Contrary to the claims of a number of mid-20th-century historians of the Tudor age, the Tudors and their servants did not invent the modern state.  The honor of, or blame for, that achievement properly belongs to the late 17th-century, the age of William III and the period following the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when a series of new financial institutions—the National Debt, the Bank of England, modern fiscal and administrative measures—allowed a new and increasingly autonomous creature, the state, to spring into being.

What historian P.G.M. Dickson called the “Financial Revolution” of the late-17th and 18th centuries allowed the “state”—specifically, the permanent political and administrative organs of the British government—to emerge independent of the person and family of the monarch.  It also allowed these organs to finance war (which created further demands and excuses for more state functions) and even to subsidize the military power of foreign states, which the British did for Frederick the Great and other allies throughout the dynastic conflicts of the century.  And the financial revolution allowed for the emergence of a permanent bureaucracy independent of both the monarch and dynasty and the leading political figures who served the monarch, a corps of administrators who owed allegiance not to the king or queen personally or dynastically but to the abstraction of the state itself and whose monetary payment was independent of personal, dynastic, and ministerial vicissitudes.

These developments did not arise under the Tudors or obtain during (or after) their reign.  The Tudor state certainly exhibited features that survived into its modern descendant, but, under their dynasty, loyalty was largely dynastic.  Hence, long after the close of the Wars of the Roses, loyalties to clan and region rather than to the state or nation or even the dynasty persisted, and rebellions and conspiracies influenced by such loyalties continued to threaten the Tudor regime.  Service to the “state” was largely service to the king or queen personally, not to a
real state in the modern sense, except insofar as the monarch personified or symbolized it, nor to the nation.  Hence, also, the problem of treason in the Tudor era, a crime explicitly defined in the 1352 Statute of Treason, the “Twenty-Fifth of Edward III,” as it was known, primarily as murder or violation of the king or his immediate family, not as betrayal of the state or country (as in the definition of treason in the U.S. Constitution).  

Nevertheless, despite the persistence of essentially medieval and indeed tribal political bonds and identities under the Tudors, certain essential features of the modern state did begin to appear, not only under the Tudors but even under their predecessors in the late Middle Ages.  The extension of central royal authority over the geographically defined area of England and Wales and the development of various accounting and fiscal procedures within the central government were preconditions of the rise of the actual state two centuries later and have been retained to this day (with adaptations) in virtually all modern states.  The Reformation in England, which, through the Act of Supremacy, made Henry VIII the “head” of the Church of England and thereby supplanted the pope, was a major step toward national political autarchy that separated England from the Catholic Church as well as from its secular extension, the Holy Roman Empire.  And while the “nation” and “nationalism” did not yet exist in any clearly defined or accepted form, the ensuing conflicts between foreign Catholic powers in Spain, France, and the papacy and a domestic Protestant order encouraged the emergence of something like a real national identity in the last part of the reign of Elizabeth.

Probably the most important part of the modern state that arose under the Tudors, however, was the function that almost all such states have sought to develop and without which their existence and security remained questionable: the secret services that scrutinize, manipulate, and enforce loyalty.  The very existence of these services under the Tudors and their successors and their continued use by governments today, even in what are pleasantly called “democracies,” seriously calls into question the very concept of the “consent of the governed.”  What their existence suggests is rather that “consent” is in large part the invention of those who control the state apparatus and its extensions in the dominant culture.

The major reason for the emergence of these functions under the Tudors, for the first time in English history on a systematic basis, was closely connected to the instability that produced the Tudor dynasty itself.  This instability was the result of two major forces in European society of the era.

