Thoughts on Elton’s ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’ …

Primarily hypothesised by Dr. G. R. Elton in his 1953 book, The Tudor Revolution in Government[1], the concept reflects the departure in style of government from the medieval to the modern during Henry VIII’s reign.  There has been much historiographic argument as a result of this seminal work.

Elton emphasises the role of Henry’s chief ministers, Wolsey and Cromwell, citing the years under their ‘rule’ as the two major periods of governmental change and development during Henry’s sovereignty[2]. Elton portrays Cromwell as the usurper of a medieval, household-based government and the designer of a modern bureaucratic state that translated royal supremacy into parliamentary terms[3][4].  Bradshaw holds a similar view crediting Cromwell as the instigator of a ‘structural reorganisation designed to transmute the crown’s (medieval) jurisdiction into a unitary’[5]. Elton sees Cromwell as ‘the most remarkable revolutionary in English history’ crediting him with the ‘revolution’[6].

The argument for this perceived change, being a ‘revolution’, emphasises the adjustment in structure in addition to a shift in power within the court. Elton describes the change from ‘medieval household to modern court’[7].  This occurred almost exclusively in the 1530’s under Cromwell’s direction. The 1539-40 reconstruction of the Royal Privy Council is a key example of the changes Cromwell instigated. By the restriction and fixation of membership, as well endowing new rights under the 1539 Statute of Proclamations Act, Cromwell achieved feet’s that Wolsey was never able to in 1526 under the Eltham Ordinances. Cromwell’s reforms created what some historians see as the foundations of a modern bureaucratic government, achieved by removing medieval structures within the central administration and transforming the household into a well-organized department of state[8].

Regarding the Tudor era simply as an extension of the medieval is serious miscalculation according to Elton[9]. However historians such as Chrimes have argued that there was no ‘fundamental departure from the medieval system’ – that this was not an age of dramatic administrative revolution[10]. Chrimes argues that what Elton witnesses as a ‘revolution’ was simply a ‘rejuvenation’ of the monarchy designed to impose an exacting authority in preparation for religious reformation[11]. A.F Pollard describes changes in evolutionary terms but sees little evidence between Henry VII and the reign of his Son, prior to the Henrician Reformation[12]. Perhaps then it was the administrative consequences of conjoining the church and monarchy that initiated the modernisation of government.

[1] Elton, Geoffrey Rudolph, The Tudor Revolution In Government, 1st edn (Cambridge, 1959)

[2] Ibid pp.67

[3] Hughes-Warrington, Marnie, Fifty Key Thinkers On History, 1st edn (London: Routledge, 2015) pp.79-80

[4] Kenyon, John, The History Men, 1st edn (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983) pp.210

[5] Coleman, Christopher and David Starkey, Revolution Reassessed, 1st edn (Oxford: Clarendon Press,1986) pp.5

[6] Williams, Penry, “A REVOLUTION IN TUDOR HISTORY?”, Past And Present, 25 (1963), 3-8  pp.6

[7] Elton, Geoffrey Rudolph, The Tudor Revolution In Government, 1st edn (Cambridge, 1959) pp.414

[8] Kenyon, John, The History Men, 1st edn (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983) pp.210

[9] Elton, Geoffrey Rudolph, The Tudor Revolution In Government, 1st edn (Cambridge, 1959) pp.7

[10] Williams, Penry, “A REVOLUTION IN TUDOR HISTORY?”, Past And Present, 25 (1963), 3-8  pp.3

[11] Ibid   pp.4

[12]Ibid   pp.3