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War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559$

Steven Gunn, David Grummitt, and Hans Cools

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780199207503

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199207503.001.0001

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(p.237) 16 Introduction
War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559

Steven Gunn (Contributor Webpage)

David Grummitt (Contributor Webpage)

Hans Cools (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces various ways in which rulers in England and the Netherlands were assuming greater powers over their subjects, and the role of war in such developments. Princely ambition was evident in the wider provision of justice and in the regulation of religion in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation; in the use of propaganda to shape public opinion and national identity; and the development of economic and social policy. Some of these trends were more closely related to war than others, but all interacted with it in shaping the relationship between princes and subjects.

Keywords:   Counter-Reformation, justice, national identity, propaganda, public opinion, Reformation, social policy, war

Urban liberties and noble power were fundamental elements in the framework of early modern states. Yet to understand the full impact of war we must go beyond them, to examine how it served to modify the relationships between rulers and subjects in general, to constitute individuals as subjects of the state, a term which first came, tentatively, into use in this period under the influence of Machiavelli. War was not the only force at work in this process. The growing ambition and intensity of the prince's provision of justice, both as judge and legislator, drew ever more of his subjects within the reach of his institutions and treated them increasingly as standardized subjects.1 Meanwhile the Reformation and Counter‐Reformation gave the prince both new means and sharper motivation to regulate, however incompletely, his subjects’ beliefs and moral conduct, though they stirred repeated rebellion in England and foot‐dragging resentment in the Netherlands long before the revolt of 1566.2

Justice, religion, and war all helped shape identities dynastic, local, and national, at a time when classical conceptions of the patria and respublica were joining with print‐driven linguistic standardization and political consolidation to forge polities more like modern national states than anything seen before.3 Here royal policy sought to harness the forces of cultural change to cultivate religious docility and political integration. Henry VIII, for example, attempted to prescribe a single primer, prefaced with praise of his break with Rome, from which to teach reading, and across the sixteenth century efforts intensified to promote English culture in Ireland.4 The Habsburgs sought to suppress religious unorthodoxy in the chambers of rhetoric, but encouraged supra‐provincial competitions between chambers, especially in the peaceful interludes when rulers turned to internal consolidation, under Philip the Fair and around the time of the Pragmatic Sanction.5

Princes also made wider attempts to win over their subjects' minds, encouraging cooperation in their military and fiscal projects as well as in the exercise of their judicial and religious authority. Many means were deployed to persuade subjects that the Habsburgs and Tudors were great princes who had their true interests at heart. Printed propaganda was developed steadily and interacted with a semi‐autonomous (p.238) market for printed news, though the Netherlands, as one of the greatest centres of European printing, naturally ran ahead of England. Pageantry and didactic drama, especially in the Netherlands at princely entries into towns, taught even the illiterate what to think of their prince. Impressive visual images of the ruler were spread on coins, medals, stained‐glass windows, paintings, and prints. Splendid palaces and other buildings overawed the beholder with the might of their builders. Bonfires and processions were organized to celebrate victories and royal births. How thorough an effect such efforts had is, of course, open to doubt. Many subjects could not read and many others lived far from the centres of princely display. The classical style fashionable at European courts generated celebrations of the ruler's virtues ever more elaborate and sophisticated and ever more inaccessible to the ordinary viewer, while cynicism about superficial splendour was a strong strand of humanism itself.6 Nevertheless, many subjects must have felt by 1559 that they knew more of what they were supposed to think of their ruler and his policies and that in itself is a measure of the growing reach of the state.

Princes also engaged with their people through economic policy, though its extent, rationale, and coherence are controversial. In favouring some industrial, agricultural, or commercial developments by monopolies, fiscal protectionism, or other forms of intervention, rulers built relationships with powerful economic interests—most obviously merchants who could lend them money and provide them with information from other countries—but also took power over new aspects of the lives of many of their subjects. Military and fiscal aims loomed large in their calculations.7 Such economic policy blended into social policy. New industries were intended to provide employment for the workforce generated by (poorly understood) population growth. Attempts to investigate and reverse the enclosure of open fields and conversion of arable to pasture in England were intended to raise food production and restore employment in tillage. Poor relief schemes were intended not merely to feed the incapable, but to set the poor to work. Social policy had a religious aspect, driven by the ruler's responsibility for the welfare of his subjects and intensified by both the moral vision of northern humanism and the godly imperatives of the Reformation. It promoted political stability by defusing popular unrest. But it also sought both to palliate the ill effects of war and to strengthen the body politic for armed struggle.8

In these chapters we shall examine the part war played in all these developments. War exercised, amplified, and tested the mutual obligations of prince and people. War promoted the cults of the warrior prince and the citizen in arms. War stimulated the production and dissemination of propaganda and the organized celebration of victory. War confronted the church with contradictory demands to lend moral support to the prince and his embattled people and to preach peace. War inflicted on local communities marauding soldiers and intrusive commissioners in search of (p.239) food and transport. It threatened increased levels of crime, economic disruption, and religious tension. All these troubles might alienate subjects from the ruler who seemed to cause them, but whom did people really blame for war and were its effects wholly negative? Some drew economic advantage from war, and what the ruler lost in goodwill he might gain in the assumption of emergency powers. War might shape identities in complex ways, demonizing the enemy, defining nationhood, and displaying princely protection in reassuringly solid fortifications, but also opposing local identity to that of the prince's foreign troops in ways that undermined princely power. Strategic complexities might make war consolidate individual provinces rather than whole nations, while civil war and rebellion simultaneously testified to war's power to break the bonds of subjects to prince and threatened to construct alternative identities that legitimized such opposition in future. Such issues are elusive, yet of central importance in the underlying processes of state formation; by addressing a wide range of sources we shall shed what light on them we can.


(1) Gunn, Government, 72–108, 173–5, 188–90; De Schepper and Cauchies, ‘Legal Tools’, 250, 253–6.

(2) Peteghem, ‘Antoine Perrenot’, 189–90; Duke, ‘Introduction’, p. xiii; id., ‘Salvation’, 152–74; Haigh, English Reformations.

(3) Shrank, Writing the Nation; Groenveld, ‘ “Natie” ’; Stengers, Racines, 81–100.

(4) Gunn, Government, 172; Ellis, Ireland, 150, 220–1, 227–8, 272.

(5) Waite, Reformers on Stage; Bruaene, ‘Sociabiliteit en competitie’, 50–4.

(6) Gunn, Government, 190–202; Soly, ‘Plechtige intochten’, 341–54.

(7) Palliser, Age of Elizabeth, 373–9; Tracy, Holland, 51–2, 98–105; Schepper, ‘Burgundian‐Habsburg Netherlands’, 523–6.

(8) Slack, Poverty and Policy; Blockmans and Prevenier, ‘Armoede’, 501–38; Soly, ‘Economische ontwikkeling’, 584–97.