G. J. Meyer, The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty (New York: Bantam, 2011) $18, 623 pp., Paper.
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
Pope Benedict XVI would have created quite the brouhaha during his trip to Great Britain in September 2010 had he demanded return of the monasteries and other properties stolen from the Church in the sixteenth century.
In that century, land was the primary source of wealth and political power. At the dawn of that century, the Church, through its cathedrals, parishes, hospitals, colleges, monasteries, and other embodiments, owned perhaps one-third of the acreage in England, more even than the Crown. Much of the Church’s income was used for aid to the needy, care of the sick, help for travelers, provision against poor harvest, and education.
In 1528, while King Henry VIII, the second Tudor monarch, was embroiled in his “great matter,” trying to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Argon, Cardinal Wolsey obtained papal permission to suppress – or shut – twenty-nine small monasteries and to devote their incomes to endowment of a college at Oxford. To implement the closure and diversion of funds, Wolsey chose Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer. When Wolsey fell out of favor with the king soon thereafter, Cromwell opined that the cardinal’s agreement with the pope violated English law; ergo, the revenues of the suppressed monasteries inexplicably belonged to the Crown.
In the mid-1530s, emboldened by Henry VIII’s domination of the church in England, Cromwell launched visitations of the monasteries, harassing them and their administrators. “Money fell into his coffers from terrified abbeys and priories hoping to buy their way out of destruction, from people eager to buy their way into the leadership of abbeys and priories and thereby gain control of their assets, and from his own agents as they moved across the country shaking down their victims and taking care to send their master a share of the booty,” writes G. J. Meyer in The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty. In March 1536, Parliament authorized the seizure and closing of all smaller monasteries, with Cromwell claiming their property and income for the Crown while diverting some of the windfall into his and his henchmen’s own hands.
By April fat trunks were being hauled into London filled with gold and silver plate, jewelry, and other treasures accumulated by the monasteries over the centuries. With them came money from the sale of church bells, lead stripped from the roofs of monastic buildings, and livestock, furnishings, and equipment. Some of the confiscated land was sold – enough to bring in £30,000 – and what was not sold generated tens of thousands of pounds in annual rents. The longer the confiscations continued, the smaller the possibility of their ever being reversed or even stopped from going further. The money was spent almost as quickly as it flooded in – so quickly that any attempt to restore the monasteries to what they had been before the suppression would have meant financial ruin for the Crown. Nor would those involved in the work of the suppression … ever be willing to part with what they were skimming off for themselves.
Thousands of people were left to shift for themselves as monks, nuns, and their servants, dependents, and tenants were displaced. “A new kind of pauperism was being created across England as a direct consequence of the actions of the king. … It would plague the reigns of Henry’s children.”
Once the smaller monasteries were closed, the Crown turned to the larger, richer ones. Though Parliament had not passed a law permitting confiscation of their assets, most of those houses, aware of the monks the Crown had already killed and that a similar fate awaited them if they balked, did not resist. Thus their lands, buildings, and accumulated treasures became the Crown’s. In May, 1539 Parliament’s passage of the Second Act of Dissolution
declared all the church property confiscated since 1536 (when the smaller houses were condemned) and all church property to be confiscated in the future to be lawfully the property of the Crown. This statute remedied an awkward legal flaw in the surrenders signed by the leaders of the larger houses: those leaders were not the owners of the monasteries they headed and had no right to give them away. It speeded the completion of the greatest redistribution of English land and wealth since the Norman Conquest in 1066. The whole suppression worked to the direct and immediate advantage of the king, who rather abruptly became richer than any other monarch in Christendom. By the spring of 1540 not a single monastic establishment remained in existence in England or Wales. Hundreds if not thousands of the monks and nuns expelled from them had become itinerant beggars, wandering from village to village in search of work or charity. The number of England’s schools, hospitals, and institutions for the care of the aged and indigent had undergone an abrupt collapse from which it would not recover for centuries.
Henry also ordered the destruction of the shrines of England, most famously Thomas Becket’s tomb at Canterbury, and delivery of their treasures to the Crown – twenty-four wagonloads, along with two chests laden with jewels, from Becket’s tomb alone.
Under Henry VIII, “the institutions of government became tools of the plunderers, and their aim, when it was not to pull in still more plunder, was to make sure that no one threatened the bounty that Henry’s revolution had funneled to them.” Upon Henry’s death, those closest to him in his last days claimed new titles and riches for themselves, declaring them “unfulfilled gifts” Henry would have bestowed if he had lived.
His son Edward, a child of nine who was tutored to be stridently evangelical and anti-Catholic, succeeded Henry. The king’s position as supreme head of the church “now meant much more than separation from Rome. Now it was a tool to be used in the destruction of almost everything that remained of the old religion.” By statute, endowments of chantries (small chapels established for offering prayers for the dead) and assets of guilds that provided burial insurance and funded schools and charitable activities were transferred to the Crown. (Also by statute, anyone found guilty of vagrancy could be branded and enslaved.) Then the Crown confiscated most endowments of the dioceses.
Edward VI died in his mid-teens. The next Tudor, Catherine of Aragon’s Roman Catholic daughter Mary, raised an army to claim the throne, convinced she must restore the true faith to England. But she avoided one area: “there was no possibility of returning” the land stolen from the Church; “any move in that direction would spark a reaction so violent as to wreck any possibility of progress on other fronts.” Pope Julius II agreed. “Parliament, both of its houses dominated by exactly the kinds of men who had prospered mightily from the dispersion of the church land, was relieved to find that Mary was doing nothing about the subject.” Indeed, Parliament “asked the Crown to petition … for the restoration of the ancient connection to Rome. Yet, again great care was taken, first by Parliament in its entreaty and then by the queen … to make clear that there could be no question of restoring the church’s lost property; obviously this remained an issue of the most extreme sensitivity.” The plunderers kept their booty but the Roman Catholic Church reclaimed England. “It was all quite astonishing. The schism, the Reformation, had been reversed with almost no resistance and no shedding of blood.”
