Tudors: Power & Politics
More than at any period before or since, power in the Tudor era was centred on the monarch. Violent challenges to this power, such as the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536–7, were usually brutally suppressed.
Henry VII personally monitored the smallest details of government. Henry VIII, on the other hand, was impatient when it came to everyday administration, but his will was law whenever he chose to intervene.
The boy-king Edward VI (governed by Lord Protectors) and Mary I (obsessed with pleasing Catholic Spain) were in many respects more influenced by others. Elizabeth I, however, kept the reins of power firmly in her own control.
HAZARDS OF POWER
Ministers who exercised power under the Crown were personally selected by the monarch. They were often men of modest origins, entirely dependent on royal favour. Few survived long enough to retire peacefully. Henry VII’s unpopular financial enforcers, Sir Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, were both executed immediately after Henry VIII succeeded.
Thomas (later Cardinal) Wolsey, an Ipswich butcher’s son, fell from grace after failing to secure Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. The even more able Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith, succeeded in suppressing the monasteries but was executed in 1540. Henry’s other victims included Lord Chancellor Thomas More, over 20 members of the peerage and six of his personal attendants and one-time friends.
Both Edward VI’s Lord Protectors, the Dukes of Somerset and Northumberland, were similarly executed, the latter by Mary for attempting to supplant her with his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey. One of the few longer-lasting courtiers was William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister. Having served her loyally from before her accession, he was ennobled as 1st Baron Burghley and passed on his office to his son Robert.
Violent challenges to Tudor power – invariably bloodily suppressed – were mainly protests against religious policies, sometimes intermingled with financial grievances.
The most dangerous revolt was the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536–7 in Lincolnshire and the northern counties, in defence of the monasteries and the Catholic faith. This rebel army, far larger than government forces, was dispersed by false promises and pardons. Renewed disturbances in 1537 were used as an excuse for savage repression and wholesale executions soon after.
POWER ON THE FRINGES
In the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the Council of the North – the outpost of central government based at York – was strengthened.
The Council of Wales and the Marches, based at Ludlow in Shropshire and the only English court specifically authorised to use torture, governed the occasionally troubled Welsh borders. On the ever turbulent Scottish borders, royally appointed wardens of the Marches struggled with varying success to contain the cross-border feuds and raids of ‘rank robbers and reivers’.
POWER IN THE SHIRES
In the more peaceful English hinterlands, local government was managed by sheriffs and justices of the peace drawn from the county gentry, a class steadily growing in power and influence.
Together with representatives of towns and cities, they also sat in the House of Commons, an increasingly self-confident body which not even Elizabeth could always charm into voting for her taxes.
At the most basic level, the ‘community of the parish’ exercised local government as well as church-related duties. Headed by churchwardens, groups of reluctantly elected and unpaid parish worthies were charged with mending roads, tracking down the fathers of illegitimate children, and, after the passing of the 1597 Poor Law, overseeing the relief of the ‘deserving’ poor and the punishment of ‘sturdy beggars’.