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Henry VIII and His Sociopolitical Decisions Essay

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Updated: Aug 21st, 2020

Introduction

Henry VIII (1491-1547) was one of the prominent kings of England, and a representative of the Tudor dynasty. He ruled from 1509 until his death in 1547, but during a number of the early years of his reign, his regent, for all practical purposes, ruled the country.

Henry VIII is known as the king who played a significant role in the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, and who established the supremacy of the English monarch over the English Church, therefore beginning the process of English Reformation. The fact that this king had six wives is widely known, as well. He also was responsible for creating a permanent English navy, which in the future became a major source of England’s power. However, the rule of Henry VIII is also known as one that bears the stains of tyranny, cruelty, mass executions of his actual and imagined opponents and so on.

This paper provides an attempt to answer the question about whether Henry VIII was an effective leader. This endeavour is based on the political and social decisions made by Henry VIII during the period of his reign. In order to do this, some of the most important of these decisions are discussed with an eye to providing a factual basis for the discussion pertaining to the effectiveness of his leadership. Finally, his leadership is discussed; several different readings of the term ‘leadership’ are provided and it is assessed how effective a ‘leader’, in the given meaning, Henry VIII was. After concluding the paper, the historiography is provided, i.e., the sources employed for writing this paper are briefly summarised, and their reliability is assessed.

Political Decisions Made During the Reign of Henry VIII

Some of the most significant political decisions made by Henry VIII are related to the authority of the Catholic Church in England. As a result of the political actions taken by Henry VIII, the English Reformation occurred and England became mainly a Protestant nation, or, more specifically, a nation that to a major degree follows Anglicanism. It might be possible to state that this resulted from the desire of the king to have a larger share of power, and not to be limited by the authority of the church (Jones 2007).

Formally, the change that resulted in a different role of the Church in the political life of England was initiated by the desire of King Henry VIII to be divorced from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The king wanted to produce a male offspring who would be able to continue the dynasty of Tudors; however, the children of Catherine of Aragon either died soon after their births or were stillborn. Therefore, Henry VIII decided to address the situation by divorcing her. The process of divorce was rather long and took a number of years; Pope Clement VII attempted to intervene in the process, but his position was sometimes inconsistent. In any case, the intervention of the Church, and in particular, its foreign representatives such as the Pope, prompted Henry VIII to separate the English church from the Roman Catholic Church, as well as from the authority of the Pope. Henry VIII proclaimed that the King of England should be the Supreme Head of the English Church, at the same time branding the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign agent that wished, for its own benefit, to impose its will on the English people (Petrakos 2015). The result of this was not only the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, but also a significant increase in the king’s power. In fact, Henry VIII promoted the idea of the divine right of kings, according to which the king was not only the sovereign of God on Earth, but also the representative of His will. It is noteworthy that the adoption of this theory was followed by numerous executions of individuals whom the king perceived as his enemies, having charged them with treason. In fact, although King Henry VIII is known for his numerous executions, these were related not only to the Church but also to numerous other aspects of his life and reign.

It is important to point out that the king’s declaring his authority over the Church of England also resulted in a major shift in the system of English legislation; namely, Henry VIII declared himself the supreme legislator of the country. Prior to that declaration, only God was considered to be the Supreme Legislator, and the Pope was supposed to be God’s voice in this regard; worldly institutions were supposed to administer the laws that were found to be the will of God. However, the actions of Henry VIII resulted in a shift in this sphere, allowing humans (or, more precisely, men) to create laws of their own as a part of the process of governing (MacCulloch 1995).

It is noteworthy that these and many other changes related to the reign of Henry VIII are often considered to be a result of the actions of his ministers and other statesmen, such as Thomas Cromwell, who served as the chief minister of England under Henry VIII, and the king’s vice-regent; but other authors argue that it was for the most part the deliberate plans of Henry VIII that resulted in some of the most significant transformations (Jones 2007). Therefore, it is possible that Henry VIII acted through his ministers, disposed of them once they became inconvenient and concentrated the power of the state in his own hands.

It should also be highlighted that while it is generally accepted that Henry VIII was rather devoted to the Christian faith, the king, in fact, was not consistent in his actions pertaining to the authority of the Church. As was already stressed, the king initiated the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, a process that took place at the beginning of the 1530s. However, this was, at least in part, a result of the fact that the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise his divorce. On the other hand, having been a supporter of the separate Anglican Church for a number of years, Henry VIII started favouring Catholicism again after he unsuccessfully married his fourth wife and executed Thomas Cromwell, who, in fact, had organised this marriage. After his fifth marriage, however, Henry VIII returned to supporting Protestantism. This example may be employed as an argument in favour of the opinion that holds that the king was disposed towards acting mainly in his own interest.

