Were the Tudors Barbaric Terrorists?

Graham Land

3 mins

23 Jul 2018

The actions of the regents and their supporters in England and Ireland during the reign of the Tudors were so horrific some journalists and scholars have compared them to Islamic State.

While ISIS rampages across the Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East, Europeans are understandably shocked and frightened by the gruesome executions in their wake. Shock and fear is, after all, the whole point of terrorism. The Tudors knew this all too well.

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England’s Tudor dynasty began with the reign of Henry VII, who seized the crown in 1485 after the death of Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth. The Middle Ages came to an end and the Renaissance and the Age of Reason began.

The terror of the Tudors

tudor terror

Thomas More the Martyr.

Age of Reason or no, the terror perpetrated under the Tudor dynasty, which lasted less than 120 years (1485 – 1603), was as brutal as anything coming from ISIS.

Of course this was hundreds of years ago and Europe was somewhat used to religious and politically motivated terror. Still, the brutality in some cases bear mentioning.

The burning of heretics

The great philosopher Thomas More, whose work Utopia depicts an egalitarian and humanist society (especially for the time), was Chancellor under Henry VIII. Despite his enlightened ideals, More oversaw 6 burnings of Protestants at the stake and believed them to be a just punishment of heresy.

Thomas More’s tract on the treatment of heretics is every bit as pseudo-logical. His Dialogue Concerning Heresies tells us that heresy is an infection in the community, and infections must be purged with fire. Burning a heretic also simulates the effects of hellfire, a fit punishment for anyone who led others to hell through teaching religious error.

—Kate Maltby, journalist and academic

It is interesting to note that among More’s most ardent admirers are Catholics (he was canonised by the Church in 1886), Anglicans, and even revolutionary socialists like Marx and Engels.

During the time of More’s execution for treason, London Bridge was continually lined with skulls mounted on parapets, More’s included. We know this from the writings of More’s daughter Margaret Roper, who went there and basically bought her father’s head so she could bury it.

Then there was Mary I (reign 1553 – 1558), Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, who as being ‘bloody’ due to her executions of Protestants. She burned 280 ‘heretics’ at the stake.

Elizabeth I’s scorched-earth policy

tudor terror

The young Elizabeth at her coronation.

Burning Protestants and chopping the heads off of traitors stopped as a Tudor policy when Mary died and the new Queen was a Protestant. Then the Tudors set their sights on the Emerald Isle.

In 1569, at the start of the rule of Elizabeth I, a force of 500 English men rampaged through some of Ireland’s villages, burning them to the ground and killing every man woman and child they saw. A trail of the victims’ heads was then laid on the ground each night; a grizzly path that led to the commander, Humphrey Gilbert’s tent, so their families could see.

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This was not some isolated shameful incident. According to the Tudors, killing Catholic children was a heroic thing to do. And it continued: 400 women and children slaughtered by the Earl of Essex 5 years later and in 1580, Elizabeth I praised Lord Grey and his captain — the Queen’s future darling Sir Walter Raleigh — for executing 600 Spanish soldiers who had already surrendered in Ireland. They also hung local pregnant women and tortured others.

The Tudors and destroying Babylon

In Elizabeth’s cleansing of Catholicism from England there is a parallel in ISIS’ destruction of Babylonian artefacts:

To erase all taint of Catholicism, windows were smashed, statues pulled down and broken, paintings defaced and whitewashed, plate melted, jewels taken, books burned.

—Historian Mathew Lyons

Any of this sound familiar?