Depiction of Henry VIII debarking at Dover, c.1520, by James Basire, c.1775, oil on canvas / Royal Collection, Creative Commons
The Early Tudors
Left: Portrait of Henry VII, c.1505, oil on panel / National Portrait Gallery London
Right: Richard III, 1520s, oil on panel / Society of Antiquaries, London
On the 22nd of August 1485, Henry Tudor, who was then the Earl of Richmond, defeated and killed King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a battlefield which is located in central England in the county of Leicestershire, and was crowned upon the battlefield with the crown which was found in the King’s tent, and became king as Henry VII. Now, in fact, his claim to the throne was somewhat weak. He was descended on his father’s side from the widow of King Henry V, who had married Henry’s grandfather after the King’s death, but that didn’t establish a direct claim to the throne. His claim came principally through his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, who was a descendant of the fourteenth-century king Edward III. Nevertheless, weak though his claim was, Henry was the last of the claimants of the Lancastrian House and he took the throne on the behalf of that particular group in English politics, which I’ll explain later. In the twenty-four years following his seizure of the throne he made it his business first of all to hang on to it, secondly to assert his authority as best he could, and thirdly to pass on the crown to his son, Henry VIII, who succeeded him in 1509 — and by doing so he founded a new dynasty, the Tudor dynasty.
Well, today I want to look at some of the early stages of that dynasty and in particular to introduce the structures of political power and authority as they were exercised under Henry VII and in the early part of the reign of Henry VIII, and by doing so to show how they managed to establish and consolidate the new regime. Now by “power,” of course, I mean that I’m concerned with the capacity to secure compliance and obedience on the part of others. By “authority I mean legitimate power: those forms of power and its manifestations which were deemed by most, if not all, people to be legitimate, to be binding, to put you under obligation to obey. There were many sources of such power and authority: economic, ideological, political, military, and so forth. And to a considerable degree, as we’ll see, they all overlapped and reinforced one another, but taken together they comprised the polity of the time as contemporaries described it; the polity, a system of established government and rule.
Now in approaching this kind of subject it’s currently fashionable amongst political historians of this period to speak of the need for what they call a new political history as distinct from the old constitutional history. It’s a central theme in John Guy’s book, The Tudor Monarchy, from which several of our key readings are taken. By this people mean a political history which is less narrowly focused upon the development of the institutions of government. That was for a long time the really central concern of historians of this period. They were very focused on the development of particular institutions. Instead, now people are recommending a concern instead with the changing contexts and dynamics of political life and in particular the social and ideological context of politics.
Well, I’m very sympathetic to that shift of perspective. I can still remember only too well the old constitutional history in its heyday. As a student I sat sometimes at the feet of the great professor G.R. Elton who was famous for declaring that in getting to grips with the structures of government it was essential that students should learn to be bored. [laughter] And when he could deliver a whole lecture on one of the seals used in Tudor government and the purposes for which the seal was employed and so forth, he was a man who sometimes practiced what he preached [laughter]. But even if the approach has changed somewhat over the years it’s still essential that we do get to grips with the institutions through which government authority was exercised. They provided the forum for political competition and they shaped the way that — that — political competition was conducted. So historians today are very much concerned with political culture. I’ve offered a definition of that on your handout, but political culture involves also institutions; they’re part of it. So we’ll start by running over some of the aspects of the institutional structure under the early Tudors and then look at political society and then at how political society could be animated and controlled and the authority of government sustained by the effective use of all of these institutions under the early Tudors. Now the essential points about some of these institutions are laid out on your handout, so I’ll just quick march through some of them to briefly introduce them.
Institutions: The King
In 1500 England was already a very old and, by the standards of the day, a quite intensively and uniformly governed monarchy. It had existed as a single monarchy for 600 to 700 years already. The origins of its high degree of centralization probably go back to the late Saxon kings but in particular to the time of the Norman conquest of the eleventh century and its consequences, but that’s not our business today. Suffice to say that by 1500 many of the central institutions of royal government were very old and had been established by the initiatives of medieval kings and reflected the relationships which they had hammered out over time with their subjects. Above all with their most powerful subjects, the nobility, those who served the king but could also on occasion oppose him and had done so many times in the past.
