Edward VI (1547–53)

Edward VI (1547–53)

Henry was succeeded by his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, but real power passed to his brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, who became duke of Somerset and lord protector shortly after the new reign began. Somerset ruled in loco parentis; the divinity of the crown resided in the boy king, but authority was exercised by an uncle who proved himself to be more merciful than tactful and more idealistic than practical. Sweet reason and tolerance were substituted for the old king’s brutal laws. The treason and heresy acts were repealed or modified, and the result came close to destroying the Tudor state. The moment idle tongues could speak with impunity, the kingdom broke into a chorus of religious and social discord.

Edward VI: coronation
Edward VI: coronationCoronation of Edward VI, stained glass, Mansion House, London.E&E Image Library/Heritage Image/age fotostock

To stem religious dissent, the lord protector introduced The Book of Common Prayer in 1549 and an act of uniformity to enforce it. Written primarily by Thomas Cranmer, the first prayer book of Edward VI was a literary masterpiece but a political flop, for it failed in its purpose. It sought to bring into a single Protestant fold all varieties of middle-of-the-road religious beliefs by deliberately obscuring the central issue of the exact nature of the mass—whether it was a miraculous sacrament or a commemorative service. The Book of Common Prayer succeeded only in antagonizing Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.

Somerset is best remembered for these religious reforms, but their effectiveness was much blunted by their association with greed. Henry VIII had plundered and dissolved the monasteries and had mounted a half-successful campaign to accuse the monastic communities of corruption, licentiousness, and putting obedience to a foreign power above their obedience to him. Somerset extended the state’s plunder to the parish churches and to the gold and silver piously and generously given by thousands of layfolk for the adornment of the parish churches. Their descendants watched the desecration with sullen anger. The rhetoric of cleansing parish churches of idolatrous and sacrilegious images sounded hollow as wagonloads of gold and silver objects headed toward the smelter’s shop in the lord protector’s backyard.

All this in turn was linked to what has been called Somerset’s idée fixe, the permanent solution to the problem of the Anglo-Scottish frontier. Every time Henry VIII had tried to assert his claims to French territories, kings of Scotland had taken the opportunity to invade England. On each occasion—and especially in 1513 and 1542—the Scottish armies had been humiliated and a high proportion of the nobility killed or captured (James IV had been killed at the Battle of Flodden, and, when James V heard of the massacre of his nobility and men at Solway Moss, “he turned his face to the wall and died”). In 1543 the captured nobles agreed to a marriage treaty that was intended to see the marriage of Henry’s son and heir, Edward VI, to the infant Mary (Mary, Queen of Scots), with the aim of uniting the thrones of England and Scotland. But the Scots broke their promise and shipped Mary off to France with the intention of marrying her to the heir of the French throne. Foreseeing the permanent annexation of Scotland to France in the same way that the Netherlands had been annexed to Spain, Somerset determined to conquer the Scottish Lowlands and to establish permanent castles and strongholds as a buffer between the kingdoms. It cost him most of the country’s remaining treasure and much of his popularity, and the whole policy proved a failure.

Somerset was no more successful in solving the economic and social difficulties of the reign. Rising prices, debasement of the currency, and the cost of war had produced an inflationary crisis in which prices doubled between 1547 and 1549. A false prosperity ensued in which the wool trade boomed, but so also did enclosures with all their explosive potential. The result was social revolution. Whether Somerset deserved his title of “the good duke” is a matter of opinion. Certainly, the peasants thought that he favoured the element in the House of Commons that was anxious to tax sheep raisers and to curb enclosures and that section of the clergy that was lashing out at economic inequality. In the summer of 1549, the peasantry in Cornwall and Devonshire revolted against the Prayer Book in the name of the good old religious days under Henry VIII, and, almost simultaneously, the humble folk in Norfolk rose up against the economic and social injustices of the century. At the same time that domestic rebellion was stirring, the protector had to face a political and international crisis, and he proved himself to be neither a farsighted statesman nor a shrewd politician. He embroiled the country in a war with Scotland that soon involved France and ended in an inconclusive defeat, and he earned the enmity and disrespect of the members of his own council. In the eyes of the ruling elite, Somerset was responsible for governmental ineptitude and social and religious revolution. The result was inevitable: a palace revolution ensued in October 1549, in which he was arrested and deprived of office, and two and a half years later he was executed on trumped-up charges of treason.

The protector’s successor and the man largely responsible for his fall was John Dudley, earl of Warwick, who became duke of Northumberland. The duke was a man of action who represented most of the acquisitive aspects of the landed elements in society and who allied himself with the extreme section of the Protestant reformers. Under Northumberland, England pulled out of Scotland and in 1550 returned Boulogne to France; social order was ruthlessly reestablished in the countryside, the more conservative of the Henrician bishops were imprisoned, the wealth of the parish churches was systematically looted, and uncompromising Protestantism was officially sanctioned. The Ordinal of 1550 transformed the divinely ordained priest into a preacher and teacher, The Second Prayer Book of Edward VI (1552) was avowedly Protestant, altars were turned into tables, clerical vestments gave way to plain surplices, and religious orthodoxy was enforced by a new and more stringent Act of Uniformity.

How long a kingdom still attached to the outward trappings of Roman Catholicism would have tolerated doctrinal radicalism and the plundering of chantry lands and episcopal revenues under Somerset and Northumberland is difficult to say, but in 1553 the ground upon which Northumberland had built his power crumbled: Edward was dying of consumption. To save the kingdom from Roman Catholicism and himself from Roman Catholic Mary, who was Edward’s successor under the terms of a statute of Henry VIII as well as that king’s will, Northumberland—with the support, perhaps even the encouragement, of the dying king—tried his hand at kingmaking. Together they devised a new order of succession in which Mary and Elizabeth were declared illegitimate and the crown passed to Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister (Mary, duchess of Suffolk) and, incidentally, Northumberland’s daughter-in-law. The gamble failed, for when Edward died on July 6, 1553, the kingdom rallied to the daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Whatever their religious inclinations, Englishmen preferred a Tudor on the throne. In nine days the interlude was over, and Northumberland and his daughter-in-law were in the Tower of London.

Mary I (1553–58)

Roman Catholicism was not a lost cause when Mary came to the throne. If she had lived as long as her sister Elizabeth was to live (the womb cancer from which Mary died in 1558 not only brought her Catholic restoration to an end but rendered her childless and heirless), England would probably have been an irrevocably Catholic country. Mary was indeed determined to restore Catholicism, but she was also determined to act in accordance with the law. She worked with and through successive Parliaments to reverse all the statutes that excluded papal jurisdiction from England and to revoke her half-brother’s doctrinal and liturgical reforms; however, she persuaded Rome to allow her to confirm the dissolution of the monasteries and the secularization of church properties. New monasteries were to be created, but the vast wealth of the dissolved ones remained in lay hands. She also gave the married Protestant clergy a straight choice: to remain with their wives and surrender their livings or to surrender their wives and resume their priestly ministry. Her resolute Catholicism was laced with realism. With her principal adviser, Reginald Cardinal Pole, she planned for a long-term improvement in the education and training of the clergy and the sumptuous refurbishment of parish churches. She took her inspiration from the Erasmian humanist reforms long championed by Pole in his Italian exile. But this liberal Catholicism was in the process of being repudiated by the Council of Trent, with its uncompromising policies. Pole was recalled to Rome by a hard-line pope and accused of heresy for his previous attempts to achieve an accommodation with Protestantism. Mary’s plans were torpedoed as much by the internal struggle for control of the Roman church as by the strength of Protestant opposition in England. Most potential leaders of a resistance movement had been encouraged by Mary to emigrate and had done so, but there were scores of underground Protestant cells during her reign. In thousands of parish churches, the restored liturgy and worship were welcomed.

Mary’s decision to marry Prince Philip of Spain (later Philip II), her Habsburg cousin and the son of Charles V, the man who had defended her mother’s marital rights, proved to be unwise. Given her age—she was 32 when she came to the throne—a quick marriage was essential to childbearing, but this one proved to be a failure. Her marriage was without love or children, and, by associating Roman Catholicism in the popular mind with Spanish arrogance, it triggered a rebellion that almost overthrew the Tudor throne. In January 1554, under the leadership of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Younger, the peasants of Kent rose up against the queen’s Roman Catholic and Spanish policies, and 3,000 men marched on London. The rebellion was crushed, but it revealed to Mary and her chief minister, Cardinal Pole, that the kingdom was filled with disloyal hearts who placed Protestantism and nationalism higher than their obedience to the throne.

