Volume Two – 1485 – 1603
HENRY THE SEVENTH (1485 – 1509)
Henry Tudor, in 1485,
Took an historic risk. Few men alive
Would offer odds against Richard the Third.
At Bosworth Field, however, undeterred,
Henry, Earl of Richmond, with a small force,
Robbed Richard of his kingdom and his horse.
The new King Henry the Seventh had brains.
Right from the start he took the greatest pains
To shore up his insecure position,
Wrong-footing the Yorkist opposition
With finesse. He sealed his opponents’ fate
With a declaration that the true date
Of his accession was the day before
His victory at Bosworth, and therefore
His enemies were traitors to the King.
Clever, eh? Henry thought of everything.
The King was a man of some piety,
Virtue, modesty and sobriety.
Astute, ascetic (plain for all to see),
He left a most impressive legacy:
A kingdom at peace, at home and abroad –
Solvent, united, its future assured.
Pictures suggest a frail man wracked with care,
With over-anxious eyes and thinning hair.
On display in the Portrait Gallery –
Go take a look, it’s there for all to see –
Is a painting by Holbein the Younger.
It depicts Henry the Eighth – warmonger
And (excuse the expression) whoremonger –
Sturdy and stout (his pretence at vigour).
In the background there’s a lesser figure,
In a long ermine robe, slender and tall.
At first you hardly notice him at all.
That’s appropriate. Few people have heard
Of Henry the Seventh, and that’s absurd.
Single-handed, he rescued the nation –
That’s no word of an exaggeration.
In my opinion, at any rate,
He’s not just ‘the Seventh’, but Henry ‘the Great’.
On April the 21st, 1509,
After several months of steady decline,
Henry breathed his last. He was fifty-two.
A gentle, noble King. My liege – adieu.
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HENRY THE EIGHTH (1509 – 1547)
Prince Henry succeeded. With Arthur dead,
England was stuck with his brother instead.
King Henry the Eighth, aged barely eighteen,
Was set, within weeks, to marry his Queen.
Catherine, Arthur’s widow, had waited
Seven long years, a delay she’d hated.
Senior to her husband by six years,
This sad alliance was to end in tears.
But for now there was wild jubilation:
A royal wedding, a coronation,
A handsome young King in the prime of life,
Virile and strong, with a fine Spanish wife.
Henry was all that his father was not.
His subjects decided (a fickle lot)
They suddenly valued youth over age.
Old Henry hadn’t been keen to engage
In costly and unnecessary wars.
Henry (the son) hardly bothered to pause
Before ganging up with the King of Spain
(His father-in-law) against France. His reign
Began as it would end, with French campaigns –
Wasteful, expensive, and with no real gains.
Henry thought rather a lot of himself.
Where his father carefully amassed wealth,
He spent it. Where his father was modest,
He’d show off in an archery contest.
Henry the Seventh had been a poor shot,
An ‘indoor man’. Henry the Eighth was not.
Broad-shouldered, muscular and athletic,
His self-regard was frankly pathetic.
In his own eyes Henry could do no wrong –
All very well when the country’s ‘on song’,
But over time, as the going got tough,
This self-indulgent tyrant cut up rough:
A despot, no less – a vain autocrat.
As surely as his muscle turned to fat,
Men saw that they’d won a pig in a poke.
Henry’s rollercoaster reign was no joke.
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HENRY THE EIGHTH’S LAST FIVE WIVES
Anne Boleyn: an unhappy marriage.
The sad young Queen suffered miscarriage
After miscarriage. So, still no son.
The King only married, all said and done,
To father an heir – as simple as that.
Princess Elizabeth, snivelling brat,
Wasn’t a boy. She wouldn’t do at all.
So Henry contrived her poor mother’s fall.
In 1536, early in May,
Less than four years after their wedding day,
Anne was arrested for adultery.
Her so-called trial was perfunctory.
Alleged to have had several lovers –
Among their number, one of her brothers –
Anne was executed, with five others,
Just ten days before Henry’s third wedding.
That’s some record, by any reckoning.
The lucky lady was one Jane Seymour.