On the one hand, what has been called “bastard feudalism”— a system under which, unlike classic feudalism, loyalty was given to a lord on the basis of reciprocal services rather than for land in return for service—enabled the upper levels of the feudal ruling class, the titled aristocracy of England, to construct large followings of “retainers,” some of whom actually performed real work for their lords but many of whom provided service simply in the form of fighting, terrorization, and assassination.  The existence of such vast private armies allowed the Wars of the Roses to take place and permitted the flourishing of what came to be called “overmighty subjects”—the heads of such families as the Nevilles, the Percies, the de Veres, the Staffords, the houses of York and Lancaster themselves, and others.  It is by no means an exaggeration to suggest that an England in which such clans and their followers prevailed was rather like a modern society in which families like the Gambinos, the Bonnanos, and the Profacis might prevail.  Indeed, the major recent historian of the Elizabethan ruling class, the late Lawrence Stone, suggested just such a parallel.

Describing a quarrel in the 1580’s between Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and a courtier named Sir Thomas Knyvett, which resulted in a series of duels and actual murders by either the two principals themselves or their followers, Stone wrote that, “Thanks to the studied neutrality of the queen, two great courtiers were allowed to commit murder after murder with complete immunity” and that the nearest parallels to Oxford and Knyvett in contemporary society are “Al Capone and Dion O’Banion, Bugs Moran and Johnny Torrio in the Chicago of the 1920s.”

The second source of instability to which the Tudor apparatus of government was a response was the Reformation itself.  Engineered by Henry VIII, his chief political minister, Thomas Cromwell, and his leading ecclesiastical advisor, Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformation was not actually Protestant in a doctrinal sense until well into the reign of Elizabeth.  The “Henrician Reformation,” as historians have called the original break with Rome, was non-Catholic mainly in the rejection of papal supremacy and of membership in the Church headed by the pope, but it did not definitively reject most Roman Catholic doctrines and, even as late as the Elizabethan settlement in the 1560’s, remained intentionally equivocal about a good many major doctrines and liturgical usages.  For obvious reasons, that was not sufficient for either serious Roman Catholics (who were probably a majority of the British population until  well into Elizabeth’s reign or even later) or the emerging religious persuasion that came to be called Puritanism.  Both persuasions were eager to import their religious commitments into political affairs, either legally, when permitted, or extralegally.  It was precisely this political involvement of religious sects—not their religious beliefs per se—that contributed to the instability of the Tudor regime and elicited
the governmental response (in the form of persecution and
the emergence of governmental domestic espionage) to the factionalism and conspiracies that each side produced.

The main goal of the Tudor dynasty was to establish order throughout their kingdom, which meant, of course, the stabilization of their own power and the reduction of the power of the “overmighty subjects” in the nobility.  It is a myth long since exploded that the Wars of the Roses wiped out or seriously reduced the numbers of the nobility, since the death rate during the wars was not significantly greater than in other medieval periods.  Henry VII, however, did seek to reduce the nobility both in numbers and power.  While his predecessor, Edward IV, had actually increased the numbers of peers, Henry reduced it by some 25 percent.  In 1489, near the start of Henry VII’s reign, there were 20 noble families in the realm; at its end in 1509, there were only ten, and Henry created only nine new peers in his entire reign.  He made use of peers in his council, but of the more than 200 councilors whose names are known today, less than 20 percent were from the peerage.  Nor did he rely, as Edward IV had, on nobles for local government, and he deliberately set about turning the fortified castles of the country that had provided the bastions of aristocratic revolt into royal residences.  Indeed, the Tudor period witnessed a notable transition in English architecture from militarily fortified castles to the country houses of the landed gentry and palaces of the upper nobles.  One problem that Charles I had to face in the course of the English Civil War of the 1640’s was that many of his aristocratic supporters no longer were trained or experienced in warfare.

Henry also made heavy use of legal mechanisms to break the power of the nobility.  Every Parliament of his reign save one saw the passage of bills of attainder against nobles, measures that not only condemned the victim but also stripped him and his family of his land and property.  There were 139 bills of attainder passed under Henry VII.  The king also used fines and enforced feudal rights to reduce the financial independence of the nobility, and legislation in Parliament outlawed the practice of keeping armed retainers by overmighty subjects, a custom that lay at the root of aristocratic rebellion and violence.

