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Elton’s interpretation of the roles of Somerset and Northumberland Essay

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Geoffrey Elton presented a view of Somerset as an incompetent leader, who failed to fill the political vacuum the ascension of an infant monarch had created; nonetheless, he was noble minded and had visionary aims. On the other hand, Elton saw Northumberland as ambitious and power greedy; however, he did recognise that Northumberland had introduced welcome reforms to the finances and administration, which certainly marked an improvement upon Somerset’s rule. In this essay, I will argue that Elton’s assessment of their reforms and actions was correct, although his judgement of their characters, although true to a certain extent, has been exaggerated.

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Somerset demonstrated very little concern for humanitarian reform, as has been said by historians such as Elton, and his rule merely exacerbated problems at the end of Henry’s reign. However, Northumberland showed more political ability in tackling the equally bad situation he faced and was not as power hungry as Elton suggested.

There were significant problems at the end of Henry’s reign. His foreign policy had led to a poor financial situation; wars with France and Scotland, although a matter of national pride, actually achieved very little and led to huge debts. Over 2 million had already been spent on the war with Scotland, however victory would have far outweighed these huge financial repercussions. Somerset, therefore, inherited huge financial problems with huge debts and a debased coinage; in addition, the war with Scotland continued and hostilities with France were high. However, it would be a mistake to say that the situation was at a point of no return, Somerset’s political inability is demonstrated in his failure to deal with the situation inherited from Henry. Indeed, his actions worsened the financial status of the Crown and served only to escalate discontent in his reign.

Somerset’s political inability is shown in his failure to discontinue the damaging Scottish war; he didn’t realise, as his successor did, that the Scottish war was unsustainable. Rather, Somerset’s decision to continue the war was the worst possible start for his rule and indicative of his inability, it lead to a poor economic situation throughout his protectorate and also to his neglect of the more important issues facing his subjects.

The Chantries Act (1547) that continued the dissolution of the monasteries in Henry’s reign created inflation; as a result, prices, especially grain, rose rapidly fuelling discontent among the poor. Had Somerset been more politically astute, he would have ended the Scottish war and undertaken financial reform. Instead, he made little or no effort to resolve the economic problems and left Northumberland with a worse situation than he had inherited. In this respect, I agree with Elton, who said that Somerset was “without any sign of administrative or political sense,” 1 this was not, however, limited to his economic policy.

Somerset also inherited a nation divided on religion. Henry, although he had split from papal authority, never made the full transition from Catholicism to Protestantism as Northumberland did later in the Edwardian period. Rather, the doctrinal modifications, which followed the split from Rome, resulted in a confused nation. The ten articles of 1536 had seemed to establish England as Protestant; however, the six articles 3 years later represented the return of some Catholic doctrine. As a result, there was a certain confusion and ambiguity as regards the state religion to some extent to do with the competition of the conservative and reform factions of the court, but also the fact the Henry had never been totally converted to Protestantism. Nevertheless, since he followed a monarch who had implemented perhaps the largest religious reform in the history of the church, Somerset had to deal with a situation of religious insecurity.

Arguably, the effects of religious reform are harder to forecast than the effects of economic policy; therefore, it is easier to condemn Somerset as inept on the basis of his economic policies than it is on the basis of his religious reforms. Somerset’s religious reforms moved towards Protestantism with the introduction of a new Prayer Book and the Act of Uniformity as well as the Chantries Act, which abolished the remnants of Catholicism. However, in an attempt to appease both sides of the spectrum, a certain ambiguity still remained and Catholicism had not been categorically denied. However, the reforms were met only with discontent, for some it was too extreme and for others too moderate. The Treason Act, which ended restrictions on the discussion of religious doctrine, served only to make matters worse and led to disorder.

In terms of religious reform, the outcome would have been more stable had Somerset done nothing. We have seen that religious turmoil was the result of a lack of continuity in the short Edwardian and Marian eras. This suggests that a period of stability following the fast paced religious reform of the Henrician rule would have been beneficial in Somerset’s protectorate. However, as we have noted, the outcome of religious reform would have been much harder to gauge at the time. While Somerset’s religious policy is not the sign of an expert politician, it cannot be used to condemn him to the same extent as his economic record. His religious reform, therefore, supports Elton’s view that “Somerset had talked much about liberty but had produced disorder.” 2 His aim to appease the extremes can at least be seen as well meaning, while his actions were not those of an experienced politician; furthermore, his belief that appeasing the extremes was possible at this point is arguably naive.

