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'.
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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.
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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'.
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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