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1534: Henry VIII declares his ‘empire’

Part eleven in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1500–1549. Henry VIII's new vision of kingship carried with it lofty ambitions of controlling the British Isles from Westminster, says john guy – but neighbouring nations weren't keen on the idea

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497–1543). (Photo by: PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)
Published: December 27, 2021 at 7:11 am
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Few events in England have rippled out to create a tsunami affecting the whole of the British Isles as much as those of 1534. In this year Henry VIII, who had divorced Katherine of Aragon and married Anne Boleyn, completed his break with the Pope by getting Parliament to acknowledge him as Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England. This meant that Henry had the right to appoint the bishops, vet the articles of faith, and impose his will on the monasteries, all of which he did. To enforce his new powers, Henry revised and extended the treason law. Anyone disputing the royal supremacy, even by words alone, would be put on trial. To winkle out opposition, he set a test: an oath of supremacy and allegiance to the king and the “imperial Crown”, to be taken by those holding offices in Church and State, sitting in Parliament, or who were in religious orders until he dissolved them.

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Historians like to debate whether Henry ushered in a reign of terror, which misses the bigger picture. The effects weren’t just confined to England. To justify his actions, Henry announced a new theory of kingship based on Biblical and classical prototypes, giving an extra layer of meaning to the phrase the “imperial Crown”. In a nutshell, he claimed imperium (“empire”) with expansionist territorial overtones. When the Duke of Norfolk discussed this with a bemused Spanish ambassador, he cited the precedent of King Arthur, “emperor of Britain, Gaul, Germany and Thrace”. The ambassador could barely keep a straight face, saying it was a pity that Arthur hadn’t also been “emperor of Asia”.

Soon no one was laughing. In 1534, Henry began a radical overhaul of provincial government. Implemented in its initial stages by Thomas Cromwell, its focus was Wales, Ireland, the northern borderlands, and finally Scotland. All but Scotland were Tudor dominions, although more in name than in fact. The crown’s writ ran unevenly north of the river Trent and was ignored in Wales and Gaelic Ireland: the people who really mattered in the outlying regions were the territorial magnates.

Scotland was, of course, an independent kingdom ruled by the Stewart king, James V, except that he was Henry VIII’s nephew. This encouraged Henry to believe in Scotland’s dynastic dependency, awakening dreams of Anglo-Scottish union. Earlier in his reign, Henry had revived Edward I’s claim to be “superior” and “overlord” of Scotland. In and after 1534, he believed that Wales, Ireland and (increasingly) Scotland were “within the orb of the ‘imperial crown’ of England”.

No grand theory of state formation underpinned Henry’s policy. He acted mainly out of fear. The northern border was a constant problem: it was vaguely defined and thieves crossed to and fro. Local magnates such as the Cliffords, Dacres or Percies kept the peace, but held their posts almost on a hereditary basis and were regarded by some as fifth columnists. While such criticism was often unfair, Henry was listening to their enemies. He especially questioned the loyalty of Lord Dacre of Gilsland against whom charges of treason had been made.

1534 in context

The world was explored, the Reformation was imposed, wealth was redistributed (often towards the king) – and the poor got poorer
A rapid demographic upturn marked this period. After 1500, the population rose by a third, but expansion brought problems. Prices and rents soared. Landlords began to enclose common land or amalgamate smaller farms into larger ones. Investors bought land for profit, so that tenants or copyholders were displaced. Many became wage-labourers or migrated to the towns. Speculators tried to sell foodstuffs in the dearest markets. Landlords prospered, but the poor got poorer.   London dominated the cloth and luxury trades, but smaller ports shared in the boom. Cloth exports reached a peak by 1550. Wool exports declined, and trade was disrupted after 1544 by exchange-rate fluctuations: the result of coinage debasements. Bristol merchants led the search for the Northwest Passage to Asia. They reached the north-eastern shores of North America, and fished off the coast of Newfoundland.   According to tree ring data, the period was one of the warmest before 1900. Although the Thames froze over three times, that wasn’t unusual before its flow was regulated. In 1526–7 and 1535 it rained for up to three months, followed in 1536 by a severe drought.   Regional identities were strong, but the rise of printing and literacy shaped the culture. Although Celtic languages were widely spoken in 1500, no book appeared in Cornish, Irish Gaelic or Scottish Gaelic (spoken in the Highlands and Western Isles), while the first book in Welsh wasn’t printed until 1546. No printer worked in Ireland before 1551, and then only in Dublin. By 1550, the London and Edinburgh presses were turning southern English and Lowland Scots into the predominant languages.   The biggest changes resulted from the Reformation, when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic papacy, and (in England and Wales) the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In London and the south-east, Lollardy and Protestantism made inroads. In most other places the Reformation was imposed from above. Parishioners weren’t always happy with their clergy, but identified with Catholic liturgies. Each region had its own distinctive saints and shrines: government attacks on images, pilgrimages and prayers and intercessions to saints were more disruptive than the break with Rome. When Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and sold their lands, Cromwell had meant to use the money as a permanent endowment for the “imperial crown”. His policy failed, because Henry spent most of the cash. The impact was greatest in northern England, where religious houses were part of the social fabric. The redistribution of wealth and church patronage was the major change. The consequences for agriculture were fewer, as many of the monastic lands were already leased to the same gentry who bought them.   The inefficiency of Tudor government is revealed by the Dissolution in Ireland. Outside the Pale, just half of the monasteries were dissolved – the others were so poor, it wasn’t worth the effort. They lived on as beacons of the papal Catholicism that Henry VIII detested. In Scotland, James V failed to exploit the rights he extracted from the Pope to nominate to vacant prelacies beyond acquiring the assets of six abbeys for his illegitimate sons. By 1560 the wealth of the monasteries had passed to the nobles. In several cases, their descendants still own these lands.  