The tragedy of Mary’s reign was the belief not only that the old church of her mother’s day could be restored but also that it could be best served by fire and blood. At least 282 men and women were martyred in the Smithfield Fires during the last three years of her reign; compared with events on the Continent, the numbers were not large, but the emotional impact was great. Among the first half-dozen martyrs were the Protestant leaders Cranmer, Nicholas RidleyHugh Latimer, and John Hooper, who were burned to strike terror into the hearts of lesser men. Their deaths, however, had the opposite effect; their bravery encouraged others to withstand the flames, and the Smithfield Fires continued to burn because nobody could think of what to do with heretics except put them to death. The law required it, the prisons were overflowing, and the martyrs themselves offered the government no way out except to enforce the grisly laws.

Nicholas Ridley
Nicholas RidleyNicholas Ridley, detail of a portrait by an unknown artist, 1555; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Mary’s reign was a study in failure. Her husband, who was 10 years her junior, remained in England as short a time as possible; the war between France and the Habsburg empire, into which her Spanish marriage had dragged the kingdom, was a disaster and resulted in the loss of England’s last Continental outpost, Calais; her subjects came to call her “Bloody Mary” and greeted the news of her death and the succession of her sister, Elizabeth, on November 17, 1558, with ringing bells and bonfires.

Elizabeth I (1558–1603)

No one in 1558, any more than in 1485, would have predicted that—despite the social discord, political floundering, and international humiliation of the past decade—the kingdom again stood on the threshold of an extraordinary reign. To make matters worse, the new monarch was the wrong sex. Englishmen knew that it was unholy and unnatural that “a woman should reign and have empire above men.” At age 25, however, Elizabeth I was better prepared than most women to have empire over men. She had survived the palace revolutions of her brother’s reign and the Roman Catholicism of her sister’s; she was the product of a fine Renaissance education, and she had learned the need for strong secular leadership devoid of religious bigotry. Moreover, she possessed her father’s magnetism without his egotism or ruthlessness. She was also her mother’s daughter, and the offspring of Anne Boleyn had no choice but to reestablish the royal supremacy and once again sever the ties with Rome.

Elizabeth’s religious settlement was constructed on the doctrine of adiaphorism, the belief that, except for a few fundamentals, there exists in religion a wide area of “things indifferent” that could be decided by the government on the basis of expediency. Conservative opposition was blunted by entitling the queen “supreme governor,” not “head,” of the church and by combining the words of the 1552 prayer book with the more conservative liturgical actions of the 1549 prayer book. At the same time, many of the old papal trappings of the church were retained. Protestant radicals went along with this compromise in the expectation that the principle of “things indifferent” meant that Elizabeth would, when the political dust had settled, rid her church of the “livery of Antichrist” and discard its “papal rags.” In this they were badly mistaken, for the queen was determined to keep her religious settlement exactly as it had been negotiated in 1559. As it turned out, Roman Catholics proved to be better losers than Protestants: of the 900 parish clergy, only 189 refused to accept Elizabeth as supreme governor, but the Protestant radicals—the future Puritans—were soon at loggerheads with their new sovereign.

The Tudor ideal of government

The religious settlement was part of a larger social arrangement that was authoritarian to its core. Elizabeth was determined to be queen in fact as well as in name. She tamed the House of Commons with tact combined with firmness, and she carried on a love affair with her kingdom in which womanhood, instead of being a disadvantage, became her greatest asset. The men she appointed to help her run and stage-manage the government were politiques like herself: William Cecil, Baron Burghley, her principal secretary and in 1572 her lord treasurer; Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury; and a small group of other moderate and secular men.

In setting her house in order, the queen followed the hierarchical assumptions of her day. All creation was presumed to be a great chain of being, running from the tiniest insect to the Godhead itself, and the universe was seen as an organic whole in which each part played a divinely prescribed role. In politics every element was expected to obey “one head, one governor, one law” in exactly the same way as all parts of the human body obeyed the brain. The crown was divine and gave leadership, but it did not exist alone, nor could it claim a monopoly of divinity, for all parts of the body politic had been created by God. The organ that spoke for the entire kingdom was not the king alone but “king in Parliament,” and, when Elizabeth sat in the midst of her Lords and Commons, it was said that “every Englishman is intended to be there present from the prince to the lowest person in England.” The Tudors needed no standing army in “the French fashion” because God’s will and the monarch’s decrees were enshrined in acts of Parliament, and this was society’s greatest defense against rebellion. The controlling mind within this mystical union of crown and Parliament belonged to the queen. The Privy Council, acting as the spokesman of royalty, planned and initiated all legislation, and Parliament was expected to turn that legislation into law. Inside and outside Parliament the goal of Tudor government was benevolent paternalism in which the strong hand of authoritarianism was masked by the careful shaping of public opinion, the artistry of pomp and ceremony, and the deliberate effort to tie the ruling elite to the crown by catering to the financial and social aspirations of the landed country gentleman. Every aspect of government was intimate because it was small and rested on the support of probably no more than 5,000 key persons. The bureaucracy consisted of a handful of privy councillors at the top and possibly 500 paid civil servants at the bottom—the 15 members of the secretariat, the 265 clerks and custom officials of the treasury, a staff of 50 in the judiciary, and approximately 150 more scattered in other departments. Tudor government was not predominantly professional. Most of the work was done by unpaid amateurs: the sheriffs of the shires, the lord lieutenants of the counties, and, above all, the Tudor maids of all work, the 1,500 or so justices of the peace. Meanwhile, each of the 180 “corporate” towns and cities was governed by men chosen locally by a variety of means laid down in the particular royal charter each had been granted.

Smallness did not mean lack of government, for the 16th-century state was conceived of as an organic totality in which the possession of land carried with it duties of leadership and service to the throne, and the inferior part of society was obligated to accept the decisions of its elders and betters. The Tudors were essentially medieval in their economic and social philosophy. The aim of government was to curb competition and regulate life so as to attain an ordered and stable society in which all could share according to status. The Statute of Apprentices of 1563 embodied this concept, for it assumed the moral obligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society. The same assumption operated in the famous Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601—the need to ensure a minimum standard of living to all men and women within an organic and noncompetitive society (see Poor Law). By 1600 poverty, unemployment, and vagrancy had become too widespread for the church to handle, and the state had to take over, instructing each parish to levy taxes to pay for poor relief and to provide work for the able-bodied, punishment for the indolent, and charity for the sick, the aged, and the disabled. The Tudor social ideal was to achieve a static class structure by guaranteeing a fixed labour supply, restricting social mobility, curbing economic freedom, and creating a kingdom in which subjects could fulfill their ultimate purpose in life—spiritual salvation, not material well-being.

Elizabethan society

Explore the great men from Elizabeth I's reign such as Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, and William Shakespeare
Explore the great men from Elizabeth I’s reign such as Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, and William ShakespeareTowering English figures in exploration, science, and the arts during the reign of Elizabeth I.Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.See all videos for this article

Social reality, at least for the poor and powerless, was probably a far cry from the ideal, but for a few years Elizabethan England seemed to possess an extraordinary internal balance and external dynamism. In part the queen herself was responsible. She demanded no windows into men’s souls, and she charmed both great and small with her artistry and tact. In part, however, the Elizabethan Age was a success because men had at their disposal new and exciting areas, both of mind and geography, into which to channel their energies.

William Shakespeare
William ShakespearePortrait of William Shakespeare.duncan1890/iStock.com

A revolution in reading (and to a lesser extent writing) was taking place. By 1640 a majority of men, and just possibly a majority of men and women, could read, and there were plenty of things for them to read. In the year that Henry VIII came to the throne (1509), the number of works licensed to be published was 38. In the year of Elizabeth’s accession (1558), it was 77; in the year of her death (1603), it was 328. In the year of Charles I’s execution (1649), the number had risen to 1,383. And by the time of the Glorious Revolution (1688–89), it had reached 1,570. These figures do not include the ever-rising tide of broadsheets and ballads that were intended to be posted on the walls of inns and alehouses as well as in other public places. Given that a large proportion of the illiterate population spent at least part of their lives in service in homes with literate members and given that reading in the early modern period was frequently an aural experience—official documents being read aloud in market squares and parish churches and all manner of publications being read aloud to whole households—a very high proportion of the population had direct or indirect access to the printed word.

