Merrie Englande in Tudor Times


Lord Aubrey de Baudricourt



"They [the English] have a very high reputation in arms; and from the great fear the French entertain of them, one must believe it to be justly acquired."

---Anonymous Venetian, "A Relation ... of the Island of England...", c. 1500


Many of the precepts and traditions of the SCA are based on those of England. This is partly due to the fact that information about medieval or Renaissance England and its characteristics during these times is more easily obtained and, because of the lack of a language barrier, understood. Our own mundane culture is based strongly on that of our English ancestors. Tales about Richard the Lionheart and Sir Francis Drake seem less alien than stories describing the exploits of Gianfrancesco II Gonzaga or Emperor Frederick II. Because such a wealth of knowledge about England and English history exists in the SCA this article, meant to be nothing more than an overview, will only address the major topics of Renaissance England.

Most traditional historians mark the year 1485 as the dividing line between medieval and modern England. The victory of Henry Tudor over Richard III on Bosworth Field in August of that year is seen as the end of the medieval monarchy in England. But, while it marks the end of the Middle Ages in England, it does not necessarily mark the beginning of the Renaissance. Instead, the reign of the first Tudor King (1485-1509) is a time of transition when the groundwork for a strong central monarchy, blessed with adequate financial support, was laid. The England of Henry VIII and Elizabeth would not have been possible without the hard work of the lackluster first Tudor King.

Henry VII's greatest gift to England was to end the dynastic strife of the late 15th century. Although challenged at the battle of Stoke by a few recalcitrant Yorkist nobles and some foreign mercenaries, Henry Tudor's ownership of the throne of England was never seriously questioned by a war weary nobility and nation. He was able to strengthen his rather shaky claim to the throne by marrying the oldest daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV and, thus, providing his sons the best Lancastrian and Yorkist claim to the throne in the next generation. All other Yorkist rivals, such as the Earls of Warwick and Suffolk and their kin, he imprisoned or executed. This was a tradition that his son was to continue. Henry-slowly built up a large treasury, kept the nation at peace and encouraged trade. England was given time to heal itself from the wounds of the Wars of the Roses.

Henry VIII: The Renaissance Comes to England

The death of Henry VII in 1509 brought his eighteen year old son to the throne. Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) was to be one of the major players on the European stage for the duration of his reign. Blessed with a full treasury, a martial spirit and a desire for military glory, he was at war with both Scotland and France by 1512. Victories at Flodden Field against the Scots (won by his wife Catherine of Aragon and Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey) and the battle of the Spurs against the French, enhanced England's reputation abroad.

Henry had been intended for the Church before the death of his older brother. During his preparation for life as an archbishop he acquired a taste for learning that he was never to lose. Well read, musically talented, and having a penchant for theological debate, Henry was to win for the English crown the title of "Defender of -the Faith" for his attack on the works of Martin Luther. The continued use of this title by his protestant descendants would show just how the fickle Fortuna really was.

Two interconnected issues were to dominate Henry's reign: his desire for a male heir and the separation of England from the Church. Great men were made and great men were broken during these years. Henry Brandon became the Duke of Suffolk and married the King's sister, Wolsey, More and Cromwell rose and-fell. Many of those whom Henry destroyed fell victim to his desire for a divorce and need of a male heir. Henry was to divorce his first queen, Catherine of Aragon, although she had been a good and faithful wife and given him a daughter, Mary. He was to execute poor Anne Boleyn because she gave him Elizabeth instead of a son. Jane Seymour was to finally give him Edward. Six women were to have the dubious honor of being Henry's queen.

Henry's determination to be followed on the throne by a son was to cause him to trample on the ecclesiastical laws governing marriage and hotly debate whether the Papacy had the right to dictate matters of state to a reigning sovereign. In the end, it was to lead him to break with the Church in Rome completely. The wealth that could be taken from the monasteries once they were dissolved also influenced

Henry to break with the Church and placed England, shakily at first, in the Protestant camp.

Henry fought several campaigns on the Continent against the French in support of Charles V, the latest in 1544. Henry also made an attempt at strengthening the English navy. The accidental sinking of the "Mary Rose" came as quite a blow to him. The threat of invasion at various times from France and the Empire led him to improve the fortifications along England's southern coast. As he neared death he became, to his subjects, a distant and dread man both loved and hated, feared and respected. At the time of his death in 1547 he left an England poorer and war weary to the tender mercies of a child-king and an inevitable protectorate. it was also an England deeply divided along religious lines.

Edward VI, Jane Grey and Mary: Interregnum between Glories

The reigns of the next three monarchs (it you count the brief reign of "Queen Jane") were too short for -lengthy trends to develop. They tend to be seen as an interval between the glorious times of Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth. But these years were not devoid of excitement, adventure or events of great import. In no small way do they serve as a testament to the strength of the edifice that the old King built.