The main pillar of the Tudor regime, however, lay in the creation or development of the prerogative courts—courts that were authorized not by the common law but by the king’s prerogative, the authority held to be inherent in the crown as opposed to what is granted by Parliament and the law.  The prerogative courts were simply extensions of the king’s council, the best known of which was the Court of Star Chamber.

Star Chamber today is a byword for arbitrary and unfair government procedures, but it was a highly popular institution under the Tudors.  The justice it dispensed was normally fair, quick, efficient, and incorruptible, unlike that of the common-law courts, which were often dominated by the peerage and upper gentry.  It did not have the authority to impose the death penalty, and there is no record of its ever having used torture for interrogative purposes, though some of the punishments it meted out would be considered torture today—whipping, the pillory, mutilation (especially cropping the ears), and branding.

The Star Chamber had authority over three types of cases: those involving riot and the breaking of the peace, including libel and slander; those pertaining to law enforcement generally, including perjury, subornation, false verdicts, and maintenance; and those dealing with the enforcement of royal proclamations, such as those against seditious printers. 

The Star Chamber was not the only such court.  Two others were established—the Council of the North and the Council of the Marches and Wales—to perform similar functions in northern England and the west, which at that time were very remote from the center of government.  There was also a court called the Court of Requests, known colloquially as the Court of Poor Men’s Causes, which was not a Tudor creation but had more or less evolved under Richard III.  This court was similar to the Star Chamber in purpose and procedure but was cheaper and dealt mainly with the legal cases of people too poor to afford the Star Chamber and especially with cases involving landholding, which was a major issue in Tudor times.  These prerogative courts today have a negative reputation and are often regarded as instances of Tudor despotism, but they did not acquire that reputation until at least the 17th century, when Charles I and his ministers made them notorious.  Most of them were abolished in the English Revolution in 1641, but they were not regarded as tyrannical in Tudor times and did a great deal to extend royal authority and political stability in England in the 16th century.  They tended to break the power of the nobility in two ways—first, by providing an alternative source of justice and order in the crown’s machinery of government rather than in the courts and local institutions under aristocratic control; and, second, by extending the royal power into such remote localities as northern and western England and Wales, which had long been sources of aristocratic or regional autonomy.

The Tudors did not create the modern state, but they did lay the social and political foundations on which modern states could be built.

Like the Tudor taming of the nobility, the English Reformation itself was largely the product of the dynastic preoccupation with stabilizing and perpetuating its power—specifically, of Henry VIII’s need for a male heir—and was far less driven by religious commitment (on the part of the king at least) than by dynastic interests and the imperative to avoid a relapse into the Wars of the Roses.  Nevertheless, thanks in large part to the systematic religious persecution of non-Catholics by Mary I, who inherited the throne despite her father’s serial marriages, and the subsequent flight of English Protestants to more congenial locations like Calvin’s Geneva, a serious English Protestantism began to flourish after the fugitives’ return in the reign of Mary’s successor Elizabeth.  While the earlier Tudors had largely crushed the power of the overmighty subjects and pacified the nobility, it was left to Elizabeth herself and her mainly Puritan ministers—William Cecil, Lord Burleigh; Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester; and Sir Francis Walsingham—to discipline the religious and ideological sources of disorder.

The emergence of both a Puritan and a Roman Catholic opposition to the Anglican settlement under Elizabeth allowed the Tudor state to portray itself as the via media between two extremes, but the political repression of religious dissent under Elizabeth was directed less at religious belief itself than at the political resistance it engendered.  The most notorious measures were directed at Catholics, but Protestant dissent was by no means ignored.  In the 1580’s, when the first Presbyterian movement appeared and rejected bishops, the central pillar of the Church of England, Archbishop Whitgift launched a campaign of persecution that eventually drove the separatists either underground or out of existence, and, in the 1590’s, several Protestant “sectaries” were executed.

