Monday, 14 September 2015

ISIS v. THE WEST - 1565

PART 3: The End of the Crisis

The Great Siege of Malta ended 450 years ago – to be precise on 11 September 1565. It had been fought with zealous commitment on both sides for three months, three weeks and three days. Invaders and defenders had experienced comparable losses (probably around 10,000 each) from combat and disease. Everyone understood the significance of this clash of civilizations. Sunni Islam, triumphant in the Levant under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, had launched a massive seaborne assault on the soft underbelly of Christian Europe. The sultan established in Constantinople, the old eastern capital of the Roman Empire, saw himself as the heir of the caesars and had his sights fixed on Rome. The Knights Hospitaller, Malta’s defenders, were conscious that they were fighting another battle in the crusading wars between the soldiers of Christ and the warriors of Allah.

For weeks it had seemed to the inhabitants of this tiny island that they were alone; that none of the mainland princes grasped the importance of their fight to the death. Appeals for aid had produced only token military assistance. The Ottomans attacked several points, trying to overwhelm castles and infiltrate towns. The veteran commander, Jean de Valette, staved off panic by his personal bravery and his refusal to consider negotiation.

At last, on 7 September, the Viceroy of Sicily, arrived with an 8,000–strong relief force. This turned the tide. The Turks, worn down by the long campaign and their debilitating losses, now found themselves outnumbered and fled. Within days they scrambled to their ships and sailed eastwards.

We must always be careful about learning lessons from history but some parallels can be drawn between the failed Sunni offensive of 1565 and today’s IS eruption in Iraq and Syria: 1) Sunni fanaticism has not changed. The war it wages on all other religions and all other brands of Islam is total and its warriors have no fear of death; 2) Its moral, political and cultural values are wholly at odds with those of the West, founded on Judeo-Christian teachings; 3) It can only be halted by a rival culture which is strong in its defence of humanity, respect for all people and commitment to individual freedom.

450 years ago Europe was slow to learn the importance of unity in facing the IS threat. It was double-minded about the use of force. Today’s leaders face the same issues but modern technology renders them more complex. We face IS aggression, not only on the ground in the Middle East, but also in cyberspace. In 2015 it is not the people of Malta who are being called upon to stand up and be counted. It is not even the anti-Sunni forces in Syria, Iraq and their neighbours. We are all in the front line. The difficult problems of how and where to deploy force and how to cope with families fleeing the Sunni butchers have to be addressed. But more important is the need for western nations (and, indeed, for Russia and its acolytes) to find unity of purpose and moral/cultural rigidity. Idealism can only be fought with idealism. De Valette met Sunni fanaticism with a dogged and profound belief of his own: ‘I am seventy-one. How is it possible for a man of my age to die more gloriously than in the midst of my friends and brothers in the service of God?’

Monday, 3 August 2015


In the early summer of 1709 London found itself ringed by shanty towns. 5,000 immigrants were sheltering in the suburbs. In camps appallingly similar to the current Calais 'Jungle', an influx of desperate men, women and children were living in flimsy tents and makeshift huts and more were arriving every day. By October there were between 13,000 and 14,000 newcomers in a capital city whose normal population was 575,000 - 600,000. Londoners found their streets swarming with men and women of an alien race, speaking an unknown tongue, bearing unmistakeable signs of poverty, misery and want and looking to Britain for relief. 

They had come from central Europe and had been displaced by war and famine. It all has a familiar ring doesn't it? Normally resilient communities had been shattered by the results of political conflict to which had been added an unprecedented climatic catastrophe - the Great Frost. During the winter of 1708-9 temperatures plummeted. A low of minus 12° was recorded in London. In Paris the temperature fell to 15° below zero. Winter did not loosen its grip until May - too late for the planting of fresh crops. Eye-witness accounts were as heart-rending as today's TV images of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean or clambering aboard container lorries:

     The pen almost refuses to do its task when asked to tell of the hundreds of
     strong men who, during that memorable winter, lay down to die of cold and
     hunger in the once fruitful valley of the Rhine. So intense was the cold that
     even the wild animals of the forest and the birds of the air were frozen to
     death. Wine was frozen in the casks and bottles. The vineyards were frozen
     to the ground and the fruit trees completely destroyed.

Uprooted individuals and families moved westwards into France and Holland. Some wanted to stay there but others were bent on crossing the Channel in pursuit of a brighter future or, indeed, any future at all.

How did the government and people of Britain cope with this unprecedented influx? The country had a long history of absorbing waves of immigrants, such as Huguenots and Jews fleeing persecution, but nothing had ever been seen on this scale. The initial response was sympathy and support. In the spring the House of Commons addressed the problem. Members were told that Queen Anne herself was moved by the plight of these poor people. As a result funds were raised to bring over 5,000 German immigrants. This explains the tented camps in the suburbs. But, by June, the temporary accommodation was bulging at the seams. Twice as many poor strangers were dwelling in the environs of the city as had been bargained for. Shanty towns grew up with the inevitable sights, sounds and smells always attendant upon overcrowded, unsanitary human agglomerations. Inevitably, the mood changed. The government came under pressure to 'do something', to get rid of the 'dirty foreigners'. There were protests, scuffles, and mini-riots. The public reaction - not for the first or last time - was, 'These people must be helped but "not in our backyard"'.

