The Tudors - A Century of Change


This booklet consists of a series of short essays on different aspects of Tudor England, together with some suggestions for teaching the period to primary school children. It isn't in any sense a complete or comprehensive history, simply a personal choice of themes that may help the reader to see the period in context. There was no sudden break in 1485 or in 1603: the Tudors inherited a medieval system of government which they left almost unchanged to their Stuart successors, despite the many changes that occurred as a result of the Reformation (1). Although administration became more and more a task for professionals we should remember that everyone who served the king, high or low, did so 'at his pleasure.' What he gave he could take away, as the spectacular fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's 'Mr Fix-it', illustrates.

We should also remember that the crown itself was property, inherited like any other piece of real estate. Its public duties made it indivisible but otherwise the wearer's right to allegiance depended upon his right in law as the true heir of his predecessor. It is impossible to understand the Tudor period without understanding this principle and the insecurity that it could create, especially when - as for long periods under Henry VIII and Elizabeth - the reigning monarch had no clear successor (2).

Of course, Tudor Kings were not merely chief executives in the modern sense, they stood at the apex of an ordered heirarchical society, guaranteeing to every subject the peaceful enjoyment of whatever he was entitled to call his own, be he peasant or earl. During the Tudor period the respect shown to the person of the monarch increased, symbolised by the transition from 'Your Grace' as a mode of address to 'Your Majesty' which occurred during the reign of Henery VIII. Shakespeare referred to the 'divinity that doth hedge a king' who no earthly power could depose. Despite the rhetoric however, no king could govern without money and it was here that the actual limitations on royal power were most evident (3). With no standing army or police force to back their authority, the Tudors had to rely upon their subjects' willingness to pay the cost if they were to be effective at home and respected abroad.

Royal power was limited in other ways too. Before the Reformation the clergy swore a second oath of allegiance to the pope in Rome and after it there were always those like Sir Thomas More who died 'the King's good servant, but God's first.' Elizabeth I, who had known 'what it was to be a subject', said that she had 'no wish to make windows into men's souls', tacitly recognising that she could not enforce religious uniformity in the way that her father and sister had tried to (4). Henceforward there would always be minorities in principled disagreement with the government of the day.

Elizabeth was of course the daughter of Anne Boleyn, for love of whom Henry VIII had broken the tie with Rome. This reminds us that behind the jewels and the elaborate costumes that make the Tudor period so colourful there were real human beings (5): love, hate, jealousy, fear, greed and ambition played their part in determining events and there are more sources than ever before to tell us about the tragedies that ensued (7).

'These be kynge's games,' wrote Sir Thomas More, writing about the affairs of state in which he himself became so fatally involved, 'for the most part played on scaffolds.' Poor men, if they were wise, would not meddle with them. But poor men had their own problems (6) which surface through the records of the courts. As today there were individuals who were forced by unemployment and destitution to live on the margins of society where the most intelligent of them formed an underclass that could challenge the Tudor establishment. Here, far from the palaces, there is rich material for that 'inside view' which is the best starting point for teaching and learning (8).