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Early Tudors

Hever Castle

The Tudor dynasty established itself followed a long period of uncertainty and division known as the Wars of the Roses. This complicated dispute grew up between different branches of the family of fourteenth century Plantagenet king Edward III. The "Yorkist" and "Lancastrian" lines had been engaged in a power struggle for decades. The Yorkist king Edward IV seemed to bring a resolution to the trouble. But when he died leaving a young son Edward V as his heir, division loomed once again. Edward V's uncle, Richard of Gloucester locked the young king in the Tower of London and probably had him murdered there. Taking over as king in 1483, Richard III then ruled for a few short years, before Henry Tudor, a descendent of Edward III's Lancastrian line arrived from France to stake his claim. Henry defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and the Tudor dynasty began.


After all the excitement of his succession to the throne Henry VII had a generally quiet reign. He was a private man who kept out of public view as much as he could. There were two failed insurrections, both staged by men claiming to be related to Edward IV. Perkin Warbeck, who masqueraded as the eldest son of Edward IV, was executed. Lambert Simnel who tried to pass himself off as nephew of Edward IV, was eventually pardoned and forced to work in the king's kitchen where he could be kept an eye on. Henry VII was a competent, business-like king who worked hard at day to day government business. He disliked war because it interfered with trade. Henry VII attempted to neutralise the threat from Spain not with war but by marrying his eldest son Arthur to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the Spanish king. Sensible policies like this allowed merchants to thrive. England's wool trade was booming, Lavenham in Suffolk surviving as testament to his policies. Sadly sensible kings are not often well remembered. It was the reign of his son Henry VIII, with all its turmoil and egotism that became one for the story books. This story began with a tragic twist when Arthur, the heir to Henry VII's throne, died only a few months after his wedding. Catherine of Aragon was then married to Henry's second son, the future Henry VIII. This event was to echo down the years.


Henry VIII's reign was a turning point for England. England was a catholic country, and Henry was an enthusiastic catholic. The pope even gave Henry the title of Defender of the Faith, a title retained by all subsequent monarchs, and commemorated on British coinage. In his dashing early days he played at war in Europe using a French challenge to the pope as an excuse. Things began to change when Catherine of Aragon failed to produce a son. She had given birth to a daughter, Mary, but the lack of a son sent the literally minded Henry to the Bible. He stewed over a passage in Leviticus telling him that a marriage to a dead brother's wife will not result in children. Never mind that a passage in Deuteronomy said exactly the opposite. Then he met Anne Boleyn, a strong minded young woman who was to have a huge influence on British history. Henry probably met Anne in 1520 when she was working as a lady in waiting to the wife of the French king. Henry was besotted with Anne, but she refused to become his mistress. Showing great self assurance in the face of such a powerful figure she held out for marriage or nothing. Ordinarily the pope could have come to some sort of arrangement to allow Henry to end his marriage with Catherine of Aragon. But Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled vast areas of Europe, and in whose power the pope lay. Without Charles's assent the pope could do nothing. So Anne took the initiative and gave Henry a copy of William Tyndale's book On The Obedience Of a Christian Man, And How Christian Rulers Ought to Govern. This book described the philosophy of the new movement of Protestantism, which up until this time Henry had opposed. Tyndale's book appealed to Henry's ego, since it rejected the idea that a king should have to share power with a pope. Protestantism also allowed a way out of the marriage with Catherine, and into a marriage with Anne.


Reflections at Hever

The ego that demanded fifty palaces came to demand leadership of something now known as the Church of England. The break with Rome was finalised in 1532, and moves against catholics were given extra impetus by Archbishop Cranmer. He had secretly married a German woman, and as the Catholic Church demanded celibacy of its priests, a move to Protestantism clearly suited Cranmer's new domestic situation. Henry himself remained catholic in outlook, not liking the protestant idea of ordinary people reading the Bible and making up their own minds about it. In 1546 he expressly forbade women and the lower classes, which effectively meant most of the population, from reading the Bibles that Tyndale had been printing on the continent. Henry wanted it all: he didn't want to share authority with the pope, but neither did he want to lose the authority of the Catholic Church. In the end of course Henry couldn't have it all. Anne Boleyn, the woman he had moved heaven and earth to marry, was to give birth to a girl, Elizabeth, and not to the son that Henry desired so much. Henry's sense of self-importance could not accept what he saw as failure, and only three years after Elizabeth's birth, Anne was executed on trumped up charges of adultery.




Henry VIII, standing outside the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Dockyard

The rest of Henry's reign was rather anticlimactic. He went through the rest of his six wives, had a son, Edward, with Jane Seymour, became huge and arthritic and engaged in pointless wars with France. The fact that England was now a protestant country meant there was a brief interval when invasion from catholic France and Spain seemed a possibility. The threat of invasion was only serious during early 1539, before the king of France assured Henry he had no intention of invading. Nevertheless a huge building programme of shore line defence began in 1539. A chain of forts built along the south coast included Camber Castle in East Sussex, Walmer Castle, Deal Castle, and Sandown Castle in Kent, Southsea Castle at Portsmouth, Hurst Castle and Portland Castle in Dorset, Calshott Castle at Southampton, Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight and the sister fortifications of Pendennis Castle and St Mawes Castle in Cornwall. The functional appearance of these castles belies their largely symbolic role. Changing a country's religion was a potentially explosive undertaking. Religions are designed to hold people together and maintain hierarchy and discipline. With a change of religion and possible division, England needed to feel itself pulled together by an illusion of imminent invasion. And this phantom invasion could only be countered by the building of huge forts. Symbolism was taken further when stone from demolished monasteries was used to build the forts. These forts, almost all of which survive, are a physical manifestation of a struggle of ideas and beliefs. Henry's castles are solid, squat and functional, and yet they have all the symbolism of the churches they were built from. I'm not saying that Henry VIII actually decided to build castles as symbols: he wasn't the most subtle of men. But he needed the reassurance of unity as much as anyone. Theoretically Henry's castles were built to face an external enemy: the only real threats that Henry actually faced, the 1536 rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace for example, came from within.

Henry VIII's military policies were largely an exercise in posturing, and towards the end of his life there was a military disaster which summed up his situation. In 1545 the Mary Rose, the biggest ship in the Navy Royal, capsized and sank in Portsmouth harbour with Henry watching from the shore. The sinking of a grand but top heavy ship is a strikingly fitting symbol of what Henry's government had become. He was head of state and the country's supreme spiritual leader. Seemingly his power was limitless. It wasn't up to fate to decide whether he had a son or not: he would change the religion of the country to make his desires into reality. But fate was to decide that Edward his only son was to die at age sixteen, and his daughters Mary and then Elizabeth were to take the throne. All-powerful Henry had to stand and watch the Mary Rose sink.






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