Somerset was poor at dealing with the growing feeling of discontent in England. Not only was he largely responsible for the growth of discontent due to his economic and religious policies, but more importantly, instead of dealing with the roots of discontent he attempted to control the disorder that resulted. The Vagrancy Act (1547) was a heavy-handed attempt to control the public, it meant that anyone out or work for 3 days would be branded with a V and sold into slavery for two years. He put out the message that dissent was not to be tolerated, though his action was strong it showed few signs of effective leadership. As his reign progressed it was clear that he showed no signs of dealing with the root of the issue, rather to avoid rebellion. A reform programme was supposedly being put together by John Hales, who later turned out not to exist. Furthermore, having blamed the problems on enclosure, reforms to remedy the problem were merely piecemeal and demonstrated indecisiveness.

Somerset was inept; the paranoid measures preceding his fall such as bans on football and on the spreading of rumours simply confirm the hypothesis that Somerset had no real understanding of the political situation. In a similar vein to his belief that he could appease the religious extremes, attempting to pacify a discontented populace with piecemeal anti-enclosure measures and a fake reform programme was equally naive. Somerset fell from grace because of his own inability to rule; Elton’s assessment was clearly correct: “Somerset was … disastrous as a leader.” 3 However, Elton’s view of Somerset as a humanitarian reformer with the best intentions exceeds the reasonable bounds of optimism.

Most people, who have a most basic sense of human rights, would see the Vagrancy Act as simply morally corrupt. His poor management of the economy and heavy-handed measures of control hit those most in need the hardest. This demonstrates almost a total disregard for the needs of the poor; furthermore, anyone regarded as a humanitarian reformer, or at least a man with good intentions, would be incapable of passing the Vagrancy Act. It has been conceded that some good will may have lay behind his religious reform, also anti-enclosure legislation may show faint concern for the poor. However, such evidence is far outweighed by his record of controlling legislation. Somerset was not a humanitarian reformer; Elton seems to have avoided the conclusion that a rudimentary presentation of the facts would suggest. Rather, the failure of anti-enclosure legislation is evidence of Somerset appeasing the elite as well attempting to pacify the poor, an end from which he could gain a lot more political capital. Indeed, far from concurring with Elton’s thesis on this issue, I suggest that Somerset was motivated by a desire to secure his own position of power.

His continued use of proclamations as well as his neglect of the Privy Council demonstrates this theme. The Treason Act had done more than permit religious discussions; it repealed a previous act, which said that royal proclamations had the same force as acts of Parliament. Consequently, Somerset was now able to issue proclamations without the consent of his council and he frequently availed himself of this opportunity. Indeed, on average Somerset issued 13 more proclamations per year that usual.

Furthermore, his attempts to hold onto power by control rather than tackling the root issues point to a man who was motivated by a need to secure his own position. Elton did recognise his neglect of the council: “He alienated his fellow councillors whose feelings and ideas he persistently ignored.” 4 However, Elton did not recognise the power seeking nature of Somerset’s character. I would agree with Heard who presented Somerset, not as a man with noble aims as Elton suggests, but as an “arrogant self-seeker.” 5

Therefore, It seems that Elton was correct in his judgement of Somerset as an inept leader as demonstrated in his economic and to some extent his religious policies as well as his abysmal handling of a situation of unrest, which he himself had created. However, Somerset was power seeking, not a man of noble aims; his record of legislation was clearly not motivated by a concern for the poor. Elton said: “It is difficult to say who did more harm to the country they were supposed to govern.” 6 It can certainly be said that Somerset exacerbated the poor situation after Henry’s reign, the economic situation worsened through continuation of the wars and the Chantries Act. Religious confusion was not eased and arguably fuelled dissent and he left a country in unrest after the rebellions that led to his fall. Therefore, I agree with Elton’s view that he was inept and cause harm to the country, although I disagree with Elton’s view of Somerset’s aims.

Northumberland, on the other hand, introduced welcome reforms. Elton argues as much, however I believe Elton exaggerated his assessment of Northumberland as power hungry; furthermore, Northumberland’s effective reforms did not harm the country and it is unjust to tar Northumberland and Somerset with the same brush. Northumberland inherited a worse situation than Somerset and demonstrated political astuteness in his action, which dealt with the root of the problem. In addition, his dealings with the Privy Council and use of proclamation were far removed from the power hungry tactics of Somerset. Though his religious policy was arguably harsh and his attempts to alter the succession seem power seeking, Elton exaggerated this element of Northumberland’s character.

Arguably, Northumberland’s best move was to end the Scottish and French wars. Indeed, the way in which the two leaders dealt with the wars can be seen as key in defining their rule and also how we interpret their ability. The treaty of Boulogue, although bad for England in the short-term, allowed the finances to improve and Northumberland to focus on the serious social unrest, Somerset’s mess that Northumberland was forced to deal with. The treaty is a clear indication of Northumberland’s superior ability to Somerset; indeed, this theme is shown throughout the governance. Far from harming the country, Northumberland had shown realism and taken the first step towards recovery. Furthermore, re-evaluation of the coinage and prohibition of usury in 1552 helped to improve the economy. Northumberland, in contrast with Somerset, made some positive achievements; his economic policies helped to reverse the terrible situation left by Somerset. Moreover, his governance seems to have shown a commitment to reform, which had a current and lasting positive effect.