Edward VI (r. 1547-1553) came to the throne at the age of nine and was never to rule in his own right. Instead, the years of his reign are marked by the emergence of the Protestant religion as the religion of the land and the struggle for power between the Seymours, relatives of the King through his mother, and the Dudleys, led by John Dudley, earl of Warwick and, later, Duke of Northumberland. His sons Ambrose, Robert and Guilford were also involved, in lesser roles, in the struggle for power, particularly at the end of Edward's time as King. Edward's reign saw a more rigid form of Protestantism take root in England and the beginning of a very firm division between Catholic and Protestant Englishmen. The Mass was suppressed in England, the only exception being the King's sister Mary. The King's health, never very good, began to fail in early 1553. The Protestant nobility, led by the Duke of Northumberland, did not wish to see a Catholic restoration under Mary, who stood next in line. They hatched a plot to prevent this.

Henry Brandon, Henry VIII's great friend and Duke of Suffolk, had married Mary Tudor, the younger sister of the King. They had three granddaughters, firmly Protestant, of whom Lady Jane Grey was the oldest. Edward, now dying, was persuaded by John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, to alter the succession by naming Jane Grey, wife of Lord Guilford Dudley, as his heir. Upon his death, Jane was declared Queen and ruled for nine days, until forces supporting Princess Mary were able to regain control. Jane Grey was executed some months later as was her husband, father and father-in-law. Ambrose and Robert Dudley were to survive their support of "Queen Jane", the first to become the Earl of Warwick and Robert to become the Earl of Leicester and favorite of the future Queen Elizabeth.

Few monarchs were to enjoy as much popular support at the beginning Of their reigns than did Mary (r. 1553-1558) and few monarchs were to be as disliked at their deaths than was Mary. Most of the common people of England were Catholic. They had admired the fight that Catherine had put up against Henry at the time of The Divorce. They also admired the courage of her daughter and looked to her to restore England to the right path. Mary sought to reimpose Catholicism upon the nation and, inevitably, martyrs for the Protestant cause emerged. The burnings of these men and women was to give Mary the name for which she is known to most people--"Bloody Mary'. She did not realize, until it was far too late, that she could not turn back the clock nor return England to her pre-Reformation state. But her most unpopular act was to marry the Spanish prince Philip. The people came to believe that Philip would come to dominate England (he did, after all, have the title of King of England) and use English ships and men to further the cause of Spain. And, as fate would have it, England was to lose her last possession on the continent while supporting Philip's war with France. The loss of Calais was a blow to English pride and increased the growing unpopularity of Mary and her Spanish consort. Mary died, tired and disillusioned, in 1558. Her attempts to restore England to the Catholic fold had failed and, with her death, the Protestant exiles returned in masse to the court of her younger sister and the last Tudor--Elizabeth I


Elizabeth I: Gloriana Regnant


"She shall be, to the happiness of England, An aged princess; many days shall see her, And yet no day without a deed to crown it."

---Shakespeare, "Henry VIII", lb13

When the twenty-six year old Elizabeth (r. 1558-1603) ascended the throne of England no one could have known that England was about to enter a golden age almost unparalleled in energy and accomplishment. Elizabeth was to fuse the Renaissance and Reformation in England into the Elizabethan Age. During these years literature, exploration and the national spirit would benefit as never before.

Elizabeth restored England to the Protestant faith, reversing many of the decrees of her half-sister. But she was not to persecute the Catholics in her kingdom, even during the years of struggle with Catholic Spain. She was very much her father's daughter: willful, pragmatic, cynical as the occasion required and clearheaded. She quickly realized that her greatest asset on the European stage was her marriagability-her husband would gain the crown of England. Elizabeth was to play this trump card many times during her reign to keep possible enemies at bay.

The new energy of the Elizabethan age was quick to manifest itself in the realm of literature. Three men were to dominate the times: Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Spenser's "Faerie Queen" came quickly to represent a reflection of Elizabeth and her court. Marlowe's plays give a hint at what he might have produced had his life not been cut so dramatically short at the age of 29. But it is William Shakespeare who is best known of Elizabethan writers. He lived a full life and it is possible to chart his growth as a writer through the course of his works. His plays, noted for their liveliness and humor, stand as a tribute to the man and the age.

Elizabethan England tried to expand its horizons. Colonization of the New World was attempted. Elizabethan explorers reached Muscovy by sea and explored the northern reaches of North America seeking the Northwest Passage. Sir Francis Drake, following in the footsteps of Magellan, circumnavigated the globe.

Much of the increased naval activity came as a response to war with Spain. Throughout her reign Elizabeth worked to thwart the aims of Philip II of Spain to counterattack the Protestant faith. She supported with money and troops, sporadically it is true, the revolt in the United Provinces against Spain. She supported the Protestant Henry IV of France against the Catholic League. And she kept imprisoned the Catholic Queen of Scotland while Protestantism became strong in her neighbor to the north.

