During the reign of Henry VIII women did not exercise formal political power. That is to say they did not get elected to the House of Commons or appointed to the House of Lords. Nor did they hold political posts in government or serve in courts of law. However, women did have "informal power" and took part in political demonstrations.
On 1st May 1517 it was reported that in London rioters ran through the city with "clubs and weapons... throwing stones, bricks, bats, hot water, shoes and boots, and sacking the houses of many foreigners". It is estimated that 2,000 Londoners sacked the houses of foreign merchants. This became known as the Evil May Day Riots. It was claimed that women were partly to blame for this riot. The government announced that "no women should come together to babble and talk, but all men should keep their wives in their houses". (1)
That afternoon, Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, brought 1,300 soldiers into the city and mass arrests began to take place. The first batch of 279 people were brought before the courts later that day. Charles Wriothesley claimed that eleven men were put to death. Those executed suffered the penalty of being "hanged, drawn and quartered". (2)
According to Edward Hall the rest of the captured rioters, with halters around their necks, were brought to Westminster Hall in the presence of Henry VIII. He sat on his throne, from where he condemned them all to death. Francesco Chieregato, the representative of Pope Leo X in Henry's court, reported that Catherine of Aragon successfully appealed to her husband to show mercy and the men were pardoned. (3)
Women sometimes obtained power in Tudor England by claiming that they were in direct contact with God. Elizabeth Barton developed a large following in Kent. According to Barton's biographer, Edward Thwaites, "Elizabeth Barton advanced, from the condition of a base servant to the estate of a glorious nun." Thwaites claimed a crowd of about 3,000 people attended one of the meetings where she told of her visions. (4)
Bishop Thomas Cranmer was one of those who saw Barton. He wrote that he had seen "a great miracle" that had been created by God. Barton was taken to see Archbishop William Warham and Bishop John Fisher. On 1st October 1528, Warham wrote to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey recommending her as "a very well-disposed and virtuous woman". He told of how "she had revelations and special knowledge from God in certain things concerning my Lord Cardinal (Wolsey) and also the King's Highness". (5)
Wolsey arranged for Elizabeth Barton to see Henry VIII. She told him to burn English translations of the Bible and to remain loyal to the Pope. Elizabeth then warned the King that if he married Anne Boleyn he would die within a month and that within six months the people would be struck down by a great plague. He was disturbed by her prophesies and ordered that she be kept under observation. (6)
Henry VIII eventually ordered her arrest. She was examined by Thomas Cromwell, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Bishop Hugh Latimer. During this period she had one final vision "in which God willed her, by his heavenly messenger, that she should say that she never had revelation of God". In December 1533, Cranmer reported "she confessed all, and uttered the very truth, which is this: that she never had visions in all her life, but all that ever she said was feigned of her own imagination, only to satisfy the minds of them the which resorted unto her, and to obtain worldly praise." (7)
A temporary platform and public seating was erected at St. Paul's Cross and on 23rd November, 1533, Elizabeth Barton made a full confession in front of a crowd of over 2,000 people. Over the next few weeks Elizabeth Barton repeated the confession in all the major towns in England. It was reported that Henry VIII did this because he feared that Barton's visions had the potential to cause the public to rebel against his rule. Barton and some of her leading followers were executed on 20th April, 1534. (8)
Gertrude Courtenay, the Marchioness of Exeter, was one of Barton's secret supporters. She was also an ardent Roman Catholic and formed an alliance with Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher and was a strong opponent of the religious reforms being promoted by Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer. Gertrude began regular contact with Eustace Chapuys, the envoy of King Charles V of France and was accused of being a spy. She was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Her husband, Henry Courtenay, Earl of Devon, was executed but the Marchioness was eventually released. (9)
