History of England

Lecture: Reformations and Elizabethan England

Use this button to hear "My Bonny Lass" by Thomas Morley (1557-1602), holder of Queen Elizabeth's patent for publishing music. Modern rendition by Canadian Brass.

Lecture Outline

Wars of the Roses (1455-1485)

There is no way to follow the players for this one without a scorecard. You can print one out (it's actually a family tree) here before you continue.

Henry V, hero of Agincourt, died in 1422, when his son (Henry VI) was only 9 months old. This led to the greater lords of England vying for power, creating an unprecedented time of violence and injustice in the countryside. (Don't forget to add this violence to the famine, plague, war, etc. already taking place!) Feudalism was clearly in decline, not only because of lordly deaths, but also because there were no more lands to give to loyal retainers. Retainers were paid in wages and signed on for a certain number of years. In other words, armies that had been made up of loyal landed knights were now comprised of mercenaries. Landed nobles intermarried to gain land, and warred incessantly to expand their holdings. Power was essentially in the hands of the great lords and their huge paid armies.

The two greatest families were York and Lancaster. The Duke of York (Richard) was the greatest landowner in England. He was descended from Edward III (look on the chart -- lower left, Edward IV's father). Richard opposed the incompetent court of Henry VI. The king was supported by the Lancastrians, led by the Duke of Somerset (John Beaufort). You can see on your chart that the Duke was also descended from Edward III through the third marriage of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. He supported the king because Henry VI was also a Lancaster through John of Gaunt's first marriage.

In 1455 Richard, Duke of York, went to war with John Beaufort, Duke of Somerset. By 1461 the Yorkists were victorious. They had benefited from opposition to Henry VI's poor government, abuses (such as purveyance, the right of the king to buy products at below-market prices), corruption, and demands to Parliament for money. The Yorkists got Parliament to give the throne to Edward IV (Richard's son) by hereditary right. The Lancastrians rebelled against this, and there was war again. Battle of Bosworth

This was the time when the famous chronicler Fortescue wrote a tract, encouraging the king to resist the power of the great lords. It had no effect, since Edward IV died young (of a "feverish pursuit of pleasure" if that tells you anything about him) at age 40. His son Edward V was 12 years old. His uncle, Richard, seized the throne from him, and became Richard III. Richard III has been reviled by Shakespeare as ugly and evil, both in form and in heart (see the Richard III Society for a different interpretation). He certainly went too far to maintain power, executing his advisors and having Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville declared invalid. This made Edward's children bastards (see them all lined across the bottom of the chart?). Edward IV's two sons, the only power threat, were both smothered to death in the Tower of London. Richard has always been blamed for this, probably correctly.

Having solidified his power, Richard III wasn't such a bad king, but the rumors that he had killed the young princes in the Tower destroyed him. Many Yorkists could not support him despite the family ties. Richard's once-ally, the Duke of Buckingham, wanted Richard removed and Henry Tudor brought to the throne. Henry Tudor was a Lancastrian married to the Yorkist daughter of Edward IV. He had to win the throne in battle against Richard, which he did at Bosworth Field in 1485. Henry Tudor became Henry VII, and started the Tudor dynasty. On your chart, he appears twice; just connect the two downward arrows.

So why was it called the Wars of the Roses? Shakespeare, and later Walter Scott, created the idea from the Yorkist symbol of the white rose. But the red rose is, alas, not a symbol of the House of Lancaster, but rather of the Tudors. Oh, well, it was a good story.

Henry VIII

So since this lecture is about the Reformations, what's the importance of the Wars of the Roses? Henry VII (Tudor) was a good king, and his greatest determination was not to allow these uppity lords to get at it again. His first son, Arthur, was supposed to carry on the goal, and also create an alliance with another possible enemy, Spain. Arthur was married off to Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. But he died in 1502, and his brother young Henry (later Henry VIII) was heir to the throne. Henry VII's plans were ruined! He went to Pope Julius II and got a special dispensation for young Henry to marry Katherine (this is marrying your brother's widow and is an orthodox no-no). The pope approved. Young Henry married Katherine and became Henry VIII in 1509 at the age of 18.