Imperial Crown coin of Henry VII / British Museum
The king was of course at the very center of the polity. He was described by one sixteenth-century constitutional writer, Sir Thomas Smith, as being “the life, the head, and the authority of all things that be done in this realm of England.” The principal functions of the king were seen to be those of: keeping the peace and defending the realm; maintaining the law and the administration of justice; and upholding the church: a relatively limited set of functions compared to modern government. And to achieve those ends the king enjoyed a variety of powers. He enjoyed what were thought of as his ordinary powers exercised within the framework of the law, but in time of emergency he might also exercise residual absolute powers which could go beyond the normal boundaries of the law.
Well, English kings already had a very high notion of their dignity and their sovereign authority. From the fourteenth century onwards they very often represented — in the coinage — they were represented wearing what’s known as the “imperial crown.” That’s a crown which is enclosed at the top usually with a cross; an enclosed crown. It was meant to symbolize the fact that they recognized no authority higher than themselves save God alone. And though the authority of the pope was exercised within the kingdom over the church, agreements which had been reached and statutes which had been passed in the fourteenth century meant that in practice in making appointments in the church the pope usually acted on the advice and in consultation with the king. They didn’t override his authority. So a monarchy of considerable dignity claiming a sovereignty represented in the imperial crown. But high as the king’s dignity was, England was also, as one contemporary jurist, John Fortescue, put it, a dominium politicum et regale — he phrase is there on your handout — which meant that royal authority was supreme — that’s the regale part — but it was also sustained and restrained by certain political expectations, certain constitutional institutions.
First, kings were expected to take advice. They were expected to be guided by counsel, by the counsel of their leading subjects. They ruled with the advice of a variety of councils. Occasionally, a great council of the leading nobility could be called, especially when advice and support was needed in the making of some major decision. Henry VII called such councils of his leading noblemen on a number of occasions. More usually, for day-to-day administration, the king was advised by a smaller council which attended his person on a day-to-day basis and handled the executive business of government. Some of its members were great noblemen, but very often their position in the council was one which was largely honorific. They tended on the whole to proffer their advice to the king informally and occasionally when they were in attendance at court. For the most part, for example, Henry VII’s day-to-day council consisted in its principal members not of the great nobles of the kingdom, but of great members of the church, notably Cardinal John Morton, who was one of his closest advisers in the early stages of his rule, and in addition a number of lawyers and professional administrators, those who are sometimes described as ‘men of business’, the nucleus of a kind of royal bureaucracy.
So the king was expected to take counsel. In addition, he was restrained by the law, the ‘common law’ of England — described as common because it extended over the whole realm. The king’s writ ran everywhere in legal matters. The common law had grown up over centuries by custom and by precedent. It was administered in the king’s name. All legal writs began with the king’s title. It was administered in his name, though under normal circumstances he was expected to operate within the constraints of the law. The administration of the law, the provision of justice, and the redress of grievances, the means of settling disputes peacefully, was one of the principal functions of royal government.
Occasionally, the king might still sit himself in judgment. One of the courts which became most feared under Henry VII was the king’s Court of Star Chamber, which met in a chamber of the palace of Westminster which happened to be decorated on the roof with stars, the Star Chamber. It was effectively the king’s council sitting as a law court and the king might on occasion be personally present, but for the most part the principal law courts operated outside the royal household. They sat permanently in Westminster, in Westminster Hall that still stands besides — beside — the houses of Parliament, and they were staffed by royal justices. The names of the principal courts are on your handout.
