This essay investigates the question “What were the consequences of Henry VIII’s political and social decisions during his reign?”
This investigation makes use of a range of sources: The first source is a book edited by Diarmaid MacCulloch called The Reign of Henry VIII: Politics, Policy and Piety which is composed of chapters written by different authors who analyse the reign of Henry VIII. England Under The Tudors by G.R. Elton who describes the significant changes during the reign of the Tudors, beginning with Henry VII’s reign until the death of Elizabeth I. Education And Society in Tudor England by Joan Simon who discusses the social changes in Tudor England and the educational developments. A review by Norman Jones of a book entitled The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church by G. W. Bernard. It provides a brief explanation of the claims and conclusions made by the author of the book. This investigation also uses other books that all go into detail of the significant events of Henry VIII’s life, and a number of scholarly journals and websites.
The investigation is structured in the following manner: abstract, introduction, analysis which is divided into two main sections: political decisions made during the reign of Henry VIII and social decisions made during the reign of Henry VIII. A conclusion which will be followed and finally, the bibliography.
The conclusion of this investigation is that Henry VIII’s reign was one which consisted of his tyranny, selfishness and mass executions; he also led England to a struggling economic state. Although there were some attempts to improve the conditions, only a minority was effective.
The start of a new reign resembled a new beginning for the English. The kingship of Henry VIII was no exception, and the people looked forward to his becoming the King of England. He began his reign as a handsome, active young man, and ended it as an arguably overweight, unstable dictator, who was subject to a great controversy (Starkey 125-130).
Henry VIII was one of the most famous representatives of the Tudor dynasty and of the most known Kings of England. As a result, he has been studied by well known historians such Suzannah Lipscomb. One of the most famous events that took place under his reign was the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church (Elton 163). It is also widely known that he had six wives (Bradley 3); he beheaded two of them, divorced one of them; another one died due to a natural cause, and the last one outlived her husband. However, many tend not to look beyond this and fail to examine the other aspects of his reign (Matusiak 5). How successful was he as a leader? What were the consequences to his decisions? It is important to consider whether he truly deserves the reputation of a tyrant, and to uncover the truth behind the decisions made in his reign.
This issue is still relevant today, for the reign of Henry VIII was extremely influential. England would not have been the same had he not made such decisions as the break with Rome or establishing a permanent navy (“King Henry VIII’s Report Card” n.pag.). Indeed, his reign did bear stains of his cruelty and tyranny (Jones 269); but what did it include apart from this? Because Henry VIII is a rather controversial king, it should be interesting to examine the different perspectives on him that historians provide, and come to one’s own conclusion.
Political Decisions Made During the Reign of Henry VIII
The Tudor dynasty caused many religious changes in England (“Story of England” n.pag.). The separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church made England itself a new, independent state (Elton 160-164); it also gave Henry VIII the absolute power that he sought. This was a catalyst for the Reformation in England, leaving it a predominately Anglican nation. It is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church had been extremely powerful in England as it played a critical role in politics, thus limiting the power of the king himself (MacCulloch 159-161).
Henry VIII’s requested annulment was due to his duty to produce a legitimate male heir (Trueman, “Henry’s Divorce from Catherine” n.pag.). The king’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon lasted nearly twenty years, during which period she was pregnant six times, and yet left no living male heir; only one of her daughters survived (and later became the Queen Mary I) (Lipscomb 36). Henry VIII’s position became desperate, for he did not believe he could rely on a female to rule England because of his fear of a civil war initiated by those who would question a woman’s right to rule (Elton 100). These fears were based on past events in history, such as Henry I’s daughter Matilda’s failed attempt to seize the throne. (Elton 100)
In 1526, on Easter, Henry VIII noticed his future queen, Anne Boleyn; he requested an annulment of his previous marriage in 1527 (Lipscomb 37). This was due to the fact that Henry VIII wanted to take Anne Boleyn as his mistress, but she refused to start a relationship before marriage (Lipscomb 37). Only the Pope could grant an annulment, and if he had done so, it would be very uncommon, for the Church believed in marriage for life; this applied to all Catholics, even to the members of royal families. In order to explain his point, Henry VIII claimed that he had went against God in marrying his dead brother’s wife, regardless of the Pope giving Henry VIII and Catherine his blessing, which is why he had no heir (Trueman, “Henry’s Divorce from Catherine” n.pag.). Whether or not Henry VIII did believe in his argument, is still debatable, for it was widely known that the King was very infatuated with Anne Boleyn at the time, and was quite determined to make her his queen. (Lipscomb 37)
The king’s declaration of authority over the English Church shifted the legal system of England. Henry VIII declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church, thus eliminating the Pope’s authority over England (Jones 268-269). Only God was considered to be the Supreme and Almighty Legislator, and, prior to the reform of Henry VIII, the Pope had been supposed to be God’s representative.
