How Far Do You Agree That Wyatt’s Rebellion Was a Serious Threat to Mary’s Authority

10 October 2016

How far do you agree that Wyatt’s rebellion was a serious threat to Mary’s authority? Although Wyatt’s rebellion was, when compared to the riots and rebellions that visited the Tudor Dynasty, rather small in size, it had a large impact in that Queen Mary’s authority as Monarch was questioned and ridiculed by the actions that drove so close to her residence in 1554. Historians argue that the volatile combination of politics, religion and Mary’s personality were major factors in the rebellion’s formation as well as the fear the prospect of a Spanish King visited upon the nobles.

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Mary’s ascension to the throne of England was marked with extraordinary political and religious circumstance: the return of Catholicism in England marshalled by Mary was a decision met with gratefulness and one that pleased many of those citizens supressed under the Tudor dynasty’s progressive and eventually full protestant stance. However, Mary’s gender meant that she couldn’t enjoy the same levels of independence and power as those wielded by her brother and father.

Mary’s announcement that she intended to marry Philip II of Spain in 1554 divided her privy council into two distinct groups; one opposing her marriage, favouring the possible courter, Edward Courtenay (Earl of Devon), and the other, who supported the Spanish Monarch. The reasons for these split alliances were deeply ingrained in foreign policy, with those supporting Philip’s prospects seeking the advantages of a strong Anglo-Spanish alliance, and those against it fearing the consequences of a future hereditary Spanish claim to the English throne and a possible need to aid Spain in future conflict.

Some historians like Rex, believe that these circumstances in combination with Mary’s personal stubbornness and willingness to marry Philip II against the inclination of her government played a considerable factor in the fruition of Wyatt’s rebellion. However, there have been attempts by historians to counter this appraisal of Mary’s character, it has been suggested that the queen’s indecision in the negotiations over the restoration of Catholicism to England and more specifically her marriage to Philip was Mary being politically shrewd, tailored to win greater concessions for the English Crown from the Hapsburgs and the Vatican.

Thus, it may be fair to attribute Mary’s personality as one of the largest contributing factors of her marriage to Philip and Thomas Wyatt’s consequent anti-monarchic movement whether these intended or not. It would thus seem that it was Mary’s personality and the ways in which her choices affected those around her which was the greatest motive for Wyatt’s rebellion. This view can be furthermore supported when acknowledging the fact that there was very little religious opposition remaining by the time of the rebellion, hence Mary could only be damaged as a result of her own political errors regarding the marriage.

Turvell and Randall discuss this view, stating ‘At the beginning of the reign even the most zealous of urban radicals were not prepared to go against the mainstream of public opinion, and waited to see what would happen. Certainly, when Mary, using the royal prerogative, suspended the second Act of Uniformity and restored the mass, there was no public outcry. ’ Hence, historians may argue that Thomas Wyatt’s motives were spurred by the prospect of a Spanish king and were not religiously driven. The actual level of threat that the Wyatt rebellion posed to Mary’s authority is a subject of much debate.

On the one hand, historians argue that the rebellion significantly challenged Mary’s position as queen, whilst on the other; the event has been described by historians such as Diarmaid MacCulluch as a demonstration of ‘the bankruptcy of rebellion as a way of solving problems’. This diversity in opinion stems for an array of contemporary circumstances. Those who view the rebellion as a serious threat are quick to acknowledge Elizabeth, who was at the time considered an apt alternative to her idiosyncratically minded sister.

Elizabeth’s status as a Protestant may not have pleased the public opinion in England at the time but her young age and ability to bare children was something which Mary could not so easily contest. Similarly, the rebellion’s close proximity to London and Mary’s residence has bolstered its seriousness. Historian Tony Imparato agrees with this view, stating in his book ‘Protest and Rebellion in Tudor England’ that ‘Wyatt’s men marched on London and in doing so presented the most serious threat ever posed to Tudor government … In the end, his force came within half a mile of where the queen was staying, but was forced to retreat.

The view held by Imparato may address the seriousness of the Wyatt rebellion in so far as geographical closeness to Mary, but it does not fully explain the event’s consequences in revealing severe weaknesses in Mary’s government and the tenuousness of her position as queen. In his book, ‘The Early Tudors 1485-1558’ John Duncan Mackie discusses the greater extent of the rebellion and what it revealed about Mary’s court: ‘The queen’s Catholic friends had been ineffectual in the crisis and the battle had been won for her by men like Pembroke who had deserted Northumberland at the last minute. In expressing the ineffectuality of Mary’s Catholic allies, Mackie delves deeper into the rebellion’s longer term consequences and in demonstrating Pembroke’s desertion of Northumberland, highlights an only last minute decision by one of England’s most important political figures to support his queen. On the other hand, some historians have viewed Wyatt’s rebellion as having a lesser impact on royal authority. This view has been fuelled by the rebellion’s small levels of popular support as well as Courtenay’s ineptitude.

This view is held by Colin Pendrill, who in his 2000 book ‘The English Reformation: Crown, Power and Religious Change, 1485-1558’ holds the view that the Wyatt rebellion failed and that three main issued led to this conclusion: ‘Anti-Spanish rumours did not bring about widespread support’, ‘News of the conspiracy leaked out in January 1554, so the conspirators had to act before they were ready and in the middle of winter’ and that the rebellion lacked support to such a degree that outright hostility was encountered in Coventry and that ‘Wyatt alone managed to raise some troops in Kent…’.

Pendrill’s supporting of the idea that there was a lack of common support for Wyatt’s anti-Spanish campaign may best present an objective and accurate view of the rebellion’s preamble. It was indeed the case that Wyatt only managed to gather around three-thousand Kentish men to lead to London, suggesting that his geographical location in Kent played somewhat to his favour as this is where the majority of anti-Spanish support was located. This may indicate that the rebellion’s support was in fact not at all widespread and that Wyatt was indeed fortunate to gain the support he did.

In contrast to Imparato’s source, Pendrill remonstrates that Wyatt’s rebellion was little more than an unorganised march which posed no real threat to Mary or her constitution’s authority. Furthermore, Imparato’s view can be contrasted against that of historian P. J Hammer, who in his ‘Elizabeth Wars: war, government and society in Tudor England’ states that ‘Wyatt chose to surrender rather than risk a pitched battle without local support. Hammer’s source reinforces the idea that sympathy for Wyatt’s course was not widespread and was confined to the Kent area. In conclusion, on the basis of the evidence given, historians may view Wyatt’s rebellion to have been an unserious yet revealing challenge to Mary’s authority. Although a severe lack of support and disorganisation had cost Thomas Wyatt from reaching Mary, he had revealed to her the existence of core group of dissenters prepared to die in order to prevent an Anglo-Spanish throne in England.

The extent to which Mary responded to the rebellion showed her anxiety and anger at the attempted challenge to her authority and for the execution of ninety rebels (including Wyatt himself), the exile of Courtenay and the executions of Lord Thomas Grey and William Thomas, the Wyatt rebellion should be viewed as ultimately unserious, but instrumental in heightening the anxiety of Mary and the lengths to which she would go to ensure her crown and constitution remained secure.

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