The reformation of the revenue courts was indicative of this commitment to reform. In 1549, five ministries were responsible for collecting money and the situation was worsened by corruption in some courts. Although reform was not carried out under his rule, the recommendations of the Royal Commission were carried out in the Marian era. Therefore, the Boulogue treaty coupled with other economic policies and a clear commitment to financial reform demonstrates that Northumberland was an able politician. Northumberland’s economic policies were sound and he should be praised for steering a course out of the economic disaster created by Henry and worsened by Somerset. Indeed, it is arguable that Northumberland set the foundations for stable finances through into the Marian and Elizabethan eras.

Elton notes that in Mary’s reign “financial and administrative recovery … owed nothing to the queen or her policy.” 7 This adds strength to the argument that Northumberland deserves particular credit for his economic policy. Certainly, Elton was unreasonable to ask which of the two did more harm to the country. In doing so Elton comes dangerously close to equating the achievements of the two; however, Northumberland could not be accused of harming the country, particularly in reference to the finances. However, on this issue, it seems that this quote should be taken with a pinch of salt, for, within the same paragraph Elton praised Northumberland’s economic policies. Ignoring that rather peculiar quote, I would concur with Elton’s high acclaim of Northumberland’s financial reforms, which Elton says “provided the basis for sound finance in the reign of Elizabeth I.” 8

His religious policy resulted in a largely more favourable result than that of Somerset. Northumberland’s policy was clear; the Church of England was to become Protestant. The 1552 Prayer Books changed the services to meet Protestant doctrine and all ‘glamour’ was removed in favour of simplicity. Somerset’s mistake had been to introduce half-hearted, indecisive reform that attempted to appease as many people as possible. By contrast, Northumberland was decisive; arguably, this was a risky strategy as it may have incited catholic rebellion. However, rebellions were small and Northumberland was successful in crushing them.

It is clear that his religious policy was, once again, a sign of his political ability. Northumberland had recognised that decisive action would create the stability required after the fast paced and confusing reform of his predecessors. His religious policy has been accused of being harsh; though this may be the case, it was a successful policy. Furthermore, it is arguable that had Mary not usurped the Protestant reformation, Northumberland’s religious policy would have enjoyed the same long-term success as his financial policies. Northumberland’s successful consolidation of the reformation supports Elton’s argument that he showed skill in public affairs 9.

Further support for Elton’s assessment of Northumberland’s role comes from his handling of the social unrest. He deserves credit for his handling of the serious law and order problem during his rule. The aftermath of the 1549 rebellions and bad economic situation following Somerset’s fall coupled with three bad harvests and a collapse of the cloth trade meant that Northumberland had serious social unrest and disaffection to deal with. Rather than attempting to control and crush the unrest like Somerset, Northumberland attempted to solve the root problems and therein Northumberland’s greater understanding of the situation is demonstrated.

Sheep tax was abolished, enclosure commissions were abandoned, an Act in 1552 protected arable farming and a new poor law meant that Northumberland had a more successful social policy. Furthermore, his success with financial recovery enhanced his efforts at calming dissent largely through reducing inflation. In this regard, though not a humanitarian reformer, Northumberland “demonstrated a concern for social justice” 10, which was clearly greater than that of Somerset. Again I would support the view of Elton that Northumberland showed political skill demonstrated here by his social policy, which solved the root problems rather than attempting to control the dissent.

Therefore, Elton was correct in pointing out the very positive achievements of Northumberland’s reign. He played an important role in halting the financial and religious problems, which were created by Henry and exacerbated by Somerset. This was not a point that Elton expressly put forward, however I think this was a significant part of Northumberland’s role, which should be emphasised. I would also agree with Elton that his financial reforms were influential far past his fall although I would venture to suggest that his religious reform also had an influence in the future, though to a lesser extent, in shaping Elizabeth’s policy 11.

There may be an argument, however, to suggest that the assessment of Northumberland’s role in the preceding paragraphs has gone too far to presenting Northumberland as a political genius. It must not be forgotten that Northumberland always had the benefit of hindsight, having seen the failures of Somerset’s reign. His financial, religious and social policies can all be seen as informed by the failures of Somerset’s reign. Whether, for example, Northumberland would have followed the same decisive religious policy had he been the direct successor of Henry is an interesting question. Therefore we must conclude that Northumberland was an apt politician, though certainly not anywhere near a political genius as we must recognise that he was able to learn from Somerset’s reign.

