibly the most scrutinized period in English history. Its continuing appeal for scholars derives from the complexity of the interconnecting themes which underpin the monumental events in church and state. These events and their associated intellectual currents are continually being re-interpreted by historians to provide a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of governmental administration and political participation; religious doctrine and ritual; and relationships between members of various social groups, and their interactions with the crown and the church. Not only are historians re-interpreting existing evidence, but new publications of primary source material, such as David Starkey’s edition of the inventory of Henry VIII’s belongings after his death, and the project to put State Papers online, has made additional primary materials more easily accessible and facilitates current and future scholarship.(1)

Henry’s reign looms so large in the British consciousness because scholars have customarily situated the origins of modern Britain to this period, when a British national consciousness, a professionalized and modern bureaucratic government, and the Anglican Church all started. Although recent historiography has moderated these assumptions about the influence of the Henrician period on modern British society, there is no denying that the reign is worthy of continued scholarly attention. This review will focus on the historiographical developments in the two main themes in Henry’s reign: politics and religion.


The Cromwell Thesis

Contemporary historiography on Henrician politics can trace its origins to the work of the late Oxford professor G.R. Elton. Elton’s thesis that the administrative and financial structure of central government in England underwent a ‘revolution’ in the 1530s under the stewardship of Royal Secretary, Thomas Cromwell, dictated the course of political scholarship for the second half of the twentieth century. Just as England was embarking on a religious revolution in which the domestic church was rendered wholly subordinate to the crown, so was it undergoing a dramatic transformation in the method and manner of its governance. Single-handedly, Elton argued, Cromwell created new financial institutions such as the court of augmentations and of first fruits, designed to manage the new income accruing from the dissolution of the monasteries and the break from papal authority. These innovations represented the genesis of the modern bureaucratic state structure. According to Elton, in less than ten years, England was converted from a medieval kingdom governed informally and on an ad-hoc basis from the royal household, and whose efficiency depended heavily on the personalities and abilities of its personnel, to becoming the bureaucratic state structure not unlike the one we would recognise today.

Since Tudor Revolution was first published in 1953, this argument has encountered significant criticism within the scholarly community. Scholars have questioned the extent to which such monumental changes in the management of royal finances can be attributed to the will of a single individual. Elton’s thesis, as one reviewer noted, rests on ‘a rather debateable interpretation between Cromwell’s work and the developments which went before and came after him’.(2) Challenges to Elton’s work were restricted by the parameters he had set: the time span for the administrative changes; the stimulus behind them – be they the product of an individual mind (and whose?) or the result of circumstances; and the extent to which these alterations to central government under Henry VIII can really be regarded as the origins of the modern nation state.(3) Thus, Elton’s work itself was ‘revolutionary’ not just in content, but also because it defined the parameters for discussions amongst Tudor historians for over fifty years.

Thus, scholars continued to examine the institutional alterations of the sixteenth century, but re-evaluated them in a longer temporal context. David Starkey argued that the most significant development in royal administration was the division of the royal household from its medieval structure as two departments – household and chamber – to three – household, chamber and privy chamber, which commenced in the 1490s and reached near completion in 1519.(4) John Guy was amongst those who argued for a high degree of continuity between late medieval and Tudor governing practices.(5) Guy further argued that a significant development of the Privy Council’s judicial functions in the Star Chamber can largely be attributed to the administration of Cromwell’s predecessor as Henry VIII’s most prominent administrator, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.(6)

The Dawn of the Starkey Era

While challenges like these to Elton’s thesis focussed on the nature, timing and author of the institutional changes in central government, the introduction in the 1980s of sociology and anthropological concepts into historiography provided a novel way of re-conceptualising the nature of the early Tudor polity. Although the historiography which engaged in the debate over the development of crown administration examined the central institutions of the royal court and household, these revisionist historians emphasised the personal nature of government and the importance of the personal qualities of the monarch for determining the nature and functioning of governmental organisations.(7) David Starkey’s work on the king’s privy chamber highlighted the fact that the royal household, in conjunction with the court, was the centre of informal power networks in which intimacy and access to the heart of decision-making – the king – were the most important means for attaining political influence.(8) Thus, revisionist historians re-emphasised the informal and personal nature of government, and the continued centrality of the organs of the royal household for governing the kingdom.


