Causes of the Tudor Rebellions
The Tudor Period of English history refers to the rule of King Henry VII through Queen Elizabeth I and ranges from 1485 to 1603. It was, by and large, a time of relative prosperity and peace, but periodic rebellions still popped up to irritate, and sometimes endanger the monarchs. None of these rebellions were nation-wide, instead, they displayed the dissatisfaction of some of the English people in certain contexts. Understanding and analyzing those contexts can help to provide a fuller picture of the politics of Tudor rule and the social situation in general.
During this time, people subscribed to the "Great Chain of Being" worldview, socially and religiously, as the proper hierarchy for life. The Great Chain of Being was a hierarchy for all living things in which those at the of the hierarchy were considered to be closer to god than those at the bottom.In a general sense, the hierarchy was organized in descending order as follows: king, nobles, gentlemen, yeomen, husbandmen, cottages, laborers.1 The English people seem to have been fundamentally accepting of this hierarchy; the final object of many of the rebellions was to gain the monarch’s attention, rather than to depose, threaten, or criticize. Demands were often written in terms of high respect. Letters of protest opened with acknowledgement of the king or queen's sovereignty such as “To the Kyng our Soveraign lorde”2 or “we humgly beseche our moost dred soveraign lorde."3 Such documents were sprinkled with courteous forms of address like "your grace" as well.4 From these expressions of respect and servitude, it is clear that even the rebels generally supported the Tudor monarchs and wished the ruling order to be upheld. They took issue with some of the monarch's actions, or those of his nobles, but never questioned his right to rule.
Rebellions Based on Economic Pressures
The economic situation was a tight one for all the Tudors. Henry VIII involved England in costly wars with France and Scotland. Philip II of Spain used his marriage to Mary Tudor in order to squeeze resources from England, and Elizabeth I was engaged in a lengthy war with Spain, as well as disputes with Scotland.5 At home in England, harvests were often poor, causing widespread hunger. The late 1590’s and 1640’s and 50’s were particularly bad, and Henry VIII’s debasement of the coinage meant that many could not afford their basic needs.6 Unsurprisingly, such conditions caused dissatisfaction and unrest.
The Yorkshire rebellion in 1489 was a direct result of excessive taxation by Henry VII. It arose when the Earl of Northumberland attempted to collect the subsidy for that year. The levy was a new one which had been granted by parliament to allow Henry VII the funds to intervene against the French crown.7
The first Cornish Rebellion was also over the issue of taxation. Henry VII wanted money for an army to deal with a pretender to the throne, Perkin Warbeck. The levels of taxation he demanded were much steeper than any previous years and they followed directly on the heels of a forced loan which had just been levied.7
Henry VIII experienced his share of economic rebellions as well. The Lincolnshire Rising in 1536 was the result of fears concerning taxation. Rumors sprung up that taxes would be levied on horned cattle, christenings, marriages, and burials, white bread, goose, and capon.7
The Pilgrimage of Grace, also in 1536, expressed concern over a tax on livestock. The participants explained that they were already under significant economic pressure and had sustained losses in the past years.2
The demands of Kett’s Rebellion complained of the price of land, of rent, and inheritance tax, among other things.4
It is significant that the rebellions on taxes, tithes, and forced loans occurred primarily during the rule of Henry VII and Henry VIII. By their absence during the reigns of later Tudor monarchs, we can infer that the economic situation had changed significantly. We may speculate that it was combination of greater widespread prosperity, increased efficiency at collecting taxes on the part of the monarchs and government, and the overshadowing by other social and political concerns that accounted for the change.
Rebellions Based on Political Pressures
Henry VIII had the unlucky chore of dealing with political unrest as well as economic difficulties. Several of his advisers including Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, and Sir Richard Rich were strongly disliked by the English people. Many of the previously mentioned rebellions included petitions with demands that the king take better counsel, and in the case of documents from the Pilgrimage of Grace, even demanded that Cromwell be executed as a traitor or exiled: “the Kyng schuld [condescend to] owr petecyon agaynst the Lowler and [trai]tur Thomas Crumwell, hys dyscypyles and adherentes or at leste exyle hym and theym furthe of the relm.”8Those officials were largely blamed for the unpopular policies during Henry VIII’s reign.
Political unrest was common during Mary Tudor's reign as well. Her marriage to Philip of Spain sparked a great deal of resentment. Wyatt’s Rebellion arose as a consequence of her refusal to marry a member of the English nobility instead. (Fletcher and MacCulloch, p. 92-93) The rebellion’s efforts were unsuccessful, but her marriage proved to be a drain on English resources and failed to produce an heir.7
The conspiracies and Northern Rebellion against Elizabeth I were largely political in nature as well. Most of the upheaval surrounded Mary Queen of Scots’ presence. The Duke of Norfolk pushed for a marriage with the Scottish queen, was denied, and imprisoned for suspected plotting. Elizabeth summoned his fellow northern earls to court to gauge their loyalty, and the earls revolted. However, the rebellion fell apart quickly, and the leaders fled to Scotland where they were betrayed to Elizabeth.7
From the political rebellions and conspiracies during the Tudor Period, we can see the great importance that people of all social classes placed on the relationships of their monarchs. It's interesting to note that marriage arrangements were a matter or extreme public concern and the councilors and confidantes of the rulers were likewise placed under heavy public scrutiny.
Rebellions Expressing Religious Concerns
Although it is never stated as the primary complaint or demand for any of the rebellions during the Tudor Period, religion can be seen as an overt factor in all the rebellions. The tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism were strong and volatile from the reign of Henry VIII into that of Elizabeth I. Most of the rebels were in opposition to the religion of the reigning monarch. The popular revolts against Henry VIII criticized his choice of bishops and his dissolution of monastic lands most heavily. The plot against Mary I’s marriage was conducted and organized by leading Protestant gentry, namely Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk. The northern earls who rose against Elizabeth I were of strong Catholic sentiment as well.
Clearly religion was a major factor in inflaming the sentiments of the people against their monarchs. Opposing religious preferences were cause of mistrust toward the monarchs' advisers and often indicated a split in ideology, sparking disagreements and conflict.
- Bucholz, Robert and Newton Key. Early Modern England 1485-1714: A Narrative History. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2009.
- Robert Aske. The Lincoln Articles. 1536.
- The Pontefract Articles.1536.
- Robert Kett, Thomas Cod, and Thomas Aldryche. Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion. 1549.
- Dr. Buchanan Sharp. Lecture. UC Santa Cruz: California. October, 2008.
- Smith, Alan G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. Prentice Hall. 1997.
- Fletcher, Anthony and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Tudor Rebellions- Revised 5th Edition. Prentice Hall. 2008.
- Sir Thomas Tempest. Advice to the Pilgrims at Pontefract. 1536.