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Essay: Assess the view that there was a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ between the years of 1547-1558

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In the context of a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’, a ‘crisis’ is defined as a situation where the state is threatened to collapse. It is with this definition that Whitney Jones (1973) had first used the label of a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’, claiming that the combination of failures and instability in foreign policy, economy, and religious reformation had the overall effect of putting the state under enough pressure to threaten its collapse. Jones’ description has since proved to be controversial amongst historians who indicate that the label of a ‘crisis’ cannot be consistently used across the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. Thus, this essay will individually examine the prince regent and lord president who ruled on the behalf of the minor Edward VI, The Duke of Somerset and the Duke of Northumberland (John Dudley), as well as the reign of Mary I in order to understand whether the label of ‘crisis’ can be applied across the ‘Mid-Tudor’ period. Historians agree that the attempted campaign to bring Lady Jane Grey to the throne was a point of a crisis, as it concerned the succession and thus the state itself. Therefore, this essay will not consider the succession crisis but examine the rest of the period to consider if the regency, presidency and reign, and therefore if the period as a whole, can be considered a ‘crisis’. One can recognise that the Lord Protector Somerset was eventually overwhelmed by the vast economic hardship and religious discontent fostered within the peasantry, which he himself did not aid with a misguided and costly foreign policy, culminating in his downfall in 1549. However, the following leader of the Privy Council, the Duke of Northumberland, proved to be a more competent leader. As Lord President, Northumberland took key measures to bring England out of a state of crisis through his economic and foreign policies, creating a diplomatic peace abroad to crucially focus on domestic issues. Whilst Northumberland sought to fix damage caused under Somerset, Mary I’s reign can be seen as one of progression. With a monarch finally ruling the country directly again, Mary was able to secure the only realistic ally against the Valois and gained economic gains from the Spanish marriage. Therefore, whilst the period of Somerset’s regency can be labelled a crisis, the period as a whole cannot be labelled a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’.

Mid tudor crisis

Mid-Tudor Crisis, 1539-63 Hardcover – 1 Jan. 1973
by Whitney R.D. Jones (Author)

Somerset’s misguided focus on his foreign policy enabled domestic tension to evolve which threatened state stability and thus pushed England into a state of ‘crisis’. Williams (1995) asserts that Somerset’s “policy had cost an immense sum… [yet] achieved nothing at all.” Williams assertion is supported by Sir William Paget‘s letter to the Duke; warning Somerset of the confusion and chaos that had been created by his policies. Paget explains that as a result of English victory at the Battle of Pinkie (1547), which was precipitated by Somerset, “Scotland” was left “desir[ing] revenge” whilst “France [saw] a most propitious time to fall out with [Somerset] and ally with Scotland.” Despite creating the conditions to start a war, Somerset appeared “ready to have the Emperor [Charles V] to fall out with [him]”. Indeed, the Scottish Council had offered a marriage union between Mary Queen of Scots and Henry II’s son in exchange for further French aid. Additionally, Somerset’s failure to negotiate an Anglo-Scottish union, through the marriage of Edward VI and Mary Queen of Scots, only resulted in alienating Charles V. Thus, the source reliably conveys that Somerset’s foreign policy was misguided, suggesting Williams view is convincing as Somerset switched between aggression and negotiation yet “achieving nothing” positive. The source further supports Williams view as Somerset’s policy had quite literally spent an “immense sum” to fund his war with Scotland, spending £580,000 in his war with Scotland, debasing the coinage to fund the war which exacerbated inflation, and debased the coinage to fund the garrisons in the Firth of Tay (also exacerbating inflation). Thus Paget’s claim that Somerset had left England “in beggary, in debt” is also reliable. One should also recognise the significance of Paget himself writing such a letter to Somerset. Sir William Paget was one of the few major politicians who rose to power under Henry VIII, who in 1543 was appointed one of the two principal secretaries of state, and became comptroller of the household in 1547 under Edward VI’s reign. Furthermore, Paget was a personal friend of Somerset’s, playing an important role in the establishment of Somerset’s protectorate, and had written the letter on the night of Christmas. Therefore, Paget’s letter is a very useful source with regards to understanding how damaging Somerset’s foreign policy was, as even his close friend, who was knowledgeable in foreign affairs and management of the country, felt compelled to warn his superior at a time of celebration. Consequently, Somerset’s protectorate period can be labelled a ‘crisis’ as the Duke proved to be an incompetent leader, pursuing a damaging foreign policy which enabled instability domestically, and ultimately gave the opportunity for another Duke to overthrow the prince regent.