There was a Court of King’s Bench which dealt principally with criminal matters, the Court of Common Pleas which dealt principally with civil cases, and the Chancery, the Court of the Lord Chancellor. That court was a little unusual in that it was not a common-law court; it was a court of equity. Equity. That meant that in cases where the common law didn’t provide a remedy principles of natural justice might be administered by the chancellor, and for that reason the chancellor was sometimes described as being the conscience of the king, could provide a remedy based on natural justice when the common law did not.
Okay. In addition to the central courts, the king also exercised justice by commission. Twice a year royal judges left Westminster and went out to ride — to literally ride — six circuits going from county town to county town where they heard cases arising — civil cases and criminal cases arising — in the provinces. Those were the assize courts, the riding of circuits by royal justices. And in addition the king exercised justice through the commission of the peace. In each county some leading gentlemen were appointed as justices of the peace commissioned to deal with crimes, usually petty crimes, and other administrative matters arising. They met in a court called Quarter Sessions because it met four times a year.
Sketch of Parliament as it stood in 1707, first published in The Builder magazine, 1884 / Scan by H.J. Brewer, Wikimedia Commons
Counsel and law came together in another great institution that must be mentioned, Parliament: the periodic meeting of the king, the nobility who had the right to sit in the House of Lords, and representatives of the commons of the kingdom. The House of Lords consisted of the leading lay and church nobility of the realm summoned by a personal writ to attend. In 1510 for example, when Parliament met there were 100 of them, fifty laymen, fifty great men of the church. The House of Commons consisted of a gathering of two representatives for each county — they were known as the “Knights of the Shire” — and two representatives from each city which had the parliamentary franchise; they were known as burgesses. The city of London provided an exception. It had four members because of its size. Now theoretically the members who came for the counties were elected by freeholders who had land to the value of forty shillings, though in fact contested elections were very rare. Generally, the elite of the counties would get together and choose from amongst their numbers who would represent them. They were selected rather than elected. The urban franchise might vary. In some cities all householders had the vote. In others the choice of a member for Parliament was restricted to a small oligarchy of the leading citizens.
Parliament, then, represented the whole realm and it had two great functions, long established. First of all, only Parliament could make statutes: new laws which could override or modify common law custom. So the legislative sovereignty of the realm lay in Parliament where the king, the lords and the commons acted together. Bills proposing new laws were presented, they were read and debated in each of the houses before being passed and passed on to the king for his consent or his veto. Now if all that sounds rather familiar, this is where it comes from. Secondly, Parliament could grant taxes, which from the fourteenth century required the consent of the House of Commons. It was essential that the Commons gave their consent to any tax bill passing through Parliament.
Okay. One last word on institutions and that concerns finance. The king was expected to “live of his own.” That’s the phrase they used, “to live of his own.” That meant he was expected to live on the revenues of the royal land holdings, the customs dues and other dues which were due to him as feudal overlord of the kingdom, and for all normal purposes that should provide for all his expenses. The collection and the disbursement of royal revenues was handled by an institution called the Exchequer, at Westminster. At least that was so in theory since some late medieval kings took to handling financial business in a more intimate setting within their own household. This was known as “chamber finance,” because they would deal with these matters in the king’s own lodgings or chamber. Henry VII, who was a notorious workaholic and also extremely tight in financial matters, actually personally went over, checked and initialed every page of the chamber accounts to check his financial situation. Reliance on taxation was rare. Taxes would be voted by Parliament for extraordinary circumstances and would then be collected and returned to the Exchequer. So for the most part the king lives of his own; periodically taxes would be granted for special reasons.
