The House of Tudor began its reign with a supreme act of violence: hacking King Richard III of England to death at Bosworth Field. Once on the throne, its members continued in the same vein, soaking the country in blood: unleashing 50 years of religious persecution that rumbled on long after their demise, fuelling a civil war and then a dictatorship (1642–60). For all the talk of Bluff King Hal, Good Queen Bess and Merrie England, the Tudor period inaugurated an unprecedented intensity of state violence on the English people.
Two thousand miles east and five centuries later, the thugs of ISIS have earned a footnote in the history books for their short-lived caliphate, with its horrific public executions, and its detachments taking explosives, bulldozers and jack-hammers to the world’s irreplaceable cultural heritage.
On the face of it, there is not a lot to link Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I with ISIS and its nearly defunct regime. But there are surprising similarities in some of their underlying aims and methods.
The Tudors were not, of course, a nihilistic Salafist death cult. And the caliphate of ISIS was far from being an affluent Renaissance royal court. But they shared a mission in wanting to impose a minority religion, by force, on a largely powerless population. And once sermons and debates failed to convince the majority population, both resorted to similar methods of violent state coercion to stamp out dissent.
In defining orthodoxy and heterodoxy, for example, both the Tudors and ISIS handed decision-making and law-making to politicised councils of clerics given the task of deciding the parameters of lawful activity. They also endowed them with judicial powers of life and death to enforce their judgments. This melding and blurring of political, clerical and judicial authority resulted, in both cases, in tyrannical theocracy.
Objectively, there was little difference between the clerics of ISIS presiding over public beheadings and the likes of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and bishops Hugh Latimer and Myles Coverdale doing the same. Of course, public executions have been used by many secular and religious regimes down the millennia. But – at least in a European context – the Tudors took grizzly public executions to a new level in the pursuit of their religious reforms.
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