Treason During The English Reformation

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Chapter One - Introduction The Henrican Reformation was a defining moment in English history. It changed the direction of the state irrevocably, most notably in religious matters, but also in terms of the centralisation of the English state. So as such, we need to examine the motives behind this constitutional revolution. At its simplest, the Henrican Reformation was solely prompted by the divorce issue. Papal intransigence provoked the King into breaking from Rome permanently. Such claims do have a degree of merit, but perhaps we should look for deeper influences, and explore the events of the fifteenth- century. The relationship between the instability of the previous century and the Henrican Reformation is no mere coincidence. The late- medieval English polity had been strengthened by the rule of strong kingship, but had faltered in its absence. The Tudors had learned from these lessons, and haunted by the threat of civil war, they sought to avoid past mistakes.

Thus emerged an obsession with the succession. A disputed succession could lead to chaos, so it became imperative that the king left behind legitimate male heirs. The matter of the divorce, prompted by the lack of male heirs, was the short-term cause of the Reformation, and was tied to events of the previous century.

Political events in turn dictated a need for revised treason laws. The Tudor dynasty had inherited the 1352 statute as its definition, encompassing offences directly against the king's regality, such as imagining the deaths of the king, queen, and their heirs, and levying war against the king (1, Adams & Stephens ). The definition therefore would need to be extended to protect the constitutional changes prepared by the Crown. The potential for acts of treason to be committed increased and would have to be counter- measured accordingly. But it is acceptable to claim that there had been a need for new treason laws in any case, for dangerous discontent has already arisen, specifically from the nobility. Their exclusion from high office had been at the expense of the promotion of men of low- birth, such as Wolsey. They had been deprived of their traditional and rightful place in the state. By ignoring them, Henry risked facing their wrath. A conspiracy against the crown, probably more illusory than real, concerned the insecure king. Charles V apparently intended to replace Henry with James V, or marry Mary to a noble, and declare them king and queen ( 2, Pollard, 181 ). The strongest claim came from the Duke of Buckingham. Pollard thought that " were the king to die without male heirs, the Duke might easily obtain the Crown" ( 3, ibid., 181-2).

Buckingham was merely an example to the rest of the nobility, showing punishments for treachery. The trial served as a demonstration of political allegiance. Brewer argues that Buckingham's execution was a " state necessity" ( 4, Brewer, 397). The death of Henry's ' great enemy' was acquiesced to - " the occasional harshness of an arbitrary but regular government seemed a happy exchange for the licentiousness and cruelty of internecine strife" ( 5, ibid., 401). These events show a genuine concern for the succession. Divorce was necessary to prevent a repetition of these events, however unpopular. The need to secure a stable dynasty had been frustrated by the Aragon marriage, so divorce could be justified in defence of the realm. If Mary succeeded to the throne, problems, both matrimonial and dynastic would follow ( 6, Pollard, 180). The first question would be who would she marry? A foreign prince would be unpopular - nobody wanted " to see England absorbed in some foreign empire" ( 7, ibid., 181), and if no heirs were left, there would be foreign claims on the throne. Henry's mistrust of the nobility would have prejudiced him against any of them marrying Mary. Simply, it was imperative that she did not become Queen, so male heirs, even if achieved after a divorce, became a necessity. Divorce would only constitute the first step of a radical transformation of the state.