There was very little church building in the century after the Reformation, but there was an unprecedented growth of school building, with grammar schools springing up in most boroughs and in many market towns. By 1600 schools were provided for more than 10 percent of the adolescent population, who were taught Latin and given an introduction to Classical civilization and the foundations of biblical faith. There was also a great expansion of university education; the number of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge doubled in the 16th century, and the number of students went up fourfold to 1,200 by 1640 (see University of OxfordUniversity of Cambridge). The aim of Tudor education was less to teach the “three Rs” (reading, writing, and arithmetic) than to establish mind control: to drill children “in the knowledge of their duty toward God, their prince and all other[s] in their degree.” A knowledge of Latin and a smattering of Greek became, even more than elegant clothing, the mark of the social elite. The educated Englishman was no longer a cleric but a justice of the peace or a member of Parliament, a merchant or a landed gentleman who for the first time was able to express his economic, political, and religious dreams and his grievances in terms of abstract principles that were capable of galvanizing people into religious and political parties. Without literacy, the spiritual impact of the Puritans or, later, the formation of parties based on ideologies that engulfed the kingdom in civil war would have been impossible. So too would have been the cultural explosion that produced William Shakespeare, Christopher MarloweEdmund SpenserFrancis Bacon, and John Donne.

Poets, scholars, and playwrights dreamed and put pen to paper. Adventurers responded differently; they went “a-voyaging.” From a kingdom that had once been known for its “sluggish security,” Englishmen suddenly turned to the sea and the world that was opening up around them. The first hesitant steps had been taken under Henry VII when John Cabot in 1497 sailed in search of a northwest route to China and as a consequence discovered Cape Breton Island. The search for Cathay became an economic necessity in 1550 when the wool trade collapsed and merchants had to find new markets for their cloth. In response, the Muscovy Company was established to trade with Russia; by 1588, 100 vessels a year were visiting the Baltic. Martin Frobisher made a series of voyages to northern Canada during the 1570s in the hope of finding gold and a shortcut to the Orient; John Hawkins encroached upon Spanish and Portuguese preserves and in 1562 sailed for Africa in quest of slaves to sell to West Indian plantation owners; and Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the globe (December 13, 1577–September 26, 1580) in search of the riches not only of the East Indies but also of Terra Australis, the great southern continent. Suddenly, Englishmen were on the move: Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his band of settlers set forth for Newfoundland (1583); Sir Walter Raleigh organized what became the equally ill-fated “lost colony” at Roanoke (1587–91); John Davis in his two small ships, the Moonshine and the Sunshine, reached 72° north (1585–87), the farthest north any Englishman had ever been; and the honourable East India Company was founded to organize the silk and spice trade with the Orient on a permanent basis. The outpouring was inspired not only by the urge for riches but also by religion—the desire to labour in the Lord’s vineyard and to found in the wilderness a new and better nation. As it was said, Englishmen went forth “to seek new worlds for gold, for praise, for glory.” Even the dangers of the reign—the precariousness of Elizabeth’s throne and the struggle with Roman Catholic Spain—somehow contrived to generate a self-confidence that had been lacking under “the little Tudors.”

Sir Walter Raleigh's conquest of St. Joseph, Trinidad
Sir Walter Raleigh’s conquest of St. Joseph, TrinidadSir Walter Raleigh’s conquest of the city of St. Joseph, Trinidad.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Mary, Queen of Scots

The first decade of Elizabeth’s reign was relatively quiet, but after 1568 three interrelated matters set the stage for the crisis of the century: the queen’s refusal to marry, the various plots to replace her with Mary of Scotland, and the religious and economic clash with Spain. Elizabeth Tudor’s virginity was the cause of great international discussion, for every bachelor prince of Europe hoped to win a throne through marriage with Gloriana (the queen of the fairies, as she was sometimes portrayed), and was the source of even greater domestic concern, for everyone except the queen herself was convinced that Elizabeth should marry and produce heirs. The issue was the cause of her first major confrontation with the House of Commons, which was informed that royal matrimony was not a subject for commoners to discuss. Elizabeth preferred maidenhood—it was politically safer and her most useful diplomatic weapon—but it gave poignancy to the intrigues of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of ScotsMary, Queen of Scots.Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (LOT 13407, no. 181)

Mary had been an unwanted visitor-prisoner in England ever since 1568, after she had been forced to abdicate her Scottish throne in favour of her 13-month-old son, James VI (later James I). She was Henry VIII’s grandniece and, in the eyes of many Roman Catholics and a number of political malcontents, the rightful ruler of England, for Mary of Scotland was a Roman Catholic. As the religious hysteria mounted, there was steady pressure put on Elizabeth to rid England of this dangerous threat, but the queen delayed a final decision for almost 19 years. In the end, however, she had little choice. Mary played into the hands of her religious and political enemies by involving herself in a series of schemes to unseat her cousin. One plot helped to trigger the rebellion of the northern earls in 1569. Another, the Ridolfi plot of 1571 (see Ridolfi, Roberto), called for an invasion by Spanish troops stationed in the Netherlands and for the removal of Elizabeth from the throne and resulted in the execution in 1572 of Thomas Howard, duke of Norfolk, the ranking peer of the realm. Yet another, the Babington plot of 1586, led by Anthony Babington, allowed the queen’s ministers to pressure her into agreeing to the trial and execution of Mary for high treason.

The clash with Spain

Mary was executed on February 8, 1587. By then England had moved from cold war to open war against Spain. Philip II was the colossus of Europe and leader of resurgent Roman Catholicism. His kingdom was strong: Spanish troops were the best in Europe, Spain itself had been carved out of territory held by the infidel and still retained its Crusading zeal, and the wealth of the New World poured into the treasury at Madrid. Spanish preeminence was directly related to the weakness of France, which, ever since the accidental death of Henry II in 1559, had been torn by factional strife and civil and religious war. In response to this diplomatic and military imbalance, English foreign policy underwent a fundamental change. By the Treaty of Blois in 1572, England gave up its historic enmity with France, accepting by implication that Spain was the greater danger. It is difficult to say at what point a showdown between Elizabeth and her former brother-in-law became unavoidable—there were so many areas of disagreement—but the two chief points were the refusal of English merchants-cum-buccaneers to recognize Philip’s claims to a monopoly of trade wherever the Spanish flag flew throughout the world and the military and financial support given by the English to Philip’s rebellious and heretical subjects in the Netherlands.

The most blatant act of English poaching in Spanish imperial waters was Drake’s circumnavigation of the Earth, during which Spanish shipping was looted, Spanish claims to California ignored, and Spanish world dominion proved to be a paper empire. But the encounter that really poisoned Anglo-Iberian relations was the Battle of San Juan de Ulúa in September 1568, where a small fleet captained by Hawkins and Drake was ambushed and almost annihilated through Spanish perfidy. Only Hawkins in the Minion and Drake in the Judith escaped. The English cried foul treachery, but the Spanish dismissed the action as sensible tactics when dealing with pirates. Drake and Hawkins never forgot or forgave, and it was Hawkins who, as treasurer of the navy, began to build the revolutionary ships that would later destroy the old-fashioned galleons of the Spanish Armada.

Sir Francis Drake
Sir Francis DrakeSir Francis Drake, oil on panel, after an engraving attributed to Jodocus Hondius, c. 1583; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.© C. Bevilacqua—DeA Picture Library/age fotostock

If the English never forgave Philip’s treachery at San Juan de Ulúa, the Spanish never forgot Elizabeth’s interference in the Netherlands, where Dutch Protestants were in full revolt. At first, aid had been limited to money and the harbouring of Dutch ships in English ports, but, after the assassination of the Protestant leader, William I, in 1584, the position of the rebels became so desperate that in August 1585 Elizabeth sent over an army of 6,000 under the command of Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Reluctantly, Philip decided on war against England as the only way of exterminating heresy and disciplining his subjects in the Netherlands. Methodically, he began to build a fleet of 130 vessels, 31,000 men, and 2,431 cannons to hold naval supremacy in the English Channel long enough for Alessandro Farnese, duke of Parma, and his army, stationed at Dunkirk, to cross over to England.

Spanish Aramada
Spanish AramadaDrawing or engraving of the Invincible Spanish Armada, July 1588.© The British Library/Robana/REX/Shutterstock.com

Nothing Elizabeth could do seemed to be able to stop the Armada Catholica. She sent Drake to Spain in April 1587 in a spectacular strike at that portion of the fleet forming at Cádiz, but it succeeded only in delaying the sailing date. That delay, however, was important, for Philip’s admiral of the ocean seas, the veteran Álvaro de Bazán, marqués de Santa Cruz, died, and the job of sailing the Armada was given to Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, duque de Medina-Sidonia, who was invariably seasick and confessed that he knew more about gardening than war. What ensued was not the new commander’s fault. He did the best he could in an impossible situation, for Philip’s Armada was invincible in name only. It was technologically and numerically outclassed by an English fleet of close to 200. Worse, its strategic purpose was grounded on a fallacy: that Parma’s troops could be conveyed to England. The Spanish controlled no deepwater port in the Netherlands in which the Armada’s great galleons and Parma’s light troop-carrying barges could rendezvous. Even the Deity seemed to be more English than Spanish, and in the end the fleet, buffeted by gales, was dashed to pieces as it sought to escape home via the northern route around Scotland and Ireland. Of the 130 ships that had left Spain, perhaps 85 crept home; 10 were captured, sunk, or driven aground by English guns, 23 were sacrificed to wind and storm, and 12 others were “lost, fate unknown.”