It is possible to argue on the exact political abilities of Northumberland and how much advantage hindsight afforded him; however, the fact remains that his achievements were positive. While I may give more credit to Northumberland in some areas of his role, I would concur with Elton’s view that Northumberland was an apt politician. Moreover, his view that “Northumberland’s rule marked an improvement on Somerset’s” 12 is clearly correct and is supported by other historians, such as Alan Smith: “Northumberland was a much more realistic and effective ruler than the traditionally overpraised Somerset.” 13

Elton was correct in his assessment of Northumberland as greedy, however he has exaggerated the claim that Northumberland was power hungry. It is clear that this desire for power was present in his character as revealed in the desperate attempt to alter the succession at the end of his rule; nevertheless, it did not dominate his governance as Somerset’s desire for power motivated much of his policy. It is undeniable that during his rule his power and wealth increased significantly. Initially he gave himself the Earldom of Warwick and later became the Duke of Northumberland. He proceeded to make financial gains through land; many of his followers took the liberty to do the same. Clearly, he exploited his position to satisfy his greed and many argued this was at the expense of the King. Therefore, I would not argue with Elton’s view that Northumberland was greedy.

His desperate attempt to alter the succession is certainly a sign of a serious desire for power. He attempted in vain to abandon the previous succession acts of Henry’s reign to bypass Mary and Elizabeth and install Lady Jane Grey, through whom Northumberland could retain a high level of power. It was a failure from the outset, he was unable to secure Mary’s arrest and upon the death of Edward the people of England opted unsurprisingly for the rightful heir.

It was a dismal end to his governance and certainly evidence of a serious desire for power. However, as evidence of his desire for power, it should be viewed in the context of his whole governance. This was an act of desperation at the end of a rule in which his policies could not be seen as indicative of a thirst for power. Many of Somerset’s policies were methods of control to secure his position; moreover, he had demonstrated his desire for power through continued use of proclamation and a neglect of his council. Northumberland, despite the end of his rule, displayed a far more restrained policy and attitude to government, which leads me to the conclusion that Elton has exaggerated his claims of Northumberland as power hungry.

Northumberland restored the Privy Council to its proper position under his guidance and control. Although he did not limit his power to use proclamations, he was much more cautious with their use making sure they were always based on parliamentary statute; furthermore, he made sure he consulted the council. This restrained attitude to government is evidence of him limiting his power and therefore is not demonstrative of desire for power. Of course, one could argue that he had learnt from Somerset’s mistakes and realised that the approach he took was the best way to keep in his council’s favour and thus maintain power. This argument leads to the opposite conclusion that this attitude to government demonstrates his desire for power. However, the fallacy of the latter argument is that his attitude to government led to the retention of his position, not to power. His motivation for this relationship with his council was to remain in his position; the fact remains that through these means his power was limited and therefore it seems that it is more reasonable to accept the former argument. His policy and governance was not indicative of power hunger.

Therefore, his desperate attempt to alter the succession coupled with his moderate policy and governance as discussed above lead to the conclusion that he did have a desire for power, but not to the extent that Elton suggested. It is worthy of note that the very nature of Somerset and Northumberland’s rules implies a certain extent of power hunger. Their positions relied upon taking advantage of the political vacuum opened up by the infant monarch. Therefore, I would agree with Elton that Northumberland was greedy, however to say that “Northumberland was exceedingly ambitious of power” 14 is an exaggeration and is not supported by his record in power. Lastly, it must be noted that though Northumberland may have displayed some unpleasant character traits, this does not infringe upon the success of his reform programmes.

In brief conclusion, I agree with Elton’s interpretation of the roles of Somerset and Northumberland to a certain extent. I agree with Elton that Somerset was incompetent and his role did indeed harm the country exacerbating the problems he inherited from Henry. However, Elton’s view of Somerset as a humanitarian reformer is an error. Largely, I concur with Elton’s view of Northumberland although I would give him more credit for dealing with serious problems he faced and leaving a lasting political influence. Furthermore, he was undoubtedly greedy, yet Elton has exaggerated his desire for power. If we ignore the characters of the two rulers, Elton’s general view seems to be that Somerset was damaging whereas Northumberland brought forward marked improvements. In this general sense, I would agree with Elton’s thesis.

1 Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. p. 208

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. p. 210

4 Ibid. p. 208

5 Heard, N. quoted from Webb, C. “Was it the policies pursued by Henry VIII that caused ‘the mid-Tudor crisis’?” <http://www.geocities.com/CollegePark/2809/page15.html>

6 Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. p. 210

7 Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. p. 214

8 Ibid. p. 209

9 Ibid. p. 210

10 Smith, A.G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State. p. 71

11 Anderson, A. and Imperato, T. An Introduction to Tudor England 1485-1603. p. 154

12 Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. p. 209

13 Smith, A.G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State. p. 73

14 Elton, G.R. England under the Tudors. p. 209

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