Line engraving of Sir Thomas Smith, c.1577 / National Portrait Gallery, London
That’s a quick run through some of the principal institutions of day-to-day administration of royal government, but of course administration is not synonymous with government. If we want to understand the structures of power we need to look beyond this to the larger political society within which these institutions functioned, or sometimes failed to function. Obviously, the monarch stood at the head of the structure of power. This is still an age of personal monarchy and the personalities of individual monarchs colored and gave a particular texture to particular reigns. Henry VII was a man who seems by all accounts of him to have been of a cold, somewhat detached, calculative, suspicious, temperament. His son, Henry VIII, in contrast, was energetic, muscular, vain; a mixture of largesse on the one hand but prone to bursts of terrifying wrath on the other, and the personalities of different kings gave something of the flavor to their reigns. Henry VII for example was only twenty-eight when he won the crown at Bosworth Field. He was only fifty-two when he died, and yet it’s been said we never think of him as a young man. His personality was such that one doesn’t think of him that way, in contrast to his flamboyant son, the young Henry VIII. The various institutions of government of course embodied the authority of the monarch. They gave stability and continuity, but the actual exercise of power and the maintenance of the authority of government depended very much upon the personality of the king and the way in which the kings interacted with various important groups of people, communities of interest within the realm.
By 1500, there already existed a relatively broad political society which was involved in government in one way or another. Most ranks of society down to the principal citizens of the towns or even the leaders of village society were involved in government in one way or another except perhaps the very poor, who were described by Sir Thomas Smith as being born “to be ruled and not to rule others.” But of course if many people participated in one way or another in the exercise of royal power, some people mattered a great deal more than others. And those who mattered most were of course the nobility and the gentry and their counterparts, the leaders of the church. And the crucial relationship within the whole structure of authority was that between the king and his central officers and those members of the social elites who governed the localities. It was those elites who constituted the political nation proper, and when historians of this period talk about the political nation it’s primarily those people they’re talking about.
The nobility were absolutely vital in two very obvious ways which were interconnected. First of all, by virtue of their enormous landed possessions they were the natural rulers of the provinces. Social power and political power in the realm intersected. The Percy family, the earls of Northumberland, held absolutely vast lands in the north of England alongside the Scottish border where they had the responsibility of defending the border against the Scots. Indeed, they still hold them. The — they virtually ruled that part of the north from their principal castles at Alnwick and Warkworth, both of which still stand. If you’ve seen a Harry Potter film, you’ve seen Alnwick Castle. It was used to shoot parts of those movies. The Percys were based there and it was said, with only a little exaggeration, that in that part of the kingdom they “knew no prince but a Percy.”
Secondly, the powers of lordship which were conferred by these great estates translated into military power. The king had no standing army. Henry VII was unusual in that he had a small group of royal guards permanently available, the Yeomen of the Guard; otherwise, though, there was no standing army. In time of war the king relied upon the nobility coming in to support him with their armed retainers and servants, and each great lord had his ‘affinity’ as it was called, his affinity of retainers: men bound to his service by ties of personal loyalty and often by formal contract. They wore his badge or his livery and they were expected to follow him when called upon. People as humble as farm tenants in some parts of the kingdom still had to keep a horse and arms as part of the conditions of holding their farms from the gentry and nobility. In the north for example that was commonly the case, and when called upon by the earls of Northumberland or the earls of Westmoreland, who dominated what’s now the Lake District, they would come in, especially for service on the border.
George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury / Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
To give one example of the importance of the military power of the nobility: in 1536 at the outbreak of the rebellion against the Reformation known as the Pilgrimage of Grace the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was based in the north Midlands, was able to mobilize no fewer than 3,000 men in only six days. The rebellion had broken out in Yorkshire; Shrewsbury was here. The fact that he could mobilize 3,000 men so quickly was absolutely crucial because he was able to move north and to halt the rebel advance, to shadow the rebels until a larger royal force could be mustered. In contrast, his friend and former companion in arms, Lord Darcy, based in South Yorkshire, sympathized with the rebels and failed to move. He sat on his hands for a while and then eventually joined the rebels. He should have been mustering his troops to stop them. That’s why such men were crucial. Darcy didn’t act because he was out of sympathy with royal policy in religion. Shrewsbury acted and saved the day. Such men were vital.