In 1535 Henry VIII began to close the monasteries in England. Geoffrey Moorhouse, the author of The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002), has pointed out, that large numbers of people in the North were more opposed to this policy. "The monasteries as a whole might spend no more than five per cent of their income on charity, but in the North they were a great deal more generous, doubtless because the need was greater in an area where poverty was more widespread and very real. There, they still did much to relieve the poor and the sick, they provided shelter for the traveller, and they meant the difference between a full belly and starvation to considerable numbers of tenants, even if they were sometimes imperfect landlords." (10)
In 1536 a lawyer, Robert Aske, led an uprising in Yorkshire and led an estimated 40,000 people on a march to York. By the end of the month the rising had engulfed virtually all the northern counties, roughly one-third of the country. It has been claimed that a large number of women took part in the rebellion. Margaret Cheyney (Lady Bulmer), who was considered one of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace was burnt at the stake at Smithfield on the 25th May, 1537. (11)
Queen Anne Boleyn had strong opinions about politics and religion. Retha M. Warnicke, the author of The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989), suggests that she discussed these matters with Henry VIII. However, they disagreed about the need for an English translation of the Bible: "Although the king was willing to explore the possibility of translating the scriptures into English, he was reluctant to permit his subjects, even university scholars, to read heretical books". (12)
Boleyn appears to have had books by religious reformers such as, Simon Fish and William Tyndale. It is claimed by her biographer, Eric William Ives, she helped the careers of reformers such as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Shaxton and Matthew Parker. Anne's brother, George Boleyn, was often sent on diplomatic missions. He used his diplomatic bag to smuggle religious books that were banned in France as well as England. Anne Boleyn's chaplain, William Latymer, also collected religious books for her from Europe. (13)
It is claimed by Cardinal Jean du Bellay that the majority of women in were opposed to the reformist ideas of Anne Boleyn. Lodovico Falier reported to King Charles V that an attempt had been made to kill Anne Boleyn: "It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter... she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her; and amongst the mob were many men, disguised as women. Nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women." (14)
A group of people based in Norfolk were convicted on 25th May, 1537, of treason and sentenced to be hanging, drawing, beheading, and quartering. It was claimed that they were active in and around Walsingham. Their crimes included spreading rumours about Anne Boleyn. Over the next few days Nigel Mileham, the sub-prior of Walsingham Priory, John Semble, a mason, Ralph Rogerson, a farmer, William Guisborough, a merchant, George Guisborough, a yeoman peasant, Thomas Howse, a husbandman, Thomas Manne, a carpenter, Andrew Pax, a parish clerk, John Pecock, a friar, John Sellers, a tailor and Richard Henley, a plumber, were executed. (15)
Richard Southwell reported to Thomas Cromwell that all the men confessed to the crime. (16) They also provided evidence against a fellow conspirator, Elizabeth Wood from Aylsham. Southwell claims that Wood had visited a shop owned by John Dix and had expressed support for the men found guilty of treason in Walsingham. She was, they said, "resting upon the shop windows of John Dix" when she spoke about these matters. Apparently she said "it was a pity that these Walsingham men were discovered, for we shall have never good world till we fall together by the ears, and with clubs and clouted shone/shall the deeds be done, for we had never good world since this king reigned. It is pity that he filed any clouts more than one." Wood was found guilty of treason on 26th July and executed soon afterwards. (17)
Queen Catherine Parr married Henry VIII on 12th July, 1543. She held strong views on political and religious issues. She wrote several small books on religious matters. It has been pointed out that Catherine was one of only eight women who had books published in the sixty-odd years of the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII. These books showed that she was an advocate of Protestantism. In the book, The Lamentation of a Sinner Catherine describes Henry as being "godly and learned" and being "our Moses" who "hath delivered us out of the captivity and bondage of Pharaoh (Rome)"; while the "Bishop of Rome" is denounced for "his tyranny".
