Spartacus Blog

Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII

Tuesday, 14th July, 2015

John Simkin

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)



(1) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 107

(2) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (May, 1517)

(3) Francesco Chieregato, letter to Pope Leo X (19th May, 1517)

(4) Edward Thwaites, A Marvellous Work of Late Done at Court-of-Street (1527)

(5) Archbishop William Warham, letter to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1st October 1528)

(6) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 68

(7) Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, letter to Hugh Jenkyns (December 1533)

(8) Peter Ackroyd, Tudors (2012) page 76

(9) J. P. D. Cooper, Gertrude Courtenay : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Pilgrimage of Grace (2002) page 26

(11) Charles Wriothesley, diary entry (25th May, 1537)

(12) Retha M. Warnicke, The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn (1989) page 110

(13) Eric William Ives, Anne Boleyn : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Lodovico Falier, report to King Charles V (24th November, 1531)

(15) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 80

(16) Richard Southwell , letter to Thomas Cromwell (29th May, 1537)

(17) Sharon L. Jansen, Dangerous Talk and Strange Behaviour: Women and Popular Resistance to the Reforms of Henry VIII (1996) page 80

(18) David Loades, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (2007) page 140

(19) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 380

(20) C. D. C. Armstrong, Stephan Gardiner : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(21) Anne Askew, letter smuggled out to her friends (29th June, 1546)

(22) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 553

(23) Susan Brigden, London and the Reformation (1989) page 413

Previous Posts

Anne Boleyn in the history classroom (29th August, 2015)

Why the BBC and the Daily Mail ran a false story on anti-fascist campaigner, Cedric Belfrage (22nd August, 2015)

Women and Politics during the Reign of Henry VIII (14th July, 2015)

The Politics of Austerity (16th June, 2015)

Was Henry FitzRoy, the illegitimate son of Henry VIII, murdered? (31st May, 2015)

The long history of the Daily Mail campaigning against the interests of working people (7th May, 2015)

Nigel Farage would have been hung, drawn and quartered if he lived during the reign of Henry VIII (5th May, 2015)

Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron? (29th April, 2015)

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