By far, the greater danger to the Tudor regime came from Catholicism, despite what most historians insist was the loyalty of most English Catholics to the government.  Elizabeth’s policy toward Catholics was comparatively mild for the first decade of her reign, but several events combined to incite more restrictive measures.  Mary Stuart, the deposed queen of Scotland and a dedicated Catholic who was also Elizabeth’s cousin and the heir presumptive to the English throne, fled to England in 1568 and provided a focal point for a number of harebrained conspiracies aimed at murdering Elizabeth, placing Mary on the throne, and restoring Catholicism.  Such plots were encouraged by the papal bull of 1570 that excommunicated Elizabeth and denied her title.  In addition, in 1568, English Catholic priest William Allen founded a seminary at Douai, in the territories of the Spanish monarchy, to train priests for the re-conversion of England.  In 1569, the Northern Rebellion of the earls of Westmoreland (a Neville) and Northumberland (a Percy) succeeded in uniting the feudal rivalries of the Wars of the Roses with the passions of the Counter-Reformation.  The explicit purpose of the rising was to depose the queen and restore Catholicism in England through the marriage of Mary Stuart to the duke of Norfolk, outwardly a Protestant.  All these developments were sufficient to encourage the government to embark on extraordinary measures to secure itself from the perceived Catholic threat.

In addition to an enforcement of religious conformity that was reasonably mild for the period, the most distinctive means for countering the threat was the establishment of a secret service, probably the first such institution in modern history and the embryo not only of its modern descendant in Great Britain but of those of most other modern states as well.  A distinctive feature of the modern state is its claim to universal loyalty from its citizens and its ability to enforce such loyalty, which means also the ability to create and manipulate allegiance when necessary and to determine the extent to which disloyalty flourishes.  The means by which the Elizabethan regime accomplished these goals were therefore destined to become essential and universal features of the modern state when it sprang into being.

The principal architect of the Elizabethan secret service was Elizabeth’s secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham.  Educated at Cambridge, Walsingham was a devout Puritan who fled the country upon the accession of Mary Tudor and returned to become a protégé of Elizabeth’s chief minister (until the 1590’s), William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  Walsingham also served as ambassador to France in the 1570’s and was in Paris when the Catholic Guise faction with the connivance of Queen Catherine de Medici launched the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which some 3,000 French Protestants were slaughtered.  The massacres did much to convince Protestants all over Europe (in particular, Walsingham, who hid French Protestants in his house at the time) that they and their religion could expect little mercy from Catholics who gained political power.

Like most of the rest of the English government, the service Walsingham constructed was never formal or bureaucratic in the modern sense.  The agents he deployed or recruited were largely either his personal contacts or desperate and unsavory characters who performed their services for money and advancement.  Because it depended largely on Walsingham’s personal skills and knowledge, it virtually disintegrated after his death shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, but, in the level of intrigue it practiced, the techniques of intelligence it used, and the ruthlessness with which Walsingham and his colleagues in the government pursued their goals, it established procedures that have served the modern state well.

Because of its informality, Walsingham normally paid his agents out of his own pocket (at a cost estimated by modern historians at some £2,000 per year) but was reimbursed (in theory, at least) by the queen.  He employed four agents whose special duty was to identify Jesuits, any number of domestic spies, and special agents in various cities of Germany, Spain, Italy, the Low Countries, and Tripoli, Algiers, and Constantinople.  It is doubtful whether any earlier government or any other of the era had an intelligence service on this scale.  Walsingham seems to have preferred to recruit young men who were well educated and therefore able to insinuate themselves into the higher circles of English society and who would understand what questions to ask and how to mask their activities.  By no means were all of the agents he used trustworthy.  One of his earlier recruits was a gentleman who had served three years in prison for blackmail.  Another agent who spied on the seminary at Douai had been expelled from it for insubordination but, after being hired by Walsingham, managed to talk his way back in and reported faithfully to his employer all that was going on there.  Others included compulsive gamblers, con artists of one kind or another, and outright psychopaths who would say or do anything for the small sums Walsingham dispensed.

Undoubtedly, the most sinister character Walsingham employed was not an agent at all but a man named Richard Topcliffe, the chief torturer of the suspects who fell into the secretary’s hands.  Topcliffe liked to boast that the rack that he had invented and kept in his private home was far more painful than the official model in the Tower of London, and he apparently engaged in sexual fantasies while administering the tortures.  He was also willing to take bribes from private persons to murder their enemies and was actually sent to jail for a brief time for refusing to return such money after failing to deliver.

