Religion, Politics and Society in Early Modern England: What the Tudor Rebellions Tell Us

Badge of the Five Wounds of Christ (embroidered textile) by English School, (16th century); His Grace The Duke of Norfolk, Arundel Castle; (carried by Thomas Constable of Everingham who took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536)
Badge of the Five Wounds of Christ (embroidered textile) by English School, (16th century); His Grace The Duke of Norfolk, Arundel Castle; (carried by Thomas Constable of Everingham who took part in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536)

Recently, primarily through examination of the Tudor Rebellions, it has become clear to me that modern historians may have a somewhat erroneous understanding of religion, politics and society in Early Modern England and he links between them.  Typically, they are examined separately, as individual causes or factors that make up one particular event. For example, the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 is often argued to have been triggered by religious grievances, whereas other historians argue that actually, socio-economic complaints were the predominant cause. Generally, it must be argued that one carried greater weight than the other in order to dismiss other possible causes and reach a pinpointed conclusion. However, only when examining rebellions in their own context can we really achieve an understanding of not simply contributing factors but also the intrinsic entwinement of religion, politics and society – and how they were essentially exactly the same thing.

Court life can also reveal a lot about this idea; for example following the Reformation and the break with Rome the political factions divided themselves into groups to establish a sense of position: and these were religious labels such as ‘conservative’ or ‘reformist’, and later ‘evangelical’. Nonetheless, the people who divided themselves into these groups did not often have a church career or had clerical importance; their role was completely ‘political’ and the merging of religious labels and political court factions demonstrate the intrinsic link between religion and politics in Tudor England. The Act of Supremacy of 1534 had united both church and state, creating an even more ‘confusing’ theology where you could now be a political ‘traitor’ for denying Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church. The Reformation appears to have affirmed the entwining of religion and politics in early modern society.

The Banner of the Five Wounds of Christ used in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 is typically seen as a Catholic symbol, having previously being used in crusades illustrating Jesus’ crucifixion. Most historians claim that because these banners were carried in great numbers amongst the 30,000 rebels, it was chiefly religious in both character and nature. Although it took on this appearance, however, the symbols included could also be interpreted to represent socio-economic complaints. The inclusion of the plough, chalice and the horn may also represent the variety of English classes, as well as the new tax that threatened horned cattle. However, what no historian has concluded is that they may represent all of these ideas in an entirety, which is very possible in the post-Reformation context that the rising encompassed.

Furthermore, in 1549 Kett’s Rebellion rose simultaneously with the West, who were wholly conservative in opposition to the new Prayer Book that represented a more radical turn in the Reformation. Kett’s Rebellion, however, rose in hostility to enclosure Protector Somerset who did not keep his promises to abolish it. Nonetheless, they also praised the New Prayer book as the rebels were mostly Protestant and in support of the new doctrine. Therefore, despite its irrelevance as the Prayer Book was not a grievances, the rebels still felt inclined to make religion of prime importance despite its solely socio-economic complaints. This is a perfect demonstration of the close relationship between religion, politics and society in Tudor England.

Princess Mary’s accession in 1553, no longer referred to as a rebellion because of its success, meant that many in Norfolk rose to support Mary over Lady Jane Grey. Despite the incredible amount of Protestant supporters who knew of Mary’s staunch Catholic beliefs, the support for her demonstrates a widespread concern for popular politics and the succession; the future of the Tudor dynasty. The people chose Mary because of her political blood as the daughter of Henry VIII. This suggests that religion was perhaps not the heart of everything, and cannot be polarised or oversimplified because it neglects the complexities of Tudor society.

These blurry boundaries can also be seen in the Northern Rebellion of 1569 under Elizabeth I. The whirlwind of Catholic conspiracies that emerged later in her reign concerning Mary, Queen of Scots, were more threatening because of the political insecurities they raised in Elizabeth. The rising itself encompassed more of a conspiracy rather than a representation of widespread popular discontent. Although it was a Catholic rising, Elizabeth crushed it because she was concerned about the political consequences it could result in such as the future of the succession. The mixture of political and religious concerns demonstrate the multiplicity of complexities and concerns in Tudor England.

After the Northern Rising of 1569, the people learnt that rebellions didn’t work. The Tudor dynasty made an incredible example of these risings, and left a legacy that rebellions always failed. The emergence of conspiracies in the Northern Rising set the foundations for the future of discontent; a shift from rebellions to plots was now visible, affirmed by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Nonetheless, Tudor risings cannot be pulled apart for analysis into separate grievances when they were also so closely linked and were essentially the same thing. English church, state and society were all effectively one concept in the eyes of the people and therefore we should also attempt to view them in the same light. The visibility of popular politics and a conscious awareness for political affairs demonstrates a far greater understanding of people at the time during times of popular discontent.

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