The Last Years of Henry VIII
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
In the last years of the reign of Henry VIII, England's relations with the continental powers and with Scotland again become prominent. Cromwell had completely established the royal supremacy in England, where Henry was virtually absolute. The Church's power of resistance to the royal will had been completely shattered, and Henry had no inclination to permit any extension of religious changes.
Queen Catherine Howard
He did not choose that Archbishop Cranmer should be hurt, and although the party led by the Howards and by Bishop Gardiner were on the whole predominant, they were not allowed to make active reprisals for their repression under Cromwell's regime. The Howards, indeed, seemed to have achieved a triumph when the king was persuaded to take for his fifth wife Catherine Howard, the niece of the Duke of Norfolk; but the triumph was shortlived, since the new queen was very soon found guilty of gross misconduct this time on quite unquestionable evidence, and was executed.
Henry took for his sixth wife Catherine Parr, widow of Lord Latimer, a lady with leanings to the reformed doctrines, but endowed with a tact which enabled her to retain the favour of her royal spouse and so to outlive him.
Abroad the fear of a reconciliation between Charles and Francis had enabled Cromwell to hurry Henry into the Cleves marriage. That was a danger which had now finally disappeared. Moreover, Henry was again free to revert to Wolsey's balancing policy; that is, there was now no inherent reason against a revival of amity with Charles, since his aunt Katharine had been dead for some years. Moreover, there was no love lost between Henry and the Lutheran League, especially since the Cleves fiasco; although, on the other hand, there was no more chance of a reconciliation with the present pope, Paul III, than there had been with Clement VII. So long as Charles kept on good terms with his Protestant subjects, they would not be driven into the arms of Henry; but there was no reason why the emperor should not be on good terms with him at the same time.
Now the relations were strained between Henry and Francis; partly because the French long delayed the payment of certain long-standing indemnities due from him, and was somewhat ostentatiously drawing closer the bonds of alliance with the King of Scots. Border raids and public recriminations continued, though England and Scotland were nominally at peace.
Kidnapping King James
That nice scrupulosity of honour which some historians have managed to attribute to Henry was illustrated by his approval of a scheme for the kidnapping of King James, who was given to private rambles in search of adventure; but the king's council, to its credit, rejected the surprising proposition. A particularly extensive English foray, however, at the end of 1541, gave James warrant for preparing a great invasion in the following autumn.
But the organisation of the Scottish army was chaotic; its commanders were inefficient, and James himself was not present with it. The great force was entangled in the morass called Solway Moss, and was cut to pieces by a very much smaller body of English under the command of Wharton, the energetic warden of the marches. The Scots king's health had already completely broken down; the blow of this great disaster killed him. A fortnight after the battle, as he lay on his deathbed, news was brought to him that his wife had borne him a daughter.
"It came with a lass, and it will go with a lass," he said, and turned his face to the wall. His words were an allusion to the fact that the Stewarts had succeeded to the Scottish throne through a daughter of the Bruce. A week later he was dead. So pitifully began the tragic reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots
But for Mary's birth, Henry might have thought the opportunity a fitting one for attempting to capture the Scottish crown. More wisely, he in fact proposed, like Edward I, to betroth the infant queen to his own heir-apparent, a scheme to which the one serious objection was the conviction of most Scots that such a union would in effect mean the subjection of Scotland to England. A Scots prince might have married an English princess with comparative approval.
A number of the Scots lords taken prisoner at Solway Moss were released on promise of supporting the king's design — promises which were as easy to break as to make. Cardinal Beaton and the queen-mother established their ascendency, and headed the irreconcilables who desired a close alliance with France to counteract the English influence. The treaty which Henry had actually proposed fully warranted the most determined nationalist opposition, since he had required not only the establishment of a Council of Regency which would have been virtually under his own control, but also the importation of English garrisons into Scotland.
The open countenance given by Francis to the Scots threw Henry into the arms of Charles, who was already at War with the French. In 1543, English troops were despatched to Picardy, and a great campaign against France in conjunction with Charles was being planned for the ensuing year. Scotland was seething with intrigues, for Beaton was exceedingly unpopular, partly because of his fierce persecution of Protestants and it was almost as easy to stir up hostility against French influence as against that of England.
The zealots even proposed to Henry plans for the assassination of the cardinal; but he gave them to understand that although such a design was meritorious, it was not one to which he could lend official countenance. It sufficed for his present purposes to keep the country in a state of chaos, and in the spring of 1544 a great English fleet sailed up the Firth of Forth. Leith was sacked, Edinburgh was pillaged, and the surrounding country was devastated. Then the English troops retired; Henry's serious business was in France.
