1547 CE saw the deaths of three key actors– or anyway, two key actors and a leading second-string player– in the drama of European proto-imperialism that we’ve been following in Project 500 Years thus far. They were: England’s King Henry VIII, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, and France’s King Francis I. We’ll come down to more evaluation of the roles the first two of those had played, below. For now, the year’s other world-history-relevant bullet-points:
- In January, Grand Duke Ivan IV of Muscovy becomes the first Tsar of Russia, replacing the 264-year-old Grand Duchy of Moscow with the Tsardom of Russia. This was a significant step of “national” consolidation. Ivan was 16, and later became known as “Grozny”, translated into English as “the terrible.” (The word “tsar” is derived from Caesar, a word used to designate a powerful overlord/leader since the days of Caius Julius Caesar, in whose case it probably only meant that Caius Julius was hirsute or had blue-gray eyes. Fwiw.) The image above shows Ivan, a bit later on, showing some of his jewels to the ambassador of England’s Queen Elizabeth I.
- Henry VIII died in January and was succeeded by his only recognized male heir, 9-year-old Edward VI. One of the early acts of Edward (or his regents) that year was to outlaw execution by boiling, which had been the main means of execution since 1531.
- An English army also won a battle against the Scots and occupied Edinburgh.
- France’s King Francis I died in March, succeeded by his son Henry II. In August, the Duchy of Brittany united with the Kingdom of France.
- In April, Spain’s Charles V (aka Holy Roman Emperor) delivered what was described as a decisive defeat to the mainly Protestant Schmalkaldic League at the Battle of Mühlberg. Charles apparently took personal command of that part of the Holy Roman warfighting. English-WP tells us that “The battle ended the Schmalkaldic war and led to the dissolution of the Schmalkaldic League.”
- In Baalbek (in today’s Lebanon), the future theologian, philosopher, mathematician, and general polymath Bahāʾ al‐Dīn al‐ʿĀmilī was born. When Bahāʾ al‐Dīn was eleven, he moved with his family to the Safavid empire, where the Safavids, eager to find a way to differentiate themselves from the neighboring Ottomans, who were Sunni Muslims, made a command decision to adopt the Twelver Shiite version of Islam. Early Safavid emperors thus imported learned men and teachers from the Shiite community of today’s Lebanon (aka Jebel Amil), which was well-known for its learning, to come and teach Persians how to be Shiites. Bahāʾ al‐Dīn became one of these, and was responsible for many scientific and technical advances in Persia. (I just note this because most Westerners today regard Lebanese Shiites as somehow converts, proxies, or pawns of the Iranians… )
- In Ming China, that eccentric chap the Jiajing Emperor was still emperor. But a censor reported that the “pirate” raids on the southeast coast were now “out of control.”
Quick first thoughts on Henry VIII:
Henry’s main job on assuming the crown, at age 17, in 1509, was to continue the national reconciliation effort pursued by his father, Henry VII, to overcome the last after-effects of the Lancaster-York war that devastated England in the 15th century. He hadn’t expected to become king, but his older brother Arthur died unexpectedly so there he was, in line for the throne.
His father had sought to make a strong dynastic alliance with the “Catholic Monarchs” of Castile/Aragon by marrying Arthur to Catherine of Aragon, when young Henry was still only ten; and after Arthur’s death, which happened 20 weeks after the marriage, dad tried to persuade a reluctant– and still very young– Henry to marry her instead.
Soon after Henry VII died and Henry VIII became king, he agreed to marry Catherine. Catherine had four pregnancies that did not result in production of a surviving child; then in 1516 she finally had a girl, Mary, who survived. Henry was meanwhile both sleeping around and wanting to produce a “legitimate” male heir. When he started wanting to divorce Catherine, this caused major issues in his relationships with both the Habsburgs and the Pope, ushering in the English Reformation and the increasing consolidation of a form of English and proto-British nationhood. (For her part, Catherine did not want the divorce, considered herself still married to Henry, clung to her Catholicism, and raised her daughter Mary as a Catholic.)
