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The very first Brexiteer?

Do you think Brexit is a new idea? It isn't. Henry VIII thought of it first.


How many Brexits?

In all the excitement about the ruin and devastation/sunny smiling uplands we can expect after Brexit, if it happens, in whatever form it takes, most pundits have forgotten one thing.

This is not the first time England has stomped out of Europe in a temper/glided out with no trouble and a little laugh. It isn’t even the second time, if you count a rather involuntary Brexit in the 5th century AD (which was more about Europe a.k.a. Rome withdrawing). You’d expect that to be disastrous, and indeed it was.

So this is at least the third time.

The second time

Five hundred years ago, almost exactly, England, Scotland and Ireland were still happily part of a then EU equivalent. It was a massive bureaucratic Europe-wide organisation, and had been for around a thousand years. Every village and town had at least one branch office and the Organisation contributed greatly to the economy. A large and prosperous section of the Organisation was devoted to sheep-farming which at its peak exported 40,000 sacks of raw wool to the Flemish clothfairs. The wooltrade became a mainstay of the English King’s wealth through taxes levied on it.

This Organisation had thousands of employees who wore special clothes; some of them became very powerful. It claimed a monopoly on religion, a monopoly on books. It collected dubious “saints’ bones” and sold Indulgences (paper certificates that guaranteed you would get time off from Purgatory after you died). The revenue flows stayed largely within the country apart from a tax levied on the whole country, but seldom paid.

The Organisation

Then in the 1520s, the English King Henry VIII fell in love with a woman called Ann Boleyn. It didn’t matter that he already had a wife who was unfortunately not able to have a son. It’s good to be the King. Then he decided he wanted to marry his mistress.

At first he was patient and tried to get the divorce from his Queen, Katherine of Aragon, by negotiation. But then he ran out of time because Ann was pregnant with what he devoutly hoped was a son (it wasn’t). He wanted the baby to be legitimate so it could succeed to the throne.

The Organisation claimed control over whether and whom the king could marry. He disagreed. He wasn’t in the least interested in all the protesters against the big Organisation who swarmed in Germany, France, Flanders, Switzerland. If anything, he disapproved of them. He just wanted to divorce his Queen and marry his mistress.

It’s good to be the King

Considering that kings and princes were normally allowed to do this sort of thing after appropriate payment, he did have something to complain about. But unfortunately the CEO of the organisation was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea — or Henry VIII and the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V who was the nephew of Katherine of Aragon. Charles had a large army occupying the organisation’s HQ in Rome at the time. So for complex reasons involving pointy things, the CEO had to say “no” to Henry VIII.

Who didn’t like that at all. At this point, Thomas Cromwell, possibly the first Brexiteer in history, punched his way to the top of a heap of courtiers. Then he murmered something possibly not unadjacent to “I have a cunning plan.”

Thomas Cromwell, the Brexiteer

The answer to the king’s problem, was for England to leave the Organisation. Or as it was better known, the Catholic Church. The Church had enormous land-holdings, possibly owning as much as a third of the country. So the whole thing would pay for itself, said Cromwell, or at least the King could make a lot of money. All he had to do was nationalise the Church’s holdings and then sell the abbeys, chantries, nunneries and the lands off to whoever wanted to buy them. Of course, the Crown quickly ran out of church lands to sell which resulted in higher taxes and eventually led, in a hundred years, to the Brexecution of Charles I.

So Henry did it. He split from Rome. He Brexited. He didn’t need to worry about parliament which was full of men who would profit from the sale of church lands. There was a flurry of dodgy legislation, including the statute known as Praemunire which made it treason for anyone to appeal to any authority higher than the King’s.


There was enormous dislocation and suffering and the process took years. Thousands of churchmen and women were suddenly made redundant, with severance terms that amounted to starvation even if the pensions had been paid, which they weren’t. The nuns suffered especially; turned out of their quiet nunneries into a world where all women were expected to be wives or widows, but they were still not permitted to marry. Some of them turned to prostitution so as not to starve.


