Henry VIII is one of the most difficult and controversial figures in English history. The Victorian scholars who were the first to apply themselves seriously to his reign, regarded him as a lecherous despot. The king’s role in the foundation of the Church of England was either the providential by-product of his lust for Anne Boleyn, or the ultimate argument against its legitimacy, depending on one’s point of view. Another generation, inured to despotism and comfortable with lechery, has taken a more indulgent view. In popular imagination Henry has even emerged as the archetypal figure of a mythical Merrie England.
The modern view of the period is due mainly to that fearsome, Germanic scholar, Sir Geoffrey Elton, who died in 1994 but still dominates the subject from his urn. Elton resolved the controversies which had divided his predecessors by writing Henry out of the history of his own reign. His Henry was not important enough to be a monster: weak, vain and inconstant, intellectually banal, emotionally erratic and easily manipulated. Real power was exercised by successive cabals of courtiers and politicians, and pre-eminently by Elton’s hero Thomas Cromwell, who was the king’s principal counsellor during the seminal decade of the 1530s. As the figure of Henry faded into the background, so too did the religious issues which had once made his reign so interesting. The English Reformation, at any rate in Henry’s time, became a largely administrative and constitutional phenomenon, almost devoid of spiritual meaning. The dissolution of the English monasteries and the suppression of shrines and pilgrimages, one of the most profound cultural changes in English history, became an essentially political and financial transaction.
G. W. Bernard will have none of this. His book is a sustained attack on almost every orthodoxy of modern historical writing on the subject. But it is much more than a polemic. Professor Bernard sets out to tell the story of England’s Reformation in his own way. What emerges is a very different and in some ways a more compelling story than the one we are used to.
The central figure in Bernard’s narrative is the king himself. Far from being a cipher of his ministers, Henry is portrayed as a man of overpowering force of personality with firm views of his own, who was completely in control of affairs. It may well be that he would never have embarked on his Reformation but for his passion for Anne Boleyn. But having broken with the papacy over his divorce, Henry developed an eclectic but coherent religious policy of his own and stuck to it for the rest of his reign. The king was an enthusiastic and moderately competent theologian, who knew his scripture. He consciously rejected the central doctrines of the continental Reform- ation. He believed in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and in prayers for the dead. He believed in personal salvation through good works. But he objected to abuses and ‘superstitions’, to the invocation of the saints, to lax clerical morals and to the abuse of religious endowments which he thought he detected in the lesser monasteries. He participated personally in the drafting of the successive statements of approved doctrine which were published in the course of his reign. His ministers thought what they were expected to think, and they did what they were told.
The intolerance and brutality of the process were very much Henry’s own. It was Henry who terrified the bishops into accepting his repudiation of Rome (only one of them refused). It was Henry who would not compromise with Fisher and More, the leading martyrs of the old order, both of whom were fundamentally loyal to him; Henry who first deceived and then destroyed the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, the great rebellion of the north, when his ministers would have been inclined to compromise; Henry who had Cromwell judicially murdered on a caprice. It was Henry who determined to destroy the greater monasteries, after the Pilgrimage of Grace had convinced him that they were centres and symbols of opposition to his policies. The king’s notes and amendments on drafts and the orders that came out of his closet are eloquent evidence of his contribution. The monks of Sawley were to be ‘hanged upon long pieces of timber out of the steeple’. The king’s b