Having said all of this, I must be careful not to exaggerate. The nobility were rich and powerful but they didn’t have fully independent jurisdictions of their own where the king’s authority didn’t run. Some of the great nobility of continental Europe enjoyed that kind of power. So did some of those of Scotland in this period. In England such jurisdictions had existed in the past but they had mostly gradually fallen into the crown’s hand and been retained. As a result, English nobles depended ultimately for their power upon grants of royal office. Their local authority was granted to them by the king. King Edward IV, who ruled between 1461 and 1483, had ruled very largely by parceling out spheres of influence to the great nobility. His system of government has been described as being somewhat like the mob in the way that each of the great nobles had his quasi-independent sphere of influence. But that was an anomalous situation. For the most part the nobles depended upon royal authority formally granted. Nevertheless, they still mattered a great deal.
Maintaining authority over them was absolutely vital. In the middle of the fifteenth century, King Henry VI had failed to do so, leading first of all to rivalry and factionalism amongst his nobles and eventually to a bid by one of them, the Duke of York, to overthrow him because York had a rival claim to the throne. That led to the on-and-off civil wars which ran between 1450 and 1485 usually described as the Wars of the Roses. Now the feuding of the fifteenth-century Wars of the Roses had taken out a number of exceptionally over-mighty subjects amongst the nobility, but in the reign of Henry VII there were still a dozen or so who really mattered and not just in the north or along the Welsh borders, which were areas of insecurity, but in the very heart of the kingdom. In East Anglia the dukes or Norfolk, the Howards, were paramount. In Kent, Lord Abergavenny was paramount. In the west, the Marquis of Exeter, the Courtney family, were paramount. They still nurtured their affinities of retainers, they still enjoyed great prestige as regional leaders, and they still adhered to an aristocratic code that certainly stressed loyalty, honor and service to the king. But nonetheless they could be very haughty, very touchy, they assumed their right to rule, they assumed their right to be consulted, and they could be very dangerous indeed if they were slighted.
No Tudor king was ever likely to forget that in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth the Stanleys, William Stanley, Lord Derby, and his brother, Thomas Stanley, brought their forces and then sat on the hill waiting to see which way the battle between the claimant, Henry Tudor, and King Richard III would go. When they decided that it looked like Tudor was gaining the upper hand they joined in on his side leading ultimately to the death of Richard III in a desperate last charge to try to break through. That’s what had happened on the day that Henry came to the throne. He was unlikely to forget that in his dealings with his nobility.
Propaganda, Patronage, Consultation, and Coercion
Illustration from Assertio septem sacramentorum aduersus, a book written (or perhaps only commissioned) by Henry VIII and printed in London in 1521 in reply to Martin Luther’s On the Babylonian captivity of the Church. Henry’s message to the Pope is very clear. He was using this imagery to portray himself as an heroic defender of Rome. / HistoryToday
So then, how did the early Tudors handle their relationships with the various institutions and groups on whom the effectiveness of their rule depended?
I think one can suggest four ways. They did it by propaganda, by patronage, by consultation and, when necessary, by simple coercion. Two P’s, two C’s: propaganda, patronage, consultation, and coercion.
At this point in time, propaganda was perhaps the least important of the four but it was not insignificant. Great stress was laid in royal proclamations and ceremonial and symbolism upon the divine nature of royal authority, on the fact that the king was ordained by God and his subjects had a religious duty of obedience. Henry VII was very careful early in his reign to obtain the recognition of the pope. He further bolstered his claim to the crown by marrying the daughter of his predecessor, King Edward IV, uniting the houses of Lancaster and York through that marriage, adding to his legitimacy. From the reign of Henry VII onwards into the reign of his son, the past, the public memory of the past, was to some extent remodeled into an exaggerated picture of the horrors which had attended the breakdown of royal authority in the Wars of the Roses. They elaborated the myth of Richard III as a kind of monster king. I mean, true enough he was no sweetie, but he was not the crook-backed monster portrayed for example in Shakespeare’s history plays. Historians were commissioned to write appropriate histories celebrating the Tudor dynasty. Polydore Vergil, an Italian humanist, was brought in to write one history in Latin. Edward Hall produced another history in English entitled The Union of the Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York, which sustained the Tudors’ claim to the throne. Shakespeare’s history plays of course reflect very much this Tudor interpretation of history.