Marriage and Heir Unapparent

Henry VIII

LIke his father, Henry VIII's main goal was to be a strong enough king to prevent the Wars of the Roses from breaking out again. To ensure such a peace past his own lifetime, he wanted to father a male heir as soon as possible. Katherine bore him five children, but only Mary (b. 1516) survived before Katherine underwent menopause. By 1527 Henry was seeking an annulment of his marriage to Katherine: he had no male heir, and was in love with Anne Boleyn. The pope, Clement VII, refused an annulment. Annulments are only supposed to take place if the marriage is unconsummated, obviously not the case here. Henry insisted on a special dispensation, based on the grounds that the original dispensation was wicked. He had, he claimed, been allowed to commit the sin of marrying his brother's widow and was being punished.

It was the wrong argument. Pope Clement VII was dealing with what would later be called the Protestant Reformation. It had begun in Germany in 1517, with a theologian named Martin Luther. Protestants often claimed that the pope was in error. Essentially Henry was claiming the same thing, and Clement decided to slap down this Protestant tendency by refusing the annulment.

Henrican Reformation

Henry VIII was desperate. He decided to break away from the Roman Church. He used dubious sources to "prove" that the king had always been head of the church in England, and that any kind of papal authority was a farce. Sounds like he'd been reading some of the works of Henry II, doesn't it? Hampton Court Palace

He fired his own Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Many believed this was a mistake. Wolsey had been not only a good administrator, but had conned the pope into permitting Henry to tax the English church. But Wolsey was against the annulment, and Henry fired him and took over his great house, Hampton Court Palace.

In an eerie case of history repeating itself, Henry then made his best friend chancellor. Sir Thomas More was a scholar known throughout Europe, a Christian humanist who corresponded with Erasmus and was known for his portrait of a perfect society in small bookUtopia. He was also known to be critical of the abuses of the Roman papacy. Henry misinterpreted the willingness to criticize the abuses of the Roman church with a willingness to break away from it.

In this movie clip from "A Man for All Seasons" (1966), Henry discusses his problem with More.


In creating himself head of the Church of England, Henry was passing various acts through Parliament. These included the small bookAct of Supremacy and others designed to deny papal authority over the church in England. No appeals of any kind would be allowed to Rome, and it became an act of treason for anyone to say that Henry's marriage to Katherine had been legitimate. Sir Thomas More could not, in good conscience, deny the pope's authority. Henry hadn't time for niceties; Anne was already pregnant with his child. More and others who refused to accept Henry as absolute head of the church were tried for treason and executed. [In 1935, the Catholic church made More a saint.]

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Henry then eliminated the last threats to his authority by dissolving the monasteries and nunneries, appropriating about a quarter of the land in England. This land was distributed among his supporters in Parliament, creating a new "gentry" that owed its wealth to the king. Henry did not, however, create a truly Protestant church. He had no interest in theology, just practical politics. The Anglican Church (or COE for Church of England) had Catholic practices; it was just headed by the king instead of the pope. He retained any archbishops and bishops who were willing to go along with the change, and redistributed the diocese of those who weren't.

Other Marriages

Henry's marriage woes didn't end with Anne Boleyn, whom he had secretly married in 1533. She gave him a daughter, and then tried to get involved in court intrigues and politics. She was executed for treasonous adultery (probably a trumped up charge) after giving Henry a daughter, Elizabeth. Jane Seymour

A month after the execution (1536), Henry married Jane Seymour, who had been a lady in waiting to both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. She died at the age of 18 twelve days after giving him his son, Edward.

After that came Anne of Cleves (1539) , a political marriage to ally with the Protestant Netherlands. Henry found her repulsive and divorced her; she lived in Richmond until her death in 1557. Then he married Catherine Howard, Anne's maid of honor. She was executed for adultery in 1542.

The next year Henry married Catherine Parr, who outlived him. She's my favorite of his wives because she was the only one who cared about the children. She had been widowed twice and was an older, amiable woman. She was a kind stepmother, taking all three children in to live with her. This was rather courageous, since Henry's various acts had disowned Mary (with her Catholic mother) and declared Elizabeth illegitimate (because Henry annulled his marriage to Anne Boleyn posthumously). Henry's will made Edward the heir, but did give Mary and Elizabeth rights of succession despite their illegitimacy.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, his councillors kept his death a secret for three days, trying to alter the will. Henry had wanted the councillors to create a group to help Edward, who was only 10 years old. But a coup occurred so that one man, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, became Protector.