Obviously, the problem demanded an international solution. The government's first response was to instruct the English minister at The Hague, Viscount Townshend, that no more migrants could be accepted until satisfactory permanent provision had been made for those who had already arrived. The poor man might just as well have been instructed to stop the North Sea tides. Any effective action would have to be taken at a higher level. Unfortunately, the Dutch authorities felt the same way about the problem as did their British counterparts. They wanted to see migrants settled somewhere else. A relief fund was organised and in April the burgomasters of Rotterdam authorised the distribution of money to the poverty-stricken Germans - not to relieve their immediate suffering but to help them on their way to England. This policiy simply encouraged more refugees to make the journey. The Rhinelanders kept on coming, and kept on accepting the Dutch handouts. Like the British, the Dutch now took a tougher line. On 12 August they issued a total prohibition on any further influx. Like the British they found their stern veto largely ineffective. Although barges sent to patrol the Waal and the Maas turned back more than a thousand infiltrators, the traffic continued. When the British government protested through diplomatic channels, they received the vague response that the Dutch would 'make their best endeavours' to stem the flow. Again, there is something familiar about this.

It was somewhat hypocritical of the Westminster government to complain about the Dutch attitude. Their fundamental response to the migrants was basically the same - move them on. Funds were raised by government and charitable institutions to arrange passages for the unwelcome guests to those overseas places where few British citizens could be persuaded to go. The West Indies were short of minor officials and craftsmen. There was always room in Ireland for Protestant settlers to help keep the Catholic majority in order, and most of the Rhinelanders were Protestants. Getting immigrants to do jobs that indigenous people don't want to do is nothing new.

Some of the refugees fared better than those sent to the fever-ridden Caribbean or the remoter parts of Ireland. They were assisted by the energetic recruiting activities of Benjamin Furley. This Quaker businessman who had settled in Rotterdam was a friend and associate of George Fox and William Penn, who were working hard to develop Pennsylvania. Land in the colony was available at knock-down prices and Furley offered additional cash inducements for families and individuals willing to make their home on the far side of the Atlantic.

These initiatives still did not entirely solve the problem. On the last day of 1709, the British government issued the following statement:

     Inasmuch as during the summer just past a number of poor people arrived
     here in England, from different parts of Germany, who have hitherto been
     supported by Her Royal Majesty, and have gradually been sent to the West
     Indies, and afterwards to Ireland: and whereas more such poor people
     have come here since, notice has consequently been sent to Holland and
     elsewhere that none such would be passed, much less supported, and that
     those who have arrived here since the first of last October were to be sent
     back to Germany via Holland at the first opportunity. All such as intend to
     come hither are therefore notified to desist from their voyage which would
     assuredly result in failure unless it be that they have means of their own
     with which to support themselves.

But any turning of the tide that such directives might have succeeded in achieving was only of a temporary nature. What began in 1709 was one of the most significant migrations in Western history. Throughout the ensuing decades over 100,000 men, women and children would leave Germany to become settlers in overseas territories ruled by other nations.

This appalling tale of human misery and the attempts of governments to respond was set against the backdrop of long-running conflict with France (the War of the Spanish Succession). The British Cabinet was more preoccupied with the campaigns of the Duke of Marlborough than with the movements of multitudes of ordinary people which were historically more significant. Few national leaders have the vision to distinguish between current issues and long-term, world-changing phenomena. It is difficult to distinguish any people of such intellectual stature among today's European statesmen.
* * *
Further Reading:
Derek Wilson, Calamities and Catastrophes - The Ten Absolutely Worst Years in History, 2011        

Monday, 29 June 2015

ISIS v. THE WEST - 1565

Part 2 : Dark Days - The Great Siege Begins

The waters of the bay were littered with floating wooden crosses. To each was nailed the decapitated corpse of a warrior who had died trying to defend the island. This was the gruesome sight which presented itself to Malta's citizens in the last days of June 1565. After a month-long siege the fortress of St. Elmo had been obliterated by Muslim artillery and its 1,500 surviving inhabitants had been butchered. The incident has a horribly familiar ring to it. We recognise the fanatical nihilism of terrorists who justify their own most inhuman impulses by reference to the creation of a worldwide Islamic state from which everything not in accord with Sharia law would have been purged.

The summer of 1565 was the high water mark of Sunni expansionism. Many in Europe who heard the news from Malta feared that civilization was about to be trampled into dust by the advancing Ottoman barbarians. Malta, it seemed was doomed and would become the main staging post for IS attacks against Italy and Spain and neither the Alps nor the Pyrenees would be adequate barriers to the continued advance of Koran-waving, death-or-glory zealots.
And there is another sad similarity between events today and 450 yeaers ago. De Valette, the Grand Master of the Knights Templer and governor of the island, had sent repeated desperate pleas for aid to the European governments. All he had received was a token force of 600 men from Sicily. The major western powers were too involved in their own rivalries to be distracted by the fate of one small island. In distant England Queen Elizabeth warned of the potential danger to Christendom but she did not despatch one soldier or one silver penny to the relief of Malta.

De Valette had to contend not only with unfaourable military odds (The Turks numbered between 40,000 and 50,000 as against a defending force of about 6,000) but with a panicking civilian population. Unlike the multitudes fleeing the war zones in Syria and Iraq today, the Maltese had nowhere to run to. They persistently plagued the grand master with demands for food and with unwanted military advice. If any politico-military figure of the 16th century deserves a place on the roll of courage that figure is the 70-year-old Jean Parisot de Valette. The Ottomans attacked his stronghold from several angles but every time he responded with tactical skill and personal bravery (He was frequently seen in the forefront of the battle). He trusted to two things - the arrival of reinforcements and the dwindling enthusiasm of the enemy. The invaders were suffering heavy losses - but, then, they could afford to. Would the unexpected tenacity of the Maltese force the invaders to withdraw? Would any European government heed his urgent pleas for help? Only time would tell.
* * *
Next time:  Part 3: The End   

Monday, 18 May 2015


Part 1: The Threat

At dawn on 18 May 1565, exactly 450 years ago, watchmen manning Malta's coastal defences saw an awesome and terrifying sight. Between them and the orb of the rising sun the sea was black with a mighty battle fleet. Close on 200 ships - the largest naval force to be seen in the Mediterranean since the Romans had held undisputed sway over Mare Nostrum. On board the galleys and galleasses were over 28,000 fighting men, including some of the finest crack troops of the day. Their objective was the capture of Malta, gateway to the western sea. As if this force was not formidable enough, it would be joined during the siege by the thousands more from Muslim North Africa uniting to consolidate earlier land victories and establish an Islamic state ruled from Constantinople. It would be the world's most powerful empire and it would be ruled by a man who was already a legend - Suleiman the Magnificent.