With Somerset’s focus placed narrowly on foreign affairs, England evolved into an era of a ‘crisis’ where rebellions occurring in conjunction with each other were severe enough to threaten the collapse of the state. Despite the extraordinary sermon delivered by Cranmer at Edward VI’s coronation, warnings to “fear the most detestable vice of rebellion” were not heeded under Somerset due to economical and religious grievances caused by his policies. Rather, as Bush (1975) asserts, Somerset’s focus on “the Scottish matter” meant that he made “no concessions to the rest of [his] policies, foreign and domestic, until peasant insurrections intervened in 1549.” Indeed, Bush’s view is supported by the Lord Protector’s dissolution of the chantries in 1547 to raise funds for his garrisons in Scotland; he risked angering the Catholic population as the chantries are a part of Catholic doctrine for reducing time spent in Purgatory. Moreover, with the Duke’s attention on foreign matters, the Common Book of Prayer was introduced in 1549, building on discontent already created from Somerset’s dissolution. The Prayer Book served as the final straw for the Cornish as it translated the Catholic tradition of reading Latin to Protestant approved English. One might argue that the proclamations of the Cornish rebels are not representative of the general reaction to the Prayer Book, as the rebels themselves relayed they were aggrieved because they were “Cornishmen, whereof certain of us understand no English [and so] utterly refuse this new English”. Therefore, they could not be a serious threat as their numbers would be limited. However, the proclamation also reflected wider Catholic discontent in the West, by calling to have the “mass in Latin” as before, and to reverse Somerset’s dissolution by calling for “every Priest at his Mass pray specially by name for the souls in purgatory.” Therefore, the source is more representative of English discontent than may be seen at first glance, especially considering that the rebels called for the Catholic “Cardinal Pole” to not only be given a “free pardon, but also… be promoted to first or second in the king’s council.” This meant that the Cornish rebels were threatening Somerset’s regency and the Protestant Reformation by demanding the ascension of a strong Catholic representative to the Privy Council. Furthermore, Cardinal Pole had Yorkist connections, and the rebels also called for the return of “Richard Moreman” who notably opposed Henry VIII’s divorce to Catherine. These demands suggest then that the Cornish rebels were more threatening than initially gleaned, perhaps using religious grievances to implement radical political reform. Such a cause proved somewhat popular considering 6,000 men from Devon joined after hearing the proclamation. Despite this, Somerset demonstrated his incompetence by not quashing the rebellion early. Instead his government, without much direction from the distracted Duke, reacted in fear by offering to pardon all the rebels if they dispersed. Therefore, Bush’s view is convincing as Somerset enabled the rebellion to grow and was only compelled to intervene once the rebellion was obviously threatening; also supporting Manning’s (1979) assertion that “Somerset’s inept handling of the [1549 rebellions] brought about his downfall.” Indeed, the growth of the Cornish Rebellion in part inspired Kett’s Rebellion which occurred in the same year of 1549, proving that the state could not tolerate Somerset as leader if other rebellions had the confidence to develop. Kett’s Rebellion differed from the Cornish as it focused primarily on economic hardship, specifically the expansion of the enclosures. The enclosures meant that the gentry and local clergy men could expand small landholdings into larger farms and so took much away from the livelihood of the peasantry. Robert Kett himself was part of the gentry but felt so sympathetic to the peasantry that he had joined and even led the movement, making him a particular threat to the state. Kett’s rebellion resonated with far more than that seen in the Prayer Book rebellion in the same year; spreading the rebellion from Cornwall to East Anglia and gaining control of Norwich, the second largest city at the time. Somerset once again proved incompetent, sending a perfunctory commission to evaluate if the land was being taken at a disproportionate rate. Thus, Manning’s view is convincing as Somerset was clearly unable to differentiate between how serious Kett’s Rebellion was compared to the Cornish. Most significantly, Manning’s view is convincing because Somerset’s ineptitude created the opportunity for Dudley to exhibit his own competence by crushing Kett’s rebellion. Dudley then used this as his basis to overthrow Somerset as prince regent. Therefore, Somerset’s regency can indeed be labelled a ‘crisis’ for the Duke enabled England to grow into a state of severe conflict which directly threatened the state and eventually led to the overthrow of the prince regent himself.

