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Henry VIII and the English Nobility

Published in History Today
  • Henry VIII and the English Nobility
    Helen Miller. 296pp. (Basil Blackwell, 1986)

Helen Miller provides a detailed and concisely-written survey of the membership, crown service and rewards of what had become by the early sixteenth century a clearly defined group, the lay members of the House of Lords. She explains why Henry chose to ennoble particular individuals at particular times, and details their service thereafter. She suggests that the King, although careful to maintain the nobility, was also anxious to preserve its status, and therefore refused to make an excessive number of grants, but she also demonstrates how reluctant Henry was to sanction extensive grants of either office or land: it may be that in this, as in so many other things, Henry was merely mean.

Indeed, although Miss Miller does not dwell on it, Henry emerges from this study as a grasping bully. Nobles were frequently required to exchange lands with the crown, and they rarely emerged from such transactions anything other than poorer. In 1534, for example, the manor of Pisho in Hertfordshire was taken from Lord Scrope to add to the new royal honour of Hunsdon, much against Scrope's wishes, and for a sum that took account of nothing but the bare rental value, whilst eight years later poor Lord Windsor was forced to surrender the estate of Stanwell to the King and, apparently, to leave his home immediately, despite having already stocked up for Christmas. Henry's cavalier attitude towards the property of his noble subjects, so fully revealed in this study, together with the better known facts, also discussed, about treason trials and acts of attainder, must finally demolish the myth of 'good King Harry'.

However, Henry's nobles were not themselves models of honourable behaviour. With the notable exception of Lord Dacre, about whose case Miss Miller makes some interesting observations, those nobles accused by the King of treason were found guilty when tried by their peers. The evidence against them was often flimsy, and the judgements reflect both the weakness of the nobility in the face of a determined monarch and, perhaps, a desire for loot: as Miss Miller circumspectly observes in the case of the Duke of Buckingham, 'it would perhaps be unduly harsh to suggest that some of the panel hoped for a tangible reward for their co-operation, but it is a matter of fact that Henry VIII made grants of Buckingham's lands to seven of the 20 peers who had tried and condemned him'.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that the focus of Miss Miller's study produces an unduly favourable impression of the nobility: court faction fighting is mentioned only in passing, and even the Pilgrimage of Grace plays no more than a walk-on part. Nobles, as presented here, were diligent in their participation in royal ceremonial, fairly assiduous in their attendance at parliament and enthusiastic over military service.

Miss Miller is restrained in her observations on the conduct of both Henry and his nobility; indeed, the book would have benefited from a little more speculation and generalisation. At the end of a very valuable chapter on attendance in war, for example, she slips in the remark that in 1544, 'almost casually', Henry VIII decided to send abroad the county levies, a decision which 'left the reign of Henry VIII as the last in which military service was the nobility's most conspicuous duty'. Does this mean that Miss Miller shares Lawrence Stone's belief that the decline in the nobility's military importance inevitably led to a decline in its political power? How, indeed, does she believe the political power of the nobility was developing at this period? Large areas of England and Wales were still dominated, as she points out, by noble families, and Henry seems to have had no intention of changing that: even the alterations in the control of the northern borders that followed the Pilgrimage were forced on the King by necessity rather than being the result of specific policy.

Henry continued to depend upon the nobility to act as his agents in the localities, for he was unknown to most of his subjects: as Miss Miller points out, despite his admiration for Francis I, Henry did not emulate him in his systematic tours of the provinces, choosing instead to take hunting parties to stay in his own residences in the home counties. This comparison with a continental monarch is illuminating, but it serves also to whet the appetite: how, for instance, does Henry's relationship with his nobility in general compare with that of contemporary rulers? Was he in truth meaner and more suspicious of the nobility than his medieval predecessors? Which of them did he try to emulate?

This is, then, in truth, a study only of certain aspects of the relationship between Henry VIII and his nobility. What they thought of each other, and what each considered the ideal relationship between monarchy and nobility to be, is not here discussed, and the contemporary debates over the concept of 'true' nobility are ignored. However, Henry VIII and the English Nobility is indisputably the definitive account of the material expression of those views.

  • Jennifer Loach is author of Parliament and the Crown in the Reign of Mary Tudor (Oxford University Press, 1986).

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