Traditional histories of 16th century Europe tend to highlight the exploits of Charles V, Francis I and Philip II but if you had asked a well-informed contemporary analyst of the international scene who was the most impressive monarch of the day he would have named - albeit reluctantly - Suleiman the Magnificent. The very title - 'Magnificent' - was bestowed by western observers. In his own land he was 'Suleiman the Lawgiver'. In 1520 he became ruler of a vigorously expansionist Ottoman sultanate determined to extend Sunni Islam, not only over Shia 'heretics', but also Christian 'infidels'. Having cut down to size the Shia caliphate of Iran and destroyed the 300-year old Mameluke caliphate of Egypt, Suleiman's father passed to his son an empire extending from Tabriz in the East to Dubrovnik in the West. The new sultan was ready to extend the Islamic state over Europe.

He attacked by land and sea. He planted strongholds along the North African littoral, making the eastern Mediterranean virtually an Ottoman lake. He advanced across the Danube, taking Belgrade in 1521. The road to Vienna, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, lay before him. In 1526, at the Battle of Mohรกcs, he faced an army, under Louis II of Hungary, assembled to protect the frontier of Christian Europe. At the end of the day Louis and 15,000 Christian troops lay dead on the battlefield. Three years later Suleiman laid siege to Vienna and was only deprived of the great prize by bad weather. This did not deflect him from his goal, which was nothing less than revivifying the Roman Empire - now to be the Islamic State. The Venetian ambassador to England, watched with alarm Ottoman encroachments and warned, 

     'The Turk will make naval expeditions and ravage Puglia, perhaps as far as Rome, for Sultan Suleiman always says "To Rome!", "To Rome!" and he detests the Emperor and his title of Caesar, he, the Turk, causing himself to be called "Caesar".

When, in 1544, having inflicted further defeats on the forces of the Holy Roman Empire, he agreed a treaty with Charles V, the document referred to Charles not as 'Emperor', but merely 'King of Spain'. All visitors to Constantinople were impressed by the splendour of Suleiman's person and his court. One described a ceremony in which the sultan appeared wearing a gold chain so heavy that two servants had to flank him to help bear the weight.

For much of the ensuing two decades Suleiman was busy with naval campaigns in the East, partly directed against Portuguese trading interests in the Indian Ocean. But Suleiman knew that control of the Mediterranean was vital in the accomplishment of his long-term strategy. Little-by-little, Ottoman rule was established along the southern coastline and the important island bases. In one action the Order of Knights Hospitaller were driven from their stronghold in Rhodes. They withdrew to Malta and set about turning it into a well-fortified naval base for the defence of the western Mediterranean. To the enemy this seemed like a last desperate measure to stave off the inevitable. The small Maltese population might have been inclined to agree. When, in 1551, the Ottomans attacked the neighbouring island of Gozo, the Knights were unable to defend it. The island was sacked and the Ottomans went on to overwhelm the Knights' last African base at Tripoli. In 1560 Philip II of Spain assembled a massive fleet to retake Tripoli. In the ensuing battle Philip's armada suffered a defeat worse than the one his other armada was destined to experience at the hands of the English in 1588.

On Malta, the commander, Jean Parisot de Valetta, knew that a showdown could not be long avoided. He completed the building of fortifications, sent to Italy and Spain for military reinforcements and waited, with foreboding, for news from his spies in Constantinople. At the end of March 1565 he received the message he was waiting for: 'They are coming'.
* * *

Next time: Part 2: The Great Siege Begins  

Monday, 11 May 2015


6. Thomas Cranmer and Henry's Ghost

In the dark early hours of 28 January 1547 a pain-racked Henry VIII was told that he was dying. The man he sent for to be with him at the end was Thomas Cranmer. The last face that Henry saw in this world was, therefore, that of his Archbishop of Canterbury. In those solemn hours all titles and ranks counted for nothing; a dying man was simply receiving from his priest the consolations of religion. Cranmer performed his pastoral duty diligently and with real feeling. Afterwards he quite sincerely mourned the king's passing. From that moment he allowed his beard to grow, seemingly as an enduring act of remembrance.

He had every reason to be grateful. In 1532 Henry had raised an obscure Cambridge academic to the highest position in the English church, over the heads of all his bishops and senior ecclesiatics. As with all the other Thomases, save one, Henry had demonstrated that he prized loyalty and talent above rank and birth. Of course, he had his own, completely selfish motives for promoting Cranmer to high office. He was getting nowhere with his campaign to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled and Cranmer came up with the suggestion of bypassing Rome by canvassing the opinions of university academics throughout Europe.

But if the archbishop was useful to the king, the king was also useful to the archbishop. Cranmer was committed to religious reform and throughout the 1530s he worked closely with Thomas Cromwell to steer the English church in a Lutheran direction. It was a narrow and hazard-strewn path to walk as Cromwell discovered when he was toppled by the machinations of traditionalist enemies in 1540. Every step in dismantling the medieval church had to have royal approval and that meant that Cranmer was frequently called upon to discuss with his royal master changes of doctrine and liturgical practice.

