The mid-Tudor crisis
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“The mid-Tudor crisis” is a term often used by historians to describe the reigns of Edward VI (1547-1553) and Mary I (1553-1558). This period can be seen as a crisis, due to the fact that there were so many problems financially, socially, religiously and constitutionally, which led to rebellions, and placed the country in a very unstable position.
It is clear that many of the origins of this ‘crisis’ have their roots in the reign of Henry VIII. He left a very difficult legacy to his successors, but it must be remembered that Somerset provoked the problems already in existence and Northumberland and Mary I then had the difficult task of resolving them. Henry VIII was only one contributing factor to the crisis.
However, before Henry VIII died in 1547, he had attempted to prevent a power struggle by setting up a Privy Council, made up of his most trusted advisors. The members were to have equal powers and were to govern until Edward VI reached the age of eighteen. This council was meant to be balanced between the conservative and radical factions. But by the time of Henry’s death, the radical party had gained control.
It could be argued that Henry VIII was partly responsible for this, as it was he who had expelled Gardiner and had Norfolk arrested. This weakened the conservatives, but it was almost inevitable that one faction would emerge stronger. Although a balanced solution is ideal in theory, in practice it is almost impossible to maintain. Especially when there is a power struggle and no longer a royal focus of authority.
From this struggle for power, Somerset emerged as leader. It is evident that he did not have enough support in the government, as he had to resort to the use of proclamations. Government under Henry VIII had been strong. However the same system, whereby the power of the monarch was based in Parliament, was not workable with a king who was only a minor, and a weaker leader, such as Somerset. This in itself is a crisis, the fact that the ruler of the country is only nine years old when he ascends to the throne. This is because Edward VI will need people to help him rule, being Somerset and Northumberland, and therefore their own interests will come through the King.
This can be shown through the succession crisis, which happened after the death of Edward VI. Henry’s will dictated that Mary should reign if Edward died without an heir. However Northumberland tried to change the succession himself, proclaiming Lady Jane Grey queen. However, the support in the country for Mary, the rightful heir, was good enough, that a potential political crisis was avoided. Northumberland deliberately tried to promote his own interests, Lady Jane Grey being his daughter in law.
The main problem in Edward VI’s reign was that he wasn’t older enough to rule for himself. Therefore this gave an open door way to noblemen who wanted to get what they want by influencing the new king. As stated above Edward Seymour, later Duke of Somerset emerged as the leader to advise Edward VI. Somerset, once in power ruled more like a king than a regent did. Evidence has survived that showed Somerset tried to govern without the council and instead with the advice from his own members. Because of this, Somerset became isolated and could not get the support of councillors when he later needed it 1559.
In 1547 England was virtually bankrupt. Somerset worsened the situation, by seizing more Church property, (The Chantries Act of 1540) and by debasing the coinage. He could have reformed the taxation and customs systems and brought the financial administration up to date, which was desperately needed. But his failings as a ruler are demonstrated by his lack of effort. When compared to Northumberland, and even Mary, neither of whom should be held responsible for financial problems, it can be seen that Somerset contributed to the crisis. It was Northumberland who realised it was necessary to end the wars. This showed realism even though it was “inglorious”, and it was he who re-evaluated the coinage in 1552, and who laid the foundations for the reformation of the revenue courts, which took place under Mary.
Northumberland also established the Privy Coffer to provide contingency funds. Mary herself reformed the customs and introduced the book of rates in 1558. There was also, as Guy perceives a shift towards ‘national finance’. Although the period 1552-8 is still described as a crisis, it must be remembered that there were some productive reforms and that the situation did not decline. Historians such as Pollard who see government as “sterile, impotent and unproductive” at this time do not seem to have taken into account these positive financial developments. It is evident that Henry was at the root of the financial problems and that Somerset exacerbated them. However the positive achievements of Northumberland and Mary must not be forgotten.
Somerset lacked charm and made enemies easily. His arrogance and pride created resentment. He was a weak administrator who refused to listen to the experts. The crisis came for Somerset, in 1559 when he failed to deal decisively with rebellions in the west and in Norfolk (which had been partly caused by his own policies). As Dale Hoak points out “his colleagues decided to get rid of him at this point not because he supported the poor but because he was incompetent”.
When Northumberland came into power, even though his reforms were far more extreme, with no possibility of alternative interpretation, he did not at that time cause crisis by putting the country in a firmly Protestant position. By being more decisive than Somerset, he was aiming to show that the government was firmly in control and able once again to dictate policy, thus stabilising society. By the end of his time in power, it seemed as if the establishment of a Protestant church had been achieved, with no rebellions. He was more forceful than Somerset and it seems that after he had successfully crushed the rebellions of 1549, the people were in fear of him. It can be argued that if Edward had not at this point died, the religious situation would gradually have increased in stability and there would have been no further crisis.
