A History of England in the 16th century

By Tim Lambert

At the beginning of the 16th century, Henry VII was keen to ally with Spain. In 1501 his oldest son Arthur married Catherine of Aragon. However, Arthur died in April 1502. Henry VII’s son Henry now became heir to the throne. Henry married Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow on 11 June 1509. Normally such a marriage would not have been allowed but the Pope gave a special dispensation. Meanwhile, in 1503 Henry VII’s daughter Margaret married James IV of Scotland.

Henry VII died on 21 April 1509. He was followed by Henry VIII.

Henry VIII

Henry was a clever and active young man. He spoke Latin and French fluently. He also performed and composed music. He was good at tennis, wrestling, and casting the bar (throwing an iron bar). Henry also enjoyed hunting, jousting, and hawking. He also liked archery and bowling.

Henry was also keen to revive the glories of the previous centuries when England conquered much of France. In 1511 he launched a warship the Mary Rose. In 1514 he launched the Henry Grace a Dieu. In 1512 he went to war with the French. In August 1513 the English won the Battle of the Spurs. (It was so-called because the French cavalry fled without fighting). However, in 1514 Henry made peace with the French and his sister Mary married the king of France.

Meanwhile, the Scots invaded England to support their French allies. However, the Scots were crushed at the battle of Flodden and their king was killed.

In 1515 the Pope made Thomas Wolsey (1474-1530) a Cardinal. The same year the king made him Chancellor. In 1520 Henry met the king of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Determined to impress the French king Henry had a temporary palace made and it was decorated with very expensive velvet, satin, and cloth of gold. Not to be outdone the French king erected tents of gold brocade.

At the beginning of 1511, Henry had a son. Unfortunately, the boy died after only 7 weeks. Catherine had four miscarriages and she only had one child who lived – a girl named Mary born in 1516. Henry was desperate to have a son and heir and Catherine could not give him one.

Hampton Court

Henry came to believe that God was punishing him for marrying his brother’s widow. Normally that would not have been allowed but the Pope granted him a special dispensation. Henry now argued that the marriage to Catherine was not valid and should be annulled (declared null and void). Not surprisingly Catherine was opposed to any move to dissolve the marriage. Henry asked the Pope to annul the marriage.

However, the Pope would not cooperate. (He could not because Catherine’s uncle Charles V of Spain had captured Rome and the pope was his prisoner). In 1529 he formed an ecclesiastical court headed by Cardinals Wolsey and Campeggio to look into the matter. However, the court could not reach a verdict.

In the autumn of 1529, Henry sacked Wolsey and banished him to York. In 1530 Wolsey was accused of treason and was summoned to London to answer the charges but he died on the way. Thomas More replaced him as chancellor. More ruthlessly persecuted Protestants. More also strongly opposed the proposed relaxation of the anti-heresy laws. In 1530 a Protestant named Thomas Hitton was burned at Maidstone in Kent. Thomas More called him ‘the Devil’s stinking martyr’. However, More resigned in 1532 and he was replaced by Thomas Cromwell.

Meanwhile, in 1527 Henry began a relationship with Anne Boleyn. Henry was keen to get rid of Catherine and marry Anne. In 1529 Henry called the ‘Reformation Parliament’. Ties between England and Rome were cut one by one. Finally, he lost patience with the Pope and rejected his authority. In 1533 he obtained a decree of nullity from Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. (He had already secretly married Anne Boleyn).

However, Anne had two miscarriages. Henry grew tired of her and in April 1536 she was accused of committing adultery with 5 men, including her brother. Anne and the five men were all executed in May 1536. Immediately afterward Henry married Jane Seymour. Jane did give Henry one son, Edward, but she died on 24 October 1537, leaving Henry devastated.

Meanwhile, in 1534 the Act of Supremacy made Henry the head of the Church of England. The same year the Act of Succession was passed. It declared that Anne Boleyn’s child would be heir to the throne. Although Henry broke with Rome he kept the Catholic religion essentially intact. However, in 1538 Chancellor Thomas Cromwell did make some minor reforms. In 1538 he ordered that every church should have an English translation of the Bible. He also ordered that any idolatrous images should be removed from churches.

Nevertheless, in 1539 Henry passed the Act of Six Articles, which laid down the beliefs of the Church of England. The Six Articles preserved the old religion mainly intact. However, from 1545 Latin, a language that ordinary people could not understand was replaced by English as the language of church services.