She’d caught the King’s lustful eye months before.
She must bear him a son, and she knew it.
Dying in childbirth, she nearly blew it –
But the infant survived. It was… a boy!
An heir at last! The people danced for joy!
Tragic for Henry to lose his new wife,
But baby Edward, the light of his life,
Furnished the King with justification
For all his past errors. Jubilation
Replaced despair as the English nation,
Sure at last of the continuation
Of the House of Tudor, simply went wild.
The wife of the King had borne a male child!
Anne of Cleves
The hunt was soon on for a replacement.
Cromwell, never one for self-effacement,
Set about this commission with a will.
Thomas, though, sadly showed limited skill
In the match-making department. His fear –
Deep-seated and increasing year by year –
Was that amity between France and Spain
Would isolate England. Time and again
He warned the King of imminent danger.
He sought a political alliance
With the Duke of Cleves – not in defiance,
Exactly, of the King, but he worked hard
To win Henry over. Cromwell’s trump card
Was that Cleves had a sister (another Anne).
Cromwell was canny and cooked up a plan.
He passed around Anne’s portrait. “Oh, how fair!”
They all enthused, “She’s perfect!” – unaware
That Holbein had flattered the wench. Of course,
Poor German Annie was built like a horse.
The King was caught. The Fräulein was a fright.
This was apparent on very first sight.
Lumpen and plain, he called her a “fat mare” –
Out loud, in public. Such was his despair.
Their short marriage was celebrated,
But not (I’ve been assured) consummated.
The King never forgave Cromwell his shame.
Although a union only in name,
The affair made Henry a laughing stock.
Thomas Cromwell, his right-hand man, his rock,
Had blundered badly and was sent to the block.
Within sixteen days of the royal divorce,
This loyal servant of the Crown died. Of course,
The King remarried, and on the very day
That Thomas met his Maker. I have to say
That for bare-faced cheek that takes the biscuit.
And Wife Number Five? Who’d want to risk it? –
The Duke of Norfolk’s niece, one Katherine,
Cousin (can you believe?) to Anne Boleyn.
Just eighteen months she lasted. No virgin,
They later alleged, on her wedding night,
Henry discovered that his heart’s delight
Made herself ‘available’ (catch my drift?)
To the young men at court. She got short shrift
From the King, believe you me. Twice her age,
He’d been besotted with his Kate. His rage
Was terrible. They feared for his reason.
Katherine Howard was charged with treason
And lost her head in 1542.
Henry took to his bed. Well, wouldn’t you?
Now a cynical and dispirited man,
And martyr to a fierce temper, there began
The final, erratic phase of his long reign.
The old goat decided to marry again.
Another child bride would be going too far,
So this time he settled for Catherine Parr:
Twice widowed, trustworthy and amiable –
To be honest, the best choice available.
A Protestant, but non-political,
Tolerant, discreet and uncritical,
She suited the old man down to the ground.
Some say her influence wasn’t profound,
But Edward, Elizabeth and Mary –
None of whom shared a mother – though wary
At first, as step-children are apt to be,
Warmed to the Queen, whose sense of decency
And rectitude were plain for all to see.
She earned their respect and admiration
And took sole charge of their education.
The children loved Catherine, not just because
She was Queen, but for the character she was.
She outlived the King by only a year,
And when she died all England shed a tear.
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EDWARD THE SIXTH (1547 – 1553)
Edward the Sixth was pious and haughty,
Precocious and a prig. Never naughty,
He was self-assured, formidably bright,
Protestant, proud and always in the right.
Sorry to speak so ill of the young chap,
But his wretched reign was one long mishap:
Five and a half years of muddle, and yet
Hardly his fault. The Duke of Somerset,
His uncle Edward Seymour, held the reins
As Lord Protector. Somerset took pains,
It seems, to put poor England on the rack
For three sorry years, before getting the sack.
Some will say his heart was in the right place.
Liberal by instinct (that’s no disgrace),
He advanced the budding Protestant cause
By ending persecution. Henry’s laws
On treason and heresy were repealed,
By which naive move Somerset revealed
His lack of political grip. Dissent
Found a free voice, with reformers hell-bent
On changing the character of the nation,
Through religious debate and disputation.
