Tudor Government and Terror
A Brief Note
There is a tendency among some historians to try to justify brutal , authoritarian rule on the grounds that it is necessary to preserve order.
A classic example of this is the work of Sir Geoffrey Elton. In The Tudor Revolution in Government,1 and Policy and Police2 our author seeks to excuse what amounts to terror and judicial tyranny.
Geoffrey Elton's hero is Henry VIII's great minister Thomas Cromwell and Elton seeks to prove that in confiscating church land, dissolving the monasteries and implementing Henry VIII's reformation policies Thomas Cromwell was not carrying out a "reign of terror" and tyranny.
But then Geoffrey Elton believes in the need to control political freedom and the virtues of order.3
Now one of Geoffrey Elton's heros is in fact Thomas Cromwell, a thoroughly unpleasant and ruthless man and he approves of the the "fact" that Thomas Cromwell improved Tudor government by vastly increasing its efficiency. Further Geoffrey Elton argues that since Thomas Cromwell's means of implementing Henry VIII's policy had legal sanction by means of Parliamentary legislation and royal degree they were not tyranny but sound policy and of course the government was doing the right thing in suppression of opposition. The suppression of opposition included such things as the execution by torture of people who spread rumours questioning royal policy. Further Geoffrey Elton thinks the government policy of encouraging people to spy on and denounce their neighbours was a good thing.
This is pure apologetics. The fact is the suppression of the Church was a violent uprooting of long established custom and involved what can only be described has mass looting of Church property the fact that this effort was cloaked in legality should not make anyone mistake it for what it was. It was simply a revolution.
The dissolution of the monasteries for example involved forcibly expelling large numbers of Nuns and Monks from their places of residence, it involved the use of royal troops and enforcers, the actual destruction of monasteries, destruction of relics, the pillaging of shrines etc. In other words it was carried out by force. Not surprisingly this generated a lot of opposition including some rebellions which were crushed violently.4
The violent suppression of old religious practice and the large scale looting of the old church's riches were cloaked indeed in "legal" dress but were ultimately tyrannical. One of those methods was the way Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII encouraged denunciations of thought crime, i.e., any voicing of opposition to the King's policies. In the end Thomas Cromwell who had destroyed so many was destroyed in a sordid intrigue after his promotion of the disastrous marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. Like several of his enemies Thomas Cromwell ended up with his head chopped off.5
In many ways Thomas Cromwell helped organize something much like a modern police state and the results were not very pleasant for the victims. Geoffrey Elton's rosy view of this whole process is simply unacceptable. To quote a review:
Dr. Elton seems to be totally unaware of the damage done to the fabric of society when governments positively encourage denunciations of neighbours by neighbours, thus opening up a Pandora's box of local malice and slander. No one who has read a little about life in occupied Europe under the Nazi, or has seen the movie Le Chagrin et La Pitie, [A documentary about life in France during the Nazi Occupation] could share the satisfaction of Dr. Elton as he triumphantly concludes that his hero encouraged private delation rather than relying on a system of paid informers.6
I would like to add that Stalin's Russia also encouraged this sort of spying and denunciation of neighbour by neighbour.
In the end Geoffrey's defence of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII amounts to the same old boring state worship.
1. Elton, Geoffrey, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1953.
2.Elton, Geoffrey, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1972.
3. See Kenyon, J.P., The History Men, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh PENN., 1984, p. 223.
4. For brief accounts of the violent process of the Reformation in England see Lockyer, Roger, Tudor and Stuart England: 1471-1714, 2nd Edition, Longman, Hong Kong, 1985, pp. 48-63, Scarisbrick, J. J., Henry VIII, University of California Press, Berkeley CA, 1970 pp. 241-304, MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 198-204. The best account of the traumatic, often violent nature, of the English Reformation is Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN., 1992.
6. Stone, Lawrence, The Past and the Present, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1981, pp. 109-110.