Internal discontent

When the Armada was defeated during the first weeks of August 1588, the crisis of Elizabeth’s reign was reached and successfully passed. The last years of her reign were an anticlimax, for the moment the international danger was surmounted, domestic strife ensued. There were moments of great heroism and success—as when Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, Raleigh, and Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, made a second descent on Cádiz in 1596, seized the city, and burned the entire West Indian treasure fleet—but the war so gloriously begun deteriorated into a costly campaign in the Netherlands and France and an endless guerrilla action in Ireland, where Philip discovered he could do to Elizabeth what she had been doing to him in the Low Countries. Even on the high seas, the days of fabulous victories were over, for the king of Spain soon learned to defend his empire and his treasure fleets. Both Drake and Hawkins died in 1596 on the same ill-conceived expedition into Spanish Caribbean waters—symbolic proof that the good old days of buccaneering were gone forever. At home the cost of almost two decades of war (£4 million) raised havoc with the queen’s finances. It forced her to sell her capital (about £800,000, or roughly one-fourth of all crown lands) and increased her dependence upon parliamentary sources of income, which rose from an annual average of £35,000 to over £112,000 a year.

Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of EssexRobert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, detail of a painting after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, late 16th century; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, London

The expedition to the Netherlands was not, however, the most costly component of the protracted conflict; indeed, the privateering war against Spain more than paid for itself. The really costly war of the final years of Elizabeth’s reign was in Ireland, where a major rebellion in response to the exclusion of native Catholics from government and to the exploitation of every opportunity to replace native Catholics with Protestant English planters tied down thousands of English soldiers. The rebellion was exacerbated by Spanish intervention and even by a Spanish invasion force (the element of the Armada that temporarily succeeded). This Nine Years War (1594–1603) was eventually won by the English but only with great brutality and at great expense of men and treasure.

Elizabeth’s financial difficulties were a symptom of a mounting political crisis that under her successors would destroy the entire Tudor system of government. The 1590s were years of depression—bad harvests, soaring prices, peasant unrest, high taxes, and increasing parliamentary criticism of the queen’s economic policies and political leadership. Imperceptibly, the House of Commons was becoming the instrument through which the will of the landed classes could be heard and not an obliging organ of royal control. In Tudor political theory this was a distortion of the proper function of Parliament, which was meant to beseech and petition, never to command or initiate. Three things, however, forced theory to make way for reality. First was the government’s financial dependence on the Commons, for the organ that paid the royal piper eventually demanded that it also call the governmental tune. Second, under the Tudors, Parliament had been summoned so often and forced to legislate on such crucial matters of church and state—legitimizing monarchs, breaking with Rome, proclaiming the supreme headship (governorship under Elizabeth), establishing the royal succession, and legislating in areas that no Parliament had ever dared enter before—that the Commons got into the habit of being consulted. Inevitably, a different constitutional question emerged: If Parliament is asked to give authority to the crown, can it also take away that authority? Finally, there was the growth of a vocal, politically conscious, and economically dominant gentry; the increase in the size of the House of Commons reflected the activity and importance of that class. In Henry VIII’s first Parliament, there were 74 knights who sat for 37 shires and 224 burgesses who represented the chartered boroughs and towns of the kingdom. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, borough representation had been increased by 135 seats. The Commons was replacing the Lords in importance because the social element it represented had become economically and politically more important than the nobility. Should the crown’s leadership falter, there existed by the end of the century an organization that was quite capable of seizing the political initiative, for as one disgruntled contemporary noted: “the foot taketh upon him the part of the head and commons is become a king.” Elizabeth had sense enough to avoid a showdown with the Commons, and she retreated under parliamentary attack on the issue of her prerogative rights to grant monopolies regulating and licensing the economic life of the kingdom, but on the subject of her religious settlement she refused to budge.

By the last decade of her reign, Puritanism was on the increase. During the 1570s and ’80s, “cells” had sprung up to spread God’s word and rejuvenate the land, and Puritan strength was centred in exactly that segment of society that had the economic and social means to control the realm—the gentry and merchant classes. What set a Puritan off from other Protestants was the literalness with which he held to his creed, the discipline with which he watched his soul’s health, the militancy of his faith, and the sense that he was somehow apart from the rest of corrupt humanity. This disciplined spiritual elite clashed with the queen over the purification of the church and the stamping out of the last vestiges of Roman Catholicism. The controversy went to the root of society: Was the purpose of life spiritual or political? Was the role of the church to serve God or the crown? In 1576 two brothers, Paul and Peter Wentworth, led the Puritan attack in the Commons, criticizing the queen for her refusal to allow Parliament to debate religious issues. The crisis came to a head in 1586, when Puritans called for legislation to abolish the episcopacy and the Anglican prayer book. Elizabeth ordered the bills to be withdrawn, and, when Peter Wentworth raised the issue of freedom of speech in the Commons, she answered by clapping him in the Tower of London. There was emerging in England a group of religious idealists who derived their spiritual authority from a source that stood higher than the crown and who thereby violated the concept of the organic society and endangered the very existence of the Tudor paternalistic monarchy. As early as 1573 the threat had been recognized:

Puritan family
Puritan familyDepiction of an English Puritan family, 16th century.Heritage-Images/age fotostock

At the beginning it was but a cap, a surplice, and a tippet [over which Puritans complained]; now, it is grown to bishops, archbishops, and cathedral churches, to the overthrow of the established order, and to the Queen’s authority in causes ecclesiastical.

James I later reduced the problem to one of his usual bons mots—“no bishop, no king.” Elizabeth’s answer was less catchy but more effective; she appointed as archbishop John Whitgift, who was determined to destroy Puritanism as a politically organized sect. Whitgift was only partially successful, but the queen was correct: the moment the international crisis was over and a premium was no longer placed on loyalty, Puritans were potential security risks.

Puritans were a loyal opposition, a church within the church. Elizabethan governments never feared that there would or could be a Puritan insurrection in the way they constantly feared that there could and would be an insurrection by papists. Perhaps 1 in 5 of the peerage, 1 in 10 of the gentry, and 1 in 50 of the population were practicing Catholics, many of them also being occasional conformists in the Anglican church to avoid the severity of the law. Absence from church made householders liable to heavy fines; associating with priests made them liable to incarceration or death. To be a priest in England was itself treasonous; in the second half of the reign, more than 300 Catholics were tortured to death, even more than the number of Protestants burned at the stake by Mary. Some priests, especially Jesuits, did indeed preach political revolution, but many others preached a dual allegiance—to the queen in all civil matters and to Rome in matters of the soul. Most laymen were willing to follow this more moderate advice, but it did not stem the persecution or alleviate the paranoia of the Elizabethan establishment.

Catholicism posed a political threat to Elizabethan England. Witches posed a cultural threat. From early in Elizabeth’s reign, concern grew that men and (more particularly) women on the margins of society were casting spells on respectable folk with whom they were in conflict. Explanations abound. Accusations seem to have often arisen when someone with wealth denied a request for personal charity to someone in need, with the excuse that the state had now taken over responsibility for institutional relief through the Poor Laws; guilt about this refusal of charity would give way to blaming the poor person who had been turned away for any ensuing misfortunes. Sometimes magisterial encouragement of witchcraft prosecutions was related to the intellectual search for the causes of natural disasters that fell short of an explanation more plausible than the casting of spells. Sometimes there was concern over the existence of “cunning men and women” with inherited knowledge based on a cosmology incompatible with the new Protestantism. This was especially the case when the cunning men and women were taking over the casting of spells and incantations that had been the province of the Catholic priest but were not the province of the Protestant minister. Certainly, the rise in incidence of witchcraft trials and executions can be taken as evidence of a society not at peace with itself. As the century ended, there was a crescendo of social unrest and controlled crowd violence. There were riots about the enclosure of common land, about the enforced movement of grain from producing regions to areas of shortage, about high taxes and low wages, and about the volatility of trade. The decades on either side of the turn of the century saw roaring inflation and the first real evidence of the very young and the very old starving to death in remote areas and in London itself. Elizabethan England ended in a rich cultural harvest and real physical misery for people at the two ends of the social scale, respectively.

