Tudor government and social order

The Tudor realm

  • Consisted of England, Wales and Ireland
  • Population of England and Wales 2.3m in 1500, rising to 4.1m in 1600
  • 90% of the population lived in rural villages; the most profitable industry was still wool – there was almost no manufacturing, except semi-finished cloth
  • Cost of living is rising (inflation) faster than value of wages
    • Prices rise 200% between 1500 and 1550
    • Prices rise 400% between 1550 and 1600
    • Fastest rise is in the years 1540-60
  • Wages are static – about fourpence a day for peasants
  • 50% of population are at subsistence level

The century can fairly be seen as a century of economic difficulty, and the 1540s as a period of crisis (helping to explain Commotion Time):

  • Rents rise consistently after 1500
  • Rapid rise in prices
  • Population up by 1% a year on average – hits 3 million
  • Series of poor harvest – 1549, 1550, 1551
  • Crisis in cloth exports – Antwerp declines as a centre of the trade from 1550 when Charles V allies with France and agrees to suspend the trade there. English merchants cannot find alternate outlets for wool
  • Expensive wars against France and Scotland from 1542-1550 – total cost about £3.5 million
  • Poor weather – onset of the “little ice age”
  • Peasantry spent up to 90% of wages on food – little slack in case of problems

Notions of social order

The “glue” that held Tudor society together was a social theory called The Great Chain of Being.

  • A body, often shown as a man with the king as the head, and the commons at the feet
  • The idea that society was static, everyone had a place in it which was fixed, and that everyone had duties to others, but could expect others to do their duties to them
  • All parts are interdependent and the body will only work properly if every class plays its part
  • Edward Sandys, bishop of Worcester: “We are all members of one body and know we have need of one another.”
  • Order of classes is: King; nobility; gentry; yeomanry; husbandmen; peasants; vagrants
    • Gentry (‘Sir X’) owned land and so did not need to work. Seen as natural leaders of society in the counties. There were about 5,000 gentry families, typically with incomes of about £250
    • Yeomanry were large scale tenant farmers on freehold land, who employed peasants and earned a large sum, typically about £100 a year. They became increasingly wealthy in this century, benefitting from specialisation in farming (eg cereals in Norfolk, dairy in Somerset) and benefitting from an ability to purchase former church lands
    • Husbandmen were subsistence farmers on rented land
    • Peasantry were manual labourers with no land of their own – vulnerable to inflation, rising populations; could be expelled from their homes by landowners in some circumstances, little work in winter
  • In cities the hierarchy was merchants (who sold things); artisans (who made things); apprentices
  • Throughout this century, while it was possible to rise up the hierarchy, it was far more common to drop down it – this was something many feared and a background motivating factor in rebellion

Religion was frequently harnessed to reinforce this doctrine. Sermons were preached stressing that this was a social order decreed by god – opposing it, or even finding it unfair, was ungodly. The church helped bund families and communities, so changes in religion, doctrine and custom were potentially highly destabilising.

Threats to the Great Chain of Being:

  • Growth of towns, attracting peasants with prospect of more or easier work
  • Enclosure made land less available and threatened to force peasants down to the level of vagrants
  • The Reformation, removing “comforts” which had helped make the peasants’ bearable – religious holidays and festivals, the support of the church in the progress of life (birth, confirmation, marriage, baptism of children, last rites and death – ie the sacraments)
  • The replacement of the notion of service to a lord to service to the state. Cromwell is a good example of someone who rose in this new way – through parliament and royal appointment, not because he was a noble or served one
  • Increase in number of vagabonds, caused by competition for jobs
    • Much feared as destabilising influences
    • Somerset passes 1547 law saying those who will not work should become slaves (it doesn’t stay law, but still…)
  • VERY IMPORTANT: The 1500s witnessed a ‘fragmentation of the commons’
    • Reformation helped dissolve religious bonds
    • Inflation and population rise set commons against each other in competition for scarce resources
    • Poor harvests and famine similarly set commons against one another – this explains why the years of greatest starvation did not see revolt – there was too much focus on simply staying alive
    • With less unity and cohesion, and less belief in the Chain of Being, commons had less reason to rebel, and less ability to do so. This helps explain why commons revolts became much less potent after 1549

Nature of government

Tudor government started small.

  • A total of no more than 10,000 royal officials governed the country.
  • There was no standing royal army
  • The population could not therefore be governed by force

In the course of the century, its ambitions increased considerably.

  • Establishment of the office of lord lieutenant, head of administration in counties – a direct result of 1549
  • Paid Sheriffs and JPs (whom the government can therefore control) sent from the centre replace unpaid local JPs drawn from the gentry and nobility) who had local loyalties and could not easily be controlled
    • Wolsey deliberately appoints non-northerners in the north in 1520s – resentment of these men is evident in Pilgrimage of Grace
    • New Protestant JPs appointed to replace Catholics by Edward VI and Elizabeth –- similar resentment is a problem in Commotion Time
  • With greater local control, the government could react more quickly to local disturbances. This is the other main reason why there were fewer commons revolts after 1549.

However, what did not happen, even under Thomas Cromwell, was extension of central authority into regions with placement of salaried officials in the counties.

  • The administration there still relied on unpaid JPs over whom the crown had no real power.
  • There was still no standing army
  • So there was still a clear division between the centre and the periphery

Consolidation of the state

The Tudor state was more centralised, more powerful, and more far-reaching than its predecessors for 7 main reasons – all originally reforms of Thomas Cromwell

  • Territorial consolidation
    • Eg union of England and Wales, 1536
    • Old medieval ‘liberties’ and palatinates (which did not pay tax to central government) dissolved in 1536
  • Rank based on service, not birth
    • Nobles required to offer service to the crown
    • No right to raise private armies of retainers
  • A new definition of King’s Minister
    • Cromwell the first to have an independent role – to run government efficiently and consistently, rather than according to the king’s will
  • Expansion of notion of royal power
    • Move to full “imperial” authority, royal power no longer restricted by the church. Creation of Church of England headed by monarch was the key move here
  • Centralisation of administration
    • Privy Council in London + councils in north, west and Wales directly responsible to central government
    • Commissions sent out from centre to check on imposition of new laws. Collection of tax
    • Four new Courts (eg Court of First Fruits and Tenths) administer tax and administration
  • Replacement of charity offered by monasteries with Poor Relief, a system introduced in 1536 which made parishes responsible for helping their old and unemployed
  • In Ireland, a permanent military garrison was installed in the Pale and the office of Lord Deputy restricted to Englishmen; Irish chieftains became English earls

Cromwell himself became Principal Secretary, a post known under Elizabeth as Secretary of State.


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