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Henry VIII, rebellion and the rule of law

Henry VIII, rebellion and the rule of lawHenryVIII

Steven G. Ellis (University College, Galway)

The Historical Journal, 24, 3 (1981), pp. 513-531

Abstract

It has been traditional to regard the reaction of Henry VIII in the face of treason and rebellion as savage and extreme. Perhaps for this reason, historians for long considered it superfluous to examine in any detail what fate actually befell those who took up arms against their king. More recently, however, findings that relatively few persons were executed by Henry, despite the savagery ofhis reign, and that in general his bark was worse than his bite,1have suggested that this question could profitably be pursued further. There seems, for instance, to be a significant difference between the 178 executions in the aftermath of the Lincolnshire rebellion and the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536-7 and the rather larger number for which Elizabeth was responsible following the much less dangerous Northern Rising of i56g.





Yet how these figures were achieved and what considerations shaped and determined the extent of the government’s retaliation is much less clear. Perhaps the surviving evidence will not normally admit of answers to such questions, for it was not in the government’s interests to disclose that external considerations might influence the enforcement or otherwise of the law. The manifestation of this fact was therefore inconvenient, but exceptionally such disclosures might be unavoidable.

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