Peter Ackroyd, one of Britain's most acclaimed writers, brings the age of the Tudors to vivid life in this monumental book in his The History of England series, charting the course of English history from Henry VIII's cataclysmic break with Rome to the epic rule of Elizabeth I.
Rich in detail and atmosphere, Peter Ackroyd's Tudors is the story of Henry VIII's relentless pursuit of both the perfect wife and the perfect heir; of how the brief reign of the teenage king, Edward VI, gave way to the violent reimposition of Catholicism and the stench of bonfires under "Bloody Mary." It tells, too, of the long reign of Elizabeth I, which, though marked by civil strife, plots against the queen and even an invasion force, finally brought stability.
Above all, however, it is the story of the English Reformation and the making of the Anglican Church. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, England was still largely feudal and looked to Rome for direction; at its end, it was a country where good governance was the duty of the state, not the church, and where men and women began to look to themselves for answers rather than to those who ruled them.
About the Author
PETER ACKROYD is an award-winning novelist, as well as a broadcaster, poet and historian. He is the author of the acclaimed Thames: Sacred River and London: The Biography. He holds a CBE for services to literature and lives in London.
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The History of England from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I
By Peter Ackroyd
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Peter Ackroyd
All rights reserved.
The land was flowing with milk and honey. On 21 April 1509 the old king, having grown ever more harsh and rapacious, died in his palace at Richmond on the south bank of the Thames. The fact was kept secret for two days, so that the realm would not tremble. Yet the new Henry had already been proclaimed king.
On 9 May the body of Henry VII was taken in a black chariot from Richmond Palace to St Paul's Cathedral; the funeral car was attended by 1,400 formal mourners and 700 torch-bearers. But few, if any, grieved; the courtiers and household servants were already awaiting the son and heir. When the body, having been taken to the abbey of Westminster, after the funeral service was over, was lowered into its vault the heralds announced 'le noble roy, Henri le Septième, est mort'. Then at once they cried out with one voice, 'Vive le noble roy, Henri le Huitième'. His title was undisputed, the first such easy succession in a century. The new king was in his seventeenth year.
Midsummer Day, 24 June, was chosen as the day of coronation. The sun in its splendour would herald the rising of another sun. It was just four days before his eighteenth birthday. The ceremony of the coronation was considered to be the eighth sacrament of the Church, in which Henry was anointed with chrism or holy oil as a token of sacred kingship. His robes were stiff with jewels, diamonds and rubies and emeralds and pearls, so that a glow or light hovered about him. He now radiated the power and the glory. He may have acted and dressed under advice, but he soon came to understand the theatre of magnificence.
Henry had taken the precaution, thirteen days before the coronation, of marrying his intended bride so that a king would be accompanied by a queen; it was thereby to be understood that he was an adult rather than a minor. Katherine of Aragon was the child of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, in whose reign Spain was united. She had come from that country in order to marry Prince Arthur, Henry's older brother, but events conspired against her. Arthur died less than six months after their wedding, of consumption or the sweating sickness, and Katherine was left at the English court in the unenviable position of a widow whose usefulness had gone. It was said that the king himself, Henry VII, might wish to marry her. But this was unthinkable. Instead she was betrothed to Prince Henry, and was consigned to some years of relative penury and privation at the hands of a difficult father-in-law who was in any case pursuing a better match for his son and heir. Yet, after seven years of waiting, her moment of apotheosis had come. On the day before the coronation she was taken in a litter from the Tower of London to Westminster, passing through streets draped in rich tapestry and cloth of gold. A contemporary woodcut depicts Henry and Katherine being crowned at the same time, surrounded by rank upon rank of bishops and senior clergy.