Chantries were dissolved, where masses were said
For the souls of benefactors long since dead:
Purgatory was definitely ‘out’.
The Catholic Mass would soon itself, no doubt,
Be the sole preserve of the ultra-devout.
What the chantry closures were really about
Was to generate extra funds for the state.
The Lord Protector’s personal estate
In no small measure saw benefit too.
Corruption was rife. What else could he do?
Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer,
A work of scholarship beyond compare,
Appeared in 1549. This sought
To conjure order from chaos. It brought,
Quite naturally, nothing of the sort.
Though Cranmer’s work has stood the test of time,
Most in those days considered it a crime
To pray to the Lord in their mother tongue.
The Mass had always been spoken (or sung)
In Latin. That was what God expected.
No wonder folk so strongly objected.
But what caused the most pertinent comment
Was the Prayer Book’s Protestant content.
Cranmer’s new version was spectacular.
Perfectly crafted in the vernacular,
It combined a rare scriptural purity
With a rich, deep doctrinal maturity.
Edward was consumptive (we call it TB)
And succumbed in the summer of ’53.
Aware for some six months that he was dying,
What he found, as a Protestant, most trying
Was that Princess Mary, his named successor
And half-sister, was an ardent professor
Of Catholicism. Mary lived in hope
Of restoring the Church of Rome – and the Pope!
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MARY TUDOR (1553 – 1558)
If Mary Tudor had played her cards right,
She might have gone far. Her prospects were bright.
Though plain, she was popular. More inclined
To mercy than vengeance, she was refined,
Gentle and intelligent. She sang well,
With a fine contralto voice, I hear tell.
But the people were in for a rude shock.
Queen Mary was of old Catholic stock.
Half-Spanish, her kinsmen came from abroad,
Which folk at home distrusted and abhorred.
England was in a state of mortal sin.
Henry the Eighth’s ‘divorce’ from Catherine,
His first Queen, had been an aberration.
Her sole mission was to save the nation
By re-establishing the Church of Rome
As England’s one true spiritual home.
After Edward, this came as a volte-face.
Mary continued to celebrate Mass,
In Latin, despite the Protestant laws.
Had the new Queen countenanced the shortest pause
Before turning the clock back to her grandfather’s day,
She might just have succeeded. But that wasn’t her way.
Thirty-seven years old when she came to the throne,
Mary determined (the decision was her own)
To marry into the Spanish nobility.
Displaying an astonishing ability
To alienate her subjects, the new Queen chose
Her cousin Philip. This got up everyone’s nose.
Philip was Emperor Charles the Fifth’s son and heir.
The Council disapproved, but Mary didn’t care.
Eleven years her junior, Philip was bland,
Plain and unprepossessing. On the other hand,
He was young and lusty. Mary craved for a child.
The House of Commons refused to be reconciled.
They feared England ending up in Spain’s back pocket.
They hated the match, and did their best to block it.
Gardiner, now back in power, opposed it too.
The Queen ignored them. There was nothing they could do.
Indeed, displaying that Tudor ‘orthodoxy’ –
An iron will – she married Philip by proxy.
Thomas Cranmer had managed King Henry’s divorce
From Queen Catherine of Aragon. She, of course,
Was Mary’s mother. So there was little love lost –
As the poor Archbishop discovered to his cost –
Between Cranmer and the steadfast Catholic Queen.
Friend and adviser to Henry and, as we’ve seen,
To Protestant Edward, he was charged with treason
For plotting with Northumberland. The real reason,
It goes without saying, was his seminal role
In the English Reformation. Archbishop Pole,
His successor at Canterbury, and the Queen
Delayed his execution (I find this obscene)
Until the detested heresy laws were passed,
Which in 1555 happened, at long last.
Cranmer, sixty-six, was tried as a heretic.
Then, having been found guilty (this bit makes me sick),
He was forced to recant. Cardinal Pole believed
This would weaken the Protestants, and was relieved
When this honest, erudite but confused old man
Finally offered his recantation. Pole’s plan,
Endorsed by Mary, was to burn him anyway.
