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Henry VIII

Henry and his People

The Political Revolution

Henry and his Wives

Summary

Though formidable in appearance and in his temper, Henry knew how to charm people and win their devotion. Henry was concerned about spreading learning and culture among his countrymen. For this purpose, Henry funded developments at the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. In 1546, for example, the year before he died, he oversaw the revamping of one of the colleges at Oxford, renaming it Christ's Church, a college which has flourished since the sixteenth century.

The great majority of Henry's subjects had to deal with basic economic hardships, which were the royal administration had difficulty addressing. There were major economic troubles early in Henry's reign, such as an increase in rural unemployment, and the raising of rents and fines for tenant farmers, who increasingly formed the bulk of the population. Along with rising prices, due to a general inflation which few if any of Henry's financial ministers comprehended, there was also a rising population, which compounded the difficulties. While Thomas Wolsey was chancellor, Henry's government was determined to help the poor, passing legislation which forbade enclosure, the practice by which local lords closed off with fences lands which had customarily been used as common farming spaces for poor folks. This policy angered the landed gentry in the countryside, and, what is more, was not very effective. With onsets of plague and trade depression in the 1520s, along with the draining costs of Wolsey's foreign policy efforts, the government saw a significant loss of popularity. Unrest was expressed through occasional riots against tax gatherers, landlords, and even the clergy.

The Pilgrimage of Grace uprising of 1536, while primarily a religious movement, also involved agrarian unrest. Some of the rebels were poor farmers who were angry at the government for not doing enough to stop the enclosure of lands–which continued despite the prohibitive legislation–or to stop the raising of rents. That same year saw the passage of the Poor Law in Parliament, which addressed the problem of vagrancy, the outstanding social problem of the day. In theory, the government took on responsibility for the downtrodden and the victims of society, though in practice many poor folks still fell through the cracks and were not helped.

Henry considered his subjects to be not only the people of England, but also the people of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Wales had been for the most part subdued by Henry's medieval predecessor, King Edward I, but Henry's government engaged in efforts to consolidate the small western territory into to real administrative unity with England. Many of the Welsh resented this policy, but were powerless to stop it. The Irish, on the other hand, were by their geographical and historical position far less submissive. Henry's official title included the appellation "Lord of Ireland," and he wished to exert his lordship over that island. In December 1540, he adopted the title King of Ireland, although the island was under the effective rule of local lords and clan chieftains who harbored few feelings of loyalty toward King Henry.

Analysis

Looking at Henry's relationship to the English people, it becomes evident that the monarch did not significantly affect the everyday lives of his subjects. Even when he wished to help solve some of the major social problems of the day Henry could do very little to effect widespread change across the reaches of his kingdom. Communication and travel was very difficult in the sixteenth century, and most people spent their whole lives never venturing outside their local county. At the same time, though the king was only a figurehead to most Englishmen, Henry represented the source of earthly power in the realm, and as king he was the focus of devotion and loyalty.

The developments of Henry's religious and political reformation affected the lives of average people in intimate ways. As the Pilgrimage of Grace uprising in the northern counties of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire attest, many common people resented deeply Henry's attack on the Catholic Church. They viewed the destruction of the monastaries with horror, and some were very willing to go to their death, as the 1536 rebels did, for the sake of their religious loyalties. In less sensational ways, Henry's reconstitution of the Church's administration with the institution of his six new episcopal sees, brought the national government a bit closer to the common people, as the new episcopal structure enabled more direct local control by the English archbishops.

Henry's employment of Parliament in the service of his new regime had a more subtle impact on society. Since many members of the House of Commons were merchants, lawyers, and the gentry (smaller landowners), new political significance was on its way for the very small but growing middle classes of England. This political significance would gradually be felt on a local level, as commercial and gentrified interests, with their ties to the government, became the focus of greater respect and prestige and thereby expanded in both size and influence over English society. At the same time, the great landowners, some of whom were granted lands that had been seized from the Catholic Church, while also increasing their local power, began to identify their interests more and more with those of the nation. Owing the security of their holdings to the good graces of the new, Reformation regime, many of the English nobles were presented new reasons for harboring a sort of state-oriented patriotism that did not exist in more feudal and Roman Catholic times.

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