The Politics of Tudor England in Early Print (Yasmeen Naoum '14)

The Tudors Meet the Printing Press

The dramatic and complex period of England’s Tudor dynasty is known primarily for scandal, secrecy, and power.  However, what is little known about this period is that the Tudors’ integrated the use of print into the political sphere as we know it now.  After countless battles in the War of the Roses between the House of Lancaster and House of York, Henry Tudor, later crowned King Henry VII, defeated Richard III and finally ended the thirty-year conflict and seized the crown thus beginning the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603).  Among this chaos, William Caxton introduced print to England and produced, in 1476, the first book printed in English, The Canterbury Tales, and continued to demonstrate his expertise in the print arts by releasing the second edition of the work in 1483.  Through this innovation, not only did Caxton expand print to other printers and change the dynamic and technology surrounding the literary sphere, but he also redefined the power of the governmental system in England as King Henry VII decided to utilize the power of print for the benefit of the English crown.  Due to this integration of print in Tudor England, I have traced the astounding evolution of the power of print culture in politics from its initial use exclusively for the monarchy to its accessibility and utilization in order to voice the political opinions of the people.    

On this webpage I will be focusing on the politically charged print involvement of Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I.  In order to strengthen my argument I will utilize specific texts associated with the monarchs I have previously mentioned, such as William Caxton's translation of Christine de Pizan's Faits d’armes et de chevalerie, Thomas More's Utopia, and John Foxe's infamous The Book of Martyrs.  I have also included evidence from the published works of Douglas Brooks, John King, and J. Christopher Warner regarding these texts, as well as  the historical expertise of Dr. L. Kip Wheeler's website concerning the War of the Roses to further rationalize my claim.  


History of Tudors' Rise to Power

In order to fully understand why print was incorporated into the Tudors’ rule, we must first understand the history of how the Tudors came to power.  From the years 1455 to 1485, a battle for the throne of England ensued between the House of York, symbolized by a white rose, and the House of Lancaster, symbolized by a red rose, and is commonly known and referred to as the War of the Roses.  It began in 1454 when King Henry VI, a Lancastrian, temporarily stepped down from the throne due to fits of insanity and had and left Richard, Duke of York, in his place (The War of the Roses 2013).  After a year or so, Henry VI felt that Richard was becoming excessively powerful and removed and replaced him.  Angered by this, Richard officially began the war in 1455 in The First Battle of St. Albans, and led a “force of about 3,000 on a march toward London” (The War of the Roses 2013).  Sadly, Henry VI lost of the battle, yet maintained his position on the throne.  After countless battles after this time, 1460 Richard was finally defeated in 1460 and died, leaving Edward, Earl of March, to seize the crown since, in 1461, he left VI “hostage…under a tree” (The War of the Roses 2013). This action ultimately forced Henry VI, his wife and son to flee to Scotland.  Some time after Edward, Earl of March, established himself as the Yorkist King Edward VI, internal allegiance issues between him and Warwick, the man who aided him to seize the throne, materialized.  This conflict lead to Edward IV’s defeat by the hand of Warwick and the Lancastrians who restored Henry VI to the throne in 1470.  Unforeseeably, Henry VI died a year later in the Battle of Barnet in 1471 and Edward IV reassumed the throne.  After his death, Edward V, “the child-king…is deposed by his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester” (The War of the Roses 2013) and “becomes King Richard III, rules until 1485. Edward V and his brother are murdered in the Tower of London” (The War of the Roses 2013).  In 1485, Henry Tudor challenges and defeats Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth Field, ultimately becoming King Henry VII and beginning the Tudor Dynasty.  Unfortunately, the people of England found themselves in the middle of this chaos and when it was finally over, they felt uncertainty as a result of the previous instability of the previous monarchical shifts and changes earlier in the years.  