Soon after the formal reunion with Rome, Paul IV became pope. He quickly issued a general condemnation of the confiscation of Church property; but, though combative, he also declared that the houses suppressed by Henry VIII no longer existed and that new houses established under Mary had no claim to property taken from the suppressed houses, thus supporting Mary’s position that there would not be a restoration of land taken from the Church.
Mary died at 42 after reigning only five years. “The English Counter-Reformation was dead too.” Her successor, Elizabeth, the last Tudor, was militantly Protestant. For ten years, though, she was content to inconvenience Catholics, hoping their numbers would whither. But when Pope Pius V excommunicated her in the hope of securing the throne for Mary, Queen of Scots, through whom he believed England would again be restored to the Church, “intense persecution followed swiftly.” The issue of restoration of Church property was far from anyone’s mind. Indeed, seizing Catholic property through piracy directed at Spanish ships became England’s officially denied policy. And recusant Roman Catholics in England were fined “a sum so impossible for most subjects as to be no different from confiscation.”
Over time the plunderers covered their booty with a veneer of civility. “If it took two centuries to turn the descendants of looters and speculators into the ladies and gentlemen of Jane Austen’s novels,” writes Meyer, “for the lucky few the transformation was as agreeable as it was prolonged.”
The Tudors not only robbed the Church of its property. Henry, Edward, and Elizabeth also robbed England of its Catholic faith. When Benedict XVI visited England, he, like his predecessors Julius II and Paul IV, forewent any attempt to reclaim the property stolen from the Church. Instead, he went in search of something more precious: souls. And he was rewarded with a subsequent infusion of Anglicans – including Anglican bishops – into the Church.
The Tudors adopts neither a particularly Catholic perspective nor a particularly anti-Catholic perspective to tell the story of the family of monarchs that ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Instead, it asks the reader to put aside modern prejudices so as to understand sixteenth century England: “Perhaps the most alien thing about England of the sixteenth century, from a twenty-first-century perspective, is the extent to which almost the whole population believed – really believed – what the church taught,” writes Meyer. “Few things could be more foreign to the sensibilities of the world we live in now.”
G. J Meyer’s The Tudors: The Complete Story of England’s Most Notorious Dynasty is a vivid retelling of an era that still fascinates, some four hundred years after its end. The stakes are high: souls, riches, the faith of a nation, national greatness, and the unity of Christendom. The characters are striking: Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Cromwell, Cranmer, Rich, Wolsey, More, Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth, Drake, Cecil, Walsingham, Campion, Philip II, and many more. And the methods are often brutal: hanging, drawing, and quartering, rape, torture, incarceration without charges, and establishment of a spy system and police state.
The Tudors is a very readable popular history that revels in dispelling myths.
Was Henry VIII an insatiable devourer of women? Not so. Anne Boleyn mocked his performance in bed, and he probably was incapable of consummating more than half of his marriages.
Was Elizabeth “part saint and part goddess”? Hardly. “Elizabeth, toward the end of her reign, was not the Gloriana of legend but a haggard, evil-tempered and pathetic crone, easy prey for any young courtier willing to praise her nonexistent beauty and profess undying love.”
Was the Tudor era, particularly the Elizabethan age, England’s zenith, “home of a uniquely free, prosperous, and happy people”? Nope. “In fact, what most of the people of England got from the Tudors was disruption, oppression, loss, and pain. … In 1590, a century after the first Tudor capture of the throne, England’s standard of living was lower than it had been 250 years before.”
Did Henry VIII liberate the English, who had been chafing under the rule of the oppressive Church of Rome?
Anyone relying on movies and television for a depiction of England’s bishops and abbots before the Reformation could come to no other conclusion than that their lives were devoted to oppression and denial, to forcing obedience to the most rigid orthodoxy on an unwilling but impotent people and crushing any departure from discredited ways of thinking. But it becomes clear, when one looks closely, that life in England before the 1530s could not have felt like that at all – certainly not for the vast majority of people. … The documentary record – even the archaeological record – suggests that the people of England were strongly attached to their church in Henry VIII’s time. … England was not intensely anticlerical or anything of the kind. … England was not simply formally Catholic, affiliated officially with Rome; it was a deeply Catholic culture.
Of course, this debunking of mythology raises obvious questions. Why did such myths arise? Why do they persist?
“Though there was no way to deny his awfulness, throughout the English-speaking (and Protestant) world it remained impossible to condemn him outright,” the book explains, referring to Henry VIII; “to do so would be to bring into question the English Reformation and – what continued to matter most – the legitimacy of the people who now owned and governed the empire.”
This of course leads to the Whig theory of history, “according to which everything that had happened was to be celebrated because all of it was part of the (divinely ordained?) process by which England had ascended inexorably to greatness. Membership in this school required believing that the English were fortunate – and had also always been grateful, most of them – to be rid of everything the Tudors had cast aside.”
Or to put it differently, when plunders write history, they create a myth of their own greatness, celebrating those who championed and facilitated their plundering while castigating those they robbed.
This review was published in the June 2011 issue of Culture Wars.
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