The ongoing fascination for histories of Tudors, Stewarts, and the Protestant Reformations in Scotland and England

Published on, 21 January 2015

A BBC TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is airing tonight. The timing is quite remarkable for me.

I have just finished reading the first of these books (Wolf Hall). When I began it, the week before, I had no idea that a TV version was on the cards, let alone imminent.

If I track back just a little, I have been exploring ideas around the Reformation for a few months, and I discovered Mantel in that sweet, quiet spot between Christmas and New Year.

My particular interest is what happened in Scotland, particularly around Perth in 1559, when John Knox famously preached in the parish kirk of St Johns. In response, the ‘rascal multitude’ ran amok and pulled down four ancient monasteries in the city.

For most Scots, that was ‘a good thing’, because the country was established as a Protestant nation soon afterwards. It happened almost overnight: one minute Catholic, the next Protestant. And only a few executions and martyrs to show for it.

Of course, the story is a lot more complicated than that — particularly if you throw in the romanticism of Mary Stewart, who soon after returned as the Catholic Queen of the Protestant Scots. This was not such a good thing, particularly for Mary, who literally lost her head over it all.

The outcome, though, was the birth of Mary’s son James from her second marriage (with the grandson of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor). Hence the young boy, who became King James VI of Scotland, was also the great-great-grandson of King Henry VII of England. This was enough, during troubled times of succession (after the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth) to secure him the throne of England, and so to become King James I of England.

At his accession in 1603, the thrones of England and Scotland were united, through the merger of the dynasties of Tudors and Stewarts. James became known as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, who managed to live through the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 (troublesome Catholics), the Gowrie Conspiracy in 1600 (troublesome Scots in Perth), as well as starting the plantations in Ulster and the founding of Jamestown in America.

The rest, as they say, is history.

So, when I was making this trawl through history I came across the fascinating figure of Thomas Cromwell, the ‘low born’ chief minister to King Henry VIII, and the second most powerful man in England in the 1530s.

Without Cromwell, it can be argued, the English Reformation would have been very different.

It is curious in itself that England went through the process of reforming more than a quarter of a century before their neighbours in Scotland. That was not for want of trying, since King Henry tried to drag Scotland kicking and screaming into his reformation in the 1540s, with what has come to be known as the ‘Rough Wooing’ of Mary, Queen of Scots. That is, English armies invaded Scotland a number of times to take the infant (Scottish) Queen Mary by force and marry her to the infant Prince Edward (Harry’s son and heir, who eventually became the sickly and short lived King Edward VI).

If that had been successful, then the crowns of England and Scotland would have merged half a century earlier than happened, and Henry’s episcopalian and state-run form of reformation would have been imposed on Scotland. It has been argued by some that the Scottish Catholic Cardinal Beaton — often seen as an enemy of the reformation due to the brutality with which he dealt with reformers — in fact managed to preserve Scottish religious independence from England, and thus (unwittingly) allowed the reformation in Scotland to have a much more Calvinist and thus Presbyterian flavour.

That is not to say that the Scottish reformation was unrelated to reform in England. The timing of Scotland’s turn (1559) coincided with the return of a Protestant queen in England (Elizabeth) after the short but anti-Protestant years of (‘bloody’) Queen Mary. Indeed, it was English troops that helped to counter the forceful pressure of the French Catholic support for the Scottish monarch. At that time, Scotland was caught between the ties of the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France or the hoped for relationship of ‘Perpetual Peace’ with England. In 1560, Scotland became Protestant. In 1603, the Scottish crown was joined with England.

But amid all these details, I still can’t help asking one of the central issues of Wolf Hall: That is, why did the reformation happen?

And why did it take the form it did in England?

It is very easy to point to Henry’s need to divorce his first wife Catherine, the daughter of the Spanish Ferdinand and Isabella. The Pope would not give him the divorce, so Henry stuck his fingers up at the Pope.

But, as Mantel herself shows with eloquence and humour, the issue for Henry was not divorce.

It was that Henry felt the marriage was not valid in the first place, as Catherine had first married his older brother Arthur. When Arthur died in his teens, Henry not only inherited the status of heir to the throne, and thus the crown, but also Arthur’s widow. Twenty years later, in retrospect (and without a male heir) Henry felt that second marriage was an abomination.

The split with Rome was not, therefore, simply a matter of Henry finding a way to regularise his sex life. He had already strayed beyond his marriage — he had an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. In the succession struggles after Henry’s death, Fitzroy could have become King Henry the Ninth. That this didn’t happen was because of his early death in 1536, not because of his illegitimacy.

Panning out much wider, we can perhaps argue that the reformation had to happen. There is the (Protestant) populist view that the Catholic church was too much of a spent force, that it needed to reform.

Certainly, there was much that needed to be improved. For example, post-reformation Scotland saw a certain amount of redistribution of wealth once the monasteries were closed (or destroyed). For example, in Perth lands from the ex-monasteries were endowed by King James to a new hospital, run by the parish. The aim of universal education was to a certain degree put into practice. The Bible was made available in the vernacular. The stranglehold of the clergy was replaced by a new system — some may say it was an improvement.

The reformation was, however, as much a social movement as it was a political change. It was about new technologies changing the way in which people learned and thought. This is conveyed well by Mantel, with her reflections (through the character of Cromwell) on the tracts and publications of the new thinkers — the heretics/Protestants.

Despite the best efforts of the state and the church across Europe to stop this, the easy distribution of printed pamphlets on the new religious ideas (along with new Bible translations, such as Tyndale’s) became an unstoppable force. It was the circulation of such texts in Scotland for several decades that made the Scottish reformation much more of a ground-up revolution than in England.

As we see today with publications such as Charlie Hebdo, when there is the technology to ‘publish and be damned’ then there are often people who are willing to risk death to do so.

The 1520s and 30s were a time of immense change in western Europe. The largest power of the time, the Spanish Habsburg empire, was busy fighting the Ottoman Turks in the east of Europe whilst also plundering the New World (in what is now Mexico, southern America, and Florida) for whatever treasures they could find. The Portuguese in the meantime were taking control of the eastern spice routes in the Indian Ocean and opening up southern and south-east Asian markets and territories for conquest.

In the wake of this, the Spanish (Catholic) Dominican friar Batholomé de Las Casas was asking the question of how Christendom should deal with the native peoples of America, the ‘Indians’. From his first-hand experience, the expansion of the Christian world into America left a long and nasty trail of blood and oppression. He polemic against such colonial violence eventually led to the famous debate of Valladolid, in Spain, where he put his arguments against the classical thinker Sepúlveda, for whom the Aristotlean idea of ‘natural slavery’ could be applied to the people from whom the Spaniards were seizing the American lands and resources.

It was a debate that continued down the centuries, until eventually Protestant reformers (such as Wilberforce and eventually Abraham Lincoln) grabbed this nasty nettle of European exploitation.

In the end, the reformations happened across Europe because of particular circumstances that made reform and political and social change happen rather than internal rejuvenation. It was largely because of figures such as Thomas Cromwell that these became the ‘Reformation’ that we know.

It is possible that it could have been different, if the circumstances had been different. We only know what we know — and it is helpful for every generation that we have narratives such as Mantel’s to help us remember and reinterpret such pivotal moments.

The story itself is ongoing.

After all, why do we want to remember this?

What do we see of ourselves in the reflections of Cromwell and King Henry when we scrutinise them so closely?


Picture credit: Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger (1532/33)

Looking for ourselves in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall

by Malory Nye time to read: 6 min