In contrast, the Lord Presidency of the Duke of Northumberland (1550-1553) dealt with the issues formed under Somerset, resulting in an era of relative peace that cannot be deemed a crisis; beginning with the Duke’s need to resolve foreign affairs. Unlike Somerset, Northumberland recognised that even remaining in a deadlock with Scotland and France was not sustainable for England and that the Duke needed to turn his attention to pressing domestic discontent. However, one can see why historians such as Pollard (1910) argue that the Treaty of Boulogne, which Northumberland negotiated with France in 1550, was “the most ignominious… signed by England during the century”. Certainly, on the surface, the treaty appears to have been drawn up in indecent haste, as if Northumberland was attempting to quickly resolve foreign matters to focus on domestic issues, but at the expense of placing England at a disadvantage. The Treaty of Boulogne appeared to favour the French to an unfair degree; stipulating the English evacuation of fortresses in Boulogne and Scotland yet there being no French evacuation of its forces in Scotland. Moreover, the treaty alienated Charles V, leading the Emperor to end special privileges enjoyed by England in the Netherlands, therefore implying that, like Somerset, Northumberland’s foreign policy would contribute to the English economic decline. However, one must set the treaty in the context it was signed. Contrary to Pollard, Smith (1984) argues that the Treaty of Boulogne “was certainly an inglorious settlement, but Northumberland should not be blamed for his realism in cutting England’s losses.” Indeed, one can note that Northumberland recognised that the English economy could not sustain funding its Scottish garrisons in their deadlock with Scotland and France, let alone match the forces of France in a potential war. The Duke also saw that domestic issues required his immediate attention, thus the treaty needed to be ratified quickly so that Northumberland could turn his focus to domestic affairs, without fears of foreign powers taking advantage of this to potentially invade. Thus, Smith’s view is convincing as even if England was placed at a disadvantage, the outcome of tentative peace was invariably better than plunging a domestically conflicted England into armed conflict with Scotland and France. Furthermore, Pollard’s view is also questionable when considering the economic impact of the Treaty of Boulogne, as the treaty may have actually saved the English economy from further damage. Regardless of Charles V decision to end England’s special privileges, the state of the Netherlands at the time meant that English privileges looked to fade anyway. The southern Netherlands, especially Antwerp, were already in economic decline and the northern parts of the Netherlands were in the state of Protestant Reformation, that would soon lead to full-scale conflict with the Hapsburgs. Therefore, separate to the ratification of the treaty, English commercial interests would not have lasted in the Netherlands. Rather, one may even make the argument that it was better that Northumberland had signed the treaty as it unknowingly preempted the decline of English privileges in the Netherlands. Northumberland’s administration sought alternative outlets of trade such as across the Barbary coast in 1551 and west Africa from 1553. Therefore, considering the evidence, Smith‘s view is more convincing than Pollard’s as Northumberland’s foreign policy may not have been particularly inspiring, but it was most crucially pragmatic. Through his foreign policy, the Duke was able to reduce the impact of declining foreign trade on the English economy and was able to give his much-needed undivided attention to domestic issues. Thus, Northumberland’s foreign policy is a clear example of how the Duke’s Presidency cannot be labelled a ‘crisis’ as the Duke was effectively working to bring England back from a state of crisis.