Here Henry's troops were operating with success; but he declined to embark on the emperor's plan of campaign, which was calculated entirely in the emperor's own interest. Francis negotiated separately with his two enemies. Henry refused to make peace except in conjunction with his ally; Charles, less scrupulous, made terms on his own account at the peace of Crepy.
But Henry had taken Boulogne, and was now determined to fight Francis angle-handed rather than abate any of the demands with which he had entered upon the war. Francis found encouragement in a rout inflicted on the English by the Scots at Ancrum Moor, and prepared a great armada for the invasion of England, But the English fleet was too strong to be attacked, and the French fleet was presently broken up by art outbreak of the plague. Ancrum Moor did not prevent an English force from again spreading devastation in Scotland.
Cardinal Beaton murder
Francis realised that England was ready to go on fighting until he would come to satisfactory terras, and peace was made in the summer of 1546. France agreed to pay up the English claims, and Boulogne was' to remain in Eng- land's hands for eight years as security. At the same time Henry had the satisfaction of learning that Cardinal Beaton had been duly murdered in Scotland, and the assassins held possession of the castle of St. Andrews, from which they could defy the punitory efforts of the government.
There are certain other characteristics of the reign to which brief allusion must be made. Henry had come to the throne with a treasury far better provided than any one of his predecessors, thanks to his father's peculiar economic methods. That inheritance he squandered, and he sought for a remedy in the spoliation of the Church. Yet those vast spoils were squandered in turn. Henry took refuge in the most ruinous of all financial expedients, the repudiation of debt and the debasement of coinage.
In the last few years of the reign, the actual value of the coins issued from the mint fell to only about a seventh of their face value; that is, they contained only about that proportion of the silver which they were supposed to contain. Their purchasing power fell accordingly, a fact otherwise expressed by saying that prices rose. Wages did not rise in proportion, and the wage-earning population suffered correspondingly. Only the debased coinage as a matter of course remained in circulation, and foreign commercial transactions were plunged into ruinous disorder.
The process of enclosure extended and increased with the redistribution of the monastic lands. Agricultural depression became worse and worse, while the sturdy vagabonds increased and multiplied, and trade of every kind suffered. It was not till finance was vigorously taken in hand by the ministers of Queen Elizabeth that the chaos wrought by Henry was remedied and the recovery of a real prosperity became possible. The depreciation of the coinage, it may be remarked, was made the more serious when the influx of silver and gold from the new Spanish territorities in America began to make itself felt, because the increased supply of the precious metals lowered their value in exchange. Hence the middle years of the century were in many respects a period of very serious depression, felt perhaps more acutely in the sixth than in the fifth decade.
When Cardinal Beaton was murdered, Henry's race was already almost run. He had been definitely authorised to fix the course of the succession, which was to go first to Edward and the heirs of his body, next to Mary and the heirs of her body, next to Elizabeth and her heirs, and next to the Greys, the heirs of Henry's youngest sister, Mary. This Mary, it will be remembered, had for a short hour been the queen of Louis XII of France. She had then become the wife of the king's intimate companion, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.
Their daughter Frances married Lord Dorset, who afterwards became Duke of Suffolk, and was the mother of three daughters, of whom the eldest, Lady Jane Grey, was destined to be a nine-days' queen. Henry's will ignored the claims of the Scottish royal family, through his elder sister, Margaret, and also the claims of her daughter by her second marriage with the Earl of Angus.
This daughter married Matthew, Earl of Lennox, so that the Lennox Stewarts of the next generation, of whom the eldest was the unfortunate Henry, Lord Darnley, stood a remote chance of succession both to the English and to the Scottish throne, though on distinct grounds, since Earl Matthew himself stood in the line of the Scottish succession, and his wife in that of England.
Fall of the Howards
Henry had settled not only the succession but the form of the government which was to take control if he died during his son's minority. He had nominated the "Council of Executors" (of his will) who were to form this provisional government. The body was carefully selected, so that to all appearance the two parties, represented on the one side by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, Henry's brother-in-law, and by Cranmer, and on the other by the Howards and Bishop Gardiner, should be evenly balanced, and the equilibrium preserved until Edward came of age. But at the last moment the Howards spoilt the scheme, to their own destruction. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, and his father, the Duke of Norfolk, were charged with treason.
There was evidence enough of guilt under the very wide interpretation of treason permitted by the Treasons Act. Surrey was sent to the block, a doom which seems to have been by no means undeserved, though much unmerited sympathy has been wasted upon him because he was also a poet. Yet it was scarcely a condonation of technical treason and of a painfully deficient sense of honour that had introduced blank verse into England. Norfolk himself only escaped the same fate as his son, though he was probably innocent of any treasonable intent, by the happy accident of Henry's death before the hour for the duke's execution had arrived.
Martin Luther was already gone; Francis of France followed Henry to the grave two months afterwards. Of the great personalities who had dominated Europe for so long, Charles V alone remained.