Such discussions on the personal character of government, in which the personality of the king and proximity and place were seen to have the utmost importance for giving and receiving political patronage, were adopted by historians of the Tudor court as early as the 1970s. However, these discussions on patronage were limited to the debate about the presence of rival faction groupings and their ability to influence the decision-making of the king to achieve collective political and personal goals.(9) For Ives, patronage-based faction did not denote just opposing groupings of individuals but was the dominant political system of Tudor England.(10) Factions, though, were limited to the competitive environment of the royal court thereby restricting historians’ considerations of patronage to the atmosphere of the royal court. In reality, vertical social relationships bound by notions of lordship and service, loyalty, obedience and fidelity were prevalent in early Tudor society. By emphasising personal relations and informal power networks, historiography shifted from focussing on the formal institutions and conventions of politics, such as the administrative machinery of finance and law, to recognising the importance of informal politics at the royal court and household as the most important political venues in central government.(11)

Scholars interested in the development and influence of court factions have restricted their assessment to the final two decades of Henry’s reign. A faction is defined as a political group comprised of three broad groups – friends (and kin), followers, and servants – who were bound together by various personal and informal ties. Since a faction was produced by the competition for court patronage, it could only exist in the presence of and in opposition to other factions, and thus, there were no factions at the Tudor court until the rise in favour of Anne Boleyn and her family in the mid 1520s.(12) Although restricted to the court as the centre for politics and the distribution of patronage, factions connected the court to the provinces by virtue of the fact that their heads were often nobility who maintained territorial interests. Since the competition for patronage required proximity to the king, personal attendance at court, or knowing someone there, was vital to securing royal patronage and favours.

One aspect of the debate about Tudor court factions has been on terminology, in determining to what extent historians should define factions as having rigid membership. If faction is defined as fixed political groupings, then it is possible to conclude that they were not strong in Henry’s later years. However, if we can see that factions might form based on certain issues and that certain members of a faction, such as followers, might move between political factions more easily because their ties, unlike family, were not as secure. Political actors were first and foremost governed by self-interest and were prepared to abandon former patrons who fell out of royal favour, such as Wolsey and Cromwell, despite earlier professions of loyalty.

The majority of the debate about factions has revolved around their influence over the course of religious innovations and political policy. Factional politics has been used as a model for understanding the development of religious policy throughout the 1530s and 1540s when doctrine adopted some evangelical aspects while retaining many traditional rituals. In contrast, George Bernard has rejected the factional view of politics after the break with Rome, arguing instead that Henry attempted to steer ‘a middle way’ between more radical evangelicalism and traditional religion which reflected his personal religious convictions.(13)

Beyond the Court

Scholars have also examined the engagement between the royal government at court and the provinces, particularly in the context of the enforcement of religious innovations, as will be discussed later.(14) Scholars on Tudor Ireland, particularly Steven Ellis, have re-defined the physical boundaries of the Tudor state which is now taken to include not only the peripheral areas within the kingdom, such as the Anglo-Scottish borders in the north, or the Welsh marches, but Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.(15) Thus, political historians of the Tudor period have adopted the a framework for a ‘new British history’ which emphasises the component parts of the British Isles, as well as recognising the internal diversity of the kingdom.(16)

