Critics have often accused European royalty of ruinous expenditures on palaces, retinues, pensions, mistresses, and high living in general, and yet such expenditures were usually a relatively small part of government outlays. War was really the major cause of disastrous financial difficulties for modern governments. Henry VIII’s six wives, his court, his frequent royal journeys did not beggar England; the wars of Charles V and Philip II did beggar Spain.
Henry VIII made war prudently, never really risking large English armies on the Continent. He used the English Reformation to add to royal revenues by confiscating monastic property and rewarding his loyal followers with the lands so confiscated. Henry thus followed in the footsteps of his father in helping create a new upper class, which soon became a titled or noble class. The result was a “balanced monarchy,” with substantial power to which there were, nonetheless, limits.
Under Henry VIII and his successors the newly rich continued to thrive, and many others also prospered. But Tudor England also had a class of the newly poor as a result of the enclosing of land for sheep farming. These small farmers, who lost their right to pasture animals on former common lands now enclosed in private estates, lost the margin that had permitted them to make ends meet.
Lacking the patience to attend to administrative details, Henry relied heavily on members of the new Tudor nobility as his chief assistants—and above all, Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540). Cromwell was a master administrator who endeavored to make the royal administration more loyal, professional, and efficient, and less tied to the king’s household and to special interests. In achieving much he antagonized other ambitious royal servants. Discredited by his enemies in the eyes of the king, Cromwell was executed for treason in 1540.
Henry could be ruthless, yet he could be tactful and diplomatic, as in his handling of Parliament to get everything he wanted, including statutes separating the English church from Rome and grants for his wars and conferences. Henry’s parliaments were far from being elected legislatures based on wide suffrage. The House of Lords had a safe majority who were of Tudor creation or allegiance.
The evolving and complex House of Commons was composed of the knights of the shire, chosen by the freeholders of the shires, and of the burgesses, representatives of incorporated towns or boroughs (not by any means all towns). In most boroughs a very narrow electorate chose these members of Parliament. Since most of the people of the shires were agricultural workers or tenants, rather than freeholders of land, the county franchise was also limited.
Still, even the Tudor parliaments were nearer a modern legislative assembly than the assemblies on the Continent. The great difference lay in the composition of the House of Commons, which had emerged from the Middle Ages not as a body representing an urban bourgeoisie, but as a blend of the rural landed gentry and the ruling groups in the towns. On the Continent the assemblies corresponding to the English Parliament usually sat in three distinct houses: one representing the clergy, another all the nobles, great and small, and a third the commoners.
By the beginning of the Tudor era, Parliament had already obtained much more than advisory powers. Parliament emerged from the Middle Ages with the power to make laws or statutes, though these did require royal consent. Yet, although the Tudor monarchs had their difficulties with Parliament, they usually got what they wanted without serious constitutional crises.
This was particularly true of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who succeeded in part because their parliaments were generally recruited from men indebted to the Crown for their good fortune. But the Tudors also succeeded because they were skillful rulers, willing to use their prestige and gifts of persuasion to win the consent of Parliament.