The Project Gutenberg EBook of Ten Tudor Statesmen, by Arthur D. Innes

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Title: Ten Tudor Statesmen

Author: Arthur D. Innes

Release Date: January 24, 2015 [EBook #48057]

Language: English

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From a Painting by an unknown Flemish artist, in the National Portrait Gallery





Printed by Ballantyne & Co. Limited
Tavistock Street, London



The series of studies contained in this volume is in no way a history of the Tudor period. My object in preparing it has been first to form in my own mind and secondly to present to my readers a clear and consistent conception of the character of sundry persons, who in their own day either exercised an effective influence on the course of politics, or embodied political ideas which have influenced succeeding generations. The events narrated are considered not in the light of their intrinsic importance, but as they bear on the particular character under investigation.

To arrive at a fair estimate of any man’s character, the primary necessity is to endeavour to realise his point of view, to appreciate his preconceptions. If we require of him that his preconceptions shall coincide with our own, we may reconstruct an interesting dramatic figure, but we shall not discover the man as he really was. And if we do succeed in placing ourselves at his point of view, we shall almost inevitably find that the man who ultimately emergesvi is different from, and probably somewhat better than, the man as we had previously conceived him.

Concerning these ten figures, two curious points may be noted. Eight of them may be described as ministers: not one of the eight was actually of noble birth, two were not even of gentle birth. That fact emphasises the change in the political centre of gravity which accompanied the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty. Secondly, of those eight, four perished on the scaffold and one at the stake: a sixth was in custody under accusation of treason when death released him. That illustrates not less emphatically the distance at which we stand from the Tudors to-day.

A. D. I.



III. WAR 167



Henry VII. Frontispiece
From a Painting by an unknown Flemish artist, in the National Portrait Gallery
  To face page
Cardinal Wolsey 36
From a Painting by Holbein in the collection at Christ Church, Oxford
Sir Thomas More 76
From a Painting by Holbein in the National Portrait Gallery
Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex 116
By Holbein, from an Engraving by Houbraken in the British Museum
Henry VIII. 158
From a Portrait by Jost van Cleef in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace
Protector Somerset 206
From a Painting by Holbein
Thomas Cranmer 238
From a Painting by G. Fliccius in the National Portrait Gallery
William Cecil (Lord Burghley) 280
From a Portrait by Marc Gheeraedts (?) in the National Portrait Gallery
Sir Francis Walsingham 326xii
From an engraving by G. Vertue after the picture by Holbein, in the British Museum
Sir Walter Raleigh 362
From the Painting by Federigo Zuccaro in the National Portrait Gallery




“This King, to speak of him in terms equal to his deserving, was one of the best sort of wonders, a wonder for wise men.” In those words Francis Bacon summed up Henry VII., a hundred years after the first Tudor king had been laid in his grave. Bacon’s history still is, and is likely to remain, the classic narrative. Not that he was a “contemporary,” or that he had access to any extraordinary sources of information; but because being at once a practical politician, a student of political theory, and a literary artist, any historical work from his pen could hardly have failed to be of the highest interest, and the subject he actually chose was—to him—peculiarly sympathetic.

It is in fact quite evident that Henry was held in the very highest estimation by his biographer. The history is addressed to Prince Charles, and it can hardly be doubted that in calling his hero “the English Solomon,” Bacon had in mind the reigning king’s description as the “Scottish Solomon”; the direct suggestion of a parallel (repeated in other terms in the Preface) must have been meant to be4 looked upon as a compliment by James. Henry was at least to be accounted the shrewdest ruler amongst the very astute princes who were more or less his contemporaries. Yet, for all the impression of shrewdness, Bacon fails to win our sympathy for Henry, perhaps because those two minds had too close kinship. Bacon, except in the case of a few enthusiasts, does not inspire affection. Pope’s summary is too accurate an expression of what is at least the popular conception; and Henry is judged to have been not quite so bright, nearly but not quite so wise—and still more mean. English history provides examples of monarchs whom every one actively hates like King John, or scorns like Edward II.; other monarchs too, who, if they had evil qualities, yet display something of the heroic; towards whom our feelings, if mixed, are still warm. But Henry VII. inspires almost universally a strong sentiment of cold dislike, such as no one else creates.

There is justice in that impression, but there is also injustice. In his latter years, it is hardly too much to call him detestable. He had reigned for fourteen years before he committed the one commonplace crime of tyrants which stains his record, the execution of Warwick. From that time a kind of degeneration seems to have come upon him, accelerated by the deaths first of his wisest counsellor Morton, then, two years later, of the son he loved, and then of his wife. To these years belongs nearly every story which tells seriously to his discredit. But during the earlier and longer half of his reign, his record is remarkably free from blemish, and shows5 an enlightenment which under happier conditions might have won him a place not only among the kings who have deserved well of the State—that, at least in the historian’s eyes, he did achieve—but among those whose memory posterity have cherished.


After the death of Henry V., his widow accepted in marriage the hand of a Welsh knight of ancient lineage, Owen Tudor. In 1456, their son Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, took to himself a very youthful bride, the Lady Margaret Beaufort, the representative of John of Gaunt’s family by Katherine Swynford, legitimatised by Act of Parliament in the reign of Richard II. On January 28, 1457, Margaret gave birth to a son, Henry, some weeks after Edmund himself had died; the charge of the boy devolving mainly upon Edmund’s brother Jasper, Earl of Pembroke. During the next fourteen years, the great Earl of Warwick was playing see-saw with the fortunes of the rival houses of York and Lancaster. In 1461, the Yorkists won the upper hand; but Jasper held out in Wales for Lancaster, for nearly seven years. Then Harlech Castle was surrendered, and young Henry was placed in charge of its captor, the new Earl of Pembroke, and was well enough treated. Then Lancaster had a turn6 of success, but the party was crushed at the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and the line was quenched by the deaths of Henry VI. and his son. Yorkists and Lancastrians alike fixed upon young Henry Tudor as being now the representative of John of Gaunt; England was too dangerous a habitation for a possible claimant to the throne; and the boy in his fifteenth year was successfully shipped off by his friends to Brittany, where for twelve years he abode under the Duke’s protection.

If the dynasty of York had established itself in regular fashion—if Edward IV. had been followed by an Edward V. as Henry IV. had been followed by Henry V.—there would have been little enough to fear. But Edward’s brother usurped the throne by a particularly foul murder, and being on it proved himself a tyrant. Men’s eyes turned to the one scion of the Plantagenets whom it was possible to set up as a claimant to the crown. If he could be set on the throne with Edward’s daughter at his side, the rival factions of York and Lancaster might be stilled. The first attempt to challenge the usurper failed completely. Buckingham’s plan of campaign was ruined by the flooding of the Severn, and by a storm which scattered the fleet wherewith Richmond sailed from Brittany to co-operate. Henry, returning thither, had to flee very soon after to safer shelter in France. But it was not long before the attempt was renewed, this time with success. On Bosworth field Richard was slain, and Henry declared King of England.

The victor was a young man of eight-and-twenty.7 For fourteen years he had lived in England, amidst civil broils and perpetual alarms. For fourteen more he had lived mainly in Brittany, conscious that he was in perpetual danger of being surrendered into the hands of those who might at any time find his destruction convenient. All his life he had been in an atmosphere of suspicion, of possible treachery, encompassed with deeds of blood. He had learned to study others and to trust himself. He had learned that his life might depend on alertness and self-restraint. And he had been able to see that Louis XI. was incomparably the most successful master of state-craft of his generation. These were lessons calculated to kill all youthful qualities, and at twenty-eight Henry might as well have been forty.

This was the man who had grasped a sceptre to which it was impossible to establish for him a legal title. In plain truth, he was King of England because he was the only man of the blood-royal who was able to challenge the usurper who was wearing the crown. As far as right of inheritance went, if Edward IV.’s daughters were barred by their sex, the son of Clarence was indubitably the heir of Edward III., whether descent through the female line were admitted or no. Henry might marry Elizabeth of York and claim the crown in her right; but then her death would leave him in a highly anomalous position; it was imperative that he should be accepted himself as the lawful king in his own person. The marriage might make matters perfectly safe for a son, but not for him. Hence even the semblance of depending on his wife’s title must be avoided.

8 He had won the realm by the sword; that was the first step. The second was to commit the representatives of the nation to affirm that he was the lawful sovereign: this was effected by a Declaratory Act in Parliament, which judiciously abstained from naming the grounds on which his claim rested. After that was to come the marriage, which should muzzle the partisans of York. This took place in the following January; but it is easy to see that the king had good reason for not proceeding to his wife’s coronation at least till a son should be born. Not long after that son was born, the Simnel plot was brewing; the coronation under those circumstances might have taken the colour of a defensive measure. Consequently the ceremony was not performed until Elizabeth had been his wife for very nearly two years, being thus emphasised as a mere act of grace.

No doubt if, by marrying the Plantagenet princess, Henry could have appropriated the Yorkist title to himself personally whether his queen lived or died, he would have been able to do without repressing the heads of the Yorkist faction at all. But, as things stood, that could not be risked. Warwick, Clarence’s young son, was imprisoned in the Tower, and some of the last king’s principal supporters were attainted. Being thus kept dissatisfied, it was a long time before active Yorkist plots ceased. The Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret, sister of Edward IV., made her Court a regular centre of anti-Tudor intrigue; nor did Henry ever feel really safe till the myth of a surviving Richard of York was finally exploded and the actual Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, had been done to9 death. The course which Henry took involved a certain degree of injustice—but Fiat Justitia, Ruat Cælum, is a maxim that princes with an uncertain title are rarely, if ever, disposed to adopt without reservation. One is disposed to wonder rather that Warwick was allowed to live so long than that Henry ultimately yielded to the temptation to slay him.

This plain business of securing himself on the throne was necessarily the first consideration. Only an established dynasty could restore steady government in a country which within a hundred years had seen four kings slain and the great bulk of her ancient baronage wiped out. Between foreign wars, successful or the reverse, and a wild warfare of armed factions at home, stability had been destroyed. The prolonged reign of strong rulers maintaining one policy was an absolute condition of recuperation. The way in which Henry secured it was entirely characteristic and entirely successful. The sword, the poniard, and the headman’s axe or the dungeon, were normally relied on by rulers whose seat was uncertain. Henry acted on a strictly original scheme. When he took the field against rebels, he sent before him proclamations of pardon to those who would come in; and he kept his word. He did not massacre the routed foe: he spared them, seizing only their leaders. He was responsible for no murders. A Lambert Simnel or a Perkin Warbeck when captured was not hanged out of hand, but sent to join the scullions, or set in the stocks as an impostor. Executions were singularly rare; rebels who might become powerful merely had their claws clipped by fines and confiscations—very efficiently10 clipped, no doubt. Where imprisonment was resorted to, the confinement was seldom harsh; and the king never had qualms about restoring a quondam rebel to favour and authority, if he judged that his man would show himself worthy of the faith reposed in him. When Surrey’s gaoler offered to let him go free, Surrey refused to escape; the king had put him in ward, and the king alone should release him. The king did so, and gave him a command of the highest trust. Kildare set authority at defiance when he was Deputy in Ireland, and when he was deposed, “All Ireland cannot rule this man,” said his enemies. “Then let this man rule all Ireland,” quoth Henry, and restored him to the Deputyship. Neither Surrey nor Kildare gave him cause for repentance.

Such a record would have entitled Henry to praise as a prince of unparalleled magnanimity, but for its common-sense accompaniment of fines and confiscations. But in fact, to penalise rebellion in some sort was an absolute necessity; not to have done so would have jeopardised the throne. The method adopted might not be heroic, but it was supremely practical; inasmuch as it wrought the minimum of positive injury to the punished, while at once depriving them of power to harm and supplying the king himself with the sinews of government, of which he was sorely in need. It was dictated quite as much by policy as by magnanimity, but the mere fact that Henry recognised it from the outset as sounder policy than any precedents, recent at any rate, suggested, is testimony to the acuteness of his11 moral perceptions as well as to the keenness of his intelligence. Nor is it fair to deprive Henry of the credit of magnanimity, merely because the magnanimity paid. To realise that it did pay and prove completely successful, we have only to observe that after the battle of Stoke there was no baronial rising in England. Warbeck got all his support either from the exiles or from foreign courts: when he tried to raise the West of England on his own account, he collapsed ignominiously. It is true that an army of Cornish insurgents had marched to Blackheath just before, and had there been broken up; but that was a purely popular rising in protest against taxation, and its chiefs were a blacksmith and a lawyer.


It was not sufficient, however, merely to secure the sceptre in the hands of a strong king; it was necessary further to establish a strong system. For half a century the great power and estates of individual barons had enabled them to keep the country in perpetual turmoil. The idea of universal obedience to the established government simply because it was established had vanished from the military and political classes: the idea even of concerted government by one class, guided by its interests as a class, had disappeared; it was only the personal factor, personal interests, that counted. Below the baronage,12 the gentry who bordered on the baronage, and their retainers, townsfolk and country folk stood aloof from the fighting, and lived as peacefully as they might—all things considered, with a wonderful freedom from disturbance. But standing aloof from the fighting, they had perforce stood aloof also from the business of government, which fell to the military faction that happened for the time being to have the upper hand. They were in short ready to support and profit by a government which gave promise of peace and stability, order and justice; but they were not ready to organise such a government for themselves, or to take a prominent part in conducting it. Under such conditions, the Yorkists had established a despotism, as the only workable form of government. But their despotism was one that rested almost exclusively on the personal forcefulness of the ruler. It was Henry’s task to keep the effective power concentrated in the King’s hands, but to give it a constitutional colour—to make the nation feel it as a government by consent. It was therefore necessary to eliminate factors which naturally tended to disturbance—in other words, to deprive the individual barons of the power of aggressive self-assertion; and at the same time, so to treat the naturally orderly elements of society as to keep them on the side of the government.

This was the root-principle of the Tudor Absolutism, devised and put into practice by the first Tudor king, and systematically carried out by his son and grand-daughter. The system carried England to the first place among the nations. But it broke13 down when the Stuarts ignored its fundamental principle, and so treated the naturally orderly elements of society as to turn them against the government. For under the system, those elements acquired the power of organisation and self-protection, as the accompaniment of the prosperity they enjoyed increasingly; and it followed that the system could only remain stable so long as there was essential harmony and sympathy between the monarch and his subjects.

For the concentration of power, effective power, in the king’s hands, money was essential; while to keep the general population contented, it was necessary that their purses should not be subjected to too severe exactions, which must fall elsewhere. Henry directed them against the nobility. The nation at large had no objection; the king’s treasury was filled and the power of the nobles curtailed by the same operation. Thus the king eliminated the disturbing factor, or allowed it to eliminate itself. When noblemen got themselves mixed up with treasons, they could not complain if their lives were spared and their goods paid the forfeit. They had been wont to maintain great households, every man having in his service the nucleus of an army. These crowds of retainers were forbidden by law, as being, for obvious reasons, a public danger. If noblemen, accustomed to over-ride the law, chose to keep up their households in despite of it, they could not expect sympathy when they were called upon to pay in cash the penalty of breaking the law. These measures were not only thoroughly defensible as14 being entirely free from any taint of injustice; they also served directly to relieve taxation, to fill the royal coffers, and to make wanton insurrection difficult.

Yet, while keeping within what might be called legitimate bounds, as he habitually did while Morton was alive, the king undoubtedly permitted himself to apply methods which savoured of trickery. He made great parade of a war with France, appealing to national patriotism to supply the funds. The appeal was successful, but there was no corresponding expenditure on the campaign. Excellent reasons for inactivity were of course forthcoming, but it is none the less certain that no activity was ever contemplated. All that was intended was a demonstration which might induce the French monarch to buy the English king off with solid cash—as he eventually did. The whole transaction was eminently profitable, but Henry had certainly got his money out of his own subjects by false pretences. The same plea was resorted to, to get benevolences authorised, when the famous dilemma traditionally—but as it would seem quite unjustly—attributed to Cardinal Morton was applied. People who lived handsomely could obviously afford a contribution by curtailing their extravagance; people who did not live handsomely must have wealth laid by. In either case, there could be no inability to serve the king’s need. The spirit which prompted the invention of that dilemma is illustrated in a story reported by Bacon as traditional. Henry paid a visit to the Earl of Oxford at Henningham, where he was sumptuously15 entertained, and on his departure passed out through a lane of the earl’s retainers drawn up to do him honour. “These, no doubt, are your menial servants,” observed the king. The earl demurred; they were not menials, but retainers, who had turned out to do him credit when he had so distinguished a guest. Whereupon “The king started a little, and said, ‘By my faith, my lord, I thank you for my good cheer, but I may not endure to have my laws broken in my sight. My attorney must speak with you.’ And it is part of the report that the earl compounded for no less than fifteen thousand marks.” It is obvious that such a story might have been developed out of some really quite justifiable incident; but it is tolerably certain that it was not only in his closing years that Henry displayed what we may call an unkingly acquisitiveness.

In passing, however, it may be remarked that this was a family trait. Elizabeth inherited her grandfather’s prejudice against spending a shilling that could be kept in her purse, or neglecting any plausible pretext for attracting coin into it. She also inherited his business principle of repaying every loan he contracted with unfailing punctuality. Henry VIII. did not indeed practise economy, but he could haggle over a money bargain as keenly as his father or his daughter, and his generosity, when he indulged it, was usually at the expense of another pocket than his own. The art of appropriating in the public eye credit to which he was not in the least entitled, was one of which he was a past master; it was one the value of which his father, who certainly neglected16 any efforts to make himself personally popular, somewhat underrated. Thrift is a virtue; for Henry VII., a particularly necessary virtue; but it is not one that under any circumstances helps to make him who exercises it attractive. When it assumes a sordid aspect, it becomes definitely repellent.

That did not trouble Henry; he wanted money, and during the greater part of his reign he got it without flagrant extortion; with such success, too, that in his later years he was able almost entirely to work without calling Parliament: the skill with which he conducted his foreign negotiations on the same cash principles contributing not a little to this result.


It was characteristic of Henry, and somewhat unfortunate for his reputation, that he cared nothing at all about investing his policy with any showiness unless some specific end was to be gained thereby. The objects his government had in view were essentially prosaic: commonplace they cannot be called, because in a mediæval monarch they were eminently original. It was customary for kings to interfere in commercial affairs chiefly when they saw their way to collect by so doing contributions to the exchequer, or when it seemed worth while to make enactments in favour of capital as against labour. Henry has the credit of being the first English king17 who clearly recognised commercial development as a primary care of government: which hitherto only the oligarchical city-states of Italy and the German free-towns had done. It is true that he was quite ready to subordinate the commercial to a political end; to attack those who sheltered his enemies, not with pikes and culverins but with commercial restrictions only less injurious to English trade than to that of the antagonist. He did so without suffering from the illusion that the loss of the foreign merchant was the gain of the English. In these cases he weighed the economic loss against the political gain. In mediæval practice, the economic consideration would have counted for practically nothing in the scale. In the eyes of some politicians to-day, no political advantage would be worth counting as against an economic inconvenience—and it is usually extremely difficult to show that a political advantage will accompany an economic inconvenience. But Henry was only just emerging from mediæval conceptions. The remarkable thing is that he realised commerce as an object of policy at all, not that he rated its importance lower than Adam Smith: that he relaxed the mediæval theory, not that he did not discard it altogether.

This argument is not to be misunderstood. It has nothing to do with the rightness or wrongness of any economic theory, but only with the place of economics in the whole scheme of government. Henry thought it worth while, as every king before him would have done, almost to cut off England from her best market for her most paying product,18 wool, if he could thereby force the archduke’s government to withdraw its effective countenance from Perkin Warbeck. But he made it a constant object of his policy to negotiate the opening of fresh markets for that commodity, and when he came to terms with the archduke, the commercial benefits to be secured by the treaty known as the Intercursus Magnus were his first care.

As Henry was the first to give commercial considerations a leading place in his system, so he is to be distinguished for the attention he gave to shipping; on which head Bacon has a rather remarkable note, to the effect that he deserves praise for perceiving that in this instance it was worth while to diminish commerce for the sake of developing the marine—to subordinate the economic loss to the political gain. If Bacon read Henry’s mind aright, he was not under the delusion that the protection of English shipping interests by his successive Navigation Acts was of direct economic advantage; but he did see that it was worth while to pay the price in order to give England such a mercantile navy as in Bacon’s own day enabled her to win the supremacy of the seas. Those Acts, restricting the importation of foreign goods to English ships, raised the price of imports without benefiting any English industry at all except that of the shippers; but the impetus given to shipping provided the country with a fighting force at sea which ultimately enabled her to challenge the might of Spain. The naval development of England was the work of the Tudor dynasty, though Edward I., Edward III., and Henry V.,19 had ideas. Whether the Navigation Acts really did give the impetus attributed to them—as to which economists may dispute—the intention is unmistakable, and the foresight which deliberately set up naval development as an end to be pursued is a very clear mark of Henry’s statesmanship. The creation of the English navy is generally credited either to King Alfred or to Henry VIII.; but the latter certainly inherited the conception from his father.

It is matter for regret, but hardly for reproach, that the king did not apply his ideas of maritime expansion more actively in another field, that of oceanic exploration. Portugal and Spain were allowed to take the lead. Yet it was so well known that the English king was favourable to such enterprises that it appears only to have been an accident which placed Christopher Columbus in the service of Ferdinand and Isabella instead of in Henry’s. How history might have been affected if the West Indies had fallen in the first instance to England instead of to Spain, is an interesting subject of speculation. But Spain won the prize. The sailors who put out from Bristol port tried their chance in more northerly latitudes; the territories they discovered were very unpromising; and after the outset the Genoese (or Venetian) Cabots, sailing in command of English crews, naturally enough got little support from the king. But at the outset—that is, before it seemed probable if not certain that Spain and Portugal, by right of priority backed by a Papal Bull, had, so to speak, staked out a claim20 to all that was worth having—Henry gave material encouragement to the exploring spirit.

There was, indeed, one important economic problem—with concomitants—at grappling with which no serious attempt was made. This was the growing agricultural depression: due in part to legitimate and in part to illegitimate action on the part of landowners. There was a very large demand for English wool for foreign looms. Sheep-breeding was seen to be highly lucrative, whereas tillage was not. The landowner saw no sufficient reason why he should be called upon to provide employment for a quantity of labour which brought him in a small return, when the employment of a very little labour over the same area would bring him a large return. Therefore he converted his arable lands into pasture for sheep. Economic history abounds in cases of the displacement of labour by the decay, temporary or permanent, of some industry which is ceasing to be lucrative: it abounds also with examples of legislative attempts to maintain the decaying industries, and to compel some one or other to provide employment for the displaced labour. Such attempts appear to be doomed to failure. No remedy has yet been found except the development of fresh industries which in course of time absorb that displaced labour. Even in the twentieth century, that is a process which might take years to accomplish; in the period which we are considering, the rural displacement took a century to remedy. Political altruists, like More or Somerset, tried to set legislation to work, but with the usual want of21 success. The encouragement of commercial enterprise which begets new industries was the only hopeful direction to work in, and to that Henry’s policy tended; but it was not till Elizabeth’s government pursued the same policy that the industrial situation was appreciably affected. Legislation did a little towards checking the rapidity with which small holdings were being absorbed into great estates, and great estates were being converted into sheep-runs, but it never amounted to more than a very feeble brake. The problem is one which still awaits a satisfactory solution.


Bacon enumerates with applause a variety of good laws enacted by Henry. He was not in fact remarkable as a legislator, but his modifications of the law were all save one in the nature of removal of abuses. There are, however, two of his enactments which demand special attention. The first of these was the Act of 1487, which gave statutory recognition to judicial functions which had for some time been exercised by the Privy Council or a committee thereof, sitting in a room known as the Star Chamber. In later days, this Court of Star Chamber was perverted into an instrument of tyranny; in Henry’s time, it was the only judicial body which was out of reach of the fear or suspicion of being22 terrorised by a powerful noble. It had come into being because the Sanction of the ordinary law was inadequate to deal with barons who chose to over-ride the law. The Privy Council could make and enforce its decrees without fear. Under these conditions, the powers it had assumed were necessary to the assertion of the royal authority against offenders who contemned the normal Courts.

Without the confident maintenance of the king’s authority against such offenders, the recurrence of the anarchy of the last fifty years would have constantly threatened; but it is obvious that the powers needed to that end might be misused for the ends of tyranny. Yet for more than a century the Court exercised its functions unmistakably for the public weal. Henry’s Act is notable, not as creating the Court, but as formally recognising and regulating its duties; a sound step, tending to prevent its abuse, not to introduce its use.

The other Act, however, that of 1495, is not capable of any such defence. It was abused from the beginning, and was the great instrument of those exactions by the notorious Empson and Dudley, which so stain the record of the latter half of Henry’s reign. Its repeal was one of the first and most popular acts of his successor. It is to be remembered, however, that though Empson and Dudley were not slow in getting to their evil work, their grosser activities were exercised in the last decade of the reign after Cardinal Morton’s decease. Henry was never generous; but the thrift and “nearness” of his earlier days took some time in developing into23 the grasping sordidness of his later years. More than half his reign had passed before the term extortionate could be applied to him without exaggeration. The Act, when it was passed, purported to be, and probably was, intended to prevent offenders against the law from escaping justice through lack of an accuser. It permitted judges to institute in their own Courts, on information laid by a resident in the district, proceedings for offences not involving penalties affecting the life or limb of the guilty party. Such men as Empson and Dudley, however, had no difficulty—with partial if not complete connivance from the king—in procuring information which would enable them under colour of law to impose extortionate fines for the king’s benefit and incidentally to extract from the victims very handsome perquisites for themselves.


The reign of Henry V. had made the English king as powerful a monarch as any in Europe. The sixty-three years that intervened between his death and the accession of Henry VII. saw England lose her pride of place among the nations. On the other hand, the attempt of Charles the Bold to create a central Burgundian kingdom had failed, while, partly on the wreck of his schemes, Louis XI. had consolidated the French monarchy, and the kingdom24 he left to Charles VIII. required for its completion only the effective absorption of Brittany. The union of Aragon and Castile by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella had raised Spain to a new position, which in like manner lacked but one thing, the conquest of the Moorish kingdom of Granada, for its complete establishment. Maximilian, “King of the Romans,” heir to Austria and practically heir to the Imperial crown, had strengthened his own position by marrying the Duchess of Burgundy, Charles the Bold’s daughter, and thus acquiring a paramount interest in the wealthy Netherlands. England, with her internal turmoils and her lost military prestige, had for the moment lost all weight in the counsels of Europe. Even had the immediate termination of civil discord been assured, she was too much exhausted to recover her place by force of arms; and as long as there was a Yorkist Pretender at large, civil discord could not be regarded as conclusively at an end. Nevertheless, even during the years while his dynasty was threatened, the king’s diplomatic skill completely changed the relations of England and the Continental Powers; while his policy towards Scotland kept the normal hostility of the Northern kingdom in check, and bore ultimate fruit in the union of the crowns, a century afterwards. He did not, like Wolsey—his disciple as far as methods were concerned—achieve or aim at a dominant position; but when English interests were concerned, the voice of England could not in his later years be neglected, as at the beginning of the reign.

25 He worked not by exploits in the stricken field but by diplomacy, therein illustrating his modernity. He sent armies into Brittany and Picardy, but they were intended to threaten, not to strike. He found a kindred spirit in Ferdinand of Aragon: of whom Louis XII. in later years complained that he had once cheated him. “He lies,” said Ferdinand, with pride; “I have cheated him three times.” Ferdinand’s respect was reserved for Henry, whom he could not cheat at all, or even out-wit, which is not quite the same thing. Henry did not cheat—that is, he did not break faith; but his engagements were always so carefully hedged that the smallest evasion on the part of an ally could be made an adequate ground for complete evasion on his own. He could not prevent the absorption of Brittany; but the French king, as soon as he turned his ambitions towards Italy, found that Henry could hamper him so seriously that he willingly bought him off. Maximilian remained impecunious—harmless, therefore, unless he could persuade some one else to finance him—since the Netherlands declined to recognise his authority. As for Ferdinand, Henry fought him with his own weapons; and evenly matched as they were, the Englishman did not prove less adept than the Spaniard. Their first treaty seemed a very one-sided affair; but Henry in fact won by it that recognition which was of the first importance to him at that early stage, while he appeared to render in return a great deal more than he actually gave. In 1495, the Spanish sovereigns attached so much value to his alliance that in spite of haggling they26 were obliged next year to concede him his own terms, which, though not extravagant, were much higher than they liked, and very much higher than he would have ventured even to propose six or seven years earlier. But they could still regard the betrothal of their daughter Katherine to the Prince of Wales as something of an act of grace on their part. Four years later, it is evident that they thought Henry could better afford to break that marriage off than they could themselves: and again a little later, when Prince Arthur died, they were not a whit less desirous than Henry himself of betrothing the young widow to the new Prince of Wales. This restoration of status Henry achieved at the cost of nothing more than some military parade which was very much more than recouped out of the French treasury.

The key to Henry’s success is to be found just in the fact that the most astute of his rivals was quite unable to trick him; secondly, in his skilful avoidance of any measures which committed him to a position from which he could not retreat without loss of prestige. His value to Spain lay chiefly in his ability to hamper France. Presently Spain awoke to his capacity for restricting the hampering process precisely within the limits which were convenient to himself, which might be very much narrower than suited her. Presently again it appeared that he might find it still more convenient to join hands with France, which would minimise the use to be made of Maximilian. Instead of Henry being in need of assistance against France, which might be doled out27 at the convenience of Spain, Spain had to supply inducements to keep England on her side. As a matter of fact, Henry to the last needed Ferdinand quite as much as Ferdinand needed him, but succeeded in giving a different impression.


Our survey so far seems to show conclusively that for some two-thirds of his reign Henry conducted the business which had devolved upon him not only with remarkable practical success but without at all justifying the sinister impression of his character which is indubitably prevalent. Yet, even without the record of his later years, as to which something remains to be said, this unattractive impression is not unnatural. We feel that a great ruler of a great nation ought to have something about him, majestic, splendid, heroic. We even forgive a man for evil deeds done in a grand style; we do not feel our admiration stirred even by good deeds done in a pedestrian style. Magnanimity loses its flavour when we scent policy in it. We are offended with a king who is not kingly, and kingliness demands those Aristotelian virtues which are generally rendered as Magnanimity and Magnificence. They are attributes in which the seventh Henry is conspicuously deficient.

A phrase at the beginning of the foregoing paragraph28 was employed with definite intention. Henry treated kingship as a business. He entered upon it very much as a new managing director might enter upon the conduct of a great concern which demands re-organisation. He knows that the retention of his position depends on his successfulness; that success is possible only if he has a free hand, while his board likes to think that it is exercising the real control. He has to establish confidence in himself within, and to re-establish confidence in the house without. He avoids palpable injustice; no one can call him dishonest; he knows exactly how far he can trust clients, and rely on the co-operation of other establishments in a joint policy; and he makes that business a distinct success—but he is not very likely to make himself personally popular, or in any sense an object of enthusiasm. For that, something is needed over and above a strict and capable attention to business; and the something over and above was wanting in Henry Tudor. In keenness of intelligence, he was more than a match for the most astute of living statesmen. The general rectitude of his aims was commendable; the moderation of his methods was meritorious. He did good service to the nation over which he ruled. He was not cruel; he was not capricious; he was never guided by prejudice or passion; but he remains hopelessly and irredeemably unsympathetic.

Yet had he died within a year or two of his best minister, his portion would have been cold praise, but still praise. He outlived Morton by nearly nine years, whose baleful shadow is over his whole career,29 turning a negative into a positive dislike. For in those years every baser quality of which there is any hint in the earlier days becomes intensified.

He had always treated marriage primarily as an affair of politics, as was natural and inevitable, but with a sufficient respect for its moral aspects to keep him faithful to his own wife. Yet when his son died, the idea of joining the widow to his second son had for him none of that repulsion which it excited almost universally in his day. It is even said that when his own queen died he contemplated marrying Katherine himself. It is quite certain that he contemplated marrying Katherine’s sister Joanna of Castile, although he knew her to be mentally deranged. His economy degenerated into niggardliness; his politic scheming to fill his treasury developed into a griping greed for gold. Empson and Dudley carried on their nefarious work of extortion with his knowledge and sanction. He grew vindictive, and when Thomas More opposed a subsidy in the Parliament of 1504, he sought an excuse for fining the father, and the “beardless boy” himself had to retire into private life, lest a worse thing should befall him. He had always considered himself at liberty to break the spirit of a promise provided that he kept the letter; but, if tradition does not wrong him, when the Earl of Suffolk was surrendered on promise that he would not put him to death, he took care to suggest to the Prince of Wales that the promise would not bind his heir when his time came.

The man revealed to us in these later years is30 ugly, sordid, very unlovely. But this man does not truly or fairly present to us the real Henry who restored order in England, and recovered for her a respectable position among the nations; holding his own in a singularly difficult situation and keeping at bay the onslaughts of an embittered faction at the cost of a quite astonishingly small amount of bloodshed, and with the minimum of anything that could reasonably be called injustice towards antagonists. This at least England owes to him, that he did more than any of his predecessors to lay the foundations of her commercial greatness; that he recognised more clearly than any of them the benefit of her maritime development.

The man moreover was not altogether lacking in some finer qualities which seem to have withered when his degeneration set in. He who seems almost an incarnation of chill-blooded, unemotional craftiness was capable of very human and very tender feeling. A record from the hand of an anonymous contemporary, when his son Arthur died, has been transcribed before, and is worth transcribing again.

“In the year of our Lord God 1502, the second day of April, in the castle of Ludlow, deceased Prince Arthur, first begotten son of our sovereign Lord, King Henry the Seventh, and in the 17th year of his reign. Immediately after his death Sir Richard Poole his Chamberlain, with other of his Council, wrote and sent letters to the King and Council to Greenwich, where his Grace and the Queen’s lay, and certified them of the Prince’s departure. The which Council discreetly sent for the King’s ghostly31 father, a friar observant, to whom they showed this most sorrowful and heavy tidings, and desired him in his best manner to show it to the King. He in the morning of the Tuesday following, and somewhat before the time accustomed, knocked at the King’s chamber door; and when the King understood that it was his Confessor, he commanded to let him in. The Confessor then commanded all those there present to avoid, and after one salutation began to say Si bona de Manu Domini suscipimus, mala autem quare non sustineamus? and so showed his Grace that his dearest son was departed to God. When his Grace understood that sorrowful heavy tidings he sent for the Queen, saying that he and his Queen would take the painful sorrows together. After that she was come, and saw the King her lord and that natural and painful sorrow, as I have heard say, she with full great and constant comfortable words, besought his Grace that he would, first after God, remember the weal of his own noble person, the comfort of his realm and of her. She then said that my lady his mother had never no more children but him only, and that God by his grace had ever preserved him and brought him where that he was; over that, how that God had left him yet a fair prince, two fair princesses; and that God is where he was, and we are both young enough; and that the prudence and wisdom of his Grace sprung over all Christendom, so that it should please him to take this accordingly thereunto. Then the King thanked her of her good comfort. After that she was departed and come to her own chamber,32 natural and motherly loss smote her so sorrowful to the heart, that those that were about her were fain to send for the King to comfort her. Then his Grace, of true, gentle, and faithful love, in good haste came and relieved her, and showed her how wise counsel she had given him before; and he for his part would thank God for his son, and would she should do in like wise.”

That story, obviously derived from an actual witness, gives a fine impression of Elizabeth; but it no less obviously implies a very genuine affection subsisting between her and Henry, and a very sincere devotion in both to their son. Henry, however, was by nature a reserved and somewhat lonely man, and Elizabeth’s death not long after deprived him of the last softening influence. His whole life had been a tremendous strain. His boyhood and early manhood aged him prematurely. From the day that he landed in England to wrest the sceptre from Richard, the strain had never relaxed; the bow had never been slackened. At five-and-forty, he may well have been as much worn out as are men less severely tried twenty-five years later in life. The work he had to do was anything but inspiriting; he did it with dogged patience. The task was thankless, and he got little thanks. It was accomplished ungraciously, and he receives no grace in return. A dreary life, and a dreary reign; yet the reign is not without admirable qualities, nor the life without gleams of nobility.




He was a man
Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking
Himself with princes; one that by suggestion
Tied all the kingdom: simony was fair-play:
His own opinion was his law: i’ the presence
He would say untruths and be ever double,
Both in his words and meaning. He was never,
But when he meant to ruin, pitiful:
His promises were, as he then was, mighty:
But his performance, as he is now, nothing.

In these words, Shakespeare or another has summed up the character of the great Cardinal as it presented itself to his enemies. As Katharine painted him, posterity has for the most part regarded him. Men who have risen from the ranks, and in their prosperity assume the state and splendour appropriate to hereditary position, are rarely popular. When they are so, it is because they have identified their names in some sort with popular causes. Of all the statesmen who for a long term of years controlled or seemed to control the destinies of England, not one perhaps has found apologists so few as Thomas Wolsey.

Of recent years, however, there has been a change.36 It has hardly yet made its way into popular accounts; but the attitude of serious historians has been at least largely modified by the publication of the State Papers under the editorship of the late Dr. Brewer, and of his Introductions to those volumes. The doctrine used to be that Wolsey was a man of exceeding arrogance who acquired a pernicious mastery over the mind of Henry VIII., and whose political achievement consisted mainly in a miserably fruitless meddling with foreign affairs in which England had no concern, dictated by an insatiable ambition for the Papal crown. Whereas Dr. Brewer and Bishop Creighton after him have laid it down that Wolsey raised England from the position of a third or fourth-rate Power to an equality with the greatest nations in Europe.

During the years of his power, it is at least clear that Wolsey did achieve for England such a position among the nations as she had not held, at any rate since the days of Henry V.; and that he did this, not, like Henry V., by aggressive militarism, but by diplomatic skill: that he sought to be, and to a great extent succeeded in being, the pacificator of Europe as well as the aggrandiser of England. In his aim and method, however, he followed in the footsteps of Henry VII., and his policy was a natural development, though a vast extension, of that laid down by that astute monarch. And in the second aspect of his policy, he was again developing that of the old king, in striving to make the power of the Crown independent alike of the old nobility and of Parliament.


From a Painting by Holbein in the collection at Christ Church, Oxford

37 But a recent biographerA has ventured so far as to declare that “Wolsey stands out as the greatest statesman England has ever produced; and it is not going beyond what records reveal if we say his was the master-mind of his age”—the age of Erasmus and Luther.

A Taunton, “Thomas Wolsey, Legate and Reformer,” p. 3.

That is unfortunately a species of criticism which excites the spirit of hostility. Wolsey was of that type of politicians, rare in England, who have made foreign affairs their first interest: also he was, what probably no other Englishman ever has been, beyond all comparison the ablest diplomatist among his contemporaries. Diplomacy is a field in which the reputation of England does not stand high. But one asks at once—What in fact did his diplomacy achieve? And, diplomacy apart, the great upheaval which issued in the Reformation was in full activity when Wolsey was at the height of his power and influence. The master-mind of his age therefore could hardly have failed to leave his mark on the Reformation. What did Wolsey accomplish—nay, what did he even attempt to accomplish—in that connexion?



Thomas Wolsey was born probably in 1471. His father was a citizen of Norwich—a grazier. The popular voice calls him a butcher. The boy was sent very young to Oxford, taking his degree when he was only fourteen years old, and otherwise achieving high distinction. At Magdalen he remained, fulfilling various college functions till the end of 1499. Before that date, John Colet, five years his senior, had commenced his famous course of lectures, introducing a new style of scholarship and a new type of biblical criticism. Thomas More, seven years his junior, had finished his University career. Erasmus had paid Oxford a flying visit. There is no trace of any personal association between Wolsey and these lights of the new school: yet there is no doubt whatever that as an educationist he was in close sympathy with them. The facts are therefore the more significant of some incompatibility of temperament: for we should naturally have expected scholars, agreed upon an innovating theory, to have been drawn together.

Acting at this time in a tutorial capacity to the sons of the Marquess of Dorset, Wolsey was rewarded by a living at Limington: and the ex-bursar of Magdalen was in a very short time a quite notable pluralist, and in close personal relations with various important personages, culminating in his appointment as Chaplain to Henry VII. in 1506. The king,39 whose only living rival in diplomatic astuteness was Ferdinand of Spain, was prompt to discern the kindred abilities of his new servant, who within a year or two was successfully employed to carry through important negotiations both in Flanders and in Scotland.

In April 1509 the old king died. His successor was hailed with acclamation on all hands. Of splendid physique, and glowing with martial ardour as was natural in a healthy boy of eighteen, the military section of society saw in him promise of a revival of the glories of Agincourt. The scholars too claimed their part in him, as he joyously claimed fellowship with them. The populace shouted applause when the detested Empson and Dudley were sent to the block. The veterans who occupied the chief thrones of Europe dreamed that the innocent youth would be to them as clay in the hands of the potter. Every one was satisfied.

For a little while all went merrily. The English nobles thirsted for war with France: Ferdinand and Maximilian had no difficulty in persuading the young monarch that in alliance with them he might achieve the laurels for which he hankered. He was to begin the fighting, they were to play at supporting him, and if by good luck something more substantial than laurels should be achieved, that of course would go to his partners.

Wolsey’s old pupil the Marquess of Dorset was sent to Spain in command of the expedition which was to begin the war, with the conquest of Guienne in view. Dorset’s army wanted beer: they could40 only get wine, which they considered thin. In effect they went on strike, and insisted on coming home again. The marquess brought them back ignominiously, without so much as a laurel-leaf.

Fox, Bishop of Winchester, perhaps the best of the old king’s surviving ministers, had been pressed into the background by the warlike nobles; but he had succeeded in introducing into the Council the man who was to sweep the nobles themselves into the background. Wolsey was nobody in particular, but he was a very clever man with immense organising ability and an infinite capacity for detail and for hard work. The fiasco was not repeated. In 1513, the army of invasion went to its proper field, Picardy. It was not a haphazard picnic party, and it captured Terouenne and Tournai. In the meantime, Surrey was shattering the Scots army at Flodden. A few months later, Henry had discovered that Ferdinand and Maximilian were using him as a cat’s-paw. Again a few months passed, and Wolsey had beaten them at their own game. France and England were in alliance. Then the uncontrollable changed the face of things. King Louis died: Francis I. succeeded. But the brief dream of the old kings had been finally dissipated: Henry was going to be nobody’s cats-paw. He had found a minister more than worthy to follow in his father’s footsteps.

In 1515 Wolsey was fully established not as the king’s chief adviser, but in effect as his sole minister. In 1513 he was not yet guiding the king’s policy: his work was mainly administrative. In 1514 the41 distinctive principle of his policy comes into full play. The anti-Gallic theory is discarded. Thenceforth, the hand of England is not against any Power in particular. As Foreign Minister, Wolsey’s business is to see that the balance of power is maintained; that no one prince shall be too far aggrandised; that each of them shall be a check on the aggression of others; that all shall maintain a habitual attitude of concession to England for the sake of her support; and that this is to be effected without involving England in actual warfare. Ferdinand dies in 1516; Maximilian in 1519. Charles V. succeeds both to Spain and to the Empire. In the latter year, the destinies of Europe are in the hands of three monarchs not one of whom is thirty years old. Wolsey during the following years remains in effect the arbiter of Europe till his hand is forced by Henry, and he finds himself compelled to overt hostility with France. After the disaster of Pavia, the blunder becomes manifest; his own policy is again allowed free play, and the old domination is all but recovered when the affair of the divorce wipes all other questions out of the field. The king’s will must be carried out at all costs. Failing therein, the Cardinal falls—irretrievably.

Two leading facts emerge. First: so long as Wolsey is allowed a free hand to carry out his own policy, he does it with complete success. Second: if the king elects to lay down a different policy, the Cardinal has to carry that policy through as best he may. The idea that he ruled the king is entirely fallacious. For some years, the king had the wisdom42 to recognise that his minister’s views were sound. Then his anti-Gallic leanings dominated him. Then he perceived his error, and reverted to his minister’s policy; till again a purely personal motive intervened, and policy again went to the winds. Since the personal motive could not be satisfied without a revolution, Henry conducted the revolution himself. The rôle the king required of his minister was one demanding other abilities than those of the Cardinal, and the Cardinal was thrown to the wolves.

Effectively then it is true to say that while Wolsey held sway in England, he was the arbiter of Europe. Whether it was for the good of England that she should concern herself with being the arbiter of Europe is another matter. It may be argued that the less she has to do with Europe the better for her. But the theory of splendid isolation for Great Britain is not the same thing as that theory applied to England when Scotland was an independent nation in habitual alliance with France, and always ready for hostilities. Even after Flodden the menace on the Northern Border had to be taken into perpetual count. Moreover, the advocates of that doctrine must still recognise that the opposite view is legitimately maintainable; and it follows that the statesman who, acting on the opposite view, successfully upheld English predominance without plunging the country into sanguinary wars, is entitled to a very high meed of praise.

Yet this does not express the whole of Wolsey’s achievement: for, when he began to guide England’s policy, he had to win position for her, not merely43 to maintain a position already held—a hard enough task in itself. To say that she was no more than a third or fourth-rate Power is an exaggeration. It was true in 1485: it had ceased to be true in 1500. Long before the close of his reign, the first Tudor had made himself a person of very considerable importance, whom none of the continental Powers dreamed of ignoring, and with whom they treated on something very like equal terms. This, however, was in no small degree a matter of personal prestige. Henry’s reputation for astuteness stood so high, not to speak of his credit for accumulated wealth, that the Courts of the continent paid England’s king an amount of respect which they would not have rendered to the power of England. With the removal of his personality, England dropped to a lower plane, but certainly did not become a negligeable quantity. If there was a brief disposition to regard her not as negligeable but as futile, that was due merely to the hastily formed conclusion that the young king was a tender innocent. The old Henry’s position was recovered the moment that Wolsey’s abilities were recognised. The marriage of the young princess Mary to the old King of France in 1514, was precisely the kind of stroke which Henry VII. would have made. It marked the fact that in any leagues or combinations which foreign princes might contemplate, an England thoroughly alive to her own interests, and thoroughly capable of safe-guarding them, must be reckoned with. In producing this result, Wolsey’s administrative ability as well as his diplomatic skill had played no small part; since44 to that was owing, in a great degree, the successes which attended the English arms in 1513; successes which were effective reminders that what English troops had done before they might learn to do again.

So far, however, what Wolsey had done was little if at all more than to restore the position of 1508; though this was accompanied by a suggestion that English interference in Continental affairs might be of a less purely defensive order than it had been under the late king. The suggestion was very soon to be turned into fact; and for some years kings and emperors and popes were to find that, whatever designs they might have in hand, they would have no chance of carrying them out beyond the point which Wolsey might be induced to sanction. The distinguishing feature of Wolsey’s method was his reliance on purely diplomatic action, to which end he had the aid of a particularly capable subordinate in Richard Pace. The Cardinal habitually posed as an arbitrator, composing the differences of Christendom and maintaining that general peace which it was theoretically the special function of the Roman Pontiff to secure.

For Ferdinand of Aragon, the leading idea was always to find an ally who could be inveigled into doing his fighting for him without any return. For Maximilian, the leading idea was to find an ally who would subsidise him to do the fighting while he could evade his own part of the bargain. Wolsey, by his alliance with Louis XII., turned the tables on both of them. The alliance itself was practically terminated by the accession of Francis in January45 1515. France reaped the immediate profit, for neither Spain nor the emperor would risk a course which depended for success on a mutual fulfilment of obligations. Ferdinand became friendly to Francis, but without any intention of giving him effective support. When the latter’s progress in Italy seemed likely to be too rapid, Wolsey entered into relations with Maximilian which served as a check on Francis without filling the emperor’s purse. When Ferdinand died, Charles, his successor, was only sixteen, and though his counsellors were well disposed to France, being mainly Flemings, there was no present prospect of vigorous intervention on his behalf. Active hostility on the part of England would be dangerous, and when Maximilian in turn died, both Charles and Francis were suitors for the favour of the supreme minister in England. The turn of the wheel had made them inevitable rivals. The imperial election went in favour of Charles, that being less dangerous than the success of Francis would have been, and it was now Wolsey’s policy to hold the balance between the two. An era of universal peace was inaugurated; Charles and Francis did not join in formal alliance, but England united with each of them.



The inauguration of an era of universal peace is usually the prelude to a war. A year after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Charles and Francis were on the verge of hostilities. Wolsey negotiated with both, ostensibly to bring about an accord. But in fact, England was committed to support Charles: and the responsibility was with the Cardinal.

The conclusion to which the circumstances point is that the pressure was too great for him to resist. Popular sentiment in England was opposed to the French alliance. The queen was a warm adherent of her young kinsman. The king was personally jealous of the achievements of Francis, and had visions of the French crown or at least of the recovery of Guienne. Wolsey probably felt that if he tried to maintain his own policy he would alienate Henry, and if he alienated Henry—who had just annihilated Buckingham—he would meet Buckingham’s fate amid universal applause, and the anti-French policy would triumph in any case. He elected to carry out the anti-French policy and remain at the helm. Hostile critics would suggest that he was actuated by the desire of obtaining the support of the emperor when the Papacy should become vacant. Charles failed to keep his promise when Leo died, and gave his support to another candidate; but neither then nor in the following year when Clement VII. was elected—again with the support47 of Charles—did Wolsey show any sign of changing his policy in consequence.

The English people had wanted the war; when they got it they paid for it at first cheerfully. But no advantage accrued, not even appreciable glory, and they tired of it. After Pavia, Henry thought the opportunity had come to strike for the French crown; but such an effort demanded more money. The business of getting it of course devolved on the Cardinal. There was no hope of obtaining it legitimately from a Parliament; Wolsey tried illegitimate methods—and failed. There was no alternative but to drop the war policy. Wolsey made an advantageous peace, and Charles promptly found himself obliged to come to terms with Francis. But it is clear that from this moment Wolsey’s position with his master became painfully uncertain.

Here then is the practical termination of Wolsey’s great period. After this, the king is absorbed by the divorce, and the minister, willy-nilly, must devote himself to that object—his own ruin being the alternative. His diplomatic labours achieved no permanent result, because the position won for England could only be maintained by continuity of diplomatic effort and diplomatic skill. After her own very different fashion, Elizabeth fifty years later was balancing continental forces, and manipulating them to her own ends, in a manner much less impressive and often indeed singularly undignified, but certainly not less successful. And with her, the result was that the England which Philip of Spain had hoped to make an appanage of his own48 established herself as the indisputable mistress of the seas. The change in the relative position of England between 1558 and 1588 was far greater than between 1508 and 1528.

But Elizabeth worked with a perfectly free hand. Wolsey worked for a master, who was quite capable of wrecking the minister’s schemes for a purely personal end. He had to persuade that master to sanction a policy which he never adopted with enthusiasm. He had to carry it through in spite of the hostility of the governing classes, the ill-will of the queen—who was still on terms of accord with her husband—and his own extreme unpopularity with the mob. That is, he had to work single-handed amidst extremely adverse conditions; and all the circumstances being taken together, it may fairly be said that he displayed a diplomatic genius unique among English statesmen.


In the field of foreign affairs Wolsey’s policy and his methods were both derived from Henry VII.: or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he applied the same methods to a development of the same policy. The invaluable make-weight was converted into the inevitable arbiter: the means, a process of peaceful bargain-driving. The bargains were usually in both cases profitable for England. Incidentally,49 they generally contained unwritten clauses which were profitable also to the Cardinal. There is no reason to suppose that any case occurred in which Wolsey permitted essentials to be in the slightest degree affected by considerations of his own gain. But he himself would never have thought of disputing that he accumulated great profits out of his diplomatic transactions.

The first objective then of Wolsey’s policy was the establishment of England not merely as an important factor but as the dominant factor in European politics: therein going beyond anything that Henry VII. had contemplated, but still acting on lines laid down by him. In his second objective, he was still a disciple of the old king. This was the establishment of the Crown as a practical autocracy.

