The emergence of the English nation state under the House of Tudor


The baronial wars that plagued England throughout the fifteenth century, known as the Wars of the Roses, took another dramatic twist in 1485 when Henry Tudor, descendent of John of Gaunt, deposed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Whilst the Wars might well have continued, England was in fact entering a period of relative stability which would see the restoration of Royal power and the establishment or evolution of institutions which would eventually be part of and define the English nation-state. Debate has raged over when we can truly call England a "modern" state or even whether we can delimit its ascent to modernity: as R. G. Collingwood said, history books (or nodes!) may have a start and end, but the events they describe do not. Traditionally 1485 was seen as the date when England entered the Early Modern Period, while others place it in 1529 (the Reformation Parliament and Cromwell's "Tudor Revolution").

Bosworth Field: the morning after

The English monarchy had in many ways always been stronger and more centralised than its European neighbours: the great lawmaker Edward I had perhaps done the most to effect common administration and lavish what G.R. Elton calls "fatherly care" on his dominions. Edward III began to gift land, and therefore power, to a nobility with Royal blood in its veins, and for two centuries these powerful nobles tried to make good their claim to the Crown. Whilst it is not true to say the threat was merely latent before the reign of Henry VI, it is this that B. P. Wolfe has called "the most calamitous in English history". The Earl of Warwick, "the Kingmaker", deposed the Monarch at his pleasure and over-mighty nobles used the Crown as their plaything. When Richard III died screaming of a treason against his Crown, he was screaming for a Crown weakened and discredited by two centuries of infighting and disorder: he and Edward IV had made a credible start on re-endowing its power, but the House of Tudor would actually carry this policy through to its end.

If we look at what precisely was missing during the crisis of the fifteenth century, we find that it was strong Kingship: the apparatus of government had not disapeared, it had merely been eclipsed, then made irrelevent and ineffective. Henry VII restored the power of the Crown to the point where it could begin its assault on the Church in the 1530s, and by the end of his reign the nobility had to a large extent been domesticated. Henry VII did not base his power on physical force (the comparison is often made to Charles I, and it is said of both that they had "no wish to go on their travels again", meaning they shunned foreign adventure) but rather on sheer popularity. By marrying Elizabeth of York he effectively ended the War of the Roses by uniting the red rose of York and the white of Lancaster. By putting an end to faction and presenting a united front to the people, he was able to win their support and begin the "cult" of Tudor Monarchy. When battling the pretender Lambert Simnel it was notable that while not many rose up to oppose and fight against the King, nor did many rise up to defend him. What we see here is an apathy which was beneficial to the King (he won anyway), and that would soon evolve into the very real love people felt for the Tudor monarchs.

When Henry VII took over the Crown, then, he took over the position of head of a government which, though comprising of some corporate entities, ultimately depended upon his strength. Through what has been described both as rapacity and prudence he cut away at the powers of the nobility and imposed strict financial penalties on them for their misdeeds (see Henry VII and the nobility). Whether by design or accident, by looking to the gentry class for many of his servants, Henry VII created a set of civil servants who had him alone to thank for their status and hence a loyalty with its roots in self-ambition. These people also had an interest in the perpetuity of the corporate government, and in many ways it was this new class that staffed the government of the English nation state. Through his strict financial régime and his return to chamber finance (a technique he took from the Yorkists) Henry VII managed to die solvent, but chamber finance can be seen as 'Medieval' because it was centered in the Royal household. A pile of money at the back of the King's bedchamber cannot be seen as an arm of a "nation-state", and Henry VIII's indifference to the (actually highly efficient) principle of chamber finance boded for the return of the Exchequer.

Nationhood and race: the frontier regions

At the start of Henry VII's reign, the word "state" did not have the meaning we give it today. The "state" or "condition" was only the state or condition of, say, the King or the people. In the 1590s it began to mean the "(nation-)state of England", taking on a meaning than encapsulated the people, the realm and the institutions of government. The Act of Appeals in 1533 stated "this realm of England" and at this time there were areas of the "realm" outside the central government's sphere of influence. "Nation" was often used late-Medieval times to refer to a race, which further complicates matters, because England was seen as composing of three races: English, Welsh, and Cornish (and then there were the Scots - "England is but half an island", remarked Pope Sixtus V). These races were defined by their language, customs and law: when Sir Thomas Smith was advocating the conquest of Ireland in 1565, he said that Royal policy was "to augment our tongue, our laws and our religion in that Isle, which three be the true bands of the Commonwealth."