There were times when it seemed that Cranmer might go the same way as Cromwell. His most perilous moment came in 1543 when the Catholic faction set in motion a sophisticated and elaborate plot to have him indicted for heresy. Had the conspirators achieved their objective the archbishop would have been stripped of his office, imprisoned and, in all likelihood, burned at the stake. It was Henry who came to his rescue. Summoning the archbishop for a nocturnal, private interview, he warned Cranmer what was afoot and gave him a ring to show the Council when they tried to arrest him. It was the sort of coup de theatre that Henry loved and it saved Cranmer's life.

In January 1547 Cranmer had a little more than nine years of that life left. He used the time to lay the foundation of the Church of England - its theology and its liturgy. During the reign of Edward VI he had the support not only of the precocious young king, but also of the leading councillors, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, as he carried the Reformation rapidly forward. Churches were stripped of the last vestiges of popery and reactionary bishops were removed from office.

The survival of this work depended on one thing: the success of what the old king had intended when he set the Reformation in motion - the continuance of the Tudor male line. The shade of Henry VIII still drifted through the interconnecting chambers of Westminster and Greenwich, willing his son to have sons of his own but ghosts - even Henry VIII's ghost - are powerless. Edward succumbed to tuberculosis in July 1553, at the age of fifteen. In the political debacle that followed, Henry's elder daughter, the grievously wronged Mary Tudor, seized power and - her Catholic faith hardened by the humiliation she had suffered at the hands of her father - she set about exacting her revenge against those who had been the instruments of England's descent into heresy. Thomas Cranmer was the name at the top of her list.

He was imprisoned, first in the Tower and latterly in Oxford, while the new regime worked out what to do with him. Mary wanted not just the old man's (he was 66 at the time of his death) murder, but his humiliation. He was pressured into agreeing a series of recantations which effectively confessed that the whole progress of English religion for the last twenty years had been a monumental, diabolical error. Moreover, so that there should be no possibility of any Protestant apologists claiming that a confession had been forged, Cranmer was required to make a public statement renouncing his errors, immediately before his execution.

The University Church in Oxford was crowded for what was billed as a PR triumph. But Cranmer turned the tables on his tormentors. On this his death-day he performed the most famous act of his life and one remembered down the centuries. At the end of his long speech he announced that the principal act he had to repent of was not his heresy but the recantations of his heresy which he had signed out of fear of death. As his shocked tormentors rushed to pluck him from the platform, he shouted out, 'As for the pope, I refuse him as Christ's enemy and Antichrist with all his false doctrine!' When he was tied to the stake, he had one more statement for the watching crowd. Holding out his right arm, he said, 'Since this hand has most offended in signing my false confession, it shall be the first to taste the fire.' He had made the moment his own. But perhaps it was from his old master, Henry VIII, that he had learned the effectiveness of the theatrical gesture.
* * *
Further Reading:
John Foxe, Acts and Monuments, ed. S.R. Cattley, London, 1839, Vol.8

D. MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer, New Haven, 1996

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court - Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2001

Monday, 4 May 2015


5. Thomas Wriothesley - A Man of Pliable Conscience

The contemporary scholar and preacher John Ponet called Thomas Wriothesley, 'the subtle and ambitious Alcibiades of England' after an Athenian general who was notorious for coat-turning. The stormy seas of mid-sixteenth century England were perilous but a determined and wary manipulator could make his fortune by braving them - or so Thomas Wriothesley reasoned.

He was born in 1505 into a family of royal heralds. For several generations they had held office in the College of Arms. As such they were involved with court ceremonial and enjoyed a position of influence among the armigerous families of the realm. Young Thomas used his family connections to advantage to obtain a place in the household of Thomas Wolsey. There he worked closely with Thomas Cromwell and, after the Cardinal's fall, he hitched his wagon to Cromwell's rapidly rising star. 

The crisis of autumn 1536 provided Wriothesley's golden opportunity. The northern counties were boiling with the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion. Henry retreated within the stout walls of Windsor Castle. Cromwell was at Westminster keeping his finger on all the lute strings of government. The trusted liaison officer between king and minister was Thomas Wriothesley. Being close to Henry during those nervous weeks gave him a psychological advantage and he was not slow to take advantage of it. As confiscated monastic property became available Wriothesley built up an impressive portfolio. He cherry-picked estates and buildings in southern England and, by 1538, when he was scarcely into his thirties, he was the biggest landowner in Hampshire.

The next critical moment came in the summer of 1540. The conflict between Cromwell and his arch-rival, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, was reaching white heat. Court-watchers sensed that one or the other must soon fall. Wriothesley was related by marriage to Gardiner's family. Cromwell was his generous patron. Which way would Wriothesley jump? To be fair, it must be said that Gardiner, eager to wheedle useful information out of him, applied not a little pressure to his 'cousin'. Wriothesley betrayed the man who had forwarded his career and benefited handsomely. He became the new owner of Austin Friars, the sumptuous London residence Cromwell had acquired and embellished for himself.

He soon had the honours to go with his wealth. In 1544 he became Baron Wriothesley of Tichfield and Lord Chancellor. Having moved into the conservative camp led by Gardiner and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Wriothesley enthusiastically used his talent in the cause of reaction. Among his gifts was a penchant for interrogation. He examined in prison a number of suspected heretics, his most notorious encounter being with the Lincolnshire gentlewoman, Anne Askew. His behaviour in this case was that either of a religious fanatic or a political desperado. Wriothesley and his allies were bent on the destruction of Catherine Parr, Henry's last queen, and her evangelical circle. Knowing that Anne had supporters in this circle their objective was to extract damning information from her. But Anne refused to tell her tormentors what they wanted. This prompted one of the most desperate acts of the age. In the Tower of London the Lord Chancellor of England had Anne placed on the rack and personally turned the screw himself, a barbarian action against a woman which shocked contemporaries quite accustomed to the violence of the Henrician regime. The plotters still believed they could proceed with their campaign against the queen. Wriothesley obtained permission to apprehend Catherine when she was in the privy garden with her husband. But the tables were turned. The queen got wind of the plot, appealed to Henry and he changed his mind. When Wriothesley turned up to effect the arrest he had the embarrassment of being whiplashed by Henry's tongue.