Paranoia sets in

A paranoid Henry came to believe that a group of nobles was plotting to overthrow him. Ireland posed the greatest threat, since outside the Pale (the area around Dublin where English rule was concentrated), the Gaelic lords were Catholics who refused to pay taxes or abandon Brehon law or customs (whereby disputes were arbitrated by Gaelic judges, the Brehons). Hitherto, their loyalty was secured by delegating royal power to a trusted magnate family: the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Kildare. By combining a sufficient following in the Pale with their power in the Gaelic community, they had performed a juggling act that had kept Ireland stable for almost 30 years.

Wales was closer and the gentry more malleable, but still dangerous. English law was disregarded in the Principality and border marcher lordships, where conflicts of jurisdiction enabled suspects to flee from one lordship to another. Jurors could easily be corrupted, and guns had been fired into the courts. Henry regarded Wales as a haven for insurgents. He was the more concerned because Welsh levies and horses formed the backbone of the royal army, and the favoured route for transporting troops to Ireland was through the (then) port of Chester. In 1534, Henry pounced on Lord Dacre and the Fitzgeralds in a pincer movement. Dacre was put on trial for treason and surprisingly found not guilty, the only nobleman to be acquitted by his peers during the reign. This didn’t deter Henry. As soon as Dacre walked free, he was re-arrested and returned to the Tower. He paid an astronomical fine of £10,000 and undertook not to go more than ten miles from London without the king’s written permission.

By then, Henry had the ninth Earl of Kildare in custody, intending to charge him with treason, but his detention sparked a spectacular revolt. Thomas Fitzgerald, Lord Offaly (“Silken Thomas”), the Earl’s heir, denounced Henry as a heretic and ordered those born in England to leave Ireland on pain of death. He threatened to ally with the Pope and the King of Spain, and claimed that 12,000 Catholic troops were on their way to Ireland. Soon the country was convulsed: Dublin Castle was besieged and the rebels went on an orgy of looting and burning, terrifying the citizens. It took a huge army until August 1535 to suppress the revolt, costing 1,500 English lives and £40,000. Henry executed the ringleaders, but their revolt had turned the struggle into something approaching a Gaelic war of independence, committing him to a costly, interventionist policy of “anglicising” Ireland. This explains why, in 1541, he altered his official style from “Lord” to “King” of Ireland. He was incensed by Irish taunts that his “regal estate” there was granted by the Pope, referring to Adrian VII’s bull Laudabiliter, which had granted lordship over Ireland to the Anglo-Normans and implied that Henry held Ireland as a papal fiefdom.

When Henry’s threats backfired

In Scotland, Henry meant to prevent James V from allying with Spain or France, if that meant Scotland continuing to support the Pope. Opponents of the divorce from Katherine of Aragon had already fled across the border. So had James Griffyd ap Powell, a silver-tongued Welsh rebel, who’d talked his way out of the Tower of London promising to buy horses in Ireland for Anne Boleyn. Instead, he fled to Scotland, where he asked James V to aid a Welsh uprising against Henry.

Henry was angry with James for allowing Scots to join the Irish revolt. In 1534, he knew he couldn’t fight on two fronts, so he tried conciliation. He admitted his nephew to the Order of the Garter and sent him a letter justifying his theory of kingship and royal supremacy. When James ignored it, Henry switched to threats, provoking James into his own “imperial” claims and marriage to a French princess in 1537. When she died, James quickly chose another, Mary of Guise. Thereafter, Henry’s determination to conquer Scotland by fair means or foul preoccupied him until his death.

In 1534, Cromwell sent a task force into Wales with orders to root out “papists” and try treasons and felonies using English law. His efforts culminated in Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 which assimilated the medieval Principality and marcher lordships into 12 shires subject to English common law, complete with parliamentary representation at Westminster and a legal system modelled on the English assizes.

Henry VIII’s vision of “imperial” kingship meant that royal ecclesiastical supremacy was closely linked to an expansionist, centralising impetus throughout the territories of the British Isles and Ireland – a highly explosive cocktail. In the longer term, the Reformation largely succeeded in England and Wales, whereas in Ireland the extirpation of Catholicism was always unrealistic. Tudor policy in Gaelic Ireland became identified with conquest and colonisation, whereas in Wales the gentry traded their cooperation for patronage. In Scotland, there was a Reformation but no royal supremacy: when eventually the Presbyterian Kirk came into conflict with the Anglican ecclesiastical supremacy, the results could trigger sectarianism almost as bitter as that between Catholics and Protestants. Even in the minds of anglophile Scots, England’s royal supremacy was a fundamental obstacle to union.

