Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XII, 16th Century England in relation to the Dutch Revolt, Germany & Spain

The idea of a very sovereign and separate England, which does not really fit with the highly French oriented Middle Ages as discussed in the last post, may look a bit more plausible after 1485 when the Tudor dynasty came to power, ending the Wars of the Roses between different Plantagenet claimants to the throne. Under the Tudors, the English (including Welsh) state system is consolidated, the English church passes from authority of the Pope in Rome to the monarchy, and the dynasty ends in the unification of England and Scotland. That is when Elizabeth I died in 1603, the throne passed to the Stuart King of Scotland, James VI, who became James I of England.

The break with the church in Rome was an accident which had nothing to do with the religious inclinations of Henry VIII, who took the national church under his control for marital reasons. In the mid-1520s, he wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in which the Pope would declare the marriage to have been invalid according to Canon law (in this case  because she had been married to Henry VIII’s late brother) . The Pope would have been willing to co-operate, but was under the control of Catherine’s uncle Charles V (German ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor and King of Spain), who regarded the proposed annulment as an insupportable insult to the imperial-royal family honour.

Conveniently for Henry, it was a good time for finding a religious base for a national church independent of Rome. The Reformation, that is revolution of new Protestant churches agains the Catholic church was underway, in a process normally dated back to Martin Luther posting 95 theses critical of the hierarchy on a church door in Wittenburg in 1517. Henry VIII did not break with Rome because of Protestant inclination and though there was a dissident religious tradition, the Lollards going back to the  fourteenth century, which anticipated Protestant thinking, it was a movement of strictly minority interest. Henry seized church lands and allied himself with Protestants. This accidental partial adoption of Protestantism was followed by swing towards more pure Protestantism under Edward VI then a swing back towards Catholicism under Mary Tudor followed by a final victory of Protestantism under Elizabeth I, though not a victory of the most radical Protestants, and not a result of majority sentiment in the nation, which would have favoured Catholicism before decades of state pressure and persecution made Protestantism the majority religion.

The struggle of the Protestant cause in England was associated with an intensified presence in Ireland through very bloody means, and an international struggle against Catholic Spain, associated with support for the Dutch Revolt against Spanish and Catholic control. Overall this might give the picture of England, as a proto-United kingdom fully incorporating Wales and partly incorporating Ireland, rising up as a free Protestant nation outside the control of the major trans-European institution of the time, the Catholic church. However, Protestantism was an import from Germany (Martin Luther) and Switzerland (John Calvin’s Geneva and Huldrych Zwingli), even if some tried to see it as the product of Lollardy.

The time of Elizabeth and the first Stuart James I was the time of colonialism in the Americas, which sovereigntist-Eurosceptic enthusiasts are inlined to see as part of Britain’s unique global role. This claim seems strange given the major colonial ventures of Portugal, Spain, and the Netherlands at this time. Britain was not uniquely Protestant or uniquely colonial and trading. The consolidation of a national state at that time has equivalents in Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Russia. The ‘growth’ of Parliament under the Tudors absolute monarchs who conceded that taxes had to be raised by Act of Parliament, and that laws properly speaking were also from Acts of Parliament, but held onto complete control of government  and saw no need to.call Parliament except when new taxes or laws were needed, is paralleled by representative institutions in the new Dutch Republic, the continuation of German and Italian city republics along with self-governing Swiss cantons, the continuing role of regional assemblies in Spain and local courts ‘parlements’ in France which had the power to comment on new legislation, and the elective-representative structure of the Holy Roman Empire all provide parallels.

English state and national life was caught up in Europe most obviously through support for the Dutch, but also in the trade and diplomatic activities of the time. Mary Tudor, who attempted Catholic restoration, was married to Philip II of Spain while she was Queen, so placing England under heavy Spanish influence. Defeat of the Armada (Spanish invasion fleet) under Elizabeth became a symbol of English independence, but was itself strongly linked with English involvement in the Netherlands. So it was not a period of continuous English independence from European powers and was certainly not a period of isolated separation. The connections with the continent were reinforced during the reign of James I who had dynastic connections in Denmark and Germany.

More on Jacobean (from Jacobus, the Latin form of James) and seventeenth century England in the next post.

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6 thoughts on “Myths of Sovereignty and British Isolation XII, 16th Century England in relation to the Dutch Revolt, Germany & Spain

  1. […] The last post went up to the reign of James I in the early seventeenth century known as Jacobean England/Britain, because Jacobus is the Latin form of James. James I was also James VI of Scotland, unifying the two crowns in his person. He wished to created a unified British state, but this was not achieved until the early eighteenth century and Scotland always remained a distinct nation within Britain, de jure through different laws and state institutions, de facto through a distinct culture, or cultures, and a partly separate economy. […]

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