There’s a curious similarity between those early Brexiteers and the current crop. The Protestants who rapidly took over after Henry died, leaving his young son Edward VI, were determined to get rid of anything Papist. They really didn’t care about the devastation they were causing. A huge tonnage of art, gold plate, jewels and statues was destroyed or sold off. The sale of Church property caused a feeding frenzy among the suddenly and conveniently Protestant gentry who could afford to buy land at knock-down prices.

Ordinary people

Nobody dreamt of asking the ordinary people what they wanted, of course, England then wasn’t that foul thing, a democracy. But it’s fairly clear that the ordinary people suffered throughout the 1540s and 1550s.

They suffered war with Scotland, heavy taxation, wild swings of the religion pendulum. They suffered the deadly sweating sickness, bad harvests, a massive increase in homelessness, and a mysterious episode of inflation in Mary’s reign. (Mary was the one daughter Katherine of Aragon had produced, very Catholic, known as Bloody Mary because of her enthusiasm for burning Protestants.)

Protestants = heroes; Catholics = villains

However the Church land buyers’ view of it has become part of our national legend. This might account for the perennial English suspicion about belonging to any pan-European organisation. The Protestants are seen as heroes and the Catholics as villains. Those Protestants were few in number, determined and fanatical – literally Puritans in fact. The most extreme of them were believers in a rather depressing Calvinist doctrine which essentially said that since God knew who was damned and who was saved from the beginning, it was already decided who was predestined to go to go to hell. That would be anybody who argued with them. They knew, of course, that they personally were saved and would go to heaven because reasons.

Disappointing daughter

The child born in 1533 was a girl. Henry’s disappointing daughter was Elizabeth I, who eventually came to the throne in 1558 and managed to achieve the first example of the traditional English fudge: she was a Protestant but liked singing, bells and smells, disliked Puritans. So she presided as Supreme Governor over a compromise which hated the Pope and used English not Latin in church services, but kept many of the virtues and vices of the old Organisation.


You might say that this blog is verging on being pro-Brexit by drawing a parallel between it and the English Reformation, that great story of national liberation from the evils of the wicked papacy. And the question of Europe – in or out? – certainly has bedevilled English politics for at least a thousand years.

However if the story of the Reformation shows anything, it shows that the ordinary people did not benefit from the destruction of the monasteries – they suffered. Their lands were enclosed and they were turned off them; they could no longer go to the Church for help in times of famine; women no longer had an alternative to marriage. They lost their comforting rituals and beautiful pictures and statues – and the social life of the small local gilds which collected money to put candles on altars in the church. Even the beekeepers suffered: I suspect there were far fewer of them twenty years after the Reformation because there was no market for their wax. Perhaps that was one of the reasons for the problems with food: there were also fewer bees.

Poor Thomas! Poor us!

Just because we got away with it last time – after 20-30 years of severe disruption and a nasty Civil War a hundred years later — doesn’t mean we will again. After a false start in the late 16th century, Britain didn’t start collecting empires until the late 17th century. So for us the benefits of Brexit might accrue in around 2170 CE.

What happened to Thomas Cromwell? He died, of course. He was executed by Henry VIII in 1540, for persuading the king to marry #4 wife, the ugly Anne of Cleves.

Eamon Duffy “The Stripping of the Altars”


  1. Marilyn Burk says:

    This is a brilliant analysis.

    You should send this to J K Rowling’s Twitter feed.

  2. Judy Rowe says:

    Love your comments on Brexit. Even tho I live in U.S.A (where we have our own miserable problems) I am a huge fan of anything British–especially history! If I may add here, I devoured “Suspicion of Silver” as soon as it arrived, and am not sure if I can survive until I know more about THE BABY! You handled that twist in the story so well! Not overly graphic, but quite touching. PLEASE give Henry and Janet a son who looks like Janet, and combines personality traits of all three–Sir Robert, Janet and Henry!

