Mid-Tudor England: Years of Trauma and Survival

John Matusiak examines whether a common interpretation can survive detailed scrutiny.

The central purpose of this article is to survey and re-evaluate a claim that has been a recurring source of debate and controversy amongst historians over the last thirty years. Its echoes are still resonating today and the pendulum of argument and counter-claim continues to swing, albeit perhaps at a reduced rate and with decreasing momentum. At its peaks, the debate has been more than vigorous. Now that the dust is settling, has the furniture been re-arranged profitably? 

The case for a ‘Mid-Tudor crisis’

The notion that there was a crisis in the middle years of the sixteenth century was first systematically expounded by W.R.D. Jones. His book, The Mid-Tudor Crisis 1539-1563 (1973), focused upon problems that, he claimed, ‘seem to have been ever-present in mid-Tudor England’ and displayed a ‘close relationship’ with each other. The mid-Tudor years were, Jones suggested, characterised by dynastic instability, but, on top of this, the government’s underlying sense of foreboding was said to have been further fuelled by an inter-locking web of other difficulties and compounded by the gaping deficiencies of a series of inadequate rulers. Religious commotion caused by swings of power among contending conservative and radical parties, foreign policy failures and harrowing financial and economic problems all, it was said, played their part in forging a distinctively bleak and forbidding vista in the middle years of the century. Therefore, this was, or so the argument ran, predominantly a time when survival was the gritty priority of rulers and ruled alike. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Jones was to conclude: ‘the fact that England escaped catastrophe … cannot simply be taken for granted’.  

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