With foreign matters resolved at least for the duration of the Duke’s regency, Northumberland was able to turn his attention to domestic affairs and bring back stability to a nation in a state of crisis. Unlike Durant’s (1957) view that Northumberland had distinguished himself “in a corrupt age, by [his] corruptness”, Northumberland can actually be seen to have exhibited a certain degree of heroism as “his policies, in view of the daunting difficulties which he faced, were generally sensible and effective.” (Smith 1984). Smith’s view is supported by a brass plaque that was installed in the city of Coventry which immediately suggests Northumberland is thought to be a historically important figure. One may suggest that the plaque is not representative of the view of the population as Northumberland was a benefactor to Coventry and thus the praise is mere flattery. However, the plaque was installed in 1580, after Northumberland’s execution in 1553, suggesting the people had a genuine desire to commemorate the achievements secured by the Duke in spite of his act of treason by conspiring against Mary I. The source itself explains why Northumberland should be labelled “a prince of high degree” , as he “prop[ped] that [which] els might fall”, enabling “England” to “flourish” when it was “‘gan once to fade and… decay.” The source reliably refers to Northumberland’s political skill in being able to appease both the “common weale” and those of “noble bloud” as its claims are historically supported. Indeed, as Smith recognises, Northumberland faced difficult conditions, dealing with an economy that had faced three successive bad harvests which compelled him to abolish enclosure commissions. This decision won “immortal prais” from the “noble bloud” of the gentry as it granted the expansion of farming land, which was also needed to encourage agriculture after the disappointing harvests. However, this would also come at cost of the poor potentially losing land for farming, which Northumberland recognised could be a potential motive for revolt as in Kett’s rebellion. Thus, as the source acknowledges, the Duke also “grant[ed] faire lands for common weale”, by implementing the 1552 Act to protect arable farming, a traditional form of farming used by the poor. Additionally, Northumberland introduced the 1552 Poor Law which focused on provisions for the poor by stipulating that anyone who had the means to contribute to the fund, should be persuaded to do so by local council or even bishop if necessary. Therefore, Smith’s view is convincing, as in the face of the state potentially “fall[ing]”, Northumberland exhibited an extraordinary level of competence by taking the necessary measures to rectify the English economic decline, whilst soothing the impacts this would have on the poor through his social policy. The success of Northumberland’s policies are evident in the lack of revolts, as his policies appeased the two groups of the class strata that rebelled under Somerset. Moreover, Northumberland was also aware of when appeasement was a damaging policy to pursue. The Duke recognised that the Reformation would need to be implemented with more force to avoid protest seen in the Cornish Rebellion. The Act of Uniformity of 1552 states that “every person” is instructed to “diligently and faithfully (having no lawful or reasonable excuse to be absent) endeavour themselves to resort to their parish church”, and even after prayers “shall after the said feast of All Saints willingly and wittingly hear and be present at any other manner or form of prayer… or of any other rites contained in the book annexed in this Act”. There was no notable religious revolt that occurred in response to the Act, suggesting then that Northumberland’s policies were implemented with success. Thus, whilst sometimes uninspiring, Northumberland was able to balance his foreign, religious, economic and social policies in a manner that perhaps Somerset himself should have taken to ensure the stability of England; meaning that Northumberland’s regency cannot be labelled a ‘crisis’ but perhaps one of recovery.

The reign of Mary I, spanning from July 1553 to 1558, can be seen to be a period of progression rather than a crisis. On one hand, some historians consider Mary’s reign to be a crisis because the monarch was an “incompetent idealist” (Elton, 1991). Certainly, Wyatt appeared to share this view as in his proclamation, he emphasised it was “the Queen’s determinate pleasure to marry with a stranger [Philip II]” which compelled him to rebel; representing Protestant fears that the Spanish marriage would legitimise the Counter-Reformation and nationalist fears that the marriage would cause English sub-ordinance to the Hapsburgs. Wyatt’s skilful oracy proved effective as royal soldiers sent by Mary to counter the rebellion defected to Wyatt crying “We are all Englishmen!”. As Heard (1990) points out, Wyatt’s rebellion “came as close as any to overthrowing the monarchy”, which is supported by the origins of the rebellion and Wyatt’s ability to appeal to both Protestants and nationalists. Wyatt was able to reach London with 3,000 men suggesting that his rebellion had indeed made Mary’s reign a crisis, for the government had for the first time seen a realistic possibility that a rebellion could overthrow the monarchy. Indeed, the rebellion was deemed so significant that Waad references this in his report to the Privy Council; summarising the problems he believed Elizabeth I faced. He claimed the “religious divisions amongst [the people]” contributed to the “exhaust[tion]” of the “realm”. Wyatt’s fears appeared to have materialised as Waad also explains that France had “one foot in Calais and the the other in Scotland” when England lost Calais as part of its involvement in the Habsburg-Valois war. The loss of Calais in 1558 had a massive demoralising impact as Calais was considered the ‘brightest jewel in the English crown’, being the gateway for tin, lead, cloth and wool trades. Thus, Elton’s claim appears convincing as it seems that Mary married the Catholic Philip II without understanding the practical implications it would have on England: being subordinate to the Hapsburgs and drawing them into serious conflict against France which Northumberland sought to avoid. Thus, having faced the realistic possibility of a monarchy being overthrown and being at the mercy of Spanish foreign policy, one can see the claim that Mary’s reign had indeed undergone a crisis.