The primary condition of an absolutist government was a full treasury; and here Wolsey had the immense advantage of the great hoards accumulated during the last reign. In spite of the heavy expenditure involved in ministering to the king’s pleasures, and on such pageantry as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, government in Wolsey’s hands was economically conducted. The great revenues which fell into his own hands not merely from the numerous preferments he held in England, but also from foreign sources, enabled him to defray the magnificence of his own establishment, public as well as private: and there were indirect methods of throwing much of the cost of the Court upon private persons. It was not till 1523 that the Cardinal50 found himself forced to look to the country for supplies by the necessities of a war budget. For very nearly ten years he had carried on the government without calling Parliament, although it had hardly been summoned during the preceding decade; under a continuance of the same régime, England might have become accustomed to doing almost without Parliament.

The second principle in establishing absolutism was the further depression of the nobility, who—again, as in the days of Henry VII.—were steadily kept from offices of State. Even the Howards exercised no control; and the most powerful of all, the Duke of Buckingham, was suddenly brought to the block. In that, as in everything the king did that was unpopular, the minister was charged with being the moving spirit, and his determination to destroy all rivals was accounted the moving cause. As a matter of fact, the duke’s execution fitted in with the Cardinal’s policy: but there is no direct ground for supposing that he had any active share in the matter. On the whole, there is no evidence that he was particularly vindictive. Still, personal ambition apart, since none of the nobles would willingly have been associated with him as a colleague it was necessary to the carrying out of his policy that his rivals should have their talons pared as far as possible; and also of course that there should be none powerful enough to form a disaffected party. Wolsey knew that, except for one or two ecclesiastics who had already in effect retired from the political arena, he stood practically alone. He had to make51 himself necessary to the king, and, since he could not be loved by the nobles, it undoubtedly suited him that they should fear him. In the result he succeeded so completely in destroying all possibility of opposition to Henry’s will that there was no man in the kingdom whom the king could not destroy if he chose merely to raise a finger.

Successful as he was in building up the power of the Crown, he was still apparently at the height of his own influence when he learnt that the power of the purse still lay elsewhere; and the king learnt a very important lesson at the same time—a lesson which he was to turn to account before very long—the importance of conciliating popular sentiment. Money was needed for the French war. Wolsey would have treated the Parliament, called to provide it, as a mere passive instrument for carrying out the royal behest. Had the House of Commons in 1523 suffered itself to be brow-beaten, it would have virtually surrendered its place in the Constitution. The House refused to be brow-beaten: it refused point-blank to discuss or to vote in the Cardinal’s presence. When he retired in wrath, a substantial sum was voted, but as a free grant to the king, not obligatory. Two years later, more money was wanted. Wolsey did not dare to ask a Parliament for it. He resorted to Benevolences, and found the citizens of London obstinate in their assertion that Benevolences were illegal. However willing Parliaments or burgesses might be to leave measures to the king and his minister, they were absolutely determined to provide nothing out of their own52 pockets unless their own consent had first been obtained through strictly constitutional channels.

In this thing Henry was quick to prove himself shrewder than the Cardinal. Like his daughter after him, he had an intuitive perception of the national temper, and lost no time in repudiating the idea of coercion. His personal popularity was doubled, and all the odium for the attempt fell upon the minister. But the scheme towards which he was strongly predisposed had been foiled, and Wolsey, though the result favoured his own views, knew that it would be fatal to him if he failed a second time to give effect to the king’s desires.

Therefore the Cardinal now gave himself up to the effort to meet his master’s demands in the matter on which he had set his heart, the separation from Katharine. But in this one matter, success for him was sufficiently improbable from the outset, and as time went on events which he was wholly unable to control made it a sheer impossibility. He failed, and the failure spelt his ruin. Giving himself utterly to the king’s service, his compliance did not save him. Hitherto he had been a statesman, pursuing ends which certainly magnified both his country and his sovereign with extraordinary ability and amazing success, by methods certainly not more unscrupulous than were sanctioned by the universal practice of the time. Now he devoted himself to an object wholly unworthy, which he must have felt to be utterly unrighteous. The king for whom he degraded himself served him—characteristically. Did the fallen man feel that his53 punishment was just, even while the hand that dealt it was supremely unjust? It would seem so. The sentiment, if not the words, which Shakespeare put in his mouth is authentic:

O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.


The whole story of the divorce is an ugly one; no amount of sophistry will ever make it anything else. Mr. Froude succeeded in persuading himself that pure unsullied patriotism was Henry’s ruling motive: and brings himself, apparently with some difficulty, to grant a qualified pardon to Katharine for her resistance, on the ground that after all she was a woman, and weak. If Henry had acted as some others have done, and had taken up definitely the position that by hook or by crook the legalisation of a new marriage for him was a national necessity, in order that a male heir to the throne might be born, the issue would have been a plain one. If bigamy could be justified on the grounds of national expediency, there was a decently good case for authorising a bigamous union. To provide a technical trick for evading the form of bigamy would no doubt have made the process easier, not affecting the54 ethics of it one way or other. But it followed logically that national interests alone were first to be taken into consideration in the selection of the new spouse. The fact that in that choice Henry was guided by passion and no other consideration whatever is sufficient proof that the actuating motive with him was not salus populi suprema lex. The grotesque nemesis by which later on Henry found himself with three acknowledged children of his body of whom two were born in what was supposed to be wedlock, both in virtue of marriages which the Courts had subsequently declared void, while the third, a boy, had no pretensions to legitimate birth—that nemesis is really a reductio ad absurdum of the whole position.

If on the other hand the awakening of Henry’s conscientious scruples had not coincided with a violent passion for another woman it would have been easier to believe that they were genuine, and that all he really wanted—as he frequently affirmed—was to have those scruples allayed. A genuine doubt would assuredly have demanded an authoritative pronouncement. Unfortunately, he made it perfectly clear that no authority could allay the scruples; he was absolutely determined that the Pope and the Cardinal between them must see to it that the doubts should be confirmed.

The precise stage at which Henry discovered that the weal of his people required a male heir of his body at any cost; at which his conscience began to question the validity of the dispensation under which he had married Katharine; at which he determined that Anne Boleyn should supplant the queen: all55 these are matter of some doubt. It is fairly clear that in 1526—certainly in 1527—if not before, Wolsey had been made aware that the king was desirous of exchanging Katharine for Anne; that Wolsey on his knees entreated the king to think better of it; that he found the king obdurate. There is no sign at all that the ethics of the divorce troubled Wolsey in any way; on the other hand no one has ever questioned that the Boleyn marriage was a thing hateful to him from every point of view. But he had to choose between lending himself to the king’s desire and rushing on his own ruin. Perhaps there are not many men who would have dared to take the nobler course; Wolsey, deteriora secutus, none the less fell.

It would seem that Wolsey first set himself to discover some legal expedient for nullifying the marriage, hit upon the idea that the dispensation granted by Julius was invalid, and tried more than one scheme with a view to its being pronounced invalid—hoping, it may be, that the law’s delays would give the king time to get over his infatuation for Anne, and that when—if ever—he should be legally free to take a new wife, the new wife would be a more fitting person.

First of all then, Wolsey, as Papal Legate, took steps for holding a Legatine Court in England before which the issue should be tried. But this plan contained a material flaw. Katharine might appeal to the Pope against the decision of the Legatine Court, and Wolsey, in the event of such appeal, would become a mere party in the suit instead of a56 judge. The Pope therefore must be induced either to give a favourable pronouncement on his own account, or to appoint a Legatine Court ad hoc—a Court whose judgment would be final. A very difficult matter; for precisely at this time the recent misfortunes of France were bearing their fruit: the emperor became entirely predominant in Italy, and obtained complete control of Clement—and the emperor was Katharine’s most affectionate nephew. So the hapless Pope, who was very anxious to keep friends with Henry but was naturally even more anxious not to offend Charles, desired above everything to evade giving a decision himself. On the other hand, Wolsey felt that there must be no pretext for subsequently questioning the legality of the process by which the dispensation was to be quashed, and therefore it was imperative that in form that process should convey the Papal sanction. Besides this, he had a very powerful personal reason for insisting on it. In England the Boleyn connection, who knew perfectly well what were Wolsey’s views about Anne, were working hard and not without success to destroy the king’s trust in the Cardinal, who saw his influence tottering. Failure to procure the divorce would certainly mean for him destruction; success, followed by the Boleyn marriage, would place more power in the hands of the most hostile faction, and he would be left absolutely alone to bear the whole obloquy of an extremely unpopular measure, unless the ultimate responsibility could be forced on the reluctant Pope.

As far as Wolsey was concerned, Clement won57 the game after apparently yielding. A Legatine Commission was appointed, but Campeggio was associated with Wolsey as judge: he managed to spend the best part of a year in reaching England; it was in fact fifteen months after the appointment that the Court began its sittings. A few weeks later, the Pope revoked the case to Rome. For all practical purposes, the revocation sealed the Cardinal’s fate.

For two years past Wolsey’s position, for all that it seemed to the world so assured, had been extremely precarious. The king had sent one agent to Rome behind his minister’s back. The agent’s mission failed ignominiously, but the thing was significant. Wolsey had gone to France on a diplomatic errand; on his return, instead of being summoned to a confidential meeting with the king, he found Anne Boleyn in the presence. He had been soundly rated by the king because, in appointing an abbess to Wilton, he had rejected a most unsuitable protégée of the Boleyns. He knew the stake for which he was playing: he can hardly have doubted, from the beginning of what was called “The King’s Affair,” that his fate was bound up with success or failure. The illusion that he ruled the king was one from which it does not appear that he ever suffered himself. All he did was to rule England and English policy precisely so long as he retained the personal favour of the king, and his policy did not clash with any of the royal predilections.

In this matter of the “divorce,” Wolsey has found an earnest apologist in Father Taunton. In his view,58 it would seem that the Cardinal was justified, because he believed that there really was a technical flaw in the form of the dispensation as granted by Pope Julius: if there was such a flaw, the king was entitled to the benefit of it: and its existence would enable the Pope to quash the dispensation, without so much as raising the question whether the granting of it at all was ultra vires for any Pope. Now the ingenuity of the lawyer who wins his client’s case on a technical quibble may be admired—in a way: the ingenuity of the ecclesiastic, who would have provided the Pope with a golden bridge for evading an awkward question, is also to be admired. But in presenting these grounds for admiration, the last possibility of a moral defence is given away. Persons honestly believing that the relation between Henry and Katharine was by the moral law incestuous, and could not be otherwise, despite any possible Papal dispensation, were entitled to urge the dissolution of their union. But if that relation was not inherently immoral, and was capable of being made legal as well, then the barest sense of justice demanded, that no dubious point of law should be brought in, in order to engineer a dissolution.

The whole case for Wolsey, according to Father Taunton, rests precisely on this very dubious point of law. The dispensation was formally drawn to make the marriage between Henry and Katharine lawful even if affinity had been contracted. But in the ordinary course, as the law stood, a woman being not married but fully betrothed to a man might not—although no actual marriage had taken place—marry59 that man’s brother, her doing so being against “public honesty.” Since the greater includes the less, and the whole includes the part, it would seem obvious that a dispensation covering the actual marriage ipso facto covered the pre-contract. Yet the apologist would have it that the Cardinal was satisfied to rest the whole case for nullifying the marriage on the position that the dispensation was technically invalid because it did not specifically refer to “public honesty” as well as to affinity. Such was the contemptible quibble by which the “master-mind of his age” was prepared to procure a pronouncement that Katharine was no wife—so that the Papacy might escape an awkward dilemma.

It is at least intelligible to maintain that circumstances may arise under which, for the public safety, flagrant injustice towards an individual may be and ought to be committed. That is undoubtedly the feeling at the bottom of Mr. Froude’s argument. Possibly also it was at the back of Father Taunton’s mind; but he does not put it forward. If the doctrine itself be admitted, a loyal son of the Roman Church is perhaps entitled to hold that it was right to sacrifice Katharine in order to avoid raising a question extremely inconvenient to the Papacy. Perhaps also that view is the excuse least derogatory to Wolsey which can be offered. A review, however, of the entire context of the documents which Father Taunton cites in part points rather to the conclusion that the Cardinal did mean to argue that—dispensation or no dispensation—affinity was an absolute60 bar; and intended to fall back on the quibble only as a last desperate resort if the contraction of affinity were disproved; that he at least wished to find the moral ground for nullity maintained, but, if that should prove impossible, was prepared to surrender the extreme Papal claim.

The view of the whole business resulting from a consideration of all the facts so far as they can be certainly ascertained is entirely consistent with the rest of the Cardinal’s career. Ambition made him desire power; like other men of great intellect and strong will, he knew himself fitted to hold it; like many other statesmen, and with a good deal more reason than some, he imagined himself the only safe guide for the State; and he knew that if he once fell there would be for him no recovery. About 1526, when for a dozen years he had been the greatest figure in the eyes of the Western world, he found himself presented with a dilemma. He must execute the king’s will in a particular matter—or fall.

The king’s will would at least serve the State well in one respect if it issued in providing a male heir to the throne. Also, if the marriage were really contrary to the moral law and outside the dispensing power, it would be in the interest of public morals that the fact should be declared. So far, no one could possibly be blamed for maintaining the king’s case. That was the line subsequently taken by Cranmer. But for Wolsey the situation was much more difficult than for Cranmer, because for Wolsey it was a sine qua non that the Pope’s official authority should be maintained. He could not, therefore,61 adopt any course which ignored that authority even so far as by not requiring its open sanction: much less could he, like Cranmer, defy it. Whether, for the sake of preserving that authority the more rigidly, he intended to ignore the one moral defence for the desired measure and content himself with pleading a legal quibble, is a question that can be argued; but it is quite clear that he was prepared to do so in the last resort. In short, if the only way to avoid his own downfall was by sacrificing an innocent victim, the innocence of the victim should not save her. He would have preferred, no doubt, that the sacrifice should not be made, but, under the circumstances, he did not hesitate. His moral plane was too conventionally low for the alternative course. More or Fisher would have acted otherwise. But the successful statesman who is ready to commit political suicide rather than actively participate in an unrighteous deed which he cannot prevent, is not often to be met with. And Wolsey had the further excuse that he hoped to save the Church, as he conceived it, from the disastrous results which he foresaw if the matter fell into other hands.



From the attitude of Wolsey to the Papacy in the matter of the divorce, we are naturally led to a consideration of his whole position in matters ecclesiastical and religious.

The great revolution which we call the Reformation had two main aspects. Employing the term “the Church” as representing not the whole body of professing Christians but the clerical organisation: the Reformation in the first place changed everywhere, though in varying degrees, the relation of the secular governments to the Church within their borders; in the second place it changed the relations of the various geographical sections of the Church to the whole Catholic body of which they were members. Thus the State in England assumed a new attitude to the Church in England, and the Church in England as well as the State was placed in a new relation to the Roman pontificate. These changes were essentially political.

In its second aspect, the Reformation was a religious revolution; a revision of ethical standards; a revival of that ardour of sentiment and of conviction whereof martyrs are born; a spiritual movement, accompanied by a doctrinal upheaval. That portion of Christendom which adhered to the Roman pontificate, confining its doctrinal modifications within the limits set by the Council of Trent, arrogated to itself the title of Catholic. The rest arrogated to63 themselves the title of the Reformed Churches, accepting the general label of Protestants originally appropriate only to the Lutheran section. Like all political labels, all three of these terms were incorrect, “Protestant” being improperly extended, while the “Reformed” Churches might be Catholic, and the “Catholic” Church was itself reformed. Perhaps it would be of advantage rather to treat the doctrinal Reformation as a third aspect, and to distinguish the great actors by the parts they played in the political, the religious, and the doctrinal Reformations respectively, whether in restraining or in promoting change. Thus, religion did not enter into the programme of Henry VIII.; as to doctrine he certainly was not a reformer; politically, he emerged as a revolutionary. Men like More and Colet were ardent reformers of religion; in theology and on the political side, they were conservative. Luther, Calvin and Knox were of the advanced party in each case. But it must be definitely laid down that of the three aspects of the Reformation the most vital was the religious, not the political or the theological; and the men who, whether Catholic or Protestant, were the religious leaders, are on a higher plane of greatness than the rest; it is amongst them that we must look for the “master-minds” of the age.

Now it does not appear that in any single one of these three aspects Wolsey as a matter of fact influenced the great movement, already fairly under weigh, in any appreciable degree. Had he, instead of Clement, occupied the Papal throne, the political power of the Papacy would indubitably have been64 for the time greatly advanced. Had his own power in England survived the divorce business, the secular onslaught on the ecclesiastical body conducted by Cromwell would not have taken place. It is conceivable that under modified circumstances he might have evolved a modus vivendi for Church and State more favourable to the Church than that which emerged from the thirty tempestuous years which followed his death. But in fact the whole manner of the Cardinal’s life, his immersion in secular politics, the magnificence of his household, his many benefices, his vast accumulation of wealth, the arrogance of his demeanour, typified and flaunted before the public eye precisely those shortcomings of the clergy at large on which the anti-clerical spirit of the laity was battening. The Cardinal might have strengthened the Church’s power of resistance; he certainly was in no small degree the cause of the animosity of her assailants. In the eyes of the whole world, he was essentially a man of the world, worldly; and in worldliness, far more than in the temptations of the Flesh or the Devil, the best of the reformers found the Church’s besetting sin.

No political skill, no state-craft, no loyalty to his order, could have gone to the root of the matter by removing the moral grounds of hostility to the ecclesiastical organisation. A moral enthusiasm of which—to put it mildly—no hint whatever is to be found in the great minister, was absolutely essential for any man who was either to renovate the prestige of the clergy so that the people should follow them or so to inspire the people that the clergy65 should follow the popular movement. In England there arose no prophet, but for that much-needed rôle Wolsey was about as little fitted as any imaginable leader.

Nevertheless, something he did and more he was willing to do. There were specific grievances which up to a certain point he sought to remedy. Without surrendering any of the privileges of his order, he made in his own Legatine Courts a vast improvement on the practice of the ordinary Ecclesiastical Courts. He did away with a considerable number of small religious Houses whose condition was more or less of a scandal. His visitations brought about improved discipline in many of the larger Houses; some of his appointments, as to the Abbey at Glastonbury, were notably admirable; in rejecting an unworthy abbess for Wilton he braved the anger of the king at a time when he ran an exceptionally heavy risk in doing so. Above all, he was fully alive to the necessity of educating a new generation of clergy up to a high standard; and to that end he created his great foundations of Ipswich and Cardinal College (Christ Church), Oxford, carrying out on a much more extensive scale what Dean Colet and Bishop Fox had set themselves to do before him. His college was crippled and his school was wrecked when he fell; but in this at least he deserves to be honoured by the side of William of Wickham. Yet the name of William is hardly to be coupled with those of Luther or Loyola. Wolsey was a real and sincere patron of education; he had a sufficiently keen sense of order and public decency to be a just66 judge and something of a disciplinarian; but much more than this would have been required to make him a potent moral force; and without being that he could not, even had he become Pope, have affected the Reformation in a permanent manner, though he might have modified its political course. He was the consummation of the old school of political ecclesiastics. Probably he was never so much as conscious that a moral revolution was in progress. What he did know was that the political position of the Holy See, and of the whole ecclesiastical system, was threatened, and his legatine and Papal ambitions may fairly be attributed as much to a belief in his own fitness to pilot the ship as to selfishly personal motives. But the mere fact that, with the powers he did acquire and the vast abilities he possessed, he yet accomplished practically nothing either as a reformer or as a bulwark of the old order, is fairly conclusive proof that he was neither the “greatest of English statesmen” nor “the master-mind of his age.”



The Legatine Court was suspended, and the question of the divorce advoked to Rome, in July 1529. The signs of Wolsey’s doom were quick to gather. His master practically ceased to hold personal communication with him. It was evident, when writs for a Parliament were issued in September, that the Cardinal was no longer directing the king: for he had consistently aimed so far as possible at the suppression of the functions of Parliament. Campeggio was hardly out of the country when his colleague was indicted under the Statute of Præmunire for having exercised the legatine office contrary to the law. The Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk deprived him of the Great Seal which he held as Chancellor. Ill and despairing, he retired to his house at Esher, shorn of all his offices. He was attainted in the House of Peers, and the Bill was passed. In the Commons, however, the vigorous opposition to it made by Cromwell, and a feeling that the king was not unfavourable to its rejection, resulted in its being thrown out.

Probably Henry had not yet thoroughly made up his mind as to his course of action, and wished to preserve a possibility of recalling his minister to his counsels. He was told that he might be permitted to discharge some of his pastoral functions, and was allowed to retire in the spring to York, to take up the duties of the Archbishopric; and in spite of the68 immense fines imposed on him, he was by no means stripped bare of this world’s goods. York was fixed on as being more remote from the neighbourhood both of Henry and of the Continent than Winchester. He threw himself into the unaccustomed rôle with apparent zest, and seemed on the verge of achieving an unexpected reputation for pastoral piety and devotion, when a fresh blow fell. He was summoned to London on a charge of treason. He had been unwise enough to write to Francis I and pray for his intercession with Henry; he was also accused, though groundlessly, of having made really treasonous proposals to the Pope. Already ill when he started, he became rapidly worse on his journey south, and having reached the Abbey of Leicester, was unable again to rise from his bed. There he passed away, pathetically forlorn; but at least spared the last undeserved ignominy of a traitor’s doom.

On the high road to success and in the height of his power, Wolsey extorts an admiration which is still somewhat reluctant. His figure cannot be called attractive. Over the business of the divorce it is difficult not to feel him positively repellent. But in his fall he rose to moral heights of which his previous career gives no warning. What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Here, it would seem, was one who—not voluntarily surrendering but forcibly bereft of the world, when he had gained it—found thereby his soul’s salvation. Through tears and tribulation, pain of the worn-out body, anguish of the spirit, he won it.69 In the day of his triumph, his countrymen hated him while they could not but admire; hated him with a rare bitterness which made even Thomas More ungenerous; save some few of his own household, none felt a touch of sympathy, unless perhaps the king, who condescended to send him one or two kindly messages to salve his own royal conscience while he was stripping his most loyal servant of everything he possessed. Yet in the months of his retirement, while, in his diocese of York, he devoted himself to the care of his spiritual flock, the fallen Cardinal won on all hands a passionate affection bestowed only upon men and women who can forget themselves in their thought for others. At bottom there must have been in the man an essential sweetness and loveableness repressed—dried up in the fires of ambition, parched in the sunshine of prosperity, welling forth in the shadow of adversity. Gone was the power that swayed the politics of a continent; gone the gorgeous pomp, the insolent state, that stirred the impotent malice of the lesser men he had overshadowed. But with their loss, the hidden best that was in the fallen minister found free play.

Wolsey’s chroniclers have been against him. Those who wished to magnify the king pointed to the Cardinal as the evil genius who had prompted every ill-judged deed. The nobility hated him as an insolent and upstart foe to their order. Katharine’s party hated him, because he was credited not only with anti-Spanish policy but with being the prime mover of the divorce. The Boleyn party hated him,70 because they knew that he loathed the Boleyn marriage. He had no sympathy from the Protestants, since he stood for the old ecclesiastical order; none from the later Catholics, since his attitude to the Papacy was misunderstood; none from the populace, because he embodied the most unpopular characteristics of ecclesiasticism. Even Cavendish, who admired him, is careful in his record to point the moral that pride goeth before a fall, lest his praise of the Cardinal’s demeanour in his last year of life should be regarded as unduly laudatory. From Skelton to Fox the martyrologist, every man had some motive for throwing a stone at him.

But if Shakespeare—or another—has summed up for us the libels of his enemies, the same hand has shaped the far truer eulogium pronounced by the “honest chronicler” Griffith in the same play. By his own talents he had made himself great: in his high station, if in some respects he abused his power, yet in the main he worked for the glory of England. It is inconceivable that when he fell, when the world slipped from the grasp of one who had been the very type of worldliness, he should have kissed the rod with perfect resignation, and found no taste of bitterness in the cup allotted to him. Yet there was at least a solid proportion of truth in the pious words of Griffith:

His overthrow heaped happiness upon him;
For then, and not till then, he felt himself,
And found the blessedness of being little;
And, to add greater honours to his age
Than man could give him, he died fearing God.


No amount of historical inquiry will ever suffice to displace in the public mind a portrait bearing Shakespeare’s signature. The Wolsey of the play is not easy to reconcile with the Wolsey Griffith described after his disappearance from the stage: but these words are still a part of the Shakespearean portrait.




Reverence for tradition is not inconsistent with a belief in progress. History yields us abundant instances of great minds which have combined a keen appreciation of the ideas of liberty and equality with a strong predilection in favour of time-honoured institutions. Sometimes, but rarely, the conservative instinct predominates in youth, and gives way to the liberal instinct as time goes on. Sometimes, not rarely, the liberalism of youth yields to the conservatism of later life. In either case, we are presented with the apparent paradox of the man who, maintaining the complete consistency of his own career, is found to be at one period of his life on the side of the reformers, and at another period on the side of the reactionaries. When political movements are comparatively slow, these paradoxes do not obtrude themselves: but when revolutions are in the air, they become conspicuous. There are two eras which are particularly fruitful in such phenomena; those, namely, of the Reformation and of the French Revolution.

Each of those periods presents us in England with76 one political thinker of the highest rank whose utterances before the great change are cited in authority by progressives, while their later pronouncements or actions are cited with approbation by the opposing forces. There is nothing surprising about the change in political attitude which unexpected events produce in a Stephen Gardiner or a William Pitt; it is merely a divergence from the earlier course. But Burke and More give a prima facie impression of a complete reversal of principle. “Miscalculation and inconsistency were the moving causes of the vicissitudes of Thomas More’s career”; so Mr. Sidney Lee has very recently written of him; as other critics have fallen back on the theory that Burke’s intellect went to pieces. Both these great men did, in fact, misinterpret the very startling events of which they were witness, partly because actual facts was misrepresented to them. Neither believed that a work-a-day world with established institutions could be accommodated to ideal polities where those institutions had never grown up. They had in practice to adapt their ideals to what they saw as hard facts. Hence they condemned in the concrete what they would have approved in the abstract. Yet both were close and acute reasoners, and probably neither would have admitted for a moment that he had deserted in later life a single principle which he had maintained at an earlier stage.


From a Painting by Holbein in the National Portrait Gallery

But whether critics differ in their attempts to reconcile the More who wrote the “Utopia” with the Lord Chancellor More, or give up the attempt to 77explain the paradox as hopeless, the attractiveness and nobility of the man stand unchallenged, as his intellectual eminence is indisputable. It is impossible not to love and admire him. Of the other nine men treated in this volume, all have apologists more or less enthusiastic, but all have bitterly or contemptuously hostile critics. More is one of the few men that have left their mark on our history, who has won the tribute of universal affection and esteem.


Thomas More was born in London in 1478, seven years after Thomas Wolsey, and about the same length of time before Thomas Cromwell. There is a rather curious prevalence of the name Thomas among prominent men at this time, Cranmer being a fourth, and the youngest of the quartet. More’s father was a barrister, who later became a judge; a gentleman with a pleasant humour, a turn for economy, and conservative views. John More was married thrice, and seems to have been comfortably wived, being responsible for a witticism on the subject of matrimony such as usually emanates from men whose personal experience contradicts it. “Taking a wife,” said he, “is like putting your hand into a bag containing a number of snakes and one eel. You may lay hold of the eel.” His son was not warned78 off the experiment, either by the jest or by his experience of step-mothers.

Young Thomas was a lad of parts; his father was a person of distinction in the great city. Morton, Archbishop and Lord Chancellor, and subsequently a Cardinal, the wise counsellor of Henry VII. throughout the first half of his reign, took the boy into his service, and evidently found much satisfaction in cultivating and encouraging his remarkable intelligence and wit; prophesying “marvellous things” of him. The great man’s kindness was repaid by the very attractive portrait which his protégé has given us in the first book of the “Utopia.” By Morton’s influence, Thomas, at fourteen, was sent to Oxford—not an unusual age. Cranmer too was sent to Cambridge at fourteen: while Wolsey’s youth was exceptional, for he took his degree at the same age. More’s undergraduate career, however, was brief. He was intended by his father to follow the profession of the law, and John More took alarm when he found that his son was being beguiled into an enthusiasm for the recently introduced study of Greek. There was no connexion between law and Greek; besides, Greek was unsettling: it seemed to put new-fangled and heterodox ideas into folk’s heads. So after two years, More was withdrawn from Oxford, entered at New Inn to study the law, and in February, 1496, was admitted a student at Lincoln’s Inn: just about the time when John Colet was returning from Italy.

There is every probability that Colet and his younger contemporary had already foregathered79 at Oxford, in listening to the teaching of Grocyn: otherwise it is not very easy to account for the warm intimacy which arose between the Oxford Divinity Lecturer and the young student of Lincoln’s Inn: though the fact that both their fathers were men of such eminence in London, that the families may easily have been brought into contact, must not be forgotten. In any case, the names of Colet, Erasmus and More became closely associated between 1496 and 1500. Erasmus paid a flying visit to England in 1498. Colet’s discourses were already famous, and the Dutchman and the Englishman were introduced to each other by Prior Charnock of the College of St. Mary the Virgin: to their great mutual satisfaction. As the story runs, Colet told Erasmus of the surprising genius of his young friend Thomas More, and told More of the amazing endowments of his new acquaintance. The two, unknown to each other, met at the same table, and fell into a dialectical discussion which neither could resist; till at last the elder, putting two and two together, exclaimed “Aut tu es Morus, aut nullus,” the younger promptly responding “Aut tu es Erasmus, aut Diabolus.” Whether the tale be true or not, the acquaintance was made, and ripened rapidly into the warmest of friendships. In those days, complimentary epithets between scholars were nearly as cheap and meant nearly as little, as vituperative ones; but there is no mistake about the genuine and spontaneous character of the terms in which Erasmus wrote to and of Thomas More. He is always dulcissimus, iucundissimus, or something80 equally endearing. Erasmus had superlatives for other people too, but there is no one else on whom he lavishes the same wealth of playful affection. It was to Robert Fisher that the scholar about this time wrote his classic appreciation of his young friend—Thomae Mori ingenio quid unquam finxit natura vel mollius, vel dulcius, vel felicius? “What hath nature ever fashioned more tender, more charming, more happy, than the character of Thomas More?”

It was during this visit that More played a characteristic trick on Erasmus, one which shows how well the quondam page of Cardinal Morton (who had just entered on the last year of his life) stood in distinguished quarters. Erasmus was staying at Greenwich with his patron Lord Mountjoy. Thither came More, with a friend, to see him and carry him off for a walk, in the course of which they came to a handsome building, where More said he wished to pay his respects. Somewhat to his dismay, Erasmus found on entering that they were invading a royal domain, and that their visit was to Prince Henry and his brother and sisters who wanted him there and then to produce them a poem. He demurred, but was let off on condition of his promising to send them one—a promise faithfully carried out.

More shared with his older friend a capacity for perceiving the humorous side of things which stood him in good stead all his life. But he had a deeper vein of seriousness, and to him—as to Colet—religion meant a great deal more than it did to the cosmopolitan scholar. The profession for which he was81 still training—he was not yet called to the Bar—was one to which his abilities were eminently adapted, and his intimacy with Colet did not prevent him from loyally devoting his time and his studies to that training, as his father desired. But as soon as he was duly called, he began to give his natural predilections freer play, and we find him delivering in the City a course of lectures on Augustine’s De Civitate Dei: to the admiration of his old master Grocyn and others. Not, however, to the neglect of his legal pursuits, for he was appointed Reader at Furnivall’s Inn; or of larger ambitions, for, young as he was, he appeared as a member of Henry VII.’s Parliament of 1504. The story of the “beardless boy” persuading that assembly to reject a royal demand for cash, as told by his son-in-law William Roper, is familiar; and even if not altogether accurately reported, leaves no doubt that he did so offend Henry that he felt it advisable to retire into political obscurity—the king characteristically taking his revenge by extracting a fine from his father.

It may have been this episode which gave him a temporary inclination to betake himself to a monastic life: but this did not last. Investigation did not lead to the conclusion that life in a monastery was quite the same in practice as in theory, and a penchant for asceticism could be indulged without entering the cloister. Moreover, this summer Colet was in London, probably to commence work at St. Paul’s, where he had just been nominated to the Deanery; and Colet was not the man to counsel such a step. On the contrary, he advised his friend82 to marry, and the advice was taken next year.B The story is quaintly characteristic. Visiting “one Mr. Colte a gentleman of Essex,” he was attracted by the three daughters of the house. The second being the prettiest, took his fancy, but he thought it would be hard on the elder sister if the younger got a husband first, so he “of a certayne pittie framed his fancie towardes her” instead—with excellent results.

B Roper’s chronology is not very intelligible. He says that—after being called to the Bar—More was three years a Reader at Furnivall’s Inn, and then passed four years in the Charterhouse without taking the vows. The other evidence, however, points pretty conclusively to 1505 as the date of his marriage.

On the whole it does not look as if More went in any very great fear of the old king’s wrath. Mr. Colte would not have been in a hurry to bestow his daughter in marriage on a young man whom Henry was seeking occasion to slay: and probably More himself would have hesitated to give hostages to fortune under those conditions.


Whatever reason he may have had to fear ill-will from Henry VII.—who seldom wasted vindictive sentiments on people whose punishment could not be substantially expressed in terms of hard cash—More could count on the goodwill of his young successor. More than one of the princes of those83 days ranked among the most accomplished men of their times; and like his brother-in-law of Scotland, Henry would have more than held his own in any company, intellectual or athletic. As yet, the world did not know that his abilities were matched by a ruthless selfishness. He seemed a brilliant and charming boy, frank-hearted and open-handed, with just the carelessness becoming to his age: the very reverse of the old king as men thought of him in his later years, sordid, crafty, griping. The reign of Empsons and Dudleys was at an end; the approach to the new king’s favour was to be through very different avenues. To have been in the black books of Henry VII. was no reason for fearing Henry VIII.

More prospered rapidly in his profession, and had no desire to be drawn to Court or into the whirl of politics. He was very soon appointed to the important office of Under-Sheriff in the City, and his private practice was ere long bringing him a very substantial income. Also, to his great satisfaction, the expectation of a more cheerful régime in England was bringing Erasmus back again—there had been one flying visit in the interval—to write the Encomium Moriae under More’s own roof, and still further to enrich and stimulate that congenial intellectual society in which More himself had been living ever since Colet had taken up his duties as Dean of St. Paul’s.

But however little ambitious More might be, his talents were too conspicuous to permit of his being left alone. In 1515, the commercial war with Flanders—an outcome of the foreign complications in84 which Henry VIII. had become involved—was embarrassing both countries so much that there was a strong desire for adjustment. An embassy was to be sent, with Cuthbert Tunstall at its head. The merchants of London desired to be represented; they wanted More to represent them; Wolsey, now supreme, acceded; More was attached to the embassy, and the abilities he displayed marked him out as a man fitted for the king’s service. For a time More resisted; but his masterly conduct of a case in which he was appointed as counsel for the Pope (in respect of a ship which the Crown claimed as forfeit) caused Henry to put renewed pressure on him. In 1518, he had become a courtier in his own despite. This, by the way, may have some bearing on the fact that in that year his father was elevated to the judicial Bench.

Some years earlier, More’s domestic life had suffered: his first wife dying in 1512 and leaving him with four little children on his hands. To provide the orphans with a mother, he took to himself a second wife, some years older than himself; a kindly conventional soul, as it would seem, who quite understood that her husband was a very clever man, but was eternally puzzled by his disregard of worldly considerations, and hopelessly confused by the whimsical irony with which he loved to meet her “Tilly vally, Sir Thomas,” when he had been doing something peculiarly exasperating from her point of view. She mothered his children, and himself as much as he would let her; and never succeeded in disturbing his humorous equanimity,85 though her own must have been everlastingly ruffled.

The embassy to the Netherlands sealed More’s fate, by forcing him into political life. It is also intimately associated with the one great original literary work produced in England in the first half of the sixteenth century: a work which established the fame of its author as a political thinker of the highest rank, in spite of the intentionally fantastic form in which it was cast.


Throughout More’s life, revolutionary forces had been at work in the political, the intellectual, and the religious world; but as yet they had not concentrated in any volcanic explosion. At present, More’s most intimate associates stood in the very forefront of the most advanced school, and his “Utopia” was to make his position beside them as conspicuous to the world as it was assured in fact. He had taken to Greek, in spite of his anxious parent, like a duck to water: his affinity to the Platonic Socrates is obvious. John Colet was his guide, philosopher and friend; and the downright reactionaries, like the Bishop of London, had vain hankerings to suppress Colet as a dangerous heretic. He was the chosen intellectual mate of Erasmus, who had done or was doing more than any man living,86 to rid men’s minds of the shackles of the old scholastic formalism. The grosser popular superstitions, the worship of the letter and neglect of the spirit, the pursuit of worldly advancement by the successors of the apostles, were constant subjects for pulpit castigations by the one friend, and the lively and scathing mockery of the other. The mediæval theory that war is a pastime for the ambitions of princes was vigorously denounced by both. In all these things More was with them heart and soul; and he had already given audacious indication of his belief that the function of government is to seek the good not of the governors but of the governed, when he incurred the displeasure of Henry VII. in 1504. This progressive attitude of mind found its complete expression in the fantasy of Utopia.

The notion of constructing an imaginary Commonwealth under ideal conditions on ideal lines was of course derived straight from Plato’s Republic. That any existing State could be reformed into the semblance of such a Commonwealth by the fiat of legislators, neither Plato nor More ever dreamed. Neither the Republic nor the Utopia is in the nature of one of those paper Constitutions whose devisers would fain impose them in all their logical perfection upon recalcitrant nations. They aim at setting forth those fundamental principles which must indeed lie at the root of all healthy forms of government, but must also inevitably materialise into different shapes under differing conditions. The reproach that such schemes are not practical, which is damning to a paper Constitution, is here wholly87 irrelevant. They were never meant to be practical. Sir Galahad is not a practical model for the British citizen, who would take warning from the career of the Knight of La Mancha. Yet the conception of Sir Galahad is worthy of serious contemplation by the British citizen, who may therefrom derive not a little practical direction in the conduct of his life. To condemn the presentation of avowed ideals as unpractical, is merely to display a complete misapprehension of the meaning and use of ideals.

More, however, did not derive his method from Plato. The Athenian started by looking for the logical principles on which a State should be constructed, and built it, storey by storey. The Englishman imagined his State already complete and expounded the finished structure; taking example by other myths than the Republic. With happy ingenuity, he made use of a suggestion from the records of the voyages of Amerigo Vespucci to locate his dream-city in realms which some of that eminent traveller’s company might have visited, alone of Europeans. In similarly happy vein, he utilised his embassy to the Netherlands to provide an introduction, the form of which was doubtless suggested by Platonic precedent, though it is in no sense an imitation. The characterisation of the persons whose conversation is reported is not unworthy of the master.

The work is in two parts: the account of Utopia itself, and this preliminary book, which introduces the traveller Hythloday, with his criticisms on European politics in general, and the state of88 England in particular. This, More would have us believe, is the way in which a foreign Odysseus having “viewed the cities and marked the ways of many a People” would judge the institutions on which the Englishman prided himself. The suggestion that he wished to make himself safe by attributing those criticisms to some one else is hardly tenable. It does not appear that any one ever suspected Hythloday of having had a more material existence than Lemuel Gulliver after him. The intention is simply to dispose the reader’s mind so as to accept the verisimilitude of what he knows to be a fiction; the intention of every dramatic artist. Reason tells you that you are sitting in a theatre and watching actors behind the footlights. Imagination tells you that real events are going on before your eyes. If imagination fails, tragedy becomes burlesque, and comedy silliness. The description of Utopia appeals with tenfold force when your imagination accepts it as a place which a real human traveller has seen; and the illusion is only possible when the real human traveller has been convincingly presented. Raphael Hythloday is as real as Robinson Crusoe. But there is no reason to suppose that More wanted any one to think that Hythloday had an address in Antwerp—as Peter Giles says, “Some ... for that his minde and affection was altogether set and fixed upon Utopia, say that he hathe taken his voyage thetherwards agayne.” “No-where land” is the unsubstantial resting-place of the non-material but convincing traveller.

89 Similarly, by putting his criticisms on English affairs into the mouth of a foreign observer, from whose lips they come with a perfect fitness, the artist procures for them an attention and consideration which would be refused if they were being thought of as the criticisms of an Englishman vilifying his own country. Again, the illusion is needed only till the required effect is produced, namely, recognition of the validity of the criticism.

The illusion is created with subtle skill. More relates how he was sent on the Netherlands embassy, with various references to his associates, and the actual facts of that episode in his career, and tells how his (real) friend, Peter Giles of Antwerp, introduced the traveller Hythloday—an interesting person who had voyaged to those lands of which Europeans as yet knew exceedingly little and imagined an infinite deal. More draws him out, and extracts from him his impression of England, where he had visited Cardinal Morton, of the state of Europe in general, and finally, by way of contrast, of that remote and unknown State of Utopia, which has opened his eyes to what lies at the root of so much that is unsatisfactory in the realms of Christendom. Thus More is enabled to win interested attention to his own criticism of the social and political conditions prevalent, and his own political philosophy. Whatever the latter may be, the former is as practical as possible.

The picture given of the world in which men were actually living and moving, and pursuing their business or their pleasure, is vivid and impressive.90 Moreover, its truth is borne out by all other evidence. It is the work of a keen and humorous observer; and the analysis of the causes of the pervading evils is unerring. It was no doubt wise of More to antedate the description by a score or so of years, referring it to Cardinal Morton’s days; but in 1515, every evil depicted had become even more marked—and, it may be said, continued to increase progressively until the reign of Elizabeth, the same causes continuing to operate, with the addition of others which intensified the effects. Every rising in the reigns of Henry VIII., of Edward VI., and of Mary, whatever its ostensible ground, bears unmistakeable signs that the agricultural depression with its attendant evils was a secondary, if not the primary cause.

It would be too much to expect that the remedies More recommended should have been equally above criticism. Economic science was in its earliest infancy; in spite of experience, no one had begun to suspect the inefficacy of legislation in certain directions, and there are plenty of people who still believe that natural forces can be regulated by statute. In no single respect was any thinker of his times in advance of Sir Thomas More in these matters. But in many respects he was in advance not only of the foremost of his contemporaries, but even of current opinion and practice three hundred years later.

Thus, after describing the prevalence of thieving and robbery, he points to idleness as its cause, but dwells emphatically on the distinction between the91 idleness which is of choice and that which is enforced by lack of employment. Half the thieves would be honest labourers if they had the chance. The maintenance or development of industries which provide employment would be an effective cure; but instead of seeking a cure, the authorities fall back on punishment. But the severity of the law, instead of checking the minor misdemeanours, converts the pickpocket into a dangerous robber who—having no worse penalty to fear for the graver offence—resorts to violence without hesitation: so that the system regularly manufactures the worst ruffianism.

The instability and disorganisation of industry produced by what we now call “corners,” has its prototype in the “engrossing” and “forestalling,” by which wealthy men make themselves monopolists. The inevitable tendency of capital to flow in dividend-producing, not philanthropic, channels, is foreshadowed by the steady conversion by wealth-seeking landlords of arable land into sheep-runs; a process which left much of the rural population without work, wages, food, or home. Incidentally it may be noted that, while modern historians are disposed rather to dwell on the substitution of greedy laymen for the monasteries as landlords as one of the later causes of this particular trouble, More expressly includes “certeyn abbottes, holy men no doubt,” in his denunciation thereof. He may, however, mean no more than that even the Church was not exempt from this reproach. In dealing with this economic tendency for capital to92 seek the most lucrative channel, More made the universal mistake of his day in believing that it could be effectively restrained by Acts of Parliament.

In a vein no less practical, and no less opposed to the conventional ideas of the time, and with a still more playful seriousness, the traveller discourses of high politics and finance as they were debated in the Cabinets of Europe, with the aggrandisement and enrichment of monarchs as the one end in view. “‘This myne advyce, maister More,’ says he, ‘how think you it would be harde and taken?’ ‘So God helpe me, not very thankefully’ quod I.’”

By this discussion, the way is prepared for Hythloday to favour his company with an account of the remarkable polity which he found in Utopia (a State as to the whereabouts of which More subsequently writes in anxious inquiry to Peter Giles, who answers in the like vein of pretended regret at being unable to answer the question). This account occupies the second book, forming about two-thirds of the whole work.

In this fantasy, practicality vanishes at the outset. Such are the defences, natural or artificial, of this most favoured island, that any would-be invader is doomed to certain destruction, while the country produces everything that man requires for comfort. It needs no army and no navy, self-defence and self-assertion being equally superfluous: its relations with foreign States are purely complimentary. The Utopians make no foreign leagues. Where the bonds of goodwill are not sufficient to maintain friendly relations, nations enter upon leagues, but only to desert93 them at the first call of interest. Such is the strange conviction of the Utopians, though they had not themselves experienced the kaleidoscopic permutations and combinations of Ferdinand the Catholic, Maximilian, Louis XII., Henry VII., Julius II., and the Venetians. If by any chance they find it necessary to go to war, there is a convenient breed of fighting men in a country not too far away, who can always be hired for the purpose.

Being thus preserved from the creation of a military caste, while universal education has prevented knowledge from being concentrated in a priestly caste, it has been easy to prevent the development of any sort of privileged class through the accumulation of private property, which is prohibited. Hence, in Utopia, communism is practicable, and the whole system is as a matter of course communistic, though the principle is not extended to the relations between the sexes. Having arrived at their religion not through the Christian Revelation, but by Reason, any religious views are tolerated which are not manifestly anti-social. It is a corollary of these conditions that government is in the hands of elected magistrates, who have neither class interests nor personal interests to deflect them from their proper function of ruling with a single eye to the interests of the whole people. The possibility that sectarian interests might have developed as a disturbing factor does not seem to have presented itself; perhaps, where no religious views might be aggressively expressed or repressed, no strife of sects was to be feared.

94 In every direction, of course, the manners and customs of the Utopians suggest that the manners and customs of the English are susceptible of improvement. They take a philosophic view of the pleasures of life, reckoning the gratification of animal appetites exceedingly low in practice as well as in theory. They have no lust of gold and jewels. They have no craving for display, for gambling, for the baser forms of sport. On the other hand, they appreciate the value of sanitation. There is no idleness, since every one is required to do his share of work, but there is ample leisure for all; instead of one half of the population having too much, and the other half too little, to do. Thus they can enjoy in abundance those rational pleasures in which they take a true delight, abiding in health and wealth.


It should be sufficiently clear that no one was more thoroughly aware than Sir Thomas More himself that the Utopian conditions could not be produced in a European State, and that Utopian institutions could only exist under Utopian conditions. Of that fact he was destined to give practical demonstration when called upon to discharge the functions of a practical ruler.

In 1518 More became a Privy Councillor, and probably his influence may be detected in the efforts,95 renewed about this time, to check the conversion of arable land into pasture, and the evil practice of enclosures. But Martin Luther’s activity was just beginning, and its results were to make the contrast between Utopia and England even more marked than previously. Before entering, however, on More’s attitude to this new phase of the Reformation, we have to note some other points in this stage of his career.

More stood in high favour. He had not climbed to a great position by arduous effort; greatness, worthy of it as he was, had been thrust upon him. His advancement was promoted by Wolsey, who was seldom vindictive except towards rivals whose power might make them dangerous. In 1521 he was knighted. When Parliament was summoned in 1523 he was made Speaker, by no means at his own desire, but chiefly at that of the King and the Cardinal. The result was probably not quite what Wolsey had anticipated. On his appointment, he had implied very clearly, though in diplomatic terms, that he meant to uphold freedom of speech in the House. But the business on hand was the voting of money, and Wolsey made the mistake of attempting to overawe the Commons by coming down to the House himself. The Members declined to speak or vote in his presence; the Cardinal’s demands were received with dead silence. Wolsey turned on the Speaker. The Speaker made it perfectly clear that the House could not give way on the question of privilege. When Wolsey withdrew, Parliament demonstrated its loyalty by making a substantial grant.

96 According to More’s son-in-law, this incident brought More into the black books of the Cardinal, who with ill intent tried to get him sent on an embassy to Spain, under colour of complimenting him. If Wolsey really meant evil by him, his designs came to nothing, for there was no sign of any diminution in the royal favour. Already, however, in 1525, Wolsey’s position was becoming precarious, though to all appearance he was as dominant as ever. More’s next advancement was to the Chancellorship of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1526; and from this time Henry’s personal demands on his time and his society became exceedingly pressing. A year later, the whole of the king’s real interest was absorbed in the divorce question, which was to seal Wolsey’s fate directly, and More’s indirectly. Henry consulted him about it, and More then as always told his master honest truth—he did not see how the marriage with Katharine could lawfully be voided. From that position he never swerved. The king could respect conscientious scruples on the part of a favourite, and did so as long as More remained a favourite. More, however, had no illusions about the king’s constancy. “If my head,” he told Roper, “would win him a castle in France, it should not fail to go.” But when Henry decided that Wolsey could no longer serve his turn, it was More whom he selected to fill the office of Lord Chancellor, in spite of his views of the divorce.

During these years, the uprising of Luther had developed into a widespread religious revolt. Henry, having no quarrel with Pope Leo, and proud of his97 own attainments as a theologian, chose to enter the lists for the demolition of Luther; producing an apologia for the Papacy which earned him the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Before publishing this work he showed it to More, who warned him, with shrewd foresight, that, if ever he did come to have a quarrel with the Pope, he would find it very difficult to get over his own argument, which proved too much in support of Papal authority. Henry, however, would not modify the view then expressed, and succeeded in satisfying his counsellor that it was sound. In due course the prophecy came true: Henry repudiated the position he had formerly defended. Unhappily for More, however, the king had finally convinced him, and he declined to surrender his conviction: with fatal consequences.

Viewed even exclusively as a religious movement, Luther’s revolt would not have attracted More’s sympathies. He had never doubted any of the dogmas of the Church, though he had a plentiful contempt for many prevailing corruptions which were recognised as such by men to whom heresy was never imputed by their bitterest enemy. He believed with conviction a great deal that Erasmus accepted merely pro forma. Luther not only propounded views on specific dogmas which More regarded as heretical, he challenged the whole authority of Rome; and More believed in the authority of Rome. But beyond all this the Lutheran revolt was very soon followed by the German Peasant revolt, which deluged half Europe with blood. The Peasants’ War was completely misapprehended in England,98 where the agricultural troubles, bad as they were, could bear no comparison with the oppression from which the German peasants suffered; but its leadership fell, naturally enough, into the hands of men as fanatical in their zeal for religious as for social reform. The overthrow of all authority and the universal triumph of sheer anarchy appeared to be their goal; and the world believed, or was taught to believe, that it was Luther who had started the conflagration. The heretical pamphlets which issued from Germany and Switzerland—lumped together, by those who did not know the facts, as Lutheran—gave colour to this belief by the virulence of their attacks on the Papacy and the clergy; and it is small wonder that many of the most liberal-minded men could anticipate nothing but stark ruin, the coming of chaos, unless the torrent were stayed. The threatening crash of all reverence, of all authority save such as could be enforced by push of pike, seemed to be brought measurably closer, when, in 1527, the Imperial armies sacked Rome in emulation of Alaric, and the representative of St. Peter was held a prisoner by the representative of Caesar Augustus.

In the abstract, and under Utopian conditions, More was singularly alive to the beauty of the principle of practically universal toleration. But Europe and England were presenting a problem which could never have arisen in Utopia at all. Even in Utopia, it was recognised that certain negations were directly anti-social, and that the propagation of them must be repressed. Here in Europe, it seemed as if every99 negation of a received dogma was to be turned into an anti-social engine. Under the conditions, the toleration of any heresy, certainly of all such as palpably involved an attack on authority, tended to anarchy. The conclusion that what was good unreservedly in Utopia would not be good in England is obvious. We can all see now, of course, that More misinterpreted the facts. The anarchism was an accident of the religious movement, which it shed of itself, not an inherent part of it: the Church lost as much ground by the action of her own zealots as by the attacks of her most fanatical opponents. But for a man who interpreted the facts as More did, there was nothing inconsistent in declaring for toleration in Utopia, but in England repression.