King Henry VII & Print

Due to the immense turmoil the people of the country faced in the span of thirty years, King Henry VII strongly desired to obtain and maintain the love of faith of his people, as well as to justify the turmoil of his subjects.  Therefore, after much thought and consideration, in 1489, “Henry himself decided to get directly involved for the first time in the printing of a text, commissioning Caxton to produce an English translation of Christine de Pizan’s Faits d’armes et de chevalerie [The Book of Faytes and Arms and of Chyvalerye]” (Brooks 2010).  This book, written by the first female European author, worked in order to instruct soldiers and knights on all things related to their respective fields.  Therefore, in order to “legitimate a reign that had begun illegitimately” (Brook 2010), Henry VII utilized the printing of this specific text to represent himself in the best way and justify himself as ruler in the aftermath of the terrible war.  Also acting in his favor, the fact that this work was now printed in English demonstrated the Henry’s desire to convey to all subjects with the ability to read the English vernacular the strength of his position as their king.  This not only manipulated the representation of the monarch for his personal gain, but it also manipulated the representation of any printer that found himself involved in printing politically.  Not only did Henry VII wish to convey his importance and competence on the throne but Caxton’s work “may have served as a kind of advertisement to his court that the king gave a certain importance to military preparedness” (Brooks 2010) in order to reassure and maintain the support of his allegiance in order to avoid a situation such as Edward IV and Warwick.  Although he had originally printed for monarchs before Henry VII, Caxton found his passion for translating texts limited by the governmental structures prior to the Tudor dynasty since, “Despite the wider readership of the printed book, printers still had to keep favour with the aristocracy” (The British Library 2009).  Therefore, when Caxton was commissioned by Henry VII to print texts in English, such as Pizan's book, “Caxton nevertheless [seemed] quite willing to work for the king and to broadcast the king’s involvement in the publication” (Brooks 2010) since it ultimately reassured his reputation and capabilities as a printer, as well as provide him an outlet for his translating passion.  After Henry VII’s reign ended, his son and heir Henry VIII looked to his father’s advise and utilized the same technology when he was faced with scandalous circumstances.


Like Father Like Son: King Henry VIII & Print

As Henry VIII succeeded Henry VII for the throne, he took Catherine of Aragon to be his wife and new Queen of England.  However, after twenty-four years of marriage, Catherine’s inability to produce an heir began to worry Henry VIII, and he began to develop feelings for Anne Boleyn.  Unheard of within the Catholic faith, he shockingly asked to be divorced from Catherine, which ultimately started a quarrel between him and Rome.  Consequently, in order to  “prepare against the day when Henry might actually have to defy Rome” (Warner 1998), through the medium of print, “the court initiated a propaganda campaign to represent to the public the justice of the king’s position, and the injustice of a pope exercising temporal powers with England” (Warner 1998).  Through this, the history of the book evolved to encompass a broader spectrum as authors and printers now utilized their work in order to effect change in the political system and to assert their own ideas and opinions into the minds of other subjects.  Of course, this had not been the first time that Henry VIII had utilized print since he “used the printing press for self-promotion several times before the 1530s, commissioning Richard Pynson, royal printer before Thomas Berthelet, to publish besides the statues and proclamations tracts that would generate support for the government’s policies and actions” (Warner 1998), however his desire to dissolve his marriage to Catherine shaped print in a new way.  Initially in his father’s time, printers did not utilize print in order to manipulate the monarchy, yet for the situation regarding his marriage, print culture began to subtly think somewhat independently.

In 1516, Thomas More published his work Utopia, a book that freely conveyed what More thought would create a perfect society.  After acknowledging his work and reflecting on his own political situation, Henry VIII strategically offered him a chancellorship (Warner 1998) since he “was…the author of Utopia…an internationally acclaimed work of moral and political philosophy” (Warner 1998), which presents a number of innovations that could create a utopian society, which conveniently includes the acceptable process of divorce.  Through Utopia, More ultimately demonstrates the gradual change in print culture within the Tudor Dynasty.  Instead of remaining complacent to their monarchs, printers exercised the ability to voice their political opinions through the work they were charged with.  However, even though More wrote and published his work in order to convey his own political thoughts, the presence of political print was still fresh and Henry VIII felt it necessary to utilize More and his work “as one more element in the king’s propaganda program” (Warner 1998).  Therefore, through this book we can see how printers sparked the notion that the people could publicize their own political thoughts and convey it to the masses, however due to the early stages of this capability as well as the monarchical period, print remained a facet to aid the monarchy.      


