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  • The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church
  • Norman Jones
The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church. By G. W. Bernard (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005712 pp. $40.00

Arguing for the major revision of a received historiography can be a difficult task. To debate generations of scholarship, the evidence has to be overwhelming. That is why this book is so long and detailed. Bernard's argument that Henry VIII was the author of his own Reformation, moving ruthlessly to enforce his role as God's lieutenant, aims at overturning the widely accepted interpretations of such scholars as Elton.1 It rejects the idea that Henry was manipulated by Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, or by factions at court; it rejects the idea that Anne Boleyn forced Henry into Marriage; it rejects the argument that the monasteries were dissolved for financial reasons; it rejects the idea that Henry was a Protestant; and it insists that the history of the Henrician Reformation reflects the King's intentions.

Bernard has been pondering the politics of Henry VIII's reign for years. Books on the Tudor nobility, the Amicable Grant, and power and politics in early Tudor England have preceded this one, which is the sort of work only possible for a scholar immersed in the records for a long time. After years of study and 600 pages of exposition, his conclusions are succinct. Henry's Reformation owed nothing much to Protestant thought. His purposes were, in part, political and, in part, Erasmian, "issuing in a deeply felt, and ultimately radically articulated, mistrust of certain integral features of traditional late medieval religion, notably monasteries and pilgrimages" (603).

Bernard reaches these conclusions by asking a question about royal [End Page 268] power that has been out of fashion for a long time, though it is regaining popularity. Since the early 1950s, the political role of the monarchy has been discounted by Tudor historians, like Neale, who emphasized the importance of Parliament and counsel, and Elton, who emphasized the emergence of bureaucratic government.2 However, Bernard asks, in a system in which power ultimately rested with the king, what role did the monarch play? Either Henry was a weak chump, subject to manipulation from left and right, or by lovers and friends, or he was the source of power and the mainspring of action in the state. Clearly, Bernard has concluded that what happened in Henry's name really was what Henry wanted to happen. Seen in that way, the history of the Henrician Reformation has to be read differently. Advisors and wives have different parts to play if Henry were directing the reform.

A number of striking portraits arise from this view of Henry as a politically astute, dominating, and tyrannical king. Boelyn, rather than an enticing minx, becomes a lover denied the king's bed because of Henry's commitment to a legal marriage. Rather than being bewitched by an evangelical lover, he was directing the divorce with a clear objective and high religious ideals.

Cromwell was not the brains of the reformation; he was the effective administrator of the king's plan. Moreover, he did not fall because of a conservative faction exploiting the king's anger about the aborted marriage to Anne of Cleves. He was a victim of Henry's cold calculation that rejecting, and executing, Cromwell would show that he was moving away from radical Protestantism, opening new diplomatic possibilities. As Bernard asserts, the timing of Cromwell's fall "was a purely pragmatic calculation by the king of the diplomatic advantages of now dispensing with a servant too closely, though in many respects unfairly, identified with religious radicalism" (569).

Henry's "middle way" in religion was marked by theological Catholicism and Erasmian hatred of superstition and monasticism. Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, says Bernard, "saw themselves not as leaders of a faction but royal servants implementing royal policy," as they ran the reforms at the king's direction (531). The first round of dissolutions derived from his belief in the need for reform; the final disappearance of the monasteries was prompted by the monks' treasonous behavior...


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pp. 268-270
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