The Tudors - A Century of Change

1. A Century of Change

Nearly seventy years old when she died in 1603 Queen Elizabeth I had outlived almost all her contemporaries. Her principal minister, Robert Cecil, was no more than a child when Elizabeth became queen in 1558. Although Cecil's father, Lord Burleigh, grew up under Henry VIII it was the ageing and corpulent Henry that he remembered not the glittering youth who had succeeded to the throne in 1509. We have to go back to Burleigh's grandfather, an obscure gentleman called David Cecil, before we find someone old enough to have taken part in the battle of Bosworth on 22nd August 1485. On that day the first Tudor king - Henry VII - defeated the usurper Richard III to gain the crown for his family.

Who were the Tudors? Henry VII's mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, was the sole surviving descendent of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, third son of Edward III (1327-1377), but his father, Edmund Tudor, was the son of a Welsh squire called Owen 'Twdr' who'd secretely married Katherine of Valois, widow of Henry V, the victor of Agincourt. It was one of the most notorious love-matches of the 15th century, Owen having used his post as keeper of Katherine's wardrobe to steal his way into her bed. Not the most promising ancestry for an English royal family! However the saintly incompetence of Edmund's half brother Henry VI (1422-1461) had initiated a chain of events known as the Wars of the Roses, progessively eliminating claimant after claimant to the crown until only Henry Tudor and the 'tyrant' Richard were left. A combination of reckless courage on Richard's part and new tactics used by the mercenaries lent to Henry by the French king brought about Richard's unexpected death, 'fighting bravely in the midst of his enemies'. God appeared to have come down on the side of the Tudors but for how long? It would be a question that would dominate the whole of their time on the throne.

About the time of Bosworth an Italian visitor described England in glowing terms: 'nothing to be seen but agreeable woods or extensive meadows, or lands in cultivation'. He was less flattering about the English. 'They are great lovers of themselves,' he reported. 'If they see a handsome foreigner they say he should be an Englishman and that it is a pity he is not an Englishman.' He added that the English were quick to quarrel and equally quick to make friends, a robust temperament he ascribed to the great amount of meat in the typical Englishman's diet.

The fields were still there when Elizabeth died and Englishmen were no less proud of themselves. They had defeated the Spanish Armada and circumnavigated the globe; they had set up a colony in North America to break up the Spanish monopoly of the New World. They had produced two of the greatest playwrites of all time, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, who were only the stars of a popular culture that embraced all classes and walks of life. Nevertheless a time-traveller from 1485 would have found much to surprise him. Gone were the great abbeys and famous shrines that were the chief ornaments of the kingdom in 1485. Gone too were the colourful paintings and wonder-working images that adorned the parish churches. In their place were the plain whitewashed interiors of a faith based on the scriptures alone. What had happened?

To find out we must return to the reign of Henry VII. Five tears after Bosworth a 20 year old Eton scholar called William Paston wrote a letter to his brother John about a girl he'd met who might make him a good wife. In his letter William describes the girl as going to a 'Pardon', meaning a special gathering sanctioned by the Church where indulgences were sold. These indulgences could shorten the buyer's time in Purgatory, a sort of half-way house to Heaven where the souls of the departed were freed of sin. They had the sanction of the Pope himself and were an important way of raising money for projects such as the re-building of cathedrals. Of course there were abuses but to question the authority of the Church could lead to an accusation of heresy and no sensible man would risk that.

As young Will sat writing his letter a small boy of six was just beginning his education in the small German town of Wittenberg. Unlike Will he proved to be highly intelligent, questioning the world about him with the instincts of a lawyer rather than the monk he at first became. His name was Martin Luther and in 1516, by then a respected teacher, he set in motion a series of events called the Reformation that would end for ever the Church's monopoly of truth. There was no such place as Purgatory, he declared, and in any case the Pope had no more power to forgive sins than you or I. Pilgrimages, prayers for the dead, good works, all were useless: you could not buy your way into Heaven. All that mattered was faith and for that one did not need priests, or shrines, or images or confession.

Naturally the Church authorities responded to Luther's challenge. In 1520, having refused to recant his beliefs, he was excommunicated i.e. thrown out of the Church, with the expectation that he would be put to death by whichever of the Church's secular champions got their hands on him first. It ought to have been the end of the matter but it wasn't. Luther found a powerful protector in the Elector of Saxony who saw a chance to relieve the church in his dominions of a great deal of its now unnecessary wealth. Luther's 'reformation' had now become political as some rulers followed the elector's lead and others chose to support the Pope.

Two hundred years of religious warfare followed, the last vestiges of which remain with us in Northern Ireland. Catholics stressed the authority of tradition, Protestants* the light of reason. Their sharpest disagreements centered on the nature of the mass or communion service. Catholics held that the bread and wine placed on the altar became literally the body and blood of Christ when blessed by a priest, because this is what Christ seems to have told his disciples at the Last Supper. Protestants believed that Christ spoke symbolically on that occasion and that the so-called 'miracle of the mass' (transubstantiation) was merely a device to elevate the status of the clergy. It wasn't easy to find a middle way betwen these two positions and those who tried were apt to find themselves the enemy of both.

In the long term the effect of the Reformation was to weaken the hold of religion generally. The discovery of America and the subsequent colonisation of the New World had already proved that the old medieval view of the world was incomplete. The discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo would show that the earth was not the centre of the universe or even a very important part of it. Never mind whether the Pope or the Queen was rightfully head of the Church, in Shakespeare's England there were already men like Sir Walter Raleigh who could be accused of atheism - of believing that God himself did not exist. The accusation was false but in the absence of old certainties many people turned to new ones: belief in magic was widespread, numbering amongst its passionate adherents the Queen herself.

There was a positive aspect to all this upheaval. Queen Elizabeth's subjects loved a good story, especially one which showed that history was 'on the side of the angels'. In plays such as Hamlet and Macbeth, evil results from failings in the mighty, but - like a river returning to its true course - good triumphs in the end, just as it does in the endless 'cops and robbers' films produced for cinema and television today. His use of the past in this way allowed Shakespeare to explore every aspect of human nature, sometimes coming within a hair's breadth of atheism himself. 'To be or not to be' is a question the Bible cannot answer. Nor is it clear that there is any answer: the message of Hamlet is that everyone has to work it out for themselves. * This name was applied to followers of the reformed faith when a group of German princes who had broken with the Pope protested against the emperor Charles V's attempts to restore his authority.