Tudor Lives: Success & Failure of an Age

BOOK: Tudor Lives: Success & Failure of an Age
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This electronic edition published in 2013 by

Michael O’Mara Books Limited

9 Lion Yard

Tremadoc Road

London SW4 7NQ

First published in Great Britain, 1973, under the title
Tudor Portraits

George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd

182–184 High Holborn

London WC1V 7AX

Copyright © Michael O’Mara Books Limited 2013

All rights reserved. You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN: 978-1-78243-221-0 in e-book format

Jacket illustration © Raylipscombe/iStockphoto

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Restless and energetic times are often hard on the citizen. The triumphs of the Tudor age are well known; less apparent is the pain that went hand-in-hand with success. One of the purposes of this book is to consider the cost of great achievement, and therefore several of the people portrayed here were, in effect, the victims of the times. Thomas More is an obvious case; but Mary Tudor, Kett, Gilbert and Greene, none of them evil and all with talent and feeling, were all undone by the stern course of the century. Even Walsingham was made poor and hurried to the grave by the laborious demands of Elizabeth’s administration, and the resplendent Philip Sidney found no place for his chivalrous idealism in the faithless world of contemporary polity.

Concerned with the plight of the individual, I take an ‘old-fashioned’ view of enclosures. The use of enclosures, as modern historians have pointed out, brought prosperity to the land owners, helped to make farming more rational, and eventually raised the standard of agriculture. The denunciations of enclosures by such men as More, Hugh Latimer and John Hales were exaggerated. Good men usually do decry social injustice too passionately. But they were honest witnesses (among the best men of their time), and they saw that the prosperity of the rapacious caused the suffering of the poor; depopulation, dispossession, starvation, vagabondage and crime were among the immediate consequences of sixteenth-century agrarian changes. The historian, writes a wise member of the profession, ‘sees the problem of the sixteenth century as a temporary crisis only’. But the peasant, distracted by poverty and hounded by authority, ‘saw rich farmers taking up more and more land but giving less employment than ever before to the labourer … It was difficult to keep a balanced outlook when one’s own livelihood was at stake.’
The pains of the
weak and the unfortunate, crushed by impersonal social and economic forces, are relevant facts of history to be set against the aggrandizement of nations and the successes of the strong.


   Joan Thirsk,
Tudor Enclosures
(Historical Assoc. 1959), p. 21.


Title page
A Short Bibliography


1a   Henry VII

National Portrait Gallery

1b   Henry VIII

Mansell Collection

  2   Edward VI

National Portrait Gallery

  3   Mary I

National Portrait Gallery

  4   Elizabeth I

National Portrait Gallery

  5   Sir Thomas More

National Portrait Gallery

  6   Robert Kett

Radio Times Hulton Picture Library

  7   Sir Thomas Gresham

National Portrait Gallery

  8   Sir Francis Walsingham

National Portrait Gallery

  9   Sir Humphrey Gilbert

National Portrait Gallery

10   Richard Hooker

Mansell Collection

11   Sir Philip Sidney

National Portrait Gallery

12a  Robert Greene

Radio Times Hulton Picture Library

12b  Christopher Marlowe

Radio Times Hulton Picture Library


Tudor Monarchs

sank low in the fifteenth century. Philippe de Commines saw the Duke of Exeter, brother-in-law of Edward IV, trudging barefoot in the retinue of the Duke of Burgundy; the members of the House of Lancaster, Commines wrote, were poorer than street beggars. Never was the crown so disregarded, so despised, so bullied; never was the king in such danger of deposition and murder. In 1485 Henry VII, from an obscure family with only the slightest tinge of royal blood, came to the throne in the manner of the century, by force of arms, and in one reign raised the crown from impotent beggary to settled and prosperous power. ‘From the time of William the Conqueror to the present’, wrote an Italian envoy in 1498, ‘no king has reigned more peaceably than he has, his great prudence causing him to be universally feared.’