For Henry, making himself the head of the Church of England was an assertion of an earthly national prerogative that went much further than anything Charles V did in Spain: Charles was content merely to keep the Pope well under his own control. It’s also worth noting that the Church of England was always definitely not Lutheran, not Calvinist, and not Anabaptist or anything else that could be described as theologically/ideologically “Protestant”. It retained most of the form and dogma of Catholicism with some tweaks, principal among them that it would be the English monarch who would head it; there was also (unsurprisingly) some allowance in its practice for divorce; and later, priests would be allowed to marry etc.
Henry got involved in quite a lot of the wars roiling mainland Europe, particularly those in which he could fight against France (often in alliance with the Spanish.) Within the British Isles, he successfully imposed his will on Wales, started asserting English claims on Ireland, and often actively fought against the Scots. A lot of his pugilistic efforts were funded by the rich takings he seized during the dissolution of the monasteries (which I suppose meant he was not as motivated as Charles V was in Spain, to find fortunes in foreign lands whose plunder could finance his wars?) He was, anyway, also known known as “the father of the Royal Navy.” English-WP reminds us that he invested heavily in the navy, increasing its size from a few to more than 50 ships, and establishing the country’s Navy Board.
Altogether, Henry did a lot that in later years would turn out to have prepared England to launch a serious project of global empire-building. But that would not happen in a serious way till well into the reign of the third of his children to succeed him, Elizabeth I.
Cortés was born in 1485 to a family of “minor nobility” in Spain and at age 19 joined an expedition to the Spanish-controlled Caribbean island of Hispaniola. From there, he joined the 1511 expedition that Diego Velázquez led, to conquer Cuba, where he was granted a very profitable encomienda that enabled him to become extremely wealthy off the labor of enslaved indigenes. He started having differences with Velázquez (possibly over the division of all that plunder?) Anyway, in 1518, Velázquez sent him to lead a new expedition onto the mainland, from whence rumors of yet greater riches had been coming. English-WP tells us: “With Cortés’ experience as an administrator, knowledge gained from many failed expeditions, and his impeccable rhetoric he was able to gather six ships and 300 men, within a month.” (Also, the hyper-profits he’d been making from his Cuban encomienda must have been a factor.)
From Cuba, he sailed to the coast of today’s Mexico, directly flouting Velázquez’s orders not to. On the mainland, he proceeded with his fighting force to head for the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, using the classic “imperial expedition” tactic of enrolling fighters from dissident tribes and groups along the way. In early 1521, as we saw earlier, he succeeded in defeating the Aztecs. Tenochtitlan was renamed Mexico City, and for the next three years he governed all of Mexico (“New Spain of the Ocean Sea”) as his personal fiefdom.
However, he had made many Spanish enemies along the way, in addition to Velázquez. So when he received a commission from King Charles V as “governor, captain general, and chief justice” of New Spain, Charles also appointed four royal officials “to assist him”, in effect, submitting him to close observation and administration, as WP puts it. He set about establishing a system of encomiendas throughout New Spain, which I guess enabled him to buy the loyalty of a lot of the Spanish members of his expedition, though he also kept a lot of them for himself.
The story of Cortés as told in English-WP tells us quite a lot about how the Spanish conquistadores operated, in general. Being a conquistador, he understood at some level that his two main tasks were (a) to send lots of silver back to King Charles in Spain, and (b) to “christianize” the indigenes– including by doing so forcefully, if necessary, which had been the standard practice in Cuba and Hispaniola. I’m sure he also understood that the first of those tasks was paramount! Re the christianizing, he wrote to the king that he did not want standard priests to be sent out to do the job, since they were so corrupt that it would “set a bad example for the Indians.” Instead, he wanted to have people sent out who were members of the religious orders who had taken vows of poverty and chastity, mainly Franciscans and Dominicans. It was pointed out to King Charles that, under standard Catholic-church rules, the members of those orders were not supposed to deliver masses or other sacraments. But Charles was easily able to over-rule the Vatican on those details and Cortés got his Franciscans and Dominicans.
Another thing that comes out of the biography of Cortés in English-WP is that Charles was actually pretty disinterested in the details of governing his “New World” colonies and had no particular vision for them beyond the key role they would play in funneling lots and lots of money to him, to fund the wars he was continuing to fight– and to lead in person!– in the European continental heartland.