Affinities and Patronage: royal and noble

Tudor historians examining the relationship between centre and periphery have also borrowed from terminology used by medieval historians on noble affinities. Affinities themselves were multi-dimensional and loosely corporate bodies, comprising a variety of men and women in different capacities. The members of the affinity – friends, followers and servants – did not necessarily share social, kinship or geographical ties among themselves, but rather were united in their service to the lord to whom they were affiliated in diverse ways and with varying degrees of attachment. Scholars have often applied the visual aid of concentric circles radiating out from the household at the centre for describing an affinity.(17) Decline of traditional noble affinities was not the result of a concerted attack by the crown, but rather, as the pattern of land holding changed in which the gentry owned an increasing proportion of property, the traditional means of retaining gradually declined.(18)

The emergence of a distinct royal affinity beginning in the late fourteenth century and again after the Wars of the Roses, and which came to dominate the patronage distributed under Henry VIII, may also have contributed to the diminishing authority of the nobility by offering a parallel power structure in which the upper gentry featured prominently.(19) To a certain extent, the royal affinity was constructed in the same manner as noble affinities – through the distribution of offices on royal estates in the localities, and the provision of livery to its servants, although the ability to offer supernumerary positions in the royal household provided it with an additional resource unavailable to noble households.(20) By engaging directly and exclusively with gentry clients who formerly served in noble affinities, the crown was supplanting the nobility in their localities as the most powerful and wealthy patron.

The crown’s use of patronage in its relations with the nobility and gentry, in what ways the distribution of patronage affected the socio-political structure and the administration of local government is best understood in a broad temporal context.(21) Historians have long drawn attention to the changing socio-political relations and the consequences of such alterations on the exercise of power in the later middle ages. The socio-economic structure in the late medieval period which historians have labelled ‘feudalism’ was defined by the hereditary tenancy on the estates of a magnate in return for military service. One of the most important ties of this type of lordship was land tenure centred on the manor and estates of the lord, and the members of the lord’s affinity were drawn primarily from the tenants on his estates.(22) The process of social change, labelled ‘bastard feudalism’ involved a shift from a society rooted in land tenure and military service provided by tenants to their territorial lord to one based on service in exchange for appointments to offices and cash payments.(23) While the term ‘bastard feudalism’ has more recently fallen out of favour, the reality of these changes in the socio-political structure is not disputed among historians, but rather its origins, the degree of influence of various causes, and its chronological progression.(24) Still, studies of late medieval noblemen emphasise the roles of their retinues, particularly when mobilised for war, whereas in contrast, recent studies of sixteenth-century noblemen have highlighted the complexity of their political, social and economic networks which defy these traditional affinal boundaries, thus indicating the emergence of a new organisational system of power networks.(25)

Research into late medieval royal affinities has identified continuities in royal patterns of retaining extending into the early Tudor period. Despite the interruption to socio-political relations caused by the Wars of the Roses, certain policies for the retention of leading country gentlemen can be traced back to the later years of Edward III’s reign. Both Given-Wilson’s work on the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and D.A.L. Morgan’s work on the Yorkist dynasty, have emphasised the importance of retaining through the distribution of offices and annuities, and the degree to which monarchs coveted the cooperation of the local gentry for supporting royal government in the counties.(26) Similarly, parallels can be drawn with John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III, who employed his resources and retinue to realise the crown’s wishes. Anthony Goodman argues that Gaunt’s dedication to royal service foreshadowed Tudor ideals of noble service as an enhancement of royal authority.(27)

Noble affinities, which stressed the primacy of familial alliances and the importance of preserving landed estates for posterity, were the dominant structure in which informal power networks were organised in the late medieval period.(28) Economic changes in the later medieval period affected the nature of socio-political power so that, by the fifteenth century, a new form of lordship had emerged in which vertical ties of service had replaced bonds based on land tenure. While ties constructed on service were more flexible than those they succeeded, power networks were still concentrated locally on the estates of leading nobles. Thus, the possession of landed estates and its consequent wealth remained the fundamental component for claims to the exercise of social, economic and political power in sixteenth-century Yorkshire.(29)

However, scholars have noted that holding crown offices under the early Tudors was central to social advancement if the profits ensuing from office were converted into the acquisition of land. The ability to secure increasingly lucrative offices from the crown in exchange for administrative and judicial service constituted the core of the patronage system oriented on the royal court and household.(30) Land ownership among its clients was important to the crown because its corresponding wealth, authority and influence in the locality enabled these officials to more effectively carry out crown directives. With the decline in traditional retaining methods and the increasing importance of acquiring royal patronage for attaining a prominent place in the socio-political hierarchy and securing economic well-being, the governing ranks faced a new and potentially unstable political landscape under the Tudors and Stuarts.

