Wolf Hall is a now-immensely-well-known tale of a slice of Henry VIII’s reign; a period I know little about: we skimped it at school and it gets throroughly mythologised anyway. The chief hero is Cromwell (not Oliver) who is portrayed (correctly,as I understand it) as a brilliant administrator and generally competent chap; as to whether he was really nice underneath, I neither know nor care.
What is chiefly interesting is the playing out of certain grand themes in the period. It was part of the development of civilisation, really, a time when people, under pressure of necessity, realised that quite a lot they had thought was true, wasn’t. Which is to say, sorting out the role of church and sovereign, and the succession (and perhaps the influences of bankers over lords; but that is another matter). Which in both cases amounted to a de-mythologising, or a decline in the importance of religion.
Of the roles of church and sovereign, I think it is true that English (and maybe other? perhaps not) rulers had chafed somewhat under the papal supremacy, perhaps because they weren’t actually getting a lot in return for the monies sent to Rome and the submission to papal authority. And while it was Obvious that a King had to be Christian, it wasn’t quite clear how to resolve the conflict of papal and kingly authority in the secular realm when the two clash. Hobbes put it very clearly, of course, but he did that rather later, and I don’t think anyone at the time could quite bear to put things too clearly. I think the English could have lived with the King nominally subject to papal authority in spiritual matters; but of course these were corrupt times and the popes meddled in politics, which is what the whole divorce settlement ends up snarled up in. But these were strange people, the Olde Folke, and they actually took their religion seriously in a way that seems odd in this Moderne Worlde and makes their thoughts hard to understand.
Which brings me on to Part II, “Mary Tudor” by David Loades. My father in Law has this on his groaning shelves, so I borrowed it as a follow-up: Mary gets a bit part in Wolf Hall. I’m not used to reading Real History books so I’m not sure how to describe it: scholarly but well-written is the description I’m offered, which seems fair. To my surprise, I found it more interesting that Wolf Hall, and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the period. I didn’t find anything in it that contradicted WH, incidentally, in case you were wondering if WH is accurate: I think it is, insofar as the facts are known.
The bits I want to pull out of this are the succession, and religion again. For the succession (I’m doing this from memory, forgive minor errors): Henry leaves the Kingdom to his son Edward VI (and for all I know, given Henry’s multiple marriages, you can quibble whether he is legitimate or not, but since the act of succession said he was the heir, he was; and this is important too, as it establishes that the succession can be done by mutable law. Although not entirely, because some of the respect the act is held in stems from Henry’s own personal authority. As someone remarks in Wolf Hall, if only we’d thought of that 100 years ago we could have spared ourselves the Wars of the Roses). Henry has established the English church but can be considered catholic; Edward is rather more Protestant; and as he is dying there is a struggle to void the act of succession (which would chose Mary) and find someone, anyone, protestant to be monarch. So they install Jane Grey, but in one of those self-fulfilling prophecy type things, since no-one really believes she is queen she isn’t really, and Mary has no real trouble taking over after she proclaims herself. Cue various problems for those on the wrong side of the religious divide, but most ordinary folk don’t much care.
Mary is rabidly catholic, and determined to restore the Olde Religione. This (coupled to her marriage to the very catholic Philip of Spain) I think is where it all goes horribly wrong for catholicism in England:catholicism essentially becomes Foreign, and if there is one thing the English don’t like it is Johnny Foreigner, especially lording it over proper English-type folk. Mary burns a fair pile of people in an effort to make them catholic. It doesn’t work very well. However, Henry burnt quite a few himself (though, I think, rather less) so this wasn’t exactly ground-breaking brutality; it was just poor policy. The pope is back, but the monasteries don’t get un-dissolved – who could afford it?
I seem to have somewhat lost my thread here. Well, never mind, it is a blog, I don’t have to be coherent. Where was I?
Oh yes: Mary has no children, Philip is busy abroad, so when she is clearly Slipping Under it becomes clear that there is no alternative to making Elizabeth queen. Mary hates her sister, but realises that trying to put someone else up just isn’t going to work (nor can she force her to marry someone to Mary’s tase; and Philip (who doesn’t care about his wife anyway) can’t show up to visit Mary as she is dying because if he *was* in the country he would be obliged by his honour to try to claim the crown, though he knows he can’t have it, and probably doesn’t even want it).
Elizabeth becomes queen and is protestant, but not rabidly. All Goes Well, and at that point my history fades out. So with all the coming-and-going, the idea of One True Religion becomes a bit harder to believe; and attitudes harden; and at least in England, the pope is no longer supreme (I forget what is going on in the continent at this time; or rather, I never knew). Meanwhile the idea of the succession being governed by law rather than by some mystical image of father-son-descending -from-Adam or whatever it was that they used (Locke demolishes that nonsense, but much later of course) to mythologise weakens too. Although not far enough; we still end up with James I.
[Update: I get a B+ for the above from my Father in Law. Stuff I missed: Jane Grey suffered from being the puppet of the Dudley’s; her rule would effectively have been Northumberland’s, instead of that nice Somerset’s. I don’t think that was the turning point, though; just another thing against her. Mary’s accession was validated by her Parliament, which counts for her, but of course doesn’t explain her accession.
As for the heads-on-pikes: Elizabeth didn’t burnt anyone for being a catholic. Anyone caught left-footed was automatically a traitor, and therefore died a traitors death instead.
Philip preserved Elizabeth: if Mary died and E wasn’t around then next in line was Mary Stuart, and she was in the pocket of the French, and that would have been a disaster from the Spanish point of view. There were some abortive uprisings during Mary’s reign: although some of Elizabeth’s folk got zapped for it, people went to great lengths to pretend that E knew nothing about it.
As for James I: he was Protestant, and by then being Scottish mattered less; European politics had shifted.]