Edward VI and Mary I: Protestant and Catholic

Somerset's government was overthrown two years later by other councillors, when Edward was only 12. What was all the squabbling about? Protestantism. Many of the councillors wanted the Church of England taken in a truly Protestant direction, with an English prayer book to guide the mode of worship. Acts were passed to destroy images of saints in the churches of England. Edward himself became unequivocably Protestant, and a great scholar. But he was weak; at 15 years old he contracted measles and smallpox and died. On his deathbed he was persuaded to disown his sisters as successors. He nominated his cousin Jane Grey, the daughter-in-law of the Duke of Northumberland (one of the councillors). Lady Jane Grey was Protestant, and ruled for only nine days before Edward's sister Mary invaded with an army and took over. Because she downplayed Catholicism and played up her right as Henry VIII's daughter, Parliament happily acknowledged Mary's right to succeed. Most English people were delighted, simply because she was mature enough to rule herself, without a Protector. Mary I

But Mary was, as daughter of Katherine of Aragon, a Catholic. She was opposed to her father's break from Rome, and was determined to re-establish Catholicism in England. She became known as "Bloody Mary" because of her persecution and execution of Anglicans. She sent small bookThomas Cranmer (please see more information on him), former Archbishop of Canterbury and architect of her parents' divorce, to the stake.

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She had a minimum of 274 people burned at the stake (burning, it was thought, would purify their souls before God). The problem with her bloody reputation is that much of it is based on the writings of John Foxe, a Protestant who wrote The Book of Martyrs in tribute to the persecuted Protestants. He certainly didn't mention that Edward's crew of councillors had engaged in the persecution of Catholics, which they had. But however bloody she was, Mary did make two critical mistakes. The first was that she allowed 800 Protestants to emigrate to the Netherlands rather than kill them. They stirred up anti-English sentiment on the Continent. Her second mistake was her marriage to Philip, heir to the throne of Spain.

Philip was the only son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and was about to become king of the greatest Catholic country in the world. He also had designs on sea commerce, and wanted an alliance with England. Mary probably loved him, but he didn't care for her and left her alone in England most of the time. When he became King Philip II in 1556, he was known back home as "your most Catholic majesty". Parliament agreed to Mary's request to consider Philip king of England so long as they produced heirs. Probably due to her husband neglecting their marriage, and soon because she had ovarian cancer, Mary was unable to produce children and died only five years after becoming queen. Few mourned her passing; her cruelty had dampened their enthusiasm.

The Elizabethan Age

Mary's sister, Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), would rule 44 years. Her main goal was unity, above everything. She represented a new kind of nationalism in England, which one of my professors (J. Sears McGee) referred to as politique. Other European rulers, like Philip II himself, were doctrinaire, believing that conformity of religious belief was more important than national unity. To Philip, and to Mary Tudor, forcing everyone to be Catholic was doing God's work, and this was far more important than national unity. Elizabeth I

But Elizabeth was more like her father, practical in politics. In establishing the Elizabethan Settlement, she was accepting a combination religion: Catholic-style worship but Protestant theology. Few were happy with the compromise, but it did keep order. One group, who really wanted the COE to become very Protestant, were Calvinists who would later be referred to as Puritans. They caused minor problems for Elizabeth but big problems later for the Stuart monarchs.

Singularity and Spain

One of the most interesting things about Elizabeth is that she never married. Her councillors continually advised her to do so, bringing her notes from various elite European suitors. Philip II, less than melancholy after the loss of his wife, was most persistent in trying to get Elizabeth to marry him so he could maintain his position in England. She had to refuse him over and over. Elizabeth was called "The Virgin Queen", but that too is unlikely; she had many admirers and the door to her boudior was often locked. For a while, there was a fad among historians of believing she was really a man. The truth was, she was her father's daughter. She knew that marriage to a man would destroy her independence of action as a monarch. Replica of Drake's Golden Hinde

And she definitely believed in independent action. The Elizabethan Age was one of seafaring, and global exploration. Elizabeth financed several ventures, including one by Sir Humphrey Gilbert designed to colonize Ireland. It was a failure, but she also supported voyages by the likes of Sir Francis Drake. Drake and other "Sea Hawks" voyaged around the world, trading some goods but mostly raiding Spanish treasure ships. Back in 1519, Spain had conquered Mexico, and by the middle of the century its galleons were making regular runs across the Atlantic, bringing the gold of the Aztecs to Spain. There were numerous acts of piracy as this wealth and exploration continued.

Both pirates and privateers profited from the trading and raiding. Technically, a pirate is just anyone who steals goods from a ship. Pirates claim no country. But a privateer operates under letters of marque from a monarch, and are permitted to keep the spoils of battle if they are fired upon first. English ships, like those of Drake, were great at taunting Spanish ships into firing first, winning the battle, and taking the goods. Elizabeth rewarded these privateers with honors. Philip's ambassadors repeatedly appealed to her to do something about the piracy, but she never did. Spanish frustration was one reason the Spanish Armada decided to invade England in 1588.