In seeking to explain the growing influence of the House of Commons in the political events leading up to the outbreak of civil war, Lawrence Stone argued that the period between the sixteenth and the mid-seventeenth centuries saw unprecedented socio-economic mobility in which wealth and land were increasingly concentrated among the emerging middling socio-economic group at the expense of the nobility, whose power and influence slipped in conjunction with its declining financial position.(31) Revisionist historiography has taken a more nuanced view of the political, social and economic standing of the nobility in this period and its proponents have argued that noble power and fortunes fluctuated rather than experienced a straight decline.(32)

In contrast, Simon Adams has argued that the size and composition of the nobility remained fairly consistent from 1400 until 1603 suggesting that the socio-political status of the nobility was secure.(33) While the numerical stability of the noble rank as a whole was preserved, the fortunes of individual families could still fluctuate according to the king’s pleasure. Generally, historians have agreed that it was the deteriorating value of feudal land tenure rather than a concerted attack by the crown on the nobility that led to a waning of traditional affinities based on hereditary land tenure.(34) Nevertheless, the weakening of the traditional economic basis for noble authority meant that the royal affinity was more easily able to usurp the patronage networks under the preserve of the nobility.

The Noble Ethos – Honour

These changes in the economic structure of land-holding were accompanied by an underlying alteration in the concept of honour which formed the backbone for social and political relations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The increased social mobility of the gentry, which for some was realised through crown service, necessitated a redefinition of honour and virtue: two fundamental characteristics of nobility. While lineage was still a mark of honour, it became a secondary characteristic. Similarly, faithfulness no longer defined relations between members of the governing orders and their followers. With the strengthening of the crown and the centring of the community of honour at court following the Tudor triumph at the Battle of Bosworth, faithfulness was replaced by an internalisation of obedience to the crown which was vital for maintaining law and order.(35)

The King’s Privy Chamber and the rise of Gentlemen Servants

The combination of these factors – the declining economic value of land holding and the changing ideals for noble behaviour – contributed to the emergence in the fifteenth century of royal courts as central to European political life. The royal court became the focal point for contact between the ruler and his ruling elites and the forum in which patronage was given and received.(36) As the court and intimacy became more important, the status of members of the royal household rose concurrently, particularly for the gentlemen of the Privy Chamber whose service required them to be in daily contact with the king. The development of the Privy Chamber, beginning in the 1490s, into the third component of the royal household, was the most significant innovation in the household’s history and had implications for the functioning of court politics.(37) In the first ten years of Henry VIII’s reign, the Privy Chamber was served by gentlemen whose proximity to the king, their role in bringing Henry documents to sign and who possessed some measure of control over the king’s personal finances, gave them the foremost position in which to influence political decisions and the distribution of patronage.(38)

The Privy Chamber staff, comprised of gentlemen, was representative of the new types of administrative personnel employed at the royal court and in the household, and was instrumental in extending the royal patrimony into the provinces. On the one hand, there emerged a distinct kind of nobleman, such as John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, who, while possessing an aristocratic pedigree, lacked a strong family tradition and did not seek to construct a traditional regionally-based retinue on lands accumulated through royal service.(39) On the other, increasing numbers of gentry and lawyers were engaging in royal service, which offered opportunities for social mobility, including elevation to the peerage.(40) Thomas first Lord Wharton, for example, was descended from modest gentry stock but, by exploiting the weakening position of the northern counties’ leading noble families and accumulating crown offices under Henry VIII, was raised to the peerage in 1544. Fundamental to the establishment of his family among the region’s elite, was his ability to turn the profits accruing from his offices into property, increasing the authority he exercised as a leading crown servant.(41) In addition to compiling estates, holding royal offices in the localities also enabled men, such as Sir Thomas Lovell, to construct large and powerful retinues which could be mobilised in the crown’s interests.(42) The Tudor government was run by men who earned their social status through their service as the kingdom’s leading administrators.(43) Patrons without extensive inherited estates created alternative power bases for themselves through service to the crown, royal favour and patronage.