Meanwhile, Henry dissolved the monasteries in England. Parliament agreed to dissolve the small ones in 1536. The large ones followed in 1539-1540. The monks were given pensions and many of them married and learned trades. many monastery buildings became manor houses. Others were dismantled and their stones were used for other buildings. The vast estates owned by the monasteries were sold and fearing foreign invasion Henry used the wealth to build a network of new castles around the coast.

Yet the changes made by Henry caused resentment in some areas. In 1536 a rebellion began in Louth in Lincolnshire. (Although it was sparked off by religion the rebels had other grievances). The rebels marched to Doncaster but no pitched battles were fought between them and the royal forces. Instead, Henry persuaded them to disperse by making various promises. However, in 1537 Henry hanged the leaders.

Meanwhile, Henry looked for another wife. Chancellor Cromwell suggested allying with the Duchy of Cleves. The Duke of Cleves had two sisters and Henry sent the painter Holbein to make portraits of them both. After seeing a portrait of Anne of Cleves Henry decided to marry her. However, when Henry met Anne for the first time he was repulsed.

Nevertheless, Henry married her in January 1540 but the marriage was not consummated. Henry divorced Anne six months later but she was given a generous settlement of houses and estates. Anne of Cleves lived quietly until she died in 1557.

Cromwell was accused of treason and executed in July 1540.

Next, in 1540, Henry married Catherine Howard. However, in December 1541 Henry was given proof that Catherine was unfaithful. Catherine was beheaded on 13 February 1542. Then in 1543, Henry married Catherine Parr (1512-1548).

Meanwhile, in 1536, Henry had an accident jousting. Afterward, he stopped taking exercise and became obese. Worse a painful ulcer appeared on his leg, which his doctors could not cure. Nevertheless, Henry went to war again. In 1542 he crushed the Scots at Solway Moss. In 1543 Henry went to war with the French. He captured Boulogne but was forced to return to England to deal with the threat of French invasion. The French sent a fleet to the Solent (between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight). They also landed men on the Isle of Wight. In a naval battle, the Mary Rose was lost but the French fleet was forced to withdraw.

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547. He was 55.

Edward VI

Henry was succeeded by his 9-year-old son Edward. Since he was too young to rule his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was made protector and ruled England in his stead. Somerset was a devout Protestant as was Archbishop Cranmer.

They began to turn England into a truly Protestant country. The Act of Six Articles was repealed and in 1549 the first Book of Common Prayer, the first Anglican prayer book was issued. Meanwhile, priests were allowed to marry and pictures or statues of Mary or the saints were removed from churches.

Unfortunately, England now faced an economic crisis. There was rapid inflation in the mid-16th century. Also, the population was rising. In the 15th century, there was a shortage of workers, which pushed wages up. In the 16th century, the situation was reversed and laborer’s wages fell.

In 1549 Edward faced two rebellions. In parts of the Southwest, the changes in religion provoked the so-called Prayer Book Rebellion. In Norfolk, economic grievances led to a rebellion led by Robert Kett (the rebels took control of Norwich). However, both rebellions were crushed.

The rebellions led to the fall of Somerset. He was replaced by the ruthless John Dudley, Earl of Warwick (later Duke of Northumberland). The unfortunate Somerset was sent to the tower and in January 1552 he was executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. In 1552 a second prayer book was issued. This one was more radical than the first.

Meanwhile, England fought the Scots again. Henry VIII had suggested that his son Edward should marry the king of Scotland’s daughter, Mary. However, the Scottish king rejected the idea. Somerset revived the plan and he sent an army to Scotland to force the Scots to agree. The English won a battle at Pinkie Cleugh, near Edinburgh, in 1547. However, the Scots simply sent 6-year-old Mary to France to marry the French king’s son.

However, Edward was sickly and it was clear he was not going to live long. The Duke of Northumberland was alarmed as the next in line for the throne, Henry’s daughter Mary, was a Catholic. Northumberland married his son to Lady Jane Grey, a descendant of Henry VII’s sister Mary. When Edward died in 1553 Northumberland had Lady Jane Grey crowned queen. However, the people rose in favor of Mary, and Lady Jane Grey was imprisoned.

Queen Mary

When she became queen Mary was surprisingly lenient. The Duke of Northumberland was executed in August 1553. However, Lady Jane was, at first, spared. However, Mary married Philip of Spain in July 1554. The marriage was very unpopular and in Kent, Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion. He was defeated but Mary was forced to execute Lady Jane, fearing her enemies might try and place Jane on the throne.

Mary was a devout Catholic and she detested the religious changes of Henry VIII and Edward VI. She was determined to undo them. Catholic mass was restored in December 1553. In 1554 married clergy were ordered to leave their wives or lose their posts. Then, in November 1554 the Act of Supremacy was repealed. In 1555 Mary began burning Protestants. The first was John Rogers who was burned on 4 February 1555. Over the next 3 years, nearly 300 Protestants were executed. (Most of them were from Southeast England where Protestantism had spread most widely). Many more Protestants fled abroad.