As David Loades, the author of has pointed out, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007): "The Queen meanwhile continued to discuss theology, piety and the right use the bible, both with her friends and also with her husband. This was a practice, which she had established in the early days of their marriage, and Henry had always allowed her a great deal of latitude, tolerating from her, it was said, opinions which no one else dared to utter. In taking advantage of this indulgence to urge further measures of reform, she presented her enemies with an opening." (18)
Catherine Parr also criticised legislation that had been passed in May 1543 that had declared that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". Later, a clause was added that did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible, this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others". Catherine ignored this "by holding study among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature". (19)
In February 1546 conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, began plotting to destroy Queen Catherine Parr. Gardiner had established a reputation for himself at home and abroad as a defender of orthodoxy against the Reformation. On 24th May, Gardiner ordered the arrest of Anne Askew and Sir Anthony Kingston, the Constable of the Tower of London, was ordered to torture Askew in an attempt to force her to name Catherine and other leading Protestants. (20)
The Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and his assistant, Richard Rich took over operating the rack, after Kingston complained about having to torture a woman. Despite suffering a long period on the rack, Askew refused to name those who shared her religious views. According to Askew: "Then they did put me on the rack, because I confessed no ladies or gentlemen, to be of my opinion... the Lord Chancellor and Master Rich took pains to rack me with their own hands, till I was nearly dead. I fainted... and then they recovered me again. After that I sat two long hours arguing with the Lord Chancellor, upon the bare floor... With many flattering words, he tried to persuade me to leave my opinion... I said that I would rather die than break my faith." (21) On 16th July, 1546, Askew "still horribly crippled by her tortures but without recantation, was burnt for heresy".
Bishop Stephen Gardiner had a meeting with Henry VIII and raised concerns about Catherine's religious beliefs. Henry, who was in great pain with his ulcerated leg and at first he was not interested in Gardiner's complaints. However, eventually Gardiner got Henry's agreement to arrest Catherine and her three leading ladies-in-waiting, "Herbert, Lane and Tyrwhit" who had been involved in reading and discussing the Bible. The next day Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley arrived with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Catherine Parr. Henry told him he had changed his mind and sent the men away. (22)
Susan Brigden, the author of London and the Reformation (1989) argues that a large number of women were involved in the reform movement in London. "Women were not silent in these congregations and were not only, nor even, following their husbands. Indeed, the authorities grew alarmed by the ardour with which London wives supported causes.... This female religious enthusiasm is usually to be glimpsed rather than counted.... We cannot know how many women converted others to an evangelical vocation and spurred them to action; how often the courage and zeal of women strengthened their husbands' faltering resolve." (23)
It was a great miracle... that had been wrought in a maid by the power of God and our Lady... Her trance lasted... the space of three hours and more... Her face was wonderfully disfigured, her tongue hanging out... her eyes were... in a manner plucked out and laid upon her cheeks... a voice was heard... speaking within her belly, as it had been in a cask... her lips not greatly moving.... When her belly spoke about the joys of heaven... it was in a voice... so sweetly and so heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof... When she spoke of hell... it put the hearers in great fear.
She (Elizabeth Barton) had knowledge by revelation from God that God was highly displeased with our said Sovereign Lord (Henry VIII)... and in case he desisted not from his proceedings in the said divorce and separation but pursued the same and married again, that then within one month after such marriage he should no longer be king of this realm, and in the reputation of Almighty God should not be king one day nor one hour, and that he should die a villain's death, saying further that there was a root with three branches, and until they were plucked up it should never be merry in England, interpreting the root to be the late Lord Cardinal (Wolsey), and the first branch to be the king, our Sovereign Lord, the second the duke of Norfolk, (Thomas Howard) and the third to be the duke of Suffolk (Charles Brandon).
The king has assembled the principal judges and many prelates and nobles, who have been employed three days, from morning to night, to consult on the crimes and superstitions of the nun and her adherents... The chancellor proceeding to say that the nun and her accomplices in her detestable malice, desiring to incite the people to rebellion, had spread abroad and written that she had a divine revelation that the king would soon be shamefully driven from his kingdom by his own subjects, some of them began to murmur and cry that she merited the fire.
The depositions show only that she believed the commons were ready to rebel again, and that the Duke of Norfolk alone could prevent the rebellion. In addition to this she kept her husband's secrets and tried to save his life. Margaret Cheyney (Lady Bulmer) committed no overt act of treason; her offences were merely words and silence. The reason for her execution does not lie in the heinous nature of her offence, but Henry was not gratuitously cruel, and her punishment had no object. It was intended as an example to others. There can be no doubt that many women were ardent supporters of the Pilgrimage.... Lady Bulmer's execution... was an object-lesson to husbands... to teach them to distrust their wives.... Lady Hussey and the dowager Countess of Northumberland were both more guilty than Lady Bulmer.
