Henry VIII and the Puritans and Capitalism

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Authors and their themes/American/prepuritan


Mr. Maltese

I only had about twelve lectures in me.  I realized early on that a lecture for high school students (probably all people) should be packaged in a story.  I wanted them to understand the connection between the puritan ethic/legacy and modern capitalism.  Sometimes it is a good idea (which I learned from the great historian Barbara Tuchman and her wonderful history of the 14th Century—A Distant Mirror, to center your story on one person and build around him/her.  So below is the outline for my introduction to William Bradford and the other puritan writers in the textbook and a lead in to The Scarlet Letter.


How do economic and political systems come to be?  Either by revolution or evolution.

1)  Kings did not have as much power as we like to think they had--they were not absolute for two reasons:

a)  church law and civil law

b)  kings weren’t rich--had to beg nobles to raise money

land was currency especially on an island like Great Britain.

2)  Henry VII, known as Henry Tudor, won the War of the Roses at Bosworth Field.  He wanted to be independent and proceeded to accumulate land, all of which he bequeathed to his son Henry VIII

3)  Henry Tudor died in 1509, and Henry, at eighteen, ascended the throne, married his dead brother Arthur’s wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Catherine was older than he was, but she was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

People of nobility did not marry for love, they married for alliance--that was why courtly love was doomed from the start--you could really only love someone you were not married too, else where was the profit?  But if you did commit adultery, you burned in hell!!

4)  Henry executed his two childhood advisors and proceeded to squander his father’s fortune.

5)  Around 1527, Henry found him 1) broke and 2) wanting a divorce from Catherine because she had provided him with only a female heir.  He claimed that since he had, in effect, married his sister-in-law, this was an incestuous marriage and therefore illegal.

6)  Pope Clement VII, who had anointed Henry as Defender of the Faith, did not want to antagonize his staunch English ally, but he had one major problem--he was prisoner of Charles V who went berserk when he learned that Henry was going to divorce his aunt.

7)  Henry said, “All right, I’ll start my own church.”  He became head of the Anglican Church, Church of England, dissolved the monasteries which made him wealth overnight, and married Anne Boleyn, a young and beautiful lady-in-waiting whom he thought would definitely fetch him a male heir.

8)  Puritans greeted this with glee--they thought that the church, with its excessive display of wealth would be reformed.  But Henry did not reform the church--he simply made himself head of it, and beheaded those who would not take an oath of allegiance to his title as head of church.  Statesman (and former friend) Sir Thomas More refused and was beheaded.

9)  Anne did give birth--to a girl.  Henry’s henchmen trumped up charges against Anne and a minor nobleman for adultery and incest.  Anne (and the poor nobleman) were beheaded--Anne paid the executioner and said, “The executioner, I believe, is very expert, and my neck is very slender.”  Being beheaded was a mercy execution.  Hung, drawn and quarted? Towns buying condemned prisoners.

10)  Henry then married Jane Seymour who died in 1537 after bearing Henry’s only legitimate heir, Edward, Anne of Cleves (German alliance--she was unattractive and he felt he no longer needed the alliance), Catherine Howard who was executed for being “unchaste prior to marriage and adultery” and Catherine Paarr, who survived Henry.  We think Henry died of syphillis.  I have seen his suit of armor.

11)  No legitimate heir to throne since Edward, sickly, died at age of twelve.  All Hades broke loose.  Bloody married executed Protestants and vice versa.  Eventually, Elizabeth I ascended the throne--daughter of Anne Boleyn.  Liz refused to marry in order to maintain her monarchy.  Under her England blossomed--defeated Spanish, explored the world and developed wool trade.

12) Puritans left for Holland.  Then came here.

13)  Two reasons why people came to colonies--Idealism and Materialism.  These two ideas came together to form capitalism.

14)  Seeds of American Civil War were sown very early.  Those who came for idealism (freedom of religion, speech, etc.) arrived in the North.  Those who wanted to make money in tobacco and cotton landed in the South.  Discrepancies in attitude toward slavery (viewing them as children of God or viewing them as property to work the land).

15)  How could “religious people” spend so much time making money?  Puritans believed that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  Puritans were proud of their wealth since their wealth meant they were NOT idle.  What better proof that you were busy than big houses and a good farm and lots of firewood?

16)  Today the idea of getting ahead and making money is good and showing off what we have goes back to Puritan ethic. Having wealthy means success means something good.   Show me two people--one who has overalls and one who wears a rolex watch and which one would most people say was a success?  In ancient China, they created a fleet which gave away goods--so do the Potlatch Indians of the Northwest.  Is our attitude toward things the only or “right” attitude?

Can any of you imagine living within another value structure--one in which the pursuit of possessions was not as strong as our cultures?  We have to buy, buy, buy.



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