In addition, it is argued that Henry VIII made a number of attempts to establish strict control over the intellectual activities that were taking place in England at the time of his reign, limiting the ability of others to express their thoughts if these thoughts were not to the king’s benefit. In particular, the executions of such prominent thinkers as Thomas More and John Fisher were examples of acts committed in order to suppress those who refused to fall under the king’s control (Hatt 2012).

Another facet of the political reforms of Henry VIII, related to the issue of succession of the king’s power, is also an object of debate among historians. It is stated that, traditionally, the question of succession was controlled by the Parliament of England; however, Henry VIII created a number of Succession Acts aimed at changing the person who would inherit his throne, depending on the situation at the time of a particular act’s creation, and also on the king’s current disposition towards his former wives and his current spouse (Petrakos 2015, p. 405). While certain historians (the proponents of the Whigs in particular) assert that these acts were aimed at choosing the optimal successor, in order to avoid future bloodshed that may have resulted from disagreements and debates over the issue, other researchers (in particular, those who were the proponents of the Tories) stated that Henry VIII acted according to his ‘arbitrary whim’, making the Parliament ‘a stalking horse’ to his own desires at a particular moment or period of time (Petrakos 2015, pp. 408-409).

In any event, it appears clear that Henry VIII carried out a relatively severe policy aimed at strengthening the power of the Crown, as well as ensuring that the dynasty of the Tudors would continue to rule the country. It is also apparent that some of the most significant changes for which Henry VIII is known took place as a result of the king’s actions that were aimed at increasing his power (even his first divorce was at least in part a consequence of the failure of Catherine of Aragon to produce a successor), and dealing with those whom he perceived as his opponents.

Social Decisions Made During the Reign of Henry VIII

The social decisions made by Henry VIII during the period of his reign were (and are) also a subject of controversy and numerous debates. It is apparent that a number of his decisions that had an effect on the social sphere were also aimed at strengthening the political power of the Crown, whereas others may be harder to interpret.

One of the decisions that influenced the social situation in the country, and the aim of which was obviously strengthening the king’s position, was made in 1533, when Henry VIII created an act that obliged every English farmer to use 1/24 of their lands in order to grow hemp. (Hemp was of paramount importance for the economy of the country, mainly due to the fact that it was used to make sails for ships.) This act was aimed at making the economy of the country more independent of the monasteries, which previously had been, in fact, virtually the only providers of hemp at that time. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy was adopted, according to which Henry VIII became the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and a few years later, the king carried out the dissolution of the monasteries, which included selling off a part of their property. Thanks to the act that obligated farmers to grow hemp, the country’s economy did not suffer much from the fact that monasteries stopped supplying hemp.

Another decision, more controversial and more related to social issues, was made in order to regulate the situation regarding the presence of jobless and penniless individuals in the country. The issue in question is the Parish Rate for the relief of the poor; this statute is considered to be primarily the work of King Henry VIII (Brodie 2014). In fact, it is apparent that this statute contradicted at least the legislation of 1530-1531, according to which poverty was considered a vice, and vagabonds were to be whipped. Unemployment was not distinguished from poverty, and all able-bodied persons were to be punished along with those who permanently did not have work. (It should also be observed, however, that legislation existing prior to the 1530s also prohibited poverty and introduced punishments for begging.) On the other hand, the Parish Rate for the relief of the poor was first introduced via statute in 1536. This statute offered ‘that vagabonds be put to work and the poor relieved through a national system of taxation and charitable collection’ (Brodie 2014, p. 111). Even though the success of this attempt was doubtful, and the act was severely criticised by a number of future historians, numerous researchers agree that the statute indicated a turn from the criminalisation of poverty towards poverty relief in the English law. It is also mentioned that this statute was viewed as a marker of a transfer to the ideology of humanism by some historians, although this position is also debated (Brodie 2014).

On the other hand, it is also worth stressing that the financial situation of the Crown was tight during the reign of Henry VIII. Even though the king inherited a large amount of money from his father, he spent much on maintaining his household and his court; in addition, his war spending was also tremendous. (As noted above, it bears repeating that Henry VIII was, in large part, responsible for the creation of a permanent English naval force.) Importantly, this was one of the reasons why the Dissolution of Monasteries was carried out: the king needed the possessions of the monasteries in order to fund his war efforts. On the whole, the wars that the king participated in led to an adverse financial situation in the country, and to significant inflation.