Finally pushed to the limit by Elizabeth's execution of' Mary Stuart, Philip II decided to attack England. Even Sir Francis Drake's raid on Cadiz was not able to prevent the sailing of the Armada. But it was weather, not the English navy, that was to prevent the success of the Armada. Contrary winds and the inability of the Duke of Parma to bring his army to the rendezvous point kept the Armada from landing troops in England. Terrible storms prevented the Armada from returning to Spain intact. Comparatively few Spanish ships fell victim to their English enemies.

As a part of this war with Spain and the years of tension that preceded it, English privateers raided Spanish possessions in the New World. These Spanish colonies were wealthy but, at first, relatively unprotected. After all, who could possibly vie with the might of Spain? Santa Domingo, the oldest Spanish city in the New World, and Nombre de Dios, port of call for the Spanish Treasure Fleets, were both taken and sacked. Drake's voyage around the world also resulted in the capture of a rich Spanish ship and the sacking of Spanish colonies in western South America.

After the question of marriage, the dominant issue during Elizabeth's reign, especially towards its end, was the succession. As the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the Catholic nations deemed Elizabeth to be illegitimate and, thus, barred from the throne. They 'believed, instead, that Mary Stuart, granddaughter of Henry VII, should be the Queen of England. After her execution her son, James VI, became the de facto heir presumptive. Secure in the fact that a Protestant would rule England after her, Elizabeth formally acknowledged James as her heir before her death.

The years after the Armada seem almost anti-climactic by our standard. The Queen, loved, admired and, strangely, resented by an increasingly war-weary England, grew old. A series of favorites including Sir Christopher Hatten, Sir Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex, color the autumn years of the Queen, as do the struggle in Ireland and the dreary war with Spain. The last spark in these twilight years was the befuddled attempt at revolt by the Earl of Essex. Essex's revolt, sparked by an injured ego and an inability to grasp the reality of Elizabethan court politics, was quelled with a minimum of effort and the Queen, with great sadness and resolution, sent the foolish young earl to the chopping block.

The dawning of the new century saw an increasingly tired Queen sliding towards death. It came to her peacefully in 1603. It was the end of an age and most Englishmen of the time sensed it. The last of the Tudors had passed away and England, under the unsteady hand of the Stuarts, was not to experience such glory, adventure and excitement for another half century.



1485--Battle of Bosworth. The last Yorkist King of England, Richard III, is defeated by Henry Tudor.

1487--Battle of Stoke. John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, defeats

an army of Yorkist rebels and the last serious threat to the rule of the House of Tudor.

1497--Perkin Warbeck lands in England, passing himself off as Richard, son of the Yorkist Edward IV. He is defeated and captured at Blackheath.

1501--Alliance with Spain symbolized in a marriage between Arthur, Prince of Wales, and Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella.

1502--Arthur dies.

1509--Henry VII dies. Henry VIII becomes King and marries Catherine of Aragon.

1513--Henry VIII invades France and wins the Battle of the Spurs. Catherine and Thomas Howard defeat the Scots at Flodden Field and slay the King of Scotland.

1515--Thomas Wolsey becomes a cardinal and chancellor of England.

1520--Field of the Cloth of Gold. Peace between Henry and King Francis I.

1523--Henry invades France as an ally of Charles V.

1525--Battle of Pavia. Francis is defeated and captured by Charles V. The last Yorkist heir, John de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk is killed in combat.

1533--Henry marries Anne Boleyn, future mother of Elizabeth.

1534--The Act of Supremacy makes Henry head of the Church of England.

1536--Anne Boleyn is executed. Beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries.

1537--Jane Seymour gives birth to the future Edward VI and dies.

1542--Katherine Howard is executed.

1542-1547--England at war with Scotland and France.

1547--Henry dies and Edward VI becomes King.

1549--The Western Rebellion is put down. Somerset removed as Lord Protector.

1550--Peace of Boulogne with France.

1551--Somerset is executed. John Dudley becomes the power behind the throne.

1553--Edward dies. Jane Grey becomes "Queen" for nine days. Mary becomes Queen.

1554--Jane Grey is executed. Mary marries Philip of Spain.

1558--England loses Calais. Mary Tudor dies. Elizabeth becomes Queen.

1562--Elizabeth makes an alliance with France's Protestants and send military aid.

1568--Mary Stuart seeks asylum in England and is imprisoned by Elizabeth. John Hawkins is defeated in the New World.

1572--Drake sacks Nombre de Dios.

1577-1580--Drake circumnavigates the Earth.

1588--Defeat of the First Armada. Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" is published. .

1590--First part of Spenser's "Faerie Queen" is published.

1592--Shakespeare's great plays are published.

1595--O'Neill's revolt in Ireland begins.

1599--Essex is imprisoned.

1601--Essex is executed.

1603--Elizabeth dies. James I becomes King.





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