Henry VIII in royal garb, portrait from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger, 1537-1547, oil on canvas / Walker Art Gallery
The image of royalty was cultivated in a kind of theater of majesty. Tight as he was with his finances, Henry VII never forgot the importance of having a magnificent court and sumptuous clothing. The pageantry of the court was magnificent. Great tournaments were held. Great buildings were erected, perhaps the greatest of which, Henry VII’s chapel at Westminster Abbey where he’s buried, still stands today. Under the reign of Henry VIII portraiture, royal portraiture, began to emerge as a means of royal propaganda. Henry VIII always had himself represented as something more than human. In the National Portrait Gallery in London you can see the cartoon which survives of a great painting of Henry and the Tudor line which was once on the walls of his palace of Whitehall. Henry himself is shown much larger than life size, dwarfing all those around him. He was indeed a big man but he’s represented as even larger than life. You are probably familiar with the Holbein portraits of Henry standing, arms on hips, gigantic shoulders padded out with his doublet. That kind of image of the king is the one that dominates our memory and it was meant to dominate those who saw his portraits. It’s an image that is so familiar to people in England that it was actually used to sell potato chips [laughter] a few years ago. There was a brand of potato chips — they’re no longer sold so this is not product placement — called Tudor Crisps — we call them crisps in England. Henry VIII on the packet glowering out as you had your potato chips. Of course, he was a king known for his hearty eating. [Laughter]
The nobles themselves of course imitated all of this. The theater of the great extended to them. Take a look in the Yale gallery of British art where you’ll see some of — well, we’ll go there later in the term to look at some of the power portraits, as they’re called: the calm, proud faces of these people staring down from the walls. Well, the main impact of portraiture and so forth was on the members of the elite themselves. They were the ones who were likely to see these paintings, but for a larger audience there were processions; there were royal progresses where the king would travel around an area in a magnificent procession, staying in the houses of his principal subjects. There were royal entries to the cities accompanied by great ritual, pageants, display, and everywhere the royal badge was displayed. It’s an interesting topic, the politics of display, the art and architecture of power, and a great deal has been written about it. If it interests you, I can recommend some reading.
Rather more significant than propaganda of this type, and in fact vitally significant, was the use of patronage, the exercise of what they called good lordship. That involved the conferring on significant subjects of honors and prestige and material benefits in return for their loyal service. After all, the interests of the king and his great subjects were not opposed. The system ideally could be utilized to the advantage of both, and so from Henry VII onwards the Tudors were careful to build up their own affinity, their own loyal retainers. Royal lands were used to this end. Those who had shown their loyalty and who were trusted would be granted stewardships of royal lands where they would share in the profits: favorable leases, the constableships of castles, offices of profit, and of course grants of local authority which demonstrated the king’s trust and which conferred honor and power within their localities of prominence. All of this was not only to the personal benefit of the individual noble but it also enabled such men to dispense patronage themselves downwards to their own clients and retainers. It enabled them to maintain their own affinities and enhanced their standing. The Tudor kings had no objection to building up powerful men of this kind so long as they were loyal. But ideally patronage should be spread around; it should be dispensed judiciously in a way that would maximize the community of interest in obeying the crown.
Sketch of Henry VIII in his Privy Chamber with advisors, from the workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger / Walker Art Gallery
Let’s look now at consultation. The royal court was the very center of the patronage system. Access to the king was vital, and those who could control access to the king were in positions of real power. Under the young Henry VIII, the gentlemen of the privy chamber, his personal companions, those who hunted and engaged in other sports with the king, were absolutely central figures in gaining access to the king, principal amongst them the groom of the stool, an office which still exists. In Henry’s day the groom of the stool literally looked after the king’s chamber pot and brought it for him when it was needed. These were people in an excellent position to drop names into the king’s ear. But the court was also vital to the business of consultation more broadly.