Steven Gunn has demonstrated that Henry VII was relying on a new type of government administrator drawn from the professional classes, such as legally trained gentry. By employing a greater number of gentry to administer the kingdom both at court and in the provinces, the nobility were increasingly marginalised. As they were replaced in their traditional role as administrators, their military function also declined. However, in order for the gentry to have access to the sites of royal politics, their social power needed to be based on landownership, social status and knowledge of the local community, incorporated with previous administrative service, particularly that undertaken on the crown’s behalf, or legal training.

Education in the common law at the Inns of Court in London was more practical than a university education in the humanities, equipping gentlemen with the requisite skills to execute the judicial and administrative responsibilities of a Justice of the Peace. These criteria were not new, Henry VII having placed more extensive governmental responsibilities into the hands of lawyers because of their skills, professions of loyalty, and their claims to gentry status.(44) Therefore, the goals of the crown (to increase its control over the administration of law and order in the peripheral regions of the kingdom) and those of the gentry (augmentation of their social status and wealth), required the extension of formal political institutions, such as the peace commissions, to be accomplished.

Propaganda, Magnificence and Self-Presentation

Related to historical discussions about the relationship between the central government and the wider political nation are studies which focus on the nature and use of royal propaganda. This historiography previously examined the ways in which the crown implemented its policies by coercing obedience from its subjects through the employment of royal spectacles, for instance, progresses, celebrations such as the ringing of bells and bonfires, and the increased use of royal iconography in parish churches, all of which affirmed the authority of the crown by commanding deference and undivided loyalty.(45) While some royal rituals were presented to ease the exercise of authority by the central government over the local population, historians have started to interpret the royal rituals performed in the localities as collective enterprises which reflected and established social values.(46) By doing so, this interpretation accords agency to the society in which such rituals were acted.

The expression of authority by the central government was not just limited to large-scale visual displays, royal news delivered from the pulpit or parish processions, rather, because the apparatus of the central government was limited at the local level, power was diffused to local governors who sought to exercise personal and institutional authority through the acceptance of their roles as legitimate executors of political power. This involved the public presentation of a social role which required persuasion for it to be accepted, but which was also mediated and negotiated by the receiving population.(47)  By understanding the diffused nature of social and political power which was held not only by representatives of crown authority but also within subordinate social groups, such studies demonstrate the degree to which the intensification of the authority of the Tudor monarchy in the localities depended upon the cooperation of its subjects.

Recent discussions on the importance of self-presentation for the exercise of political and social power has brought historiography on the Tudor court full circle, re-emphasising the cultural and visual aspects of the court, as political might was demonstrated through displays of magnificence.(48) Dougal Shaw has identified three strains of historiography addressing the social and political functions of royal ceremonies, the most recent of which closely aligns itself with social anthropology by examining ritual as a metaphor for power relations in wider society.(49) The ability to lavishly reward administrators and courtiers, and the distribution of artistic patronage at the royal court were all important components for creating the image of the monarch as an unrivalled political head.(50) Jousts, tournaments and court festivals all contributed to the political ‘drama of public relations’ which the monarch used to reinforce his political supremacy domestically in the face of potential noble rivals and for foreign diplomacy to impress upon continental counterparts his wealth and magnificence.(51)

While court festivals may not have been received by a widespread audience, they reasserted the power and authority of the monarch among the group of men from whom cooperation and subservience was the most important.

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