Henry VIII used the absolute power he obtained to eliminate opposition, even from his once trusted subjects, Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher (Hatt 128). To ensure their loyalty to the king, they were ordered to swear the Oath of Supremacy. It demanded the recognition of the king’s supremacy over the papacy. The new status of the King made Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, the only heir to the throne, and declared his first daughter, Mary I, illegitimate (Elton 139). The refusal of More and Fisher to swear the Oath of Supremacy resulted in their banishment to the Tower of London, and, ultimately, to their deaths (Elton 139). Under the Treasons Act of 1534, More and Fisher were executed in the later months (Elton 139). This made it evident that the king aimed to control all intellectual activities in England and wanted his advisors to support him (Hatt 127). It is evident that on the whole, Henry VIII aimed to strengthen the power of the crown and to secure the Tudor dynasty’s rule in England. Other significant changes made during his reign were also aimed at increasing his own power and at ensuring that he would have little to no opposition (Jones 270).
Another important outcome of Henry VIII’s kingship was related to naval affairs. At the beginning of the reign of Henry VIII, there were five royal warships. By his death, the English navy consisted of approximately fifty ships (“BBC History” n.pag.). The king also equipped numerous ships with the latest weapons, including the Mary Rose (even though it sank in 1545) and built Britain’s first naval dock (“BBC History” n.pag.). Thus, having established a permanent and powerful navy, Henry VIII became known as the “father of the Royal Navy.” (“BBC History” n.pag.). The naval forces became a major source of power and a considerable advantage for England in the future (“King Henry VIII’s Report Card” n.pag.).
Social Decisions Made During the Reign of Henry VIII
One of the social decisions made by the parliament of England was an act stating that every farmer must use approximately 1/240 of their land to grow hemp (more specifically, 1/4 of an acre per every 60 acres of land) (A.M. Hannay “Control of Productions of Agricultural Products By Government” 17-18) so that they could provide hemp for the navy. The government wanted to be independent of the monasteries, which, in fact, had been the only suppliers of hemp prior to the government’s decision (Elton 260).
After the break with Rome, Henry VIII began the dissolution of monasteries (Simon 166). The monasteries were the wealthiest institutions in England and Wales at the time. Although Henry VIII inherited a large sum of money from his late father, he spent a considerable amount on leisure and war expenses. In 1536, an act related to monasteries was passed; according to it, the monasteries the incomes of which were lower than a certain threshold were to be closed. As a result, approximately 300 monasteries, the majority, were shut down, and only 67 remained open (Sommerville n.pag.).
The decisions made during Reformation in England affected the social conditions of the people (Sommerville n.pag.). The unstable economy and the new policy bringing change made it clear the situation of an average person would not improve. In the first forty years of the 16th century, there was a sharp rise in prices; these increased by 50 percent (Simon 168). This affected landlords, because the nobles, religious organizations and the crown would still get a fixed income (Simon 168).
These factors also affected the educational facilities. Education underwent changes under the reign of Henry VIII (Simon 179); however, none of these changes were straightforward. During the crucial steps of the reformation, education was required in order to divert the people from the Catholicism (Simon 182-185). The Ten Articles urged to teach and preach in English; the members of the clergy were to educate themselves so as to be able to perform their duties. (‘Henry VIII’ n.pag.).
Also, the 1530’s was the decade when the people of England began to feel inflation (Rathbone 2). Prices started to rise; a quarter of wheat cost six shillings in 1500, but nearly ten shillings in 1540 (Rathbone 2). Wages fell, and more citizens began to live in poverty (Rathbone 2). This was also a result of the previously mentioned dissolution of monasteries; the eviction of thousands of monks only increased the number of beggars (Rathbone 2). Prior to 1530-1531, poverty was considered a vice; because of this, whipping was a punishment for vagabonds (Brodie 117-118).