Resolved to the last to make their enemy pay,
They ordered Cranmer to make a public display
Of his recantation. So Thomas had his say.
At the stake he confounded the powers-that-be
By denouncing the Pope’s usurped authority,
Whereupon he put his right hand into the flame:
“This hand,” he cried, “hath offended. The very same
“Should be the first to be consumed.” So Cranmer died.
News of his heroism travelled countrywide,
Faster than fire. It set back the Catholic cause
For generations. The dreaded heresy laws
Continued to be enforced. No lessons were learnt.
Over four years, some three hundred martyrs were burnt.
‘Bloody’ Mary, then, the Queen came to be called.
Her hapless subjects were thoroughly appalled
When, following Charles the Fifth’s abdication,
Philip became King of Spain. Concentration
On home affairs drove the King from Mary’s side,
And it didn’t take Philip long to decide
That he much preferred the carefree, single life
To his frumpish, neurotic middle-aged wife.
However, England’s worst fears were realised
When Spain declared war on France. Few were surprised
When the wretched Queen, abandoned and alone,
Threw in her lot with Spain. It’s hard to condone
Her folly. Yet poor Mary was out of touch.
Still rumoured to love her husband very much,
And aching for a child, she staked everything
On pleasing the capricious, fickle Spanish King.
In June ’57 England declared war:
Of the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ nobody was sure.
The Queen commanded it, so it had to be.
Money was scarce, some funds raised illegally.
The final nail in Mary’s coffin, some say,
Was when the French seized and overran Calais.
The war was in some senses the Queen’s last chance
And, by losing England’s last foothold in France,
She set the seal on her humiliation.
Booed off the stage by an ungrateful nation,
And drained of all vestige of personal pride,
She simply gave up the will to live, and died.
The bells rang out to mark poor Mary’s death,
While bonfires welcomed in Elizabeth.
The third new monarch, though, in twelve short years –
A woman, to boot. It would end in tears.
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ELIZABETH THE FIRST (1558 – 1603)
Elizabeth the First was made of steel,
Yet still commanded popular appeal.
Striking of countenance, with flame-red hair,
She proved herself her father’s one true heir.
Milksop Edward and the frightful Mary
Both left the populace rightly wary
Of the Tudors. Their new Queen, however,
Like old Henry, was not only clever –
Fluent in six languages (Spanish, Greek,
Flemish and French were four that she could speak) –
But she loved life. Pageantry she adored,
Hunting and dancing. Warfare she abhorred.
Here she differed from her father. The waste,
In money and men, was not to her taste.
This was closer to her grandfather’s stance.
He, to his great credit, withdrew from France –
A long-drawn-out war – as soon as he could,
Devoting himself, as a monarch should,
To peace at home and to the common good.
Henry the Seventh (you know I’m a fan)
By nature was a conservative man.
Elizabeth inherited this trait –
In spades. As Queen, she embodied the State.
She could be haughty, wilful, wayward, vain,
Yet she exhibited, throughout her reign,
The gift of caution. On her accession
She claimed she was “mere English”. Possession
Of her crown, her life, her liberty, her throne,
She owed to the people, and to them alone.
Elizabeth, though, was nobody’s fool.
Strong as an ox, and stubborn as a mule,
Her character was forged in early life.
Anne Boleyn, Henry the Eighth’s second wife,
Was executed before Bess was three.
I should imagine (you may not agree)
That to know your mother’s head was chopped off
By your own father might bring on (don’t scoff)
Some kind of childhood trauma. Add to that
The fact that Henry never liked the brat.
When Bess was born he nearly had a fit:
An heir he needed, and this wasn’t it!
Hardly the best of starts… Her step-mother
Was then charged with incest with her brother –
Queen Katherine, the fifth wife, beheaded
When Elizabeth was eight. She dreaded
The thought of matrimony. Small wonder.
Henry committed many a blunder
In his choice of wives. His daughter, with skill,
Played off suitor against suitor until,
In late middle age, she called it a day.