The final years of Gloriana’s life were difficult both for the theory of Tudor kingship and for Elizabeth herself. She began to lose hold over the imaginations of her subjects, and she faced the only palace revolution of her reign when her favourite, the earl of Essex, sought to take her crown. There was still fight in the old queen, and Essex ended on the scaffold in 1601, but his angry demand could not be ignored:

What! Cannot princes err? Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite? Pardon me, pardon me, my good Lord, I can never subscribe to these principles.

When the queen died on March 24, 1603, it was as if the critics of her style of rule and her concept of government had been waiting patiently for her to step down. It was almost with relief that men looked forward to the problems of a new dynasty and a new century, as well as to a man, not a woman, upon the throne.Lacey Baldwin SmithJohn S. Morrill

The early Stuarts and the Commonwealth

England in 1603

Economy and society

At the beginning of the 17th century, England and Wales contained more than four million people. The population had nearly doubled over the previous century, and it continued to grow for another 50 years. The heaviest concentrations of population were in the southeast and along the coasts. Population increase created severe social and economic problems, not the least of which was a long-term price inflation. English society was predominantly rural, with as much as 85 percent of its people living on the land. About 800 small market towns of several hundred inhabitants facilitated local exchange, and, in contrast to most of western Europe, there were few large urban areas. Norwich and Bristol were the biggest provincial cities, with populations of around 15,000. ExeterYork, and Newcastle were important regional centres, though they each had about 10,000 inhabitants. Only London could be ranked with the great Continental cities. Its growth had outstripped even the doubling of the general population. By the beginning of the 17th century, it contained more than a quarter of a million people and by the end nearly half a million, most of them poor migrants who flocked to the capital in search of work or charity. London was the centre of government, of overseas trade and finance, and of fashion, taste, and culture. It was ruled by a merchant oligarchy, whose wealth increased tremendously over the course of the century as international trade expanded.

London not only ruled the English mercantile world, but it also dominated the rural economy of the southeast by its insatiable demand for food and clothing. The rural economy was predominately agricultural, with mixed animal and grain husbandry practiced wherever the land allowed. The population increase, however, placed great pressure upon the resources of local communities, and efforts by landlords and tenants to raise productivity for either profit or survival were the key feature of agricultural development. Systematic efforts to grow luxury market crops like wheat, especially in the environs of London, drove many smaller tenants from the land. So too did the practice of enclosure, which allowed for more productive land use by large holders at the expense of their poorer neighbours. There is evidence of a rural subsistence crisis lasting throughout the first two decades of the century. Marginally productive land came under the plow, rural revolts became more common, and harvest failures resulted in starvation rather than hunger, both in London and in the areas remote from the grain-growing lowlands—such as north Wales and the Lake District. It was not until the middle of the century that the rural economy fully recovered and entered a period of sustained growth. A nation that could barely feed itself in 1600 was an exporter of grain by 1700.

In the northeast and southwest the harsher climate and poorer soils were more suited for sheep raising than for large-scale cereal production. The northeast and southwest were the location of the only significant manufacturing activity in England, the woolen cloth industry. Wool was spun into large cloths for export to Holland, where the highly technical finishing processes were performed before it was sold commercially. Because spinning and weaving provided employment for thousands of families, the downturn of the cloth trade at the beginning of the 17th century compounded the economic problems brought about by population increase. This situation worsened considerably after the opening of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), as trade routes became disrupted and as new and cheaper sources of wool were developed. But the transformation of the English mercantile economy from its previous dependence upon a single commodity into a diversified entrepôt that transshipped dozens of domestic and colonial products was one of the most significant developments of the century.

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The economic divide between rich and poor, between surplus and subsistence producers, was a principal determinant of rank and status. English society was organized hierarchically with a tightly defined ascending order of privileges and responsibilities. This hierarchy was as apparent in the family as it was in the state. In the family, as elsewhere, male domination was the rule; husbands ruled their wives, masters their servants, parents their children. But if hierarchy was stratified, it was not ossified; those who attained wealth could achieve status. The social hierarchy reflected gradations of wealth and responded to changes in the economic fortunes of individuals. In this sense it was more open than most European societies. Old wealth was not preferred to new, and an ancient title conferred no greater privileges than recent elevation; the humble could rise to become gentle, and the gentle could fall to become humble.

During the early 17th century a small titular peerage composed of between 75 and 100 peers formed the apex of the social structure. Their titles were hereditary, passed from father to eldest son, and they were among the wealthiest subjects of the state. Most were local magnates, inheriting vast county estates and occupying honorific positions in local government. The peerage was the military class of the nation, and in the counties peers held the office of lord lieutenant. Most were also called to serve at court, but at the beginning of the century their power was still local rather than central.

Below them were the gentry, who probably composed only about 5 percent of the rural population but who were rising in importance and prestige. The gentry were not distinguished by title, though many were knights and several hundred purchased the rank of baronet (hereditary knighthoods) after it was created in 1611. Sir Thomas Smith defined a member of the gentry as “he that can bear the port and charge of a gentleman.” The gentry were expected to provide hospitality for their neighbours, treat their tenants paternally, and govern their counties. They served as deputy lieutenants, militia captains, and most important, as justices of the peace. To the justices fell the responsibility of enforcing the king’s law and keeping the king’s peace. They worked individually to mediate local disputes and collectively at quarter sessions to try petty crimes. As the magistracy the gentry were the backbone of county governance, and they maintained a fierce local independence even while enforcing the edicts of the crown.

Beneath the gentry were those who laboured for their survival. There were many prosperous tenants who were styled yeomen to denote their economic independence and the social gulf between them and those who eked out a bare existence. Some were the younger sons of gentlemen; others aspired to enter the ranks of the gentry, having amassed sufficient wealth to be secure against the fluctuations of the early modern economy. Like the gentry, the yeomanry were involved in local government, performing most of the day-to-day, face-to-face tasks. Yeomen were village elders, constables, and tax collectors, and they composed the juries that heard cases at quarter sessions. Most owned sufficient freehold land to be politically enfranchised and to participate in parliamentary selections. Filling out the ranks of rural society were husbandmen, cottagers, and labourers. Husbandmen were tenant farmers at or near self-sufficiency; cottagers were tenants with cottages and scraps of land, dependent on a range of by-employments to make ends meet (“an economy of makeshifts”); and labourers were those who were entirely dependent on waged employment on the land of others. They were the vast majority of local inhabitants, and their lives were bound up in the struggle for survival.

In towns, tradesmen and shopkeepers occupied the ranks below the ruling elites, but their occupational status clearly separated them from artisans, apprentices, and labourers. They were called the middling sort and were active in both civic and church affairs, holding the same minor offices as yeomen or husbandmen. Because of the greater concentrations of wealth and educational opportunities, the urban middling sort were active participants in urban politics.

Government and society

Seventeenth-century government was inextricably bound together with the social hierarchy that dominated local communities. Rank, status, and reputation were the criteria that enabled members of the local elite to serve the crown either in the counties or at court. Political theory stressed hierarchy, patriarchy, and deference in describing the natural order of English society. Most of the aristocracy and gentry were the king’s own tenants, whose obligations to him included military service, taxes, and local office holding. The monarch’s claim to be God’s vice-regent on earth was relatively uncontroversial, especially since his obligations to God included good governance. Except in dire emergency, the monarch could not abridge the laws and customs of England nor seize the persons or property of his subjects.

The monarch ruled personally, and the permanent institutions of government were constantly being reshaped. Around the king was the court, a floating body of royal servants, officeholders, and place seekers. Personal service to the king was considered a social honour and thus fitting to those who already enjoyed rank and privilege. Most of the aristocracy and many gentlemen were in constant attendance at court, some with lucrative offices to defray their expenses, others extravagantly running through their fortunes. There was no essential preparation for royal service, no necessary skills or experiences. Commonly, members of the elite were educated at universities and the law courts, and most made a grand tour of Europe, where they studied languages and culture. But their entry into royal service was normally through the patronage of family members and connections rather than through ability.

From among his court the monarch chose the Privy Council. Its size and composition remained fluid, but it was largely composed of the chief officers of state: the lord treasurer, who oversaw revenue; the lord chancellor, who was the crown’s chief legal officer; and the lord chamberlain, who was in charge of the king’s household. The archbishop of Canterbury was the leading churchman of the realm, and he advised the king, who was the head of the established church. The Privy Council advised the king on foreign and domestic policy and was charged with the administration of government. It communicated with the host of unpaid local officials who governed in the communities, ordering the justices to enforce statutes or the deputy lieutenants to raise forces. In these tasks the privy councillors relied not only upon the king’s warrant but upon their own local power and prestige as well. Thus, while the king was free to choose his own councillors, he was constrained to pick those who were capable of commanding respect. The advice that he received at the council table was from men who kept one eye on their localities and the other on the needs of central policy.