In addition, it is evident that there were other efforts to improve the social conditions in the name of Henry VIII in Tudor England. It is important to note, however, that the attempts to carry out these reforms were made during the time when Thomas Cromwell was the Chief Minister (Jones 269; MacCulloch 37). Firstly, there was an attempt to prevent rural depopulation by limiting the number of sheep that people could own (Sommerville n.pag.). Secondly, the government aimed to improve the quality of cloth, especially because there was a 25% increase in the export of cloth in 1533-1534 (Sommerville n.pag.).
Overall sociopolitical effects of Henry VIII’s reign.
As one may infer from what has been mentioned earlier, Henry VIII can hardly be referred to as a monarch that had a clear vision of what would be the long-term effects of many of his clearly controversial religious and political decisions. The reason for this is apparent – Henry VIII used to be a highly emotional person, naturally tempted to react impulsively to different challenges. The King’s life-long tendency of switching informal alliances between the Catholics and Protestants (which made him equally disrespected by both) speaks volumes in this respect. Henry VIII’s treatment of his many wives also does not help very much when it comes to trying to present him as a responsible head of a state. At the same time, however, Henry VIII was able to leave a strong mark in the history of Britain. The validity of this claim can be illustrated regarding the fact that even today, many historians continue to suggest that he, in fact, established a number of the fully objective social, economic and political preconditions for the country to be able to become the world’s dominant ‘superpower’. Partially, this explains why despite Henry VIII’s reputation of a tyrant, these historians do regard this particular King as someone who contributed rather substantially towards making it possible for England to exert an ever greater influence on the geopolitical dynamics in Europe at the time (Freeman 142). In this regard, the main impacts of Henry VIII’s sociopolitical decisions can be outlined as follows:
By allowing the confiscation of Church land and the dissolution of monasteries, on one hand, and by exhausting the state treasury, on the other, Henry VIII had set in motion the process that will be later referred to as ‘enclosure’. As a result, a considerable share of peasants in the countryside ended up being deprived of their right to use the communal land to grow crops – something that effectively turned them into beggars. The sheer wickedness of this development will become especially apparent when assessed in conjunction with the King’s utterly cruel ‘anti-beggar’ policies. At the same time, however, the influx of landless peasants into England’s major towns, which continued to gain a momentum well after Henry VIII’s death, resulted in bringing about the prerequisites for the creation of the ‘proletariat’ social class (as defined by Marx) in Britain during the 18th-19th centuries. In its turn, this development made possible the outbreak of the Industrial Revolution in Britain through the early 18th century. In this respect, a certain parallel can be drawn between Henry VIII and Stalin – they both enjoyed the dubious fame of bloody tyrants, and yet they did contribute enormously towards setting Britain and Russia on the path of industrialization.
Henry VIII produced a powerful blow to the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church as the organization that legitimizes or delegitimizes one’s monarchic rule and formulates the sociocultural/religious discourse in each individual country (Sommerville 125). After all, the King’s uncompromising stance with respect his marital rights and the consequential developments showed to the whole Europe that the Catholic Church is not as powerful as it would like everybody to believe. It is understood that this had a strong boosting effect on the cause of Protestantism in Europe. Regarding the national implications of the 1534 Act of Supremacy, the most notable of them had to do with the considerable ‘relaxation’ of the intellectual domain in England at the time, which was used to be overwhelmingly controlled by the Catholic clergy. This, of course, contributed to the development of science and fine arts – something that came in particular note to everybody during the Elizabethan era. Therefore, there is indeed a certain rationale in referring to Henry VIII as probably the earliest precursor of the Industrial Revolution.
The validity of the previous claim can be illustrated regarding Henry VIII’s role in promoting literacy throughout the country. It goes without saying, of course, that Henry VIII never acted consciously in this respect. Having been endowed with the essentially feudal mentality, he was naturally inclined to prioritize his personal agenda above that of his subjects. Nevertheless, the Act of Supremacy made it legal translating the Bible from Latin into secular English – the development that provided churchgoers with the powerful incentive to view one’s ability to write and read as a thoroughly practical skill. This was one of the major driving factors behind the rapid rise in the number of universities in England that took place in the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth. There was also an inherent quality to the literacy-promoting effect of Henry VIII’s Reformation – because of the King’s legally backed religious reform; England became the first de facto secular country in Europe. This made possible the formulation of the notion of ‘nationhood’ (as we know it today) during the 17th century.
