Henry in 1540 was the most absolute monarch that England had ever known. The old Norman nobility, whose ancestors had checked even William the Conqueror, were now timidly obedient, and almost forgot the Magna Charta of their prerogatives. The new nobility, enriched by commerce and endowed by the King, served as a barrier to aristocratic or religious revolts. The House of Commons, once the jealous protector of English liberties but now hand-picked by agents of the King, yielded to him almost unprecedented powers: the right to confiscate property, to name anyone his successor, to determine orthodoxy and heresy, to send men to death after only a mock trial, and to issue proclamations that were to have the authority of acts of Parliament. “In Henry’s reign the English spirit of independence burned low in its socket, and love of freedom grew cold.” 26 The English people accepted this absolutism partly through fear, partly because it seemed the alternative to another War of the Roses. Order was more important than liberty.
The same alternatives persuaded Englishmen to suffer Henry’s ecclesiastical supremacy. With Catholics and Protestants ready to fly at each other’s throats, with Catholic citizens, ambassadors, and potentates conspiring against him almost to invasion, Henry believed that order could be secured in the religious life of England only by royal determination of faith and ritual; implicitly he accepted the case that the Church had made for authority in religion. He tried to dictate who should read the Bible. When the bishops suppressed Tyndale’s translation he bade them prepare a better one; when they dallied too long he allowed Cromwell to commission a new translation by Miles Coverdale. This first complete British version appeared in Zurich in 1535. In 1539a revised edition was printed, and Cromwell ordered this “Great Bible” placed in every English church. Henry, “of the royal liberality and goodness,” granted the citizens the privilege of reading the Bible in their homes; and soon it became a daily influence in nearly every English family. But it was a fountain of discord as well as of inspiration; every village sprouted amateur exegetes who proved anything or its opposite by Scripture; fanatics wrangled over it in churches, and came to blows over it in taverns.27 Some ambitious men gave their wives writs of divorce, or kept two wives at once, on the plea that this was sound Biblical practice.28 The King regretted the liberty of reading that he had allowed, and reverted to the Catholic stand. In 1543 he induced Parliament to rule that only nobles and property owners might legally possess the Bible, and only priests might preach on it, or discuss it publicly.29
It was difficult for the people—even for the King—to know the King’s mind. Catholics continued to go to the stake or the block for denying his ecclesiastical supremacy, Protestants for questioning Catholic theology. Prior Forest of the Observant Franciscans at Greenwich, who refused to disown the pope, was suspended in chains over a fire, and was slowly roasted to death (May 31, 1537).30 John Lambert, a Protestant, was arrested for denying the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist; he was tried by Henry himself, was by Henry condemned to die, and was burned at Smithfield (November 16, 1538). Under the growing influence of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, Henry veered more and more toward orthodoxy. In 1539 King, Parliament, and Convocation, by the “Act of the Six Articles,” proclaimed the Roman Catholic position on the Real Presence, clerical celibacy, monastic vows, Masses for the dead, the necessity of auricular confession to a priest, and the sufficiency of communion in one kind. Whoever, by spoken or written word, denied the Real Presence should suffer death by burning, without opportunity to abjure, confess, and be absolved; whoever denied any of the other articles should for the first offense forfeit his property, for the second his life. All marriages hitherto contracted by priests were declared void, and for a priest thereafter to retain his wife was to be a felony.31 The people, still orthodox, generally approved these Articles, but Cromwell did his best to moderate them in practice; and in 1540 the King, tacking again, ordered prosecution under the Act to cease. Nevertheless Bishops Latimer and Shaxton, who disapproved of the Articles, were deposed and jailed. On July 30, 1540, three Protestants and three Catholic priests suffered death at Smithfield in unwilling unison, the Protestants for questioning some Catholic doctrines, the Catholics for rejecting the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the King.32
Henry was as forceful in administration as in theology. Though he maintained an extravagant court, and spent much time in eating, he toiled heavily in the tasks of government. He chose competent aides as ruthless as himself. He reorganized the army, equipped it with new weapons, and studied the latest fashions in tactics and strategy. He built the first permanent royal navy, which cleared the coasts and Channel of pirates and prepared for the naval victories of Elizabeth. But he taxed his people to the limit of tolerance, repeatedly debased the currency, confiscated private property on flimsy pretexts, demanded “contributions,” repudiated his debts, borrowed from the Fuggers, and promoted the English economy in the hope that it would yield him added revenue.
Agriculture was in depression. Serfdom was still widespread. Enclosures for sheep pasturage continued; and the new landlords, unhindered by feudal traditions, doubled or quadrupled the rents of their tenants on the ground of rising prices, and refused to renew expiring leases. “Thousands of dispossessed tenants made their way to London, and clamored at the doors of the courts of law for redress which they could not obtain.” 33 Catholic More drew a pitiful picture of the beggared peasantry,34 and Protestant Latimer denounced the “rent-raiser steplords,” and, like Luther, idealized a Catholic past when “men were full of pity and compassion.” 35 Parliament laid ferocious penalties upon vagabondage and beggary. By an act of 1530–31 any able-bodied mendicant, whether man or woman, was to be “tied to the end of a cart naked, and be beaten with whips throughout the town till his body be bloody”; for a second offense an ear was to be cut off; for a third, another ear; in 1536, however, the third offense incurred death.36 Gradually the displaced peasants found work in the cities, and poor relief mildly mitigated pauperism. In the end the productivity of the land was raised by large-scale farming, but the inability of the government to ease the transition was a criminal and heartless failure of statesmanship.
The same government protected industry with tariffs, and manufacturers profited from the cheap labor made available by the migration of peasants to the towns. Capitalistic methods reorganized the textile industry, and raised a new class of wealthy men to stand beside the merchants in support of the King; cloth now replaced wool as England’s chief export. Most exports were of necessaries produced by the lower classes; most imports were of luxuries available only to the rich.37 Commerce and industry were benefited by a law of 1536 legalizing interest rates of 10 per cent; and the rapid rise of prices favored enterprise while it penalized workers, peasants, and old-style feudal lords. Rents rose 1,000 per cent between 1500 and 1576; 38 food prices rose 250 to 300 per cent; wages rose 150 per cent.39 “Such poverty reigneth now,” wrote Thomas Starkey about 1537, “that in no case may stand with a very true and flourishing common weal.” 40 Guild members found some relief in the insurance and mutual aid provided them against poverty and fire; but in 1545 Henry confiscated the property of the guilds.41