However, Mary’s cruelty simply gained sympathy for the Protestants and alienated ordinary people. She simply drove people away from Roman Catholicism. Furthermore in 1557 England went to war with France. In 1558 the English lost Calais, which they had hung onto since the end of the Hundred Years War in 1453. It was a major blow to English prestige. Mary died on 17 November 1558. She was 42.

Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I was crowned in January 1559. She restored Protestantism to England. The Act of Supremacy was restored in April 1559 and further Acts replaced Catholic practices. All but one of the English bishops refused to take the Oath of Supremacy (recognizing Elizabeth as head of the Church of England) and were removed from their posts. About one-third of the parish clergy were also removed. However, most of the population accepted the religious settlement. People could be fined for not attending church. Nevertheless, some Catholics continued to practice their religion in secret.

In 1568 Mary Queen of Scots was forced to flee Scotland. She fled to England and Elizabeth held her prisoner for 19 years.

In November 1569 Catholics in the north of England rebelled. The Catholic rebels hoped to murder Elizabeth and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots. However, the uprising was quickly crushed and the last battle took place on 19 February 1570. Afterward, many of the rebels were hanged. Meanwhile, in 1570, the pope issued a bull of excommunication and deposition. This papal document decreed that Elizabeth I was excommunicated (excluded from the church) and deposed. Her Catholic subjects no longer had to obey her.

In 1581 the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services (aimed at Catholics) were increased (although in some areas they were not imposed). In 1585 all Catholic priests were ordered to leave England within 40 days or face a charge of treason.

Meanwhile, in 1583 some Catholics attempted to murder the queen. However, the Throckmorton Plot as it was called was foiled. In 1586 came another Catholic plot to kill the queen, called the Babington Plot. It was also foiled. However, most English Catholics remained loyal to the Queen when the Spanish Armada sailed in 1588.

Elizabeth I

In 1562 John Hawkins started the English slave trade. He transported slaves from Guinea to the West Indies. However, in 1568 the Spaniards attacked Hawkins and his men while their ships were in a harbor in Mexico. Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake then began an undeclared war against Spain. They attacked Spanish ships transporting treasure across the Atlantic and stole their cargo. In the years 1577-1580, Drake led an expedition, which sailed around the world. Drake also stole huge amounts of gold and silver from the Spanish colonies but Elizabeth turned a blind eye.

Meanwhile, the Spanish king ruled the Netherlands. However, the Dutch turned Protestant and in 1568 they rebelled against the Catholic king’s rule. Elizabeth was reluctant to become involved but from 1578 onward the Spaniards were winning. In 1585 Elizabeth was forced to send an army to the Netherlands.

Then in 1586, there was a plot by Catholics to murder the queen called the Babington Conspiracy. Because of her involvement, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded on 8 February 1587.

Meanwhile, Philip II of Spain was planning to invade England. However, in April 1587 Drake sailed into Cadiz harbor and destroyed part of the fleet that was preparing to invade. Drake boasted that he had ‘singed the King of Spain’s beard’. Even so the next year the invasion fleet was ready and it sailed in July 1588. The Spanish Armada consisted of 130 ships and about 27,000 men. It was commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. At that time the Spanish king ruled a large part of Northeast Europe. The plan was to send the Armada to Calais to meet a Spanish army grouped there. The Armada would then transport them to England.

The English fleet was gathered at Plymouth. When the Spanish arrived they sailed in a crescent formation. The English harassed the Spanish ships from behind. In Drake’s words they ‘plucked the feathers’. However, the English were unable to do serious damage to the Armada until they reached Calais.

When the armada arrived the Spanish troops in Calais were not ready to embark and there was nothing the armada could do except wait at anchor in the harbor. However, the English prepared fire ships. They loaded ships with pitch and loaded guns which fired when the flames touched the gunpowder, and set them on fire then steered them towards the Spanish ships. In a panic, the Armada broke its formation. Spanish ships scattered. Once the Spanish ships broke formation they were vulnerable and the English attacked doing considerable damage. Finally, the Armada sailed north around Scotland and west of Ireland. However, they sailed into terrible storms and many of their remaining ships were wrecked.

Eventually, the Spanish lost 53 ships. The English lost none. Despite the failure of the Armada, Spain remained a very powerful enemy. The war went on until 1604. Meanwhile Elizabeth I died on 24 March 1603.