There is another point, too, which is generally unnoticed. The Utopians arrived at their religion by reason; they had no way of ascertaining truth except through reason; hence, for one man to condemn another for holding a different “doxy” would be in itself irrational. Christendom, in More’s view, was in a different position. It had received Truth by direct Revelation, and an Exponent of Truth by Divine appointment. What the Church had definitely pronounced to be heterodox was to be regarded finally and conclusively as false. To permit the preaching of doctrine known to be false was quite different from permitting the discussion or inculcation of divergent opinions on which there was no authority qualified to pronounce absolutely. Even at the moment when More was describing the religion of Utopia, before he had ever heard the100 name of Luther, he might with perfect consistency have held that heresy ought to be repressed in Christian countries. The argument, of course, has nothing to do with the wisdom or unwisdom of a repressive policy; it is concerned merely with the “inconsistency” of More’s Utopian theory and his Catholic practice. Those who found the Divine Revelation not in the voice of the Church but in the text of Scripture, were equally convinced that deviation from indisputable Truth should be punished by the strong hand.

Broadly, the suggestion here put forward is that the Utopian religions are philosophies: that all philosophies are matter of argument; that intolerance of opinions which are matter of argument is irrational. On the other hand (to More), Catholic Christianity is not a philosophy, but is revealed truth; not therefore matter of argument, except so far as details have not been defined; that suppression of doctrines subversive of Catholic truth is certainly legitimate, and may be necessary.

However that may be, it is undeniable that More appears in the least favourable light as a Catholic controversialist; losing balance and tone, he writes currente calamo, without restraint, with lapse of dignity, and with only an occasional redeeming turn of humour. That is to say, he drops to the normal level of contemporary controversialists on both sides, instead of abiding in that serene atmosphere which otherwise distinguishes him. The aggressive bellicosity of princes grieved him, and the king’s divorce business vexed him: but the spread of heresy101 was the one thing which upset his equanimity. “I pray God,” said he to Roper, “that some of us, as heigh as we seeme to sitt upon the mountaines, treadinge heretickes under our feete like annts, live not the day that we gladly would wish to be at leagge and composition with them, to let them have their Churches quietly to themselves; soe that they would be content to lett us have ours quietly to our selves.”

Similarly, the one and only ground of reproach against his conduct in any public matter is that as Chancellor he may have sanctioned putting heretics to the torture, and did during the last six months of his office—not before—send certain heretics to the stake. It is true that the only men in England, in those days, who, having the opportunity, did not send a single heretic to the fire, were the much-abused Protector Somerset and the still more abused Wolsey. But we would fain have had Thomas More an exception. Still, it can at least be affirmed positively that the penalty was only inflicted when all hope was over of persuading the “heretics” to recognise their error, and save their bodies as well as their souls; and that every effort was made to give them the opportunity of doing so. Given More’s premises, the conclusion that their death would tend to the salvation of other souls was irresistible.

It was towards the end of 1529 that Wolsey was struck down, and More, very much against his will, was elevated to the Chancellorship. For a commoner and a layman to receive the appointment was almost revolutionary—at least it was a very signal mark102 of the depression of the nobility, although it was many a year since any but an ecclesiastic had held the office. In everything, More proved himself a notably admirable occupant of the post, dealing out justice with unprecedented despatch; not only without allowing himself to be corrupted, in which he was not unique, but also without accepting those substantial compliments from suitors which less rigidly scrupulous judges were in the habit of profiting by, even when they did not allow their decisions to be affected. No personal or professional considerations were ever permitted by him to interfere with the ends of justice, the most exact that it was in his power to achieve. But his tenure of the Chancellorship was brief. More was unique in many respects, and in his own day he was unique in refusing to retain office when he could no longer do so without violating his conscience—without making himself a party to a policy which he held to be wrong. Other men shifted the responsibility on to the king; More felt that the responsibility could not be shifted, and in 1532 he resigned.

The cause of the resignation was Henry’s ecclesiastical policy; its immediate occasion, the submission of the clergy. The fall of Wolsey was simultaneous with the summoning of the famous “Seven Years” or “Reformation” Parliament of Henry VIII. The king had given no sort of sign of any disposition to relax the severity of his attitude towards heresy; but as the months and years passed, it became increasingly evident that his rigid orthodoxy was to be accompanied by a prolonged103 anti-clerical and anti-Papal campaign, the meaning whereof was to be revealed only by degrees. A twelvemonth had barely passed when the clergy were suddenly notified that they had as a body been guilty of a breach of Præmunire in accepting the Legatine authority of Wolsey, and this was followed up by requiring Convocation to affirm that the king was sole and Supreme Protector and Head of the Church. No new authority was directly claimed for the Crown—without reading between the lines; though it was tolerably clear that a good deal more might be read into the declaration. The clergy yielded. Then the Commons presented their supplication against the ordinaries. The subsequent operations showed that the Royal Supremacy was to be applied after quite a new fashion. The clergy yielded to the logic of force, and made their “submission.” More, holding that no layman, king or not, could by any possibility be rightfully head of the Church in this new sense, concluded that he had no alternative but to retire into private life.


The divorce was Henry’s first objective; it was duly pronounced by the new Archbishop in the following spring. The step, however, was intensely unpopular. The more clearly this was brought home to the king’s mind, the more anxious he became to104 have the avowed support of every one whose opinion carried weight. Irritation reached its climax over the affair of the “Nun of Kent,” a young woman named Elizabeth Barton, who had for some little time been posing as a sort of prophetess. How far she believed in her own imposture it is not possible to tell, but she was certainly exploited by fanatical adherents of the Papacy, and when she took to denouncing the wrath of God against the king for the divorce, there was a real risk that the superstition of the day would make her ravings dangerous. There were two men whom no persuasions had prevailed upon to pronounce in favour of the Boleyn marriage—Fisher of Rochester and Sir Thomas More. It was found that both had had some sort of dealings with the nun. Henry determined that they should both suffer as her accomplices, unless they would openly range themselves with his supporters. But the case against More was so hopelessly futile that the king’s advisers warned him that the ex-Chancellor’s inclusion in the Bill of Attainder could only result in the Bill itself being thrown out. His name was therefore removed, to the great rejoicing of his friends. More saw farther into the king’s mind than they did. “Quod defertur non aufertur,” he said to his daughter.

He was right. The king and Cromwell were ready to go to the last extremity to force the two recalcitrants into line. An Act had been passed, fixing the succession to the throne on the children of Anne Boleyn. The ratification of the marriage had led him to remark to Roper: “God give grace,105 son, that these matters be not in a while confirmed with oaths.” The Act of Succession carried with it authority to impose an oath to maintain it; but the oath subsequently formulated was so worded as to bind the subscriber to the admission of the invalidity of the marriage with Katharine, and the denial of the Papal authority. The oath was proffered to More and Fisher; both refused it, though both were ready to maintain the succession. Both were sent to the Tower.

It was in fact more than doubtful whether the Act warranted the imposition of the oath in the prescribed form. The imprisonment of the culprits without trial was in any case illegal, and every attempt to persuade them to yield failed. The King always preferred to have the letter of the law on his side; and it was impossible to pretend that the refusal to subscribe involved treason. To give their destruction a legal colour, a fresh Act of Succession was passed at the end of the year (1534), expressly confirming the form of the oath; and this was accompanied by an Act of Supremacy, making it treason to refuse to affirm the Royal Supremacy. After that, it was simple enough to send More and Fisher to their doom. To deny the Supremacy was one thing; More had abstained from that. To refuse to affirm it was another; More had always done so. He maintained his position, and was condemned to death as a traitor, under the law which had been framed expressly to enmesh him. His defence was only that the law itself was invalid as being against the law of Christendom, and the106 liberties of the Church as affirmed in Magna Charta; which of course the judges could not admit. A week later, on July 6—the Eve of St. Thomas (of Canterbury)—1535, Sir Thomas More was beheaded.


Thanks mainly to the charm of the biography by his son-in-law, William Roper, the private life and character of Thomas More are among the most familiar to us in history. It is a life good to dwell upon, sweet and wholesome. Even in its public aspects there is but the single note that jars, his harshness—molestia he called it—towards the heretics, whom he classed with homicides and robbers: in its domestic aspects it is wholly charming. In his private capacity he could love even a heretic. Roper himself, the sympathetic husband of his favourite daughter Margaret, was bitten with Lutheran doctrines, which even the persuasiveness of his revered father-in-law could not induce him to relinquish. To the error, as he deemed it, which was not accompanied by propagandism, More was as tender as could be desired. “Meg,” he said to Mistress Roper, “I have borne long with thy husband; I have reasoned long time with him, and still given him my fatherly counsel; but I perceive none of this can call him home again. And therefore, Meg, I will no longer dispute with him, nor yet will I give107 him over, but I will go another way to work, and get me to God and pray for him.”

There we have the natural Thomas More, obeying the kindly dictates of his own heart, which held no rancour towards any one who had not in some sort constituted himself an enemy of the “weal publick.” Personal hostility to himself he held of no account. Shortly before he was made Lord Chancellor, an old servant of his came to him in great indignation against some merchants who had been “liberally rayling” at More. Would he not, seeing what his favour was with the king, punish these scurrilous people as they deserved? But More’s reply was a very sound piece of philosophy in his usual humorous vein—“Would you have me punish them by whome I receave more benefitt than by you all that be my friends? Lett them a God’s name speake as lewedly as they list of me, and shoote never soe many arrowes at me, so long as they do not hitt me, what am I the worse? But if they should once hitt me, then would it a little trouble me. Howbeit, I trust by Gode’s helpe, there shall none of them all be able once to touch me. I have more cause, I assure thee, to pittie them than to be angrie with them.”

We are told much of his simple piety and faith. The same ardently reverent spirit, which made him cling to the Church and uphold her authority, at one time very nearly sent him into the cloister, and did cause him to retain so much of the ascetic tradition that he wore a hair-shirt next his skin all his days; though it was only by accident that any one108 save his beloved “Meg,” Margaret Roper, became aware of the fact. His subjugation of the flesh was free from its too common accompaniment of arrogant or morbid austerity. It was little more than an avoidance of insidious and apparently harmless temptations, an appreciation of the unimportance of gratifying physical appetites. He reaped his reward. The sudden descent from ample wealth to a narrow income, involved in his resignation of the Chancellorship, had no terrors for him. He had tried hard fare at Oxford, less hard at New Inn, something better at Lincoln’s Inn. He and his family could very well live by the Lincoln’s Inn standard. If they found that too high for the reduced exchequer, there was the New Inn standard to fall back on, and after that the Oxford standard. And even after that “May we yeat with bagges and walletts go a-begging togither ... and soe still keepe companie merrily together.” A cheery philosophy.

Two of Roper’s anecdotes show, in the dramatic touches which bring a very living Duke of Norfolk before us, how the son-in-law profited by his father-in-law’s example; besides illustrating More’s quaint combination of seriousness and humour. The duke went to see him about his resignation, at Chelsea, and found him singing in the Church choir. “To whome after service, as they went home togither arme in arme, the duke said, ‘God body, God body, my Ld. Chancellor, a parish Clarke, a parish Clarke, you dishonour the King and his office.’ ‘Nay,’ quoth Sir Thomas Moore smilinge upon the Duke,109 ‘your Grace may not thinke, that the Kinge your Master and myne, will with me for serving God his Master be offended, or thereby count his office dishonoured.’” And again, when he had escaped the Bill of Attainder: “The Duke sayd unto him, ‘By the masse, Mr. Moore, it is perillous strivinge with Princes, and therefore I would wish you somewhat to inclyne to the Kinge’s pleasure. For by Gode’s body Mr. Moore Indignatio principis mors est.’ ‘Ys that all, my Lord?’ quoth he. ‘Is there in good fayth noe more difference betweene your Grace and me but that I shall dye to day and you tomorrow?’”

But in the last days, the never-failing humour has an exquisitely pathetic setting.

The worthy wife, “somewhat worldlie too,” comes to see her husband in the Tower; she cannot understand why he is so silly as to stop there, when he might so easily recover the king’s goodwill by doing “as all the Busshopps and best learned of this realm have done.” He listens placidly to the outburst, then: “I pray thee, good Mistress Alice, tell me one thing: is not this house as nighe heaven as mine own?” We are reminded of the last words Humphrey Gilbert was heard to utter before the Squirrel foundered: “We are as near God by sea as by land.” But there was no one to reply to Gilbert as “shee, after her accustomed fashion, not likeinge such talke, answeared Tille valle, tille valle.” The good soul has no patience for such incomprehensible folly. Margaret Roper visits him, the darling daughter, of all his children the likest to110 him in wit and in person; with her he is sure of perfect sympathy. She knows that his doom is absolutely certain, nor is she one to dissuade him from following the dictates of his conscience. After the sentence in Westminster Hall, she is waiting at the Tower wharf for the last fond farewell, the parting blessing. Heedless of spectators, she darts through the press of halberdiers guarding the prisoner, to fling herself on his neck, pour out her tears and her love on his breast. He soothes her with words of tender counsel and affection. At last she tears herself away, but overcome with the passion of devotion, “suddenlye turned back againe, and rann to him as before, tooke him about the necke, and divers times togeather most lovingely kissed him, and at last with a full heavie harte was fayne to separate from him: the behouldinge whereof was to manye of them that were present thereat soe lamentable that it made them for very sorrow to mourne and weepe.”

Shall we wonder at such love for the man who on receiving sentence could say to his judges, as reported by Anthony St. Leger, “I verily trust and right heartily pray that though your lordships have now in earth been Judges to my condemnation, we may yet hereafter in heaven merrily all meet together to our everlasting salvation”; whose spirit was so imperturbable in its serenity, that it looked upon death as a mere casual episode which in no wise ruffled his habitual humour. “I pray you, Mr. Lieutenant,” he said, with his foot on the scaffold, noticing how ill it had been put together, “see me111 safe up. For my coming down, let me shift for myself”: and as he laid his neck on the block, moving his beard aside, “Pity that should be cut; it hath committed no treason.”

His head, according to custom, was set on Temple Bar, but Margaret Roper, she “who clasped in her last trance her murdered father’s head,” was allowed to obtain possession of it, and preserved it in spices till her own death. The news of the execution was conveyed to Charles V. His comment is endorsed by posterity—“If we had been master of such a servant, we would rather have lost the best city of our dominions than have lost such a worthy Councillor.”




For six years, Thomas Cromwell was palpably and unmistakably the ruler of England—subject to the approval of the king. For the four years preceding, it is practically certain that he both suggested and organised Henry’s policy. England has never known a statesman so irresistible, so relentless, while his power lasted; nor one whose downfall was more sudden or so universally applauded. He is the most terrifying because he is the most passionless figure in our history. He wrought like fate, with a perfect disregard of all human sentiment and emotion; a scourge of God. Not, however, a mere scourge like the earthquake and the pestilence; not a mere destroyer; for, while he shattered, he built. But for Cromwell, it may be doubted whether Elizabeth’s England could have come into being.

For a second time Henry VIII. found the man most consummately fitted to minister to his own ambition; to plan, to organise, to smite—and to be smitten. As Wolsey, having accomplished his work, fell because he failed to engineer his master’s matrimonial projects, so Cromwell, having accomplished116 his work, fell in attempting to engineer a matrimonial project which displeased his master. Both the great ministers were men of humble birth at the best: popular report gave out that the father of the one was a butcher, that of the other a blacksmith. The one mounted to power, the last and perhaps the greatest product of the old relation between Church and State; the other was the first layman who, lacking even gentle blood, achieved the highest position in the State, and shattered her old relation with the Church. The reign of Henry VIII. abounds in huge ironies: it is not perhaps the least of them that the Hammer of the Monks passed into the service of the king from the service of the Cardinal.


By Holbein, from an Engraving by Houbraken in the British Museum

Diversities in the judgments passed on Thomas Cromwell are less marked than in the case of most of the statesmen portrayed in this volume. There is no possibility of questioning the utter absence of moral scruple in the methods by which he pursued his ends, the completeness with which he subordinated every other consideration to their achievement, the vast organising power he displayed. That he was actuated by a moral repulsion to the Roman system, or a religious enthusiasm for the purity of the Gospel, is a view that can only be put forward on the sweeping assumption that everybody concerned in the Reformation at all was so actuated, except feeble or wicked bigots who clung to the old order. Cromwell as a Protestant Martyr is very much like Frederic the Great as Protestant Hero. Every one who believes that it was good for England to reject the Papal authority and to subordinate the Church in117 England to the State, is bound to consider that the man who did these things for England rendered his country a great service. Every one who holds the contrary view as to the Papacy and the Church must hold that he rendered her almost immeasurable dis-service. But these are judgments not on the man but on the circumstances.

Yet there is one very curious fact about Thomas Cromwell. Although he set his mark indelibly on the history of his country, and in spite of the exceptionally dramatic course of his career, his name seems to convey very little to most Englishmen—save as the secretary whom Wolsey charged to “fling away ambition.” Oliver looms so large that it is difficult to grasp the idea that another person of the same name also loomed large a hundred years earlier. No playwright or novelist has made him a central figure in drama or novel. Yet it may at least be argued that of the ten characters here examined, his personality was the one which most decisively influenced the course of history.


In the last quarter of the fifteenth century there was dwelling in Putney one Walter Cromwell, alias Smyth, who appears to have been a brewer, smith, and armourer, and incidentally to have been a very troublesome person with a taste for breaking the law118 in minor matters. There is no doubt that Walter was the father of Thomas: whose birth conjecture places about 1485. Down to 1512, the accounts of Cromwell’s life rest entirely on later gossip, sometimes professedly derived from remarks which he himself let fall. All reports, however, agree in saying that he went to Italy when very young—“fleeing from his father,” one of them avers. It needs no evidence to show that he had a remarkably enterprising and self-reliant spirit, and if he did run away from a turbulent parent to seek his fortune by his wits, it was a course thoroughly consonant with his subsequent career. The reports state further that he served as a man-at-arms under an Italian nobleman, and with the French in 1503. Allowing for presumable inaccuracies of detail, there is no reason to doubt that he tried his hand as a trader of sorts in the Low Countries and in Italy. There is, however, definite ground for believing that he returned to England about 1512, and married the next year. If Mistress Elizabeth Wykeys did not bring something fairly handsome in the way of a fortune, Thomas Cromwell must have strangely forgotten himself. For some years, it may be affirmed with confidence that he took part in business as a wool-merchant or “shearman,” combining this trade with practice as an attorney. Documentary evidence puts it effectively beyond doubt that he was professionally known as a man of law to Wolsey in 1520. In 1523 he sat in the House of Commons as a Member of that Parliament which, under Sir Thomas More’s Speakership, declined to119 discuss the voting of a subsidy in the Cardinal’s presence.

By this time we are getting away from the region of conjecture, anecdote, and hearsay, into that of definite records. What we know of Cromwell’s share in this Parliament is derived from two documents; one, a letter of his own, in which he gibes at his fellow members for having babbled at large about everything under the sun without doing anything. “I have endured,” he says, “a Parliament which continued by the space of seventeen whole weeks, where we communed of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, penury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, temperance, treason, murder, felony, and also how a commonwealth might be edified and continued within our realm. Howbeit, in conclusion we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do; that is to say, as well as we might, and left where we began.’ If Carlyle had lighted upon that, how his heart would have rejoiced! The second document, however, suggests that if Cromwell, like Carlyle, had no great opinion of talkers, he meant his own voice to be heard: since it is almost certainly the MS. draft of a speech which he prepared for delivery in that same Parliament. The speech is exceedingly clever, and most diplomatically expressed—but is dead against Wolsey’s subsidy. Perhaps he thought better of it, and kept it in MS. If not, it was an audacious speech to make, for a man who was getting in touch with the Cardinal, from whose good graces much might120 be hoped. Still, a like audacity paid him well some six years later. It may have been carefully calculated in both instances; but in both there were big risks.@

At any rate, his favour with the great minister increased. He dropped his wool-business, extended his private legal practice, was entrusted with much legal work by the Cardinal, and became known as the person through whom suitors to Wolsey might find it advisable to make their applications. It was not long before he found, in his capacity as a man of law, congenial employment in the suppression of small religious Houses, and the appropriation of their endowments to Wolsey’s colleges at Ipswich and Oxford. This business he did to the entire satisfaction of his master; and since he never at any time hesitated to accept or extract material contributions to his private exchequer from any one concerned, his accumulations grew pari passu with his favour. So also, incidentally, did his unpopularity, for which he cared absolutely nothing. His confidential relations with the apparently all-powerful minister made him a person of considerable though unofficial importance; bringing him in contact with people of high position. Thus in 1527 he was well-known to Reginald Pole (afterwards Cardinal), whom he counselled to drop high-flown ideas, and learn the practical business of a politician by studying Machiavelli’s “Prince”—a work of which he must have obtained a MS. copy, as it had not yet been printed, though written probably as early as 1513.

121 But the toils of the divorce business were already enmeshing Cromwell’s patron; as the year 1529 advanced, clouds, lightning-charged, were gathering over his head, and the secretary knew that the hour was about to strike when he himself must either “make or mar.”

We have seen that practically nothing is known with absolute certainty as to Cromwell’s early years; we have seen also that the reports about that period of his life are sufficiently consistent with each other and with his later career to warrant us in assuming that they were tolerably well grounded. It would be difficult to conceive of any man thus trained, turning out otherwise than a cynic. At home, we have the father, a man in a respectable position, who is, however, eternally being summonsed for some breach of the law. The clever and independent youngster quarrels with his father, and takes himself off to foreign parts. He makes for Italy—the land of all others where brains counted most; the land also where morals counted least; the land par excellence of poison and poniards; the land where every one was formally orthodox, and hardly any one—least of all the priests—believed anything much. Only a religious enthusiast could pass through the ordeal of life in Italy—at the age of twenty or thereabouts—without becoming a sceptic. That a Cromwell should have passed through it without conceiving a most heart-felt contempt for the whole Roman system would be incredible; but it is hardly more credible that he should have been converted into a cold, stern moralist. If he was, he kept the cold, stern122 morality pretty thoroughly in abeyance until it found vent in the destruction of the monasteries.

After a brief experience of life in camp and in the guard-room, the young man is apparently for some ten years knocking about from Venice to Antwerp, acquiring a sound knowledge of trade and a mastery of the ways of traders. Then he returns to England and turns his knowledge to account, combining with it a lucrative practice, as a presumably somewhat unscrupulous but amazingly clever attorney. Always it is the seamy side of life which concerns him; and at any rate, after he has sown his wild oats and acquired experience, he adds to the conviction that most men would be knaves if they could, the certainty that, at least in comparison with Thomas Cromwell, most of them are fools. This consciousness makes him ambitious. He manages to attract the great Cardinal’s attention by his abilities. The summoning of a Parliament gives him an opportunity. He prepares a speech for it, which will certainly make him a man of some mark if it is delivered—and a clever speech in opposition, as many parliamentarians learned when Parliament had become a real power, is not always an obstacle to government favour. Cromwell is still a man of the people, and the speech is on the people’s side. Whether he made that speech pay him by delivering it or by suppressing it remains uncertain—either is possible. Anyhow, from that date his favour and his prosperity advanced rapidly; his thorough knowledge of law, of business, and of character, and his immense mastery of detail, making him a quite invaluable123 servant. And he who has become invaluable to the first minister of the Court may become invaluable to the Court itself.

Now what would be the natural political attitude of such a man? Had there been room for a career as a demagogue when he sat in the Parliament of 1523, he might have adopted that rôle: aiming, of course, at a dictatorship. But there was no opening. To such a man, however, it is quite certain that the absolute rule of one man would present itself as the sole really strong form of government. Absolutism was taking the place of the old Feudalism all over Europe; Henry VII. had laid sure foundations for it in England; Wolsey had carried on the work; it would be the business of Wolsey’s successor to complete it. The political theory of Machiavelli was not in itself novel; it must have been familiar, as a latent theory, to every one who knew anything of the Italy of the Medicis and the Borgias. The novelty lay in stating it boldly in the open. That, even the author of the “Prince” had not done as yet: he had merely formulated it for private circulation. Publication was deferred. But the Machiavellian creed had reached the hands of Wolsey’s secretary, who had adopted it with complete appreciation. Its central tenets are the complete divorce between ethical considerations and political methods, and the complete concentration of all power under the control of one will. The “Prince” became Cromwell’s political text-book, whose principles and maxims he was prepared to apply with appalling thoroughness if ever the opportunity offered.

124 It was remarked that before the appointment of Sir Thomas More in 1529, no one had held the office of Lord Chancellor unless he was either of noble birth or an ecclesiastic. More, however, was of gentle blood. It required a yet more violent departure from precedent for the king to take as his own most confidential adviser a layman of plebeian origin; and some considerable time elapsed before Cromwell held openly the position which in effect had already long been his. The story of his elevation will occupy the section now following: here we have attempted to present the figure of the man who in the autumn of 1529 was nothing more than the confidential secretary of a minister who was on the very verge of the historic “farewell to all his greatness.” The secretary presents in many respects a very marked contrast to his master, but the contrast with his master’s successor in the Chancellorship is still more striking. England never knew a statesman whose politics were so entirely ethical as More; never one who ignored ethics so completely as Cromwell. With the one, conscience stood unmistakeably first; with the other it was non-existent, as far as state-craft was concerned. That is not to say that the man himself was without conscience or moral sense; just as Machiavelli, his master, was the last statesman in Italy who could be called a scoundrel. Cromwell held with Machiavelli that the political end justifies any means; the only question for the statesman is, whether in the particular instance a flagrantly immoral method may frustrate the end sought instead of furthering it, by shocking sentiments125 which require to be conciliated. The Italian would not personally practise all that he preached: his English disciple went farther. Both doctrine and practice were the direct contradictions of the doctrine and practice of Thomas More.


The blow fell: the Cardinal was struck suddenly down. What did Cromwell do? In effect, we have two authorities—Cavendish, Wolsey’s honest but not over astute biographer, and Foxe, honest too, but ready to believe whatever chimed in best with his own theories. On Hallowmass Day, November 1, Cavendish found the secretary in the Great Chamber at Esher, whither the fallen Cardinal had retired; in much perturbation of spirit over the prospect of his own ruin for his faithful service to Wolsey, and resolved, in his own phrase, to go up to London, and “make or mar.” He did not desert his master, but he went up to London and made haste to commend himself to the other side. He played his cards boldly, bidding directly for the favour of Norfolk, with whose approbation he forthwith entered the newly-called Parliament as member for Taunton. In fact, he had the wit to recognise that by skilful management he could be loyal to Wolsey and push his own prospects at the same time. The move was audacious, and successful. He had126 three possible courses. A baser or a less astute man would have tried to win favour with his master’s enemies by turning and rending his master. A less daring one would have carefully dropped out of sight, taking his chance of being able some day to retrieve his position. Cromwell was bold enough to take up the cudgels openly in defence of the Cardinal, thereby winning much credit for courage and loyalty: at the same time, retaining the fallen minister’s confidence. Thus he was also enabled to manœuvre for Wolsey, and to mollify some of his enemies by judicious presents, bestowed under his advice and direction—and passing through his hands. There is no need to discredit either the loyalty or the courage displayed, but there is no denying that in displaying it he served his own interests better than he could have done in any other way.

Cromwell’s public defence of the Cardinal did not in fact mean much more than active opposition in Parliament to the Bill of Attainder; and Henry, at any rate, was not thirsting for Wolsey’s blood. It was probably some time before he quite made up his mind that he could do better without the man who had done so much for him. It is not unlikely that what ultimately decided him was the growing perception that he could make the combination of Cromwell and Cranmer serve his turn more effectively. He had just caught from the Cambridge Doctor the idea of discarding the Papal jurisdiction in the divorce in favour of the National Ecclesiastical Courts supported by the opinion of127 the qualified University doctors of Europe. There is very little doubt that one of the first steps taken by Cromwell was to obtain an interview with the king, nominally to defend himself against the malice of the Cardinal’s enemies; and that he turned the interview to account by hinting pretty openly that he could work out for the king a policy which would not only ensure the divorce, but bring him much profit in other ways, making him “the richest king that ever was in England,” says Chapuys, the emperor’s ambassador.

Now Henry’s was not the type of mind which invents large and far-reaching schemes of political action; but it was the type which can appreciate and appropriate a big scheme designed by some one else. Hitherto, until he became awake to the idea that Clement, under pressure from the emperor, might actually deny him the divorce, there is no reason to suppose that he had ever dreamt of quarrelling with the Papacy as an institution, or with the ecclesiastical body in England. Recently things had looked as if there might be a serious personal quarrel with Clement, of a kind for which there were precedents, and Stephen Gardiner had used distinctly threatening expressions in that sense to his Holiness. Wolsey’s difficulties had been largely due to his anxiety lest the divorce should lead to something still more serious; but that had been all. Now, however, Wolsey was hardly displaced when the first moves were made in what was revealed later as a huge campaign, directed in the first instance against clerical abuses, extending to privileges, and128 finally absorbing property; in the course of which every pretension of the Holy See to jurisdiction, authority or tribute in the realm of England was flatly and decisively repudiated.

The whole thing worked out in its successive stages with such systematic precision that there is no room for doubt of its having been completely planned from a very early stage. Throughout, Henry identified himself with it thoroughly. But it is almost inconceivable that he should have had any such plan in his head when he was making Sir Thomas More his Chancellor, and Norfolk to all appearance his principal counsellor. On the other hand, the scheme is precisely such a one as would have formed in the brain of the student of Machiavelli who felt himself to be the one man who was able and willing to carry it out in the king’s service. The old Baronage was already hardly dangerous; a very few judicious blows would make it utterly incapable of organised resistance; but if the English ecclesiastical body, with its great corporate wealth, worked in harmonious accord with the Papacy, under skilful leadership, in opposition to the Crown, the Crown might not get the best of the conflict. With the Church brought to heel in England, itself severed from the Papacy, and its wealth in the grip of the sovereign, the royal will would be irresistible. To suggest this new policy to the king, with himself as the instrument to put it in execution, not perhaps all at once, but enough at a time to carry the king along with him, would be a stroke which could hardly fail of success; especially as, in enumerating129 the advantages the policy offered, the certainty of getting the desired divorce could be placed in the forefront. Henry could be perfectly relied upon to see his own advantage in the proposal; he was equally certain to recognise in the designer of the scheme the qualities needed for carrying it out. Everything points to Cromwell, not Henry, as the deviser. The only alternative is, that Henry had already made his plan, but only began to regard it as practicable after he had guessed at and tested Cromwell’s capacities as an instrument; a very much less probable hypothesis on the face of it. Moreover, it is quite certain that neither before 1529 nor after 1540 did Henry show any power of creating out of his own head a deeply considered and far-reaching policy. When he was left to himself, or when he went counter to Wolsey or Cromwell, he never showed himself a statesman who naturally took “long views.”

Cromwell, then, is to be regarded not as the able and unscrupulous instrument chosen by Henry to carry out his own preconceived design of revolutionising the relations between the secular sovereign, the Church in England, and the Papal authority. Henry had the ability to appreciate and to adopt the plan, but the brain which both conceived and organised it, as well as the hand which executed it, belonged not to the king but to the minister.



It does not in effect militate against this view, that before Cromwell could have set any agency in motion, Parliament did itself lead the way by attacking certain minor and universally recognised abuses, without waiting for Convocation to deal with them. It needed nothing in the way of a campaign to ensure reforms being demanded and approved where the clergy themselves admitted that the existing state of things was scandalous. The first real blow was struck some months after Cromwell had obtained the king’s ear, when Convocation, towards the close of 1530, was startled by a message that the whole of the clergy had offended against the Statute of Præmunire in admitting the Legatine authority of the deceased Cardinal. That authority had of course been sanctioned by the approval of the king; but the fact that it was illegal was not thereby altered. Technically, there was no possibility of evading the charge. The clergy had broken the law; they must pay the penalty. They did, fining themselves to the tune of a million or so of our money. If they had not been perfectly helpless, the impudence of the demand, coming from the king, would have been simply colossal: but a demand which cannot be gainsaid can hardly be called impudent. Wolsey, of course, had been penalised for exercising the authority, but then there was the superficial excuse that he had obtained his master’s sanction by131 beguiling his unsuspecting innocence. Here the king could not even produce that flimsy excuse.

This financial operation, however, struck the keynote of the Cromwellian policy. Wolsey had over-ridden the law in procuring the Legatine appointment: he had sought to do so by demanding Benevolences: he had sought to do so by overawing Parliament. Now, everything was to be done under form of law. Even if—unwittingly of course—the authorities transgressed their legal powers, the transgression was to be regularised by a statute ad hoc. The principle was equally agreeable to the tender conscience of Henry and the legal proclivities of his minister.

The huge fine, however, did not satisfy the requirements. Convocation, in passing the Bill, was compelled to pass also a clause acknowledging the king as the “Only Supreme Head” of the Church, though it was allowed to introduce the qualifying phrase “so far as the law of Christ permits.” Except as an ingenious salve to clerical consciences, the qualification was futile, since, in the exercise of his supremacy, Henry would certainly not admit that he was going farther than those laws permitted, and he would also be the de facto judge on the question if any one should dare to raise it. The whole clause might be interpreted as meaning everything, or as meaning nothing—but the king would be the interpreter.

The Bill, with the clause, was passed in 1531. Again the campaign rested for about a year. So far, apart from a slight rectification of abuses, nothing more—in form—had been done than to exact from132 the clergy a penalty to which they had rendered themselves technically liable, and to demand from them the formal admission of what was asserted to be already the constitutional position of the Crown in relation to them. In theory there had been nothing in the nature of innovation. Now, it was time for innovation; so Parliament had to be called in, as against the Church. But the innovation was to threaten the Papal claims, so the Church must share the responsibility. Thus a fresh phase of the campaign opened with the beginning of 1532.

Again there were in the first place obvious abuses which were dealt with under Acts concerning mortmain and benefit of clergy. These, of themselves, implied nothing in particular. But it was a very different thing with the Annates Act: the first direct and manifest challenge of a Papal claim. Rome had claimed from every bishop on his appointment to a See the whole of the first year’s revenue. This, as the Act pointed out, was a very grievous burden on the bishops, for whose relief this system was to be stopped. Until quite recently, it has never been disputed that this Bill was introduced in response to the actual petition of Convocation. That idea was based on the existence of a document which—closer examination leaves no doubt—did not proceed from Convocation at all, as had hitherto been supposed. Chapuys reported at the time that the bishops opposed the measure. By this time, doubtless, the supremacy business had awakened their alarm, and others besides Fisher were beginning to dread a rupture with the Papacy. There are however,133 two special features which demand our attention. The Bill was framed ostensibly for the relief of the clergy, implying that the Crown, not the Papacy, was the true protector of their interests, and emphasising an antagonism between English Churchmen and the Pope. Also, it was not required to be put in immediate execution, but was to be held in suspense during the king’s pleasure. A double purpose was served thereby, though the intention was masked. Clement could buy the withdrawal of the measure by conceding the divorce: while if he should elect to close that door to reconciliation, it would not be too late to divert the annates into the king’s pocket, instead of abolishing the impost. The clergy would be none the better in either event, but the trick would have helped to keep them on the king’s side till it was too late to change. Henry was still playing for a divorce with the Papal sanction; he had not come to regard a final breach with the Papacy as an end desirable per se. Cromwell, we may assume, took a different view, but of course could not dream of forcing Henry’s hand: what he could do was to have everything in thorough order for a decisive breach, if and when the moment should come.

There was something more, however, for Parliament to do, namely its presentation of the Supplication against the Ordinaries. There is no doubt at all that in every essential this was Cromwell’s personal handiwork. It was a double-barrelled attack, from the popular point of view, on the way in which the Church exercised its jurisdiction; from134 the sovereign’s point of view, on the authority of the Church’s legislation. The whole intention of it was to force the clergy as a body to admit that their authority, whether as individuals or as a corporate body, was subordinate to that of the sovereign. Its object was attained with entire success: it resulted in what was known as the “Submission of the Clergy,” virtually a complete surrender. The defeat was practically the death-blow of the aged Archbishop Warham; while the Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More, found himself so totally opposed to the principle involved that he resigned office and went into retirement.

Warham’s death at this juncture was most convenient. The old man had not been sufficiently stout of heart to offer a stubborn resistance to the new policy, but he had yielded with much misgiving and soreness of spirit. He had been restive enough to make it doubtful whether in the last resort he might not decline to pronounce a judgment against Katharine in defiance of the Pope. By appointing Cranmer to the Archbishopric, Henry made sure of a primate who would have no qualms on the point. This security made him ready to precipitate the crisis which the Pope was craving to postpone or evade. The simple truth was that Clement felt himself to be completely in the grip of the emperor, and no conceivable threats from England could have extracted the desired verdict from him. The fact was unmistakeably revealed by the publication, in February, of what was in effect an order to Henry to re-instate Katharine on pain of excommunication.135 The reply was the Act in Restraint of Appeals—in form an Act declaratory of the existing law of England, in effect an announcement of independence—immediately followed by Cranmer’s judicial pronouncement invalidating the marriage with Katharine ab initio. Until Clement retorted by declaring Cranmer’s judgment void, Henry abstained from confirming either the Act in Restraint of Appeals or the Annates Act; their confirmation was his rejoinder. After that, there might be talk of reconciliation, but the practical possibility was gone past recall.


The year 1533 may be regarded as marking the irreparable breach with the Papacy, though it was not till 1534 that Clement gave his own formal judgment in favour of Katharine, and Convocation issued its own declaration that the “Bishop of Rome” derives from Scripture no more jurisdiction in England than “any other foreign bishop”—two sentences which may perhaps be regarded as merely bolting an already locked door. The purpose of Cromwell’s anti-clerical campaign was so far achieved that the clergy had been driven out of their main strongholds by their “submission,” and had next been cut off from the aid of a Papal alliance. These were the preliminary measures to the assertion in very concrete guise of the untrammelled supremacy of136 the Crown in things ecclesiastical and temporal alike, which was the aim of the policy we have ascribed primarily to Cromwell rather than his master. An additional reason for so ascribing it is to be found in the strong presumption afforded by the evidence that Henry himself did not wish to cast off the Papal allegiance utterly, until he found that he could get the divorce in no other way. Apart from his fixed resolution to make Anne Boleyn his wife at all costs, it may be doubted if he reckoned that the complication of foreign relations involved in a final repudiation of the Pope’s authority would be compensated by the more unqualified control of ecclesiastical matters at home. For him the divorce turned the scale: and since he could not escape the disadvantages of revolting, he meant to have every scrap of advantage that could be reaped from it too. The differences which presently arose between the king and his minister on the conduct of foreign affairs will be found to have some bearing on this view of the case.

At any rate, the breach being made, Henry was as ready as Cromwell for aggression; and Cromwell was let loose to carry out his policy—within the realm—to the uttermost: no longer working in the background, but in a position as openly dominant as Wolsey himself had occupied.

The first business was to confirm formally the positions already taken up, in a fresh series of Acts of Parliament, in the early session of 1534; embodying the recent measures, but generally carrying them a step further. Thus “Peter Pence” were abolished137 as well as Annates. An appeal to the King’s Court of Chancery from the Ecclesiastical Courts was substituted for the Appeal to Rome abolished by the Restraint of Appeals. The “submission of the clergy” was extended so as to bring the whole instead of a part only of the canon law under the purview of the commission to be appointed for its examination. The corollary of the Boleyn marriage was an Act of Succession in favour of the offspring of Anne: but the Act carried with it a murderous sting. “I pray that these things be not confirmed with oaths,” More had said when the marriage was ratified. His anticipation was justified. An oath of obedience to the Act was to be administered.

In this affair of the oath, we as usual find Henry and Cromwell in perfect accord as to policy, but not actuated by precisely the same motive. The thing in Cromwell’s mind is the Royal Supremacy; he is determined to be rid of conditions which check the activities of the Crown, and of men whose influence tends to keep alive doubts as to the Crown’s legitimate powers. Henry’s point of view is the personal one. He has done a very unpopular thing in divorcing Katharine and marrying Anne, and is determined to make every one admit that he was entirely in the right. Now, there was in England no ecclesiastic so universally esteemed for probity and saintliness as Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester; there was no layman who could compare for intellectual eminence and beauty of character with Thomas More. It was known to the world that both these men held that Katharine’s marriage had been138 valid, and that both disapproved the recent anti-Papal developments. So also it was known that in the Houses of Religion which stood highest in reputation for sincerity and austerity, and were untouched by the breath of scandal, the divorce and the revolt were regarded with horror. To force these recalcitrants openly to declare in favour of the divorce and the Royal Supremacy, would be a great triumph. On the other hand, nothing would so terrorise opposition as the smiting down, before the horrified eyes of the world, of victims so distinguished. Cromwell therefore drafted the oath of obedience to the Act of Succession in such terms that the subscriber would have to swear not only loyalty to the provisions of the Act, but acceptance of the divorce as right, and of the Royal Supremacy as theoretically sound. More, Fisher, and some of the monks to whom the oath was administered, refused to desert their principles. They would swear to maintain the succession as laid down, since it lay within the function of the State to order the succession; but they would not take the oath as it stood. Thereupon they were sent to prison.

It may readily be believed that the minister, as reported, swore a great oath when he heard More’s refusal. The moral effect of winning such converts would have been incalculable: preferable certainly to shocking public sentiment as the alternative course must do. But he was not in the least afraid of shocking public sentiment, at any rate if he at the same time inspired terror; if circumstances demanded victims, the more conspicuous they were, the better.

139 For once, however, a point had been overlooked: it appeared impossible lawfully to proceed to extremities on the ground of refusal to take the oath. The omission was rectified in the next session of Parliament. In a fresh Act of Succession, the oath as administered was expressly ratified, and the occasion was seized to pass a new Treasons Act, inadequately described as drastic. It was made treason to question the titles of the queen and the heirs apparent, or to impute heresy or schism to the king; and the lawyers were able so to interpret it that mere silence might be construed as treason—it was enough to refuse to affirm the Supremacy and the rest of it. The two new Acts were brought to bear on the victims, who remained firm and were executed in the following summer. There is no shadow of a hint anywhere that Cromwell suffered a single qualm in working out the destruction of either More or Fisher, but it is hardly necessary to make him responsible for the equally ruthless attitude of the king. According to Roper’s circumstantial narrative, Henry was so vindictive towards More when once he had turned against him, that he could hardly be persuaded to have him left out of the Bill of Attainder in the affair of the Nun of Kent, until the Chancellor, Lord Audley, and others succeeded in convincing him that Parliament could not possibly pass the Bill with More’s name included. If ever there was a chance of life for Fisher and More, it was destroyed when Henry’s fury was roused by the new Pope making Fisher a Cardinal. These facts illustrate the difference between Henry’s140 attitude and Cromwell’s. To Cromwell, More and Fisher are merely obstructions to his policy. They must either cease to obstruct or be crushed. To spare them for sentimental reasons would be absurd, but there is no passion or vindictiveness or animosity about their destruction, as far as he is concerned.

Never had any king of England wielded so deadly an engine of despotism as was placed in Henry’s hands by this Treasons Act of Cromwell; whereof, however, the full force depended on its manipulation by its designer. The country was in a very short time so sown with the minister’s spies that the moment any one became obnoxious to authority it was the simplest thing possible to procure an information of a hasty word spoken or passed by in silence, of a phrase that might have carried a double meaning; and the victim’s doom was virtually sealed. The excuse, of course, was the one on which a tyranny that seeks to justify itself invariably falls back—that an unparalleled emergency demands extraordinary powers. It was not, indeed, quite obvious that there was an unparalleled emergency in existence, but then it might arise at any moment. Cromwell was going on to a series of measures which might prove acceptable, but might on the other hand provoke a storm of indignation. With the Treasons Act ready to his hand, he could anticipate conspiracy by striking wherever and whenever it pleased him. It was an integral part of his political theory that Government—i.e. the Despot—should have that power. It was not, of course, aimed specifically at the Church; it was only incidentally141 concerned with More and Fisher. The repression of clericalism was only a part of the scheme for a legalised Despotism. The climax, the theoretical coping-stone of the edifice, was not achieved till the Act which in 1539 gave Royal Proclamations the force of law; but for practical purposes, the Treasons Act made Henry a monarch more absolute than any other in Christendom.

Cromwell, however, had not as yet fulfilled the promise he is said to have given of making Henry “the richest king that ever was in England.” As a matter of fact, whatever riches had come in his way Henry would never have kept a full treasury, since he always emptied it with both hands. But Cromwell in his capacity as Vicar-General, or representative of the Supreme Head with unlimited powers—which office was bestowed on him early in 1535, a few months after the Treasons Act—was to make him a record present. It was a matter of principle with him, in his methods, to make rude display to the higher clergy of the fact that they must now recognise themselves as mere menials of the Crown, whose functions might be superseded at the royal pleasure; and on those lines he acted in striking his next blow, sending out a commission of his own creatures to “visit” the monasteries, and report upon them. It is only necessary to recall one of his casual memoranda at a later date—“Item, the Abbot of Reading, to be sent down to be tried and executed”—to feel properly satisfied that the case of the monasteries was prejudged. The commission was intended to report evil concerning them, and not142 good; and the commissioners acted up to their instructions. It is quite possible that a perfectly impartial tribunal after complete investigation would have found the evidence hardly less damning; but what the commissioners did was to pay a series of hasty visits, collect all the scandal they could get any one to retail to them, insult or frighten respectable and responsible inmates till they gave confused or evasive answers, or none at all, to interrogatories, and so to produce what passed as evidence of a very abominable and corrupt state of affairs. Whereupon Parliament passed an Act dissolving between three and four hundred Houses, in effect handing their property over to the Crown. Some of this wealth was theoretically appropriated to endowing new bishoprics and to other corresponding purposes; but in practice a fraction of it only was so utilised. Some of the lands were given away to people whom it was convenient for the king—or Cromwell—to placate; most were sold at low prices—with the effect of establishing a new landed proprietary which in the years long after was to play a part in the national politics which their creator can hardly have foreseen. It was not Cromwell’s way to reach for more than he could grasp; before he made one stride, he had calculated for the next, but he did not take it till his own time. So he did not wipe out the monastic system at a blow. The completion of the business waited—like the Royal Proclamations Act—till 1539. For the present, Cromwell was content to impose on the greater monasteries, and such of the lesser ones as still survived, a disciplinary143 code which professed to have in view the enforcement of a becoming austerity, but was felt to be so intolerably severe as effectually to bring about several voluntary dissolutions or surrenders.

Cromwell’s royal partner, no doubt, in a famous phrase of much later date, “stood amazed at his own moderation.” But the country hardly took the same view. The year which saw, in February, the first Act dissolving the lesser monasteries, saw also in the autumn a rising in Lincolnshire, very shortly followed by the organised Yorkshire insurrection known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. As in all the religious rebellions of the Reformation, the issues were a good deal mixed up with social discontents; and the last straw was probably a piece of Cromwell’s handiwork which had nothing to do with ecclesiastical matters, being a measure known as the Statute of Uses, designed to get rid of a maze of legal complications which had arisen from ingenious evasions of the law as to the inheritance of land. The insurgents, however, put the religious innovations in the forefront of their schedule of grievances: openly demanding the dismissal of both Cromwell and Cranmer. The military management of the suppression of the rebellion was left to the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, but no collision was allowed till the northern levies had been diplomatically induced to disperse; after which some sporadic outbreaks were used, after the turn of the year, as an excuse for an extremely heavy-handed exaction of retribution. Cromwell, however, turned the whole thing to account; as certain abbots and144 priors had been more or less deeply implicated, whereby the opportunity was given for suppressing several considerable religious communities, and hanging some highly placed Churchmen. A further result was the re-organisation of the government of the counties constituting the Marches—those which were always living with an eye on Scotland, and enjoyed or suffered a special system of control—by the establishment of a new Council of the North which diminished the power of the nobility in those regions; Cromwell always maintaining the same end persistently in view, the weakening of all power of organised resistance to the king’s will.

Another year brought another opportunity. In 1538, Cromwell discovered a conspiracy. The South-west of England, like the North, was ever on what may be called the Romantic side when developments, political or religious, were in progress. It was now perturbed over the innovations. It appeared that the Marquis of Exeter, the king’s first cousin and a grandson of Edward IV., was engaged in some sort of conspiracy with the Poles, whose mother was the old Countess of Salisbury, daughter of “false fleeting perjured Clarence.” Amongst them, they stood for the relics of the old Yorkist anti-Tudor faction. Cromwell had already taken occasion to warn Reginald Pole—whose diatribes against Henry, issued from abroad, had brought him under the royal ban—that his kinsmen in England might pay the penalty for his audacity. Whether there was any real body in the conspiracy is open to doubt, but there was quite enough evidence to go upon under145 the Treasons Act. The process by attainder practically suppressed any defence. Exeter, Montague (the head of the Poles) and others were executed; and there were sufficient means for involving some more Houses of religion, with their heads, notably the revered Abbot of Glastonbury, who were hanged as traitors.

Thus, by the opening of 1539, everything was ready for the two final measures. The regrettable conduct of the monastic establishments in associating themselves with treason provided a final justification for the complete suppression of the system, and incidentally the further enrichment of the Crown. In the field of constitutional practice, the Crown had frequently proceeded by Royal Proclamations, but there was generally some attendant danger of the authority of these being challenged. Parliament was now called upon formally to concede to such proclamations the effect of regular Statutes. It may be remarked in passing that the Parliament called in 1529 had been responsible for the whole of the legislation down to its last session in the early spring of 1536, when it passed the Act dissolving the lesser monasteries. Whether it was subservient or not, Cromwell had nothing to do with packing it: it was only at the last moment that he was provided with a seat in it. But there is no doubt that the subsequent Parliaments, beginning with that summoned in May 1536, were packed by Cromwell and his agents. That was an inevitable part of the system which was to make the king absolute, whilst preserving the traditional forms.



The policy of organising a Despotism was necessarily anti-Papal and also anti-clerical. In the former aspect, it complicated foreign relations; in the latter, it was involved with the movement towards a spiritual and dogmatic reformation of religion. Cromwell’s course in foreign politics was dictated by anti-Papal considerations. So long as Katharine, the aunt of Charles V., was alive, there was no prospect of reconciliation between the Emperor and Henry, so that England could not work on Wolsey’s favourite line of holding the balance between Charles and the French king, who felt himself perfectly safe from any risk of a renewed combination between his rivals. Hence, Cromwell usually hankered for close association with the German Protestant princes, united in the League of Schmalkad, as an effective counter to the Emperor. Such an alliance might either coerce Charles into a reconciliation with Protestantism and England, or might make Francis think it worth his while to join an anti-Papal league. Having this idea in his mind, Cromwell’s attitude towards Lutheranism abroad and the religious progressives in England was always friendly: since he realised that the course of events must divide Christendom under the Papal and anti-Papal standards, which came to be called Catholic and Protestant respectively. If Rome were cast off by some of her children, while others remained147 faithful, sooner or later the latter would be compelled to unite for the purpose of crushing the rebels. Thus the defiance of Rome and of Charles by the pronouncement of the divorce in 1533, was attended by overtures to the League of Protestant Princes.

The Lutherans, however, looked askance. They feared the Greeks et dona ferentes; had not Henry taken the field conspicuously against their leader? German Lutheranism was deep-rooted in a genuine religious feeling; it could feel no confidence in the king of England as a convert to the Augsburg confession. Therefore the princes and the divines of Protestant Germany went warily. On the other hand, the isolation of England made Francis more than careless of an English alliance unless on terms extremely profitable to himself. The death of Katharine, however, in January 1536, changed the situation. It was no longer necessary for the emperor to range himself against England. It is noteworthy that the immediate effect on Cromwell was to make him desire an Imperial (which meant the old Burgundian) alliance, but he was promptly pulled up by the king, who had learnt once before that Wolsey had been right in his policy of holding the balance, and that he himself had erred in forcing an alliance with Charles. The emperor and Francis fell to fighting again, and for a while England was approximately in the old position of having each of the great Powers intriguing for her alliance, while she held aloof and coquetted with both. Then the combatants grew tired, and, with the improved148 prospect of their reconciliation, their ardour for English friendship cooled.

