Wolf Hall

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.]


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But that united the kingdoms!

[So that was a good idea? :-) -W]

By David B. Benson (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

Elizabeth was pretty tolerant by the standards of the day and was content to let people obey their conscience. She also cleverly realised that burning people was not good policy and there were very few put to death this way during her reign. That sort of pissed Philip who ill-advisedly launched the Armada which gave England and Elizabeth, through luck and skill, the 16th century version of the Battle of Britain.
History is fascinating, isn't it?

Good grief. You guys are off as a mackeral. A German visited London at this time and there were 15 severed heads on the spikes over the city gates. Those had to be noblemen. Your average man was just beaten and then hanged. Catholics had their guts ripped out then were immediately hanged.

If you have a commute CD player a good one would be Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare 13 disks by Stephen Greenblatt Narrated By Peter Jay Fernandez ISBN: 1419309439

An obvious allegory for what will succeed the IPCC

By Paul Kelly (not verified) on 16 Feb 2010 #permalink

No, David it's you that are off - heads on pikes was the SoP for *anyone* found guilty of treason. Treacherous nobles were offered the mercy of the headsman's axe, whereas commoners (not just catholics) were hung, drawn and quartered.

The heads (nobles and commoners alike) were reserved for pikes in the gate at London bridge (where they would be available for your passing German merchant to observe and diarise) - whilst the bodyparts of the quartered commoners were tarred and then distributed around the kingdom to be put on public display as a Dreadful Warning of the consequences of treason.

Heretics (whether that be protestants under Mary, or catholics under Edward/Elizabeth) were burned at the stake, which means their heads weren't available for a pike. So your German source is evidence for recently condemned traitors (however be aware that the tarred heads could stay up for years), but does not speak to how actively heretics, of whichever persuasion, were being persecuted at the time.

[This is wrong. Elizabeth didn't burn catholics - the act of supremacy meant that catholics were automatically traitors -W]

This is all unutterably horrid of course, but the past is a foreign country and all that; it was entirely unremarkable for Renaissance Europe. The burning/mutilation of corpses stuff would remain part of English/British juidicial theory for another couple of centuries or so and even relatively merciful forms of capital punishment have only passed out of the Overton Window (if indeed they actually have) in the last few decades.


By Luke Silburn (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

According to the history taught by the dear Irish Christian Brothers, Bloody Mary was less bloody that others of her line and Bess was less than good. Nowadays, a Brit saying "bloody" isn't describing something covered in blood. Any connection between Mary and the modern meaning?

By Paul Kelly (not verified) on 17 Feb 2010 #permalink

"[This is wrong. Elizabeth didn't burn catholics - the act of supremacy meant that catholics were automatically traitors -W]"

I sit corrected. Thanks for improving my knowledge.


By Luke Silburn (not verified) on 18 Feb 2010 #permalink

What I don't understand is the theological basis for the Church of England. It only seems to have been created so Henry VIII could commit adultery. Even today its priests are leaving to join the C of R.

Why all the bad feeling with heads being chopped off and burnings at the stake?

In the Church, theological legitimacy is maintained through the succession of the Bishops.

Henry(IPCC) is the Defender of the Faith(climate science). Henry is corrupt and misstates the Faith for political purposes.

All hell breaks out.

Alastair - its a while since I read anything on actual tudor kingship stuff, but basically the theological basis for the church of england (And I am not a theologian either) is that for much of the medieval period there had been conflict between church and state over who had power over what or even each other. This see-sawed back and forth several times over the centuries, and so by Henry's time it had tilted back towards the idea that the Pope had only spiritual jurisdiction and shouldn't interfere on earthly politics.

Henry, having a bit of a large ego, being a bit skint through spending too much and also wanting a new wife but the Pope is getting in the way, embraces the re-hashed ideas about the King being the one between the ordinary people and God, rather than the Pope. It so happens that lots of other people are embracing these and other ideas at the same time. But Henry doesn't want to do away with most of Catholicism, he just wants to replace the Pope with himself in England, he's not bothered too much about doctrine (He wrote most of the defence of the faith tract himself and he seems to have been fairly normal in terms of doctrine), just wants the power. Add that to a campaigning more extreme protestant type party pushing in various ways, including through his mistress, and things get ugly.

The executions were perfectly normal for the period, nothing to worry about. Later on there were indeed more than was sane, perhaps, but Henry was also known for being wilful and a bit cruel. He was in charge, and if you didn't like it, expect to spend time in jail or be dead. Remember there had been centralising forces at work for generations to make Henry one of the first absolute monarchs.

[the theological basis for the church of england (And I am not a theologian either) is that for much of the medieval period there had been conflict between church and state over who had power over what or even each other... you're confusing politics and theology here. What you're describing is the *political* basis for the church. the re-hashed ideas about the King being the one between the ordinary people and God - this is more plausible. You might even find it in 't bible.

Incidentally, this reminds me of another thing I was told: the idea that your theological basis has to come from the bible would have been very strange on those days (after all, if you believed that, neither side would have had any excuse for burning heretics, of which there is not even a whisper in the Good Bok). As far as the Catholic Church was (and is?) concerned, it stands in direct succession to the apostles and is fully entitled to make policy, just as they were, divinely inspired, naturally -W]


There's a very good explanation here.

By Paul Kelly (not verified) on 21 Feb 2010 #permalink

There's a difference between politics and theology?
Yes, your addition makes more sense. And that is correct, most people didn't know about the bible, (except the hertical Wycliffites) and a huge amount of stuff had acreted over the years, some of it rather odd.