As the reign of Edward VI began it was obvious to Wriothesley that he was on the wrong side in the struggle for control of the boy king. In the distribution of honours at the accession he became Earl of Southampton. But now his career followed the disastrous pattern of Cromwell's. Before many months had passed he was stripped of the Chancellorship. Belligerent to the last, he tried to fight his way out of his corner by driving a wedge between the effective masters of the kingdom, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Again, he miscalculated. At the beginning of 1550 he was dismissed from the Council and placed under house arrest.

Thomas Wriothesley was a broken man. His mental and physical health collapsed. Fearing, probably correctly, that he would soon pay the ultimate price for his intrigues, he went into a deep depression. According to Ponet this fifth of Henry VIII's Six Thomases, 'fearing lest he should come to some open, shameful end, he poisoned himself or pined away for thought'.
* * *

Further reading:

G. Gibbons, The Political Career of Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton 1505-1550, Lampeter, 2001

J. Ponet, A Shorte Treatise of politike power ... (1556)

G. Redworth, In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner, Oxford, 1990

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2001

Next week:  6. Thomas Cranmer and Henry's Ghost 

Monday, 27 April 2015


4. Thomas Howard - The One That Got Away

It would be hard to disagree with G.R. Elton's  verdict that Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was 'one of the most unpleasant characters in an age which abounded in them'. He was the last of the proud medieval grandees, an aristocrat who believed that his lineage should guarantee him a position of power in the councils of the state. He was a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary who lacked the mental acuity to evaluate new ideas. Probably his most frequently quoted statement is, 'It was merry in England afore the New Learning came up; I would all things were as hath been in times past'. A creature of small-minded prejudice, if he were alive now and involved in 21st century politics he would probably have been a founder member of UKIP. His adherence to 'that old-time religion', indeed, 'that old-time everything', rested on the belief that resistance to change was essential to preserve power for himself and his noble ilk.

Howard inherited his father's title in 1524, when he was already over fifty years of age. If he expected to find himself at the king's side he reckoned without Thomas Wolsey who correctly assessed the duke's ambition, arrogance and lack of talent. Howard was sidelined for the better part of four years, skulking on his estate and  smouldering with hatred for the ill-bred cardinal. Then Anne Boleyn returned from France where she had learned courtly arts in the entourage of Francis I and his highly-cultured sister, Margaret. Henry's passion for the new arrival dovetailed neatly into his desire to solve his dynastic crisis and the Boleyn clan rose rapidly to prominence. Anne was Norfolk's niece and his fortunes also took a turn for the better. Thus began the marathon struggle for Henry's wife swap. When matters did not go according to the royal plan, Anne accused Wolsey of dragging his feet and there was some truth in her critique of the prolonged negotiations with Rome. Wolsey was certainly anxious to avoid Howard gaining permanent power at the top table. Norfolk grabbed the opportunity to go onto the offensive and his intrigues played a significant part in the cardinal's fall. 

But once again he was thwarted in his bid for power. The man who replaced as chief minister the butcher's son from Ipswich was the publican's son from Putney, Thomas Cromwell. Not only was Howard once more denied the position he considered his due; he had to watch Cromwell's radical attack on the fabric and theology of the medieval church. He opposed - albeit cautiously -  the new direction of government policy. When Queen Anne's turn came to become a victim of Henry's murderous megalomania Norfolk avoided implication in her fall by personally denouncing her 'treasons' and presiding over her trial.

The years 1536-1540 witnessed an escalating power struggle between the forces of reform and reaction. Existing documents suggest a relationship of respectful co-operation between Norfolk and Cromwell but beneath the flowery conventions of official correspondence perceptive foreign diplomats detected an impending crisis between irreconcilable forces. When Cromwell was promoted to the peerage as Earl of Essex and was granted the important court office of Great Chamberlain, elbowing his way brusquely into the closed ranks of the hereditary blue-bloods, Howard snapped. He poured lies in the king's ear and found perjured witnesses to back up his accusations. With relish he personally stripped Cromwell of his Garter insignia and ordered him to the Tower.

Now the path was clear for him to achieve his ambition. It was probably mere chance that Henry took a shine to another of Norfolk's nieces, Catherine Howard, but Norfolk and his accomplices did everything necessary to further the liaison. With the king's marriage to wife number five Howard was once again Henry's brother-in-law. And once again the sweet wine of success turned to vinegar in his mouth. Another Howard queen was found guilty of adultery (quite rightly this time). The queen was executed and several members of her family went to prison.

But Uncle Thomas survived - again. Why did Henry not add Howard to the list of servants disposed of when they had outlived their usefulness? The answer lies in the hereditary principle. Henry, for all his faults, was a very good judge of character. He placed trust in men of talent - Wolsey, More, Cromwell, Cranmer - irrespective of rank. Such gifted but lowly-born men had another important advantage: they were expendable. The same was not true of the aristocracy, men whose families had, for generations, buttressed royal power. These were the leaders who controlled England's shires, the generals who led England's armies, the diplomats who represented England to foreign dignitaries. Henry needed them and he could not alienate men who had loyalties to class as well as Crown.