If the making of the English nation involved administrative reform within England it also involved the spread of English control in Wales, the attempt to extend it into Ireland, and of course the Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, when James Stuart ascended to the throne of England. Many Welsh and Cornish became bilingual in this period, and when the Welsh asked for a translation of the Gospel into their native tongue, it was famously decreed that the Welsh Bible would sit alongside the English in Churches, so the natives might learn the latter. When Edward I had conquered Wales he built a string of fortifications so that his barons might assert their dominance over the meri Wallici ('mere Welsh') and later the Marcher Lords (the Marches were a 'buffer' zone between England and Wales) were given great power (called 'liberties', they were outside of the King's juidicial system) to defend the English from the Welsh. But a revolt in 1403 under Welsh baron Owain Glyndwr failed to withstand the force of English arms for long. After this there was a certain suspicion and fear of the Welsh on the part of English Monarchs, and Thomas Cromwell (polemic: The Tudor Revolution), Minister to Henry VIII, wished to establish a unitary state without any areas of 'liberty'.

In 1536, the Act of Resuming Certain Liberties to the Crown removed the power of some areas to over-ride the King's writ, and only the King had the power to appoint judges in any part of England or Wales. This further strengthened the central state and it remained only to properly extend the central authority into these regions. This was also achieved under Cromwell and the Welsh were allowed to send Members to the House of Commons, as the Marcher regions were split into shires. The establishment of the Council of the North and its augmentation after the Pilgrimage of Grace has led Henry Jefferies to declare that by the end of the Tudor dynasty "the King's writ was as effective in the North as it was in Middlesex", and the most definitive study (The King's Council in the North) concludes that the Crown ruled the North effectively through the Council. So Wales had been absorbed into the English polity and the North was in the sphere of the court and central government (with the odd hiccup).

Political thought and law in the shift to nationhood

One of the main factors in the development of an English national identity was the English Reformation and the anti-Catholic xenophobia which followed. Particularly after the disastrous reign of Mary I and the unpopularity of her Spanish husband Philip II, and then during the war with Spain following the Spanish Armada, there was a distinct sense of being an English Protestant in a hostile Catholic Europe. Under such threat and pressure nationalism is born (and it has been observed that for sixteenth-century man religion was another name for nationalism, the converse also being true). If this aided the attraction and retention of loyalty by the Crown, then so did the theological terms in which the demands of loyalty were couched. The theory of the Divine Right of Kings was strong and many books, especially those put out by government-sanctioned Tudor propagandists, said that it was the duty of a Christian man not to rebel or resist the King because he was ordained by God. The King could be judged only by God, and would get his in the afterlife: but the common people would only be rewarded for unwavering loyalty. It was not their duty to judge the rightness or wrongness of the King's demands.

Clearly this paved the way for a Divine Right to Absolute Monarchy, but this never became reality in England. The crunch was that surely the King's Divine Right to rule, ordained by the Christian religion, was based on his duty in upholding this religion: and in the sixteenth century, there were many different conceptions of what the Christian religion was. This led to many nasty happenings on the Continent from which we were largely removed, but it led to publicists questioning the Divine Right of the Crown from both the Puritan and Catholic side of the fence during the reign of Elizabeth I. It was a curious aspect of the emergence of the English nation state that, distinct from its neighbours, the power of the corporate government increased, but no absolute monarchy emerged. This was because the strong English common law, as distinct from the Roman law in effect over much of Europe, counted the King among those below it. "The King's grant of any favour made contrary to law is void; rex nihil potest nisi quod jure potest." This was largely a question that would have to be decided (and fought over!) in the next century, but many writers were already finding in favour of the legislative against the executive.


Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors 2nd. ed.: Methuen & Co, 1974.

Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Haigh, Christopher (ed). The Reign of Elizabeth I: Macmillan, 1984.

Helm, P. J. England under the Tudors and Yorkists: 1471-1603: Bell & Hyman, 1968.

Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder & Stoughton, 1994.