By the time Henry VIII assumed the throne, English society was thoroughly unified, in the religious sense of this word (most people were Catholics). The end of the King’s reign, however, was marked by the gaping split between the country’s Catholics and Protestants. As of 1547, England stood on the brink of a civil war, and the religious tensions within the society continued to intensify throughout the reigns of Queen Mary and Queen Elisabeth. In light of what has been said earlier, there can be only a few doubts as to the fact that Henry VIII can be held directly responsible for this. Having been a practically minded individual, the King used to downplay the role of religion within the society – something that proved to be his major undoing. What appears especially ironic, in this regard, is that the Church’s Anglican Reformation was undertaken to put Henry VIII in the position of being able to give it yet another try with securing a male heir, which in turn was supposed to ensure the continual stability of the state. However, by the time of Henry VIII’s death, there were three equally eligible heirs to the throne – Mary, Edward, and Elizabeth. Given the fact that Mary was a Catholic and Edward and Elizabeth were Protestant, this complicated the whole situation even further. Thus, the Reformation’s actual outcome proved detrimental to the original set of the King’s considerations that prompted him to proceed to defy the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Henry VIII was known for his stubbornness and his obsession with experiencing sensual pleasures of different sorts. The first of the King’s mental qualities cost England’s economy a great deal of damage – all due to Henry VIII’s persistence with trying to gain the upper hand while confronting France and Spain militarily during the 1512-1513 war. England’s war effort proved an impossible burden to the budget, which in turn prompted Henry VIII to demand from the Parliament to reduce the amount of silver in coins. This, in turn, resulted in the continual rise of prices for goods and services throughout the entirety of the King’s reign – hence, naturally plunging more and more people into poverty. This partially explains why Henry VIII has been traditionally considered one of the most hated English monarchs.
Henry VIII’s reign resulted in desacralizing the notions of law and order in England. This simply could not be otherwise, because an important part of the King’s policy towards monasteries was the enactment of royal edicts that entitled the crown officials to confiscate land, property, and money from the ‘disloyal’ clergymen. Given the fact that there were no legal criteria for defining the measure of loyalty in every particular Catholic bishop, this meant that the judicial decisions concerning these individuals were strongly biased. In fact, the mentioned earlier dissolution of monasteries, made possible by the 1534 Act, used be seen by people as having been nothing short of a daylight robbery (Haigh 138-145). This provides yet additional explanation as to why by the end of Henry VIII’s reign most people in the country have grown utterly resentful of their king. Apparently, along with having succeeded in ridding England of the intellectually oppressive influence of the Catholic Church, Henry VIII sawed the actual seeds of the English Civil War (1642–1651).
Thus, it indeed does make much sense for historians to hold often conflicting views on the significance of Henry VIII’s monarchic rule – the very ambivalence of the outlined impacts of the King’s sociopolitical decisions predetermined for this to be the case. Nevertheless, as time goes on, more and more historians subscribe to the idea that there were multiple dimensions to how Henry VIII used to handle foreign and domestic affairs, which is why it is rather inappropriate referring to him in either the strongly negative or positive terms. This idea does appear thoroughly rational. After all, people are naturally predisposed to assess the significance of just about every sociopolitical event through the lenses of the currently dominant sociocultural discourse, which renders their judgments in this regard highly subjective. What this means is that when it comes to expounding on the sociopolitical legacy of Henry VIII, one must consider what used to account for the whole set of different societal circumstances in England through the first half of the 16th century.
This paper was aimed at finding out the consequences of Henry VIII’s political and social decisions. Henry VIII was extremely successful, for the creation of a separate Church increased the degree of English independence and elevated the status of the country, obtaining more power for the English Crown (Elton 162-164). Also, as was mentioned before, the establishment of a permanent navy made England more powerful in a military sense, even though this led to major economic problems in England (“King Henry VIII’s Report Card” n.pag.).
Still, it is important to note that the king often spent considerable amounts of money on military affairs, for he constantly participated in wars. He also spent much money to maintain his household, thus exhausting the royal treasury, which was the main source of finance for the kingdom at the time. The conditions of most English people continued to worsen. Nevertheless, the unexpected Act of 1535-1536, which was aimed at providing work for the jobless instead of simply punishing people for being poor and forcing the unemployed to choose between starving to death or being punished for beggary, in spite of its lack of success, was clearly a positive step, even though it may not have been dictated by humanistic motives.
Therefore, it should be stressed that the reign of Henry VIII was full of controversies, and the problems with its assessment appear to be hard to avoid. The social consequences of his rule remain controversial, for, despite some positive results, the actions of the king led to a difficult economic situation in the country, as well as to a number of other significant problems in England.
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