This interconnection between the centre and the localities was also seen in the composition of Parliament. Parliament was another of the king’s councils, though its role in government was less well defined than the Privy Council’s and its summoning was intermittent. In the early 17th century, Parliament was less an institution than an event; it was convened when the king sought the aid of his subjects in the process of creating new laws or to provide extraordinary revenue. Like everything else in English society, Parliament was constituted in a hierarchy, composed of the king, Lords, and Commons. Every peer of the realm was personally summoned to sit in the House of Lords, which was dominated by the greatest of the king’s officers. The lower house was composed of representatives selected from the counties and boroughs of the nation. The House of Commons was growing as local communities petitioned for the right to be represented in Parliament and local gentry scrambled for the prestige of being chosen. It had 464 members in 1604 and 507 forty years later. Selection to the House of Commons was a mark of distinction, and many communities rotated the honour among their most important citizens and neighbours. Although there were elaborate regulations governing who could choose and who could be chosen, in fact very few members of the House of Commons were selected competitively. Contests for places were uncommon, and elections in which individual votes were cast were extremely rare.

Members of Parliament served the dual function of representing the views of the localities to the king and of representing the views of the king to the localities. Most were members of royal government, either at court or in their local communities, and nearly all had responsibility for enforcing the laws that were created at Westminster. Most Parliaments were summoned to provide revenue in times of emergency, usually for defense, and most members were willing to provide it within appropriate limits. They came to Parliament to do the king’s business, the business of their communities, and their own personal business in London. Such conflicting obligations were not always easily resolved, but Parliament was not perceived as an institution in opposition to the king any more than the stomach was seen as opposing the head of the body. There were upsets, however, and, increasingly during the 17th century, king and Parliament clashed over specific issues, but until the middle of the century they were part of one system of royal government.

James I (1603–25)

James VI, king of Scotland (1567–1625), was the most experienced monarch to accede to the English throne since William the Conqueror, as well as one of the greatest of all Scottish kings. A model of the philosopher prince, James wrote political treatises such as The Trew Law of a Free Monarchy (1598), debated theology with learned divines, and reflected continually on the art of statecraft. He governed his poor by balancing its factions of clans and by restraining the enthusiastic leaders of its Presbyterian church. In Scotland, James was described as pleasing to look at and pleasing to hear. He was sober in habit, enjoyed vigorous exercise, and doted on his Danish wife, Anne, who had borne him two male heirs.

Daniel Mytens: portrait of James I
Daniel Mytens: portrait of James IJames I, oil on canvas by Daniel Mytens, 1621; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Photos.com/Jupiterimages

But James I was viewed with suspicion by his new subjects. Centuries of hostility between the two nations had created deep enmities, and these could be seen in English descriptions of the king. In them he was characterized as hunchbacked and ugly, with a tongue too large for his mouth and a speech impediment that obscured his words. It was said that he drank to excess and spewed upon his filthy clothing. It was also rumoured that he was homosexual and that he took advantage of the young boys brought to service at court. This caricature, which has long dominated the popular view of James I, was largely the work of disappointed English office seekers whose pique clouded their observations and the judgments of generations of historians.

In fact, James showed his abilities from the first. In the counties through which he passed on his way to London, he lavished royal bounty upon the elites who had been starved for honours during Elizabeth’s parsimonious reign. He knighted hundreds as he went, enjoying the bountiful entertainments that formed such a contrast with his indigent homeland. He would never forget these first encounters with his English subjects, “their eyes flaming nothing but sparkles of affection.” On his progress James also received a petition, putatively signed by a thousand ministers, calling his attention to the unfinished business of church reform.

Triple monarchy

James had one overriding ambition: to create a single unified monarchy out of the congeries of territories he now found himself ruling. He wanted a union not only of the crown but of the kingdoms. He made it plain to his first Parliament that he wanted a single name for this new single kingdom: he wanted to be king not of England, Scotland, and Ireland but of Great Britain, and that is what he put on his seals and on his coins. He wanted common citizenship, the end of trade barriers, and gradual movement toward a union of laws, of institutions, and of churches, although he knew this could not be achieved overnight. The chauvinism of too many English elite, however, meant he was not to achieve all of his goals. A common coinage, a common flag, the abolition of hostile laws, and a joint Anglo-Scottish plantation of Ulster were all he was able to manage. Even free trade between the kingdoms was prevented by the amateur lawyers in the English House of Commons. Having failed to promote union by legislation, he tried to promote it by stealth, creating a pan-British court and royal household, elevating Scots to the English peerage and Englishmen to the Scottish and Irish peerage, rewarding those who intermarried across borders, and seeking to remove from each of the churches those features objectionable to members of the other national churches. Progress was negligible and, under his son Charles I, went into reverse.

Religious policy

The Millenary Petition (1603) initiated a debate over the religious establishment that James intended to defend. The king called a number of his leading bishops to hold a formal disputation with the reformers. The Hampton Court Conference (1604) saw the king in his element. He took a personal role in the debate and made clear that he hoped to find a place in his church for moderates of all stripes. It was only extremists that he intended to “harry from the land,” those who, unlike the supporters of the Millenary Petition, sought to tear down the established church. The king responded favourably to the call for creating a better-educated and better-paid clergy and referred several doctrinal matters to the consideration of convocation. But only a few of the points raised by the petitioners found their way into the revised canons of 1604. In fact, the most important result of the conference was the establishment of a commission to provide an authorized English translation of the Bible, the King James Version (1611).

frontispiece of the King James Bible
frontispiece of the King James BibleFrontispiece of the King James Version of the Bible, engraving by Cornelius Boel, 1611.Rare Book and Manuscript Library/University of Pennsylvania

Indeed, James’s hope was that moderates of all persuasions, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, might dwell together in his church. He offered to preside at a general council of all the Christian churches—Catholic and Protestant—to seek a general reconciliation. Liberals in all churches took his offer seriously. He sought to find a formula for suspending or ameliorating the laws against Catholics if they would take a binding oath of political obedience. Most Catholics were attracted by the offer, but James’s plans took a tremendous knock when an unrepresentative group of Catholics, disappointed that this son of a Catholic queen had not immediately restored Catholic liberties, plotted to kill him, his family, and his leading supporters by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in the course of a state opening, using gunpowder secreted in a cellar immediately beneath the House of Lords. The failure of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) led to reprisals against Catholics and prevented James from going any further than exhibiting humane leniency toward them in the later years of his reign. Nevertheless, James’s ecumenical outlook did much to defuse religious conflict and led to 20 years of relative peace within the English church.

Gunpowder Plot members
Gunpowder Plot membersMembers of the Gunpowder Plot.Photos.com/Getty Images

Finance and politics

To a king whose annual budget in Scotland was barely £50,000, England looked like the land of milk and honey. But in fact James I inherited serious financial problems, which his own liberality quickly compounded. Elizabeth had left a debt of more than £400,000, and James, with a wife and two sons, had much larger household expenses than the unmarried queen. Land and duties from customs were the major sources of royal revenue, and it was James’s good fortune that the latter increased dramatically after the judges ruled in Bate’s case (1606) that the king could make impositions on imported commodities without the consent of Parliament. Two years later, under the direction of James’s able minister Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, impositions were levied on an expanded list of goods, and a revised book of rates was issued in 1608 that increased the level of duties. By these measures customs revenues grew by £70,000 per year.

Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury
Robert Cecil, 1st earl of SalisburyRobert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury.Photos.com/Jupiterimages

But even this windfall was not enough to stem the effects of inflation on the one hand and James’s own free spending on the other. By 1606 royal debt was more than £600,000, and the crown’s financial ministers had turned their attention to prerogative income from wardships, purveyance, and the discovery of concealed lands (i.e., crown lands on which rents and dues were not being paid). The revival and rationalization of these ancient rights created an outcry. As early as 1604 Salisbury was examining proposals to commute these fiscal rights into an annual sum to be raised by a land tax. By 1610 negotiations began for the Great Contract between the king and his taxpaying subjects that aimed to raise £200,000 a year. But at the last moment both royal officials and leaders of the House of Commons backed away from the deal, the government believing that the sum was too low and the leaders of the Commons that a land tax was too unpopular. The failure of the Great Contract drove Salisbury to squeeze even more revenue out of the king’s feudal rights, including the sale of titles. This policy violated the spirit of principles about property and personal liberty held by the governing classes and, along with impositions, was identified as a grievance during James’s first Parliaments.