While Thomas Cromwell’s task force was busy in Wales, its members travelled to Chester. At five o’clock in the morning of 15 September 1534, an earthquake shook the Castle, which “rocked like a cradle, to the great fear of us all therein”. This seismic event, creating panic as far away as Shrewsbury, might well be a metaphor for the half-century. When Henry VIII attempted to govern the outlying regions by a centralised system of command and control from Westminster, he bit off more than he could chew. He shoulders a large share of responsibility for what historians call the “British” or “Three Kingdoms” problem: the dilemma faced when the actions of political elites in one or two of these kingdoms trigger a hostile reaction in another, or when cross-border (especially religious) alliances could subvert or defeat crown policy. A major theme until the 20th century, the problem lingers on in contemporary debates about “Britishness”, the future of Northern Ireland, and Scottish and Welsh devolution.

Population Facts: 1500–1549

England in 1500: 2.15m England in 1550: 3.01m Wales in 1500: 210,000 Scotland in 1500: 600,00 (approx) Ireland in 1500: unknown Dublin in 1500: 5,000 (approx)

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 16th century

1504Empson and Dudley. Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, died. So did Reynold Bray, the king’s chief minister in all but name. Without their moderating influence, Henry would make Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley his agents of fiscal and prerogative enforcement leading to charges of rapacity. Henry married his eldest daughter, Margaret, to James IV of Scotland, the first step towards Tudor plans for dynastic union.

1509The Accession of Henry VIII. Henry began his reign by courting popularity. He imprisoned Empson and Dudley for a year before executing them. He promised full redress of subjects’ grievances, but carried on almost exactly as his father had done. He would need even more money to pay for wars and new palaces, and to finance his dreams of conquests in France and Scotland. No attention was paid to Ireland.

1515 – Wolsey made Lord Chancellor. Henry’s first minister was Thomas Wolsey. He’d risen to power as supremo for military procurement. He used church patronage to climb the ladder, but the key to his success was his seeming ability to achieve everything that Henry desired. He was the first to experiment with the printing press for government forms and propaganda. He would diagnose the need for reforms in Ireland, but reverted to supporting the Fitzgeralds when his attempts failed.

1517 – Bad outbreak of ‘the sweat’. A viral pulmonary disease swept through the land on a terrifying scale. The symptoms were myalgia and headache, leading to abdominal pain, vomiting, unbearable headache and delirium, followed by cardiac palpitation, paralysis and death, all in under 24 hours. Henry VIII fled to the countryside. 10,000 died during the year, including 400 Oxford students in a week. The first outbreak had been in 1485, the last in 1551.

1520 – The Field of the Cloth of Gold. Wolsey organised a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France in search of a “universal peace”. Held just outside Calais, the kings talked to little lasting effect. The event was mostly about magnificent displays of power and wealth. The English built a temporary palace crammed with artworks, with fountains dispensing free wine or beer. The main activities were dancing, banqueting, and a full-scale tournament. Francis beat Henry
at wrestling.

1527 – The divorce comes into the open. Henry VIII wanted to divorce Katherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. He was in love and wanted a legitimate male heir. Wolsey had to fix it, but Pope Clement VII was a virtual prisoner of Charles V, Katherine of Aragon’s nephew, and refused to give dispensation. Wolsey’s position was further eroded by a rebellion in East Anglia caused by his foreign policy, and Henry increasingly took charge.

1536 – The Pilgrimage of Grace. Anne Boleyn was executed for alleged adultery and incest. Cromwell started dissolving the monasteries and issuing articles and injunctions for the new Church of England. He triggered a massive revolt in Lincolnshire and the north. 40,000 rebels wore pilgrim badges to show they were loyal to the Catholic faith and supported the monasteries. They would be brutally dispersed, but Cromwell was fatally undermined.

1542 – The Battle of Solway Moss. Henry’s army defeated the Scots at the battle of Solway Moss. James V died shortly afterwards. His daughter, Mary Stewart, was Queen at six days old. Her mother, Mary of Guise, would act skilfully to protect her daughter. Henry VIII was determined to betroth her to Prince Edward, his young son by Jane Seymour. When the Scots frustrated his efforts, he would invade Scotland, poisoning Anglo-Scottish relations.

1549 – The overthrow of Protector Somerset. When Henry VIII died, his son Edward VI was nine years old. For two years, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was in charge. He too tried to conquer Scotland, but failed. Meanwhile, his push towards full-blooded Protestantism, currency debasements and inept social and economic reforms caused chaos. Mass protests in East Anglia were the closest thing to a Tudor class war. Somerset was overthrown, and the Duke of Northumberland restored stability.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1588: The Spanish Armada

Go back: 1453: Richard grabs the throne

The Spanish Armada which threatened England in July 1588. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

John Guy is a fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, specialising in the period 1450–1700. He received the 2004 Whitbread Biography Award and Marsh Prize for his biography My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots (Harper Perennial). Other publications include Tudor England (OUP, 1990)

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This article was first published in the February 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine

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