Henry VIII had a strained relationship with England’s nobles as those in the ‘White Rose Party’ discovered to their cost. However, when it came to law and order within England and Wales, Henry VIII had no choice but to trust those who he clearly showed he had little trust of. Henry was based in London and parts of his kingdom were days away in terms of communication. Henry had to trust his nobles to enforce law and order and he came to the simple conclusion that what was good for Henry was also good for the nobility at a local and regional level. A rebellion against the king would almost certainly also be a challenge against a local landowner or regional magnate. Ironically, Henry had to rely on those he trusted least to enforce law and order.
The area noblemen were responsible for was called a ‘country’. The lesser nobility might control just a town or several villages and live locally. The most powerful noblemen might be in charge of a number of ‘countries’ and could live in anyone of them. The senior magnates relied on the lesser nobles to maintain law and order in all their ‘countries’.
When a rebellion occurred, a ‘country’ was defended by a nobleman calling for a muster. When this took place, all designated men would meet complete with protective clothing and at the least a bow and arrow. As soon as a muster was called, each man in it was entitled to be paid so that his expenses could be catered for. Some musters lasted for several weeks when it was not clear whether a real threat existed or not. Men in a muster could be used in other ‘countries’ to assist other musters if this was required and thought necessary.
Local issues were dealt with by the local nobleman. This system of law enforcement worked well for Henry as what was good for the nobility was good for him. Local noblemen could become judge, jury and executioner when purely local issues were involved. It s difficult to know just how many local riots/disturbances took place in the reign of Henry VIII. Therefore it is difficult to assess just how good or bad law and order was during his reign. The reason for this is simple. Many local noblemen did not keep a record of local riots, as an example. Least of all did they want the king or senior magnates to know about riots in their ‘countries’ as this would not reflect well on them and they could literally be replaced by another more competent man. Therefore, it was best to have no documented evidence of trouble and therefore local troubles literally remained local.
The evidence that does exist shows that the most common cause of disturbances were increases in the price of food, land enclosure and a reduction in wages. These were always a local issue and so did not reflect on Henry VIII who expected problems to be solved at a local level. The only time when London trespassed into people’s lives was when tax was levied. No one expected a king to live frugally but the way the king was expected to finance his lifestyle was from the money made from his estates and from custom levies raised on imports and exports. There was a link between public disorder and a tax being levied that had no apparent reason to it other than to fund the king’s lifestyle. There is little doubt that local worthies helped to lead such disorder primarily as they were the people who would be expected to collect the tax and who would suffer when those who owed them rent could not afford to do so – hence the Pilgrimage of Grace being led by a trained lawyer as opposed to being just a mass of rebellious peasants. Any anger that united the commoners and local nobles was dangerous for Henry as it led to the breakdown of how law and order was maintained at a local level. When this occurred Henry was astute enough to either abandon any planned tax collection (as in 1525 with the Amicable Grant) or suspend its collection in certain localities until the anger had subsided.
Occasional regional reports to the Royal Council also noted a hardening of attitudes among the people towards the king during the long drawn out process regarding the divorce of Catherine of Aragon. Very many of the population saw Catherine as a virtuous and good woman who was being severely let down, almost betrayed, by her husband for a “goggle-eyed whore”.
”This greatly offended most people’s strongly held belief in fair play and natural justice. It greatly damaged Henry’s public credibility.” (K Randall)
Elements within society were also greatly concerned about the break with Rome. People had been brought up on the Catholic faith and the supremacy of the Pope and when in 1535 Henry adopted the title ‘Supreme Head’ of the Church within his territories, it concerned some and was one of the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace. There is also evidence that the treatment of some of the smaller monasteries after 1536 caused great resentment. While evidence can be found for monasteries that did not fulfil their duties (and was highly publicised to explain the dissolution), evidence also exists about those smaller monasteries that did a great deal to help local communities – be it in education or basic medical support. The attack on these monasteries did little to regain lost ground for Henry with regards to his popularity.