So Thomas Howard survived - and survived to continue his intrigues. In 1543 he was involved in a failed plot to destroy Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In 1546 Henry's last queen, Catherine Parr was the victim of another reactionary plot. By this time traditionalists were really worried about the country's future. Henry was nearing his end and would be handing on the crown to his under age son, Edward. The threat to Norfolk and his associates was that during the impending regency real power might lie with the boy king's uncle, Edward Seymour, and his friends. And they were committed to further reforms. Norfolk, as England's premier peer, believed that 'ruin' could only be averted if he had control of the ruling council but he was circumspect. Not so his son, the Earl of Surrey. For boasting of the Howards' royal connections and displaying those connections in the family's coat of arms he was arrested, tried for treason and executed. His father was detained for complicity and he, too, was sentenced to death. The beheading was planned for 28 January 1547. During the preceding night Henry VIII breathed his last. The new regime chose to leave the old duke in the Tower to die of natural causes. By surviving into his eighties in the reign of Catholic reactionary, Mary Tudor, he became the only one of the Six Thomases to die peacefully in his bed. He died believing that the dangerous years of Henry VIII were long passed and the 'good old ways' restored. He was spared the final disillusionment.
* * *
Further reading:

D.M. Head, The Ebbs and Flows of Fortune: The Life of Thomas Howard,  Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995

G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005

J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, London, 2008,

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, London, 2001

Next Week: 5. Thomas Wriothesley - A Man of Pliable Conscience

It would be

Monday, 20 April 2015


3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had

When Thomas Cromwell, erstwhile confidential servant of the disgraced Thomas Wolsey, entered the royal Council, Lord Chancellor Thomas More urged him always to advise the king what he ought to do, rather than what he could do. He knew what Henry VIII was capable of. The king would always serve his own interests regardless of those of other people and with no concession to religious or moral guidelines. Henry's personality was marked by extreme egocentricity, indifference to the feelings of others, unlimited self confidence which prompted him to blame others for his own mistakes, superficial charm sometimes giving way to extreme irritability, impulsive behaviour which took no regard of past experience or future consequences. Today we have one word for a person displaying these personality traits: psychopath.

But Cromwell had no intention of acting as a brake on his sovereign's passions - and for one good reason. He and the king were in a symbiotic relationship. Henry would stop at nothing to achieve the dissolution of his marriage. He was prepared to defy the pope, to cosy up to Lutherans (despite having published a book against Luther), to bring the English church firmly under royal control, to appropriate ecclesiastical property and to crush without a twinge of conscience any who resisted - or even questioned - his will. Cromwell evolved a daring vision of a 'new England', a Christian commonwealth based on the principles of the New Learning. The English Bible would be its text. Its driving force would be king and parliament working together. Its chief resource would be the wealth appropriated from the church, which would make the government independent of taxes and free to carry out an imaginative programme of social reform. Without Cromwell's audacious vision and Henry's bulldozing egotism the extraordinary phenomenon of the 1530s - the most formative decade of the millennium - would not have happened.

Inevitably, Cromwell made enemies. There were religious conservatives, of whom the most influential was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who viewed with alarm England's headlong rush into 'heresy'. There were aristocrats, like the premier peer, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who were humiliated by being made to kow tow to the upstart who now ruled the roost. Cromwell was the most hated man in England. His draconian measures had undermined the authority of the clergy, dispossessed monks and nuns, purified parish churches of much loved 'popish clutter' and cancelled traditional holidays.

Cromwell's new broom was not only applied to English religion. He addressed himself energetically to a wide range of social and economic problems. He tackled the serious problem of vagrancy and the decay of community life which drove men onto town streets as beggars or highways as brigands. He directed his attention to fat-cat land speculators who drove families from their agricultural holdings. He addressed reform of trade regulations, protection of the cloth industry, the regeneration of woodlands, abuses of apprenticeship rules and numerous other matters in need of reform. His preamble to a proclamation of 1539 makes clear his motivation. England's benevolent monarch, it declared, took seriously the duty of all kings 'to advance, set forth and increase their commonwealths committed to their cure and charge'. We know of Cromwell's wide-ranging concerns chiefly from his extant correspondence. He dealt daily with a prodigious number of letters and reports and draft legislation. Few of his intended reforms were carried into effect because they needed the support of parliament, and parliament represented various vested interests. Cromwell's involvement in court intrigues might make entertaining television but it involved only a small part of his working life.

King Henry did not share - probably did not understand - his minister's vision. He could not see beyond his personal, short-term advantage. He used Cromwell to extricate himself from his first two marriages. He readily (though not gratefully) pocketed the wealth of his ecclesiastical subjects and immediately began spending it - not on 'commonwealth' projects. When it came to the issue of re-marriage, he entrusted to Cromwell an alliance with the Duke of Cleves who, like himself, occupied the mist-shrouded middle ground between Catholicism and Lutheranism. As we all know, this latest matrimonial adventure went pear-shaped. Henry was disillusioned with Anne of Cleves, annoyed by his inability to consummate the marriage (which, of course, he blamed on Anne) and, as ever, looked for a scapegoat on whom to vent his anger. All that had gone before was of no account. Cromwell's only value to the king was to unmake a third royal match, and he dutifully supplied a letter affirming that Henry and Anne were not connubially united.

But by this time Cromwell was in the Tower. His enemies had been quick to take advantage of the rift between king and minister. They fabricated charges of heresy. And Henry? He stood aside and let them do their worst. Obsessed with the flibbertigibbet Catherine Howard, dangled before him by her uncle, he had no interest in Cromwell's plight. He did not reflect on past service or consider future potential service Cromwell might yet perform. And as for gratitude, that was an emotion he simply did not possess.