    1. That BABY… *looks mysterious and nods head*
      I’m glad you like my new Brexit blog.

  3. Fiona Middlemist says:

    I know it’s pedantic, but then I am pedantic. Surely you can’t call it Brexit before the union of the crowns. Henry VIII only spoke for England, not Britain. Engxit?

    1. You’re right of course, but I was trying to reach an audience of non-pedants who don’t give a monkey’s that the Union didn’t happen until 1603. Also Eizabethan poets often used Britain or Britannia as a synonym for England (Sir Philip Sydney?) So definitely not UKxit. And Engxit is the other reason why. Brexit itself is ugly enough, surely?

  4. Virginia Taylor says:

    As an Australian, I don’t understand the reasoning behind Brexit. It seems pretty silly to me. These days, every country in the world is slightly if not highly dysfunctional. And yes, ‘the baby.’ I love you and hate you at the same time. Love you because you write such wonderful stories, and hate you because the moment I finish one, I want the next.

    1. As a Brit myself, I don’t understand the reasoning behind Brexit and it seems totally daft to me. I’m trying to see what Brexiteers find so great about the idea – some of them are friends of mine and not cliche stupid old farts who hate immigrants. I still don’t get it.
      I’m very happy to drive you mad, being as how I’m the producer of the drug! I do wish I could write faster though. And it’s not about time – I tried taking a year off from teaching English and found I didn’t write any more.

  5. Barbara Cantwell says:

    Sitting on my remote island in the Salish Sea boarder waters between the USA and Canada, I am equally dismayed at the whole us-them, Brexit, wall nonsense thing that has consumed the world. I do leave my island from time to time (no stores, no garbage removal, no cars) and my favorite long trip over the years has been to the UK… I have been saving Suspicion of Silver for a birthday treat at the beach next month so..lalalalala baby lalalala

    1. Can I ask how you came to live on your island? I hope you get nice weather for your birthday – or will it still be very cold?

      1. Barbara Cantwell says:

        15 years ago we bought a cabin on a couple acres of land with a water view on a tiny non ferry served island in Washington state’s San Juan islands. I was a librarian for 20 years, my husband, a journalist…actually a travel editor for a newspaper… We retired to our cabin. It is lovely, I am writing a novel…Brian has a book being published in the fall, we like our little piece of dirt shared with 2 cats.. Our daughter lives not too far away and so, that is good. She went to Oxford as part of her university education and is happily employed! Yeah. Not half bad… We hada gloroius sunset last night, and mild temps!! ☺

  6. Barbara Cantwell says:

    Sitting on my remote island in the Salish Sea boarder waters between the USA and Canada, I am equally dismayed at the whole us-them, Brexit, wall nonsense thing that has consumed the world. Your historical perspective is spot on. Thanks! I do leave my island from time to time (no stores, no garbage removal, no cars) and my favorite long trip over the years has been to the UK… hope to make that trip again soon! I have been saving Suspicion of Silver for a birthday treat at the beach next month so..lalalalala baby lalalalalalala

    1. Thank you! Is it a desert island or are there more people? I wouldn’t like it. I’m a city gal and I get nervous if I’m more than a mile away from a coffeeshop.

      1. Barbara Cantwell says:

        200 acre forested island with 22 full time residents! I make a monthly trip to the bright lights of Seattle — coffee shop central!

  7. Mary Stallebrass says:

    Love the parallels you draw. Until I read this blog, I hadn’t realised how Tudor everyone (both sides actually) is being: totally convinced of their own rightness (or is that righteousness) and, of course the consequent idiocy/wickedness of anyone who disagrees. I also devoured Suspicion of Silver. Loved it, but what a cliffhanger….

    1. It’s ridiculous that nobody can seem to be able to agree to disagree any more. There’s a certain way of thinking that I call Puritan – utterly unable to tolerate any dissent and with worrying inclinations towards iconoclasm.

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