- The King's Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church
The image of Henry VIII as a monarch swayed by the religious beliefs of those around him, even as he initiated sweeping religious changes in his county, is a [End Page 1287] familiar one. This picture of the king as a waffling reformer is one which G. W. Bernard seeks to revise. The author's thesis is that Henry VIII was quite intent on most policies throughout the period, and that, rather than being persuaded by others, he was the architect of his Reformation. Using substantial quantities of primary and secondary material, Bernard seeks to persuade the reader that Henry's attitudes and motivations have been misinterpreted over time (and even during his own life) to produce the image of an ambivalent ruler. The author does not place blame only at the feet of the historical figures involved, however, as he regularly rebukes historians in the field for either misinterpreting or misrepresenting the major players such as Henry, Cromwell, Wolsey, and Cranmer.
Bernard's constant chastisement of noted historians is a distraction. Seemingly, he has been the only one to completely understand the religious wrangling of the time. Elton, Guy, Dickens, Brigden — all have been mistaken: "But what all previous approaches lack is a clear understanding of the position of Henry VIII" (51). There are some scholars with whom Bernard can agree, but overall his attempt to put forth his thesis seems to require discounting all previous views. There is little evidence of reconciling old and new schools of thought. His scholarship, however, is very thorough. The text is well-documented and the bibliography demonstrates a wide use of manuscript and printed source material. Liberal use of speculation and conjecture is of concern. Bernard's claim that Henry was "wholly committed to his royal supremacy and determined to assert it" (242), while perfectly valid, does not necessarily constitute a coherent religious policy. Even when faced with evidence to the contrary, Bernard desires to impose his own views. He utilizes the writings of Cranmer to illustrate the idea that the archbishop had little sympathy toward Protestantism before the early 1530s, thus giving Henry a more important theological role in the changes to come. Despite the author's use of a quotation from Cranmer stating that he had prayed for "many years" to see power in Rome destroyed, Bernard asserts that "we may doubt how far back those 'many years' actually stretched" (506). Later in the paragraph, he justifies his point by stating that even though Cranmer was eloquent on the subject, his view is difficult to distinguish from the king's. Perhaps true, but it does not seem a convincing argument in the dismissal of Cranmer's own words.
Bernard does, however, make many valid points. He emphasizes Henry's personal role in the creation of policy and his decisiveness in relation to the Northern Rising and to the dissolution of the monasteries. His detailed narrative style provides context for his arguments as it reveals a king who was involved in every step of the Reformation process. Bernard is particularly skilled at unraveling the final days of Thomas Cromwell, asserting that his final fall was not over something so trivial as the failure of Anne of Cleves's marriage, but rather that Henry arranged Cromwell's destruction to better position himself in diplomatic bargaining with the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of France due to accusations against Cromwell of religious radicalism. The final portrait of Henry as the precursor of the Elizabethan settlement due to his intentional orchestration of a middle way, however, seems forced. Bernard's statement that the doctrine of the [End Page 1288] early 1540s "continued to reflect the king's eclectic views" euphemizes Henry's policy too greatly (583).
The author's tome is formidable, but well-researched. Although not particularly suited for the average reader, this work will be...