The other reason was that Elizabeth, who was Protestant, had become involved in helping the Protestant Netherlands escape from the domination of Spain. As part of the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands was under the control of the Spanish crown. The Revolt of the Netherlands was the effort of this country to achieve its independence from Catholic Spain, and Elizabeth secretly helped. The Armada of 1588 was supposed to pick up defeated soldiers in the Netherlands, and ferry them across the channel for the invasion of England. You know from your web pages that this is not what happened. Elizabeth's small bookArmada speech is considered to be one of the first great works of English nationalism.

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Other Elizabethan Exploits

Elizabeth's greatest political threat turned out to be Scotland, not Spain. Mary, Queen of Scots, was Elizabeth's cousin and a Catholic. She was the grand-daughter of Henry VIII's sister Margaret (check the Tudor chart). Mary was also married to the Dauphin (heir to the throne) of France, who died in 1561 leaving her with a continuing French Catholic connection. Many English Catholics hoped that Elizabeth would die (there were even attempts on her life) so that Mary could be queen. Henry VIII himself had permitted this succession in his will if Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth all died childless.

Although Elizabeth wanted to have nothing to do with her cousin, her advisors managed to demonstrate to her that various acts of sedition and treason were in fact going on. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary in 1568. After war with Spain began, she had her executed. W'm Sh'k'spr

From a cultural standpoint, the Elizabethan age is also the age of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was not, as the mythology would have it, an elitist writer. He portrayed the ordinary world of life, money, sex, and taverns; he was not a snob. His works combine the Protestant habit of self-expression, individuality and non-conformity with a sophisticated view of urban life. Even in a small selection, like the famous soliloquy from small bookHamlet, his genius is apparent. In Shakespeare we find an era of expanding literacy and printing, and the continuation of a common written culture.

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Economic historians would be quick to point out that the Elizabethan age was also one of increasing enclosure. Enclosure is the taking over of peasants' common land by the lord, usually for the purpose of creating agricultural innovation or turning the commons over to sheep grazing. Wool continued to be the foundation of English commercial wealth, and many landlords turned to raising sheep, running the peasants off their common land. Those who could not survive when the commons were enclosed went to the towns, but few had the skills to find good employment. So the economy was booming in seafaring and international trade, but the peasants were suffering.

Politically, however, Elizabethan England reached a level of stability that had not been seen since the Wars of the Roses, and maybe before. Elizabeth was a level-headed, crafty politician who managed to hold together a country which should have been ripped apart by religious and nationalistic divisions. When she died childless, James VI of Scotland (son of Mary, Queen of Scots), would become King James I of England, and everyone waited to see what he would do.

Check your Knowledge

Choose the best answer, then Submit.
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You can take the assessment as many times as you wish, but you need to reclick ALL your answers, even the ones you got right!

1. The true reason that the English church broke from Rome was:
a) Henry VIII wanted a male heir
b) Protestants were gaining control of government
c) joining with Protestants on the continent would be good for trade
d) more English people were turning toward Protestant ideas

2. My lecture implies that the most significatnt aspect of the Wars of the Roses was that they:
a) created the situation that made Henry VIII want a male heir
b) were primarily concerned with religion
c) lasted ten years
d) did not affect the stability of the monarchy

3. Queen Elizabeth herself is a good symbol of her era because:
a) she embodied the new status of women in the 16th century
b) her maternal instincts fostered a new gentleness in government
c) her power and control focused on wealth and trade
d) her doctrinaire tendencies strengthened English religion

4. Which is the correct order of secession after Henry VIII?
a) Elizabeth, Mary, Lady Jane Grey
b) Edward, Elizabeth, Mary
c) Edward, Lady Jane Grey, Mary, Elizabeth
d) Henry IX, Elizabeth

5. The selection from Hamlet could be used to demonstrate all of the following EXCEPT:
a) Shakespeare's genius
b) the diversity of cultural expression in Elizabethan times
c) a Renaissance interest in the self
d) the elitism of Shakespeare's topics

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All text, lecture voice audio, and course design copyright Lisa M. Lane 1998-2018. Other materials used in this class may be subject to copyright protection, and are intended for educational and scholarly fair use under the Copyright Act of 1976 and the TEACH Act of 2002.