Mary I ascended the throne in 1553. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, which meant she was half-Spanish. Mary I was highly educated and a devout catholic. She managed to get the throne due to her own decisiveness in claiming the throne, which won her the political support of men such as Bishop Gardiner. Also the leaders of her household gained the support of gentry’s, towns and the Earl of Sussex and with the weaknesses of Northumberland, she managed to win the throne.
Mary I, like Edward VI, also had problems with Parliament. These were due to her shortcomings, and also due to the fact that the House of Commons was increasing in importance. Mary’s personal stubbornness (including her aims to restore Catholicism and to marry Philip II of Spain) led to a decline in efficiency with the House of Lords. She also increased the size of the Privy Council to such an extent that it was too large to work effectively. Problems were also caused with the amount of faction at the time, but with the death of Gardiner in 1555, these decreased.
Mary I wanted to do three things. These were to restore Catholicism, marry Philip II of Spain (heir to the Habsburg Empire) and to have catholic heirs.
To achieve getting married, Mary I had to have great determination, which she had, and political skills, which she didn’t have. Mary I had never been trained to rule and did not have incisive intelligence to make up for this. She needed experienced councillors, however these were the same men who served under Henry VIII and Edward VI, and she never fully trusted them.
One of the biggest problems during Mary’s reign was due to religion and the marriage of her to Philip II of Spain. Mary was a devout catholic, and she wanted to change England into being Catholic. Philip of Spain was a catholic and Spanish, which in Mary’s eyes was perfect. However due to xenophobia, this was not a popular decision. However there was logic behind it. It would cement alliances with the Netherlands, which would become a trading partner, which would aid English economy. It would avoid hostility among nobles, as Courtney would not be raised to royal level. Lastly Philip was politically experienced, which Mary was not.
To Mary I, Prince Philip II was perfect. He was a catholic and Spanish, the two things that she trusted most. The Privy Council finally came round in supporting the marriage. Those who tried to persuade he otherwise were cut down by Mary’s sharp tongue. Philip II was given the title of King and was to rule of a joint sovereign. When this was announced, it sparked rebellion.
Wyatt was the leader of the rebellion. Plans were already in place when the marriage settlement was leaked. Kent, Devon, Lancashire and the Welsh border were involved, however Kent was the only place where enough troops were gathered. Sir Thomas Wyatt raised three thousand troops and marched to London and defeated the government led army by Duke of Norfolk. Wyatt however, delayed his final onslaught, and when he did finally attack, he was defeated.
At the core of the rebellion was nationalism. Wyatt was clearly concerned by the marriage and rumours were spread of one Spanish to every four Englishmen in London. Other rumours include there were twelve thousand Spanish coming to claim the throne. And offices such as the Archbishop of Canterbury were going to be given to the Spaniards. Therefore Wyatt was seen as a hero by many.
The greatest crisis of all came towards the end of Mary’s reign. Governments however did not cause this at all. Instead, a combination of bad weather and disease. Harvests between 1530 and 1548 were generally good. But in 1549 to 1551, there were three bad years in a row, and further disastrous ones in 1555 and 1556. The latter year was the worst of the century, due to “the greatest rain and floods that was ever seen in England’, according to one witness. The result was that the price of wheat rocketed to twice its normal level Although if that was not enough, the country between 1556 and 1558 was swept by a major epidemic. This produced burning fevers, and resulted in a high mortality rate. Historians’ estimates of the numbers who died during these years vary from eleven to twenty per cent of the population. However it is still difficult to know whether most deaths were caused by disease itself or by starvation consequent on harvest failure.
To conclude, the rulers in the period 1547 to 1558 are to be blamed for the crisis. Notably Somerset. Mary I’s stubbornness and single-minded beliefs over religion also led to a crisis. The underlying social problems and the constitutional difficulties, which no one was responsible for, also were to blame. Because Edward and Mary both ruled for such a short time, the country had to adjust very rapidly to the changes brought about by the different monarchs. If either monarch had ruled for longer, and succeeded in establishing either Protestantism or Catholicism, it could have been likely that stability would have returned to the country. It is also important to consider the relative strength of the government, in that even though there were major rebellions, Wyatt’s rebellion, the monarch did not collapse at this time, and indeed, historians such as Heard now believe it that there was no real crisis. As Heard states he sees it as, ” a period of dynastic weakness and minority rule had passed without the country dissolving into civil war”, as happened in France for example.