Just before this time, Henry’s third wife died. Neither his first nor his second spouse had provided him with a male heir; he had divorced the one, and cut off the head of the other. Jane Seymour did what was expected of her, but died in the execution of her duty. One not too sturdy baby boy, and two daughters who had been judicially pronounced illegitimate, gave room for uneasiness as to the succession. A fourth matrimonial venture was thus rendered advisable: providing opportunities for diplomatic intrigue. The royal ladies of Europe, however, do not seem to have coveted the position: “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal,” is said to have been the caustic comment of a suggested bride. Neither Francis nor Charles would be inveigled. On the contrary, they patched up a peace in the summer of 1538, and Henry’s policy of keeping them at odds with each other, while dangling an English alliance before both, broke down, as Cromwell’s previous attempt to join decisively with Charles had been frustrated. Cromwell fell back on the line which in his heart he would probably have preferred throughout, of alliance with the Lutherans: and at last he hoped—by finding a Lutheran bride for Henry—to attach his master decisively to that policy. Henry gave a half-hearted assent; the minister made his final throw. In the moment of seeming victory, his knell was sounded. Before we come to this, the last act in Cromwell’s drama, we may revert to149 his relations with the religious movement in England.

In the whole of his record, so far as we have at present reviewed it, there is not a scintilla of evidence to suggest that Henry’s Vicar-General ever cared a straw about any properly religious question at all. We can be tolerably sure, no doubt, as to some of the things he did not believe in. He did not believe that the Pope was the holder of the keys to heaven. He did not believe that the clergy were the divinely appointed channel through whom alone salvation must be obtained. He did not believe in the effectual sanctity of relics. Such beliefs would at least have been impossible to reconcile with his anti-Papal and anti-clerical campaigns. But it would be exceedingly difficult to find any positive dogma to which it would be possible to point as an article of faith with him. On the other hand, every circumstance of his life before 1529, known or surmised, was calculated to produce and to foster scepticism on the intellectual and carelessness on the emotional side of religion, generating a hardened materialism. The resulting attitude towards men who were actuated by strong religious convictions would be regulated entirely by policy.

Obviously, then, doctrines which weakened the hold of the Papacy, the priesthood, and the monks, on the popular imagination, would recommend themselves to his mind—not as particularly credible or true, but as deserving encouragement, weakening the spell of the great organisation whose power he desired, for reasons of policy, to reduce to the uttermost.150 Hence, it would be his wish to be at least on friendly terms with the reformers who were defying the Pope and setting ecclesiastical conventions at naught. More particularly, he would find the most dangerous opponents of his political design in that school of English Churchmen, headed by the Bishop of Winchester, who were determined to employ every instrument of intrigue to retain as much power as possible for the clergy, and he would seek as natural allies the men like Cranmer who were unqualified advocates of the Royal Supremacy. Further, he foresaw the ultimate necessity of a political understanding, if not the actual alliance which he would have preferred, with Continental Protestantism. On the other hand, he was thoroughly aware that the king plumed himself on his theological learning and orthodoxy; and it was no part of his scheme to run counter to the king. Hence, it became his business so far as he could to influence Henry in favour of the respectable reformers—not, of course, those who were tainted with Anabaptism or the suspicion thereof. But there is no hint anywhere in his conduct that he thought of the actual tenets of any reformers as in themselves worth any sacrifice. The king took a keen interest in theological controversies on their merits; his minister did not.

This view of his attitude, or of what we should have expected his attitude to be, tallies precisely with what we know of his actions. When called upon to intervene in clerical controversies, he habitually backed up Cranmer as against Gardiner, working151 in concert with him, except when he perceived that Cranmer wanted to go farther than Henry was willing to accompany him. Cranmer was a useful ally, who never lost his place in the royal favour: and the archbishop’s greatest enemy was his own also. But when the Six Articles Act was introduced, and he knew the king’s mind on the subject, he promptly left his ally in the lurch; though no doubt his influence was exerted, when it had been passed, to check its active enforcement. The passing of the Act—the crack of the “whip with six strings”—sufficiently served Henry’s immediate purpose, which was to make a display of rigid orthodoxy for the benefit of the emperor and King Francis. Cromwell, who had just committed himself to the Lutherans too deeply to retract, must have viewed the Act itself with painful feelings; but he could not afford to resist. Compliance offered the one chance of bringing his master round.


The Act of the Six Articles, the Royal Proclamations Act, and that for the final suppression of the monasteries, were all passed in the early summer—May or June—of 1539, when Cromwell was already fully involved in his scheme for creating a matrimonial bond between Henry and the German Protestants. In 1538, when peace between Charles and Francis seemed imminent, he had succeeded152 in persuading Henry to invite a visit from the Lutherans with a view to arriving at a mutual understanding on the theological questions: but even the reconciliation of the French king and the emperor failed to make the English king at all cordial, and the envoys went back to Germany in the autumn with nothing accomplished. As the year drew to a close, however, there were ominous signs of a league being formed to threaten England—which perhaps was one of Cromwell’s incentives to the destruction of Exeter and the Poles, by way of a hint to the Continental Powers that the government was far too strong to be endangered by any domestic discontents. The warnings from abroad had their effect on Henry, who began to think that a counter-alliance might be really necessary. Thus, immediately after the New Year, Cromwell opened negotiations with the intention of obtaining Anne of Cleves, sister of the young duke, as a bride for King Henry. Yet even this concession to his policy was only, so to speak, a half-loaf: since Cleves was not actually in the League of Schmalkald, or irrevocably bound to Lutheranism, though the duke happened to have his own quarrel with the emperor.

In April, another embassy from the League was in England; but so also was an ambassador from France, bent on placating Henry—and about the same time, intelligence arrived that the emperor and the League had come to terms. So very cold water was poured on the Lutheran envoys, to whom the Six Articles Act was virtually a direct snub: as it was to Cromwell, whose policy it signified that Henry meant to desert.

153 Yet once more the prospect seemed to right itself for the minister. It appeared that the king had been deluded by the diplomatists, and that after all the chance of a coalition against England was by no means dissolved. Before the summer was fairly over, the politest of overtures were passing between Francis and Charles; while the Duke of Cleves, who had been to some degree holding off, again became urgent for the marriage, being, like Henry, threatened with danger from the restoration of amity between the two great rivals. Henry was beguiled into believing that the lady of his minister’s choice would make him a charming and attractive spouse; negotiations were pushed forward apace, and in the last days of December, Anne of Cleves landed in England. On January 6 the marriage was celebrated.

But fate was against Cromwell. In the first place, the king took a violent antipathy to his bride: and though, for an adequate political end, he would have accepted the situation, his soul was wroth with the man who had brought him into it. Moreover, so far as concerned domestic affairs, the minister had done all that Henry needed of him. He had so handled the Church that she lay defenceless under the king’s hand. He had brought to the block every one who could be made a figure-head for insurrection, and had made organised rebellion an impossibility. He had done all that there was to be done in the way of despoiling the king’s subjects for the king’s benefit. Finally, he had just placed in the king’s hand the last administrative instrument of despotism in the Royal Proclamations Act, as he154 had before provided an irresistible weapon in the Treasons Act. He was not required for any further religious reforms, since his master had already gone as far as he meant to travel in that direction. There was left only one reason why the royal anger should be restrained—a demonstration that his foreign policy was right; that he was needed as foreign minister. And ere many weeks were passed, conclusive reasons appeared for judging that the theory to which Henry had endeavoured to cling was right after all, that a lasting coalition between Francis and Charles was a mere bugbear, that there had never been any need for the Cleves marriage. Moreover, the demonstration was effected by one of Cromwell’s two most determined rivals, the Duke of Norfolk, who at any rate got the credit for bringing about the open rupture which promptly succeeded the fraternal embraces of the emperor and the French king. At last the game was in the hands of Gardiner and Norfolk. On June 10 the bolt fell. Absolutely without warning, Cromwell was arrested for treason at the Council, and sent forthwith to the Tower. His own weapons were turned against him, his own interpretation of treason, his own favourite process of attainder. Like Wolsey, he had served his master only too well; and his master rewarded him as pitilessly as he had rewarded the Cardinal. The only man in England who dared to plead on his behalf was—Cranmer. On July 28, Cromwell’s head was hacked from his shoulders. With what measure he meted, it had been measured to him again.




Of both More and Cromwell it has been observed that historians do not greatly vary in their estimates, when a reasonable allowance is made for Protestant and anti-Protestant bias. That remark does not hold good of King Henry. The popular idea of him is more intimately associated with that of Bluebeard than of any other hero of fiction or history. Mr. Froude has created a legend of his own, wherein the only doubt seems to be whether Henry quite passed the dividing line between the mere hero and the demi-god. Most commonly, he appears as a brutal tyrant. Among the best informed living authorities in England on the sixteenth century, one distinguishes him as the most remarkable man who ever sat on the English throne, and another has characterised him as a weak-willed bully, always depending for support on some stronger will than his own; yet neither the one nor the other shows signs of having been led to his conclusion by any marked bias. The data for his reign, in the form of documents calendared with exceptional skill, are peculiarly ample; but the opportunities for drawing158 divergent inferences therefrom are extensive. It would be too much to call them unique, in a century which gave birth also to Elizabeth and to Mary Queen of Scots.


From a Portrait by Jost van Cleef in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court Palace

About the fourth year of Henry’s reign, Thomas Wolsey came to the front and remained there for sixteen years. For another ten years, Thomas Cromwell was in the king’s service. During this period of something exceeding a quarter of a century, did Henry or his ministers control policy? Great events happened. Did he, in dealing with them, show himself a great statesman? Or did he merely play the part of a selfish and greedy libertine? One can only express a personal opinion. The view which seems most consonant with the facts may be broadly stated thus. Like his daughter Elizabeth, he had a keen eye for character and ability; he could appreciate statesmanship in a servant, and he knew how to get the utmost value out of the men he chose to trust. In the main, he let them carry out their designs in their own way; but he remained watchful, and saw to it that if he happened to want anything not included in their programme, the programme should be altered. He did not initiate, but he did adopt and make his own, the principles of Wolsey’s foreign and Cromwell’s domestic policy. A time came when he wanted from Wolsey something which his minister’s genius was not adapted to provide; and Wolsey vanished. By slow degrees Cromwell emerged. A time came when Cromwell had given him all that he could give, and was seeking to draw his master into paths he did not choose to tread.159 Cromwell went to the scaffold. In his remaining years, the king showed no power of striking out for himself a strong policy for good or for evil; he had no minister whom he trusted to pilot the ship; his own pilotage proved crude, and left to the succeeding government a crop of difficulties with which it was quite incompetent to cope. His father’s policy had been his own creation; his ministers had never been much more than clerks. The eighth Henry chose ministers to create and carry out a policy for him, but always under his own control. The peculiarity of the Tudor genius, which he shared with his father and his daughter, lay in the unfailing skill with which they judged men, and their intuitive appreciation of popular feeling, which kept them from passing the bounds of acquiescence. Hence, whatever we may think of their policy itself or of particular acts, whether our moral judgment condemns or applauds, whether we account their measures far-sighted or short-sighted, they stand out as great rulers, accomplishing what they meant to accomplish, and displaying their activities on a great scale.


Henry was his father’s second son. Tradition says that his sire, ever thoughtful of economy, destined him for the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and had him educated accordingly. As the boy,160 however, became, through his elder brother’s death, heir apparent to the throne at the age of eleven, the remarkable theological erudition which he displayed in later years can hardly be attributed to his early school-room studies—even if the tradition had any more basis of fact than that it was at least ben trovato. Whatever career was anticipated for him, the utmost pains were bestowed on his education, and he learnt to take a keen interest in intellectual pursuits. Erasmus gives an agreeable picture of him at the age of nine, and remarks on the extraordinary intelligence of his letters a little later—an intelligence which made the learned man believe that the boy’s tutor wrote or revised them, till ocular demonstration convinced him of the contrary. Intellectual pursuits, however, did not absorb the Prince of Wales. His father was not endowed with any very striking physique, but the boy rather took after his grandfather Edward IV., being decidedly handsome, of very athletic frame, and excelling in the sports of vigorous and healthy youth.

Two months before Henry completed his eighteenth year, his father’s death placed him on the throne of England—successor to a king whose later years had been conspicuously sordid and gloomy. Spring with its pulsing, generous life, followed the sapless dreariness of winter. So men dreamed, and so probably Henry reckoned, himself. Ugly things like Empson and Dudley were to vanish into limbo; the king would celebrate his marriage royally—and follow that up by some splendid martial achievement. It was still permitted to dream mediæval dreams;161 might not the Crescent be once more rolled back before the advancing Cross? Still, at eighteen there was no great hurry about that, and meanwhile life might be very much enjoyed. Kings have servants about them to take the dull drudgery of politics off their hands.

A most excellent state of things, in the eyes of the veterans Ferdinand and Maximilian. The old king’s martial ardour had resolved itself into occasional campaigns on which no money was wasted, and in which no blood was shed, but which somehow had a trick of resulting in the transfer of hard cash from somebody’s pocket to that of the English monarch. But surely this open-hearted boy could be persuaded that Henry V. set a more attractive precedent than Henry VII., and that France was a good deal nearer than Constantinople. To simplify matters he had beside him a comely and capable wife, devoted to the Spanish interest, and all the more likely to influence him, at his age, for being a few years the elder: and no young prince could have an adviser half so shrewd as his quite disinterested father-in-law of Aragon. So the unsophisticated Henry was carefully manœuvred into war with France. From which he learned two lessons: one that there was frequently a very marked difference between the words of kings and their deeds; the other, that military glory or political success cannot be achieved without close attention to detail. Incidentally, the young king made another discovery; namely that the comparatively insignificant ecclesiastic whom old Bishop Fox had introduced into the Council was162 as sharp-witted as Ferdinand himself, could do the work of ten ordinary men, and always knew what he was about.

Before the end of 1514, Ferdinand and Maximilian were made painfully aware that Henry was not going to be anybody’s tool, by the unexpected alliance of England and France. The diplomatist who had beaten them with their own weapons had won the English king’s entire confidence, and there was only one possible rival to him, in the person of Henry’s brother-in-arms, Charles Brandon, newly created Duke of Suffolk; nor was it long before it became patent that the brother-in-arms, having made himself brother-in-law into the bargain by marrying the princess Mary, might remain the favourite companion in the hunting field, and the favourite antagonist in the tournament, but would have very little to say to the king’s politics. Wolsey had not only thoroughly impressed his master by his immense administrative ability, his capacity for hard work, and his astuteness; he had also succeeded in giving a new turn to the king’s ambitions, making them political rather than martial. The campaigns of 1513 had restored the prestige of English soldiers at least in a respectable degree; the outwitting of the craftiest prince in Europe next year showed that there was a worthy successor to Henry VII.; that monarch was reputed to have left in the royal coffers wealth so enormous as to be almost inexhaustible; Scotland had suffered such a blow at Flodden that she could not, for the time at least, hamper English action. Henry therefore could now hold the balance163 between the potentates of Europe, and become the controlling factor in international affairs. Such a position was much better worth working for than reconquests of French soil, or even the recovery of the French crown, which Henry V. had won but had not lived long enough to wear. As for crusades, Henry was old enough now to know that in the eyes of a practical politician they were out of date.

Schemes for dominating Europe were much affected by the fact that in 1514 many important changes in the personality of the rulers were obviously impending. Henry, twenty-three years old, was the only young man among them. But on the next New Year’s Day, France was to pass from Louis XII. to young Francis of Angoulême, aged twenty. In 1516, Ferdinand was to be succeeded by his grandson Charles, aged sixteen. In 1519, Maximilian was to disappear; and, inasmuch as the Empire was not technically hereditary, much would depend on the Imperial election, in which, however, the chances were that Ferdinand’s heir would prove to be Maximilian’s heir also.

From 1514, the figure of Wolsey—very shortly to become a Cardinal—completely dominated English politics. The king resigned himself wholly to his guidance, and for many years there was no more talk of Henry leading victorious armies over the Continent. The rival ambitions of Francis, Maximilian, and others, chiefly concerned with the annexation of Italian States by one potentate or another, the playing off of rivals, the paying and withholding of subsidies, were the main business in hand till the164 demise of the emperor, early in 1519, opened the great question, who was to wear the Imperial crown?

Young Charles was already king of all Spain, and lord of the Burgundian heritage. He was also heir to the Austrian and other German possessions of Maximilian, who, like Ferdinand, had been his grandfather. For some time, Habsburg had followed Habsburg as emperor. There was no other of the princes of Germany strong enough territorially to bear the weight of empire, and Frederic of Saxony, capax imperii, had no mind for the undertaking. If Charles were elected he would wield enormous powers. The French king, ambitious, and dreading the further aggrandisement of a rival whose dominions were already so great, came forward as a candidate: his success would mean an accession of power to France even more dangerous to the European balance than that of Charles. Under these circumstances, it is not incredible that Henry really meant business in taking steps with a view to obtaining the Imperial crown for himself. At twenty-eight, he was quite young enough to believe that the thing was really practicable: and if practicable, it would be a magnificent fulfilment of his ambitions along the very lines on which Wolsey had directed them. It is not, however, credible that the Cardinal should have taken that view; whether the king was or was not merely playing with the idea, his minister must have known that it was chimerical. The agent, Richard Pace, very soon made it quite clear that it would be sheer waste of energy and money for Henry to enter seriously for the stakes, and Cuthbert165 Tunstal was careful to point out that in burdening himself with the responsibilities of the Empire, he would be losing for the sake of a shadow the solid substance of his power as King of England. Henry’s candidature was withdrawn, and no one was any the worse.

The episode, however, suggests certain conclusions. It is almost impossible to doubt that the idea of the candidature was Henry’s own; it is difficult to doubt that he did contemplate it seriously. It was consistent—in intention—with the conception of political predominance as a more substantial object of ambition than military laurels. It was of a grandiosity which appealed to the imagination, but not to the practical judgment of a far-sighted statesman. That Henry should have taken it up is entirely consistent with his character as we have conceived it. On the other hand, if he had been merely a monarch who allowed himself to be habitually managed, but broke out in occasional fits of obstinacy—as weak men do—he would have struggled to the last for that election. In fact, he did interfere with Wolsey the moment he thought he could better the minister’s plans, but when he saw he had made a mistake, but could retire without loss of dignity, he did so without losing his temper. Later in life he might have made himself unpleasant to somebody, under like conditions. That would have depended very much on how far he had set his heart on the particular object he found himself called upon to surrender. In the present case, Wolsey had ostensibly done everything possible to make the scheme166 succeed. He may never have attempted dissuasion, relying on the inherent impracticability of the whole thing to prevent any really awkward consequences. At any rate, Henry’s confidence was in no way diminished.

There was indeed little enough reason to be dissatisfied. Western Europe was in the hands of three young men, of whom the eldest, Henry, was twenty-eight, and the youngest, Charles, was not twenty. If Charles had the widest dominion, his task was also the most complicated. He could only pass to his Teutonic from his Spanish territories by sea; French territory was continuous. If Charles and Francis quarrelled, each would want the friendship of England: for her enmity to Charles would mean immense injury to the trade of Flanders, and her enmity to France would mean serious military embarrassments in the direction of Picardy. So for some time to come both were eagerly seeking an English alliance, while Wolsey’s skill was sufficiently tasked, but not over-tasked, to keep the pair of them in play; and to keep them at peace, since if they once went to war it might prove exceedingly difficult to avoid embroiling England.

In 1520 the competition between emperor and king for English favour—which both took to mean the Cardinal’s favour—was particularly lively, with the result that the great meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold took place, designed to signalise the enthusiastic amity of Henry and Francis. Wolsey, however, had manœuvred a less magnificent meeting in England, only just before, between Henry and167 the emperor; and no one could say that either of the rivals had really won a lead over the other. But it became increasingly difficult to prevent a collision between them, and a year later, when Wolsey was ostensibly making a great effort at the Conference of Calais to effect a reconciliation, he was in reality coming privately to terms with Charles. If England was to be dragged into a war, she would be on the Imperial side.


Why did England go to war with France, instead of resolutely holding aloof? The Cardinal cannot have seriously thought of the war as a means to the recovery of the French crown: nor can he have held it good for England that France should be crippled, and the Emperor magnified. If he went into the war of his own free will, if he urged it on Henry, it can only have been with the purely personal object of so binding Charles to him as to ensure his own election to the Papacy at the next vacancy. Yet at the time of the Calais Conference there was no immediate likelihood of the reigning Pope’s death; Wolsey was surely the last man to count on the gratitude of princes for past favours as an effective motive, and Charles had already shown a thorough appreciation of the doctrine that promises are made to be evaded. Moreover, so shrewd a man168 as the Cardinal would presumably have felt extremely doubtful whether the Papacy—with Charles master of Europe—would be much worth having. The only remaining suggestion is, that Wolsey foresaw great domestic troubles, and took the time-honoured course of trying to divert attention by plunging the country in war. The obvious objection to that is that there were no pressing signs of disturbance at all.

The mere fact that the war was a regular reversal of the methods Wolsey had hitherto followed, points to its having been undertaken against his judgment. But is it unreasonable to suppose that it was not against the king’s judgment? That Henry for the second time indicated the course which his minister was to follow, and the minister obeyed rather than resign? In those days, ministers did not resign, unless they were exceptional people with consciences, like Thomas More: and for Wolsey—whose political existence, if not his life, depended entirely on the king’s favour—to resign would have meant virtual suicide. On the other hand, there were influences which would affect Henry in favour of the war, intelligibly enough. To him, the conquest of France with the help of Charles may not have seemed absurd, and he was not ashamed to avow it as his object to Parliament, when asking for money. Apart from that, there was always a military party headed by men who felt themselves much more likely to achieve honour and fame on the battlefield than in the Cardinal’s ante-room: and if there was to be war at all, there was a sort of standing sentiment in169 favour of fighting the French. Lastly, the king was still on good terms with his wife, and his wife was a most determined advocate of her nephew’s interests. Henry was even now only just thirty, and the glamour of military achievement might still tempt him. It certainly seems the most reasonable conclusion that it was not Wolsey who dragged the king into war, but the king who forced war on Wolsey.

As a matter of fact, events proved that there was very little to be made out of the war. After eight years, Wolsey found himself compelled to call a Parliament again, in order to get money—whereas it had been his consistent policy to dispense with Parliament altogether. The war was at any rate not sufficiently unpopular to prevent the voting of a substantial subsidy; but as time passed, such favour as it had found with the public faded; the Cardinal did not venture, when more money was needed, to ask Parliament for it again, and when he tried to raise what was called an Amicable loan, the response was cold. The disaster of Francis at Pavia, though it suggested more talk about recovering the Crown of France, offered no opportunity for material advantage to Henry, and it very soon became evident that Charles was so much the master of Europe that his career would only be held in check by an Anglo-French alliance, which it became the Cardinal’s business to contract in 1527.



This was precisely the time at which there is no doubt that the question of divorcing Katharine of Aragon was very much on the minds both of king and Cardinal. In discussing that subject in the preceding study of Wolsey, nothing was said of the theory most adverse to Wolsey—that the idea originated with him, and that he suggested it with the specific intention of breaking the alliance with Charles and substituting a French marriage, a French alliance being now his object. On this theory it is argued that the king’s intention of using the divorce to marry Anne Boleyn was sprung on the Cardinal as something quite new, on his return from the French embassy; his absence having been turned to account by his enemies, with the simple object of wrecking his policy and ruining him. The fact that Henry afterwards publicly acquitted Wolsey of having instigated the divorce may not count for much as evidence of his innocence; but there is another grave objection to the theory. If Henry told him that the divorce must be managed somehow, he would doubtless have considered that the least injurious result would be a French marriage; but it is not easy to imagine that he would himself have sought to bring about a step which would have made so permanent a breach between Henry and Charles. His own policy was to keep it always in the power of England to shift from one side to the171 other—to trim the balance between Charles and Francis. The theory is put forward to square with a particular view of Henry’s character—that he was managed by any one who could get at him. But it makes the Cardinal himself somewhat unintelligible—or unintelligent.

The view advanced in these pages is, that for the third time the king laid down a policy of his own for the Cardinal to carry out. In the first place he had two personal reasons for wanting the divorce—a superstitious impression that the failure of Katharine to supply him with a male heir was Heaven’s punishment for a marriage which the Pope ought never to have sanctioned; and a passion for Anne Boleyn. In the second place, the policy of alliance with Charles against Francis had worked out badly, and a rupture with Charles must come in any case. Wolsey should manage it, or should help: and if he began with a belief that a French marriage might be the outcome, there would be no harm done. The policy, as before, was a deviation from Wolsey’s, but did not seem superficially to run counter to the broad principle on which it was based, that England was to prove her effective predominance by throwing her weight into the French or the Imperial scale as circumstances might demand. But, as before, the method was short-sighted. On the other hand, we find Wolsey behaving also precisely as he did before. If the king did elect to lay down a policy, he must be the instrument through which it should be carried out. He could not prevent it; he must make the best of it, and as far as possible neutralise172 the bad effects by skilful handling. He made his attempt, failed, and fell. It would have been better for his credit if he had fallen in open instead of in covert opposition.

It remains in any case impossible to dogmatise; the whole thing is a tangle, and there are difficulties in the way of accepting each solution. To the theory that the divorce was primarily a plan of Wolsey’s in order to facilitate a French alliance, there is a further objection that a negotiation was already on foot for marrying the Princess Mary to Henry of Orleans, the French king’s second son, who afterwards became Henry II. The substitution of the marriage of the king himself to a French princess would have hardly been in itself a closer bond; yet we should be compelled to believe that Wolsey deliberately, with no greater advantage in view, sought to make this change at the cost of a probably irreparable breach with the emperor. The political motive is inadequate. Whereas, for the king, who had a powerful non-political motive thrown in, the plan becomes intelligible enough. The divorce should be so managed that Mary’s legitimacy should still be secured, the marriage with Orleans could go forward, and he himself would get the wife he wanted. That in 1527 his passion for Anne was a very powerful motive is not to be disputed—the love-letters, uncertain as their dates are, cannot be attributed to a still later time.

It is also tolerably clear that the king meant to have the divorce in any case, whether it upset foreign relations or not. Moreover, if the plan was Wolsey’s,173 he would have been satisfied to leave the Cardinal to work it out, which he was not. From the beginning he appears to have suspected—if there was not more than a suspicion—that his minister disliked the whole idea, and would be only too pleased if it were shelved; and he employed other agents to get the thing done, behind Wolsey’s back. Wolsey was very much in the position of a lawyer whose client, with whom he cannot afford to quarrel, insists on his adopting a certain course in defiance of his own judgment. He devised ingenious expedients; he tried to make his case as safe as possible; he gave nothing away to the other side; but he was reluctant throughout, while the king was invincibly obstinate.

Assuming then that it was Henry, not Wolsey, who from the commencement sought the divorce, the Cardinal’s consistency is restored. So far also the consistency of Henry’s character is maintained. He never laid out a great political scheme, calculating for the future; but when Wolsey formulated a large design, he readily recognised its merits, and recognised Wolsey himself as the man to carry it through. But three times he was moved with a desire to obtain a particular end, without realising that to do so would overturn the main scheme; on each occasion the minister formally and officially obeyed his master’s behest. Over the divorce, however, Henry’s behaviour presents an interesting psychological study.

There have been many statesmen, successful in varying degree, who have quite deliberately ignored moral considerations in their policy. They have174 not admitted that unrighteous action as such carries any penalty attached to it. Crime which shocks public sentiment violently they may avoid; not because it is criminal, but because public sentiment cannot be ignored. The mere fact that a particular course of action involves injustice or cruelty, or otherwise over-rides the moral law, is not permitted to weigh at all in judging of its expediency. Such a one was Thomas Cromwell. There have been others who would never allow any claim of mere expediency to countervail against the dictates of conscience. Such a one was Thomas More.

The average man is content to compromise: not drawing the line very high, but still drawing it somewhere. Henry belonged to the class who would never violate conscience; but, when any particular course presented itself to his mind as expedient or desirable, he had a quite unique power of convincing himself not only that the thing would not be wrong, but that conscience positively clamoured that it must be done: nothing was so monstrous that he could not solemnly persuade himself that it was a sad duty. There are men who are made that way. They will rob the widow and swindle the orphan, but they must and do first trick themselves into an amazing belief that in so doing they are serving heaven or society. Henry was much more dangerous than a commonplace hypocrite who assumes a mask to deceive the world, since he had to begin by making the deception convincing to himself.

Thus it was in the matter of the divorce. It was of real urgent importance that he should have a male175 heir, and there was no hope of his wife giving him one; he wanted very much to marry Anne, and he could not do so while his wife was living; but with what conscience could he get rid of that wife? Henry’s conscience gave him the answer he wanted, pat: it always did. Conscience pointed out that the children of the marriage, except one girl, all came to grief—were still-born, or died in a few weeks. Surely, here was Heaven’s judgment on a sinful union. True, the contracting parties had sinned with a Pope’s benediction, and thinking there was nothing wrong. But clearly the Pope must have erred. Conscience therefore did not merely excuse, it demanded, the dissolution of the unholy bond. Conscience permitted Henry to declare fervently that nothing would please him so much as to find that his scruples were groundless; but nothing would ever have persuaded him that they were so except perhaps the death of Anne Boleyn. Having once thoroughly satisfied himself that the divorce was a duty, whatever any one might say to the contrary, it followed that some legal method of accomplishing it must exist. If the Pope did not see the thing in the same light, there must be something defective in the Papal authority after all. The scruple of conscience gradually assumed an axiomatic character to Henry; and the repudiation of Clement, who regarded it as an extremely questionable postulate, followed logically.

Until Clement revoked the cause to Rome—a practical demonstration that he would not sanction a verdict objectionable to the emperor—nothing176 demanding revolutionary measures had occurred. That event, however, changed the situation. There would have to be a fight with the Papacy, which could not be conducted under the Cardinal’s captaincy. The Cardinal had failed badly; his behaviour had been suspicious. It did not take the conscientious monarch long to discover that advantage had been taken of his own generous trustfulness, that he had been warming a viper in his bosom. Wolsey was thrown to the wolves. It is curiously characteristic of Henry that the instrument by which he shattered Wolsey was the charge of a breach of Præmunire in accepting and exercising the legatine authority. The mere fact that this had been done with the king’s own licence, almost at his instigation, would have checked any other monarch. Henry found in it an additional cause of offence. The Cardinal had not only broken the law—he, whose business it was to see that the king did not accidentally transgress, had actually inveigled the king into transgression. A just man, tricked by his own familiar friend into committing an act of injustice, feels righteous indignation against the friend. Such was the indignation of the king against the Cardinal, as of Adam against Eve.



The fall of Wolsey marks, as the beginning of the divorce proceedings really commences, the second stage of Henry’s career. Had he died before 1529, the Bluebeard legend would never have been applied to him, and his connexion with the Reformation would have been in effect limited to a controversial pamphlet in favour of the extreme Papal claims, directed against Luther. This was all that the uprising of the great Reformer had evoked from the prince who was expected to be the royal champion of the Intellectuals. No one would have called him a tyrant. It is true that Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, had been put to death at the beginning of the reign—as tradition says, in fulfilment of the advice of Henry VII. It is true also that Buckingham had been executed, not so much because he had committed any treason as because he was thought dangerous; but the world would have been content to leave that as one of the charges against Wolsey. Henry would have passed with posterity as a pleasure-loving monarch with a great taste for extravagance, who cheerfully left the government of the country to an able and unscrupulous minister, and did absolutely nothing personally in the twenty years of his reign to justify the high hopes with which his accession was hailed. The reign would have been recorded as the reign of the Cardinal, and our ideas of the king himself would have been conveyed178 mainly in the anecdotes of his personal vanity and love of pageantry and popularity. It is the forcefulness, energy, and resolution—or the violence, fickleness, and obstinacy—displayed in the second period which make us revise our judgment of the first, and set us seeking therein for some appearance of these same characteristics, and discovering in them the explanation of some puzzles in the Cardinal’s policy.

The new stage of Henry’s career presents us with a problem at the outset. Hitherto, he had followed Wolsey’s counsels; very shortly, the Machiavellian maxims of Cromwell guided his course; but there is no one to bridge the gap between Wolsey and Cromwell. Sir Thomas More succeeded the Cardinal as Chancellor, but not as first minister—he never made any secret, to the king, of his conviction that the marriage with Katharine could not and should not be invalidated. Nothing points to Norfolk or Suffolk as guiding policy. The newly discovered Cranmer had suggested a principle for dealing with the divorce, but his appearance is merely in the character of a University doctor, not of a statesman. Precisely at this moment, before he knew anything of Cromwell, with Wolsey, so to speak, hanging on the very verge of the precipice, a Parliament is called suddenly, which remains undissolved until its seventh year. Since 1515 there had been only one Parliament, that of 1523–1524. Between 1500 and 1515 Parliaments had been rare. Henry VII., when he no longer felt the need of constant Parliamentary sanction, and Wolsey after him, had gone steadily on the rule of accustoming the country to179 have the government carried on almost without Parliaments, and of establishing absolutism on those lines. From this moment that attitude towards Parliament disappears. For the rest of the reign, there is no prolonged interval without one; Parliament itself is converted into the instrument and the buttress of despotism.

In the preceding study of Thomas Cromwell the view was adopted that he was the real author of what was one comprehensive design for establishing the royal power high over everything else, including therein the repudiation of Papal rivalry, and the subordination of the clerical organisation; while the method, of deliberately choosing to make Parliament share the responsibility, was his also. Yet the calling of this Parliament in 1529, and its initial measures of ecclesiastical reform, cannot be attributed to him. Henry did it out of his own head. It will be found, however, that the apparent contradictions are easily reconcilable.

Henry found, in 1529, that his determination to have a divorce would involve either a fight with the Papacy or a struggle to secure Papal support in despite of the emperor. Also he felt that the Cardinal was not to be depended on as the manager of that struggle. He had no one ready to take the Cardinal’s place, though Stephen Gardiner might have done so had he been a layman. He had formulated no plan of campaign beyond that of sending the Earl of Wiltshire, Anne Boleyn’s father, with Cranmer in his train, on an embassy to Bologna. But he might find himself impelled to do more or180 less questionable things; the precedent of his father’s first years suggested that in that case it would be useful to be able to say that he had acted with the sanction of Parliament; and he had the Tudor instinct of appreciating the value of conciliating popular sentiment. Nothing would conciliate popular sentiment so much as inducing his subjects to believe that it was their interests and their opinions he was consulting. So he summoned Parliament.

Thus, Henry called the Parliament: Henry authorised clerical reform: Henry meditated a possible quarrel with the Pope. But it was Cromwell who co-ordinated Henry’s ideas—clever enough as far as they went, but not going far—into a single far-reaching scheme, wherein the things his master had thought of were nicely adjusted, gaps were filled in, consequences calculated, and a systematic evolution arranged in which every step should seem the corollary of what had already been accomplished. How far individual steps were invented by Henry, and how far by Cromwell, it is not possible to gauge. Cromwell never assumed the pose of Wolsey—the pose which the Cardinal did indubitably adopt, although it was erroneously inferred from the famous if legendary phrase, Ego et rex meus. He was always ostensibly the king’s instrument. In Wolsey’s time a question had once arisen whether in sending certain official despatches the full information should be sent to him, and only general remarks to the king, or vice versa. That would not have happened with Thomas Cromwell. The full official despatch would181 have gone to the king as a matter of course—but Cromwell might have had a private unofficial commentary. Henry, during the Cromwell régime, was in constant evidence as the ruler of the country. During Wolsey’s régime, he ostentatiously left the management in Wolsey’s hands. But during both periods we can at any rate form a shrewd guess at the points on which king and minister were in harmony, and those where the minister had to yield to the king.

Beyond minor reforms of abuses, and the movement for taking the opinion of the Universities on the divorce, there was no immediate sign, after the Cardinal’s fall, of a definitely anti-clerical or anti-Papal policy. The first blow—the demand for a ransom from the clergy under the Præmunire—would have been entirely characteristic of either the king or Cromwell: the idea was after all merely a very much more audacious application of the method adopted towards Wolsey. Whoever hit upon the notion, it was made the first step in the systematic grinding down of the clergy between the upper and the nether millstones of financial spoliation and political subjection. The Supplication against the Ordinaries in Parliament, the Submission of the Clergy, forced upon Convocation as the clause of the “Supreme Head” had been, appear to be more decisively Cromwell’s handiwork. There is no adequate reason to suppose that Parliament had these measures thrust down its throat: anti-clericalism was not a new idea, and was usually popular; and if the Supplication included matters about which182 the general public cared very little, such as the right of ecclesiastical legislation exercised by Convocation, it also carefully embodied popular grievances, though they may not have been as flagrant as was represented. But on the other hand, if the Supplication emanated from any one but Cromwell, it implies an elaboration of organised action among private members which there is nothing to corroborate. It must have been what may be called a Government measure, which on the whole had the support—possibly the enthusiastic support—of the House. The Annates Act, opposed by the bishops, was not enthusiastically adopted by the Commons—not so much because they objected to depriving the Pope of the impost as because they saw no reason why the clergy should be relieved of it. They did not realise that the king and Cromwell had no intention of allowing it to become an effective measure of relief at all.


In short, down to the pronouncement of the divorce, Henry and Cromwell are clearly working in perfect accord—whether minister or king devised the programme: Convocation is being steadily compelled, very much against its will, to endorse the propositions of the Crown, and Parliament is at any rate acquiescent. We may, however, suspect that Henry, up to this point at least if not for nearly a year more,183 inclined to hope that the Pope might yet give way; whereas in the overtures to the Lutheran Princes in 1533 we may see Cromwell working to make doubly sure the assurance of complete severance from Rome. The Lutheran alliance was unquestionably a favourite scheme of Cromwell’s, but the king never did more than dally with it. In his pet character of theologian he could never bring himself to accept the Augsburg Confession, or any compromise which would have satisfied the Protestants.

Cromwell was always possessed with the belief that a combination of Powers favourable to the Papacy would be formed sooner or later for the destruction of England and the Protestants on the Continent: the coalition of Charles and Francis was his bugbear. On the other hand, he saw no hope of an effective union between England and France; while he fancied that, if the bar between Henry and Charles, irremovable while Katharine lived, were once annulled by her death, the emperor—whose troops had sacked Rome in 1527, and who had in many respects evinced very little real regard for the Pope’s authority—might be brought over to the anti-Papal side. Therefore, whenever he thought there was a prospect of effecting an Imperial alliance, he let the idea of the Protestant alliance go; whenever the Imperial alliance seemed hopeless, the Protestant alliance re-appeared on his programme.

Henry, however, was not at one with Cromwell. He looked askance at the idea of a Protestant alliance because he did not consider himself a Protestant;184 on the contrary, he accounted Lutheranism as heresy, and himself as a pattern of orthodoxy. From his point of view, the only quarrel with Rome lay in the Pope’s assertion of usurped claims to jurisdiction, which either Charles or Francis might find themselves ready to repudiate in their own dominion at any convenient moment. He remembered Wolsey’s doctrine. Francis and Charles had so many antagonistic interests that they could never co-operate for long. The business of England was to make each desire her alliance; to avoid the mistake of committing herself too deeply to either. For a short time—in 1539—he began to think that Cromwell might be right about the danger of a coalition, and accepted the plan of the Cleves marriage as a defensive measure. The marriage was hardly accomplished when a fresh breach between the rival princes showed that his own view of the danger had been right. There never was, either in his own time or later, a Catholic coalition against England. At the same time it is at least a tenable view that a Protestant union, steadily maintained, might have had great results; on which it is not uninteresting to speculate, but the speculation is too much guesswork to be profitable.

Henry’s views, then, on foreign policy, differed from his minister’s, and it was Henry’s views that prevailed, except in the episode of the Cleves marriage; and in that particular case, there was so startling an appearance of a real rapprochement between Francis and Charles that the king’s deviation along Cromwell’s lines can hardly be attributed to185 weakness. And even so he took careful precautions, as long as the thing was possible, to preserve a loop-hole for his own withdrawal, however deeply his minister might be committed.

In the ecclesiastical policy also, as it emerges after the definite breach with Rome, Cromwell was evidently more inclined to encourage the advanced school than his master. Henry made Cranmer Archbishop, wanting in that post a man who accepted whole-heartedly the theory of Royal Supremacy. As long as the reforms proposed were restricted to dealing with notorious abuses of the kind which Colet had freely denounced, and to the introduction of an English Bible—which the Conservatives might regard as dangerous, but could not denounce as in itself heretical—Henry was prepared to give his sanction; but whenever doctrines were in question as to which the followers of the “Old Learning” were in solid agreement, Henry consistently held with them. Cromwell, on the other hand—not from religious sentiment, but on purely political grounds—had Lutheran proclivities, owing to his desire to conciliate Continental Protestantism. He did not, as Cranmer did, urge the acceptance of views to which Henry objected; but his influence was always in favour of “advanced” appointments, and of a lax application of the laws which pressed hardly upon that school. Henry’s personal affection for Cranmer, a liking for Latimer, and an absence of any such feeling towards Gardiner and Gardiner’s colleagues, kept him from active interference in this respect. But he saw to it that what the law laid186 down should be unimpeachably orthodox, and every attempt of Cromwell’s to draw nearer to the Lutherans was countered by affirmations of a rigid adherence to the Old Faith and denunciation of innovations: culminating in the Act of the Six Articles. The differences in the formularies of faith issued from 1536 to 1540 are all in the direction of increasing definiteness, of leaving fewer questions open; and the definiteness is always in favour of the old school. Although the minister officially supported the Six Articles, while the Archbishop made all the fight possible against it, the Act was the king’s deliberate work, and the forcing of it through was without any possible doubt a direct set-back for Cromwell. At the same time, however, Henry took occasion to impress on his Court, with his usual vigour, that it would be extremely injudicious for any one to act on the hypothesis that it involved any diminution of the personal favour in which Cranmer was held.

In the rest of the domestic policy—Treason Acts, Supremacy Acts, Acts of Succession, Dissolution of Monasteries, Attainders—there is no opposition between king and minister. The edifice of absolutism with the sanction of Parliament is steadily reared, on the ruins of the ecclesiastical fabric and of the last families round whom any sort of Yorkist tradition can centre. When at last it had culminated in the Royal Proclamations Act, Cromwell ceased to be necessary; being no longer necessary, he offended his master; and, offending him, fell as Wolsey fell before him.



Down to this point, then, from 1513 to 1540, we may believe that Henry was the puppet first of Wolsey and then of Cromwell; or that both were no more than the instruments of his supreme genius; or that, having with a light heart delegated all his duties and cares to the Cardinal, he resolved to rule himself, upset the Cardinal, and used Cromwell as a tool and scapegoat. Or we may judge that the creative, designing brains were his ministers’; but that he deliberately made their policy his own, except when he had a fancy for diverging from it, trusting to their pilotage just so long as it suited him—that they, not he, were the pilots, but he was emphatically the captain. We may even believe that the ministers were responsible only for the mistakes in execution, the king for the great designs. But when Cromwell is gone no one takes the vacant place. Gardiner and Norfolk are at the head of the Council, which becomes a hotbed of intrigues; but it is quite impossible to attribute the royal policy either to any individual or to any clique. Hence, in the king’s conduct of affairs during the remaining six and a half years of his life, we ought to find clues to the nature and extent of the control he really exercised during the thirty years preceding.

The view here put forward has been, that Wolsey diverted him from his first merely boyish dreams of martial achievements, to take hold of the conception188 of making England stand as the secure arbiter between the great Powers of the Continent, wooed by all—or both, when only two were left—and able always to turn the scale if one or other threatened to preponderate. His brain, however, being somewhat more liable to inflation than the Cardinal’s, he compelled the latter, in pursuit of this policy, to diverge from the right path and commit the country to the French war—possibly, though not on the whole probably, with the notion that the old grandiose idea of conquering France might become practicable. Then, just as the blunder was in course of being remedied, he became obsessed with the determination to divorce Katharine; a proceeding which could hardly fail to make friendly relations with the emperor so impossible as to destroy the basis of the balancing scheme, which demanded that the two European rivals should both be anxious to court English support. Then Cromwell showed him how to use the divorce as a piece of the machinery by which the power of the Crown might be made at least as absolute as any known in European history. He adopted Cromwell’s plan, but not what Cromwell regarded as its corollary, the acceptance of the position, and the alliance of the continental Protestants: endeavouring to hold himself aloof from alliances, and, after Katharine’s death, to regain the position of balance-holder.

Now it has been argued that the policy of 1522 was Wolsey’s own, not the king’s policy forced on him, because it was only when Wolsey was minister that a “spirited foreign policy” was acted upon.189 It is therefore to be noted that when Henry was left to himself with neither Wolsey nor Cromwell to give counsel, he did quite evidently take up the almost defunct Plantagenet notion of imposing the sovereignty of England on Scotland—which experience had shown to be no more feasible than the conquest of France: and he did again find himself drawn into an Imperial alliance, and actually at war with the French. These facts do not amount to a proof, but they do afford a presumption that the talk about recovering the French crown had not been altogether wind, and that the first fighting alliance with Charles was, like the second, the doing of the king. Probably Henry’s main motive in going into this later French war was to compel Francis to withdraw his support from the Scots. He ought, however, to have known by this time, first, that France could not afford to stand by while Scotland was robbed of the independence which was always a practical and valuable asset for France when she was at war with England: and, secondly, that Charles would play for his own hand, and would find some excuse for leaving his ally isolated the moment his own needs were satisfied.

The Scots affair, by the way, supplies another interesting example of the peculiarities of Henry’s conscience. The head and front of the party in Scotland who were most bitterly hostile to England was Cardinal Beton: who was in close alliance with Mary of Guise, the queen-mother. Henry was ingenious enough to discover that Beton was a rebel, who had secured himself above the reach of190 the law, and that consequently his assassination would be rather commendable. It is not surprising that the Cardinal was murdered in due course, and that the murderers looked to England for support.

The history of these later years, in short, lends colour to the view that the political errors—in foreign affairs—committed in Wolsey’s days were forced on him by the king: and also that the king himself did not formulate large political conceptions on his own account. More than that, it shows him capable of such serious blunders as the proposal to re-assert the old fable of English suzerainty in Scotland, and—what was in its own way hardly less short-sighted—the wholesale debasement of the coinage. It was not till he was left to manage things with no strong counsellor to aid him that he gave way completely to this most evil propensity of his last years. The thing did incalculable mischief, ruining credit, driving up prices, robbing creditors for the benefit of debtors, and, of course, driving all the sound coins out of circulation. It is to the credit of Somerset in the next reign that, in spite of the depleted treasury, he did not carry that disastrous experiment further: it was left for Northumberland to degrade the currency even more than Henry had done. And it was Henry who had done it, not Wolsey or Cromwell or Gardiner. These things would seem to mean that, left to himself, it was his tendency to resort to paltry and short-sighted tricks and devices of a kind incompatible with the higher statesmanship; tricks which seem at the moment to effect their purpose, but are a mere evasion of the191 difficulties with which they pretend to deal. In these years, Henry’s statesmanship makes a poor display. We may plead on his behalf that physical disease weakened his intellectual powers, that practically unchecked despotism produced moral degeneration, that we cannot judge the qualities of a man whose rule had been—for whatever reason—undeniably powerful for a quarter of a century, by the mismanagement of the years when he was wearing into his grave. There is truth in the plea. Yet from the degeneration we can infer the inherent defects. The man who muddled his Scottish policy, and left the arrangements for carrying on the government at his death in a state of chaos, was not he who planned, organised, and carried out the defiance of the Papal power and the subjection of the Church; but he may have been perfectly capable of appreciating that vast scheme, and of playing a formidable part in the execution of it. On the other hand, had he been merely a vain tyrannical bully, there was more than one man in his entourage after Cromwell’s fall, who would have had the wit to make a puppet of him—which no one certainly succeeded in doing.



A study of Henry’s character, however brief, would be incomplete if it omitted to touch on his widely varied marital relations. The Blue Beard legend may by this time be fairly looked upon as exploded. He did not marry one wife after another to gratify capricious passions, and, when he was weary of the new toy, cut her head off and get himself another. Except in the case of Anne Boleyn, and possibly Jane Seymour, passion can have had very little to say to his various ventures. His Court was licentious; but the king himself does not appear to have been worse than his neighbours, even if he was no better. Political intriguers tried to obtain influence through mistresses; there was certainly an attempt to supplant Anne Boleyn by this means, and the Earl of Surrey—who was probably innocent enough of real treason but otherwise deserves very little of the pity that has been wasted on him—tried to persuade his own sister to establish herself at the king’s ear in the same way. There is hardly a shadow of doubt that Anne Boleyn’s elder sister Mary was Henry’s mistress before he turned his eyes upon Anne. Rumour declared, though the statement is not substantiated, that Sir John Perrot, who did good work in Ireland in Elizabeth’s day, was really Henry’s son. It is probable, however, that there were no children of his born out of wedlock except the son of Elizabeth Blount, whom he made Duke193 of Richmond and was credited with intending to get legitimised, when there was no likelihood of a legitimate male heir appearing. The state of the Court was such that Chapuys declined to believe in the otherwise unimpeached virtue of Jane Seymour, merely on the general principle that no woman could be supposed virtuous under the conditions there prevalent—but Chapuys was writing at a moment when he was feeling particularly hot against the whole Court. An item in the royal accounts has been supposed to indicate that Henry kept a sort of harem, but that is based on what is almost certainly a misinterpretation of the term “mistress.” Henry was licentious enough, but there is no reason to imagine him as a satyr, or as on the same plane with Francis I. The kings of the sixteenth century, bad or good, were not often clean livers. The way to Henry’s favour was never through the good graces of the favourite of the hour; and except in the case of Anne Boleyn it never appears that he allowed any passion to interfere with his politics.

At eighteen, as soon as he ascended the throne, Henry married the wife secured for him by the diplomacy of Henry VII. and Ferdinand and the complaisance of the Pope. Katharine was four years the elder, sufficiently good-looking, capable, and fit to be a queen. She had already been the bride of the young king’s elder brother, who had died very shortly after the nuptials: but the Pope had duly provided a dispensation to permit the second marriage. She and her husband got on satisfactorily enough for a time. In 1513, when he was displaying194 his martial prowess in Picardy, she was occupied in organising the Flodden campaign and wrote to him in a tone implying that they were excellent friends: yet it is possible to recognise a certain want of tact, in the absence of that adroit flattery which Henry’s vain soul loved, when she dwells on her own achievements instead of praising those of her lord. Henry soon grew cool—there is no reason to suppose that he was ever her ardent lover—and already, when babies died or were still-born, he seems to have turned his mind to a divorce, though he dropped the idea again. When the princess Mary was born and did not die, the big jovial monarch made a great pet of the child; and though he was unfaithful to his wife, and had no compunction about it, the conventional friendliness was maintained. There is no doubt that the queen exercised active influence to secure England’s favour for her nephew Charles V.; and critics have found, in the desire of Henry and Wolsey, a few years later, to break with Charles and form an alliance with France, one of the leading motives which recommended the divorce to them.

About 1522, Anne Boleyn came to Court; and from this time, favours began to flow in the direction of the Boleyn family. The probabilities are, however, that as yet they were due rather to the complaisance of the elder sister Mary than to the attractions of the younger. Four years later, it is clear that Anne had become the object of the king’s pursuit; but, whether because she was more virtuous or more ambitious than Mary, Anne would not surrender herself. The king became the victim195 of an absorbing passion, which made him determined to procure the divorce from Katharine at any cost—whether or no it was primarily responsible for reviving the idea. Once embarked on it, Henry was far too obstinate to allow anything to divert him. Towards the end of 1532—as soon as Warham was dead—he saw his way. Before the year was out, Anne had become his mistress or his wife; a marriage ceremony was performed in January—possibly in November. It is not easy to believe—though the evidence points that way—that Anne, after holding out till the prize was actually in reach, would have risked everything by yielding without insisting on the ceremony first taking place.