Within fifteen years the wounds of the feudal discord were healed. The astute
Relation of the Island of England
, which the Venetian envoy wrote as a guide for his fellow countrymen to this far northern realm, pictured a well-favoured land. The fields were rich and gave forth with great abundance so that the people lived easily enough, cultivating just sufficient for their needs. The country was forested with a great variety of trees, and the envoy noted ‘all our fruit trees’ with the exception of the olive and the orange. Animals, both domestic and wild, were plentiful and well-grown so that ‘stags, goats, fallow-deer, hares, rabbits, pigs, and an infinity of oxen’ were available for meat. The rivers and the coastal waters provided good fishing, and various fowl were highly regarded, in particular pea-fowl, partridges, pheasants and swans ‘which are eaten by the English like ducks and geese’.
Tilling the
fields was the chief occupation of the people, but the most notable feature of the countryside was the ‘enormous number of sheep’. The wool trade was already the greatest source of England’s wealth, and the lamentable policy of enclosure, which later caused such rural misery, was much practised. Besides the weaving of the wool, there was little industry, though iron and silver were produced and valuable mines existed for tin and lead.

The envoy noted that the countryside was very thinly populated while London was crowded and vigorous. The domestic architecture was not distinguished and the streets were a mess; ravens, kites and crows, far from being birds of ill-omen, as they were in Italy, were encouraged by the English to clear the offal and the garbage from the streets. The townsmen lived comfortably but not too fastidiously; Erasmus commented on the dirt and carelessness of the English household. If the houses were poor, the churches were grand. The greater monasteries were ‘more like baronial palaces than religious houses’, and the shrines of the saints were resplendent. The envoy wondered especially at the tomb of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, ‘entirely covered over with plates of pure gold’ studded with sapphires, diamonds, rubies and emeralds.

Indeed, luxurious richness was apparent everywhere. ‘The riches of England’, wrote the envoy, ‘are greater than those of any other country in Europe.’ A small innkeeper might well have silver drinking-cups; a modest householder might have silver-plate to the value of £100. In the parish churches the crucifixes, candlesticks, patens, censers and cups were usually silver, and the quantity of wrought silver was ‘the most remarkable thing in London’. In one street by St Paul’s ‘there are fifty-two goldsmith’s shops, so rich and full of silver vessels, great and small, that in all the shops of Milan, Rome, Venice, and Florence put together, I do not think there would be found so many of the magnificence that are to be seen in London’.

The citizens, whom the envoy found ‘handsome and well-proportioned’, dressed well, ate well and drank well; they were polite and quick-witted, but not learned. They went through the forms of piety, going to Mass often and distributing alms, but the Venetian thought that they had ‘various opinions concerning religion’. He thought the reputation of English soldiers was well earned ‘from
the great fear the French entertain of them’. But he agreed with an older authority that the English were liable to break off the battle for a good feast, and to ride to war loaded with wine and cheeses rather than armour and lances. The chief characteristic of Englishmen, however, was nationalism. ‘The English’, said the envoy, ‘are great lovers of themselves, and of everything belonging to them; they think that there are no other men than themselves, and no other world but England.’ And consequently they disliked all foreigners, suspecting that ‘they never come into their island, but to make themselves masters of it, and to usurp their goods’. An insular, rugged, proud race, children of a beneficent land, kept from greatness, perhaps, by ignorance and lack of confidence.

The qualities of Henry VII, the man who raised England to such prosperity in so few years, were not those that make a man loved. Francis Bacon, who admired him, called Henry ‘sad, serious and full of thoughts’; he was also cold, suspicious and avaricious. He supported justice in the State but overrode it in his own interests. He was not cruel, ‘but the less blood he drew the more he took of treasure’. He had, however, the patience and sagacity to overcome all the disadvantages of a cold nature. From the first he showed a remarkable political wisdom, what the Venetian envoy called his ‘prudence’. As he had won the throne on the battlefield, he did not disguise the source of his power. He had his battle standards laid in state at St Paul’s, and would not marry Elizabeth of York, whose hand would give him some title to the crown, until after the coronation and confirmation of his place by Parliament. He chose, said Bacon, ‘rather to keep state and strike a reverence into the people than to fawn upon them’. The sanction of power was a recognized reality; as a later writer put it, ‘the sword hath always been better than half the title to get, establish or maintain a kingdom’. In the lawless age of the fifteenth century very little divinity surrounded the King, and Henry was not thought any the worse because he came to the throne by force of arms. He made his title good, not by doubtful claims or fraudulent pedigrees, but by his care of the country. Wise observers noted how he drove himself in the work of government. Ayala, the Spanish envoy, called him ‘old for his years, but young for the sorrowful life he has led’. His chilly calculations were what good sense recommended for the well-being of the land. Bacon
imputed his actions ‘to nature, age, peace, and a mind fixed upon no other ambition or pursuit’.

BOOK: Tudor Lives: Success & Failure of an Age
13.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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