The middle third or so of the sixteenth century, the period from Henry VIII’s break with Rome to the early part of Elizabeth I’s reign, brought a new kind of instability to England. There had been baronial revolts before, and peasant revolts before, and contests over the royal succession before, but nothing to match the sequence of insurrections of that era, and nothing to equal the range of political, social, and ideological grievances that provoked them.
The Reformation, which convulsed European politics for a century, would have severely threatened England’s unity even if the Tudor monarchy had introduced it with steadiness and consistency. Instead there were abrupt and extreme changes of course, which turned on conflicts of faiths within the ruling family. Henry renounced the papacy but retained Catholic theology. Protestant doctrine was imposed under his son, the boy Edward VI, who succeeded him in 1547. Between 1553 and 1558, under Edward’s successor, his half-sister Mary, England was reclaimed for papal supremacy and Catholic teaching. In 1559 Edward’s and Mary’s half-sister Queen Elizabeth reversed those steps.
In hereditary monarchies the births, marriages, and deaths of princes are the basic determinant of political life, and uncertainties over the royal succession its basic curse. The Tudors quarreled among themselves over the future occupancy of the throne. Inevitably adherents of the rival faiths polarized around the competing candidates. Instability extended from the court to the regions, where the Reformation not merely altered the practice of religion but also challenged the entire network of social habits and communal relations with which the Church was bound. There was another royal threat to the regions, or at least to the barons who led them. The Tudors were resolved to break the independence of the magnates, to weaken their military and feudal following, and to bring the outlying provinces under central control.
The uprisings began and ended with two great revolts in the north of England, the “Pilgrimage of Grace” of 1536 and the revolt of the “Northern Earls” in 1569. Both movements were defenses of the Catholic faith, but they also stood for the feudal way of life and for regional loyalties. Religious and provincial allegiances merged again in the “Prayer Book rebellion” in the southwest of England in 1549, the year that also produced the insurrection led by Robert Ket in East Anglia. Five years later the Catholic reaction under Queen…
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