February 02, 2011

Henry VIII's will

In 1536, the north rose up in the largest revolt between the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War. Robert Aske, one of the leaders of that revolt, declared later under interrogation that one of his concerns was the succession: he said, under interrogation, that

he and al wise men of those partes then grodged at [28 Henry VIII c. 7] and that for diverss causes. On was that befor that estatut, sith the Conquiror, never King declared his Will of the crowne of this realme, nor never was ther known in this realme no such law
Aske was reflecting on one of the most controversial legal changes of Henry VIII's reign. In 1534, 1536 and 1544 Henry passed three succession acts. Three acts which attempted to will the crown to a particular descendent.

Eric Ives in an article in the journal Historical Research describes the acts. The 1534 act was not particularly radical as all it did was recognise that Henry had married a new wife and that his old marriage was illegitimate: it merely entrenched the reformation (the merely is partly ironical). However in 1536 and 1544 Henry went further. He not merely declared that his marriage to Aragon (and Boleyn) were invalid: he also said that after the demise of his first legitimate heir- Edward- he was able to set the succession. In 1536 he left it at that: and we are left to surmise who he meant. Ives guesses that he wished to place Richmond his son by Bessie Blount and then Elizabeth and Mary on the throne. Ives argues that the act was a nudge aimed at James V of Scotland, Henry's nephew. In 1544, after Richmond's death, the second act made the succession more explicit and this time we can see how it was aimed. Henry reasserted that he could establish the succession. Contrary to common law, he opted that after Edward the succession would not go to the first legitimate heir- James V- but would go to his basterd daughters- Elizabeth and Mary and after them would go to the heirs of his youngest sister Mary- the Grays.

This had vast consequences running through the centuries. Most immediately it set a pattern of confused successions which ran up until 1603. When Edward died in 1553, he left no heir. Edward nominated Jane Grey to succeed him- arguing that his father had made Mary illegitimate and that he might therefore will the crown to Jane. Jane and Mary for nine days battled it out and Mary eventually won becoming queen. In 1553 when she made her own birth legitimate- repealing the act declaring that Catherine of Aragon and Henry were not married, Mary was unable to repeal the act declaring Elizabeth her heir. The Lords and Commons, Sir William Paget told her, would not accept such a repeal. So Mary died too without issue and left the throne to Elizabeth. Elizabeth too disliked the act. Both her and Mary claimed they inherited the crown naturally and not by the 1544 act: and Elizabeth too sought to shut out the next in line- the Grey family. Elizabeth waited on the matter without deciding what to do and in the end James rather than the Greys succeeded. In 1553, 1558 and 1603 the absense of a straightforward succession and the availability of two methods of succession (common law and Henry's acts) caused confusion.

More especially though it led to something else. Henry's acts proceeded from the crown to Parliament and the Commons and Lords recognised what Henry had done. In 1553, if Ives is right, they prevented Mary changing the succession acts to stop Elizabeth. Just as importantly during Elizabeth's reign on two occasions Parliament decided that it faced a situation where Elizabeth might die: if she died the establishment decided that a Parliament would have to be calleed to invalidate the succession of her heir presumptive- the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. As a constitutional precedent therefore Henry's act was important to the Bond of Association of 1585, and was discussed even as late as the exclusion crisis in 1679-81. Henry's acts though were invalidated by the Stuart succession of 1603- James became King, whereas Henry would have intended Edward Seymour to succeed Elizabeth. Furthermore lawyers echoed the judgement of Robert Aske. Sir Matthew Hale concluded that the experiment of Henry's acts had never worked and so were not noteworthy in England's constitutional history.

Ives shows that Hale was wrong. The experiments are noteworthy. Without Henry's act, neither Mary (1553-8) nor Elizabeth (1558-1603) might have become Queen. Elizabeth in particular is a key monarch in British history: it is afterall her Church of England that survives and she was the first supreme governor of that Church (Henry was the supreme Head). Furthermore Henry's act, just as the Reformation acts, established that Parliament was the arena in which such matters might be discussed. Ives's article reasserts their importance in the constitutional revolutions of the 16th Century and thus is to be welcomed.

January 31, 2011

Philistines and German Students

The Old Testament has Philistines in it: they are the people who in general the Jews don't get on with. Philistine also has another meaning in the modern world: it means the kind of person who can't understand art. But the two meanings of the word don't seem to have much to do with each other: whatever the Philistines quarrelled with the ancient Isrealites about, it wasn't Van Gogh, nor was it the finer points of aesthetics. The reason the two meanings are linked is interesting: and it shows both how scriptural, how unconsciously scriptural our culture is, and also how meanings have shifted down the centuries. The story of the word Philistine begins of course in ancient Isreal: but the story of its second meaning, to refer to an artistic ignoramus, has its origins in the 1668 in Germany. More precisely we can fix an exact place to it, Jena and an exact time, a sermon.

In Jena in 1668, a student was killed by a townsman. I take these details from Tim Blanning's study of Romanticism as a movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What Blanning argues, and I see no reason to doubt him, is that the sermon preached on that occasion was from Judges 16:9: 'The Philistines be upon thee, O Samson'. The students of Jena took those words and fashioned an identity out of them: they were the Isrealites, the townsmen were the Philistines. For some reason, the division between gown and town, intellectual and bourgeois mutated during the course of the 18th century so that the word Philistine now did not distinguish the unintellectual or the boorish townsman, but instead the aesthetically challenged. What we are discussing is the migration of a word across between different forms of social contempt.

So what's interesting here? I think the first thing that this illustrates is how scriptural the pre 18th Century world was. We forget all the time how central religion was to anyone who was alive in this period. Religion was not just something that they believed, it was something that they lived in. Therefore an argument which may have had nothing to do with religion became infused with scriptural energy and citation. Secondly its worth considering how much of a change the creation of the status of artist was: it’s the subject of Blanning’s book but I think its worth drawing out here too. Creating the artist meant that he had to assume, to pinch the clothes and contempt of others: in this case the students. The point is that a new social reality grabbed language and ideas from the rest of the world, it inherited the old cloak of intellectual snobbishness and put it on with ease. I think that's interesting because it reveals how much social change can often be masked with conventional language and in the appearance of other disputes.