Henry's early years had been spent in the shadow of an anxious and over-protective father, intent before anything else on securing the dynasty. The young prince never spoke in public, except in reply to questions from the king. He could leave the palace at Greenwich or at Eltham only under careful supervision, and then venture into the palace's park through a private door. Much care was bestowed on his early education, so that he acquired the reputation of being the most learned of princes. Throughout his life he considered himself to be a great debater in matters of theology, fully steeped in the scholarship of Thomas Aquinas. He took an early delight in music, and composed Masses as well as songs and motets; he sang, and played both lute and keyboard. He had his own company of musicians who followed him wherever he walked, and by the time of his death he owned seventy-two flutes. He was the harmonious prince. Thomas More, in a poem celebrating the coronation, described him as the glory of the era. Surely he would inaugurate a new golden age in which all men of goodwill would flourish?
Henry was himself a golden youth, robust and good-looking. He was a little over 6 feet in height and, literally, towered over most of his subjects. It was written that 'when he moves the ground shakes under him'. He excelled in wrestling and archery, hawking and jousting. Nine months after the coronation, he organized a tournament in which the feats of chivalry could be celebrated. He rode out in disguise, but his identity was soon discovered. He had read Malory as well as Aquinas, and knew well enough that a good king was a brave and aggressive king. You had to strike down your opponent with a lance or sword. You must not hesitate or draw back. It was a question of honour. The joust offered a taste of warfare, also, and the new king surrounded himself with young lords who enjoyed a good fight. The noblemen of England were eager to stiffen the sinews and summon up the blood.
When he was not master of the joust, he was leader of the hunt. He spoke of his hunting expeditions for days afterwards, and he would eventually own a stable of 200 horses. Hunting was, and still is, the sport of kings. It was a form of war against an enemy, a battleground upon which speed and accuracy were essential. Henry would call out 'Holla! Holla! So boy! There boy!' When the stag was down, he would slit its throat and cut open its belly before thrusting his hands into its entrails; he would then daub his companions with its blood.
Older and more sedate men were also by his side. These were the royal councillors, the majority of whom had served under the previous king. The archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, remained as chancellor. The bishop of Winchester, Richard Foxe, continued to serve as lord privy seal. The other senior bishops – of Durham, of Rochester and of Norwich – were also in place. The young king had to be advised and guided if the kingdom were to continue on its settled course. Whether he would accept that advice, and follow that guidance, was another matter.
The surviving members of the House of York were restored to favour, after they had endured the indifference and even hostility of the previous king. Henry VII had identified himself as the Lancastrian claimant to the throne. Even though he had married Elizabeth of York after his coronation, he was suspicious and resentful of the rival royal family. The essential unity of the realm was now being proclaimed after the dynastic struggles of the previous century.
The older councillors now took the opportunity of destroying some of the 'new men' whom Henry VII had promoted. His two most trusted advisers, or confidential clerks, were arrested and imprisoned. Sir Richard Empson and Sir Edmund Dudley had been associated with the previous king's financial exactions, but they were in general resented and distrusted by the bishops and older nobility. They were charged with the unlikely crime of 'constructive treason' against the young king, and were duly executed. It is not at all clear that Henry played any part in what was essentially judicial murder, but his formal approval was still necessary. He would employ the same methods, for removing his enemies, in another period of his reign.
Henry was in any case of uncertain temper. He had the disposition of a king. He could be generous and magnanimous, but he was also self-willed and capricious. The Spanish ambassador had intimated to his master that 'speaking frankly, the prince is not considered to be a genial person'. The French ambassador, at a later date, revealed that he could not enter the king's presence without fear of personal violence.
An early outbreak of royal temper is suggestive. In the summer of 1509 a letter arrived from the French king, Louis XII, in reply to one purportedly sent by Henry in which the new king had requested peace and friendship. But Henry had not written it. It had been sent by the king's council in his name. The youthful monarch then grew furious. 'Who wrote this letter?' he demanded. 'I ask peace of the king of France, who dare not look me in the face, still less make war on me!' His pride had been touched. He looked upon France as an ancient enemy. Only Calais remained of the dominion that the English kings had once enjoyed across the Channel. Henry was eager to claim back his ancient rights and, from the time of his coronation, he looked upon France as a prize to be taken. War was not only a pleasure; it was a dynastic duty.