In addition, a number of other reforms are associated with the name of Henry VIII; the following reforms, however, are also connected to the period during which Thomas Cromwell was the chief minister. First, an attempt to avoid depopulation of rural areas was made by limiting the maximum number of sheep that any person was allowed to possess. Second, the government made an attempt to increase the quality of cloth, probably funding the export of cloth in 1533-1534. And third, there was an attempt to address the adverse financial situation in England by creating an upper limit on the prices of numerous products, some foods included. It is stated that these reforms were not successful, due to the fact that the cooperation of local nobles was necessary in order to implement these changes, yet most nobles were not convinced that such reforms would be beneficent (Sommerville n.d.).

Discussion of the King’s Effectiveness as a Leader

After exploring some of the key facts pertaining to the reign of Henry VIII, it is possible to discuss his effectiveness as a leader. However, prior to that, it is important to decide what the term ‘effective leader’ will mean in this context, because modern views with regard to effective leadership definitely differ from those prevalent in the time of Henry VIII, and also because even today there may be a number of opinions regarding the meaning of this term.

It is possible to interpret the term ‘effective leader’ as meaning that the leader was able to attain the goals they had previously set for the entity they were leading. Alternatively, an ‘effective leader’ might be one who was able to significantly increase the status, the prosperity, the level of well-being, etc., of the entity that they were leading.

In this regard, another question arises: what or whom was Henry VIII leading? The whole country? The nobility of the country? Its ‘simple population’? Was he even leading them, or were his ministers doing the main part of the job?

On the whole, each of these perspectives deserves consideration.

Attaining previously set goals. This is a question that is difficult to answer, for it is not known what goals, if any, were set by the king, and for whom. It might be possible to make a number of educated guesses based on what is known about his reign, but they will not be established facts.

In any case, it appears that the king strongly desired to keep the Tudor dynasty in power. It is hard to call this endeavour successful, for his son and successor Edward VI died at the age of 15. Even though Edward’s successor was Mary I (Tudor), after whom Elizabeth I (Tudor) took the throne, the dynasty ended with Elizabeth I, so only five monarchs represented this dynasty.

On the other hand, it may be hypothesised that Henry VIII wished England to be strong in a military sense. He was able to establish a permanent navy, which later become very important in English history, so this part was perhaps successful. However, the military expenditure of the king led to significant economic problems in England.

Finally, the king was able to obtain much more power for the English Crown than previous monarchs. While kings who preceded him were significantly limited by the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope, Henry VIII managed to lessen the impact of the Church by, for all practical purposes, creating England’s own Protestant church. Even in spite of the fact that a number of his successors attempted to get rid of English Protestantism and return to Catholicism, Anglicanism became the leading religion in England.

Increasing the status/prosperity of the country. As was already pointed out, during his reign, Henry VIII was able to create a permanent navy. He armed it with guns, preferring cannons to the previously utilised method of attack – grappling. The navy became the source of England’s power in the future.

It is also important to mention that the creation of a separate Church led to a higher degree of independence on England’s part from foreign entities such as the Pope. It might be difficult to assess whether this could be proclaimed good or bad for the country, but generally one would likely consider such a fact to be positive.

However, the constant state of war, as well as the tendency of the king to squander tremendous amounts of money to maintain his household, etc., exhausted the royal treasury, which was an important source of finance for the kingdom at the time. Therefore, military spending, as well as the wastefulness of the king, led to significant problems in the country, worsening the condition of its citizens. While, as previously mentioned, there were attempts to address the high rate of inflation by setting maximum prices on certain products, including some foods, it is stated that these measures were not very successful (Sommerville n.d.).

It is also crucial that the king was a severe ruler, one who often practiced executions and implemented numerous cruel measures towards his subjects. Among those executed was Thomas More, a philosopher who deserved international recognition. Hatt (2012) argues that Henry VIII practiced not only physical but also intellectual tyranny, quickly disposing of those whom he suspected of being disloyal or of entertaining thought that contradicted his own. It appears clear that living under severe tyranny does little good to most of the subjects of the tyrant.

However, the unexpected Act of 1535-1936 aimed at providing work for the jobless (instead of simply punishing people for being poor, leaving the unemployed to choose between starving to death or being punished for beggary), in spite of its lack of success, was clearly a positive step that may not have been dictated by humanistic motives – in fact, it is hard to tell what caused Henry VIII to create this act – but might still be associated with humanism in some way (Brodie 2014).