The marriage was extremely unpopular; the new queen was spiteful, flighty, undignified, if nothing worse. In a very short time, Cranmer was the only friend she had left; she lost her charm for her husband, and she annoyed him by the same failure to fulfil his expectations as Katharine. The old idea cropped up again, that on this as on the previous union the blessing of heaven did not rest. The king found himself attracted by the somewhat inconspicuous charms and persistent virtue of Jane Seymour. Charges were brought against Anne, which may or may not have been true; admissions were made to Cranmer, the nature of which we can only guess at; on the strength of the former, she was condemned to death for treason, and on the strength of the latter the marriage was declared void ab initio. The unhappy woman was beheaded; next day, according to Chapuys, the king married196 Jane Seymour privately. The official marriage was ten days later.

Jane appears to have been a pleasing, colourless, irreproachable person; who, when she had given birth to the much-desired son, departed to another world without having suffered any estrangement from her husband. He, however, was wife-hunting again before long—not because he was attracted by any one, but for purely political ends. Unfortunately he was not satisfied by the possession of purely political qualifications on the part of the ladies, but offended their susceptibilities by wishing to inspect them. At last Cromwell beguiled him into approving the Cleves marriage; but when Anne came over, and retreat seemed impossible, he first found that she was not at all to his taste, and then that the political reasons for wedding her had been quite inadequate. So the ecclesiastical lawyers set to work again to discover an excuse for annulling that marriage; and in the meantime the Duke of Norfolk produced a young niece of his own, Katharine Howard, who took the king’s more than middle-aged fancy. Being quit of Anne, he married the girl, who successfully cajoled him for about a year: after which, the faction opposed to Norfolk discovered and laid before the unfortunate husband evidence of undoubted immorality before and probable immorality after her marriage. So Katharine Howard followed Anne Boleyn to the block. The affair seems to have been a really complete and very painful surprise to Henry.

By this time, the jibe attributed to the Duchess of Milan when Henry was thinking of marrying her—197“Had I two heads, one should be at his majesty’s disposal”—would have been quite excusable. Even the ladies of his own Court were not covetous of the queenly throne. Chapuys, ever cynical, hinted that an Act passed at this time would quite account for reluctance on their part: if the king should propose to marry a subject, she must confess any improprieties of which she had been guilty; otherwise, if they were subsequently discovered, she would be held guilty of treason. Still Henry discovered one more lady who was willing to take the risks—a lady of much conjugal experience, now a widow for the second time. This was Katharine Parr, whose last husband had been Lord Latimer. Her virtue, however, was as much above suspicion as Jane Seymour’s had been; she was sensible, careful, and extremely tactful; and when an attempt was made to set her husband against her as a heretic, she satisfied him very easily, and her accuser had to submit to one of Henry’s ratings. She survived him, and married Admiral Thomas Seymour.

The marriages with Katharine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves were both avowedly and professedly political. That with Anne Boleyn was one of passion; that with Katharine Parr one of inclination. It is extremely doubtful whether either was effectively promoted by political intrigue. It is hardly at all doubtful that in the two remaining cases it was political intrigue which brought both Jane Seymour and Katharine Howard under the king’s notice; nevertheless, it is not likely that either of these198 marriages affected the king’s policy, though the disastrous termination of the second did so.


The end of Henry’s life was quite characteristic. For some time beforehand every one knew that he could not last long; and intrigues were rife to secure power when he was gone. The Earl of Hertford, Jane Seymour’s brother, was at the head of that one of the two main factions whose leading ecclesiastic was Cranmer; they were balanced by Gardiner, with the old Duke of Norfolk and his son Henry Earl of Surrey. A false move on Surrey’s part gave a handle to the enemy; Surrey was executed; Norfolk was attainted and his life saved only by Henry’s own death; Gardiner’s name was excluded from the council of “executors,” which is supposed to have been intended by the king to balance the two parties. Henry, left to himself, did not display wisdom in his government, but he always at the worst held the reins in a fast grip and sat firm in the saddle. His arrangements for carrying on the government after him were short-sighted, and his successor in the saddle, Hertford, was as much his inferior in practical mastery as he was superior in his ethical aims. The results are discussed in another chapter. Henry was almost in articulo mortis before any one ventured to tell him that his hours were numbered. At last he199 allowed Cranmer to be summoned. When he arrived, the king was speechless; but being besought to give some sign that he put his trust in Christ, wrung the Archbishop’s hand. An hour afterwards, he was dead.

Henry’s career leaves a pretty wide option for forming a judgment of his character. After making every possible allowance for flattery, we know that he was exceptionally accomplished, cultured, athletic; he could hold his own with any one, in an argument or in the tilt-yard. His physical courage has been impugned, principally because in respect of infectious diseases he was notoriously a coward. As a young man, if he was unfaithful to his wife he at any rate observed the expected courtesies; it is not surprising to find that as the divorce proceedings went on his manner deteriorated, till his treatment of Katharine, of his daughter Mary, of Anne Boleyn when she lost her hold on him, can only be described as blackguardly. No one, perhaps, would venture to ascribe to him a fervent zeal for religion; but he was intensely satisfied with the rigidity of his own orthodoxy. It is one of the many ironies of his career that his religiousness has been praised exclusively by people whom he would have sent to the stake as heretics without a moment’s hesitation. If he let Cranmer have his way about an English Bible, it was not from an enthusiastic admiration of the Scriptures, but because he knew that some of the clergy thought it would weaken their influence. The nature of his own creed is conveyed in the Act of the Six Articles. Of his “morality,” in the200 restricted sense of that term, enough has already been said; it was that of his age and his rank. For his conception of honour, his applications of the Statute of Præmunire, and the return he rendered to Wolsey and Cromwell and More for their services, are sufficient witness. In the case of More, by the way, it was characteristic of him that when the report of the ex-Chancellor’s execution was brought to him, he turned on Anne Boleyn and told her it was all her doing. For a high-minded man, his approval of the schemes for getting James Beton kidnapped when under a safe-conduct, and for the murder of David Beton, seems a little peculiar; yet in those times, it cannot be denied that similar schemes found sanction in most unexpected quarters. As far as politics were concerned, he kept his promises, on the whole, a shade more loyally than Charles and Francis and their successors. Ferdinand and Maximilian, of course, had never begun to think that promises could be looked upon as binding.

As a statesman: we must reject the theory that he was merely a Roi Fainéant who liked to fancy that he was running the machine while he was merely dancing to the tune called by cleverer men than himself: we reject also the theory that the policy followed throughout was his own creation, and that Wolsey and Cromwell stood in the same relation to him as Morton and Fox to his father. He was not a far-seeing man himself, but he knew a far-seeing man when he found one, having an unfailing instinct for judging other men’s capacities and limitations, intellectual and moral. He was ready to recognise201 their insight and foresight, their organising and administrative powers, to lay the burden—and the reproach—on their shoulders; but if they did not convince his judgment, they had to obey his behests, not he theirs. And yet there is one field wherein credit, and very high credit, attaches to Henry—credit, moreover, which appears to be entirely his own. As Wolsey had his hobby, education, so Henry had his hobby, the navy. A Royal Navy, a fleet whose business was fighting, was practically his creation. It may very well be that he was much wiser than he knew himself in this matter—that his ships were to him something of a toy. But what he did went far to making the glories of his daughter’s reign possible, as the army of Frederick I. of Prussia made the army of Frederick II. possible.

Finally; although we have denied him personally the greatest qualities of statesmanship displayed by his ministers, he did possess in a very high degree certain essential qualities of a successful ruler. No mere blustering tyrant would have held England in his grip for thirty-seven years; the annals of princes of that type may be terrible, but they are brief. The masses may be held in subjection by a powerful upper class for an indefinite period; the continued power of an individual tyrant—of an active and resolutely aggressive autocratic ruler—depends on his preserving the loyalty of the active part of his subjects. That loyalty Henry retained; he never had the smallest difficulty in stamping out every attempt at resistance. Mere ruthlessness will not account for it; ruthlessness by itself rouses new202 enemies: a reign of sheer terror is brief. To the instinct for gauging men he added the instinct of gauging popular sentiment—a perception of the line which must not be over-stepped; a knack of gracious and timely withdrawal if ever he seemed to have passed the danger-point. Withal, he recognised that the surest method of getting his own way was to make his subjects believe that it was their way too. His figure is very, very far from being god-like; it is quite remote from the heroic; it might, however, have fairly been called Titanic, if that term did not imply ultimate failure—for he did not fail. Neither his intellectual nor his moral qualities permit us to love him, to praise him, or to honour him; and yet, if we have read him aright, it is impossible not to admire.




Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was Protector and the most prominent personality in English politics for a period only just exceeding two years and a half. As Earl of Hertford, he grasped the reins of power when Henry VIII. died; but since the fall of Thomas Cromwell, Henry had reigned without allowing any of his servants to occupy a pre-eminent position, and the Earl of Hertford had certainly not been an exception. After his overthrow in the autumn of 1549, his political influence was never strong enough to affect the measures of his successor: it sufficed merely to bring about his own execution as a preventive measure. The whole reign of Edward VI. is, in fact, quite sharply divided into the two periods of the Seymour ascendency and the Dudley ascendency; but the distinction somehow seems to be very commonly overlooked, and Somerset is not only credited with his own doings or misdoings, but with a goodly share of those for which Northumberland was responsible, and with which Somerset was entirely out of sympathy.

It would appear, however, that it would be difficult206 to find two men whose ideas were more thoroughly antagonistic than those of Somerset and Northumberland: a view not very easily reconcilable with the popular verdict, which seems to regard Somerset as being a weaker if rather more amiable edition of his rival. It is certainly well that the latest detailed study of the Protector’s career should have at least sufficed to make the old method of treating him inexcusable for the future. Without accepting all Mr. Pollard’s inferences as to his subject’s abilities and character, it must be recognised that the portrait presented in his England under Protector Somerset, if somewhat “flattered,” will have to be seriously reckoned with by all future historians of the period.


From a Painting by Holbein

Nevertheless, it may be doubted whether the impression left by that volume is quite what the author intended to convey. The suggestion certainly is that the Protector was really a great man who only failed because he was too much in advance of his age. But in fact, while he possessed certain qualities essential to the great statesman though by no means requisite for a successful politician, he lacked others which are necessary to either character. Some of the projects for which he laboured most strenuously were wrecked, not because they were out of reach, but because of his own inherent incapacity for adapting means to ends; and the general effect of his efforts was not to bring the objects he had in view within nearer reach, but to make them more difficult of attainment than they were before. Failure is no condemnation. Wiclif failed, and Huss207 failed; but they made the Reformation possible. Somerset failed, and there was hardly one of his aims which had been advanced a single step by his action. A statesman, to deserve the title in its full sense, must be an idealist in his aims, but practical in his methods. The unpractical statesman may deserve our sympathy and our admiration; but we may not therefore give him the full meed of applause which belongs to the benefactors of the race or nation. The unpractical idealist may be invaluable when he is a voice only. When the control of public affairs falls into his hands, he is a public danger.


Edward Seymour was born about 1505: of good family, but not of high rank, though there was a strain of Plantagenet blood on the mother’s side. At any rate, the Seymours were connected with the Court, and the future Protector was still a boy when he was holding offices associated with Royalties. When Henry VIII. tired of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour was the new spouse on whom his choice fell. The marriage naturally brought advancement to her brother; and though she did not long survive the birth of her son, Seymour, who had by this time been appointed to the Privy Council and raised to the earldom of Hertford, continued to enjoy favours as a208 man of undoubted talents and attractive personality—and uncle of the heir apparent. Favours, however, meant very little in the way of power. He discharged various functions and took part in sundry military operations in France and Scotland; but apart from one smart action near Boulogne, very little real credit attaches to his performances, which consisted for the most part in sacking the city of Edinburgh, and laying waste the Scottish border with rather more than usual in the way of burning and devastation.

Such as they were, however, these achievements sufficed to bring him some prestige as a commander. If there was nothing particularly brilliant about them, the same comment applies generally to those of his fellows and rivals. There was no one marked out by his talents to take up the reins of government when the king should die and be succeeded by a nine-year-old son. But it was fairly obvious that either the Howards, or Hertford in virtue of his relationship to the young Edward, must occupy the leading position. Intrigues and the folly of Surrey turned the scale against the Howards; Surrey and his father were both attainted; the former was executed and the latter escaped only through Henry’s death. Hertford was inevitably the man of the hour.

There was no manner of doubt about the succession. Henry left only one son, and that son’s legitimacy was unchallenged. But by a wholly unique measure, Henry had been empowered to fix by will not only the course of succession after his son but the method of carrying on the government during209 Edward’s minority. The will, when produced, was found to vest the control in a council of executors, giving priority to none, but remarkable as excluding Bishop Gardiner from the list. The genuineness of the document has been disputed, but probably without sufficient reason. At any rate, as it stood, its provisions were very far from satisfying Hertford’s ambitions, and it is hard to see how any one could have had a personal interest in giving it such a shape. Certainly he had none, and his immediate efforts were directed to inducing the new Council to alter its own constitution fundamentally. For two days the king’s death was kept secret, while Hertford laid his plans in conjunction with Paget, who had possession of the will. When the Council was summoned and the will produced, a proposal was immediately sanctioned appointing Hertford Lord Protector of the realm and of the king’s person. The assent of the king and the peers was formally obtained, and a few weeks later the appointment was confirmed by the king’s authority under the Great Seal. In the interval there had been a general distribution of honours, Hertford himself being made Duke of Somerset. Also the one member of the Council from whom serious opposition was to be feared, Wriothesley the Lord Chancellor (now made Earl of Southampton), justified his own removal by transgressing his powers. Somerset’s position was thus for the time at least made impregnable.

Henry VIII. himself and his second great minister Cromwell had conducted the government of the country on autocratic lines under colour of parliamentary210 forms, until Parliament itself assigned, not to the Crown as such, but to Henry personally, what amounted to the power of legislation by Royal Proclamation. Somerset, though without this statutory power, continued to make a free use of proclamations, such being in effect the system to which the country had become accustomed. He did not appreciate the change which had taken place. For the successful exercise of those powers a personality was needed which commanded unquestioning obedience, coupled with an unerring sense of the limits of endurance in the subjects. In neither respect was the Protector endowed with the necessary qualities.

There were problems enough to be dealt with to have daunted a master of statecraft. Over the Channel, there was France, aggrieved because England was just now holding Boulogne in pawn. The veteran Francis I. followed his English contemporary and rival to the grave in a very few weeks, and the son who succeeded him was by no means friendly to England. Across the northern border there was Scotland, with a baby queen, a queen-mother who was one of the Guise family who were in the ascendant in France, and a dominant party which in its national sympathies was French, and, in the religious point of view, regarded Henry as a schismatic and all advocates of the Reformation as heretics. At home, it was quite certain that the removal of Henry’s heavy hand would be followed by a renewal of the strife in the Church between the followers of the “Old Learning,” headed by Gardiner, Bonner and211 Tunstal, and those of the New, whose chief was Archbishop Cranmer. In addition, there was a grave social problem.

For a full half century a steady process had been at work throughout rural England of extending sheep-farming at the expense of cultivation. It was a process which paid the land-owners, owing to the large demands from abroad for English wool. But it was not equally satisfactory to the agricultural labourer, who was deprived of his customary employment (since sheep-farming required far fewer hands) and found no adequate compensation as yet in the industrial growth of towns. The evil was aggravated by the iniquitous manner in which landholders systematically seized every opportunity of appropriating common lands. In the main, this was the outcome of natural economic tendencies, which repeated attempts at legislative interference entirely failed to hold in check. But these troubles had been directly intensified by the action of Henry’s government for more than ten years past. The dissolution of the monasteries had deprived the peasantry of an easy-going and on the whole kindly group of landlords, and replaced these by another group who were generally greedy and rapacious. Moreover, the wholesale and monstrous debasement of the coinage, an expedient to which Henry had been driven by the depletion of the exchequer caused by his extravagance, had brought about a corresponding drop in effective wages, besides shaking financial stability and commercial confidence, with the unfailing disastrous results. From all of which, wide-spread212 misery and want were prevalent, more particularly in the rural districts.

These problems, we have said, might well have daunted even a master of statecraft. But for each of them the sanguine duke had his solution. It was with no mere paltry self-seeking designs that he had grasped at power. He had elected himself to the office of saviour of society: to the great disgust of some of those members of the Council who had connived at his elevation, in the confident belief that his interests and their own were identical, and would be the first objects at which his government would aim.


At the outset, it was to Scotland that the Protector gave his attention.

Two hundred years before the first Tudor ascended the throne of England, one of the ablest rulers this country has known realised that the union of England and Scotland as a single nation was an eminently desirable object. He sought to achieve that object by force of arms. He conquered Scotland, and Scotland rebelled. Every time he reconquered her, she rebelled again. His last attempt at invasion was foiled by his own death, and during the reign of his incompetent son, Scotland finally and decisively threw off the yoke he had attempted to impose. Every subsequent attempt to reimpose that yoke213 was foiled. Scottish barons might and did take pay from English kings, but in general terms it is safe to say that the expectation of an attempt at the armed conquest of the northern country was the one thing which could effectively, if only temporarily, induce the factions of the Scottish nobility to lay aside their personal and family feuds, and unite in resistance to the Southron. Another method of reconciliation had attracted the astute Henry VII., who married his eldest daughter to the Scots king—not indeed with the definite expectation that a union of the two crowns would result, but still with the arrière pensée that such a result was not impossible. From the fatal day of Flodden till the death of Henry VIII., Scotland had been alternately the prey of rival factions, and the English king had found that the simplest way of keeping his northern neighbours from becoming dangerous was to foster those rivalries. He had gone out of his way to prevent his elder sister’s offspring from inheriting the English throne, by postponing their claims in his will to those of her younger sister’s descendants. But he had on the one hand been favourably disposed to the idea that his own boy should marry the infant queen of Scots when the two were old enough; and he had more than once implicitly, if not quite explicitly, asserted the old claim of English suzerainty, with a view to the ultimate subjection of the Scottish to the English crown if it should prove convenient to try enforcing it.

Now at the moment of Henry’s death there was a party in Scotland which depended for its chance of214 success very largely on English aid. This was the Protestant section, which had just recently accomplished the murder of Cardinal Beton. The Catholics looked to France and the queen-mother’s Guise kinsfolk for support. Various important persons were as usual quite ready to take either side, as opportunity might render convenient. But the assassins of the Cardinal were still in possession of the Castle of St. Andrews. It seemed clear that if England gave active support to this section and prevented the arrival of reinforcements to the other party from France, English influence would predominate. If St. Andrews fell, the French party would acquire complete ascendency.

Somerset had no lack of political imagination. The idea of the union with Scotland appealed to him very strongly indeed. A less enthusiastic advocate of that policy might very well have been content to let things drift, reckoning that at worst Scotland would be no more willing to submit to a French than to an English domination, and that the moment of the almost inevitable anti-French reaction would be the time for a rapprochement. Scotland might after all be postponed to matters that were more immediately pressing. But there was an obvious alternative—to espouse the cause of the Protestant leaders in Scotland, confirm them as a heartily Anglophil party thoroughly committed at least to the English alliance, and establish them in a secure ascendency.

Neither of these courses, however, would achieve the solution on which the Protector was bent—the union of the two countries under a single Crown.215 It was true that there were plenty of Scots who in the abstract regarded such a union as desirable, and had expressed approval of the particular means proposed to that end—the marriage of Edward and Mary. If the sexes of the children had been reversed, the scheme might have run smoothly enough. But the Scottish idea of a union meant a union on equal terms, and anything which pointed to a danger of the smaller country being subordinated to the larger was apt to kindle a fierce flame of opposition. It would require a great deal of diplomatic tact to convince the Scottish nation at large that the contemplated marriage would not be turned to account so as to subordinate Scotland. If England now took up the cause of the Protestants, it was more than probable that when they were in power they would find sufficient reasons for evading the marriage. The Scots lords who had expressed approval were already making it clear that they did not intend to be bound by their past declarations.

Somerset desired the union by assent. But if the Scots would not assent, he meant to enforce it. The object in view was excellent, the method was ruinous. He saw nothing for it but invasion. The castle of St. Andrews fell, and the party friendly to England lost ground. Somerset dropped hints about the old claim of suzerainty, and Scottish indignation grew. His own previous record in Scotland did not encourage confidence in his good intentions. Early in September, Somerset crossed the border at the head of a large army. It availed nothing that the Scots army was completely shattered at Pinkie216 Cleugh—a defeat due to the same blunder which had given Surrey the victory at Flodden and was to give Cromwell the victory at Dunbar, as well as to the superiority in artillery of the smaller English army—and that Edinburgh was again sacked. Somerset’s plans had not extended to preparing an army of occupation. The principal effect of the invasion, in strict accordance with unvarying precedent, was to set the whole of Scotland in fierce opposition to the union, with the result that shortly afterwards little Queen Mary was embarked on French ships and carried off to France, to be placed under the care of her Guise uncles and betrothed to the French Dauphin, while the Guise ascendency in Scotland was confirmed.

Had the Protector been actuated mainly by a desire to achieve popularity, the Pinkie campaign would have been a brilliant success. But his aims were far higher. His conception of a union with Scotland was so far in advance of his times that it was not even realised by the union of the crowns in 1603, or until the Treaty of Union in 1707, more than 150 years later. That in itself is sufficient to demonstrate that his statesmanship had its quite admirable side. On the other hand, the means by which he endeavoured to secure those aims were absolutely the worst that could have been devised. The Pinkie campaign placed them more completely and hopelessly out of reach than any inaction or any other measures he could possibly have contrived. That is sufficient to explain why his government was on the whole so disastrous. He had thrown Scotland217 into the arms of France, and made France herself more instead of less hostile to England.


The Protector’s praiseworthy desire for a union with Scotland was in part at least subsidiary to his enthusiasm for the Reformation. The desire to see Scotland Protestant as well as England was one of his motives, and a strong one. And for his efforts in the cause of the New Learning in England he deserves more praise and less censure than is usually accorded to him. The historians with what may be called the anti-Protestant bias rarely distinguish between what was done under his rule and what was done under that of his successor in power. Those with a Protestant bias are apt to condemn him as lukewarm. Very rarely is it realised that under his government a degree of toleration prevailed such as was never contemplated by other Protestant rulers of his times, still less by Catholic princes. Yet here as in all else his work was marred by his lack of judgment, and still more—unhappily—by personal defects in his character.

The religious problem was obviously the most prominent of those which demanded solution on the death of Henry VIII. That monarch had broken with the Papacy, revolutionised the relations of the State and the ecclesiastical organisation in218 England, dissolved the monasteries, appropriated their revenues, condemned a few superstitious practices, and authorised a version of the Scriptures in the vernacular. There he had stopped. No dogmatic innovations had been admitted, and a large number of practices which moderate as well as extreme reformers desired to see altered had been retained. Obedience had been enforced by stringent legislation, and the Six Articles Act was a standing menace to innovators. Still, if in his later years Henry refused to go forward, he also declined to go backward. The party of reaction, when they attempted to subvert Cranmer’s position in the royal favour, only got a sharp reprimand for their pains. Yet the Reformation had reached a stage at which standing still had become impossible.

In framing the list of his executors, it seems as though the king’s intention had been to preserve a balance, with a slight leaning towards the forward school; a leaning which would almost have been reversed if Gardiner had been included. Cranmer was balanced by Tunstal, Hertford by Wriothesley. Dudley, Herbert, and Russell, were avowedly on the Protestant side. Others were pronounced supporters of the old order, and others again like Paget would be guided by circumstances. The moment, however, that Hertford’s ascendency was assured, it was quite certain that the forward movement would be set on foot. Cranmer took in the pulpit the earliest opportunity of likening the boy-king to Josiah, thereby very definitely fore-shadowing a war against “images.”

219 Nevertheless, there was nothing in the way of a violent revolution instituted. Broadly speaking, measures of which Cranmer had openly avowed himself in favour during the late king’s reign were resorted to perhaps more hastily than was wise. The Archbishop’s Book of Homilies received the sanction which Henry had refused to it. Injunctions based on those of Thomas Cromwell were issued, chiefly directed against “abused images,” and a visitation by Royal Commission was presently set on foot. While Somerset was still in Scotland, Gardiner and Bonner, the bishops of Winchester and London, offered some opposition on the ground that these measures were inconsistent with the later ecclesiastical legislation of Henry; and both were placed under easy confinement in the Fleet. So far, however, there was nothing which could be called innovation; there was merely a renewal of Cromwell’s activity on the same lines—accompanied in practice by very much the same irreverence and violence.

When Convocation and Parliament met for the winter, there was no appearance of any violence being done to ecclesiastical consciences. All the bishops were Henry’s bishops, not Somerset’s; and though they did not prove unanimous in Parliament, a majority of them were favourable to the reforming measures introduced—with the exception of the Chantries Act, which was in itself quite obviously nothing but the completion of an approved policy. Acts for the suppression of irreverent language about the Sacrament, and enjoining the administration of the Communion in both kinds, were passed actually220 at the instance of the clergy themselves, while the clerical demand for permission to marry was ignored. The Six Articles Act was repealed, but that was nothing more than an abolition of penalties, like the accompanying repeal of the statutes de heretico comburendo. During 1548, there were proclamations enjoining the Lenten fast, for the sake of the fisheries; an Order of service for Communion was issued, which, however, only gave effect to the recent Act; there was a fresh Injunction against Images; preaching was restricted to the Homilies, except for licensed preachers—a custom frequently enforced in the last reign. In form, there was still no innovation.

In the winter of 1548–9 came the First Prayer Book of Edward VI., and the Act of Uniformity. The Prayer Book was a compromise, which admitted of such divergent interpretation that the most and the least advanced of the bishops could use it without straining their consciences: and the Act of Uniformity, while it penalised disobedience on the part of the clergy, laid no burden whatever upon laymen.

Now we have here reviewed summarily the whole of the ecclesiastical legislation for which Somerset was responsible. On the face of it, the changes he introduced were by no means revolutionary. Even the new Prayer Book in effect required no one to accept any new doctrine. The repeal of penal acts practically permitted but assuredly did not enforce the teaching of the doctrines against which they had been directed. Not a single victim was sent to the stake; not a single bishop was deprived of221 his See. During Somerset’s absence in Scotland, Gardiner and Bonner were placed in confinement for disobeying the Injunctions. Both were released after some three months. Again, the next year, Gardiner adopted a critical attitude which led to his being imprisoned again in what was no doubt a high-handed fashion; and almost at the moment of the Protector’s fall, Bonner was again sent to prison for disobeying the Act of Uniformity. There is only one other act of persecution charged to Somerset which even calls for comment, the condemnation of Joan Bocher; and that is only to remark that as a matter of fact it was after his fall that her execution was sanctioned. It was not till he had been ousted from power by Dudley that the zealots dominated the reforming party.

Nevertheless, in this field also the Protector failed, and brought discredit both on his measures and his motives. On his measures, because those which were in themselves the most questionable and the most unpopular were, so to express it, not statutory but proclamatory: exercises of a power which was of extremely doubtful legality, arbitrary in their nature. On his motives, because he made large personal profits out of the spoils of the Church (though a far larger proportion of these was appropriated to education than in the preceding reign), and set an evil example of sacrilege by laying hands upon sacred edifices and pulling them down for the building of a palace for himself. In his policy, which was moderate and most unusually tolerant, he worked hand-in-hand with the Archbishop, so222 that it is difficult to say which of the two was the guiding spirit; yet its effect was in great part—though not, as in the case of Scotland, totally—destroyed by the mistaken methods he chose to adopt for enforcing it.


We have studied the Protector in his character as prophet of the union with Scotland, and as apostle of religious tolerance. We have now to observe him in his third rôle as friend of the people; wherein again he was equally honest in his pursuit of an ideal, equally satisfied of his own competence to deal with the problem, and equally misguided in his methods.

No man, whatever his office, can be reproached for having failed to solve the eternal problems of poverty and unemployment. The enormous discrepancies in the distribution of wealth may appeal to the wealthy as evidence of divine justice; by the poor they are more apt to be attributed to human injustice. Yet it is not always apparent on the face of things that the rich man has become rich or the poor man poor through any misdoings. Natural forces operate without any regard to abstract equity. There are always, however, those who, passionately alive to the unfairness of the inequalities around them, are convinced that there is nothing to prevent223 the realisation of a Utopian rectification except the selfish greed of the propertied classes, and imagine that an adequate remedy can be found in the imposition of paper rules and regulations. Selfish greed is always one of the factors in the problem, of varying magnitude, and regulations which effectively protect the weak instead of strengthening the strong may have most beneficial results; but they must have a power behind them which is capable of enforcing them, and they must be in themselves capable of being enforced.

The social disorganisation at this period was exceptionally acute. For the agricultural depression, we have already noted as the most vital cause the conversion of arable land into pasture—the growing substitution of a highly remunerative industry demanding little labour for a less remunerative industry requiring more labour. Next to this was the disappearance of small holdings, owing to their accumulation into single large estates—the substitution in effect of large farms worked by farm servants for petty cultivation by peasant households. Third stands the enclosing and appropriation of common lands by large landholders. The demand for labour sinking from these causes out of all proportion to the supply, cheapened labour excessively. There was an army of men who could find no employment, and those who obtained employment were miserably paid. Of the three causes named, only the third can be attributed to the moral obliquities of the wealthy. The other two were natural economic developments which would in the course of time224 find their natural remedy in the growth of new industries which would absorb the displaced labour. That, however, did not make the existing distress less painful, since the new industries had not yet come into being. Moreover, whereas in the old days the monasteries had at least played some part in the immediate relief of distress, though they had not mitigated its causes, their destruction had abolished this source of relief. We have in our own day an analogous movement in the industrial world, public companies and trusts absorbing the business of the small traders, while the channels into which capital flows are decided by considerations not of philanthropy but of dividends.

The true remedy was to be found—and was found in the course of Elizabeth’s reign—in the development of new industries; and the condition of developing new industries was the restoration of public credit: to be achieved primarily by steady government, establishing general confidence, and by ending one grave cause of the existing lack of credit for which the recent government had been directly responsible, namely, the debasement of the coinage. It was also not impracticable, though exceedingly difficult, to deal with the thievery of common lands. Incidentally, it was necessary to find a substitute which should discharge the charitable functions of the monasteries, as well as to hold in check the vagabondage which, owing to the great number of the unemployed, was a daily increasing danger.

There were, then, certain practical steps to be taken which would not indeed cure the existing evils,225 but would serve directly to mitigate them and to restore the body politic to a condition in which the only effective remedy could be applied. But in the sixteenth century, even the most scientific thinkers believed that human nature could be “expelled with a fork” by statute: and it is small blame to Somerset that he sought to stay the economic tide and to forbid the inevitable. The attempt was very much more than anything else the cause of his ruin; and as usual it was dictated by the most excellent motives. But it is very much to be lamented that while he attempted the impracticable, he left what was practicable alone, or mismanaged it so far as he did try it. He could not provide the country with a steady government: he did not restore the currency: public credit sank. He pinned his faith on legislation which was either flatly rejected or became a dead letter the moment it was passed. He made an attempt to deal with vagabondage by converting vagabonds into slaves, which was merely grotesque. Dissatisfied—quite properly—with the courts which dealt with the land questions, he established a “Court of Requests” in his own house, and proposed on his own responsibility to overrule their decisions. As for the enclosure business, the Council was not merely unsympathetic; half its members were more or less flagrant enclosers themselves. For Somerset to make a direct frontal attack on the system on which they were battening was creditable to his courage, but it was not politics. When they found that the Protector was not merely playing at being a popular226 ruler, but was taking himself very seriously indeed, and that he evinced anything but the proper desire to pulverise the Commons when they rose in arms either in the western or the eastern counties, they were not long in deciding that the Protector himself must go. They were only following immemorial custom when they put forward the theory that he was seeking his own advancement by practising the arts of the demagogue, and that the rural unrest was the creation of his machinations.


The same characteristics of the Protector present themselves in other fields. His motives were quite other than those which actuated the government which succeeded his, and on an altogether higher plane. We have already noted in passing that his scheme for religion included the repeal of the Act of the Six Articles and the old penal statutes de heretico comburendo; that is, his policy abolished the methods of persecution, at least in any stringent form. In precisely the same spirit, he dealt with the Treason Laws invented under Henry VIII. and used by that monarch with such terrible effect. Those laws were a very potent weapon in the hands of an arbitrary ruler; an instrument by which virtually the king—or, if the king so chose, his minister—could absolutely secure the condemnation for high treason of any227 person who in any way proved obnoxious to his government. To that end it was practically sufficient to procure an information that the proposed victim had used expressions which might be construed as implying a possibility of treasonous intent, or of complicity in treasonous intent—treasonous intent being interpreted in the widest conceivable sense—and the victim’s doom was sealed, whether he were a Buckingham, a More, or a Surrey. This weapon lay ready to the Protector’s hand for the destruction of rivals and the establishment of his own authority. He not only declined to use it; he broke it to pieces himself. It is particularly noteworthy that it was in Somerset’s Act of 1547 that a provision was first introduced requiring that any charge of treason should be supported by two witnesses—a provision repeated in the later Treasons Act of Northumberland. The Protector deliberately and of set purpose deprived himself of those means to tyranny which Thomas Cromwell had so carefully fabricated.

Again, we find during his rule that there was no coercing of Parliament, no interference with freedom of debate, no danger attending on the most outspoken opposition to the personal wishes of the Protector.

Yet here, again, he gave occasion to the enemy. If he had maintained the Cromwellian system of ruthlessness in the pursuit of each object he set before himself, his condemnation as a tyrant would have been tempered by praise of his masterfulness. The policy of blood and iron always has its advocates, and sometimes merits advocacy. But it was not Somerset’s policy, and therefore the one occasion on228 which he deserted his practice attracts criticism. On that one occasion there is very little doubt that he had an irresistible case. It is scarcely necessary to add that he did the thing the wrong way.

His brother William, created Lord Seymour of Sudely under the new administration, was also Lord High Admiral. But, as the king’s uncle, he was by no means satisfied with the honours which fell to his share, and was extremely jealous of his brother’s absorption of dignities and power. He plunged in a series of intrigues to get the young king under his own personal influence, and to bring the two younger girls, Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, who might come into the succession, under his own control. He began by secretly marrying Katharine Parr, the king’s widow, for whose hand he had been a suitor before Henry had chosen her for his sixth matrimonial venture: so that his wife had precedence over Somerset’s Duchess. Elizabeth, being under her charge, was thus brought into the Admiral’s household. He bribed Dorset, whose wife under Henry’s will stood next in succession to Henry’s own offspring, to place their daughter Jane under his tutelage also. He put forward a claim that, as the king’s uncle, he was entitled to be governor of the king’s person instead of his brother, who was Protector of the realm—a claim in which he was unsupported. He consistently set himself in opposition to his brother, doing everything in his power to thwart him, and refusing to command the fleet which accompanied the invasion of Scotland. Katharine Parr died within eighteen months of her marriage,229 and no sooner was she in her grave than he attempted to obtain the hand of Elizabeth, now a girl of barely fifteen years: to whom his behaviour had already been so objectionable that Katharine had found it necessary to remove her out of his reach. As Admiral, instead of repressing the pirates who infested the Channel, he made private league with them for their support—and for shares in their booty. He kept something like a small army of bravoes in his pay, and had a private cannon-foundry of his own; and he found the means for the heavy expenditure entailed through a pact with Sharrington, the master of the mint at Bristol, who was pocketing enormous and iniquitous profits out of the clipping and debasing of the coins he issued.

With Henry on the throne, or a Thomas Cromwell at the head of the State, the Lord Admiral would have been in the Tower in two months. Under the Protectorate, he was allowed to carry on his intrigues and malpractices for two years, with nothing more serious than remonstrances. The discovery, however, of Sharrington’s frauds and Seymour’s implication therein brought matters to a head. The evidence, not only of an abuse of his office which amounted to treason, but of an ulterior intention of subverting the Government, was ample enough, though the only prominent men who were in any sense attached to him were Dorset and Northampton (the latter being Katharine Parr’s brother). There is hardly a question that, in open trial, under the most favourable conditions, the Admiral would have been sentenced and executed. Unfortunately for his own credit,230 Somerset assented to the view of the Council that the process should be by attainder in Parliament instead. Seymour stood on his right to an open hearing, and refused to answer the interrogatories of committees of the Council or of the Peers; and therefore he was condemned, by the almost unanimous verdict of both houses, unheard. The natural result was that men said at the time, and have continued to say since, that the Protector, fearing that his brother might become a dangerous rival, fabricated charges against him, and in effect contrived one more of the political murders of the type so familiar in the annals of Henry VIII. The Admiral was executed in March. His death was undoubtedly a shock to popular sentiment, and weakened Somerset’s position, so that his fall followed the more easily after the rural risings which turned the majority of the Council decisively against him.


The Council’s coup d’état cost very little trouble. The moment was seized, when the unsuspecting Somerset was at Hampton Court, Cranmer and Paget being absent; while Russell and Herbert were returning with victorious laurels and most of the available army from the suppression of the Western rising. Both of them had strong feelings as to Somerset’s Enclosures policy. After a futile appeal231 to the people, there was nothing to do but surrender. But the Duke was at any rate a popular favourite; a good many of those who were in the plot against him liked him well enough personally though his policy annoyed them; he was not of the stuff of which successful political plotters are made; there was no plausible excuse for treating anything that he had done as proving anything worse than incompetence; and the Council were satisfied by his being turned out of office, subjected to a brief imprisonment, and deprived of no great amount of his lands. Six months after his fall he was even readmitted to the Privy Council, as Southampton had been three years before. There was, in short, no display of animosity; but the Warwick faction meant to grasp the management of public affairs, and to conduct them with more profit to themselves than the Protector’s régime permitted.

Warwick and his friends—the Earl did not get himself created Duke of Northumberland till two years later—took over the control in October 1549. They retained it for a little less than four years. During that time their foreign and Scottish policy showed no improvement upon that of Somerset. In matters of religion, they progressed from the Prayer-book of 1548–49 to that of 1552: which would have been of a more pronounced Calvinistic flavour than it was but for the moderating influence of Ridley and Cranmer. Bonner and Gardiner were both deprived of their sees at the beginning of the régime, and later Tunstal, Day, and Heath were also imprisoned and deprived. The new appointments were all advanced232 Reformers. Before Somerset’s fall the Princess Mary had been attacked for persisting in the use of the Mass in private, after the Act of Uniformity, but the Protector granted her a licence to continue. The Warwick government was not similarly complaisant. And when a second Act of Uniformity was passed, of a much narrower type than the first, laymen as well as clergy were penalised for failure to conform. In dealing with the rural troubles Somerset’s policy was reversed, legislation being directed to the coercive repression of discontent and the relaxation of such safeguards as existed against the rapacity of landlords. To this must be added their new treason law, which not only extended the same protection to all Privy Councillors as to the king himself, but also made assemblies “for altering the laws” high treason, while renewing the requirement of two witnesses as well as of a time-limit which Somerset had introduced.

Yet there are historians who say that there is no need to differentiate between the policy of Somerset and his successor—associating them in the same condemnation.

Somerset, restored to liberty and formally reconciled to Warwick, consistently endeavoured to use his influence in mitigation of the rigours of the new Government, whose chief began to fear, not without reason, that the moderate men might draw together and reinstate his rival. Paget, whose abilities made him dangerous, was removed from the Council, and imprisoned on an inadequate pretext in the autumn of 1551, to simplify the carrying out of Warwick’s233 plot; evidence of an alleged conspiracy was carefully concocted, Somerset and several of his friends were arrested, and the torture—never employed by the Protector—was resorted to for the extraction of confessions from some of the prisoners. A mythical assassination plot was dropped out of the indictment. Finding that even the concocted evidence was quite inadequate for a conviction of treason, Northumberland magnanimously declined to press personal charges, and Somerset was found guilty of felony—apparently on the ground that he had incited the citizens of London to rebellion—by a carefully packed court.

Having been acquitted of treason, but—with equal satisfaction to Northumberland, since the penalty was the same—condemned for felony, the axe borne by Somerset’s gaolers was reversed when he was taken from the judgment-hall. The crowds which had gathered to await the verdict were thus misled into the belief that the trial had gone in his favour, and broke into a clamour of rejoicing. It was a fond illusion. Even when his doom was made known the populace refused to believe that it would be carried out. The Duke himself knew better. As he stood on the scaffold, having already pronounced his moving and dignified dying speech, a messenger was seen approaching, and a wild cry arose—a delighted shout that he was carrying a pardon. Somerset hushed the people, warning them it was no such thing, and bidding them pray with him for the King’s Majesty. Then, with the words “Lord Jesus, save me,” he laid his head on the block234 to receive the fatal stroke: and the spectators hastened to dip their kerchiefs in his blood, to be preserved as memorials of one who, with all his faults, had won the heart’s love of the common folk.

Somerset’s personal faults were shared by the majority of the prominent men of his time; it was only the greatness of his position which made them a shade more conspicuous in him. As a statesman, he was a melancholy failure; capax imperii he was not in any possible sense; and his incapacity was only the more conclusively proved by the fact that he never suspected it himself. The shrewdest of men would have found it difficult enough to realise his aims, and of shrewdness he had not a particle. His failure was due not less to his complete lack of judgment than to the difficulties inherent in the problems which with easy confidence he set himself to solve. It was an ill thing for England that he was not a wiser man. But it had been well for England if wiser men than he had possessed more of those moral qualities of his to which he himself so woefully failed to give effect.




The Protector Somerset accounted himself a statesman. Of his own choice, he grasped at power; and being unfitted for it, he broke down disastrously. Thomas Cranmer affords a striking contrast. He was dragged into the turmoil of public affairs, in the vortex of the Reformation; against his will, he was compelled to accept ecclesiastical responsibilities which were in themselves semi-political, and to play a part also in affairs which were political exclusively. In the second capacity, he never assumed the direction, but was merely called upon to assent to the actions of others; but as archbishop he was compelled willy nilly to be a protagonist in the religious revolution—a term covering not only changes in the authorised doctrines of the Church and the authorised practices of the clergy, but in the relations of the clerical organisation in England both to the clerical organisation of Christendom and the secular powers at home.


From a Painting by G. Fliccius in the National Portrait Gallery

In the eyes of an earnest school of ecclesiastical critics, he proved himself a traitor to the sacred trust which was imposed on him; a time-serving tool238 of lay usurpers; who, if he had convictions, lacked the courage of them, disowning all that he had most strongly avowed to save himself from the stake; and only at the last in some measure redeeming himself by a belated and almost incomprehensible courage in the hour of his doom. Ardent Protestants endorse half the charges, and condemn him as at best a Laodicean, though one who found grace at the eleventh hour. And historians who display no marked bias on the ecclesiastical questions are apt almost to pass him by, with contemptuous reference to his weakness and subserviency. Still there are not a few who have studied his career with care and sympathy; and their verdict is by no means the one conventionally accepted. It would, indeed, be strange and sad if such a verdict gave a true account of the man who did more than any other individual, on the one hand, to preserve the continuity of the Church, while, on the other hand, he strove to make her comprehensive and national. To no one, indeed, can he assume the proportions of a master-spirit; but the more closely we study him, the more readily we recognise in him a pre-eminently gentle and charitable soul, simple and sincere, striving to do his duty through good and evil report, in a task which he would fain have left to men who were not—as he was—born to be students, not fighters; and actually accomplishing what men of far greater practical ability would have deemed it vain to attempt. If it was better for England that the Church should be what it became than that it should have taken the shape into which either a239 Gardiner or a Knox would have moulded it, it was well for England that for twenty years Cranmer was her foremost ecclesiastic.


Thomas Cranmer was born not two years before Henry VIII., in 1489; the son of a country gentleman of no great estate. An elder son was to carry on the family; Thomas and his younger brother were destined to the Church. The younger sons of a country gentleman of straitened means had no very encouraging prospects, and the career chosen for the boy was, no doubt, dictated merely by convenience, though it was well enough suited to his talents and temperament. Somewhat lacking, perhaps, in that cheerful heedlessness of danger and physical pain which is the happy heritage of the normal English boy—the outcome often of rude health and imperturbable nerves rather than of any properly moral endowment—a certain timidity and want of self-confidence in him were evidently fostered by the unsympathetic severity of a pedagogue whose theory of education was, a stick with a master at one end and a boy at the other. In due course he went up to the recent foundation of Jesus College, Cambridge, and was elected to a fellowship on taking his degree. Till his fortieth year he continued in these academic shades, and would have remained240 there peacefully enough to his life’s end if an accident had not brought him under the notice of Henry VIII.

Colet and others, some years earlier, had introduced the new criticism into Oxford; while Cranmer was an undergraduate, Cambridge was still lagging behind. In 1511, however, the placid, not to say stagnant, waters were moved by the appointment of Erasmus to the Greek Chair. There is no record of any personal intercourse between Cranmer and the great scholar; but it was precisely at this time that the former withdrew his attention from the scholastic philosophy and theology which had hitherto absorbed him, and devoted himself to studying the Scriptures. In the University he seems to have been regarded as an undoubtedly learned scholar; for Wolsey, who as an educationist chose his men with judgment, offered him a canonry at his new “Cardinal College” at Oxford; but he was not looked upon as one who would seek preferment or be selected for it unsought, or as in any sense an intellectual leader. The only incident worth noting is that at the outset, being still a layman, he lost his fellowship by marrying a respectable young “gentlewoman,” a connexion of the landlord of a Cambridge hostelry. On her death, however, a year later, he was re-elected to his fellowship—apparently a unique instance in those times of such recognition—proceeding afterwards to take Holy Orders.

Now, in those early days, the intelligence and ability, not only of laymen, but of the greatest ecclesiastics were all on the side of the intellectual241 emancipation of which Erasmus was the apostle. Archbishop Warham was the scholar’s patron, Fox of Winchester was his warm admirer, Fisher of Rochester had given him his Cambridge appointment. From his disciples Wolsey chose the men for the great college which was his favourite scheme outside of pure politics. Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s, and Thomas More, were among his closest friends. No one of any account thought of receiving with anything but the warmest welcome his edition of the Greek Testament and the Utopia of More, which appeared about the same time. Then a somewhat startling event occurred. The Pope wanted money; he sent out commissioners to obtain it by the sale of indulgences; and a monk at Wittenberg rose up and publicly denounced the whole scheme. At first, the meaning of the portent was not fully appreciated; but before long the denunciation of indulgences developed into a challenge of the entire Papal system, of the pretensions of the Popes, and of sundry accepted dogmas. Reformation by the influence of sweetness and light was by no means the same thing as this volcanic revolution. The men who had done so much to make the new movement possible became eager to repress it. The English king plunged into theological controversy, triumphantly vindicating the Papacy and pulverising the monk of Wittenberg.

Before many years had passed, however, Henry found reason to modify his views, as More had warned him he might do. Papal pretensions stood in the way of royal designs, and that fact brought it home242 to him that those pretensions were not based upon a rock. The Bishop of Rome was also a European potentate subject to political pressure from other potentates—a political factor with a spiritual sanction. If the spiritual sanction were challenged, the political situation would be simplified. The king’s authority in his own dominions would no longer be trammeled by the claims of a foreign authority to over-ride it. When a collision between the royal and the Papal authority became imminent, it was time to be rid of the Papacy for good and all. That, of course, was quite a different thing from admitting heretical dogmas or denials of dogma.

The occasion was the divorceC of Katharine of Aragon. If the Pope had been amenable in that matter, Henry would in all likelihood have left the Papal authority where he found it. But Clement, terrorised by the Emperor, was not amenable—despite the efforts of Wolsey. The collapse of the legatine trial ruined Wolsey and decided the king on a campaign with the object of establishing the Crown as the sole head of the Spirituality; involving the withdrawal or repudiation of the Papal claims and the formal subjection of the clergy in England.

C This customary term for the proceedings has been used throughout. But it may be necessary to note that a “decree of nullity”—the thing sought—is not properly speaking a “divorce” at all. Nullity means that no marriage had in fact been contracted; divorce, that a marriage which had been contracted is dissolved.

The trial had just collapsed. Henry in dudgeon retired to Waltham. Two of his suite, his almoner Fox and his secretary Stephen Gardiner, took up their243 quarters with a Mr. Cressy, in whose house Dr. Cranmer happened to be residing, as the son’s tutor. Gardiner and Fox, being also respectively Provost and Master of King’s and Trinity Hall, were acquainted with Cranmer; and together they naturally discussed what was known as “the king’s affair.” In the course of conversation Cranmer expressed himself to the effect that Henry could do without the Papal decision. He could obtain from the universities of Europe the opinion of the qualified divines on the question whether a Papal dispensation for a marriage with a deceased brother’s widow was ultra vires; and take corresponding action on his own responsibility when he learnt the result. The English courts, in short, were competent to pronounce the marriage null or valid, but the position would be made impregnable if they had the expert opinion of Europe to go upon. The conversation was reported to Henry, who caught at the scheme and summoned its deviser to talk to him. Their interview terminated Cranmer’s hitherto undisturbed prospect of passing his days in peaceful and learned seclusion; such an instrument as this was not to be wasted. Unscrupulous loyalty Henry knew by experience he could command; servants of the type which provided it could be used till the last ounce of service had been extracted from them, and then cast aside. But Henry wanted a man of undeniable learning, unblemished character, a tender conscience, a convenient theory of Church and State, and a certain impressibility. The combination was not easily found—but he had found it.



The common animosity towards Cranmer of those who hold “high” doctrines on the function of the priesthood is entirely intelligible. For them, the divine revelation is entrusted to the Church, and the voice of the Church is the voice of her priesthood. Its authority is absolute, and secular powers seeking to control it are laying profane hands on the Ark of the Covenant. That laymen should not humbly recognise that august claim is deplorable; still, for laymen some excuse may be found. But that a priest should not merely disavow it in words, but emphasise the disavowal by his acts, aiding and abetting the desecration as well as justifying it, is intolerable. When, moreover, that priest is himself, as it were, the shepherd of the whole flock, whose position demands that he above all others should be the guardian and champion of the Church’s rights, he becomes a double-dyed traitor. Palpably guilty of so heinous a crime, the presumption in favour of the truth of any minor charges against him is so strong that it is hardly necessary to examine them: they may almost be taken for granted.

If, indeed, it be unpardonable to believe that the State is supreme, there can be no pardon for Cranmer. But if once it be admitted that a man is not of necessity a moral reprobate for holding that view, and that it is possible, even for a priest, to maintain it with entire honesty and sincerity, the whole fabric245 of Cranmer’s condemnation collapses. To Cranmer, the State meant the king, and in the king he found an authority more divine—more definitely, that is, of divine sanction—than in any other of the powers that be. When in Queen Mary’s reign he found the royal authority in flat opposition to what he held to be truth, no doubt a very painful and puzzling dilemma presented itself; but the same dilemma is presented to every individual who, having recognised some external authority as final, suddenly discovers that the dictates of that authority and those of his own conscience are in flat contradiction.

Cranmer, in short, was as complete and convinced an Erastian as any layman could possibly have been. It was the clear perception of that fact which primarily made Henry select him as Archbishop Warham’s successor. A frankly Erastian archbishop was an anomaly, but it is not necessary ipso facto to condemn him as a criminal and a hypocrite, or even as a time-server.

Cranmer, like a good many other people, was thoroughly convinced that, though the marriage with Katharine had been effected in perfect good faith, it was invalid in the nature of things, and could not be made valid by any sort of ecclesiastical sanction, Papal or other. The king set him to work to formulate a plea for nullity, and placed him under the immediate influence of the Boleyn household, where the simple man very readily learnt to form the highest opinion of the lady whom the king had determined to make a queen. Then he was sent with Anne’s father on a futile embassy to Bologna; and246 not long after his return he was again despatched as an enemy to Germany, where he made many friends but did not succeed in gaining many converts to his view on the divorce question. There also he took the extremely uncanonical step of marrying; but it must be remembered that while such marriages among the secular clergy were not recognised by the law, they were not regarded as offences against morality, and were by no means infrequent; while in Germany itself they had become, or were becoming, the rule rather than the exception. Cranmer was still in Germany when he received the unexpected and most unwelcome summons to return to England and take upon himself the ungrateful honour of the archbishopric.