Yet the pleasures of peace were still to be tasted. He had inherited a tranquil kingdom, as well as the store of treasure that his father had amassed. Henry VII bequeathed to him something in excess of £1,250,000, which may plausibly be translated to a contemporary fortune of approximately £380,000,000. It would soon all be dissipated, if not exactly squandered. It was rumoured that the young king was spending too much time on sports and entertainments, and was as a result neglecting the business of the realm. This need not be taken at face value. As the letter to the French king demonstrated, the learned bishops preferred their master to stay away from their serious deliberations.
There were in any case more immediate concerns. Katherine of Aragon had at the end of January 1510 gone into painful labour. The result was a girl, stillborn. Yet Katherine remained evidently pregnant with another child, and the preparations for a royal birth were continued. They were unnecessary. The swelling of her belly subsided, caused by infection rather than fruitfulness. It was announced that the queen had suffered a miscarriage, but it was rumoured that she was perhaps infertile. No greater doom could be delivered upon an English queen. She disproved the rumours when she gave birth to a son on the first day of 1511, but the infant died two months later. Katherine may have been deemed to be unlucky, but the king would eventually suspect something much worse than misfortune.
Henry had already strayed from the marriage bed. While Katherine was enduring the strains of her phantom pregnancy in the early months of 1510, he took comfort from the attentions of Anne Stafford. She was one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, and was already married. She was also a sister of the duke of Buckingham, and this great lord was sensitive of his family's honour. Anne Stafford was sent to a nunnery, and Buckingham removed himself from court after an angry confrontation with the king. Katherine of Aragon was apprised of the affair and, naturally enough, took Buckingham's part. She had been shamed by her husband's infidelity with one of her own servants. The household was already full of deception and division. Other royal liaisons may have gone unrecorded. Mistress Amadas, the wife of the court goldsmith, later announced the fact that the king had come secretly to her in a Thames Street house owned by one of his principal courtiers.
Yet all sins of lust could be absolved. In the early days of 1511 Henry went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. It was reported that he trod, barefoot and in secret, along the pilgrims' road in order to pray for the life of his struggling infant boy. In the summer of the same year he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Master John Schorne at North Marston in Buckinghamshire. Master Schorne was the rector of that village who had acquired a reputation for saintliness and whose shrine became a centre of miraculous healing. He was said to have conjured the devil into a boot.
In all matters of faith, therefore, Henry was a loyal son of the Church. In that respect, at least, he resembled the overwhelming majority of his subjects. The Venetian ambassador reported that 'they all attend Mass every day and say many paternosters in public – the women carrying long rosaries in their hands'. At the beginning of Henry's reign the Catholic Church in England was flourishing. It had recovered its vigour and purpose. In the south-west, for example, there was a rapid increase in church building and reconstruction. More attention was paid to the standards of preaching. Where before the congregation knelt on rush-covered floors, benches were now being set up in front of the pulpits.
It was the Church of ancient custom and of traditional ceremony. On Good Friday, for example, the 'creeping to the cross' took place. The crucifix was veiled and held up behind the high altar by two priests while the responses to the versicles were chanted; it was then uncovered and placed on the third step in front of the altar, to which the clergy now would crawl on their hands and knees before kissing it. Hymns were sung as the crucifix was then carried down to the congregation, who would genuflect before it and kiss it. The crucifix was then wreathed in linen and placed in a 'sepulchre' until it re-emerged in triumph on the morning of Easter Sunday. This was an age of carols and of holy days, of relics and pilgrimages and miracles.
The old faith was established upon communal ritual as much as theology. The defining moment of devotion was the miracle of transubstantiation at the Mass, when the bread and wine were transformed into the body and blood of Christ. The religious life was nourished by the sacraments, which were in turn administered by a duly ordained body of priests who owed their primary allegiance to the pope. The faithful were obliged to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days, to fast on appointed days, to make confession and receive communion at least once a year. The most powerful of all beliefs was that in purgatory, whereby the living made intercession for the souls of the dead to bring a quicker end to their suffering; the old Church itself represented the communion of the living and the dead.