It is said that more than seven weeks ago a mob of from seven to eight thousand women of London went out of the town to seize Boleyn's daughter, the sweetheart of the king of England, who was supping at a villa on a river, the king not being with her; and having received notice of this, she escaped by crossing the river in a boat. The women had intended to kill her; and amongst the mob were many men, disguised as women. Nor has any great demonstration been made about this, because it was a thing done by women.
Under the beneficent rule of Queen Catherine Parr, scholarly pursuits once more became fashionable at Court... Catherine Parr took an informed interest in intellectual matters and was a lively patron of the New Learning... She was fully aware of the dangers and difficulties attached to the position of Henry VIII's sixth wife, but being a woman of spirit and strong principles she intended not only to survive but to make a success of the task to which she believed God had called her...
Gardiner and his ally on the Council, the Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley, planned to attack the Queen (Catherine Parr) through her ladies and believed they possessed a valuable weapon in the person of Anne Kyme, better known by her maiden name of Anne Askew, a notorious heretic already convicted and condemned...
Anne Askew is an interesting example often educated, highly intelligent, passionate woman destined to become the victim of the society in which she lived - a woman who could not accept her circumstances but fought an angry, hopeless battle against them.... It's highly probable that Anne had attended some of the Biblical study sessions in the Queen's apartments, and she was certainly acquainted with some of the Queen's ladies. If it could now be shown that any of these ladies - perhaps even the Queen herself had been in touch with her since her recent arrest; if it could be proved that they had been encouraging her to stand firm in her heresy, then the Lord Chancellor would have ample excuse for an attack on Catherine Parr.
The Queen meanwhile continued to discuss theology, piety and the right use the bible, both with her friends and also with her husband. This was a practice, which she had established in the early days of their marriage, and Henry had always allowed her a great deal of latitude, tolerating from her, it was said, opinions which no one else dared to utter. In taking advantage of this indulgence to urge further measures of reform, she presented her enemies with an opening.
Irritated by her performance on one occasion, the King complained to Gardiner about the unseemliness of being lectured by his wife. This was a heaven-sent opportunity, and undeterred by his previous failures, the bishop hastened to agree, adding that, if the King would give him permission he would produce such evidence that "his majesty would easily perceive how perilous a matter it is to cherish a serpent within his own bosom". Henry gave his consent... articles were produced and a plan was drawn up for Catherine's arrest, the search of her chambers, and the laying of charges against at least three of her privy chamber.
Queen Catherine Parr inveighed against those who criticized reading the Bible on the grounds that it would lead to heresy... To allege the Scriptures to be perilous learning; because certain readers thereof fall into heresies?' Did people deny themselves food, just because some people over ate? Or avoid using fire just because they watched a neighbour's house burn down?
In May 1543 the Council had decided that the "lower sort" did not benefit from studying the Bible in English. The Act for the Advancement of the True Religion stated that "no women nor artificers, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen or under husbandmen nor labourers" could in future read the Bible "privately or openly". In a sermon in the City of London the next year, it was suggested that the study of the scriptures was making the apprentices unruly.
Women (in the sense of women of the people), yeomen and apprentices - all these led lives far removed from the court where Queen Catherine was apparently in the habit of holding study groups among her ladies for the scriptures and listening to sermons of an evangelical nature. Although a later clause in the 1543 act did allow any noble or gentlewoman to read the Bible (in contrast to "the lower sort"), this activity must take place "to themselves alone and not to others".
The sixteenth century was a period when women increasingly came to participate in political comment and protest throughout western Europe, and a number of recent works have begun to examine the significance of their activities. Historians have begun to reassess the ways in which women such as Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Catherine Parr participated in Tudor political and religious change, while, more recently, feminist historians have begun to assess the range of political activity by women of the nobility.
Such reexaminations have been made possible, at least in part, because historians have begun to expand their notions of political power to include what can be called "informal political power." This expansion has depended on are definition of the very notion of power itself. "Authority," or "power which is formally recognized and legitimated," has been separated from the concept of "power," which is "the ability to shape political events." Such a distinction has allowed for a reexamination of the roles of women in early sixteenth-century politics. Even women like Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn did not have authority, but even women like Margaret Cheyney and Elizabeth Barton could have power.