Any person of significance was expected to visit the court from time to time, and when they were there the king could be quite approachable. Henry VII was quite famously approachable. He let people pop into the privy chamber where he conducted business. Henry VIII was famously affable, something of a back-slapping hearty type when he was in a good mood. Nobles in particular expected that kind of personal access. They expected to be able to give their counsel informally on matters of concern. They weren’t part of the regular executive, their main duties lay out in their countries, but they did expect to visit for part of the year and have that kind of personal contact.
More broadly, the regular executive council was a point of contact with these members of the political nation. It received letters and dispatched them. It expressed the king’s gracious thanks for good service. It handled all kinds of business brought to its attention. And then of course there was Parliament, the greatest occasion of consultation; the whole political nation gathered in common action. Sir Thomas Smith said that “every Englishman is intended to be there present, either in person or by… attorney from the prince… to the lowest person… And the consent of the Parliament is taken to be every man’s consent.” The king, however, only called Parliament when he needed money or new laws or support. Before 1529, the early Tudors called it only occasionally, but then from 1529 to 1559 in the crisis of the Reformation there were only eight years without a parliamentary session and it grew in significance as a regular part of the political process.
The Tudor kings usually got what they wanted from parliament but they did it by managing it carefully. Its compliance could never be simply taken for granted. It had to be managed, and it was a genuine forum of debate. The Speaker of the House of Commons, who controlled the agenda, was granted at the beginning of each session the liberty of free speech, so that he could speak openly to the king, and by 1547 that liberty had been extended to every member of Parliament within the precincts of the meetings of Parliament. They could address any issue openly for the good of the prince and the commonwealth. And these members in their turn got what they wanted. Government bills might be amended in the light of their local experience and a great deal of private legislation intended for particular localities was passed. So, Parliament as a place of consultation was a very significant forum for the resolution of potential conflict, for the presenting of royal policy and its explanation and justification. The Tudors used it very carefully to achieve their ends. In fact, on one occasion Henry VIII flattered it by saying that his royal dignity was never so high as when he met with Parliament. And the growing significance of this institution is indicated by the anxiety of members of the governing elite to serve as members.
Seventeenth-century copy of the Act of Attainder of Lord Cromwell, June 1540, the 32nd year of the reign of Henry VIII. Call number: Beinecke MS 40 / Bernecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University
But finally, if propaganda, the use of patronage and consultation didn’t succeed in welding together the interests of the crown and the political nation, there remained coercion, what was described at the time as heavy lordship, as distinct from good lordship — often evident under both Henry VII and Henry VIII as they established their authority and their dynasty. When necessary they would bring to Parliament and rush through ‘acts of attainder’. Acts of attainder simply declared particular individuals guilty of treason, depriving them of their lands and their status. They were often used against rebellious nobles. They could be reversed in the interests of the heirs to those estates if they behaved themselves, but they had to prove themselves compliant. Henry VII made frequent use of acts of attainder. He very cleverly dated the beginning of his reign to the day before the Battle of Bosworth. He got Parliament to agree to that. That meant that everyone who had opposed him, even though they were actually fighting for the person who was the king at the time, was automatically a traitor and their lands were forfeit. Clever. It enabled him to greatly extend the royal lands in one move and there was more of that to come. Acts of attainder were also used against those who supported pretenders to the throne who were foci of potential rebellions, and actual rebellion in 1487 against Henry VII.