In the meantime Henry’s “Reformation” parliament had been at work; the campaign against the Pope and the clerical organisation was in full swing: and Convocation, under the aged Warham, had been compelled to affirm the royal supremacy. The “submission of the clergy” had become an accomplished fact in Cranmer’s absence, and before he held any position of high authority. The most stubborn of the bishops were unable to resist the pressure of the Crown. They bowed to the logic of facts, under protest and against their convictions, without being condemned as subservient. Cranmer is called subservient mainly because his convictions were on the king’s side.

It was always more agreeable to Henry to employ on any job he had in hand men to whom that particular job was not distasteful. Thus, knowing247 Sir Thomas More’s sentiments as to the divorce, he had given the new Chancellor no business in connexion with it. It is not likely that any of the bishops at this time, with the exception of Fisher, would have felt strongly as to a breach with Rome—Gardiner and Stokesly were both advocates of the divorce. But it was more convenient to have an archbishop as to whose sentiments there was no manner of doubt. It is not impossible that Gardiner, not Cranmer, would have been chosen, if his attitude in regard to the “Supplication against the Ordinaries” and the “Submission” of Convocation had not made Henry scent in him a possible Becket. The Bishop of Winchester’s services had been of considerable value; and if Cranmer’s appointment stirred his jealousy, he can hardly be blamed. But it is scarcely to be doubted that a personal antagonism to the rival, for whose first preferment to Henry’s notice he had himself been in part responsible and by whom he now found himself superseded, exercised a marked influence on Gardiner’s attitude from this time.

Cranmer, summoned home, delayed on the way as much as he dared—in the hope, it is said, that the king might be persuaded to change his mind and make another selection. However, he arrived in January; Henry—for his own ends—put pressure on the Pope to hasten the necessary bulls, and the new Archbishop was consecrated on March 30 (1533). An oath of obedience to the Pope was a necessary part of the ceremony. Such oaths are commonly regarded as mere formalities, binding precisely so long as it248 is convenient to recognise them. Cranmer, however, being very well aware that whosoever became archbishop would very soon find it necessary to ignore the oath or else to defy the king, was at pains to announce beforehand that he only intended to respect the oath so far as it consorted with obedience to the king—a declaration which has been rather oddly condemned as hypocritical. Oaths and promisesD made purely pro forma are a not very excusable institution, but the open profession that they are made pro forma only makes such hypocrisy as is involved less, not greater.

D How many godparents or brides, for instance, regard the formal promises they make in the face of the congregation as imposing a real and literal obligation?


The first business before Cranmer was to finish off the affair of the divorce. Henry had already—whether in the previous November or January—been privately married to Anne Boleyn. On the theory that the marriage with Katharine was void ab initio, there was never any bar to another marriage, though it was hardly possible to announce one until the nullity had been formally declared: so that any further delay was certain to cause a public scandal—since it was now April, and Elizabeth was born in the following September. Convocation had already pronounced in favour of Henry’s view; and if Cranmer249 was somewhat anxious to evade possible obstructions, it was only because the decision of the court was by this time a foregone conclusion.

For the destruction of More and Fisher (1534–1535) Cranmer was in no sort of way responsible. He was on the Commission which had to administer the Oath of Supremacy, which the two recalcitrants declined, but it was not he who prescribed the form of the oath, nor had he anything to say to the penalties. All he did do was to urge the king to accept as sufficient a form of the oath to which Fisher and More were both prepared to subscribe.

Something more is usually made of the Archbishop’s conduct at the time of Anne Boleyn’s fall, as an instance of the subserviency which is imputed to him. It is argued that officially at Henry’s bidding he condemned the unhappy lady, while personally convinced of her innocence. The whole story is enveloped in an obscurity which makes that impression a natural one; nevertheless, the most probable explanation of the circumstances is one which fairly exonerates the Archbishop.

Henry had sought to have the nullity of the marriage with Katharine established ostensibly for two main reasons. The first was the fruit of conscience, that the union, though sanctioned by the Pope, was against the moral law. The second was a reason of State, that a male heir to the throne with an indisputable title was a necessity, and therefore the king must be provided with another wife than Katharine. The other wife he had chosen was Anne Boleyn, but she had failed to do what was expected of her. Like her predecessor, she250 had borne a daughter, and had two miscarriages Henry was tired of her, and was attracted to another lady whose virtue was impregnable; therefore he wanted to be rid of her in turn. Charges of treason on the ground of post-nuptial immorality were brought against her, and on these she was condemned by a court of peers composed in great part of those who would have been readiest to welcome her acquittal. Here, we have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the allegations; Cranmer was not one of the judges, and had nothing whatever to do with the trial. But Anne had from the first shown him the best side of her character, and he had a perfect conviction that she was a good woman. He could not influence the court; he had nothing which could be called evidence in her favour to bring forward. The king’s wishes were obvious. Yet Cranmer took the somewhat bold step of addressing the king, pleading earnestly and even passionately on her behalf—though vainly.

But, for reasons best known to himself, Henry was not satisfied with a condemnation for treason: he also required a divorce—or, to express it more correctly, a declaration that the marriage, like that with Katharine, had been void from the beginning. How could Cranmer, who had officially declared it valid, now make any such pronouncement? The answer is, that the technical ground on which it was voided had not previously been taken into account. The story of a pre-contract with Northumberland need not count for much, though for the avoidance of scandal it was put in the forefront. The charges on which Anne was condemned to251 death, while effective for proper divorce proceedings, were irrelevant to the question of nullity. The real ground was that at an earlier stage Henry had illicit relations with Anne’s elder sister, Mary, thereby technically creating affinity with Anne, and rendering the marriage with her void by canon law. How far Cranmer knew or suspected this unofficially, when he declared the marriage valid, is a matter of doubt—which is not set at rest by his pamphlet in favour of the divorce. But, being now officially informed of it, he could not maintain the technical validity of the marriage any longer. His view of the importance of merely canonical prohibitions is illustrated by his own uncanonical marriage. Even if he knew of the “affinity” he would probably have accounted it no moral bar to a union. But, knowing it, he could not deny that it made the marriage technically invalid. It is, perhaps, worth noting that his plea for Anne’s life contains a reference to Henry’s own morals, which may very well have been a reminder that it was the king’s sin, not Anne’s, which had placed her in a false position. As for her actual guilt or innocence under the other accusations, the Primate could not protest against the king or the judges being persuaded by the evidence, but he could, and did, declare that, not having the evidence before him, he could not bring himself to believe that the charges were true: but that did not touch the question of nullity. Whoever deserved blame over the affair, Cranmer did not.

Some years later Thomas Cromwell was struck down by his master. His government had been252 in many respects a reign of terror. The populace had no affection for him; the nobles hated him: the new men, even those he had made, feared him; the king’s wrath was kindled against him. The downfall of Wolsey had not been more universally acceptable. But there was one man who lifted up his voice to plead for the fallen minister—Thomas Cranmer, the time-server. As in the case of Anne Boleyn, it was impossible for him to take up the cudgels in defence of the man who had been less dangerous, perhaps, to him than to most others—dangerous he was to every one, for he spared neither friend nor foe—but who else would have dared, or ever did dare, to appeal to Henry in the day of his wrath?

It was not Cranmer who directed the course of the Reformation under Henry. The breach with Rome in all its completeness was devised and carried out without aid from him, unless the suggestion of taking the opinion of the Universities on the divorce is to be counted as aid. Before the king had ever heard of Cranmer, Gardiner had told Clement in plain terms that if he refused to entertain the English king’s wishes England would repudiate his jurisdiction altogether. The great majority of the bishops were no friends to the Papal claims, though some of them would have taken a different line if they had not been too late in discovering that the king meant to impose his own yoke instead of the Pope’s: and the same thing might be said of Convocation generally. Gardiner and Stokesley, the most persistent of Cranmer’s antagonists, had been foremost in supporting the king against the253 Pope. The clergy had writhed and resisted when the attack was turned against themselves by the “Supplication against the Ordinaries,” but they had been forced to surrender and make their “Submission” while Warham was still Archbishop and Cranmer was engaged in other matters. Even after he became Primate Cranmer had no actual hand or voice in the great despoiling measures which accompanied the dissolution of the monasteries; while the downfall of the monastic system in itself was probably not unwelcome to the bulk of the secular clergy, between whom and the regulars there was constant friction and jealousy.

In this connexion, however, while Cranmer, like Gardiner and the rest, neither aided nor hindered Cromwell’s work, it ought to stand to his eternal credit that he was almost alone in protesting, not against the spoliation itself—practically no one seems to have ventured to do that—but against the misuse of the wealth which thus changed hands. He wrote to Cromwell emphatically expressing his grief and disappointment that those funds were not appropriated to education—still accounted one of the primary functions of the Church. Had the course which he urged been followed there would have been little possibility of saying that the Church was robbed. But Cromwell and his master had other uses for the spoils. It is remarkable, too, that when educational establishments were endowed Cranmer made a vigorous stand on behalf of humble scholars against those who would have confined their benefits to the sons of the well-to-do.

So far, however, as concerned matters of doctrine254 and practice the Archbishop exercised some influence. His sojourn in Germany had not made him a Lutheran, but it had inclined him to give favourable consideration to the opinions of sober reformers on the Continent. Viewing the Papacy as the enemy, he was always sanguine of the possibility that a common standard of doctrine might be formulated in consultation with the Protestant leaders; and such an agreement was a pet project of his, the theological counterpart of Cromwell’s political league with the Lutherans. Henry, however, looked askance on both schemes, and the Archbishop’s efforts were doomed to disappointment.

Anxious as Cranmer was for a union of the opponents of Papacy, there were many disputable points on which his own judgment had not crystallised. In the matter, however, on which he really laid most stress he got his way. An English Bible which all men might read was the desire of his heart, and that was the one innovation of first-rate importance to which Henry acceded. The first Convocation over which he presided petitioned for a commission to prepare such a volume, and the petition was granted. The Commission itself was ineffective enough; some of the members, like Stokesley, desired only to obstruct the work as far as in them lay. But the principle was conceded, and the Commission was made superfluous by the appearance of Coverdale’s and “Matthew’s” versions. There is no doubt at all that the main credit is due to Cranmer, though his efforts would have been vain enough without the powerful support255 of Cromwell. A kindred concession to Cranmer’s enthusiasm for the English language was the authorisation, in Henry’s later years, of an English Litany.

When John Frith affirmed the proposition that a correct belief on the subject of the Eucharist could not be essential to salvation, there were few, if any, of his contemporaries who did not regard him as an anarchist in religion. But the subject of the Eucharist was only one among many as to which men were in a state of great uncertainty concerning the belief which should be regarded as correct. A standard was wanted; it might be rigid, or it might be elastic. Given a standard fixed by authority, no one was prepared as yet to admit that the individual was at liberty to set up a different standard for himself: no one doubted that the lack of an authoritative standard was an evil. Hence arose the efforts in Henry’s reign to evolve acceptable formularies, which should define what must be acknowledged as true doctrines.

In the devising of these Cranmer, as well as many others, had his share. They did not express the views of any one man—unless it were the king—or any one party. They were three in number: first, the “Ten Articles” for “establishing Christian quietness”; then the “Institution of a Christian Man,” commonly called the Bishop’s Book; and some years later the “Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of a Christian Man,” known as the King’s Book. Between the first and the last there is no definite change of doctrinal attitude. None of the three breaks away from256 received opinion; they differ mainly in the precision with which certain points are insisted upon. Thus, in the first, the doctrine of the Real Presence is affirmed, but not explicitly in the form of Transubstantiation. The movement is rather towards rigidity. Cranmer and some of his colleagues made tentative suggestions in favour of admitting more advanced views, which were not approved, and in the case of the King’s Book, it is clear that the opposing party hoped to get something of a much more decisively reactionary character.

Cranmer was a long way from being an Anselm, a Becket, or a Langton. But on the whole, taking together the history of those three formularies, and adding that of the Six Articles Act, which intervened, the surprising thing about him is not his subserviency, but the persistency with which he defended his own views. The “Whip with Six Strings” was a tightening of the bonds which came upon the advanced party with a startling shock. Cranmer fought the Bill in Parliament, and he fought some of its positions in convocation after the king’s mind was very well known. By the king’s desire, he put his argument down in black-and-white for the royal perusal after the Act had become law—a manifestly dangerous step. When the “King’s Book” was in hand, he again fought, though unsuccessfully, for the admission of views which the Act condemned; and he told Henry with perfect candour that, although he obeyed the law as in duty bound, his opinion remained unaltered. Throughout all the discussions he criticised the royal suggestions and257 comments with an admirable frankness which none of his colleagues ventured to display.

The curious thing is that Cranmer was the one man who could say what he would to the king without arousing his anger, as Cromwell remarked to him with not unkindly envy: but he could not deflect the monarch from the path he chose by a single hair’s breadth. Twice after Cromwell’s fall the reactionaries fancied that they had the Archbishop fairly in the toils; both times they were brought up with a round turn by their master and his. The combination of ruthless force with great intellectual power in both Cromwell and Henry found by contrast a strange attraction in the Primate’s guilelessness. “Oh, Lord God,” exclaimed Henry on one occasion, “what fond simplicity have you, so to permit yourself to be imprisoned that every enemy of yours may take vantage against you.” They both chose to protect him against the enemies who certainly were not guileless; and bestowed on him an affection which was half-admiring and half-pitying; an affection returned by that which is often felt by a tender and pliant nature for a rugged and imperious one. When Cranmer felt impelled to remonstrate with their proceedings, he did so with trepidation; they ignored the remonstrances, but liked him none the worse. It might be said that he was the only man or woman of whom, being brought in frequent contact, Henry never fell foul. There was always warm respect in Henry’s fondness for him; and Henry was by no means the man to feel respect for a time-server.



The death of Henry was the beginning of a new era. Hitherto his personality had completely dominated the situation; effectively, he had become the most uncontrolled autocrat in Europe, in spite of a very careful preservation of traditional forms. But his successor on the throne was a nine-year-old boy, and there was no dominating personality to take the dead king’s place. If Henry’s scheme for the continuation of the government had been framed with a view to the maintenance of the status quo, it was a very complete failure.

Superficially, that would seem to have been the idea. The Council of Executors in whom power was vested by Henry’s will was a body in which the progressive and stationary or reactionary parties were both represented. The strength of the latter, however, suffered serious detriment in the closing weeks of Henry’s reign by the downfall of the Howards: while their ecclesiastical leader, Gardiner, was excluded from the Council, on which their principal representative among Churchmen was Tunstal of Durham, a man as mild as Cranmer himself. Within a week, the Earl of Hertford, now become Duke of Somerset, had secured the Protectorate in his own hands, and it became immediately and abundantly clear that the whole effective power was in the hands of the progressive party.

259 Now at this stage there were not many points of doctrine on which the leaders of the progressive party were committed to opinions fundamentally opposed to those received. Cranmer’s chief allies had not openly rejected even the doctrine of Transubstantiation, and certainly did not dispute the Real Presence: but they definitely favoured the administration of the cup to the laity; they held that it was lawful for priests to marry; and that auricular confession was not enjoined by Scripture. Cranmer had defended each of these views at the time of the Six Articles and of the King’s Book. They had been unsatisfied by the removal of “abused images” in the last reign, and desired an extension thereof. Cranmer’s own exposition of what he considered orthodox doctrine was contained in the Book of Homilies which he had prepared but had failed to persuade Henry to authorise: while the idea of a new uniform Book of Services had long been familiar and vaguely in favour. The men of the “Old Learning” did not fear the specific innovations as particularly dangerous per se; what they did fear was that the innovators would go a great deal further.

We remark, then, first, that under the régime of Somerset, the changes in religion were almost precisely what the Archbishop had advocated under Henry VIII. The Homilies were authorised; the destruction of “abused images” was renewed; the administration of the cup to the laity in the sacrament was enjoined, and the marriage of priests permitted—both on the petition of convocation; and the promulgation of a new Order of Service was almost260 of necessity attended by an “Act of Uniformity” compelling the clergy to adopt it. Equally as a matter of course, the Six Articles Act, against which Cranmer had fought at the outset, was repealed. The present writer has in the past been severely rebuked for attributing the form the Reformed Church in England took to Cranmer more than to any other single man. “He ought to know,” said the critics, “that Somerset was the man.” Yet repentance lags. Somerset was the politician who, up to a certain point, carried the Reformation through: at that point his influence on it ceased abruptly, and the business passed into Warwick’s hands. The point where this change took place coincided accurately with the completion of the series of reforms of which the Archbishop had for some years past avowedly been in favour. The inference that Somerset was guided by Cranmer is sufficiently obvious, though no doubt the hand was the Protector’s hand. The further advance after Somerset’s fall was mainly, or largely, the work of men of extreme views, whose zeal the Archbishop succeeded, to some extent, in restraining; his influence was still at work—no longer, however, as that of the artificer, but as that of the moderator.

Apparently, Cranmer and the Protector worked in complete harmony, save in the one matter of the chantries; but there is no sign at all that he took his cue from the Protector. The principles of Somerset’s reformation were his. Those principles, moreover, do not appear to have gone beyond what the most anti-Protestant of modern Anglicans accept. The statutory changes, however, were accompanied261 by proceedings of a regrettable character. In the attack on images, individuals were guilty of violence and irreverence, not to say sacrilege. Extravagant and inflammatory language was used in the pulpits. The treatment of the leaders of the Opposition was not altogether free from vindictiveness. For the first group, Cranmer was in no way responsible; Somerset was, because in some respects he set a bad example himself. For the second, the two were jointly responsible, since preaching was restricted to licensed persons, and the licences were issued only by the Protector and the Archbishop. For the third, Somerset was guiltless. The attacks on Gardiner and Bonner were made in his absence and supported by his colleague. But the mildest of men do not often view opportunities of retaliation with entire indifference. Gardiner had certainly done his best to ruin Cranmer under Henry; and by comparison at least the measures taken against him were mild enough.

Some consideration, however, must be given to the argument that the Protector’s government forced Protestantism hastily and prematurely on a reluctant nation. Whether the religion formulated in the first Prayer Book of Edward VI. can be legitimately called Protestantism at all may be left to the controversialists; but there is no manner of doubt that the methods attending the introduction of the Service Book were ill-judged and vexatious. On the other hand, the evidence that there was any strong opposition to the change itself lies mainly in the fact that the Western rising which immediately followed262 was professedly directed against it. Nevertheless, the mere fact that there was an almost simultaneous rising in the Eastern counties, which beyond all question was exclusively agrarian in character, suggests forcibly that the real moving force of the Western revolt also was agrarian. Ket’s supporters, significantly enough, held daily services, using the new Service Book: while one of the demands of the Cornishmen was for the restoration of the monastic lands—that is, of the monasteries as landlords in place of their rapacious supplanters. Clerical agitators would have found little difficulty in making the Westland rustics believe that half their troubles were due to the attacks on the Church in the past reign; and the identification of greedy landlords with the cause of ecclesiastical reform was at the worst colourable. Cranmer might condemn and Latimer might lash the landlords from the pulpit, Somerset might set up his Court of Requests; these things did not reach the remote districts. But there, men did see the spoilers of the Church enclosing commons, changing tillage into sheep-runs, and evicting small tenants. And they drew their conclusions. The Reformation would have had to wait half a century if it had been delayed till that argument was deprived of all force. But it may certainly be granted that the changes which preceded Somerset’s fall went quite as far as the country at large was prepared for.

It is rather curious to observe that Cranmer fairly lost his temper over the Cornish rebellion, and scolded the insurgents somewhat after the model263 set by Henry VIII. when he rated the Lincolnshire men a dozen years earlier.


Cranmer had no hand at all in the intrigue which overthrew the Protector. For a brief interval there was even some uncertainty whether the group who had captured the Government might not make terms with the Opposition, release Gardiner, and possibly take him into partnership. If Warwick ever had such an idea in his mind, he was far too acute to entertain it for long. Gardiner as a colleague would have been a very dangerous rival. The alternative was to assume the lead of the advanced wing of the progressive party. Warwick, who died professing himself a devout Catholic, had no difficulty in assimilating the jargon of the zealots, and convincing their honest enthusiasm that they might look upon him as a Joshua, while he doubled the part with that of Achan. To him, religion was not among the things that mattered; but religion might be made to serve its turn in forwarding his own ambitions.

Hitherto the Reformation in England had moved a good deal more closely along the lines laid down a hundred and fifty years before by Wiclif than on those of Luther or of Calvin; approximating more nearly to the Zurich school, though by no means identical with them. Zurich had proved more attractive264 to English refugees also. But now the abolition of the penal laws in England, and the dissatisfaction caused by the Augsburg Interim in Germany, brought into the country a number of foreigners, Lutheran and Calvinist as well as Zwinglian, including on the one hand Bucer and on the other John Knox—besides returning English refugees. Not a few of these foreign visitors were inspired with a lively missionary zeal, and the freedom of discussion permitted naturally caused debate and controversy to wax fast and furious. If the country in general found the concessions already made to the new learning somewhat larger than was quite to its taste, the followers of the new learning were very far from satisfied with them. And they were vocal exceedingly, if not precisely harmonious. It was very soon evident that the comprehensive ambiguity of the new Book of Common Prayer was in the eyes of the Reformers too liberal to the old Catholics and not sufficiently advanced for the new Protestants—controversy raging chiefly over two subjects, the first being the Eucharist, and the second Forms and Ceremonies.

Without attempting to examine the actual views on the former subject held at this time by Cranmer—as to which critics appear able to form very positive but very contradictory conclusions—it may be quite safely asserted that he had quite definitely given up all belief in Transubstantiation, but had not accepted the view most remote from it, that the service was purely commemorative. The varied range of intermediate views might be associated with either of these265 in a common Form of Service, but these extremes were evidently incompatible. One or other must be excluded. Cranmer, his right-hand man Ridley, and their associates, were all travelling towards the Zwinglian position, whether they ultimately reached it or not. If there was to be any more defining, it was the followers of the old learning who would be shut out thereby.

It was much the same with forms and ceremonies. The extreme men, whether they looked to Zurich or Geneva for guidance, regarded nearly everything in the way of vestments and ceremonial as the trappings of the Scarlet Woman. The Archbishop did not. Where these things did not directly imply the truth of specific doctrines definitely discarded—the sacrifice of the Mass, the worship of images, and the like—their preservation, in his view, tended to decency and reverence. Here, again, it was evident that any changes must tend to the exclusion of the rigid Catholics. They and the Calvinists could not travel in the same boat.

The result is to be seen in the second Prayer Book of Edward VI., in the new Ordinal, and in the Forty-two Articles which, with slight modification, became the Thirty-nine of Queen Elizabeth. Warwick—otherwise Northumberland—was with the extremists, who were vigorous and loud-voiced, and altogether exercised an amount of forcing-power quite disproportionate to the number of their adherents among the general public. If they had had their way, the re-modelling would have been on lines satisfactory to John Knox. Northumberland’s266 government would not have stood in the way. The Lutheranism of Germany and the Augsburg Confession was uncongenial. It was Cranmer, Ridley, and their adherents who succeeded in retaining for the Church of England a form to which she could mould herself, after the Marian régime, without returning to the Roman obedience or adopting the Scottish model. If that was a praiseworthy achievement, it is to Cranmer primarily that the praise is rightfully due.

That is what Cranmer did. From Somerset’s record, it may reasonably be inferred that it is very much what he would have endeavoured to do if he had remained in power. But he did not have the opportunity, because he was not in power, and Warwick cut his head off.

What Cranmer would have liked to do, beyond what he did, is another matter, and may be gathered from his proposed Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum—a document which shows that, Erastian though he was, he desired the clergy to have much ampler powers of jurisdiction than there was the faintest chance of the State delegating to them. It was an essay in constitution-making of a decidedly academic order: the machinery would never have worked. It does not reveal unsuspected qualities of constructive statesmanship; but it does not detract from the credit due to the manner in which the Archbishop managed to steer the ship through very stormy waters with a mutinous crew on board. The performance was not, perhaps, masterly; but it is not extravagant praise to call it meritorious.



Northumberland’s methods did not make him popular; but they made him powerful, and it was his primary object to place on the throne in succession to Edward some one who should be his own puppet. To this end he devoted himself in the last months of the young king’s life. By Henry VIII.’s will, the succession was fixed first on Mary, then on Elizabeth, then on the Greys—not Suffolk himself, but his wife Frances Brandon and their children. The accession of Mary could only mean destruction for Northumberland. He could not be sure of Elizabeth, who was now in her twentieth year. But he thought he could make quite sure of Lady Jane Grey, who was hardly more than a child and had been brought up under pronounced Protestant tutelage. His plan was to marry her to one of his own sons, induce Edward to assume the authority formally granted to his father and name her his heir—ostensibly, of course, on the ground that both his sisters had been declared illegitimate and those judgments had not been revoked—and trust to intrigue and force to secure her on the throne. Having won the king over, he succeeded in entangling several of the Council in the conspiracy; the rest were then worked upon individually to give their adherence. One after another did so, reluctantly, till all were drawn in save Hales—Cranmer being the last, and assenting only on the positive268 assurance that the Crown lawyers had guaranteed the constitutional validity of the instrument he was called upon to sign, and under direct personal pressure from the king. Northumberland, however, had completely miscalculated the forces at work. He knew that the very signatories of the document could not be relied on when out of his reach; but having them under his grip, he thought himself safe. But the country rallied to Mary; the troops deserted to her standard; the plot failed, ignominiously and utterly. Mary was hailed Queen; the arch-traitor was sent to the block; for the rest, only a few of those most conspicuously compromised were sent to the Tower.

It was, of course, obvious at the outset that Mary’s rule must mean the return to power of the party which had been in opposition under Somerset and more actively repressed under his successor. The daughter of Katharine of Aragon was a convinced adherent of the entire Roman position. That she would go so far as to restore the Roman obedience might have been a matter of doubt; but, short of that, she was not likely to allow limits to reaction. Gardiner and Bonner, Tunstal and Day and Heath, had all been imprisoned and deprived of their sees during the last four years; it was not likely that the advanced bishops would be allowed to retain their functions. And, beyond theological differences, some of them had been driven by the religious motive into open and vigorous support of Lady Jane Grey’s succession. Of Cranmer himself the most that could be said was that he was an assenting party; but269 Ridley, Bishop of London, had committed himself to the cause in somewhat inflammatory language.

Nevertheless, Mary was in no haste to strike. Every one who feared for his own skin was given time and opportunity to retire from the country—whereof not a few made haste to take advantage. Ridley was arrested; but Cranmer, Latimer, and others who stood their ground manfully, might have gone if they would. After all, no Catholics during the last reign had suffered anything worse than imprisonment, and Mary’s leniency towards the participators in the rebellion may well have given an impression that retaliation would not go beyond the infliction of corresponding penalties.

Cranmer, then, remained at large for a time. But a report was circulated that he was about to make submission, and had himself set up the Mass again. Had it not been for this, he might have hoped to be allowed to retire into obscurity; but the rumour stirred him to an indignant and uncompromising denial, which was promptly followed by his arrest for complicity in Northumberland’s plot. The Archbishop was by nature a sanguine man, but he can hardly have imagined that this protest of his would be allowed to pass; for it was practically a challenge to all and sundry who desired the Mass to be restored. No government of the time would have dreamed of ignoring the action of its author.

Even when he was safely in the Tower along with Ridley, the hopefulness of Cranmer’s temperament displayed itself. He had an incurable conviction that any one who listened to him was bound to270 recognise the entire reasonableness of his views; and from prison he petitioned Mary for leave to “open his mind” to her. That accomplished, he felt that he would have discharged his conscience and could retire from further controversy without reproach, even though he might fail to persuade his sovereign. The duty of conformity, in conduct at least, to the sovereign’s decrees, was, as already remarked, a cardinal belief with him.

The petition was not granted. Moreover, the reign of clemency was destined to very brief duration. Wyatt’s rebellion hardened the Queen, whose determination to marry Philip of Spain strengthened pari passu with her determination to be reconciled with Rome and to discharge her duty as a daughter of the Church by bringing her subjects back to the fold. Throughout 1554 signs accumulated, ominous of the coming storm. Whatever Mary’s original intent may have been, mercy to Cranmer must have ceased to be a part of it at an early stage; though, if she had definitely resolved on his destruction, it is difficult to find an adequate explanation of the extreme prolongation of his imprisonment.

In April 1554, the three who were most obnoxious to Mary and the reactionaries, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, were removed to Oxford, to play their part in a great disputation. All three held their ground stoutly. It was pronounced, of course, that all three had been completely refuted, and were manifest heretics; but being thereupon invited to recant, they all refused. Cranmer had been treated with considerable rudeness in the course of the271 debates; but the mildness and dignity of his bearing throughout were such that one of his chief antagonists, the Prolocutor, Dean Weston, thanked him openly for his admirable behaviour.

This condemnation, however, was of no practical account, since, in 1554, the penal laws against heresy were not yet re-enacted. On the other hand, to punish Cranmer for treason would be a palpable piece of pure vindictiveness. His treason, such as it was, had been shared by several of the men who were now on the Council. But the arrival of Pole and the formal reconciliation with Rome at the close of the year were accompanied by the revival of the statute de heretico comburendo, and the great persecution opened in February with the burning of Rogers. A twelvemonth more passed before the end came for Cranmer himself. It is perhaps, after all, a sufficient explanation of the delay that the Primate of England could only be condemned for heresy by the Pope. Other cases fell within the jurisdiction of the legatine or national ecclesiastical courts; his did not.

In September 1555, a Papal Commission sat in Oxford to examine the case of the Archbishop and report to Rome for the Pope to pass judgment. Cranmer refused to recognise the jurisdiction, but made a declaration in answer to the questions put to him as coming from the Queen’s Proctors, who were on the Commission. He maintained his views on the Sacrament, and on the Royal Supremacy, and on the usurpations of Rome; and justified his actions on all points in respect of which it had been impugned.272 The trial over, he followed up his defence by a vigorous address to the Queen, asserting the utter incompatibility of any sovereign authority with the Papal claims. On November 25 the Pope pronounced his excommunication. In the meantime Ridley and Latimer had been condemned by a court under the authority of the Legate, Cardinal Pole, on October 1, and on the 16th they suffered martyrdom—Cranmer, it is said, witnessing the scene from the roof of his prison.

Cranmer remained in prison, cut off from every sympathiser. It is easy to forget, but it should not be difficult to realise, the tremendous strain on a nature like his—sensitive, diffident, imaginative. All his life he had been surrounded and supported by the personal affection of friends. Now, every conceivable incentive to doubt whether he had been in the right after all was set to work on him simultaneously. Yet month followed month, and he remained steadfast—unless his expression of a desire to confer with Tunstal or Pole was a sign of weakening. Before he could be handed over to the secular arm, his ecclesiastical degradation was necessary. The sentence was carried out with every circumstance of public ignominy—Bonner, the principal performer, excelling himself in his coarse brutality. For a man with highstrung nerves, the thing must have been simply shattering.

At the ceremony (February 14) he had drawn from his sleeve an appeal from the Pope to a general council; and about this time he signed in close succession what are called four recantations. Two of them273 probably preceded the degradation; the other two Bonner extracted from him on February 15. None of them are recantations at all. They are submissions to the authority of the sovereign, to whom he had always taught that submission is due. He had obeyed his own conscience in contravention of his own theory hitherto; now, he returned to the theory, and owned that if the secular sovereign willed to establish Papal authority, obedience was still due. As to doctrine he recanted nothing. But this was not nearly enough for Mary and Pole, who were bent on extracting something which should altogether discredit the cause of the Reformation.

Within ten days the writ for his burning was issued. Then, before three more weeks had passed Cranmer broke down under the strain, writing first a full and complete recantation of every impugned doctrine, and then one more—dictated to him (March 18). No man ever repudiated his whole past in terms more ignominious. His enemies had what they wanted; if they had stopped there and pardoned him, the force of the blow would have been incalculable. But their thirst for his blood gave him the chance of salvation, changing their victory to hopeless rout. They did not pardon. They demanded from the victim the public confirmation from his own lips of the recantations he had written and signed. That one disastrous moment of weakness was to be gloriously redeemed.

Three days after his fall, on a morning of foul March weather, Cranmer was conveyed from his prison to listen himself to his own funeral discourse274 and then to play his own allotted part. No suspicion seems to have crossed the mind of his gaolers that there was anything for them to fear. The oration over—he had listened with frequent tears—he was bidden to make public avowal of his recantation. He arose; he confessed the grievousness of his sin, entreating pardon before the Throne of Omnipotence. And then he declared the nature of his sin. Before those about him could realise what was happening, he had recanted his recantation, declaring the truth of all he had before upheld, and proclaiming, “As my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished. For if I may come to the fire, it shall first be burned.” Hastily he was silenced, and hurried to the stake; but of his own will he moved so swiftly that the confessors could scarce keep pace with him. And when, indeed, he “came to the fire” he fulfilled his words. Men saw him thrust the offending right hand into the flame, and hold it there till it was consumed.

* * * * *

So tragically, so triumphantly, closed the drama of Cranmer’s life—surely a close fitted for “purging the passions through pity and fear.” A vase of fine porcelain whirled into the eddies in company with pots of brass and stoneware; a scholar, dragged from academic cloisters to control a revolution; a man with a receptive mind, when receptivity was about as dangerous a quality, for himself, as he could possess. A man whom men have ventured to call craven, yet who alone of his contemporaries dared275 to remonstrate with Cromwell in his policy and with the eighth Henry in the day of his wrath, and that not once, nor twice. A man who endured till the eleventh hour, and then—fell.

But a man who, ere the twelfth hour had struck, rose up the Victor.




William Cecil was born in 1520. He lived to the age of seventy-eight, dying in the same year as Philip II. of Spain, who was five years his junior. His political connexion began before Henry VIII. was in his grave; and for more than fifty years it continued, except for his retirement from the public eye during the complete period of the Marian persecution. Even in his old age, when his son Robert was already becoming, in his own crafty fashion, the most important person in Queen Elizabeth’s Council, the father was still the adviser on whom she leaned in the last resort. For forty years he was, in fact, the mainstay of her Government. For twenty of those years—roughly from 1569 to 1589—a man of even higher ability, in some respects, than himself, Francis Walsingham, was his loyal colleague. They served the cleverest, the most successful, and the most exasperating princess who ever sat upon a throne. Both of them—especially Walsingham—told her home-truths on occasion; both of them—especially Walsingham—she on occasion abused like a Billingsgate fish-wife. But all three were unfailingly280 loyal to each other; and among them they raised England to the forefront of the nations of Christendom.


From a Portrait by Marc Gheeraedts (?) in the National Portrait Gallery

To establish orderly government at home, to settle a religious modus vivendi, to avoid war, and to prevent the succession of Mary Stewart or any pronounced Catholic—these were the main aims on which Elizabeth and her two great ministers were united. Of the three, Walsingham—a Puritan—was the least devoted to the Peace policy, Elizabeth the most determined on that policy; yet it was Elizabeth who habitually endangered it. The Queen’s tortuous methods, pursued in defiance of her counsellors, more than once seemed to have brought her to a point where war was inevitable; yet time after time her ingenuity, or her lucky star, or a return just in time to Cecil’s guidance, saved the situation. Never has a sovereign been better served; never has there been a reign in which rulers and ruled worked in more essential concord. Idealism and common sense were united in the conduct of affairs with a completeness which has rarely, if ever, been paralleled—never have the toils of the men of counsel and the men of action been more effectively combined. And England was peculiarly fortunate in this—that the great antagonist whom finally she fought and overthrew could be thoroughly relied on always to miss the opportunity for which he was always waiting, always to move only when the moment had passed irrevocably. So England was the victor in the great duel; and the Stewarts found her might established on a basis so firm that even they were unable to pull it down.

281 That result was not due to any one mind—to any single guide. Elizabeth, her ministers, her seamen, and her people, all contributed their share; and the work was crowned by the glory of her poets. Burghley may not have been personally a statesman of the highest rank, though if he is not included in that category it is a little difficult to name any Englishman who is entitled to that honour. There is a certain commonplace, bourgeois touch about him; he stands for the common sense, not the idealist, side, in the combination which made England great. His virtues were those of the successful pursuers of the via media. He did not organise revolution: he did not dream of an empire on which the sun should never set. But he played the political game with unfailing loyalty to his sovereign and his country, with level-headed shrewdness, with imperturbable resolution. There are few men to whom England owes so much; and if there be those to whom she owes more, their deeds but for him would yet have been impossible.


In the reign of Henry VII., Richard Sitsilt, affirmed by tradition to be of an ancient Welsh family long established among the gentry of the Marches, owned broad acres in the counties of Monmouth and Herefordshire. One of his sons, David, who elected to modify his name into Cecil, transferred himself to282 Lincolnshire, where he prospered greatly. He and his son Richard became very large landed proprietors, and held a variety of offices connected with the Court under Henry VIII. So it would appear that the present Marquess of Salisbury is not unconnected by descent with the “Celtic fringe.” It must be admitted, however, that the notable qualities of his great ancestor are not those usually associated with what is supposed to be the Celtic temperament. Still in that connexion a rather curious point may be touched on. A critic has recently remarked that there is a type of statesmanship which we are in the habit of regarding as peculiarly English (à propos of l’Hôpital), naming in a brief list both Burghley and Cromwell—Oliver, apparently, not Thomas. Now Oliver was descended from the sister of Thomas, whose husband was a Welshman, and whose son chose to adopt the maternal patronymic instead of his father’s name, which was Williams. So Wales has some title to claim the Tudors, the Cecils, and the great Oliver among her contributions to “English” celebrities.

William Cecil was born in 1520, and when in due course he went to Cambridge, he became a member of a distinguished group of scholars which included Roger Ascham, afterwards tutor of Lady Jane Grey and of Elizabeth; John Cheke, who became the tutor of Edward VI., and whose sister was Cecil’s first wife; and Nicholas Bacon, who married the sister of Cecil’s second wife. William Cecil married Mary Cheke in 1541: she died in less than two years, after bearing him one son, Thomas, afterwards Lord283 Exeter. Nearly three years later he married Mildred, daughter of Sir Anthony Cooke, the “governor” of Prince Edward—a young lady of portentous learning, whose name Roger Ascham coupled with that of Jane Grey. Thus Cecil himself was not only well versed in the most progressive learning of his time, but his chosen associates, including both the first and the second wife, were all distinguished for erudition—and all, it may be remarked, tinged with the “New Learning” in the specific ecclesiastical sense of the term.

Before the death of Henry VIII. the young man was already the recipient of Court favour, and in the good graces of the Earl of Hertford, to whose personal service we find him definitely attached in the early days of the Protectorship. He accompanied the Protector on his Scottish invasion, was present at Pinkie, and was made Somerset’s secretary about a year later. His assiduity and his immense capacity for mastering laborious detail must have been of infinite value to his chief, whose woeful lack of practicality must, on the other hand, have intensified his secretary’s inborn tendency to rate common sense in method a long way higher than visionary idealism of aim. All his life long, nothing ever induced Cecil to deviate from safe precedent and respectable courses—bold enough, when his foresight satisfied him that boldness was the better part of prudence, but never rash. Every step was always carefully calculated, and a path for retreat kept open if there was the remotest risk of retreat being necessary. In the service of the most impulsive and sentimental of284 statesmen, he learnt—if he needed to learn—never to act upon sentiment or impulse.

When Somerset fell in 1549 Cecil was still some way short of thirty; but he had an old head on his young shoulders—and he had every intention of keeping it there. He had no personal devotion to Somerset or to his policy, and had carefully avoided quarrelling with anybody. When he perceived that the ship was scuttled, he had no compunction about making sure of leaving it in a decent and orderly manner before it sank. He did not quite desert; he remained with the Protector in the discharge of his duties, while very nearly every one else was making a parade of sympathy with the cabal who obviously held the winning cards; but he remained there in careful obscurity—the personal secretary, not the partisan. He did not escape a brief imprisonment in the Tower; no doubt he had counted on that. But Warwick was perfectly aware of his power of making himself useful, and saw no possible reason why he should not avail himself thereof—nor did Cecil. Competent officials were few, and of these some had already put themselves out of court, in Warwick’s eyes, either by having supported Somerset too boldly or by displaying doubtful religious leanings. The former secretary of Somerset had not made himself obnoxious in any quarter; and in the following September (1550) he emerged again into public life in a more responsible position than before, as Secretary of State.

The political waters were, to say the least, unquiet; there was no telling when squalls might be coming.285 Personal intrigues were rife. Cecil had no ambition to grasp the tiller under these conditions. He was ready to give advice to the best of his ability; he was ready to carry out instructions, whether they accorded with his advice or not; but he was not disposed to give orders on his own account—his ambition was not of the vaulting sort. His business was to keep his own footing, whether others did so or no; he would take no risks unless his own life were endangered by refusing them—every man must take care of himself. If Warwick chose to insist on a policy which the secretary disapproved—alliance with France abroad, or debasement of coinage at home—that was Warwick’s business, not the secretary’s: what he had to do was to carry out the policy imposed on him, with the maximum of efficiency and the minimum of friction, without allowing himself to be identified with the policy or with antagonism to it.

So when Warwick made up his mind that Somerset must be finally removed, it was Cecil’s cue to avoid, so far as he could, taking an active part in so ungracious a business as his old patron’s destruction—but certainly not to invite destruction for himself by injudicious partisanship. He did not scruple even to give Warwick information injurious to Somerset; though it was probably only because he knew it would reach that cunning schemer’s ears sooner or later—and when it came to a choice between profiting or suffering by the inevitable, he had no qualms about profiting. Still, he managed to be too much occupied with foreign negotiations to have much to do with286 the Somerset affair. As for the foreign negotiations themselves, he did not make any attempt to counteract the policy which, against his own judgment, he was called upon to carry out, but he was very seriously and not unsuccessfully engaged in minimising the untoward consequences which he foresaw.

As the young king’s death drew manifestly near, the intrigues of Northumberland, as Warwick had now become, thickened. Sir William—he had been knighted at the end of 1551—did not like intrigues; but in spite of seasonable illness, which may have been genuine, he could not altogether avoid being dragged in, and was obliged—like all the rest of the Council—to append his signature to the document nominating Lady Jane Grey heir to the throne. He averred afterwards that he signed only as a witness—a statement more ingenious than ingenuous. Still, he took care that there should be evidence from unofficial quarters that he would have avoided signing if he could, and that so far as he was formally a participator in Northumberland’s plot it was with no goodwill to its success—which, indeed, was the attitude of several other signatories, who did their best to upset the scheme the moment they felt safe in doing so. Cranmer, however, the most reluctant of any of them, had no such double-dealing in his mind, and made no attempt to evade the responsibility when he had once assumed it, though he had been tricked into acquiescence by a lie.

It is only fair, in judging Cecil’s conduct through these years, to remember that he was only in his twenty-seventh year when Somerset became Protector,287 and in his thirty-third year when Queen Mary succeeded. Warwick made him Secretary of State eight days before his thirtieth birthday. Of course, if the errors he committed had been errors of youth, he would have won easy forgiveness; yet in some respects his excessive caution may reasonably be attributed to his youth. He had every excuse for arguing that a real control must be out of his reach for many years, and that till it came within his reach he was not called upon to insist on his own views. In those days the servants of the State did not resign—the remark has been made before—they carried out the policy imposed on them from above. He was content, therefore, to bide his time, and for the present to do the political drudgery for Somerset or Northumberland, while he avoided committing himself personally to anybody or anything. This course was not one which permitted the exercise of generosity or magnanimity; it completely eschewed the idea of self-sacrifice; but it was a course which he could and did pursue without ever fairly laying himself open to the charge of treachery, or incurring the faintest suspicion of what is called corruption. If he was guided by considerations of personal advantage, it was not in the sense that any one could bid successfully for his support.

So when Northumberland’s plot collapsed ignominiously, Cecil, although a Protestant and officially opposed to Gardiner, had no difficulty in making his peace with the new Government. Only, the political seas being stormier than ever, he had no inclination either to head an Opposition or to take a prominent288 place among the queen’s ministers. He was too much of a Protestant for that, though not too much so to conform and “bow himself in the House of Rimmon.” In short, he courted an obscurity from which the Government had no desire to extract him—though it is probable that if he had chosen to offer himself as an instrument for Mary’s use, she would have availed herself of him readily enough. But it was one thing to pass from Somerset’s employ to Warwick’s, and another to pass from Northumberland’s to Mary’s. Besides, by keeping in the background now he could quietly establish himself in the confidence of the probable successor to the throne, the Princess Elizabeth. Being a member of the Parliament of 1556, he therein openly opposed sundry Government measures which were hotly resisted by the House of Commons, but even then he behaved with circumspection and did not suffer for his conduct. His real business was with Elizabeth; and when the crisis came, and Mary died, the members of the Council who hastened to Hatfield found Cecil already installed as her Prime Minister elect, with the scheme for carrying on the Government completely organised.


Sir William had bided his time, and that time had arrived. On the throne was a young woman of five-and-twenty, who had already shown a skill akin to289 Cecil’s own in the avoidance of fatally compromising words or acts under circumstances when the utmost wariness had been the constant condition of safety. She had maintained her Protestantism in precisely the same way and in very much the same degree as he had done; moreover, she was bound for her own sake to maintain it, since her personal claim to legitimate birth was bound up with the rejection of Papal authority. Cecil had received her confidence, it may be, in part, because she was aware that she could afford to indulge her own waywardness more freely while she had so eminently safe a counsellor as a stand-by. He, for his part, was doubtless fully satisfied that she had intelligence enough to recognise that he was indispensable to her, and that in the main their views of policy would harmonise. The young man had held aloof from intrigues and had declined all temptations to grasp at dangerous power, not from lack of ambition or of patriotism, but because the power would have been too dearly bought and its foundations too unstable. Now, while he was still in the prime of life, yet of ripe experience, power lay ready for him to grasp—power to guide England in the courses which he believed would serve her best interests; power to cure the evils from which she had been suffering for many a year past; power to avert those which menaced her in the future; power which, once achieved, he was not likely to lose unless by his own blundering. He knew his own capacity. To refuse power under such conditions would have been not caution but pusillanimity.

290 It may be that the account of Cecil’s public life during the reigns of Edward and Mary gives an impression merely that he was an exceedingly astute young man with no principles to speak of. If so, that view must be corrected. He valued himself on his own complete integrity, and would have done nothing which he recognised as inconsistent therewith. He had principles, but not enthusiasms. In politics, as in religion, he had his own opinions, but in both he admitted a very large body of adiaphora, things which were not questions of principle, though regarded as such by persons afflicted with enthusiasms. On all such matters, passive or even active conformity to the policy of de facto rulers was permissible. He was ready to go to Mass, but not to take a part in the suppression of Protestantism. He would assent to Northumberland’s plot, but he would not further it. His integrity drew a line—lower than a person of finer moral susceptibilities would have drawn it, but with sufficient firmness and decision, and higher than most of his more prominent contemporaries. He did not feel called upon to swim against a stream which would overwhelm him if he did so; but he made for a backwater. It is often difficult to judge when and where courage becomes rashness, and prudence cowardice. On the whole, he was more inclined to be too prudent than too bold; but it was not because he lacked courage. His conduct might on occasion, though rarely, be charged as disloyal; it could never fairly be called treacherous. He was convinced291 that as a general rule honesty is the best policy, and justice is the best policy; but in the exceptional cases where he thought they were not, he chose—the best policy. The principles of his mistress were the same; but she deviated from the mean of resolute caution more markedly and more erratically than her minister; she was more readily rash and more easily frightened; her criterion of justice was lax, and her sense of honesty very nearly non-existent.

There was this very important difference between the state of affairs on Queen Elizabeth’s accession and their position between 1546 and 1558. Hitherto a statesman, even if perfectly secure of power, would still have had a difficult course to steer; but security being wanting, the lack of it was the gravest of all the difficulties. The course of safety now was not less intricate; but, in spite of appearances, there was no longer the same risk of incalculable irregular forces wrecking the ship. To retain a useful illustration or analogy; it was one thing to be responsible for bringing the ship home “through billows and through gales,” and another to carry her through a narrow and devious channel infested with reefs and sandbanks, in fair weather. The pilot who judged that he knew every inch of the reefs and sandbanks might feel that the business was an anxious one; to the less discerning passenger, he would often seem to be heading his vessel straight for the rocks; but the pilot himself would not feel any fear of finding himself helpless. As long as he made no mistakes he would be292 safe; and if he made mistakes, it would be his own fault.

After the event, when the developments of a particular situation have taken place, it is always difficult to realise the aspect the situation itself presented to the statesman who had to deal with it. Still, the attempt has to be made.

Almost from time immemorial until the reign of Henry VIII. antagonism between England and France was traditional; through great part of that period, alliance between England and the House of Burgundy had also been traditional, being largely based on the immense importance of the commercial intercourse between the Low Countries and England. During Henry VIII.’s reign, Wolsey and the king had broken away from the theory of animosity to France, but neither of them had held the Burgundian friendship cheap, and popular sentiment had lost very little of its anti-Gallic flavour. Further, we are apt not to bear in mind that, for forty years past, Spain, Burgundy, and the Empire had been combined under one head; the importance of Burgundy as a factor in the relations with Charles escapes our attention. More or less unconsciously, we think almost exclusively of France and the Empire; as in the coming period we think almost exclusively of France and Spain.

Now in 1558 the dominions of Charles V. were divided between his brother who became Emperor and his son who was lord of Spain and Burgundy. Philip, not the Emperor, is the rival of the French monarchy. The old grounds for seeking friendship293 with Philip as lord of Burgundy remain. The new reasons for hostility to Philip as King of Spain have not yet developed. The reigning Pope had been elected by French influence. The Council of Trent had not yet defined permanently the line of cleavage between so-called Catholics and Protestants; Philip had not assumed the position of the Church’s champion and the scourge of heretics; his influence in England was understood to have been exerted, so far as it was exercised at all, in mitigation of persecution.

On the other hand, antagonism between French and English interests was acute. England, drawn into a French war in Mary’s reign, had just lost her last foothold on French soil—Calais, which she had held for three hundred years; and though the loss might not be of great political or strategical consequence, its importance was magnified by popular sentiment. But apart from this: the young Queen of Scots had married the French Dauphin, only in this same year; and as a mere question of legitimacy, there was no possible doubt that her title to the throne of England was very much better than that of Elizabeth, who had been declared illegitimate by the English Courts of Justice, which judgment had never been formally reversed. The natural outcome of this marriage would be to bind France and Scotland together in all and more than all the intimacy of that ancient alliance between them which for three centuries had been a thorn in the side of English kings. Beyond that, the future Queen of France and Scotland would have a very294 much more tenable claim to the throne of England than ever an English king had had to the throne of France. Moreover, there was a special danger threatening under the existing circumstances. Mary was half a Guise by birth; her Guise mother was now Regent in Scotland; she was almost wholly Guise by breeding. The presumption was enormous that the ascendency of that powerful and ambitious family in France and their influence in Scotland would become more dominant than ever; the Guises were strongly anti-English, and it was the head of that house who had just achieved the galling triumph at Calais; while the fanatical Catholics looked to them as their leaders. A more active animosity, therefore, towards Protestantism was to be anticipated from France than from Spain.

The Spanish Minister in England, naturally enough under these conditions, took it for granted that the countenance of Philip was what the new Government would most urgently need—that he would merely have to speak and his instructions would be humbly obeyed. To his extreme astonishment, he discovered that nothing was further from Cecil’s mind. Cecil and his mistress signified quite clearly that they would judge for themselves whether they would take his advice or not. At any rate, they were going to do a good many things entirely regardless of their being in flat opposition to his wishes. The Spaniard declared to his master that Queen and Minister were rushing headlong to destruction; but they were doing nothing of the kind.295 What Cecil saw was that Philip could not at any price afford to withdraw his countenance from Elizabeth; because the only alternative to Elizabeth was Mary Stewart, and in that case Mary would unite the crowns of France, England, and Scotland. If France moved against England to the danger of Elizabeth’s throne, Philip would have no choice but to interfere on behalf of the Queen—she need not buy support which he could not afford to withhold. He might call the tune, but she need not dance to it unless it suited her.