Whom did Henry VIII lead? Finally, from the facts uncovered during the preparation of this paper, it is unclear whether Henry VIII can even be named a leader of the English people. In this respect, it is also worth mentioning that a large part of the exercise of power was, in fact, conducted by his ministers (such as Thomas Cromwell), but Jones (2007) argues that their rule was mostly dictated by the clever and somewhat clandestine will of the tyrannical king.

In any case, Henry VIII had a large amount of political power, and, having participated in numerous battles, he definitely was a military leader; but it is hard to tell whether he led (in the general sense of the word) his people anywhere. On the other hand, rulers who have led (or appeared to lead) their people to a certain goal seem mostly to have a rather notorious reputation (for instance, A. Hitler or B. Mussolini), whereas most rulers do not lead in such a direct sense of the word (which is probably for the best, at least from a democratic point of view). So it appears possible to call Henry VIII a leader of his people. How effective a leader he might be considered depends on what one means by the term ‘leader’. If a leader is one who achieves their goals, then perhaps Henry VIII was mostly effective. If a leader is one who brings good to their subjects, then the effectiveness of Henry VIII is a contradictory issue; but, taking into account the poverty and inflation that followed his rule, it would appear he was rather ineffective.

Conclusion

Therefore, it should be stressed that the reign of Henry VIII was full of contradictions, and controversies in assessing it appear to be hard to avoid. On the one hand, the king separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, giving England a larger degree of independence, and built a permanent navy. On the other hand, his reign was marked by tyranny, mass executions, squandering and disregard for others. Judging from his political reforms, it might be possible to call Henry VIII an effective leader (especially if one believes that increasing the power of a monarch is a positive phenomenon). On the other hand, the social consequences of his rule remain controversial, for despite some positive results (such as the attempt to address poverty in a way that appears humanistic), the actions of the king led to a difficult economic situation in the country, as well as a number of other significant problems in England, which possibly makes him an ineffective leader. In addition, his effectiveness as a leader may be assessed from different points of view, once the notion of an ‘effective leader’ is defined more precisely.

Historiography

The article by Brodie (2014) provides an in-depth discussion of the legal acts created during the reign of Henry VIII pertaining to the problem of poverty relief. In particular, much attention is paid to the statute of 1535-1536, which was initiated by Henry VIII. The source can be deemed credible, because it is published in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal.

The article by Hatt (2012) considers the problem of intellectual tyranny imposed by Henry VIII on his subjects; in particular, the relationship between Henry VIII, on the one hand, and Thomas More and John Fisher, on the other. The article can be deemed credible, for it is published in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal.

The article by Jones (2007) is a review of a book entitled The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church by G. W. Bernard. The article provides a brief overview of the claims and conclusions made by the author of the book. The review can be deemed credible, for it is published in a scholarly, peer-reviewed journal; the book can be deemed credible, due to the fact that it is an academic source published by a prominent scholar.

The book edited by MacCulloch (1995) provides some of the chapters by various authors that describe the reign of Henry VIII from different perspectives. This source can be deemed credible as an academic book written by a number of researchers.

The article by Petrakos (2015) discusses the influence of the reign of Henry VIII on the future of England, namely, England in the period during 1679-1681. However, a number of events that happened while Henry VIII was king (such as the Anglican Reformation, the succession statutes of Henry VIII, etc.) are discussed. The article can be deemed credible, because it was published in an academic, peer-reviewed journal by a scholar.

The source by Sommerville (n.d.) is a web page created by Johann Sommerville, a professor in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The page contains information pertaining to the reforms of Henry VIII and the steps taken by him during the last years of his rule. The source can be deemed credible, because it was written by a scholar who is a university professor specializing in the subject area, and because it was published on the university website, on the.edu domain.

Reference List

Brodie, ND 2014, ‘Reassessing 27 Henry VIII, c.25 and Tudor welfare: changes and continuities in context’, Parergon, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 111-136.

Hatt, C 2012, ‘Keeping the conversation going: Fisher & More and Henry VIII’s intellectual tyranny’, Moreana, vol. 49, no. 189-190, pp. 127-139.

Jones, N 2007, ‘The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the remaking of the English church’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 268-270.

MacCulloch, D 1995, The reign of Henry VIII: politics, policy and piety, St Martin’s Press, New York, NY.

Petrakos, C 2015, ‘”Those times can tell the story”: The Anglican Reformation, Henry VIII’s Succession Statutes, and England’s exclusion crisis, 1679-1681’, Anglican and Episcopal History, vol. 84, no. 4, pp. 393-415.

Sommerville, JP n.d., Henry VIII: administrative & social reform; the final years, Web.

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