There was much suspicion that the Scottish king would not understand the procedures and privileges of an English Parliament, and this suspicion was reinforced by James’s speeches in the first session of the Parliament of 1604–10. The conventional ban upon the selection of outlaws to the Commons led to the Buckinghamshire Election Case (1604). The Commons reversed a decision by the lord chancellor and ordered Francis Goodwin, an outlaw, to be seated in the House of Commons. James clumsily intervened in the proceedings, stating that the privileges of the Commons had been granted by the grace of the monarch, a pronouncement that stirred the embers of Elizabethan disputes over parliamentary privilege. Although a compromise solution to the case was found, from this time forward the Commons took an active role in scrutinizing the returns of its members. A standing committee on elections was formed, and the freedom of members from arrest during sessions was reasserted. Some wanted to go even further and present the king with a defense of the ancient rights of their house. But this so-called apology was the work of a minority and was never accepted by the whole House of Commons or presented to the king.

Factions and favourites

As in the previous reign, court politics were factionalized around noble groups tied together by kinship and interest. James had promoted members of the Howard family to places of leadership in his government; Henry Howard, earl of Northampton, adeptly led a family group that included Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, and Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel. All managed to enrich themselves at the expense of the king, whose debts reached £900,000 by 1618. A stink of corruption pervaded the court during these years. The Howards formed the core of a pro-Spanish faction that desired better relations with Spain and better treatment of English Catholics. They also played upon the king’s desire for peace in Europe.

Thomas Howard, 2nd earl of Arundel
Thomas Howard, 2nd earl of ArundelThomas Howard, 2nd earl of Arundel, engraving.Bettmann/Corbis

The Howards were opposed by an anti-Spanish group that included the queen; George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury; and William Herbert, earl of Pembroke. This group wished to pursue an aggressively Protestant foreign policy and, after the opening of the Thirty Years’ War, to support James’s son-in-law, Frederick V, the elector of the Palatinate. It was the anti-Spanish group that introduced the king to George Villiers, reputedly one of the handsomest men in Europe. Through Villiers they sought a conduit to power.

George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham
George Villiers, 1st duke of BuckinghamGeorge Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, detail of an oil painting by William Larkin, c. 1616; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Even at the time it was thought unseemly that a lover should be provided for the king at the connivance of the queen and the archbishop. But Villiers was nobody’s fool, and, while he succeeded spectacularly in gaining James’s confidence, he refused to be a cipher for those who had advanced him. Soon he had risen to the pinnacle of the aristocracy. First knighted in 1615, he was created duke of Buckingham in 1623, the first nonroyal duke in half a century. Buckingham proved an able politician. He supported the movement for fiscal reform that led to the disgrace of Lord Treasurer Suffolk and the promotion of Lionel Cranfield, later earl of Middlesex. Cranfield, a skilled London merchant, took the royal accounts in hand and made the unpopular economies that kept government afloat.

Buckingham, whose power rested upon his relationship with the king, wholeheartedly supported James’s desire to reestablish peace in Europe. For years James had angled to marry his son Charles to a Spanish princess. There were, however, many obstacles to this plan, not the least of which was the insistence of the pope that the marriage lead to the reconversion of England to Roman Catholicism. When negotiations remained inconclusive, James, in 1621, called his third Parliament with the intention of asking for money to support the Protestant cause. By this means he hoped to bully Philip IV of Spain into concluding the marriage negotiations and into using his influence to put an end to the German war.

Parliament, believing that James intended to initiate a trade war with Spain, readily granted the king’s request for subsidies. But some members mistakenly also believed that the king wished their advice on military matters and on the prince’s marriage. When James learned that foreign policy was being debated in the lower house, he rebuked the members for their temerity in breaching the royal prerogative. Stunned, both because they thought that they were following the king’s wishes and because they believed in their freedom to discuss such matters, members of the Commons prepared the Protestation of 1621, exculpating their conduct and setting forth a statement of the liberties of the house. James sent for the Commons journal and personally ripped the protestation from it. He reiterated his claim that royal marriages and foreign policy were beyond the ken of Parliament and dryly noted that less than one-third of the elected members of the house had been present when the protestation was passed.

The Parliament of 1621 was a failure at all levels. No legislation other than the subsidy bill was passed; a simple misunderstanding among the members had led to a dramatic confrontation with the king; and judicial impeachments were revived, costing the king the services of Lord Chancellor Bacon. James, moreover, was unable to make any progress with the Spaniards, and supporting the European Protestants drained his revenue. By 1624 royal indebtedness had reached £1 million. The old king was clearly at the end of his power and influence. His health was visibly deteriorating, and his policies were openly derided in court and country. Prince Charles (later Charles I) and Buckingham decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1623 they traveled incognito to Madrid.

Francis Bacon
Francis BaconFrancis Bacon, oil painting by an unknown artist; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Their gambit created as much consternation in England as it did in Spain. James wept inconsolably, believing that his son would be killed or imprisoned. The Spaniards saw the end of their purposely drawn-out negotiations. Every effort was made to keep Charles away from the infanta, and he only managed to catch two fleeting glimpses of the heavily veiled princess. Nevertheless, he confided in Buckingham that he was hopelessly in love. Buckingham and John Digby, earl of Bristol, the ambassador to Spain, were almost powerless to prevent the most damaging concessions. Charles even confessed himself willing to be instructed in the Catholic faith. Yet the more the prince conceded, the more embarrassed the Spaniards became. Nothing short of an ultimate Catholic reestablishment in England would be satisfactory, and they began to raise obviously artificial barriers. Even the lovesick prince realized that he was being humiliated. Shame turned to rage as he and Buckingham journeyed home.

There they persuaded the bedridden king to call another Parliament for the purpose of declaring war on Spain. The Parliament of 1624 was given free rein. All manner of legislation was passed; subsidies for a trade war with Spain were voted; and issues of foreign policy were openly discussed. Firmly in control of political decision making, Charles and Buckingham worked to stave off attacks on James’s fiscal policies, especially the granting of monopolies to royal favourites. The last Parliament of James’s reign was his most successful. On March 27, 1625, the old king died.

Charles I (1625–49)

Father and son could hardly be more different than were James and Charles. Charles was shy and physically deformed. He had a speech defect that made his pronouncements painful for him and his audiences alike. Charles had not been raised to rule. His childhood had been spent in the shadow of his brother, Prince Henry, who had died in 1612, and Charles had little practical experience of government. He was introverted and clung tenaciously to a few intimates. His wife, Henrietta Maria—French, Roman Catholic, and hugely unpopular—received Charles’s loyalty despite great political cost. So did Buckingham, who survived the change in monarchs and consolidated his grip on government.

Anthony van Dyck: Charles I at the Hunt
Anthony van Dyck: Charles I at the HuntCharles I at the Hunt, oil on canvas by Anthony van Dyck, c. 1635; in the Louvre, Paris.Giraudon/Art Resource, New York
Henrietta Maria
Henrietta MariaHenrietta Maria, detail of an oil painting after Sir Anthony Van Dyck; in the National Portrait Gallery, London.Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London

The politics of war

Along with his kingdom, Charles I inherited a domestic economic crisis and the war with Spain. A series of bad grain harvests, continued dislocation of the cloth trade, and a virulent plague that killed tens of thousands all conspired against the new king. Under the pressure of economic crisis, members of the Parliament of 1625 were determined to reform the customs and to limit the crown’s right to levy impositions. The traditional lifelong grant of tonnage and poundage was thus withheld from Charles so that reform could be considered. But reform was delayed, and, despite the appearance of illegality, the king collected these levies to prevent bankruptcy.

The Spanish war progressed no better than the domestic economy. Buckingham organized an expedition to Cádiz, but its failure forced Charles to summon another Parliament. From the start the Parliament of 1626 was badly managed, and members of both houses thirsted for Buckingham’s blood. Where James had sacrificed his ministers to further policy, Charles would not. Parliament was dissolved without granting any subsidies.

Charles now fell back upon desperate remedies. All his predecessors had collected “forced loans” at times of imminent crisis when there was no time to await parliamentary elections, returns, and the vote of subsidies. It was widely accepted that the king must have discretion to require loans from his subjects in such circumstances—loans that were routinely converted into grants when the next Parliament met. What was unprecedented was the collection of forced loans to replace lost parliamentary subsidies. The £260,000 Charles collected in 1627 was precisely the sum he had turned down when it was made conditional upon his surrender of Buckingham to the wrath of the Commons. But he collected it at a heavy price: Charles was compelled to lock up 180 refusers, including many prominent gentry. However, he refused to show cause for his imprisonment of five leading knights, controversially relying on a rarely used discretionary power to arrest “by special commandment” those suspected of crimes it was not in the general interest to make public—a contingency normally used to nip conspiracies in the bud. The inevitable result was furor in the next Parliament, to which he again had to go cap in hand because he was desperate for money to fund simultaneous naval wars against the two superpowers, France and Spain. Lawyers, such as Sir Edward Coke, and country gentlemen, such as Sir John Eliot, now feared that the common law insufficiently protected their lives and liberties. This sentiment was compounded by the fact that soldiers were being billeted in citizens’ homes; local militias were forced to raise, equip, and transport men to fight abroad; and provost marshals declared martial law in peaceful English communities.