Within a short period, the French King, Henry II., was mortally injured in a tournament. The Dauphin succeeded, and his wife became Queen of France, as well as of Scotland. Then the situation was modified by the death of Francis and the accession of Charles IX. to the throne, and to power of the Queen-Mother, Catherine de Medici, and the middle party who came to be known by the title of the “Politiques.” With them the Guises were out of favour, and could no longer count on wielding the power of France to advance Mary’s interests; yet their popularity and strength in the country were still sufficient to keep the chance of their recovering their ascendency as a menace which Philip could not disregard. The change, in short, cut both ways: it was not quite so imperative for Philip that he should support Elizabeth, but then it was not so necessary for Elizabeth to have his support.

Thus throughout the first decade of the reign Cecil calculated with perfect accuracy that Philip would not attack Elizabeth, whatever she might296 do, because he could not risk the accession of Mary Stewart in her place; and that France would not make a direct attack, because that would compel the intervention of Philip. Hence he could go his own way safely in dealing both with domestic affairs and with the everlasting problem of Scotland. There was another matter, that of the Queen’s marriage, in which Cecil might judge and advise as he thought fit, but the Queen herself never had the slightest intention of following any but her own counsel, or of revealing even to her most trusted minister what that counsel might really be.


Now, as concerned domestic affairs, two matters were of first-rate importance. One was religion; the other finance.

It was evidently quite necessary that a definite religious settlement should be arrived at, and that it must be one in which there was a reasonable prospect of the majority of Englishmen concurring. There were fervent adherents of the Papacy as restored by Mary; these were not very numerous. There were fervent adherents of extreme Swiss doctrines, Calvinistic or Zwinglian; these were also few. There were many who, like Gardiner in early days, had no love for the Papacy, but clung to traditional doctrines and ritual; there297 were not quite so many who might be called perhaps moderately evangelical; there were a very great many more who troubled their heads very little one way or another, and were what we should describe as High or Low, pretty much according to their environment. The extreme reformers had very nearly but not quite succeeded in carrying the day during Northumberland’s ascendency; the extreme Catholics had just had their turn under Mary. The extremists on both sides were intolerant, and it was quite obvious that the triumph of either would drive many moderates into joining the other extreme, and would keep the country in a state of violent unrest, or, at the best, of sullen submission. The experiment of trying to maintain traditional doctrine and ritual with the minimum of modification, while repudiating the Roman authority, had been tried under Henry; and it was fairly clear that a simple return to Henry’s standards was impracticable. The course which Cecil laid down was to adopt a compromise in which the great majority could at any rate acquiesce; a compromise which, while insisting on conformity, allowed of a very considerable latitude of interpretation; which would still pass, in many quarters where it did not satisfy; which was in short politically adequate. Cecil himself would probably have had no quite insuperable objection either to attending Mass or to sitting at Communion; but a compromise which allowed of either course would also probably have found a less general acceptance than one which excluded both.

298 Hardly less important was the restoration of financial stability. Twelve years before, King Henry had left matters in sufficiently ill-plight. The Government could not, perhaps, be held responsible for the existence of severe agricultural depression; but, for its aggravation, the newly developed class of landlords was largely to blame, while no one but Somerset had attempted to hold them in check. In the general ferment, commercial honesty had been on the downgrade. Among financial officials, corruption had been rampant; and Henry set the example of one of the grossest forms of dishonesty by debasing the coinage, paying his debts, when he did pay them, in the debased coin. Hence in commercial circles credit was bad, while abroad the national credit was exceedingly low; and the national exchequer was almost empty. Through the last two reigns, matters had gone from bad to worse. Cecil took the finances in hand with solid systematic common sense. A rigid supervision of expenditure and stoppage of waste took the place of the prevailing laxity. Men of probity were employed by the Government as its financial agents. The debased coins were called in, and the new currency issued was of a standard which had never been surpassed. Loans were repaid with punctuality, and debts discharged. Almost at once, it followed that fresh loans could be raised at reasonable rates of interest, instead of at the ruinous charges which Edward and Mary had to pay; before long, it was hardly necessary to seek for them abroad—the merchants at home were299 ready and willing to come forward. Confidence was restored under a steady Government.

Cecil’s economy may have verged on parsimony, and his mistress was as sharp in money matters as her grandfather; hard things are always said of a Government which takes Peace and Retrenchment for its motto. But peace and retrenchment were a stern necessity, and in many respects the parsimony has been exaggerated; at any rate, the expenditure was thoroughly well directed. Later in the reign it would probably have been sound policy to spend more, particularly in Ireland, where efficiency was sacrificed to economy; but outside of Ireland the nation got good value for every penny of outlay. In finance, as in other matters, Cecil habitually followed the maxims of caution. Consistently with this attitude, we do not find him striking out new economic theories. He believed, as nearly every one believed three hundred years ago, that new industries had very little chance of being established without the artificial stimulus of monopolies and patents to prevent competition—a system which always appeals most convincingly to the monopolist, but less convincingly to the consumer and the would-be competitor, as Elizabeth found before the end of the reign. Whatever we may think of the methods adopted to foster and encourage trade and the development of new industries, Cecil is at least entitled to full credit for recognising that this was the direction in which the compensation and the remedy for agricultural depression were to be sought.

300 The subject of the secretary’s financial reforms has carried us on to a general account of principles which were only gradually illustrated in the progress of the reign. The third question which engaged his immediate activities on Elizabeth’s accession was the policy to be followed in dealing with Scotland.

Traditionally, Scotland was the friend of France and the enemy of England; from which it followed in a general way that Scottish malcontents habitually looked to England for open or secret countenance, and very commonly got it. To foster divisions in Scotland was one way of preventing her from becoming too actively dangerous a neighbour, and the plan had been very sedulously followed, especially throughout the reign of Henry VIII. The Scottish clerics since the days of Bruce had always been strongly anti-English, a term which was almost equivalent to Nationalist. Both James and David Beton had been especially hostile; while, during the progress of the Reformation, the Cardinal was a rigorous and cruel persecutor of heresy. Henry, with all his pride of orthodoxy, had no objection to heresy in the northern kingdom, where Protestant and mal-content were nearly synonymous. Had England devoted her attention simply to giving the Protestants such support as would have secured them a predominance conditional on the support being maintained, diplomacy might have achieved the union of the crowns by the marriage of King Edward to his cousin of Scotland; but Henry and Somerset between them, by the re-assertion of English sovereignty and by the appeal to arms, had301 roused in Protestants as well as Catholics the nationalist sentiment which would not endure subjection to England at any price. The child-queen had been carried off to France and betrothed to the Dauphin; and in the years that passed before the actual marriage the Catholics had held the mastery; Mary of Guise was regent, and her power was maintained by French support and French troops. Thus the Scots began to realise that there was a danger, when their own Queen should be Queen of France also, that Scotland might become an appendage of France. Scotland was no more willing to be subject to France than to be subject to England.

Thus it was again open to Cecil to adopt the policy, not of exercising a direct English domination, but of establishing a Protestant domination, which would in the nature of things be favourable to England and unfavourable to France—a policy which fitted in precisely with that of establishing a comprehensive Protestantism in England, to which he was committed on other counts. He could rely, as we have already noted, on the fact that Philip, however reluctant, would be compelled to check aggressive interference on the part of France, if carried beyond the limit at which England could cope with it unaided. This, therefore, was the keynote of his Scottish policy—to avoid the blunder of seeming to threaten Scotland’s independence, to maintain friendly relations with the Scottish Protestants, and to help them to a predominance which should yet depend for its security on the goodwill of England.

It was not till December 1560, that the death of302 Francis deprived Mary of the French crown. During these first two years of Elizabeth’s reign, Philip was kept in play partly by a pretence of negotiations for the Queen’s marriage to his kinsman the Austrian Archduke Charles; while the Scottish Protestants, or Lords of the Congregation, as their chiefs were called, were flattered by the idea of her marriage with James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, who then stood next in succession to the Scottish throne—a scheme of which the real motive was the possibility of dethroning Mary in his favour. But the real business was to get the French out of Scotland. Cecil at last manœuvred his mistress into sending armed assistance to the Lords of the Congregation; the French garrison was cooped up in Leith; in May 1560, Sir William went to Scotland himself to negotiate; in June Mary of Guise died, and in the beginning of July the Treaty of Edinburgh secured the Protestant ascendency in Scotland, and removed the French garrison for ever. Although Queen Mary refused to ratify the instrument, consistently declining formally to withdraw her claim to the throne of England unless she were equally formally recognised as heir presumptive, Cecil’s great object was achieved, in spite of Elizabeth’s vacillations.

Thirteen months later, Mary, an eighteen-year-old widow, landed in Scotland. During the seven troublous years she passed in that country, Cecil’s policy remained the same—to support Scottish Protestantism, to prevent Mary from making a marriage that would be dangerous to England. It is hardly necessary to say that the methods were never303 qualified by any touch of magnanimity—that the interests of England solely were considered, those of Scotland disregarded. How much of what went on, on the part of England, was Cecil’s doing and how much Elizabeth’s, cannot well be decided. They may or may not have intended the Darnley marriage to take place. They did encourage Moray’s revolt on that occasion, and then repudiate responsibility for it. They knew something—how much is uncertain—about the Rizzio murder, before it took place. Generally, we can be tolerably confident that Cecil, unfettered, would have given Moray a more stable support throughout than it pleased his mistress to permit. It was Elizabeth’s standing rule to object vehemently to being considered as having committed herself to anything by any words or acts in which she might have indulged.


Cecil had been successful in turning the French out of Scotland. He held steadily, and the queen held unsteadily, to the conviction that Spain would not move against England for two reasons—one, that the triumph of the Scots queen would be too advantageous to France; the other, that the existing commercial war with the Low Countries, while bad enough for English trade, was threatening to ruin Flanders, and could hardly fail to do so if any304 further burden were added. France, on the other hand, was not likely to be actively dangerous independently, so long as neither Catholics nor Huguenots could lay the opposing party prostrate. Nevertheless, Cecil had to be constantly on guard against the risk of a Catholic combination. If Mary placed herself under the ægis of Philip, and the Guises and their following got his active support in France—if he played to the French Catholics the part which England was playing to the Scottish Protestants—he might reckon himself free of the fear of French advancement. The thing was not a probability, but it was a chance against which England had to be on the watch. Every time, however, that a crisis of this kind threatened, or that a Spanish ambassador hinted that his master would feel himself driven into active antagonism, the Secretary refused to be frightened; direct threats always stiffened his mistress; and his calculation turned out correct.

At the bottom of Cecil’s whole system of foreign policy was the theory that Philip as Lord of Burgundy could not, for commercial reasons, afford to quarrel with England, and as King of Spain was tied by the danger of strengthening France. Spain, then, was not to be feared, but France might be; this, however, would be conditional on the Huguenots being decisively crushed—a consummation not desired by Catherine and the Politiques; but this, in turn, required that the French Huguenots should have enough support from England to maintain their power of resistance, if not their domination. As time went on, and the Protestant Netherlands305 found themselves in open armed resistance to Philip, it was in just the same way necessary for England to keep them from being crushed. Cecil saw the necessity of thus abetting the Protestants in Scotland, France, and the Netherlands; and, being a genuine Protestant if not an over-ardent one, did not dislike it. Elizabeth saw the necessity also, but as in each case the Protestants were subjects acting in opposition to the Government, she did dislike it, and lost no opportunity of making the support she gave as ungracious, as niggardly, and as precarious as she dared, while she perpetually kept up a sort of pretence to herself as well as to others that she was not really helping those whom she called rebels. Yet without the help that was wrung from her, it is doubtful whether in France, in the Netherlands, or even in Scotland, the issue of the struggles during her reign would not have been materially different.

Now Cecil’s ideal was one of sober and opulent respectability; he was not troubled with any notion that the Pope was the Scarlet Woman; he held generally to the view that subjects ought to conform to the religion prescribed by Government. But where the views which he himself held were not prescribed but proscribed, decency compelled sympathy with the sufferers. Besides, the suppression of Protestantism outside of England would inevitably mean its suppression in England also, in course of time. He was thoroughly satisfied that Protestantism was best for England, and thus, although he had no abstract interest in what might be good for other countries, for England’s sake he306 was satisfied that Protestantism must not be suppressed elsewhere. This was the mark up to which he had to keep the Queen—who, for her part, was quite aware that the security of her throne depended on her sustaining the part laid down for her. But Cecil’s minimum was her maximum, whereas his maximum—with which she would have nothing to do—was the minimum that would have satisfied her other great minister, Walsingham.

Elizabeth, we may put it, felt that Protestantism was a political necessity for her personal government. She did not feel strongly that it would still be a necessity for England when she should be in her grave. Cecil did; while for Walsingham it was a necessity per se. Therefore, to Elizabeth the settlement of the succession was a political counter of which she did not choose to be deprived; while to her ministers the delay of it was a perpetual nightmare, because it meant a constant fear of the accession of Mary Stewart—a prospect even more threatening after she had left Scotland than while she was a reigning queen. Herein is to be found one of the reasons why Elizabeth was not anxious to get rid of a prisoner round whom—dangerous though Mary might be—she could weave intrigues and negotiations as well as her opponents; whereas Cecil and Walsingham would always have been pleased to find any decent excuse for eliminating the Scots Queen from the situation. In the same way, the ministers wanted their own Queen to make a suitable marriage, whereas she herself used matrimonial negotiations merely as tricks for circumventing crises, and307 probably never at any time really intended to wed any one among the numerous suitors, of whom the last did not finally disappear till she was in her fiftieth year. There is no practical doubt that at one time, early in the reign, Cecil was himself so much perturbed on the question of the succession as to have made a move in co-operation with Nicholas Bacon to get Katharine Grey—sister of Lady Jane, and now married to Lord Hertford—recognised officially as heir presumptive in accordance with the terms of the will of Henry VIII.; for which he very nearly got into serious trouble. Also, it was many years before the Secretary really felt thoroughly free from the fear, which Elizabeth enjoyed holding in suspense over his head, that she might some day throw policy to the winds and court ruin by marrying Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester.


The year 1568 and those immediately following had a very material effect on the general situation. In the first place, the Queen of Scots delivered herself into Elizabeth’s hands, having already forfeited some of her chances of foreign support by her marriage with Bothwell. In the second place, the disaffected provinces of the Netherlands were driven into open revolt. Broadly speaking, it may be said that from this time forward Philip always308 wished to crush Elizabeth, while he would not involve himself in war with England until he could reckon on crushing her decisively. There was always the possibility of an Anglo-French combination, involving Huguenot predominance in France; and in that event the fleets of the two Powers would command his only line of communication with the Netherlands. So that on the one hand Spaniards are found, throughout Mary’s captivity, engaged in plot after plot for her liberation and enthronement in England; while on the other, Philip is obliged to swallow one affront after another, and to vary threats of utter destruction with elaborate efforts to placate the Queen of England. Cecil—Lord Burghley, as he became in 1571—was no less anxious to avoid war, but was also determined to go as far as might be, short of war, in support of the insurgent provinces; while steadily accumulating the evidence of Spanish complicity in Marian plots, to be produced as an effective answer to any complaints that England was abetting treason in the Netherlands, or her seamen committing acts of war in the Spanish Main or the West Indian Islands.

The Protestantism of the Government stiffened inevitably with the development of Catholic plots centring on Mary, the atrocities perpetrated by Alva in the Netherlands, the cruelties practised by the Spanish Inquisition on English sailors who fell into its hands, and the blundering Papal Bull of deposition—which, in fact, embarrassed Philip a good deal more than it injured the Queen of England. This singularly impolitic act of the Roman Pontiff,309 emphasising the direct antagonism, not to say the irreconcilability, of loyalty to the Throne and loyalty to the Church, sufficed in itself to bring all Catholics under suspicion of being at heart traitors—in the technical sense; pledged by their faith to desire, if not actively to compass, the overthrow of the reigning queen. Preceded, as it was, by the insurrection of the northern Catholic Earls in Mary’s favour, and followed by the Ridolfi conspiracy, it is difficult to perceive how the Queen’s government could have done otherwise than assume that to be a Catholic was to be disaffected. Nor is it possible to imagine that, after the appalling St. Bartholomew massacres of 1572, anti-Catholic sentiment in the country was not intensified to a white heat.

The people of England had a further grievance against Spain, inasmuch as she had taken possession of the wealth of the New World, and meant to keep it for herself—whereas the English desired a share. Throughout the later sixties and the seventies, English adventurers were engaged in making good their claims, in spite of nominal peace and law, by force of arms, raiding Spanish settlements or compelling local authorities to allow them to trade in defiance of all injunctions from headquarters. Technically, at least, these proceedings amounted to piracy, and if the Spaniards had been content to treat their perpetrators as pirates, it would have been extremely difficult to protest. Having an almost incontrovertible case, the Spaniards elected to put themselves in the wrong by punishing their prisoners—when they caught them—not as pirates310 but as heretics, gratuitously introducing the religious factor. Even in 1568 English sailors, under such captains as John Hawkins, had learnt to feel that ship for ship they were very much more than a match for Spanish galleons. Thus the most adventurous and most irrepressible class in the community was athirst to measure its strength with the Spaniard, and found no difficulty in convincing itself that to do so was a religious duty. The spirit of rivalry, greed of wealth, and sheer love of adventure, formed a sufficiently strong combination of motives; zeal against the persecutors of true religion gave them a colour which satisfied any but the most fastidious consciences.

Now, it will be easy to see from the foregoing paragraphs that already in 1568 enough had occurred to inflame popular feeling against Spain. There were the doings of the Spanish Inquisition in respect of English sailors. There was, amongst other grievances, the attack on John Hawkins at San Juan d’Ulloa. There was Alva’s tyranny in the Netherlands. In France, no one could tell whether Huguenots or Catholics were going to get the upper hand; but Philip was fully committed to the suppression of heresy within his own dominions, and outside them as well so far as it might lie in his power. During the next four years, every event of importance went to intensify the sentiment against Spain, to which, and not to France, the Ridolfi plot pointed as Mary’s ally. On the other hand, it was evident at once, when Elizabeth was able to detain in her own ports for her own use the treasure311 which was on its way up channel to help Alva, that for the time Philip was too heavily hampered to be able to turn his full strength against England; and as time went on it became increasingly clear that Spain could not, with the Netherlands revolt on her hands, contemplate an English war with equanimity. Even Saint Bartholomew did not divert the hostile sentiment in the direction of France, since still after the massacre it was difficult to say whether the French nation should be identified with the party of the perpetrators rather than with that of the victims.

At the lowest estimate, then, there was a mass of feeling in the country which could very easily have been fanned into a blaze of indignation, imperatively demanding open defiance of Spain, vigorous support of the Netherlands and of the Huguenots—in short, immediate war instead of the chance of war in the future. But the Queen and Burghley were determined to avoid war; and for nearly twenty years they succeeded. Burghley’s own primary conviction was that amity between Burgundy and England was of such enormous importance to both that considerations of policy would prevent Philip, as they had prevented his father, from being dragged into war by considerations of religious zeal. Protestantism—so much of it, at least, as was necessary—could be saved, probably without adopting heroic courses; and in any case, if a duel should ultimately prove inevitable, every year that it was deferred would tell in favour of England, which was daily growing in wealth, in stability, and in efficiency;312 and against Spain, which was constantly subjected to the exhausting strain of war in the Low Countries and war with the Turk.

Ultimate friendship with Spain, on the basis of immunity for unaggressive Protestantism, mutual toleration, and unfettered trade, was broadly the ideal for which Burghley worked; to achieve it, he was ready to bring to bear any amount of pressure which would not actually precipitate war. But it was part of the policy always to make sure that there was, at any rate, technical justification for everything done by the English Government. This technical correctness is particularly characteristic of the man. While Elizabeth herself and nearly every man in her court, were all shareholders, or in some degree interested, in the privateering expeditions of Drake and other captains, Burghley held himself rigidly aloof from them, and never made a penny of personal profit in that way. He had no moral qualms about seizing the Genoese treasure in 1568—that was merely an arrangement by which the bankers lent to England money which they had intended to lend to Spain; if it inconvenienced Spain, Spain should not have seized the English ships in her harbours. But when Drake came home after sailing round the world, with vast quantities of captured treasure in the Golden Hind, Burghley stigmatised the whole proceedings as piratical, declined any share of the spoil, and would have had it restored to Spain.

In this connection, the Lord Treasurer’sE aversion313 to these raiding expeditions was so strong that when Drake’s great voyage was in contemplation the utmost pains were taken to keep the matter out of his knowledge. But there were very few things that Burghley did not succeed in being aware of; and one of the gentleman-adventurers who sailed in that expedition, Thomas Doughty, was in personal communication with him before it started. This man was executed by Drake at Port St. Julian, in Patagonia—one of the grounds on which he was held guilty of treason towards the “General,” Drake, being that he had admittedly revealed as much as he knew to Burghley. The fact that inquiry into that execution was carefully shirked, while the recorded evidence is somewhat contradictory and inconclusive, has led to the formation of various surmises to the disfavour of Drake, of Burghley, of Doughty, or of the witnesses, according to the point of view of the critic. The most natural interpretation would seem to be that in the first place Drake and the sailors in general suspected gentleman-adventurers at large of being an objectionably insubordinate and troublesome element; and the General may very possibly have been injudicially ready to condemn one of them on insufficient evidence—evidence which satisfied him but did not amount to legal proof—and fancied that collusion with the antagonistic Lord Treasurer implied certainly ill-will and probably treachery to the commander. Applying those current rules of evidence which repeatedly sufficed to condemn men for treason at home, the case for executing Doughty was quite strong enough314 to act on, though exceedingly awkward to make public. It would show, of course, that the sailor was very suspicious of the designs of the statesman from whom the Queen wanted to have the thing concealed; it also suggests that Elizabeth liked to do behind the minister’s back, if she could manage it, the things which she knew he would disapprove. But it does not involve anything outrageous on Drake’s part, or any real discredit to the Lord Treasurer.

E Burghley was made Lord High Treasurer in 1572.

In fact, for a dozen years after Saint Bartholomew, while Burghley and the Queen had the same main object in view, though others of the Council were urgent in favour of her presenting herself openly as the champion of Protestantism, Burghley’s difficulties were mainly of Elizabeth’s creating. To all appearance, she was in a state of ceaseless vacillation—now on the verge of a shameful betrayal of Orange, now on the brink of a French marriage, now on the point of announcing her readiness to head a League of Protestants, now of allowing them to take their chance with the preposterous Alençon as their figure-head, while she stood aside, and anon dangling her matrimonial bait before that luckless and incapable prince as a preferable alternative. Burghley, Walsingham, all her advisers, were repeatedly driven almost to despair by her vagaries; none knew what her next twist would be—yet every twist that seemed to produce a fresh entanglement was followed by another which evaded it; and always as an open breach with Spain or a flagrant rupture with France seemed really a thing immediately inevitable,315 some happy accident appeared to save the situation once more.


It would seem, however, that the discovery of the Throgmorton conspiracy led Burghley in the beginning of 1584 to the conclusion that a bolder support should be given to the Netherlands, more especially as the Alençon farce was finished. In 1585, Elizabeth committed herself to the Hollanders, Drake went off on the Cartagena raid, and in 1586 Leicester was in the Low Countries in command of the English troops. Then came the Babington plot, the execution of the Queen of Scots after the New Year, the certainty of Philip’s preparations for the Armada, and the “singeing of the King of Spain’s beard” by Drake, which deferred the great invasion for a twelvemonth; finally the week-long battle with the Armada itself, ending in its destruction off Gravelines, and subsequent annihilation by the tempests. To the very last Elizabeth went on playing at negotiations with Parma, on lines involving the basest treachery to the Hollanders; to the entire satisfaction of Sir James Crofts whom she employed in the business, and who is known to have been in Philip’s pay. This, however, was merely one of her regular pieces of diplomatic play-acting; while Burghley kept his own counsel. The war-party lived on thorns; they did not know what to make of the316 trickery, whether it was genuine or a sham. Howard of Effingham, in fiery wrath, wrote—quoting an old byword—of the “long grey beard with a white head witless that to all the world would prove England heart-less,” i.e., cowardly. Still, though it would have been natural enough for them to suspect that the peace-loving Burghley was abetting the Queen, the probabilities are that Effingham was referring not to him but to Crofts. Retreat without dishonour was impossible; he certainly would not have advocated it seriously; and the elaborate farce which Elizabeth deliberately played was merely a piece of that eternally baffling and exasperating diplomacy of which she might be called the inventor and patentee—methods which Burghley always condemned, though probably his long experience of them had by this time taught him to see through them. From 1584 he recognised that events had forced his own peace-loving policy out of court, and that it could not be revived till the issue between England and Spain had been fought out. The completeness of England’s triumph when the combatants did crash together in mortal fray went far, at any rate, to justify the theory on which he had systematically acted that, if the fight must come, the longer it could be staved off the more decisively it would favour his own country.

The wild outburst of enthusiasm following on the defeat of the Armada very nearly delivered the future of England into the hands of the Protestant war-party, whose desire was to break the power of Spain to pieces; and through the winter Drake and317 Norreys were preparing for the Lisbon expedition which, as they planned it, would have been another very crushing blow to Philip. But the great victory had brought Burghley’s ideal back into the sphere of practical politics. That is, if English and Spaniards could be brought to see reason, or to act as if they saw reason, an entente might now be established securing religious toleration and the recognition of the old Constitution in the Netherlands, the old Burgundian alliance with its corollary of commercial privileges and legitimate trading with Spanish settlements all over the world, and the immunity of English sailors from the Inquisition. With Spain as an allied Power, whatever might come of the party strife in France, England would have nothing to fear. The aggressive sentiment in England was, indeed, too strong to be repressed; but though the present continuation of the war was inevitable, it might be so manipulated as to bring it home to the obstinate mind of Philip that peace on Burghley’s terms would be a very good bargain for him, without making a total wreck of the power of Spain.

Elizabeth, as usual, was at one with Burghley on the point, and with Burghley’s son Robert Cecil, who was now drawing to the front and making it possible for his father to transfer to him much of the burden of active work for which he was becoming unfitted by age. The main method by which the policy was given effect was by placing the conduct of the war as far as possible in the hands of that section of the war-party, headed by John Hawkins among the seamen and by Essex at Court, which318 thought more of booty than of Empire—which did not realise, with Drake and Raleigh, that the despoiling of treasure-fleets and the sacking of ports would accomplish very much less than the annihilation of fighting fleets and the establishment in the New World of rival English settlements. Thus, by the time Drake started for Lisbon, he found his hands so tied by restrictions as to what he was to do and what he was not to do that the expedition failed of its purpose. Drake was discredited in consequence, and for some years the war became a mere series of raids; conducted in force, indeed, and openly avowed and authorised by the Queen, but not in essence differing from the semi-piratical performances of the Drakes and Hawkinses when Spain and England were nominally at peace. Hence, in 1598, when Burghley and Philip both died within a few weeks of each other, Spain had been invariably defeated in every successive attempt to strike a blow at her rival; she had suffered a serious disaster at Cadiz; her treasure-ships had been repeatedly raided; her enemy, Henry of Navarre, had carried the day in France: but her hold on the New World remained, she was still an effective Power in Europe, and the fear of her was not yet dead, though England still held, and more than held, the priority she had won ten years before.



In foreign policy we have seen that, at any rate in the broader aspects of it, Burghley and Elizabeth were at one—that is, the Queen never departed so far from the path he laid down but that she could regain her footing thereon the moment a crisis arrived. That policy may be summed up as aiming at one issue—friendship with Spain on an equality—while preparing for the alternative, a fight for the mastery. The policy failed to achieve the preferable issue, but in its secondary aspect was completely successful. Burghley’s own methods were not of the heroic type; there was no glamour of chivalry and knight-errantry about them; they were untouched by magnanimity, generosity, moral enthusiasm; they were ruled by a devotion to law and order, to propriety, to sober respectability; they were entirely practical, unsympathetic; but they were essentially marked at least with the intention of strict justice and reasonableness.

The same characteristics present themselves in his domestic policy. In the religious settlement and in finance the course taken throughout the reign is along the broad lines laid down by him; the Queen permits herself to indulge in personal outbreaks, and sets the general scheme at naught in individual instances, but, if she flies off at a tangent, still manages to return before it is too late, before any general deflection has been brought about. And again the320 desire of essential practical justice is the predominating feature. Zeal for particular religious views, however sincere, must not be permitted to disturb public order; the decencies must be observed, but the decencies would allow of as much latitude as reasonable men could desire. If zeal went the length of harbouring and fostering persons whose doctrines might be interpreted as impugning the right of the Queen to sit on the throne of England, justice required that such zeal should be penalised; if, further, zeal propagated such doctrines actively, zeal became treason. So, when Parsons and Campion came over with their propaganda, the Catholic persecution which followed had Burghley’s entire approval; nonconformity, aggressive and abusive, he was quite ready to punish with severity, but when Archbishop Whitgift and his Court of High Commission set about hunting for nonconformity, Burghley was for restraining them though the Queen sympathised not with him but with them. A more sensitive and sympathetic imagination would often have been alive to the existence of real injustice where the Lord Treasurer failed to perceive it; but where he did perceive it he always endeavoured to moderate it, even though he might not set his face stubbornly against it. His gorge rose at the stories of atrocities perpetrated in Ireland which almost every one else seems to have taken as a matter of course. If the use of the rack met with his approval it was only in cases where he honestly believed that the ends of justice were thereby furthered; and though the practice had not been common in321 England, its prevalence elsewhere was so general that its increased employment involved no shock to the moral sense of contemporaries.

Burghley’s principles of political action, then, were quite remote from those of Machiavelli and Thomas Cromwell, according to which the slightest claim of political expediency outweighed the entire moral code, and ethical considerations were reduced at the best to a sentiment which under certain circumstances it might be expedient to humour. His principles were equally remote from those of Somerset, which ignored the fact that no ends, however noble, can be achieved by disregarding hard facts. He insisted on upholding a moral standard in policy, and maintained a moral standard in his personal political relations. Admitting the principle salus populi suprema lex, he allowed that supreme necessity might over-ride the moral law, but there were few of his contemporaries who were not very much readier than he to recognise such an exigency on slight provocation. On the other hand, while his personal standard was so high that even his bitterest foes among the Spanish ambassadors acknowledged it with abusive candour, his normal political standard was that of his times. We may, perhaps, express it by saying that he had an almost abnormally strong sense of political proprieties but a complete absence of moral fervour.

Intellectually, he lacked imagination, while no statesman was ever endowed with a more imperturbably shrewd common sense, which served as perpetual ballast to counteract the flightiness of his322 mistress. He worked as assiduously as Philip of Spain himself, but, unlike Philip, he knew when to trust other men, never misplacing his confidence—whereas Philip never trusted any other man an inch further than he could help. Burghley’s extreme caution was due, not to lack of courage or of self-confidence, but to a thorough distrust of all emotional impulses. He weighed, deliberated, decided on the merits of each case as it arose, with careful and safe judgment; but had none of those flashes of intuitive perception which have characterised the most triumphant types of political genius. He ruled, not by magnetism, but by tact. Among statesmen he was of the order of Walpole and Peel, not of Oliver Cromwell and Chatham. He was lacking in creative imagination; but he was, perhaps, the most thoroughly level-headed minister who has ever guided the destinies of England. He cannot be elevated into an object of hero-worship. But he was precisely the type of man of whom his country had most need at the helm in the second half of the sixteenth century; and he served her as perhaps no other man could have done, with unswerving patriotism, sturdy resolution, and infinite devotion to duty.




Of the many Englishmen, who, by loyal service to the nation in the reign of the Virgin Queen, deserved well of the State, there is perhaps not one whose claim stands higher than that of Walsingham. For twenty years, or near it, Elizabeth trusted him more completely than any of her council, except Burghley, relied on his ability and his fidelity to carry out every task of exceptional difficulty, profited by his devotion, his penetration, and his resourcefulness, rejected his advice on the cardinal question of policy till she was compelled by circumstances in some measure to adopt it, suffered him to ruin his fortunes in her service, and finally permitted him to die the poorest of all her Ministers. It was said, in the study of Burghley, that she was loyal to him; she was so, in the sense that nothing would induce her to part from him. Unlike many other princes, when she found a good servant, she never let him go from personal pique, or on account of differences; her loyalty was the loyalty of a very acute woman, but one wholly devoid of generosity. His loyalty she left to be its own reward.

326 Walsingham won his position by sheer force of ability and character; qualities in him which were probably discovered by the penetration of William Cecil, with whom he was always on the most cordial terms, although himself the advocate of a much bolder policy than was favoured by the cautious Lord Treasurer. None could say of Walsingham, as his enemies have said of Cecil, that he was in any degree a time-server; he was not only as incorruptible, but it could never be hinted that in affairs of State his line of action was deflected by a hair’s-breadth by any considerations of personal advantage or advancement. He indulged in none of those arts of courtiership which not only a Leicester, a Hatton, or an Essex, but even a Raleigh, took no shame in employing to extravagance. Not Knollys nor Hunsdon, her own outspoken kinsmen, could be more blunt and outspoken to their royal mistress than he. It would be difficult to find in the long roll of English statesmen one more resolutely disinterested, or one whose services, being admittedly so great, were rewarded so meagrely.


From an Engraving by G. Vertue, after the picture by Holbein, in the British Museum

There are diversities of conscientiousness. Henry VIII. referred most questions to his conscience, after he had made up his mind about the answer; and his conscience always endorsed his judgment. Cromwell ignored conscience altogether; with More, it overruled every other consideration. Burghley’s was tolerably active, but perhaps somewhat obtuse. Walsingham, if we read him aright, was as rigidly conscientious as More himself; but his moral327 standard requires to be understood before it can be appreciated. It was derived, not from the New Testament, but from the Old. It assumed that the Protestants were in the position of the ancient Hebrews; that they were the Chosen People, and their enemies, the enemies of the Lord of Sabaoth. It justified the spoiling of the Egyptians. It was sufficiently tempered to disapprove the extermination of the Canaanite, but it hardly condemned Ehud and Jael. Broadly speaking it applied different moral codes in dealing with the foes of the Faith and in other relations. Identifying the foes of the Faith with the enemies of the State, it authorised the use, in self-defence, of every weapon and every artifice employed on the other side. It was not with him as with those to whom the law serves for conscience; who will do with a light heart anything that the law permits, and shrink in horror from anything that it condemns. Nor did he act on the principle that the right must give way to the expedient. With him, conscience positively approved in one group of relations the adoption of practices which in other relations it would have sternly denounced. That type of conscience is absolutely genuine and sincere; but it permits actions which are, to say the least, censurable from a more enlightened point of view.



The records of Walsingham’s early years are somewhat scanty. An uncle was Lieutenant of the Tower during the latter part of the reign of Henry VIII.; of whom it is reported that when Anne Askew was on the rack, he refused to strain the torture to the point desired by Wriothesly. His father was a considerable landed proprietor at Chiselhurst, and filled sundry minor legal offices. He died in 1533, leaving several daughters and one son, Francis, an infant, born not earlier than 1530, and so ten years younger than William Cecil. Young Walsingham was up at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1548 to 1550, and entered Gray’s Inn in 1552.

Being of the advanced Reformation party, young Walsingham quitted the country on Mary’s accession, remained abroad during the five years of her rule, and returned when Elizabeth succeeded, to take his place in the House of Commons. His sojourn abroad emphasised his Protestantism; he utilised it also to acquire a very extensive knowledge of foreign affairs, though he omitted to make himself a master of the Spanish tongue. He does not appear to have taken prominent part in the affairs of Parliament when he came back to England; but he attracted Cecil’s notice, and was employed by the Secretary in procuring secret intelligence, of which the earliest definite record is a report of August 1568, giving a “descriptive list of suspicious329 persons arriving in Italy during the space of three months,” obtained from “Franchiotto the Italian.” On November 20 of the same year, he writes to Cecil to say that, if the evidence of Mary’s complicity in Darnley’s murder is insufficient, “my friend is able to discover certain that should have been employed in the said murder, who are here to be produced.” Incidentally, it may be remarked that this, of course, means no more than that Walsingham knew where to lay his hand on some one who professed to have information; which Mr. Froude renders by a phrase implying that he actually had information, known to be valuable, ready to be brought forward. What it really shows is, that Walsingham was engaged in looking out for anything which offered a chance of being turned to account.

In the autumn of the following year, just before the rising of the northern earls, when it was practically certain that some kind of Catholic plot was afoot and that the Spanish ambassador, Don Guerau de Espes was mixed up in it, circumstances brought the Florentine banker Ridolfi under suspicion. The position to which Walsingham was now attaining is shown by the Italian being assigned to his surveillance—with the result that Ridolfi’s house and papers were thoroughly searched without his knowledge, but also without the discovery of anything incriminating. Whether honestly or with the object of deceiving him, Ridolfi was thereupon treated as if no vestige of suspicion attached to him. In the modern phrase, it was an integral part of Walsingham’s330 system in dealing with persons on whom he expected to pounce when his own time came, to give them every inch of rope he could afford: but a year later Walsingham wrote about the man to Cecil in terms which imply that the belief in his honesty was genuine. When the whole of the Ridolfi plot was revealed in 1571, Walsingham was in France. The secret service was Cecil’s creation, not Walsingham’s, though doubtless the latter had a considerable share in organising it, and a little later became mainly responsible for controlling it. Valuable as he was already rendering himself, he only emerges definitely into the front rank on his appointment as a special envoy to the French Court in August 1570; followed immediately thereafter by his selection for the post of Ambassador Resident.

The situation at this time was exceedingly critical. At home, the northern insurrection had just been suppressed, Norfolk and others of the peers were very much subjects of suspicion, and the Papal Bull of deposition had increased the sense of nervousness. The Spanish representative in England was the hot-headed and intriguing Don Guerau de Espes; in the Netherlands, Alva had made the world in general believe—though he knew better himself—that the revolt was crushed. In France the Huguenots, despite defeat in the field, had just shown themselves strong enough to obtain, through the balancing party of the Politiques, terms which placed them fairly on a level with the Guise faction; but a marriage was being planned between Henry of Anjou, the king’s next brother and heir presumptive,331 and the imprisoned Queen of Scots. In Scotland itself, the assassination of Moray had revived the confusion which the sombre regent had been struggling to allay. Thus, there was danger to Elizabeth’s throne from her own Catholic subjects; danger from France, since Anjou was regarded as of the Guise party; and danger, imagined at least, from Spain, where that surprising charlatan, Stukely, had almost, if not quite, persuaded Philip that at his call—with some armed assistance—all Ireland would rise, fling off the English yoke, and offer itself to Spain. As a matter of fact, Philip was much too heavily hampered to take openly aggressive action against England at the time—but that was known to very few people besides himself and Alva.

These difficulties of Philip’s were the first redeeming feature in the situation. The second was that on which Cecil always relied, that the national interests of France and Spain were too antagonistic to permit of any cordial alliance between them. Mary Stewart on the English throne as Philip’s protégée would not suit France; as Anjou’s wife she would not suit Philip. France might at any time see her own interest in fostering the revolt in the Netherlands and intriguing for their Protectorate. The third point was that in France itself, the Politiques were at one with the Huguenots in wishing to avoid the union of Anjou with Mary, which would be a great victory for the Guises; so that the balance of forces in France would turn definitely in favour of England if she could offer anything in the way of a make-weight.

332 Such were the conditions under which Walsingham was sent to France as a special envoy in August 1570—to congratulate the French Government on the pacification just concluded; to urge the necessity of maintaining it loyally; and to dissuade the Court from espousing the cause of the Scots Queen. Within a month, he received official intimation that the resident Ambassador, Sir Henry Norris, was about to be recalled, and he was himself to succeed to the post; which arrangement took effect in January.


In the interval, an ingenious solution of several problems had suggested itself to the Huguenot leaders, and found favour with the Queen-Mother. This was that Anjou should drop the idea of marrying Mary and should instead marry Elizabeth herself. He was her junior by seventeen years, but that was a small matter. If he wedded the Protestant Queen, he would be definitely detached from the Guises, toleration for both religions would be assured both in England and France, and the two countries could join in the liberation of the Netherlands. The problem would be to arrange the marriage on terms which would give the parties who were favourably disposed to it security for the carrying out of those parts of the programme which were from their several points of view essential.

333 Prima facie the plan was acceptable to the Huguenots, to the Politiques, to the English Council, and to Walsingham himself. To the Guises, it was very much the reverse, and they tried, with a degree of success, to frighten the Duke with the old scandals about the Virgin Queen and Leicester. The Spaniards were much perturbed. Their Ambassador first tried to draw the French into engagements with them against Orange; and, failing in that attempt, began making overtures to Walsingham which he appreciated at their true value. He knew all about the overtures to France—to which, as the Englishman wrote drily to Cecil, “the answers falling not out to his contentment, maketh him, as I suppose, to think that the friendship of England is worth the having.” The same letter notes information that the Pope has a “practice in hand for England, which would not be long before it brake forth”—no doubt in connexion with the Ridolfi plot, which was now maturing.

Side by side with the business of the Anjou marriage, Walsingham was much engaged in gathering information as to the suspected Spanish expedition to Ireland; in respect of which he held much diplomatic conversation with the ex-Archbishop of Cashel and heard many tales of Stukely’s doings and sayings. Walsingham suspected his good faith, and remarked significantly to Cecil—who had just been “ordered to write William Burleigh” instead of William Cecil, but had still some difficulty in remembering the new signature—“I have placed some especially about him, to whom he repaireth,334 as also who repairs unto him.” The suspicions were not dissipated as time went on.

The Ambassador’s situation was one of singular difficulty. For a dozen years past, Elizabeth had played fast and loose with so many suitors that any lack of straightforwardness on her part was certain to be construed as meaning that she intended to play with Anjou in the same way; while she was absolutely incapable of being straightforward. As a matter of fact, she was probably merely playing her usual game. So long as the match was on the tapis, but only on the tapis, Philip would be afraid to move lest he should precipitate it. Meantime, Orange was making ready to renew the struggle in the Netherlands, and she might presently find that she could afford to manœuvre herself out of the marriage, and would have skill enough to make the rupture of negotiations come from the other side. Burghley and Leicester both wanted the match—the former being satisfied that it would result in the Burgundian dominions being separated from Spain without being absorbed by France, while Protestantism would be generally much strengthened. But in his private correspondence with Walsingham, he warned the Ambassador very plainly that neither he nor Leicester knew what the Queen meant to do—it was as likely as not that she wished in the long run to get the match broken off by Anjou on the score of the English stipulations for his conforming to the English law in matters of religion. Walsingham, who was a Protestant with his heart and soul as well as his head, and believed that the Protestant335 cause was the national cause much more uncompromisingly than Burghley, was more zealous on behalf of the marriage than the Secretary himself, being convinced that it would bring about the victory of Protestantism, in alliance with England, both in France and the Netherlands.

It was not Burghley nor Walsingham, but Elizabeth, who controlled the situation; and however strongly the ministers might express their private feelings to each other, they had to do as she told them. Her trickery met with its usual success. In due course, Henry of Anjou found that he could not accede to the demand for conformity, and in spite of his mother’s entreaties withdrew his suit; yet the business was so successfully managed that the French court, instead of being offended, very soon began to hint that the French king had yet another brother, the Duke of Alençon, whose hand and heart were not yet disposed of. So the play began again.

Meantime the complete revelation of the Ridolfi conspiracy brought conclusive proofs of the real hostility of Spain to Elizabeth. In the following spring (1572) the Netherlands were set ablaze once more by La Marck’s capture of Brille, and Alva found his hands full; a timely occurrence, since the crushing defeat of the Turks at Lepanto by Don John in October had greatly strengthened the hands of Philip. In the summer of 1572 Walsingham was more than ever convinced that a French marriage, and support on the most liberal scale to Orange, composed the policy which it was imperative336 for England to adopt. Everything was pointing to a Huguenot ascendency in France; Marguerite of Valois was on the point of marrying young Henry of Navarre, head of the Bourbons, and next in succession to the throne after the reigning king’s brothers. To play fast and loose with the Alençon marriage would alienate France; to play fast and loose with Orange would be to throw him into the arms of France alienated from England. That Philip, seeing England thus isolated, would cheerfully forgive and forget all that he had suffered, for the sake of an unstable union with her, was almost unthinkable. Yet the months went by, and the Ambassador could get no guidance even from the sympathetic Burghley, who was as much in the dark as ever as to Elizabeth’s real intentions.

But there was a factor in the situation of which on one had taken full account; not Walsingham, nor Burghley, nor Elizabeth; not the Huguenots; not Philip nor Alva. This was Catherine de Medici’s overwhelming lust of personal power, and the passion of jealousy accompanying it. She saw her ascendency over her son Charles IX. slipping away and passing into the hands of Coligny and his associates. For victory and vengeance, she prepared to commit, perhaps, the most appalling crime in the annals of Christian Europe. Paris was crowded with Huguenots gathered to celebrate the pact of amity, to be sealed by the wedding of the Béarnais and the sister of the king. Stealthily and swiftly the plans were laid, the plot organised, the preparations completed. The wedding took place on August337 18: three days later, an unsuccessful attempt was made to murder Coligny. It may be that if the assassin had killed the Admiral, the huge tragedy which followed would have been averted; as it was, hours before the sun of St. Bartholomew’s day (August 24) had risen, the floodgates had been opened, and the streets of Paris were running red with rivers of Huguenot blood. During the following days, like scenes were being enacted through the provinces.

For a moment Europe stood breathless, aghast. Whatever this appalling thing meant, it seemed at least an assured portent of developments undreamed of; probably a vast, all-embracing, Catholic conspiracy. England sprang to arms, ready to stand at bay against the united forces of France and Spain. If there was to be a life-and-death struggle between the religions, she would fight to the last gasp. The Englishmen in the French capital had been safeguarded on the night of the massacre, but it was some little time before they could be sure that their turn was not still to come. Yet Walsingham in Paris bore himself with the same lofty sternness that the English Queen and her Council displayed to the French Ambassador in London. It soon became evident that Catherine was frightened at what she had done; that her one desire was to minimise it, to declare that matters had never been intended to go so far, to shelter behind the plea that the victims had been on the verge of effecting a bloody coup d’état and the counter-stroke had only been dealt in self-defence. Walsingham’s reply was in terms of338 courteous but scathing incredulity. The Queen-Mother tried to win him over by declaring that Coligny had warned Anjou against the machinations of England; he answered that the Admiral had acted therein as a loyal Frenchman.

The diplomatic fabric had collapsed, but at least there was no question of France holding Elizabeth to blame for the rupture; nor was there any question of Catherine turning to a junction with Spain. The Huguenots now were at bay; there would be work enough before they were either crushed or pacified; while the slaughter of their leaders had made the Guises more dangerous than ever. On the other hand, there could be no joint action on behalf of Orange. France had ruled herself out. Walsingham would still have stood boldly for “the Religion,” but the Queen and Burghley were not equally ready to fling themselves single-handed into the struggle on behalf of the Netherlands. The Spaniards deemed the opportunity a good one for seeking reconciliation with England. A more politic and less bloodthirsty Governor was dispatched to the Low Countries to take the place of Alva, who by his own desire was recalled. Walsingham went back to England, and for some time to come Philip and Elizabeth were engaged in an elaborate if insincere ostentation of amicable intentions.



Burghley as Secretary had been so heavily worked that he was in danger of breaking down; to prevent such a catastrophe, he was made Lord Treasurer, Walsingham on his return to England being appointed joint Secretary of State with Sir Thomas Smith. Leicester continued to be Burghley’s chief rival with Elizabeth on the Council, owing to his personal favour with her; and his political line was the same as Walsingham’s, though the Secretary supplied the brains. Walsingham was neither the rival nor the follower of either; it was never in his mind to supplant Burghley either himself or by Leicester; but his counsels and those of the Lord Treasurer were often in disagreement in so far as his Protestantism was more energetic, and as he had no sympathy with the idea of amity with Spain, being thoroughly convinced of Philip’s fundamental hostility to England as a Protestant Power.

For some years the Protestant policy was out of court so far as Spain and the Netherlands were concerned; the comparative moderation of the new Governor, Requesens, giving plausibility to the hope that a modus vivendi might be arrived at—that Philip’s maximum of concession and Orange’s minimum of demand might prove capable of adjustment. In Scotland, however, Walsingham and Burghley both recognised the necessity of maintaining friendly relations with the capable but sinister340 Regent, the Earl of Morton. It was impossible to ignore the danger of a reconstruction of parties there, which might again result in French intervention being invited; a consummation equally abhorrent to the Treasurer and the Secretary. Elizabeth’s parsimony here proved too strong for her policy. Burghley and Walsingham both believed that liberal but judicious expenditure would prove economical in the long run. But the Queen would not relax the purse-strings; the unrest of Scotland continued to be a thorn in her side, and to be also a perpetual strain on the anxiety of her ministers and a drain on her Exchequer.

Requesens died in 1576; before his successor, Don John, arrived, the Spanish soldiery—whose pay was in arrear—got completely out of hand; and the autumn saw the hideous butchery in Antwerp known as the “Spanish Fury.” The whole of the provinces—Catholic as well as Protestant—were united thereby in a solid demand for the restoration of their old constitutional privileges, and the withdrawal of Spanish troops; and in a flat refusal to admit the new Governor or recognise his government, until their main demands were conceded. Don John made provisional terms and was admitted in the spring following; but he was known to be harbouring audacious designs against England, the Hollanders suspected his good faith, and the old state of serious tension was renewed. Drake was planning his great voyage, to the entire satisfaction of the anti-Spanish party—but with an obvious certainty of giving extreme offence to Philip, which caused341 them to make a vain attempt to keep the thing secret from Burghley; while Elizabeth—who liked playing with fire and was also greedy for money—made her own bargain with the adventurer. Thus, in 1578 a curious state of affairs arose. Philip, jealous of his half-brother, and still extremely anxious to avoid a rupture with England, once more accredited an ambassador to the English Court, Bernardino de Mendoza, whose business was to be conciliation; Elizabeth’s Council swayed to the views of Walsingham and Leicester, while Burghley seemed to be outweighted. The Queen started on one of her most exasperating pieces of political jugglery, snubbing Orange on the one hand, and on the other reviving the Alençon marriage project; while Alençon himself was now posing as a would-be figure-head for the Huguenots, and at odds with his brother Henry III., who had succeeded Charles IX. two years after St. Bartholomew.

To his own intense disgust, Walsingham was despatched to the Netherlands on the most thoroughly uncongenial task that could be conceived: one, moreover, which it would have been quite impossible for him to accomplish even if his heart had been in it. He was to urge the Protestant States to accept the Spanish terms, which would have deprived them of the exercise of their religion; he was to refuse the promised issue of the bonds on which they were relying for the sinews of war; in effect, he was to represent England in what he himself looked upon as an act of betrayal. Of course, the mission was a failure. Betrayed or not, Orange342 and his party would never accept the Spanish terms; they would rather take the risk of a French Protectorate, or die fighting. Walsingham loathed the job, and wrote home in very bitter terms of the shame the whole of the proceedings were bringing on the name of England. The only glimmer of satisfaction he extracted from it was in the retraction of the monstrous breach of faith about the bonds. It was bad enough that Elizabeth’s name should be made a by-word for falsehood; it was only less bad that France, instead of England, should become for her own ends the friend and protector of the Low Countries; it was sickening that he, of all men, should be made the agent of such perfidy, held personally responsible for it abroad, and rewarded by his mistress with abuse because it failed. “It is given out,” he wrote, “that we shall be hanged on our return, so ill have we behaved ourselves here: I hope we shall enjoy our ordinary trial—my Lord Cobham [his colleague] to be tried by his peers, and myself by a jury of Middlesex.... If I may conveniently, I mean, with the leave of God, to convey myself off from the stage and to become a looker-on.”