Hardly one to “love, honour and obey”,
The Queen knew of course what she was doing.
Foreigners of all sorts came a-wooing.
She flirted, she flattered – strung them along.
The poor fools thought they mattered. They were wrong.
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EXECUTION OF MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS
Mary Stuart’s sad life was drawing to a close.
In 1586 (quite how, nobody knows)
Francis Walsingham unearthed the Babington Plot.
Whether he ‘set it up’, as some claim, I know not,
But Mary was led to believe, somehow at least,
That with the help of God, and the odd friendly priest,
She could safely correspond with plotters abroad –
In France. This was a folly she could ill afford.
Walsingham intercepted her correspondence –
Read her every rash, unguarded utterance.
This plot, like the rest, would place Mary on the throne,
With Elizabeth put to death, or overthrown.
Babington, one of the Queen of Scots’ ex-pages,
Sought Mary’s approval. For what seemed like ages,
No answer was forthcoming. Then at last it came:
The Scots’ Queen gave her consent. It was not just game,
But set and match to Walsingham. Mary was tried
And found guilty, the verdict welcomed countrywide.
Parliament, People, Council – all were as one:
The wicked Scottish Queen should die for what she’d done.
Enough was enough. Elizabeth was at risk.
Let the punishment be death, and let it be brisk.
The stumbling block was Queen Elizabeth the First,
Mary’s cousin in blood. She had neither the thirst,
Nor appetite, for a royal execution,
So settled upon a compromise solution:
After three months’ delay and prevarication
She signed the death warrant, but caused consternation
By neglecting to despatch it! Leicester and Co –
Lord Burghley, Walsingham, and others in the know –
Finally, and without Elizabeth’s consent,
Sent it off themselves, and we all know what that meant.
February the 8th, 1587,
Was the day that Mary’s soul took flight for Heaven.
The scene was Fotheringhay Castle, the Great Hall.
She mounted the scaffold, hardly shaking at all,
And laid her head upon the block. With dignity,
Courage, and a tragic pride (a pity to see),
She went to her death a martyr. Catholics wept.
Protestants rejoiced. Elizabeth barely slept,
Though whether from the bells of London ringing out
Or from her own dreadful guilt, there’s some room for doubt.
Livid with her Council, the Queen ranted and raved,
Unaware that her own precious self had been saved.
She’d never seen Mary as a figure of hate,
But rather (her own phrase) “the daughter of debate”.
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THE SPANISH ARMADA
The seminal events of 1588 –
If you remember anything, make it this date –
Were a milestone in the fortunes of the nation.
They marked, moreover, a thorough vindication
Of the Queen’s foreign policy: preparation,
Over decades, for war; naval reparation;
And a secure kingdom, of her own creation.
On July the 19th the Spanish were sighted
Just off the Lizard. Effingham was delighted.
Three earlier attempts by his fleet to reach Spain
Had been frustrated by appalling wind and rain.
Holed up in harbour, he might have faced disaster,
But slipped out just in time (his ships being faster)
And harried the Spaniards as they made their way,
In tight formation, up the Channel. To this day,
No one is entirely sure how he managed it,
But Medina Sidonia, to give him credit,
Brought his great Armada to anchor off Calais
Without significant loss. There, I have to say,
His luck ran out. Parma’s army hadn’t arrived
And, if it had, would surely have never survived.
The Spanish plans lacked basic co-ordination.
Medina Sidonia’s skilful navigation
Was nothing in the absence of Parma’s support.
Spain didn’t control one single deep-water port,
So the proposed link-up between Parma’s forces
And the Armada was doomed. Those old war horses
Howard of Effingham, Seymour, Hawkins and Drake
Were quick to seize upon this strategic mistake.
On July the 28th, approaching midnight,
Six fire-ships sailed to set the Spanish fleet alight.
The latter (sitting ducks) broke rank and put to flight,
In panic. Medina Sidonia stayed to fight,
Off Gravelines, a bitter and costly battle.
His troops were outwitted and slaughtered like cattle.
Few ships were lost, though many were badly battered.