Queen Elizabeth I & The Book of Martyrs

Before the rule of Elizabeth I, there was much religious turmoil when Queen Mary I wore the crown.  A strong defender of the Catholic faith, she cruelly persecuted those who identified themselves as Protestant.  As a result, John Foxe began to create a book that paid homage to those who died in valor for their faith, as well as permanently record and reveal the hardship under Queen Mary.  The Book of the Martyrs is possibly one of the most important printed political texts within the Tudor Dynasty, not only because it was written by a subject in order to express his political briefs and opinions, but also because it represented a collaboration between authors to create such a book.  Foxe collaborated with many people in order to fully complete this book.  For instance, he “received manuscripts concerning the prosecution and execution of English martyrs via Edmund Grindal, a fellow exile who had served as a chaplain of Edward VI (1547-53)” (King 2006).  Not only this, but “In compiling this book, Foxe received assistance from John Aylmer, who, like Grindal, had moved within the orbit of the court of Edward VI” (King 2006), which represented a large transition from print being used by the monarchy to print being used by the people in order to respond to the monarchy.  After Queen Mary I’s death in 1558, Elizabeth I ascended the throne the persecution of the Protestants began to fade due to her favor of the faith. Soon after certain collaborators of the Book of Martyrs “were to rise high in the establishment of the Elizabethan Church of England” (King 2006), and in completing the book it is seen that “Foxe’s dedication to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, and preface concerning the ‘utility and profit of this history’ reflect an optimistic spirit that followed the cessation of persecution of English Protestants following the accession of Elizabeth I” (King 2006).  Foxe was not commissioned like Caxton and other printers to give the people of England reason to accept Elizabeth I, or utilized by Elizabeth I in order to aid her reputation, instead he freely wrote and printed the book in order to voice his political opinions regarding the conflict he witnessed.  The “widespread acclamation for bringing persecution to a halt” (King 2006) Elizabeth received was merely mentioned within the book for her actions, rather than fabricated in order to gain the loyalty of her subjects like her father and grandfather had done before her. 

Concluding Remarks

While the Tudor dynasty is known for many things, its involvement in print culture is rarely acknowledged.  However, it is this aspect that highly aided them after a time of wartime turmoil and established its monarchs in various ways.  Without the utilization of print, King Henry VII could not have justified his monarchial regime to members of his court as well as subjects of his country.  Printers during this time, more specifically William Caxton, also gained prestige from doing such work for the monarch, and ultimately advanced book history by beginning to print politically charged works, instead of primarily fictional work.  As time progressed, the rule of King Henry VIII demonstrated the evolution of print in such a way that allowed authors and printers to subtly voice their own opinions and assist the monarchy simultaneously, exemplified through Thomas More’s Utopia.  However, it was during the final years of the Tudor dynasty under the rule of Elizabeth I, that print had drastically transformed and became a voice for, not only the monarchy, but more importantly the people, as seen through John Foxe’s The Book of Martyrs.  Therefore, by looking at the various Tudor monarchs and the main texts associated with their rule, we can see that print not only strengthened governmental power after a time of much instability, it also evolved and gradually gave the people a voice in order to express their political sentiments and aspirations. 

Without the association of print into the political sphere, book history would lack the political edge it gained through within the Tudor dynasty, as well as the ability for multiple types of people to influence it.  If we look at the beginning of the Tudor dynasty and the end in relation to print and book culture, we can see the gradual change from single authorship encompassed in reputation, through William Caxton’s work on The Book of Faytes and Arms and of Chyvalerye, to the collaboration of a plethora of authors in order to convey their political opinions throughout England.  So the next time you look at British politics in print, such as The Daily Telegraph or The Guardian, consider the politics of Tudor England’s influence on print and book history in order to make your reading experience and indirect political participation possible.


Combining the House of York with the House of Lancaster

King Henry VII

King Henry VIII

Queen Elizabeth I