Throughout most of his tenure in office, Walsingham sought above all to implicate Mary Stuart in a plot to assassinate or overthrow Elizabeth and thereby to contrive her execution.  He rightly saw that her presence in England and her relationship to the queen was a perpetual source of conspiracy and instability.  Even if Elizabeth died naturally (as she almost did from smallpox in 1562), Mary’s inheritance of the throne would almost certainly return England to the Catholicism of Mary Tudor.  Imprudently, Mary Stuart lent herself to the idiotic plots hatched by her adherents, and, by 1587, Walsingham had achieved his goal.

The centerpiece of the plot was a gentleman named Anthony Babington, who concocted a scheme by which he and a dozen other Catholics would help Mary escape her genteel imprisonment.  He arranged a means of sending her messages hidden in the barrels of beer that were delivered to her on a regular basis, and, in one of these letters, he blabbered on about how he and his followers would deliver Mary from prison and, if necessary, provide for “the dispatch of the usurper.”

Unfortunately for Babington, Walsingham had already recruited the individuals who carried these messages back and forth and knew all about the plot.  The secretary had sufficient evidence to convict Babington but wanted incontrovertible evidence against Mary herself as well as more names of the men Babington claimed were his accomplices.  He forged a letter from Mary to draw out more information from Babington and eventually rounded up the whole gaggle.  Babington, after trying to turn evidence against his colleagues, was executed along with six others.  Despite Elizabeth’s reluctance to authorize the execution of a queen, her counselors contrived to get her signature on the death warrant for Mary.  She was beheaded in February 1587.

The engineering of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots was probably Walsingham’s greatest achievement, though it was not very different from most of the other operations the spymaster engineered.  His use of informants and double agents, his skill in manipulating both his own agents and the targets of his operations through provocation and deception, his willingness to use criminal methods (including blackmail and murder) to obtain his goals, his grasp of the importance of remaining regularly informed as opposed to merely occasional intelligence-gathering adventures, and, above all, his uncompromising ruthlessness in both the pursuit of intelligence and the apprehension and destruction of his targets are all features of the far more professional, bureaucratic, and efficient secret intelligence and security services of modern states.  As historian Thomas Mahl has shown, British intelligence itself used just such operations in trying to manipulate American public opinion into supporting U.S. entry into World War II, and the British use of disinformation and deception operations during the war against the Germans is today well known.  The British, of course, are by no means the only modern nation to use such methods.  The French, the Russians, the Germans, and, of course, the Americans themselves have followed their example, and, while the existence of such services was long denied by the governments that created them, today, virtually all states readily and publicly insist on their necessity.

The Tudors did not create the modern state, but they did lay the social and political foundations on which modern states could be built.  Although much of what Henry VII, Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I accomplished was carried out for their own power and their own survival, no other rivals of the day, Yorkist or Lancastrian, Catholic or Protestant, would have exercised power in any different manner, and what they accomplished, for all the brutality with which it was pursued, was undoubtedly a benefit to Britain and indeed to most of the Western (not to mention the non-Western) world.  “The greatest triumph of the Tudors,” writes Lawrence Stone,

was the ultimately successful assertion of a royal monopoly of violence both public and private, an achievement which profoundly altered not only the nature of politics, but also the quality of daily life.  There occurred a change in English habits that can only be compared with the further step taken in the nineteenth century, when the growth of a police force finally consolidated the monopoly and made it effective in the greatest cities and the smallest villages.  In the early twentieth century even the lower classes lost the habits of violence which their betters had been obliged and persuaded to give up nearly three centuries before.

Stone, of course, wrote that passage in the mid-1960’s, before the massive invasion of Britain and the West by non-Western peoples unsullied by the corruptions of modern states and civilization began to cause the unraveling of what the Tudors and their successors had achieved.