As for the rest (not that this very much mattered),
They were driven by gales blowing from the south-west
Into the North Sea and beyond. Sidonia’s best
Proved inadequate, as England rose to the test.
The bad weather helped, but leadership was the key.
The Queen’s great commanders proved masters of the sea.
All those years of privateering (nay, piracy)
Were paying dividends, and paying handsomely.
News of our victory only reached the nation
Some ten days later. Elizabeth’s oration,
At Tilbury, in the shadow of invasion,
Was a thrilling and memorable occasion.
Although her body was a weak and feeble thing,
She had, she said, “the heart and stomach of a King” –
Moreover, she professed, “a King of England too”.
And, though the persons present numbered but a few,
Her words were learned by heart by subjects yet unborn.
That “any Prince should dare invade” she thought “foul scorn”.
The borders of her precious realm were sacrosanct,
And so it proved. England was saved. May God be thanked.
The Spanish fleet limped home. Half at the very most
Made it back to base. Wrecks littered the English coast
(The Scottish, too), blown to bits by the savage gales.
Some even foundered on the craggy coast of Wales.
“God blew and they were scattered,” so the legend went,
As though the English victory was Heaven-sent.
Far from it, I should say. It was sheer bravery
That finally put paid to Spanish knavery.
Effingham’s fleet lost fewer than a hundred men
And not a single ship. I should like to know when,
If ever, in the course of her long history,
England had won a more brilliant victory.
The great golden age of Gloriana
Saw a flourishing of the arts: drama,
Poetry, music. William Shakespeare –
The dramatist supreme and sonneteer –
Led the field. Elizabeth was a fan.
The fine tradition of blank verse began,
And achieved perfection in Shakespeare’s plays.
Kit Marlowe, stabbed to death in mid-career
In a pub brawl, in his thirtieth year;
Thomas Kyd, his plays all blood and thunder,
Who died deep in debt, and little wonder.
Marlowe and Kyd were promising playwrights,
Though both, in their way, over-fond of fights.
The most rare Church music you’ll ever have heard
Was composed at this time by William Byrd.
Thomas Tallis was his great predecessor,
Orlando Gibbons his able successor.
Secular songs and madrigals flourished too:
Dowland, Wilbye and Morley (to name a few)
Were masters of the art of the four-part song:
Where the verse was easeful, the harmonies strong,
The lyrics romantic, they couldn’t go wrong.
To name the painter of the age is not hard:
The miniaturist, Nicholas Hillyard.
The beauty of his portraiture is sublime.
If you don’t know his work, seek it out! Find time!
In King Henry’s time, the masters of verse
Were Wyatt and Surrey. You could do worse
Than to read their Sonettes. They led the way.
The sonnet in Queen Elizabeth’s day,
Widely regarded as the perfect form,
Took pride of place as the poetic norm.
Spenser and Raleigh, Sidney and Shakespeare,
Were all great craftsmen. But the lyric sphere
Encompassed a broad range of poetry:
Pastoral eclogues, odes, allegory,
Song cycles, love poems, even satire.
It seemed the heart of England was on fire!
Spenser’s The Faerie Queene celebrates
The life of ‘Gloriana’, vindicates
The Protestant religion, radiates
Wisdom and morality, and debates –
In allegory – such themes as Justice,
Chastity, Courtesy and Holiness:
Not unlike a ‘state of the nation’ play,
Though quite impossible to read today.
More accessible still is the sonnet.
Read this if you will, and think upon it:
“How may the poet turn his sharpest wit
“To forge the image of thy sovereign worth?
“My fragile verses now are merely fit
“For simple images of basest earth.
“Once idle Time had written in thy face
“Those lines that caused more eyes to weep than mine,
“For those who ill perceived thy battered case,
“Let them believe, from these, that grace of thine.
“My humble words struggle alas in vain
“To stem the grief belonging to thy death.
“Our worldly loss is only Heaven’s gain:
“God save the soul of good Elizabeth.
“Thy work is done. Now speed thee to thy rest
“And take thy place, dear Queen, among the best.”
So ended, then, the great Elizabethan age.
Enter King James of Scotland now to take the stage.
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