Henry VII was also willing to use another coercive measure, the placing of his nobility under recognizances: recognizance bonds. They were like a bail bond, a bond — a legal bond — that nobles were forced to enter into to be of good behavior, or if they failed to pay enormous financial penalties. They usually had to find sureties from amongst their kinsmen and supporters for those bonds, which meant that those people had an interest in making sure that the nobleman concerned complied and would lose out themselves badly if he didn’t. These were used, for example, against any nobleman who in any way infringed the requirements of new laws. For example, under Henry VII retaining, the retaining of an affinity of clients, was regulated by license. Only those who were licensed to do so could retain armed retainers and they were forbidden from retaining any member of the crown’s own affinity. You could owe loyalty to the king only. Anyone who infringed that was likely to find himself hauled before the council and faced with a recognizance bond. Lord Abergavenny, the principal magnate in Kent, was put under a potential fine of 70,000 pounds, a massive sum of money, for such failure to comply. It wasn’t actually executed but it hung over his head like the sword of Damocles and he complied in future. And then there were the laws of treason.
In the fourteenth century the law of treason had been introduced defining treason as acts against the king’s person or his family or open rebellion against his authority. Under the early Tudors the law of treason was extended. By the time of Henry VIII, it came to include even treasonable words such as, for example, denying the legitimacy of the king’s many marriages. Particularly dangerous individuals were ruthlessly eliminated. Under Henry VII, the young Earl of Warwick — Edward, Earl of Warwick — who was the last potential claimant to the Yorkist claim to the throne, was imprisoned in the Tower of London from childhood where he was kept until 1499 when in a moment of danger to the throne Henry VII had him executed. Sir William Stanley, one of those who had supported Henry at the Battle of Bosworth, fell under the king’s suspicion and was taken out in 1497. Under the young Henry VIII, the presumptuous Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, was executed on trumped-up charges in 1521. His real crime was that he had a distant claim to the throne. Henry didn’t yet have a male heir and it was alleged that Buckingham had listened to prophecies that Henry never would have a male heir, and that he had made some resentful statements against the King. When this came to the King’s knowledge Buckingham’s days were numbered.
Portrait of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, 1520 / Magdalene College, Cambridge
Like most nobles who fell under royal displeasure, Buckingham died by the ax. Lesser folk were hung, drawn and quartered, a less honorable means of execution. It meant that they were hung by the neck until they were not quite dead, disemboweled, their bowels burned before their eyes, and then cut down, their bodies cut into four quarters which were dipped in pitch and sent to be displayed at the gates of the leading cities of the kingdom as an example to warn other potential traitors. And trial procedures and treason trials could be extremely arbitrary. The council could order arrest at will. It could order the torture of suspects — torture wasn’t normally used in English law. Defense counsel was denied. Evidence could be fabricated to get rid of unsuccessful losers in court factional struggles. At the very highest levels, then, political conflict was played out to the death, especially under Henry VIII. Indeed, one historian of Henry VIII has said that in some parts of his reign his court had the atmosphere of the Kremlin under Stalin, with people going in constant fear of arousing the King’s displeasure. So the crown could deliver largesse to the loyal; it could consult with its leading subjects; but it could also brutally display its wrath. The majesty which it displayed on the one hand was counterbalanced by terror.
All of this adds up then to a political culture, a set of institutions of government animated by certain understandings and rules and practices which governed political conduct. That unwritten consensus about how things were done was very well understood throughout political society, and political stability depended upon sharing power in varying degrees at various levels of the structure in accordance with these understandings. Effective rule was the outcome of the use of considerable political skills by the kings and their advisers within this framework to bring about the willing obedience and participation of their leading subjects. And for the most part the early Tudor kings proved very able in achieving that: in rebuilding the authority of the crown which had been so much shaken by the civil wars of the fifteenth century, in instilling habits of obedience, in reestablishing the latent power of the monarchy and indeed in enhancing it — something that we’ll discuss in section.
But finally, changing government in the sixteenth century involved more than just reasserting royal authority. It also came to involve something else, the expansion of the very scope and objectives of government, and to understand that we need to see its development in the context of processes of change, which were scarcely on the agenda as late as 1530, but which were very soon to emerge.