Sir Edward Coke
Sir Edward CokeSir Edward Coke, engraving by Jacobus Houbraken, 1741.Yale Center for British Art, In Memory of John V. McCarthy (B2002.3.2)

Yet the extremity of these expedients was matched by the seriousness of the international situation. Incredibly, England was now at war with both France and Spain, and Buckingham was determined to restore his reputation. Instead, the campaign of 1627 was a disaster, and the duke’s landing at the Île de Ré a debacle. It was hard to see how Charles could protect him from his critics once the Parliament of 1628–29 assembled.

The defeats of 1627 made emergency taxation more necessary than ever, and the new Parliament, 27 of whose members had been imprisoned for refusing to contribute to the loan, assembled with a sense of profound disquiet. It was proposed to grant the king five subsidies for defense but to delay their passage until the Petition of Right (1628) could be prepared. The petition asserted four liberties: freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom from nonparliamentary taxation, freedom from the billeting of troops, and freedom from martial law. Couched in the language of tradition, it was presented to the king as a restatement of ancient liberties. In this spirit he accepted it, more in hope of receiving his subsidies than in fear that the petition would restrain his actions.

Between the two sessions of this Parliament, the duke of Buckingham was assassinated (August 23, 1628). While the king wept in his palace, people drank to the health of the assassin in the streets; Buckingham had become a symbol of all that was wrong in the country. But with the king’s favourite removed, there was a void in government. Buckingham had been in charge of military and domestic policy, and there was no one else who had the confidence of the king or the ability to direct the royal program. When Charles I, grief-stricken, attempted to manage the second session of Parliament by himself, all the tensions came to a head. In the Commons some members wanted to challenge violations of the Petition of Right, especially the continued collection of tonnage and poundage without parliamentary authority. Others were equally agitated about changes in religious policy caused by the emergence of Arminianism. When the level of bitterness reached new heights, the king decided to end the session. But before he could do so, two hotheaded members physically restrained the speaker while the Three Resolutions (1629), condemning the collection of tonnage and poundage as well as the doctrine and practice of Arminianism, were introduced. Parliament broke up in pandemonium, with both king and members shocked by the “carriage of diverse fiery spirits.”

Peace and reform

The dissolution of the Parliament of 1628 in 1629 and the king’s clear intention to govern for a period without this troublesome institution necessitated a reversal of policy. Over the next two years, peace treaties ended England’s fruitless involvement in Continental warfare in which more than £2 million had been wasted and royal government brought into disrepute. The king was also able to pacify his subjects by launching a campaign of administrative and fiscal reform that finally allowed the crown to live within its own revenues. Customs increased to £500,000 as both European and North American trade expanded. Under capable ministers such as Richard Weston, earl of Portland, prerogative income also increased. Ancient precedents were carefully searched to ensure that the crown received its full and lawful dues. Fines were imposed on those who had not come forward to be knighted at the king’s accession. These distraints of knighthood yielded more than £170,000. The boundaries of royal forests were resurveyed and encroachers fined. Fees in the court of wards were raised and procedures streamlined. With effort and application annual royal revenue reached £1 million.

The most important of Charles’s fiscal schemes was not technically a design to squeeze monies into the royal coffers. While the king’s own rights might underwrite the needs of government, they could do nothing toward maintaining the navy, England’s sole military establishment. Thus, Charles expanded the collection of ship money, an ancient levy by which revenue was raised for the outfitting of warships. Although ship money was normally only collected in the ports in times of emergency, Charles extended it to inland communities and declared pirates a national menace. At first there was little resistance to the collection of ship money, but, as it was levied year after year, questions about its legitimacy were raised. The case of John Hampden (1637) turned upon the king’s emergency powers and divided the royal judges, who narrowly decided for the crown. But legal opinion varied so significantly that revenue dropped, and the stirring of a taxpayer revolt could be felt.

Michael van der Gucht: John Hampden
Michael van der Gucht: John HampdenJohn Hampden, engraving by Michael van der Gucht in E. Ward’s History of the Grand Rebellion, printed in 1713.Courtesy of the trustees of the British Museum; photograph, J.R. Freeman & Co. Ltd.

Religious reform

Fears about the state of the church, which erupted at the end of the Parliament of 1628, had been building for several years. Charles had become drawn to a movement of church reform that aroused deep hostility among his Calvinist subjects. The doctrines of predestination and justification by faith alone formed the core of beliefs in the traditional English church. Yet slowly competing doctrines of free will and the importance of works along with faith, advocated by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius, spread to the English church. Arminians were viewed as radical reformers despite the fact that their leaders were elevated to the highest positions in church government. In 1633 William Laud, one of the ablest of the Arminians, became archbishop of Canterbury. Laud stressed ceremony over preaching. He believed in the “beauty of holiness” and introduced measures to decorate churches and to separate the communion table from the congregation. Both of these practices were reminiscent of Roman Catholicism, and they came at a time when Protestants everywhere feared for the survival of their religion. Nor did it help that the queen openly attended mass along with some highly placed converted courtiers. Anti-popery was the single strain that had united the diverse elements of Protestant reform, and it was now a rallying cry against innovations at home rather than abominations abroad.

William Laud
William LaudWilliam Laud, archbishop of Canterbury.The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Purchase, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, 1917, 17.50.83, www.metmuseum.org

But perhaps Laud’s greatest offense was to promote the authority of the clergy in general and of the bishops in particular, against the laity. He challenged head-on the central thrust of the English Reformation: the assault on the institutional wealth and power of the church as a clerical corporation. He wanted to restore the authority of the church courts and threatened to excommunicate the king’s judges if they persisted in trying cases that belonged to ecclesiastical jurisdiction. He also tried to restore the value of tithes and prevent the misappropriation of churchyards for secular purposes. Moreover, he sought to penalize those who did not pay the (much-enhanced) levies for the refurbishment of church buildings. Menacingly, in Scotland and Ireland (as a prelude, many assumed, to actions to come in England) he tried to renegotiate by a policy of surrender the terms on which all former monastic and cathedral lands were held. In all this he appeared to act more like an aggressive papal nuncio than a compliant appointee of the royal supreme governor of the church, and Charles I’s purring complaisance in Laud’s activities was unendurable to most of his subjects. The master of Westminster School was whipped in front of his pupils for saying of Laud that, like “a busie, angry wasp, his sting is in the tayl of everything.” Others were flogged through the streets of London or had their ears cut off for “libeling” Laud and his work. He alienated not only everyone with a Puritan scruple but everyone with a strong sense of the supremacy of common law or with an inherited suspicion of clerical pride. No wonder the archbishop had so few friends by 1640.

His program extended to Ireland and—especially disastrously—to Scotland. Without consulting Parliament, the General Assembly, the Scottish bishops in conclave, or even the Scottish Privy Council, but rather by royal diktat, Laud ordered the introduction of new canons, a new ordinal, and a new prayer book based not on the English prayer book of 1559 but on the more ceremonialist and crypto-Catholic English prayer book of 1549. This was met by riot and, eventually, rebellion. Vast numbers of Scots bound themselves passively to disobey the “unlawful” religious innovations. Charles I decided to use force to compel them, and he twice sought to use troops raised by a loyal (largely Catholic) Scottish minority, troops from Ireland, and troops from England to achieve this end.

The Bishops’ Wars (1639–40) brought an end to the tranquillity of the 1630s. Charles had to meet rebellion with force, and force required money from Parliament. He genuinely believed that he would be supported against the rebels, failing to comprehend the profound hostility that Laud’s innovations had created in England. The Short Parliament (1640) lasted less than a month before the king dissolved it rather than permit an extended discussion of his inadequacies. He scraped some money together and placed his troops under the command of his able and ruthless deputy, Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford. But English troops fighting for pay proved no match for Scottish troops fighting for religion. In 1640 the Scots invaded England and captured Newcastle, the vital source of London’s coal. Charles was forced to accept a humiliating treaty whereby he paid for the upkeep of the Scottish army and agreed to call another Parliament.

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蕭藹琦,香港中文大學崇基學院神學院道學碩士(2021年)、英國約克大學(University of York)社區音樂碩士(MA in Community Music)(2016年)、香港浸會大學社會工作(榮譽)學士(2010年)、註冊社工⋯⋯

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