Elizabeth, however, was far too keenly alive to his value to allow him to become a looker-on; nor could Burghley have spared him, however their views might differ on some points. The Queen might ignore his advice, but she relied on his penetration and his loyalty, and was more afraid of his righteous indignation than of the Lord Treasurer’s sober disapprobation. Neither minister would countenance343 what they accounted perfidy, and in act she never in the long run degraded her honour as much as she repeatedly threatened to do. Both of them spoke their minds. She knew they were in the right; she resisted, abused, flouted, defied them; but she always yielded enough, and in time, to save some shreds of credit.

The death of Don John about the end of September was followed by the appointment of Alexander of Parma, a statesman and soldier of the first rank, as his successor; who at the outset skilfully severed the union between the northern or Protestant and the southern or Catholic provinces. If Burghley could have had his own way untrammelled, he would have dealt straightforwardly with Orange, giving him support enough to keep him from calling in France, and still hoping to bring about an accommodation with Parma possible of acceptance by both parties. Neither he nor Walsingham now had any belief in joint action with France, in which their confidence had been permanently blotted out by the Paris massacre. Neither of them, therefore, saw good in the Alençon marriage as a genuine project, while both saw infinite danger in merely playing with it. They differed, as it would seem, only as to the length they were prepared to go in helping Orange, Burghley drawing the line at the point where he thought Philip might be driven into a declaration of open war, while the Secretary would have taken bigger risks, accepting open war if Philip chose. The Queen’s object was the same as Burghley’s, but she elected, according to her habit,344 to seek it not by straightforward, but by crooked, courses. She would give Orange the minimum of help, but she would, by playing with Alençon, either keep France out of it, or else embroil France and Spain, keeping herself out of it till she could strike in as arbiter. To do which, she had to induce every one to believe that she probably meant marrying, while trusting to her own ingenuity and the chapter of accidents to effect, if the worst came to the worst, an escape not too ruinously ignominious. If she really did know what she wanted, it was more than any of her Council did, and she drove them almost to despair.

So the juggling went on; the Queen blew hot and cold with Alençon, and tried to inveigle France into a league without a marriage; the French tried to get the marriage secured as preliminary to a league. Drake came home, his ship loaded with spoils; but the remonstrances of Mendoza were met by complaints of the assistance given by Spain to the Desmond rebellion in Ireland. Walsingham was flatly opposing the marriage, and the Puritan element in the country at least was with him to a man. Parsons and Campion, and the Jesuit propaganda, had set Puritans and Catholics alike in a ferment. In the summer of 1581 Alençon was still dangling, France was still waiting to have the marriage question settled, Philip had just annexed Portugal, and Burghley himself was despairing of a peaceful outcome.

Under these circumstances, Elizabeth again chose to despatch Walsingham on an embassy to Paris.345 He was to get the Queen out of the marriage without upsetting the French. He was to get France to espouse the cause of Orange, while England was only to render secret pecuniary aid. Whether, in the last resort, the Queen would accede to the marriage for the sake of a secret league, or would accede to an open league to escape the marriage, or would positively on no condition have either marriage or open league, or would still keep the marriage unaccomplished but unrejected if she could, Walsingham did not know; for whatever instructions he received were liable to be contradicted in twenty-four hours. He was to extract his mistress from the tangle in which she had involved herself, and might understand that whatever means he found for doing so would be angrily condemned.

Naturally, he found the situation almost impossible. The King and the Queen-Mother would make an open league and let the marriage go; of that, he felt satisfied. But they would not have an undeclared league, nor commit themselves at any price to any war in the Low Countries, if there were any possible loophole for Elizabeth to back out of supporting them. She must be so committed that she could not back out. The suspicion that she was only dallying both with the marriage and the league could only be got rid of by the most straightforward dealing, and if she would not listen to advice there was the gravest danger that she would find France, Spain, and Scotland all united against her. He wrote in very plain terms that if she would not make up her mind to a liberal expenditure, and convince346 her neighbours that she had done so, ruin threatened. The instructions from England continued to be evasive, non-committal. The personal correspondence between Burghley and Walsingham is particularly interesting, as showing the complete confidence between them, the loyalty with which the Treasurer fought the Secretary’s battles with the Queen, though in vain, and Walsingham’s entire frankness to him.

“Sorry I am,” he writes, “to see her Majesty so apt to take offence against me, which falleth not out contrary to my expectation, and therefore I did protest unto her, after it had pleased her to make choice of me to employ me this way, that I should repute it a greater favour to be committed to the Tower, unless her Majesty may grow more certain in her resolutions there.” Twelve days later he fairly exploded in a letter to the Queen herself. He told her point-blank that she had already lost Scotland, and was like enough to lose England too, by her parsimony, and finished up—“If this sparing and improvident course be held still, the mischiefs approaching being so apparent as they are, I conclude therefore ... that no one that serveth in place of a Counciller, that either weigheth his own credit, or carrieth that sound affection to your Majestie as he ought to do, that would not wish himself in the farthest part of Ethiopia, rather than enjoy the fairest palace in England. The Lord God therefore direct your Majestie’s heart to take that way of councel that may be most for your honour and safety.”

347 Nothing came of the embassy; not even the ruin foretold by Walsingham. The wonderful Queen managed somehow to keep Alençon dangling; and while he dangled there would be no decisive breach with France. In November he was in England again. She promised to marry him, kissed him, and a few weeks later told Burghley that she would not marry the man on any terms. The ministers, of course, could see nothing possible but an irreconcilable quarrel with France over the affair sooner or later; and again Burghley’s efforts were directed to pacifying Mendoza, and Walsingham’s to forcing Elizabeth into openly supporting Orange. In the Council Burghley was practically alone; yet Walsingham could not effect his object. The impending avalanche did not fall—and then Alençon in effect committed suicide by trying to play the traitor and failing ignominiously to carry out his plot; thereby making himself obviously and hopelessly impossible. The rupture with France on that score was averted. His death a year later, in 1584, made Henry of Navarre actual heir presumptive to the crown of France; and then the question of the succession became, and remained, so critical that all parties in France were too hotly engaged in their own contests to take effective part in quarrels beyond their borders. Orange was assassinated; the Throgmorton plot had convinced Burghley himself that the duel with Spain was inevitable; and in 1585 Parma’s skill brought affairs in the Netherlands to a point at which nothing but the armed intervention of England could apparently348 save the revolted provinces from utter destruction. Before the end of the year Elizabeth was in open league with them. At last, circumstances had compelled her officially to commit herself to Walsingham’s policy, though even now she could not bring herself to resign either her systematic penuriousness or her systematic vacillation.


Walsingham has hitherto appeared in the character of a foreign minister or ambassador with two main functions—to gauge the intentions of foreign courts, and to carry out a policy with which he was dissatisfied by methods which he abominated: the ally of Leicester in the policy he advocated, the ally of Burghley in his moral attitude towards the Queen. She and Burghley were at one in the knowledge that she must preserve Continental Protestantism from sheer destruction, and in the determination to limit their help, so long as it was possible to do so, in such wise as to avoid war with Spain. Since 1577 Walsingham had been opposed to that limitation; in 1584 Burghley himself was relinquishing it with reluctance, and with the persistent hope that a reconciliation might again become possible.

As a diplomatist, Sir Francis appears to have possessed in a high degree the quality of impenetrability,349 the precision of veracity which has the effect of suppressio veri or of suggestio falsi, misleading of set purpose but without deviation from formal truth. The ethics of the twentieth century have not yet learnt to condemn skilful deception in this kind, at any rate where it is not directed to personal ends. But the means which, in other capacities than that of an ambassador, Walsingham employed for obtaining information, were not always such as would be ventured on to-day by a politician who was unwilling to be called unscrupulous. Yet they were means which—so far as they can with certainty be attributed to him—would have been unhesitatingly sanctioned by almost every contemporary.

It has to be borne in mind, in the first place, that throughout the Elizabethan period every country in Europe was thick with plots, with the political intention of a violent coup d’état, or the religious intention of removing an obnoxious personality. While Elizabeth was on the throne the list of successful assassinations included those of two Dukes of Guise, a King of France, the Prince of Orange, Darnley, Moray, and the victims of St. Bartholomew. Attempts which only just failed were made on Orange and Coligny. There were at least three plots—those known by the names of Ridolfi, Throgmorton, and Babington—in favour of Mary Stewart, and involving the assassination of Elizabeth, in which Philip, or some of his ministers, or the Guises, or the Pope, or Cardinal Allen, were implicated, besides minor ones. Rizzio’s murder was350 political; and Burghley’s life was the object of a conspiracy. These are merely a few conspicuous instances out of a very long roll. The ingenuity of zealots, on either side, who honestly believed that in slaying a leader of heretics or of persecutors they were rendering acceptable service to the Almighty, was backed by the unscrupulousness of politicians, who might not, indeed, themselves be prepared to stab or poison, but were quite ready to make use of those who would do so. In England especially there were vast interests involved in the removal of Elizabeth, whose legitimate heir was, beyond all question, the Catholic Queen of Scots. Plots merely directed against the Queen’s person were serious enough; but they might be combined with schemes for invasion or concerted insurrection, like the revolt of the northern Earls. The plotters were perfectly unscrupulous. Nothing could be more certain than that, so long as the Queen of Scots was alive and in captivity, there would be a series of conspiracies, with or without her connivance, having it as their object to place her on the throne of England. And we must remember, further, that, to intensify the situation, a Papal Bull had declared that while it was not incumbent upon Catholics in England actively to hatch treason against the Queen of England, it was incumbent on them to countenance, and meritorious to take part in it.

With the tremendous issues at stake, both national and religious, with the forces engaged in setting conspiracy in motion or in encouraging it, with the untrammelled character of its operations,351 the nature of the fight was obviously very different from anything with which modern statesmen have to deal. Yet where active secret societies are in existence, the police methods of modern Governments are the police methods of Walsingham. The spy, the paid informer, the agent provocateur, play the same part now as in the sixteenth century. It was in the risks for a Spanish ambassador or agent that his secretary, or some other person standing to him in a confidential relation, might be in the pay of the English Secretary of State. Any influential person suspected of Catholic leanings might wake up one morning to find that a tolerably complete copy of his correspondence was in Walsingham’s hands. A plot, big or small, might progress merrily while the plotters hugged themselves on their skill and secrecy—till the psychological moment arrived for dropping the mask, and they found that they had merely been drawn into a carefully prepared trap.

Walsingham had no qualms about employing liars, perjurers, the basest kind of scoundrels in this business. When he had caught his culprits he quite deliberately applied the rack and other forms of torture to extract evidence. He would have argued that the Queen’s enemies had chosen their own method of fighting, and it was legitimate to meet them with their own weapons—as Clive argued in the case of Omichund; that, in fact, it was only by the use of their own weapons that he could make sure of defeating them. Also he did not originate the system—espionage and the rack352 were in full play when his foot was only on the lowest rung of the ladder. Also, these methods were not employed vindictively, but with the single object of obtaining true information by which treasonous designs might be frustrated. Also, in acting as he did, he did not violate the public conscience—or his own, with its rigid Old Testament limitations.

But there is one case in which he is charged with having gone farther.

It would be difficult to find any even approximate parallel to the position of Mary Stewart in England. Whatever her own attitude might be, she was the inevitable centre of Catholic plots of the most far-reaching order. While she lived, the throne of Elizabeth and the triumph of the Reformation in England could never be secure. She was held captive on no legitimate ground, but solely because her title to the English throne was so strong that the Queen could not afford to set her at liberty. In plain terms, the national security required her death, but unless she could be convicted of plotting against the life of Elizabeth, there was no legitimate ground for putting her to death. The eighth Henry would have made short work with her; there was no European sovereign who would not have made short work with any dangerous pretender to his crown who lay completely in his power. Yet even the Throgmorton conspiracy was not turned to her destruction; Elizabeth had her own reasons for preferring to keep her captive alive. But the Throgmorton revelations, with the assassination of Orange,353 the death of Alençon, the approach of the Spanish crisis, and the growing certainty that Mary’s son would not take her place as the figure-head for Catholic conspiracies, went far to cancel Elizabeth’s reasons. To Walsingham, alike as patriot and protestant, the death of Mary had long been about the most desirable event that could occur; and now he saw his way to compass it—to inveigle her within reach of the law.

He reckoned it as a certainty that if she found herself able to communicate with her partisans undetected, she would soon enough get involved in some plot of a character which would justify her doom in the eyes of the world. A supposed adherent of hers, a Jesuit, devised means of communicating with her and of passing her secret correspondence in and out of Chartley Manor. She fell into the trap: the supposed adherent was Walsingham’s agent. Every letter was opened and copied. A plot was soon on foot for her liberation, an invasion, and the deposition of Elizabeth, whose assassination by Anthony Babington was part of the scheme. From Walsingham’s point of view, the vital point was to get her definitely implicated in Babington’s part of the conspiracy. At last, Philips, the decipherer of the correspondence, produced a letter which was decisive. Then Walsingham struck. The bubble burst; Mary was tried and condemned.

Now an issue appears between Walsingham and Mary. The Scots Queen admitted participation in the plot up to a certain point: she denied in toto354 knowledge of the intended assassination. Apart from certain phrases in one letter, it cannot be conclusively shown that she was lying. The conditions made it possible that she never wrote those incriminating phrases; that they were forged. Did Walsingham fabricate that evidence in order that Mary might be prevented from escaping what he regarded as her just and necessary doom, on a technical plea? Did Philips forge it and persuade him that it was genuine? Or was it in fact genuine? Mendoza believed that Mary was in the secret, but Mendoza may have been under a misapprehension. No one will ever be able to answer that riddle decisively. But the form of Walsingham’s denial, when the imputation of forgery was made in court, is worth noting. “As a private person, I have done nothing unbecoming an honest man, nor, as I bear the place of a public person have I done anything unworthy my place.” If Walsingham did fabricate the evidence, he did it with a clear conscience; that is, with an honest conviction that he was discharging a duty; that he was “doing nothing unworthy his place.” The thing is perfectly conceivable. No one will deny that John Knox was a conscientious man; but John Knox justified assassination. Walsingham himself thought it permissible in certain circumstances. But the case is not proved one way or the other. The twist in his rigid conscience may not have been crooked enough for that. Yet the whole business of deliberately making arrangements to facilitate plotting on his victim’s part is hardly on a different plane. The355 point of interest lies in the fact that under sixteenth-century conditions such acts were committed and were sanctioned without compunction not only by men without conscience, or of careless conscience, or of conventional or adaptable conscience, but by the very men who held hardest to moral ideals: men whose serious purpose was to do all to the glory of God.


For all her confidence in and dependence on Walsingham, the Secretary was never persona grata with Elizabeth. She abused him more roundly and more frequently than any other member of her Council. If an opportunity offered of setting him a task which was utterly against the grain, she would not let it go; and she liked him none the better for his share in making her responsible for the death of Queen Mary. In that, as in passing from covert to overt war with Spain, she was compelled to follow his policy; but she did not increase her favour to him and his allies, and she followed the policy with marked ill-will. Nothing could avert a desperate conflict, yet she continued to the last to drive the war-party half-frantic by parsimony, by issuing impracticable orders, by imposing paralysing restrictions, by temporising with Parma and threatening to betray her allies. And when the great Armada356 was triumphantly shattered by English seamen, and thereafter overwhelmed by the winds and the waves, and Drake would have delivered a still more fatal blow by rending Portugal from Philip, she carefully tied the Admiral up with instructions which doomed the Lisbon expedition to fruitlessness and its great organiser to discredit and practical retirement.

If Walsingham lived to see England freed from the nightmare of Mary Stewart, and on a palpable equality with Spain, the accession of the leader of “the Religion” in France to the throne, if not as yet to the rulership, of that country, and the rise of a worthy successor to William the Silent in the person of Maurice of Nassau, yet his last years were full enough of bitterness. He had striven devotedly with a single eye to the welfare of his country, so loyally and with such absence of self-seeking that he had beggared himself in the process. His services—invaluable yet unwelcome—were requited by chill disfavour; the assistance to which gratitude and justice should have entitled him was denied, since lavish bounty to Walter Raleigh suited the Queen’s humour better at the time; and the statesman who with Burghley had done most, for twenty years, for the honour and the safety of England, died so poor that he was buried quietly and privately—at his own desire—that his heirs might be spared the charges of a costly funeral. Whether he was in alliance with Burghley, or in occasional antagonism to the policy of his great colleague, the personal friendship and fidelity of the two to each other357 remained unbroken to the end. That is almost the only pleasing reflection to which his closing years give rise. For the rest, he passed from the world, one more example of the ingratitude of princes.




In his virtues and in his faults, in his brilliance and in his limitations, in his greatness and in his defects, Walter Raleigh is the very type of Elizabeth’s England. Like Robert Cecil, Spenser, and Sidney, he was a child when the great queen ascended the throne; like Shakespeare and Bacon, he had not passed the full vigour of manhood when she died. He was a year older than Henry of Navarre, whom he outlived by eight years. Walsingham was a grown man and William Cecil a Secretary of State before any one of this younger group was born. All of them were young men still when the crisis of Elizabeth’s reign was reached and the Armada was dispersed. The older generation raised England from weakness to strength; the younger saw her strength made patent to the world. The older generation maintained her on the defensive; it was the part of the younger to assert her primacy in every field of endeavour.

Of this younger generation, Raleigh stands out as the typical representative. In an age of men of action, he was one of the greatest of the men of362 action. In one of the two greatest ages of English poetry he was acclaimed as one of their peers by the poets. In the age which saw the creation of English prose, he was one of the masters of prose. The military world and the naval world were developing new theories of strategy and tactics; in both fields he was a first-rate authority and a brilliant performer. The expansion of Spain and Portugal had brought new political conceptions into being; we owe the conception of Greater Britain and all the first stubborn efforts to realise it to the genius of Sir Walter. In a day of brilliant courtiers, none was more brilliant than he; and in the day when Bacon was formulating anew the principles of scientific inquiry, Raleigh was incidentally an ardent experimentalist. In every field his versatility was exercised, and in every field his place was in the front rank.


From the Painting by Federigo Zuccaro in the National Portrait Gallery

And yet perhaps—save in one thing—never quite in the first rank. His literary achievement does not set him beside Shakespeare and Spenser. Drake was a greater commander and John Davis a greater seaman. By land he was never tested in a great command. His scientific pursuits were merely a parergon. As a statesman he never achieved the control of England’s destinies; wily Robert Cecil was the craftier politician. But two things he did: he taught Englishmen that the might of England lay in her fleets—not as the accident of a moment but as a permanent principle; and he created the idea of a Britain beyond the seas, struggled for it almost alone year after year with persistent tenacity,363 through good report and evil report and failure—finally died for it. He it was that sowed the seed; ours is the tree that sprang from it.


Walter Raleigh was born in 1552, a year before Mary Tudor ascended the English throne. He was of a Devon house; himself, one of a large and composite family, for his mother, Katharine Champernoun, was his father’s third wife, and was herself a widow with several children when she married him. It must have counted for something for a small boy to have had two such big half-brothers as Humphrey and Adrian Gilbert, both dreamers and idealists, and one of them a by-no-means contemptible man of action to boot. The child was six years old when the great persecution was ended by Elizabeth’s accession, and for the next ten years he had endless opportunities of listening with all his ears to mariners’ tales of Eldorado and of the Spanish Inquisition, and learning at least watermanship if not seamanship. In 1568 he went up to Oxford, at the moment when Alva was goading the Netherlands into open rebellion and France was on the verge of a fresh outbreak of the Huguenot wars. Raleigh’s career as an undergraduate was interrupted. He went off to France as a volunteer, to get his baptism of blood at Jarnac in March, and to be present at Montcontour later in the year.

364 After that, his career for some while is not easy to trace. It looks as if he had returned to Oxford, for his name was still on the list of undergraduates at Oriel in 1572; but it is also said that he remained in France for five years, and even that he was in Paris at the time of the massacre. In 1575 he entered—pro forma—at the Middle Temple; and two or three years later appears to have been in the field again, fighting in the Low Countries under Sir John Norreys. The chances are that he had had some further military practice in the interval between 1569 and 1578, in France or the Netherlands or both, especially as his brother Humphrey Gilbert was in command of the English contingent at Flushing and elsewhere for some while. In 1578 Gilbert sailed on his first colonising venture, and young Walter was one of his captains; but the expedition, after a collision with some Spaniards, was driven back to Plymouth by weather. In 1580, Raleigh emerges definitely as a captain in the army employed for the suppression of Desmond’s rebellion in Ireland—in which capacity he was present at the capture of Smerwick, and had the unsavoury business of superintending the massacre of the garrison.

Raleigh remained in Ireland on duty for something over a year, till the end of 1581. While there he accomplished sundry feats of arms of a brilliant character, all being of the kind in which personal daring and skill, and resourcefulness in emergency, are the leading characteristics—deeds in which he was acting with only some very small escort. It was very much in the nature—mutatis mutandis—of365 police work among hostile frontier tribes in India to-day. The young soldier’s ideas of Irish government were derived from Humphrey Gilbert, who, in all other relations of life, was a noble-hearted generous Christian gentleman, but in this particular relation was as perfectly ruthless as Alva himself might have been. It is one of the puzzles of the period that men who upheld elsewhere the highest standards of chivalry and honour—men such as Sussex, Henry Sidney, Walter Devereux—adopted towards the native Irish the attitude of the primitive Hebrew towards the Canaanites, seeming to account the human population as if they were an irredeemably pernicious species of wild beasts; and Raleigh was no exception to the rule.

Immediately on his return to England he sprang into high favour with Elizabeth, partly through his brilliant abilities, partly through the personal fascination which no one could exercise better when he chose. But this charm was accompanied by an insatiable ambition, pridefulness, and fiery temper, which effectually prevented him from making any attempt to conciliate rivalry or hostility, cut him off from his natural alliance with the court section of the war-party, and rather associated him with Burghley. Favourite as he was, and in some ways influential with the Queen, he was never admitted by her into the Privy Council, though he was knighted so early as 1584, and received numerous and exceedingly substantial marks of the royal goodwill.

In fact, it would seem that his imagination carried his mind away from the current problems of administration366 and policy to another field. He was less occupied with the question how war with Spain might be precipitated or deferred than with that of setting up a rival empire. If, as is most probable, the conception was primarily that of his brother Humphrey Gilbert, the younger man made it his own; and in these years the attempt to establish a colony in North America absorbed his best energies and enthusiasms. For Burghley, Spain was primarily the European Power which—however interests might clash—was a necessary counterpoise to France; for Walsingham, she was the aggressive enemy of Protestantism; for Raleigh, she was the claimant to the New World, whose rights might be and ought to be successfully challenged by England. Thus, the first desired to avert conflict; the second was at least ready to join issue at once, lest it should be too late; whereas, from Raleigh’s point of view, the time when Spain and England should grapple was a matter of comparative indifference, provided that when it arrived England should be ready. But there was probably no man in England—not Drake himself—in whose political creed fundamental hostility to Spain was a more essential article.

There is, however, a curious story that in 1586 Raleigh was engaged in Spanish negotiations on his own account, which negotiations had as their object that he should take measures to hamper the English preparations for war, himself selling a couple of ships to Spain; and it appears to be implied that he was one of those young gentlemen about the Queen’s person who were going to put through Babington’s367 plot for her assassination. We may therefore recall the fact that in the Ridolfi days John Hawkins had figured as an enemy of his Queen, only thirsting to betray the fleet to Philip. Hawkins, of course, was really working in collusion with Burghley, and the whole thing was a trick. It need not surprise any one, therefore, if Raleigh played the same game at this time, though on a smaller scale. It would be a matter of course, then, that pains would be taken to give the Spaniards—and their informants in England—the impression that Sir Walter was really disaffected. As for Ballard and Babington, they were so completely in the toils of Walsingham from the outset that Raleigh may very well have actually been the Secretary’s accomplice in tricking them. Patriotism, principle, and consistency apart, no one has ever accused him of lacking intelligence, of which he would stand hopelessly convicted if the suggested allegations were true. Moreover, a man with so many enemies would not have escaped without being incriminated. The only definitely known facts are that he was at this time in communication with Spain, and that the Spaniards had an idea that he was well-affected towards them. The only inference we can quite confidently draw is that he was hoodwinking them, though nothing definite seems to have resulted.

When the Armada was expected, Raleigh was Vice-Admiral of the West, and was also one of the special Defence Commission. It was on the great ship which he had himself designed, the Ark Raleigh, that Admiral Howard hoisted his flag; but Raleigh368 was not one of the commanders in the fleet. He had been largely occupied in organising the defences in the West Country, and had been urgent in pressing the true strategical policy of fighting and beating the Spaniard on the sea—of an offensive naval war as the only true defensive war. But it is not quite certain whether he even had any personal part in the Armada engagements at all; though, on the whole, there is not sufficient ground for discarding the common report that he joined the fleet as a volunteer after the engagement off Portland. At that stage, all fears had passed that the Spaniard might effect a landing in the western division of the channel, where Raleigh was responsible for the arrangements for meeting the invader. Until then, he had been bound to remain at his post on shore. But now, not only did the English fleet know that it was a match for the enemy, but, if chance should enable them to attempt a landing, it would certainly not be in Raleigh’s district. So there is an a priori probability that, being free to join the ships, he would not have missed the opportunity if it offered. There is no doubt, in any case, that he fully understood and appreciated the tactics adopted—a complete innovation in the methods of naval warfare—whether he did or did not take actual part, as a gentleman-volunteer, in the manœuvres.

The great débâcle initiated a new phase in the relations of Spain to England and to Europe generally. The defeat, of course, was not of itself a death-blow, though if victory had gone the other way—if the English fleet had been in effect annihilated—an369 invasion under Parma would have followed; and Parma was the best general living, while the whole number of Englishmen who had any real experience of military service was small. But hitherto, wherever the Spaniards went, afloat or ashore, they had the prestige of success; now at a single blow the prestige passed from Spain to England—the theory of Spanish invincibility was shattered. The change had no less effect on Spain’s enemies on the Continent than in England, where for years past the seamen at least had been in the habit of taking for granted that they understood the art of fighting on the sea infinitely better than their antagonists. Now, however, the landsmen and the men of peace had had ocular demonstration of what the sailors had long been affirming as the conclusion from their own practical experience. England, hitherto on the defensive, was converted into the attacking power, and was filled with the spirit of aggression.


Between his seventeenth and his thirtieth years, Raleigh was completing his education as a soldier by his experiences in varied fields from Jarnac to Munster—sandwiching in, as it would appear, some residence at Oxford, and some in London as a nominal student of the law; not actually becoming a courtier but making his first entrée among the associates of the court. In his thirtieth year he370 returned from Ireland to London, with a reputation as a dashing officer, and immediately made his way into the good graces of the Maiden Queen who, already verging on fifty, was demanding with increased instead of diminished avidity the amorous adulation of those who would find favour in her eyes. Raleigh made love to her on the recognised lines; with distinguished success, also on the recognised lines; to his own profit, and the extreme annoyance of the Leicesters and Hattons. The famous story of the cloak may or may not be true—it rests only on the authority of that chronicler whom every self-respecting author is obliged to refer to as “old Fuller”—but it is one of those traditions which, like King Alfred’s cakes and George Washington’s little hatchet, can never be surrendered. In these years there are tales of Hatton’s jealousy; records of appeals to the favourite to intervene now on behalf of Burghley, now of Leicester, to mitigate the royal displeasure; rumours, such as may have been concocted by spite, of not over-scrupulous methods employed in the pursuit of personal aggrandisement. Beside these stories of court-gossip and intrigue are those of his association with Bohemian literary circles, of his originating the meetings at the Mermaid, of his friendship with Marlowe, and his reputed “atheism”—a quite incredible, if by no means surprising, charge against a man whose speculations were probably as bold and unconventional in the field of religion as in those of political, naval, and military theory. But assuredly the author of the “History of the World” was no atheist.

371 But during these years, between 1582 and 1588, he was something more than the brilliant courtier, keen-witted humanist, and active member of the Defence Commission—he was the pioneer of colonial expansion.

Humphrey Gilbert was thirteen years older than his half-brother, whose hero he would seem to have been, not undeservedly, in Raleigh’s younger days. Of brilliant attainments, the bravest of the brave, intensely religious, an idealist and dreamer, he was a kind of incarnation of Arthurian knighthood; for the very mercilessness he displayed in Ireland was by no means the outcome of inhumanity but of a fixed belief that the Irish ought to be accounted not as human beings but as beasts of prey. Raleigh himself was hardly more than a boy when his brother was already fixing his thoughts on the colonisation of North America and the discovery of the North West Passage. It cannot therefore be claimed for Sir Walter that he actually originated the Colonial idea, which was Gilbert’s; but he entered into it from the first and made it his own; while Gilbert lived, they worked for it together; and when the Atlantic billows swallowed up Sir Humphrey, it was to Raleigh that his mantle passed undisputed.

About the time that the young man was entered at the Temple, Sir Humphrey was at work on the treatise “to prove a passage by the North West to Cathay and the East Indies,” which was published in 1576 by Gascoign. In 1578 he obtained a charter authorising what he had already been petitioning for four years earlier, an expedition to discover and372 take possession of unknown lands—the charter extending over six years. We have already noted Raleigh’s participation in the first expedition, which put to sea late in 1579 but was obliged to return to port with nothing accomplished. In 1583 the second expedition sailed; but this time Raleigh, though he had embarked everything he could in the venture, was at the last moment peremptorily forbidden to accompany it in person by his exigent mistress. Quite definitely, the purpose of the expedition was not to hunt for precious metals but to establish a permanent agricultural settlement. Incidentally, it is to be noted that Walsingham was active in furthering the project. The expedition took formal possession of Newfoundland, but this was not its actual destination. Disasters overtook it, and Gilbert finding himself compelled for the time to abandon the design, sailed for England. On the course of the voyage, the little Squirrel, in which he was sailing, went down in a storm with all hands on board. Raleigh was left to struggle single-handed for the carrying out of his brother’s conception.

Now begins the story of Raleigh’s persistent effort at the colonisation of Virginia.

A fresh patent was issued to Sir Walter, who had just been knighted, in March 1584—just two years after his first entry into Elizabeth’s court. The first step was taken immediately—an exploring expedition, which found its way to the island of Roanoak on the coast of what is now Carolina, opened friendly intercourse with the natives, took formal possession, and returned to report.

373 Raleigh was largely interested in the series of Arctic voyages undertaken by John Davis during the three ensuing years: exploration and discovery pure and simple had an attraction for him only less powerful than colonisation; but it was to this that he devoted his keenest energies, and on this that he poured out the wealth he was acquiring. In the spring of 1585 his fleet sailed for Virginia, as the new settlement was called, under the command of his kinsman, Richard Grenville. Raleigh himself the Queen, of course, could not spare. The open breach with Spain and the open alliance with Orange were now approaching rapidly, and Grenville’s voyage seems to have been, in his own eyes, directed more against Spaniards than with a single eye to the colony. In due course, however, Roanoak was reached, and the settlement established with Ralph Lane as governor; and Grenville came home. Unluckily, the original friendly relations with the natives were upset; the quarrel led the colonists into “making an example” of an Indian village; and the Indians resolved to retaliate. Till their opportunity should come, they merely made things as difficult as they could for the Englishman. A relief-expedition had been promised for the following Easter. It did not appear; but Drake did, with the fleet which had just been employed in sacking Cartagena. The settlers resolved to throw up their attempt, and returned to England with Drake. A few days after they had sailed, the delayed relief party under Grenville arrived to find the settlement abandoned. Fifteen volunteers were now left behind, to keep the place in occupation;374 but when a new band of settlers with a new governor arrived in the following spring (1587), they found that the little garrison had been massacred. The party set about establishing a settlement once more; but under the existing conditions they induced John White, the governor, to return himself to England to bring fresh supplies and reinforcements.

This was the year in which the Armada ought to have sailed against England; but Drake’s successful raid on the harbour of Cadiz deferred the invasion for a year. In the meantime, however, it was a matter of extreme difficulty to get permission for any ship to leave an English port. The demands of the coming duel were paramount. A couple of relief vessels with White were hardly allowed to sail; and these returned without reaching the colony. Again, the next year there was an expedition, but it found Roanoak deserted, and learned that the settlers had taken up fresh quarters. But neither did it discover them, nor did any one of the search expeditions which Raleigh subsequently despatched one after another.

He had spent £40,000—the equivalent of something like five times that sum at the present day. For a dozen years his ships sailed—sometimes with fresh settlers, sometimes with stores only; to meet only with disappointment—often with nothing but reports that the bones of the last party left behind were bleaching in some undiscovered spot. Half of the pioneers themselves were ready to turn back, abandoning the adventure, as soon as they realised that their business was not going to be picking up375 gold and silver. Men of Grenville’s type enjoyed themselves thoroughly when they were boarding Spanish galleons against immense odds, or engaged in any other form of dare-devilry; a different type was required to settle down to a stubborn fight with Nature, and found rural or commercial communities. The necessary type was forthcoming in course of time, but it had not yet realised the field that was open to it. As yet there were none to experiment, save adventurers who wanted something quite other than North America had to give. At last Raleigh felt that for a time, but only for a time, he was beaten; that to obtain support he must have prospects to suggest, at least, of gold mines and silver mines; and his next great venture was in another region where the golden city of Manoa was fabled to be hidden. But he never lost faith in his own ideal, or recanted his prophecy that the northern Continent would yet be possessed and peopled by men of his own race, that he would live to see Virginia an English nation. His own experiment failed; yet he lived to see the beginnings of fulfilment under other auspices, when again a colony of Virginia received a charter in 1606—this time to establish and maintain herself as the mother of the American people.



The spirit of aggression engendered by the Armada was too strong for Burghley and his mistress to oppose directly. Their object was to give it such an outlet as would satisfy popular sentiment without ruining Spain; and popular sentiment, as they saw, would find satisfaction in a mere extension of the old raiding warfare upon Spanish commerce. The danger, in their eyes, was that the control of operations might fall into the hands of men who not only desired to annihilate Spain but knew how to do it. Drake and Raleigh recognised in Spain the one Power which stood in the way of a complete English dominion of the seas, with everything that would mean: that dominion was already almost won, and could be made good. But if Drake were discredited, Raleigh would be unable to give their policy effect. This was duly brought about by the manipulation from headquarters of the Lisbon expedition, which caused it to fail of accomplishing its immediate object. Thereafter the policy was indeed anti-Spanish, but on the lines advocated by Hawkins and Essex (who may now be said to have taken the place occupied by Leicester till his death in 1588), not by Raleigh and Drake.

The distinction between Raleigh’s political conceptions and those of his contemporaries marks the transition of which he was conscious and they were not. Their eyes were fixed upon Europe. Burghley’s377 calculations were always directed to the preservation of a balance of power on the Continent; he was afraid of France, and knew the commercial value of the Burgundian alliance. The New World did not appeal to him at all—a rivalry there would hardly have seemed to him desirable. The ordinary Englishman, on the other hand, felt that Spain had proved herself the enemy of his country and his creed, and in the moment of victory his views were roughly summed up in two phrases—vae victis; and, the spoils for the victors. He had no very definite ideas as to the further results, though he might have the triumph of “the Religion” over Popery in his mind. If he thought of the New World, it was not as a land where he might make himself a new home, but as a Tom Tiddler’s ground for bold adventurers. Raleigh saw the vision of the boundless empire occupied by the men of his own race. There are indications that if Walsingham had lived Raleigh would have stood less alone; but Walsingham died, poor and in disfavour, in 1590.

Roughly speaking, then, for some years after the Armada the war party at large predominated; maintaining the system of persistent warfare on Spanish commerce, varied at intervals with more effective blows such as the attack on the Bretagne forts held by the Spaniards (in league with the Guises), and the great Cadiz expedition. In these moves Raleigh’s voice and hand were heard and felt; but they were isolated moves, not followed up—largely owing to the clever management of the Cecils, in whom the Queen really placed her reliance.378 The war party itself was ruled in effect by the young Earl of Essex, whose personality was particularly obnoxious to the Cecils, while his policy was comparatively acceptable to them. Essex, being desperately jealous of Raleigh’s general favour with the Queen, Sir Walter was generally on friendly terms with the Cecils; whereas anything but a very temporary show of amity between the two Court rivals was entirely out of the question. And whenever Essex had access to the Queen he had the better of the contest. These controlling conditions make Raleigh’s career at this time intelligible.

Both Raleigh and Essex accompanied the Lisbon expedition in 1589. Raleigh was with Drake; Essex, who had joined in defiance of orders, with the land force. The fleet was in no way responsible for the failure, though the blame was carefully laid on Drake; Raleigh, ostensibly at any rate, rather gained in favour with the Queen, who was extremely angry with Essex. The Earl, however, recovered his ascendency while his rival was in Ireland in this same year. Then came another period of Raleigh’s ascendency. Essex married Philip Sidney’s widow, thereby infuriating his mistress; and, when he had been forgiven, was not kept at Court, but sent to command the English contingent in France in support of the king, Henry IV.—who was warring for his throne against the Guises, backed by Philip. Still, the raiding policy held the field, and the naval operations of 1590 were conducted by Hawkins and Frobisher. The Treasure fleet, against which it was directed, had warning and did not sail into the trap,379 so that the expedition was practically a failure. A similar expedition was planned for the next year, in which Raleigh was to have sailed as Vice-Admiral, Lord Thomas Howard being in command; but, Essex being in France, Elizabeth would not spare him, and Grenville went instead, to meet his death in the last famous fight of the Revenge. The next year, Raleigh and the Earl of Cumberland had a great enterprise on hand; but, again, Raleigh was ordered to turn back and resign his command to Frobisher.

At this time Sir Walter fell into complete disgrace at Court, partly because he did not at first obey the Queen’s orders, partly because of the discovery of his liaison with Elizabeth Throgmorton, who became his wife—whether he was already secretly married to her is a matter of some doubt. He was placed in confinement, and wrote the most outrageous letters to Robert Cecil anent the misery of being deprived of the sunshine of the Royal presence; in the then conventional form of adulation for Gloriana. He was more or less forgiven when the ships under the command of his lieutenant, Borough, returned, with a very rich prize, of the value whereof Elizabeth took one-half for herself. Incidentally, the whole story of this enterprise shows that Raleigh could make himself as popular with sailors as unpopular elsewhere; for the crews nearly mutinied when they found he was to be displaced by Frobisher; and after they landed, Robert Cecil was quite perturbed at the discovery of their devotion to him, their wrath at his imprisonment, and his influence380 over them when he was sent down to the port to keep matters straight.

Raleigh was released, but he no longer basked in the sunshine of the Virgin Queen’s favour, and lived away from the Court, spending much of his time at his newly acquired estate of Sherborne. About this time his rival, returned from France, was admitted to the Privy Council, from which he himself was still excluded; but he became active in Parliament, in private matters relating to his various estates, and in planning his great expedition for the “discovery of Guiana”; while he was also an energetic advocate of the policy of expelling the Spaniards from Brittany, relying—in full accord with the school of Drake—on the navy as England’s instrument for fighting her great foe. The persuasive eloquence of his tongue would seem to have equalled the picturesque force of his pen, which had been displayed in more than one pamphlet, notably in his extremely vivid account of the great fight in which his kinsman Grenville lost his life—where his narrative powers are associated with a singularly telling rhetorical invective directed against the Spaniards.

For a dozen years past, however, Raleigh had hardly put to sea in his own person, or seen much fighting. In 1595 he reappears as emphatically a man of action.



The Virginia project was for the time abandoned, since it had become clear that no serviceable co-operation could be expected from any quarter. If the establishment of a working colony in North America was out of his power, Raleigh came to the conclusion that territorial acquisitions on the southern continent might prove more attractive. Rumour declared that the Peruvian Incas had set up in the interior a new empire, known as Guiana, whose capital was the golden city of Manoa; Spanish attempts to penetrate inland had failed. If England established her sovereignty in the heart of South America, taking possession of what was believed to be the richest country in the world, the most short-sighted could see what a prospect was offered of dominating her rival, in the field to which that rival laid exclusive claim; and the most avaricious might anticipate opportunities of accumulating enormous wealth.

So Raleigh organised his expedition for the exploration of the Orinoco in 1595, taking command of it in person. The record of it we have from his own pen. As a matter of course, he had sundry collisions with the Spaniards, very much of his own seeking, capturing Berreo, the Governor of Trinidad, from whom he extracted a certain amount of information. Then he made his way some distance up the great river, enduring many hardships, seeing382 many strange sights, and gathering still more astonishing reports; collecting also samples of ore which suggested the auriferous character of the district. It seems, however, a somewhat curious omission on his part that he had sailed without proper means either for mining or assaying. In all other respects he proved himself an extremely competent explorer, in especial recognising the necessity of cultivating—in contrast to the Spaniards—the confidence and friendliness of the natives; carrying out his scheme, not on the hypothesis of bringing home the maximum of loot, but of preparing the way for the systematic entry of England into a great inheritance. He was again doomed to disappointment. The Cecils at this period were cooperating with him cautiously, but he could still get no other support; the Queen was minded to participate royally in profits, but she preferred to leave all the risks to others—and the others preferred the immediate return from raids to any systematic and laborious methods, however paying in the long run. Moreover, the credit which Sir Walter gave to apparently authentic but fabulous tales of Amazons and men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders, brought undeserved discredit on the explorer’s account of what he had actually seen. In short, the result of his adventure seemed very likely to be, that adventurers with very different methods would visit Guiana in search of Eldorado; but the beginnings of an English Empire in America were brought no nearer.

By this time Elizabeth was awaking to the fact383 that Spain’s power of aggression on the seas had by no means disappeared; and Drake had once more been called into counsel. In the winter of 1595, the great seaman and his old colleague and rival John Hawkins were in joint command of a new Panama expedition, in the course of which both of them died. The Cadiz expedition next year was the fruit of the more efficient policy which was being forced to the front by circumstances. General reconciliation was the order of the day in England; the Cecils, the Howards, Raleigh, and Essex were all on formal terms of alliance. Philip was making great naval preparations, when an English force appeared off Cadiz; Essex was the General, Effingham the Admiral; his cousin, Lord Thomas Howard and Raleigh, were both on the War Council. Effingham wished to land the soldiers and attack the town; Raleigh, who had been absent from the Council of War, appeared in time to get a hearing; the decision arrived at was reversed, and Raleigh in his vessel headed the squadron as it sailed into Cadiz harbour. There is no doubt that Sir Walter was the hero of the occasion, setting the example of doing the right thing in the right way. The result was that thirteen of Philip’s best warships were sunk or captured, a great fleet of forty sail packed full of riches was taken or burnt, and Cadiz itself was sacked completely and thoroughly, while the persons of the inhabitants were protected and cared for with a most unaccustomed generosity. Raleigh’s own narrative—he was badly wounded during the engagement—gives the fullest account of384 the proceedings, but is in the main substantiated by other evidence; and if he had no qualms about asserting the merits of his own performance, he was also at pains to emphasise with generous frankness the frank generosity displayed towards him by his personal rival. In all the relations between him and Essex, this is the pleasantest—one might almost say the only really pleasing—episode.

At last Raleigh was restored to Court favour; but for a time a superficial friendliness with Essex was maintained, and the pair were again united with Lord Thomas Howard in the following year in what was known as the Islands voyage: a futile performance, in which the English fleet had the worst of luck in respect of weather, and Essex, who was in supreme command, showed grave incompetence—which was hardly unnatural, since he was quite inexperienced in naval warfare and knew nothing whatever of naval strategy. At one stage Raleigh, awaiting Essex off Fayal (in the Azores), with orders not to attack till the whole force was assembled, found sufficient reason, after some days’ delay, for effecting the capture of the place on his own responsibility—to the extreme annoyance of Essex. The action was executed with brilliant courage and success; but the Earl’s anger was with difficulty appeased, and the old animosity between the rivals was to a great extent revived by the incident.

For a time, however, Raleigh was not much at Court. But Essex, who was popular with the mob, as the other was not, was jealous of every one, and nearly every one was jealous of Essex. Old385 Lord Burghley died, and a considerable part of the story of the Queen’s last years is really the story of the crafty intriguing by which Robert Cecil first urged Essex to the ruin on which he was ready enough to rush, and then laid his mines for the destruction of Raleigh—while carefully avoiding the odium in both cases. Essex, when in Ireland, acquired a fixed idea that Sir Walter was the principal person whose machinations were compassing his downfall; but there is little enough reason to suppose that he had any one but himself to thank. The only effective machinations were those of the people who covertly encouraged his own arrogance and misconduct. Nevertheless, it is matter of regret that when Essex fell, Raleigh—who had recently received insults from him—did take a vindictive line, while Cecil was posing as the advocate of magnanimity.

A sketch such as this does not permit of an examination of the intricate plottings that surrounded the old Queen as she was wearing rapidly to her grave. Roughly speaking, the English Catholics outside the country were zealous for the quite impossible succession of Philip III. of Spain—a plan which did not appeal to the Catholics in England. There were schemes for the succession of that monarch’s sister, which found supporters only on the basis of her uniting the crowns of the Netherlands and England, in independence of Spain. There were ideas of marrying Arabella Stewart and Lord Beauchamp—each of whom had some sort of title—with the object of preventing the accession of James VI., whose386 claim on purely legitimist grounds was quite indisputable. Cecil, satisfied that James was the winning candidate, made it his business to convince that prince that his peaceful accession would be entirely due to Cecil’s own masterly management, and that Raleigh in particular was extremely antagonistic; while Raleigh himself was at no pains to curry favour with the Scots king.

Scarcely was Elizabeth dead and James on the throne when a plot for his removal and the substitution of Arabella was brought to light, and Raleigh was charged with having sold himself to Spain and being a principal agent in the conspiracy, which involved the introduction of Spanish troops. The conduct of the trial was a monstrous perversion of justice, and Raleigh was condemned as a traitor. Apart from the inadequacy of the evidence and the palpable fact that it was full of contradictions and of perjury, it remains incredible that Raleigh should ever have seriously intended to support a Spanish domination. It would not only have been a flat contradiction of his whole career, a merely amazing folly in the man who in all England was the most absolutely convinced of the rottenness of the power of Spain; there was also no man alive who more thoroughly appreciated the historical truth, that he who sells his own country to her enemies purchases for himself not power and confidence but suspicion and contempt. The part of Themistocles would not have attracted him. He might have been capable of playing a selfish game; he was certainly not likely to play a consciously unpatriotic one; but387 the game attributed to him by his enemies would have been in his own eyes not only unpatriotic, but, from the selfish point of view, egregiously stupid.


Raleigh was condemned to die as a traitor; but the sentence was not carried out. Instead, he was relegated to the Tower, and was there held a prisoner for twelve years—mainly occupied in scientific and literary pursuits, varied by petitions for release. His chemical experiments may be accounted as a hobby; but his writings would have assured his fame had he possessed no other claim to recognition. They range over the whole field of what the Greeks included under the term “politics”—economics, the art of war, the art of government, political institutions, as well as other subjects. The incidental discourses on such matters, illustrated from the events quorum pars magna fuerat, with his comments thereon, give the main permanent interest to his “History of the World”—in itself a monument of such historical learning as was available in his day. On every subject he touched he wrote with a knowledge of facts and a penetrating perception of causes which distinguish him as a political thinker of a high order; alive, like Thomas More, to truths which had hardly won general recognition two centuries after he was in his grave. He who388 in the great days had been the intimate of Edmund Spenser was in the days of his captivity on terms of friendship with Ben Jonson. He, too, wrote poetry, but this was for him rather in the nature of an intellectual exercise or accomplishment than of a creative order; little that can with certainty be attributed to him has been handed down, though that little includes lines (like “The Lie” and the sonnet to Spenser) which are immortal, assuring him his place on the English Helicon. But his magnum opus was that “History of the World” which King James condemned because it spoke too “saucily” of the doings of princes, but which was ranked by Oliver Cromwell next to his Bible.

Raleigh’s condemnation produced a curious effect. Hitherto, he had been able to win the devotion of the few chosen intimates whom he accounted his intellectual peers, and of the mariners who sailed under his command, who adored him in much the same way and for the same reasons as they adored Francis Drake. Among courtiers his open and aggressive consciousness of intellectual superiority and his scornful attitude made him intensely unpopular; and he was the pet aversion of the mob, who had made a hero of Essex and regarded him as the Earl’s principal enemy. Yet the sense that he was a victim of gross injustice, the dignity and eloquence he displayed at his trial, the contrast between this typical Elizabethan and the minions of the new Stewart Court, brought about a revulsion of sentiment, and Raleigh in the Tower became an object of admiration, and to Henry Prince of Wales of hero-worship.

389 A curious psychological study is afforded by Sir Walter’s letters when he was lying under sentence of death. He condescended to appeal to the king for mercy in terms which can only be called abject; yet the ink was scarcely dry when he was writing to his wife with tender affection and beautiful dignity. The conclusion afforded by a comparison of the documents is that his personal attitude towards death was that expressed in the letter to his wife, but that for the sake of his family he felt bound to appeal for life, and the only form of appeal from which anything might be hoped must be couched in that style of pitiful self-abasement and fulsome flattery which he adopted—and by which he felt himself degraded.

While Robert Cecil lived there was never much hope of liberty for Sir Walter, who yet seems never to have realised that his old friend and colleague was, under the surface, his most determined enemy. But the prisoner, though now advanced in years—he was already fifty-one at the time of the trial—never ceased to dream of Eldorado, and to petition for liberty in order to make one more expedition to Guiana. Cecil died; the rising favourite, Villiers, was a person whose influence could be secured—at a price; and at last, after more than twelve years of captivity, Raleigh was released, to prepare for his last voyage. But the attitude of England to Spain had changed since Elizabeth’s death: the ambassador Gondomar could twist King James round his little finger. Raleigh meant to win his golden empire, and incidentally to teach the old lesson of390 Spanish incapacity over again; Gondomar intended to use that expedition for Raleigh’s destruction. Sir Walter played the game on the old familiar theory of twenty—thirty—forty years before: that success would excuse proceedings unauthorised, and even forbidden. Every soul, from the king down, knew perfectly well that if the adventurer did not set Spain at defiance, the adventure itself would be a stupid farce.

So the greatest living Englishman was sent forth to his carefully prepared destruction, to entangle himself in the toils laid by, and at the bidding of, the minister of England’s old foe. Of course, under the conditions the expedition was a disastrous failure. Raleigh returned from it with a perfect knowledge that he was coming back to irretrievable ruin and disgrace. It would have been easy enough for him to find refuge in a French port; that he deliberately faced his fate is sufficient proof that the charge of his having already sold himself to France was a base slander. Raleigh’s enemies were everlastingly accusing him of selling himself; they never produced a scintilla of proof, and the sales were singularly unremunerative to a man who was as careful of his own interests as any one when he did drive a bargain. He had hardly landed in Plymouth when he was placed under arrest. Even now he had an opportunity of escaping to France, but he refused to avail himself of it. His doom was a foregone conclusion; the death sentence passed on him in 1603 had never been cancelled.

He bore himself worthily; with the fortitude and391 dignity which were almost a commonplace with Englishmen of the Tudor tradition. The king of England, Elizabeth’s successor, struck off the head of the last of the Elizabethan heroes, at the orders of the king of Spain. But the degradation was only for a time. Spain had laid her enemy low; but the lesson he had spent his life to teach his countrymen was bearing its fruit even in the hour of his doom; to the men of Raleigh’s race was destined the Empire of the seas, and of the new worlds which Spain had arrogantly claimed.



Printed by Ballantyne & Co. Limited
Tavistock Street, London

Transcriber’s Notes

Punctuation, hyphenation, and spelling were made consistent when a predominant preference was found in this book; otherwise they were not changed.

Simple typographical errors were corrected; occasional unbalanced quotation marks retained.

Ambiguous hyphens at the ends of lines were retained.

Index not checked for proper alphabetization or correct page references.

Page 246: “he was again despatched as an enemy to Germany” was printed that way; perhaps “emissary” was intended.

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