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.
Both regimes also settled on a policy of destroying cultural heritage linked to theologies they wished to supplant. ISIS levelled scores of medieval and historic Shia and Sufi mosques, Christian churches and monasteries, and shrines and tombs of notable local religious and historical figures. They also tried to reach further back into history, damaging and destroying large elements of the world-famous archaeological heritage at Palmyra, Nimrud and Hatra. With exactly the same thought process, the Tudors razed monasteries and churches, hacked statues and decoration off buildings, splintered rood screens, ground up painted glass and whitewashed frescoes. Under modern international law, acts of cultural desecration like these are ranked as war crimes for the trauma they cause to identity and memory.
The Tudors and ISIS took this cultural warfare one stage further, with the purposeful obliteration (literally, wiping out writing) of historical manuscripts, books, archives and libraries. When the Tudors gutted Oxford’s Bodleian library, and when ISIS blew up the Central Library in Mosul, they were each wiping out written memory attesting to the fact that humans had lived successfully and happily in prior periods.
Coercion has always required propaganda, and both the Tudors and ISIS relied on innovative misinformation operations to refocus attention away from the terrible realities. ISIS specialised in social media operations – “digihad” – to engage their target audiences. They enticed jihadis and aspiring jihadi brides with descriptions of an Islamic paradise on earth. They fuelled their soldiers’ battle-lust with explicit snuff videos. And they terrorised the rest of the world with gory and menacing threats of destruction and domination.
The Tudors had a more grandiose aim for their propaganda, and they were significantly aided by having a virtual monopoly on printed matter in the kingdom. Although they also enticed ideologically aligned foreign sympathisers to their new realm, they used books and pamphlets relentlessly to denigrate traditional English religion, to portray it as the arm of a foreign power and to burnish an image of themselves as saviours of the nation’s identity and soul. Their disinformation campaign was so effective that, even today, many still perceive the Tudors as heaven-sent rulers of destiny who ushered in a new age of magnificence.
There are, of course, dissimilarities between the Tudors and ISIS. The Tudors were an internationally recognised and legitimate monarchy, while ISIS’s caliphate failed to win any mainstream religious or international recognition, and was universally viewed as a terrorist insurgency.
There was also a major difference in longevity. The Tudor project became so ingrained that legislative discrimination against Catholics remained in force for centuries, with aspects still in effect today: the British monarch, for instance, may not be a Catholic. By contrast, the Salafi programme of ISIS was instantly scrapped by local populations the moment ISIS left their area. It was measurable only in years, not decades or centuries.
Another dissimilarity is that, while both regimes were kleptocracies that asset-stripped their populations, the Tudors focused on the property of the English Church. Ironically, this was, of course, money raised and donated by English people to fund churches and monasteries built by the English, rather than some foreign organisation present in the English countryside, as the Tudor spin machine liked to suggest. By contrast, ISIS had far more ambitious financial policies, and funded itself from whatever it could lay its hands on.
It is possible to overplay the analogy between the Tudors and ISIS. Away from their religious reforms, the Tudors left important legacies in learning, the arts, architecture, the navy, exploration and a host of other areas that form a major part of the story of England’s development. ISIS, on the other hand, left nothing behind but ruins and desolation.
Nevertheless, in the details of how the two regimes set about imposing religious change on an unwilling people, there are more similarities between their methods than some might care to admit.
Dominic Selwood is a historian, author and barrister.