However, much of this view relies on a superficial reading of what was actually a period of progression. Alternatively, Rogerson (2001) argues “the loss of Calais was significant but [Mary’s] reign should not be condemned just because of this one event.” This is supported by the fact that Waad’s report was commissioned to detail the problems that Elizabeth would face on her ascension; thus, his report only reflects the immediate psychological impact the loss of Calais had. In fact, the report is limited as it cannot reflect the long-term realisation that Calais, before its loss, had no material gain or benefit to the English as the wool trade had been in decline since the 1551 wool crisis. Instead, revenues were used to fund this English outpost as a matter of necessity. Thus, Rogerson is correct in asserting that the loss of Calais cannot immediately make one think of Mary’s reign as disastrous. Tittler (1983) goes further to argue that “one must give the Marians their due” for they were able to “[hold] their own under difficult circumstances.” Neither Somerset, nor Northumberland were able to secure a powerful foreign ally but had economic repercussions for their foreign policy. Comparatively, Mary, whilst losing Calais, had more significantly chosen a side on the Valois-Habsburg conflict. Mary could not have been as ambivalent as Northumberland; Mary Stuart had raised the threat of Scottish invasion by her marriage to the heir of the French Crown, Francis. Thus, contrary to Elton, Mary was not an idealist but recognised that England needed the Spanish ally and exhibited her competency in her speech at Guildhall which responded to Wyatt’s proclamation. Mary viewed Wyatt’s rebellion as an opportunity to assert herself as the rightful monarch of England, addressing uncertainty including her position post the succession crisis, being the first female monarch and the Spanish marriage. She stated she was “wedded to the realm” on her coronation, and that “if subjects may be loved as a mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, your sovereign lady and queen, do as earnestly love and favor you.” Thus, Mary, having already fought to ascend to her throne, was determined to retain her position and so Wyatt’s oracy could never compare to Mary’s. Indeed, as a result, her speech rallied twenty-thousand men to her side, allowing the rebellion to come to its end at Dussindale; meaning Wyatt’s rebellion could never have been successful. In fact, Wyatt’s proclamation becomes less impressive when considering the context it was read in. Whilst gaining soldiers from Mary, Wyatt’s original proclamation was spoken to the residents of Rochester, Kent where the Archbishop of Canterbury is situated. In effect, one can see that Wyatt was quite literally preaching to the converted as in the year prior to the rebellion, in 1553, the Archbishop of Canterbury had a Protestant holder for the first time ever, meaning that Wyatt was almost guaranteed support from Protestants fearing a royal Catholic marriage. Furthermore, Kent is close to London, meaning Wyatt had to cover little distance to breach the capital. In comparison, Mary had to convince her uncertain subjects to rally around her, but as seen in her determination in her speech at Guildhall, and indeed in her commitment to marry Philip, Mary would not allow the rebellion to succeed at any cost, especially considering she had to overthrow the near-monarch Jane Grey herself to ascend to the throne. Furthermore, whilst Wyatt’s rebellion did not gain the traction it needed to succeed. In fact, the government was made aware of the conspiracy very early, thus Wyatt’s rebellion faced obstructions from the beginning. Forced to act quickly, Wyatt had intended for four rebellions to be raised in Kent, Leicestershire, Devon and on the Welsh borders respectively and then to converge in London. Instead, the unexpected realisation that the state was already made aware of the conspiracy led to the three other rebellions not taking off, meaning Wyatt was left with his Kent troops that were no match for Mary’s rallied forces. Additionally, the Anglo-Spanish marriage itself can also be viewed as an economic benefit; Philip encouraged English trade within the Netherlands as he had inherited Burgundy along with Spain and southern Italy. This had also lead to the development of the English navy, enabling the development of foreign trade. Therefore, Elton’s view is unconvincing rather, as Tittler argues, one must credit Mary’s reign, as the monarch secured stability against foreign powers and capitalised on Wyatt’s rebellion to secure her own ascension. Mary I’s reign cannot then be labelled a ‘crisis’ but perhaps one of progression.

Overall, Whitney Jones’ original claim that the period of 1547-1558 was a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ is a superficial and unconvincing reading. Whilst the Duke of Northumberland had caused his own demise in the succession crisis, one should note the crucial difference between both leaders. Somerset’s social and economic policies, as well as religious policies implemented under him, had led to discontent that was so severe that rebellions occurred in conjunction which threatened the collapse of the state, enabling the overthrow of the de facto leader of the nation. Comparatively, Northumberland’s downfall was caused separate to his reign, concerning the ascension of the next monarch. Northumberland’s policies ensured a smoother implementation of the Protestant Reformation and his social, economic and foreign policy allowed both relative peace abroad and domestically. Finally, Mary I’s ascension to the throne may have been turbulent, yet this can be seen to have made her more determined to quash opposition to her Counter-Reformation, and related marriage to the Hapsburg monarch which allowed England to align with the only realistic match to the Valois. Thus, whilst England between the years of 1547-1558 was not completely peaceful, the use of a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’ is an unhelpful exaggeration of what was a period marked by the transition from crisis to recovery and progression.



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