The saints were powerful intercessors, too, and were venerated as guardians and benefactors. St Barbara protected her votaries against thunder and lightning, and St Gertrude kept away the mice and the rats; St Dorothy protected herbs, while St Apolline healed the toothache; St Nicholas saved the faithful from drowning, while St Anthony guarded the swine. The supreme intercessor was the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, whose image was to be found everywhere surrounded by candles and incense.
The churches were therefore filled with images and lights. Those of London, for example, were treasure-chests of silver candlesticks and censers, silver crucifixes and chalices and patens. The high altar and the rood screen, separating the priest from the congregation, were miracles of art and workmanship. Images of Jesus and of the Holy Virgin, of patron saints and local saints, adorned every available space. They wore coronets and necklaces of precious stones; rings were set upon their fingers and they were clothed in garments of gold. Some churches even exhibited the horns of unicorns or the eggs of ostriches in order to elicit admiration.
The human representatives of the Church were perhaps more frail. Yet the condition of the clergy was sound, as far as the laws of human nature allowed. Incompetent and foolish priests could be found, of course, but there was no general debasement or corruption of the clerical office. More men and women were now in religious orders than at any time in the previous century, and after the invention of printing came a great flood of devotional literature. In the years between 1490 and 1530, some twenty-eight editions of the Hours of the Blessed Virgin were issued. The religious guilds, set up to collect money for charity and to pray for the souls of the dead, had never been so popular; they were the institutional aspect of the religious community.
There were eager reformers, of course, who wished for a revival of the Christian spirit buried beneath the golden carapace of ritual and traditional devotion. It is in fact a measure of the health of the Church at the beginning of the sixteenth century that such fervent voices were heard everywhere. In the winter of 1511 John Colet stepped into the pulpit, at his own cathedral church of St Paul's in London, and preached of religious reform to the senior clergy of the realm. He repeated his theme to a convocation of clergy in the chapter-house of Canterbury. 'Never', he said, 'did the state of the Church more need your endeavours.' It was time for 'the reformation of ecclesiastical affairs'. The word had been spoken, but the deed was unthinkable. What Colet meant by 'reformation' was a rise in the quality and therefore the renown of the priesthood.
He despised some of the more primitive superstitions of the Catholic people, such as the veneration of relics and the use of prayer as a magical charm, but he had no doubt on the principles of faith and the tenets of theology. On these matters the Church was resolute. In May 1511 six men and four women, from Tenterden in Kent, were denounced as heretics for claiming among other things that the sacrament of the altar was not the body of Christ but merely material bread. They were forced to abjure their doctrines, and were condemned to wear the badge of a faggot in flames for the rest of their lives. Two men were burned, however, for the crime of being 'relapsed' heretics; they had repented, but then had taken up their old opinions once more. The Latin secretary to Henry, an Italian cleric known as Ammonius, wrote with some exaggeration that 'I do not wonder that the price of faggots has gone up, for many heretics furnish a daily holocaust, and yet more spring up to take their place'.
Excerpted from Tudors by Peter Ackroyd. Copyright © 2012 Peter Ackroyd. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
List of illustrations vii
1. Hallelujah 1
2. All in scarlet 14
3. Heretic! 25
4. The woes of marriage 34
5. Into court 46
6. Old authentic histories 62
7. The king's pleasure 78
8. A little neck 91
9. The great revolt 105
10. The confiscation 118
11. The old fashion 129
12. The body of Christ 139
13. The fall 145
14. War games 157
15. A family portrait 168
16. The last days 176
17. The breaking of the altars 184
18. Have at all papists! 193
19. The barns of Crediton 206
20. The lord of misrule 222
21. The nine-day queen 235
22. In the ascendant 245
23. Faith of our fathers 262
24. An age of anxiety 272
25. Nunc Dimittis 281
26. A virgin queen 287
27. Two queens 297
28. The thirty-nine steps 311
29. The rivals 325
30. The rites of spring 337
31. Plots and factions 354
32. The revels now are ended 371
33. The frog 384
34. The great plot 400
35. The dead cannot bite 418
36. Armada 428
37. Repent! Repent! 436
38. The setting sun 444
39. A disobedient servant 454
40. The end of days 463
41. Reformation 467
Further reading 473