Within a year, Henry knew he had made a mistake. Of course, he did not admit as much. According to the French ambassador, he berated his councillors who 'upon light pretexts and by false accusations' had 'made him put to death the most faithful servant he ever had'. As if anyone ever made Henry do what Henry did not want to do! The ability of this deranged tyrant for self-delusion almost beggars belief.
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Further reading:
J. Foxe, Acts and Monuments of the Christian Religion, (ed. S.R. Cattley), London, 1838, Vol.5
J. Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, London, 2008
G.R. Elton, Reform and Renewal: Thomas Cromwell and the Common Weal, Cambridge, 1973
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week: 4. Thomas Howard - The One that Got Away 

Sunday, 12 April 2015


2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr

When Henry VII turned his back on Thomas Wolsey the main cheer leader was Thomas More. Addressing the opening of parliament in November 1529, he complimented the king's sagacity. 'His Grace's sight was so quick and penetrable that he saw ... through him, both within and without'. Like a wise shepherd Henry had removed a 'rotten and faulty' ram from the flock. As the new Lord Chancellor, More had to distance himself from the attitudes and policies of the previous regime. At 51, he had reached the pinnacle of worldly ambition and if he had been nothing other than a sycophantic royal servant, it is possible (though not very probable) that he would have survived. But he was always a torn man, a creature of contradictions. He was a member of the new wave of international humanist scholars while remaining committed to the old church. Though a skilful orator with a gift for language, he descended to vulgar abuse when attacking adversaries (such as William Tyndale). He argued passionately for the eradication of social ills but did not throw his political weight behind programmes of reform. He claimed freedom of conscience for his own beliefs yet persecuted those whose conscience led them in other directions.

Nothing illustrated better his Janus career than his ambitious pursuit of personal advancement and his disdain of public office. He explained to his friend, Erasmus, 'It was with great unwillingness that I came to court'. His famous book, Utopia, contains a passage in which he debates whether a philosopher should remain aloof from the corrupting influence of politics or do what he can to guide the formulation of policy.

It was as a philosopher and wit that Henry valued More. He had known the prominent lawyer and international scholar since his childhood and, like other Renaissance princes, there were times when he found stimulating the conversation of men steeped in classical learning. According to William Roper, More's son-in-law and first biographer, More steadily advanced from court hanger-on to royal intimate, though we should be careful about taking at face value Roper's picture of his father-in-law's friendship with the king. More was certainly under no illusions about the character of his sovereign. In a Latin poem 'To a Courtier' he wrote, 'You often boast to me that you have the king's ear and often have fun with him, freely and according to your whims. This is like having fun with tamed lions - often it is harmless, but just as often there is fear of harm. Sometimes he roars for no known reason, and suddenly the fun becomes fatal'. He once made the grim joke that if his head might win for his mercurial and ruthless master a castle in France, it would immediately become forfeit. Since he was aware of the hazards of life in the Tudor court, where, as Thomas Wyatt observed, 'it thunders round the throne', why did he not seek some way to withdraw from public office before it was too late? Perhaps because there was a strong ascetic element to this councillor who wore a hair shirt next to his skin to mortify the flesh. Perhaps because he believed that someone in authority should make a stand against misguided royal policy, though it might cost him his life.

Ironically, the conflict between allegiance to the king and allegiance to the pope which had brought Wolsey down proved also to be More's undoing - but for different reasons. The Cardinal would have fallen over backwards to secure a political settlement in Henry's favour. More a mere layman, could not bring himself to sanction the royal divorce and the rejection of papal authority which it implied. As long as Henry pursued this policy More could not be the public face of government policy. But Henry was determined to have the public endorsement of his virtuous chancellor and refused More's request to yield up the Great Seal in March 1531. More's resignation was eventually accepted in May 1532.

The king had now found in Thomas Cromwell, a legal and political genius whose radical ideas were able to untie the tangle of the divorce negotiations. More hoped to be left in peace in his home at Chelsea, although he did not shun the light of publicity. He continued in print his war against heresy. The nation was riven with discord, some supporting the king and some adhering to his discarded Queen Catherine. Some championed religious reform and some clung to the old ways. With the government sponsoring a pulpit and pamphlet propaganda campaign and suspected opponents of official policy being imprisoned and interrogated, the issue of 'king versus pope' was seldom out of the 'headlines'. While nailing his colours to the mast in matters of faith, More refused to be drawn into any political argument. But neutrality was not possible. The ex-Chancellor was too popular and his beliefs too well known for Henry to allow him to indulge what his new wife, Anne Boleyn, insisted was sullen silence.

Matters came to a head in April 1534. Cromwell was dotting the Is and crossing the Ts of Reformation legislation, forcing all the king's subjects to endorse anti-papal policy or face the consequences. Parliament had passed an Act of Succession, vesting the crown in the issue of Henry and Anne and it was now to be imposed by means of a sworn oath. When More's turn came to sign, he accepted the succession issue but could not endorse the Act's anti-papal preamble. This was acceptable to Archbishop Cranmer and, probably, to Cromwell but Henry would brook no compromise. He ordered More to the Tower. From that point his condemnation and execution were inevitable. On 6 July 1534 More was beheaded, insisting at the last, that he died 'the king's good servant but God's first'. For Henry there could be no such dichotomy. He seriously believed that his will and the dictates of Providence were one and the same. This conviction had separated England from Christendom. Thomas More had been the standard-bearer of Christendom. He was, therefore, wrong. And defiantly wrong. King and ex-minister were locked in a battle of wills. In such a conflict no opponent of Henry VIII ever came off best.
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Further reading:
W. Roper, The Life of Sir Thomas More in R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
R. Marius, Thomas More, London, 1985
N. Harpsfield, The Pretended Divorce Between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, Camden Soc., 2nd ser., xxi (1878)
G.W. Bernard, The King's Reformation, New Haven, 2005
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next Week:  3. Thomas Cromwell - The Best Servant Henry Ever Had 

Sunday, 5 April 2015


                                     Died, beheaded, beheaded
                                     Self-slaughtered, burned, survived

It was as dangerous to be chief adviser to Henry VIII as it was to be married to him. Of the six men who served in this capacity only one avoided an unpleasant death and he came within a few hours of sharing the fate of the others. For this king loyalty was a one-way street. He was insanely profligate with talented servants and this makes the chronicle of the Six Thomases more revelatory of the second Tudor's reign than the well-worn, over romanticised saga of the Six Queens. Join me over the next few Mondays as I retell a truly appalling story.

