The Tudor Revolution
Constitution, parliament & sovereignty

Historians have a propensity for debate, and one is the debate over Professor G. R. Elton's theory of the Tudor Revolution, something he first expounded in 1953 in his The Tudor Revolution in Government. Professor Elton identifies the 1530s as probably the key decade in the constitutional history of Britain in the sixteenth century, saying that Thomas Cromwell engineered a vast change in the way people looked at the British Crown, parliament, Church, and the concept of sovereignty. His reasoning follows (it's tiresome to keep typing "Professor Elton says...", so just imagine I'm him. Objections to this thesis are at the bottom).

The English Reformation involved the break of England from the Papacy and the establishment of English sovereignty, ie. the idea that England was a nation state which was subordinate to nothing outside of it. The battle was a battle over control of England's spiritual sphere, its Church. And one thing the English Reformation certainly did accomplish was to turn the Church in England to the Church of England ('Bloody' Mary might have undone it in 1553, but not for long). The King was established as Supreme Head of the Church of England and, whilst he never claimed to be a priest, he had juristiction over matters of doctrine. He even had the power to invest this responsibility in a subordinate, as he did when he made Thomas Cromwell vicegerent of spirituals. Clearly this was a massive power, but what's interesting is whether this power came from Parliament or from God. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell certainly saw it as been divinely ordained, meaning that this authority didn't come from Parliament. The role of Parliament was to legalise Royal policy and allow for the punishment of transgressors of the Royal Supremacy, but it was God that ordained it.

This didn't mean Parliament wasn't important - in fact, the Tudor Revolution established new and exciting ways in which Parliament was important! Even though Parliament wasn't the origin of the Revolution, nor (on its own) the engine behind it, it was invaluable in actualising it. By now the "King-in-Parliament" (ie. the King acting in a body representative of both the Commons and the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, that being Parliament) was recognised as the law-giving entity of the nation. And what the Tudor Revolution did was prove that there was no part of the affairs of the realm which Parliament couldn't touch. This was Thomas Cromwell's simple thesis, which took centuries to be fully accepted - even understood: there is nothing in the realm Parliament cannot do and no-one that can dispute its authority. Statutes combined England and Wales (1536), encroached massively on private property rights (Dissolution of the English Monasteries, 1536-40) and defined matters of spirituality.

It used to be asserted that Henry VIII's government was despotic, and the Act of Proclamations (1539) was taken to be the 'high point' of Henrican absolutism. It said that Royal proclamations were to be obeyed as if they were acts of Parliament and machinery was put in place to enforce them. Quite the opposite of being a tool of absolutism, this Act came from the need to codify in law the institution of Royal proclamations. Such was Thomas Cromwell's belief in the all-pervasive nature of Parliament that he felt this was necessary.

So, two properties of the Tudor Revolution so far: emphasis on sovereignty, new omnipotence of Parliament. Henrican Parliaments were in general subservient, and this was because the interests of the Commons and the Lords tied into those of the government. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the situation changed, and she had some trouble with them (she only called Parliament fifteen times anyway). But another aspect of Cromwell's "many-sidedness" stands out in a century of proficient statesmen: his work in reforming the administration of the country. In Tudor England, John Guy describes the thesis of Cromwell's Revolution in Government thus -

"The 'Revolution' thesis maintains that Cromwell consciously - that is, as a matter of principle - reduced the role of the Royal household in government and substituted instead 'national' bureaucratic administration within departments of state under the control of a fundamentally reorganized Privy Council."

The achievement of Henry VII had been to concentrate the executive in the Royal household - the Exchequer had been abandoned in favour of chamber finance (a big stack of money in the King's bedroom) and he had pressed litigation through the Council Learned in the Law. This form of government was very personal, and its quality and efficacy necessarily declined when the Monarch was young, weak, or uninterested (as it declined after Henry VII's death and before the Chancellorship of Thomas Wolsey). A national bureaucracy would still be centered about the King's person but more capable of action without him and, in theory, less prone to the slings and arrows of outrageous politics. The new Privy Council was originally a body of nineteen of the King's closest advisors. Its size was in flux under subsequent Tudors and the early Stuarts, and it became unwieldy and ineffective under the latter, whom dissolved it. Elton says that it was the seed of the modern Cabinet, however.

It had been a high ideal of the nobility for some time that the King's advisors should form a Council of men rather than there been one man who ruled the Chancellorship (as Thomas Wolsey had done). The nobility had been increasingly sidelined since Henry VII by men of lower birth and greater ability, generally lawyers or priests, and were desirous of an increase in their power. As it was unlikely one of them would rise to pre-eminence as the King's principle advisor (and this would clearly not satisfy the others), they were pretty hot on the idea of a Council which they could exert an influence in. And it can well be argued that it was not in the interest of Thomas Cromwell to create a Council that would eclipse his own power. Elton maintains that he did and that this is further evidence of Cromwell's propensity for edification - and it is true that Cromwell did a fair job of keeping the Council under his thumb until his fall in 1540 anyway.

By this it is meant not that he controlled people within the Council - rather, he prevented the Council from assuming corporate responsibility. John Guy therefore extends the Tudor Revolution in Government to the reign of Elizabeth I, by which time the Council was indeed an effective and corporate branch of government. Because the Council had so many religious conservatives on it during the reign of Henry - that is, people opposed to Cromwell - he prevented its full fruition. So, though the Council was Cromwell's creation, it became effective more because he died than because he lived.

For a sensible history of Tudor England by the proponent of the Tudor Revolution thesis, see: England Under the Tudors (London, 1974) by Professor Elton. A recent 'textbook' with some criticisms is The Tudor Years (Hodder & Stoughton, 1994) ed. John Lotherington. A drier and more scholary account can be found in Tudor England (Oxford, 1988) by John Guy.

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