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Was Somerset a humanitarian reformer or power-grabbing opportunist

I will argue that Somerset demonstrated in his policy nothing that could be considered indicative of a humanitarian reformer. Some historians have argued that he did have a genuine concern for the poor but, given the circumstances of his rule, was unable to realise this aim. However, there is very little evidence to support this claim; furthermore, the extremes to which his control measures extended suggest a ruler almost totally devoid of compassion for the poor. However, neither was he a power-grabbing opportunist, which seems an excessive description of Somerset. Rather, if we take the two descriptions as the ends of a spectrum, Somerset was undoubtedly closer to a power-grabbing opportunist, who was motivated throughout his short time in power largely by a need for control and support to secure his position. Indeed, had he had a more reforming attitude he may have lasted for longer.There is very little evidence to suggest he was a humanitarian reformer. Firstly we could look to the fact that he led the reform faction of the council before Henry’s death. Although seemingly relevant, this is discredited by his record in power in which the system of government remained similar to Henry’s reign. Indeed, after the succession perhaps what was needed was reform but none came. It appears, therefore, that Somerset’s attitude changed once in power. Furthermore, a cynical interpretation would support the view that Somerset was an opportunist, who had engineered himself into Henry’s favour in the knowledge that the succession of an infant monarch would leave him with full power.Somerset’s rise to power would seem to support the view that he was an opportunist. Somerset had, at least to some extent, engineered his position by the time that Henry’s death came; he was not, as if by chance, in the right place at the right time. It would be too cynical to say that Somerset became a leading member of the reform faction in order to gain Henry’s favour by appealing to Henry’s support of moderate reform. However, having seen how his position in the reform faction did not translate into his rule we should not deny this as part of his motives. Somerset’s concealment of Henry’s death for four days to secure support adds weight to the argument that he was opportunistic. We can see, therefore, not only that Somerset was to some extent opportunistic, but also that his position in the reform faction, seen in the light of his later rule, cannot be seen as indicative of a reforming character.Furthermore, there is also very little evidence to suggest that he had serious concerns for the poor. His removal of unpopular legislation from Henry’s reign in acts such as the Treason Act can be seen as a sign of his tolerance and his efforts to end enclosure as a sign of his sympathy for the poor. However, neither stand up to serious scrutiny, his repealing of previous legislation was more likely to have been an attempt at gaining popularity for the new system while his attempt at anti-enclosure legislation proved ineffective and indecisive because of a need to appease the elite. That is not to say that his attempt to restrict enclosure does not point to a concern for the poor. However this is a dim light among the host of heavy handed measures of control in addition to poor management of economic problems, both of which hit those most in need the hardest.What seems to have been Somerset’s main motivation was a need for control and support, which drove most of his actions and led to his neglecting of the real economic problems and his paranoid measures leading up to his fall. As mentioned previously, his removal of unpopular legislation from Henry’s reign was motivated more by a need to establish support. Most important, however, was the repealing of the Proclamations Act, which allowed Somerset to issue proclamations without even the consent of the Privy Council. Indeed, Smith argues that during Somerset’s rule “proclamations posed their greatest threat to the supremacy of parliamentary statutes.” 1 Alan Smith paints a picture of a government in which Somerset ruled by his own prerogative through the use of proclamation (the average per year went from six to nineteen), refusing to take advice and seen by his council as arrogant. Nigel Heard, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Somerset was not solely after his own power and had the full backing of his council and parliament. Therefore, it is clear that Somerset was increasing his own power, however, in respect of different interpretations, it would be rash to describe Somerset as power grabbing.This same motive of control and a secure position of power lay behind the attempts to suppress discontent and secure his position through legislature. The Vagrancy Act and the many paranoid measures before his fall are not indicative of a humanitarian reformer. The poor economic situation was the main root of the discontent at the time; Somerset’s complete lack of action to turn around the economic downfall and, moreover, his apparent lack of any sympathy for the poor discredit any arguments that he was a humanitarian reformer. The Vagrancy Act stated that all those who had been unemployed for three days would be sold into slavery, an Act anyone even remotely concerned for the poor would find morally corrupt. In addition, the measures such as the bans on football and unlawful assemblies show the continuation of his motivation to secure his position to paranoid ends. Somerset’s hints at reform for the poor in John Hales’ reform programme, which never existed, and in the anti-enclosure legislation, which failed due to indecision in the face of a discontented elite, can be seen as cynical attempts to appease the discontented poor.In all of Somerset’s actions there was not a background of concern for the poor; rather, it seems there was a motive to secure his position. However, it would be valid to raise the criticism that this assessment of Somerset’s character is based on a rule of two years, some of the supporting evidence coming from a period in which Somerset was in a state of desperation facing a revolting population. It is important therefore to note, as was previously, that Somerset was not necessarily an entirely selfish ruler. However, we should not extend this point too far, many of the acts, such as the Vagrancy Act and repealing of proclamations, were not at a time when Somerset was in a state of desperation. Moreover, the discontent was to a large extent Somerset’s own doing. This and his failure to deal with it in a measured way serve as further evidence to support the arguments made here. Therefore, it is a criticism that should be considered but which does not damage the main substance of the argument, rather, forces us to make a more measured assessment of Somerset’s character in light of his situation.Therefore, Somerset, although there is a little evidence to suggest he was concerned for the poor, was not a humanitarian reformer. He was motivated throughout his rule by a need to secure his position seen principally by his use of his new powers of proclamation and later acts. He did not recognise the problems people faced; rather, he used harsh methods to attempt to control the people. Given the state of desperation he was in, Somerset’s character should not be seen as power grabbing, which implies a despotic rule, instead he merely saw that securing his position and controlling dissent was essential in his rule.

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