1. Thomas Wolsey - The Unkindest Cut 

When the 17 year-old Henry VIII ascended the throne in 1509 the 36 year-old Thomas Wolsey was well established as one of the minor denizens of the court. He was a royal chaplain and had already come to the attention of the new king. Unlike the other close attendants of Henry's penny-pinching, pragmatic, killjoy of a father, Wolsey was an extrovert who loved life and the pleasures it had to offer. Henry, unconsciously seeking a replacement father figure but one who would support his passion for what a later, equally resplendent, monarch would call 'la gloire', lost little time in appointing Wolsey his almoner, with a seat on the Council. For his part, Wolsey had had plenty of opportunity to observe the fun-loving prince, the party animal, whose head was stuffed with images of Arthurian adventure. While his conciliar colleagues tut-tutted about young Henry's extravagant ambitions, Wolsey knew that the path to promotion was, as his biographer, George Cavendish pointed out, to 'satisfy the king's mind'. During the early 'Camelot' years of the reign Wolsey helped to set the tone of conspicuous consumption, assuming the role of benevolent, indulgent uncle to the king and his inner core of gallants. But Wolsey was very much more than an ambitious yes-man. He was an administrative genius, with a head for detail and a capacity for hard work. In 1515, after a 'cabinet reshuffle' had removed some of the greybeards from office, Wolsey was raised to the position of Lord Chancellor and in the same year he achieved international status as a cardinal.

For the first half of the reign king and minister worked together to make Henry's court a centre of Renaissance splendour competing with the capitals of rival monarchs and they elbowed their way into the decision-making councils of Europe. In 1518 it was Wolsey who presided over the international conference which agreed the Treaty of London. All this was no mean accomplishment. Lavish display was an important element of 16th century politics and diplomacy and Wolsey, like his master, was a natural theatrical extrovert who travelled in the utmost pomp, kept lavish court at York House and Hampton Court and staged magnificent events of which the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) was the most spectacular. Wolsey's enemies (of whom there were a growing number) were not slow to point out that his splendour rivalled the king's but Henry was not moved to jealousy. He regarded the cardinal's magnificence as a complement to his own - as long as it suited him. By the mid-1520s it no longer suited him.

The glory days were over. England's royal egotist was approaching middle age and problems were piling up. Years of extravagance had emptied his treasury. His wife had not provided him with a male heir and was now extremely unlikely to do so. He had been humiliated in diplomatic exchanges with the Emperor Charles V. Added to this was the beginning of religious unrest which would lead to the Reformation. Henry and his minister tried to solve the financial problems by imposing a new tax, euphemistically called the Amicable Grant (1526). The result? Riots, leading to a government climb-down. Protestors  could not blame the king (that would have been treason), so they blamed Wolsey. On the heels of this unpleasantness came the king's Great Matter. In the effort to gain a papal annulment of Henry's marriage, Wolsey - royal councillor and Catholic cardinal - was caught in the middle. There is no need to rehearse again the protracted negotiations which led, eventually, to the break with Rome. The important point for Wolsey was that he had failed to 'satisfy the king's mind'.

In the breaking of Wolsey we observe for the first time that ruthlessness and ingratitude Henry displayed in disposing of people who deserved better of him. First of all, he embraced public opinion. Under normal circumstances the king cared not a whit what anyone thought of his policies but when it suited him he could 'discover' and 'share' the discontent of his people. Wolsey was the butt of alehouse jokes up and down the country. Religious tracts published abroad denounced him as the symbol of all that was wrong with the church. At court political rivals, led by Anne Boleyn's family, were ready to go on the offensive against the overmighty upstart. Knowing that the move would be popular, Henry made Wolsey the scapegoat for the policy failures of the reign. An old statute of praemunire was pressed into service by cunning lawyers who accused the cardinal of exercising papal jurisdiction in opposition to royal law, a crime punishable by forfeiture of all the goods of the accused.

There was no showdown between king and minister. Another feature of Henry's dealings with sacked servants was his refusal to confront them personally. His preferred and cowardly tactic was to remove his favour and allow the victim's enemies to do their worst. The Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk were sent to retrieve the Great Seal and eject Wolsey from his office of Lord Chancellor. Wolsey was ordered to take himself to his archdiocese of York while Norfolk cobbled together evidence of yet more heinous crimes. Pilate-like, Henry washed his hands of blood guilt. He would allow the law (based on perjured evidence) to take its course. Fate absolved Henry of this final betrayal, for Wolsey died on his journey south to face trial, on 29 November 1530.

During the cardinal's last weeks he received occasional messages from the king via various agencies assuring him of his majesty's continuing goodwill. Were these stratagems designed to keep Wolsey sweet as long as he could be useful over the divorce? Was the king hanging onto his options as to which faction to support? Or could it be that his conscience was troubling him? If he was feeling twinges of guilt, it was, for him, a rare experience and one which would not trouble him in the years that followed.
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Further reading:
G. Cavendish, 'The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey', R.S. Sylvester and D.P. Harding, eds., Two Early Tudor Lives, New Haven, 1962
P. Gwyn, The King's Cardinal, London, 1990
D.M. Head, The Life of Thomas Howard, Third Duke of Norfolk, Athens, Georgia, 1995
J. Guy, Tudor England, Oxford, 1988
D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court, Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2002

Next week:  2. Thomas More - The Making of a Catholic Martyr