A Very Active Captain

Patrick Collinson

  • The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church by G.W. Bernard
    Yale, 736 pp, £29.95, November 2005, ISBN 0 300 10908 3
  • Writing under Tyranny: English Literature and the Henrician Reformation by Greg Walker
    Oxford, 556 pp, £65.00, October 2005, ISBN 0 19 928333 8

Henry VIII is the most immediately recognisable of all English monarchs, present company excepted. He has been declared a national icon, and we are told that he vies with Adolf Hitler for the exclusive attention of any secondary school pupil unwise enough to pursue the study of history beyond the age of 14.

On my way to lecture on him in Cambridge once, I left my bike for repair at Ben Hayward’s cycle shop, happening to mention that Henry was on the menu that morning. ‘I know – great big fat bloke.’ Not conspicuously obese but with shoulders two feet too wide, an anatomical impossibility, he looms above me in Hans Eworth’s version of the Holbein full-length portrait every time I dine in my college, Trinity, which Henry founded. (Obesity followed, however. Henry’s waist size went from 37 to 54 inches between 1536 and 1540, and the royal palaces were equipped with wheelchairs and specially strengthened beds.) Three years ago, the Walker Gallery in Liverpool brought together in one room four of those giant Eworth/Holbein images (Trinity, Chatsworth, Petworth and their own), which glowered intimidatingly at each other from the four walls.

Historians and biographers have never offered identical portraits of the king. For A.F. Pollard, writing a hundred years ago, Henry was a Land of Hope and Glory monarch, who by some divine intuition foresaw his country’s destiny and laid its foundations. ‘It was the king, and the king alone, who kept England on the course he had mapped out.’ For Geoffrey Elton, by contrast, writing in the third quarter of the last century, Henry was ‘a bit of a booby and a bit of a baby’. ‘A man who marries six wives is not a man who perfectly controls his own fate.’ Like J.A. Froude, balancing the books on Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, Elton believed that all Henry’s achievements were those of others, and above all the towering achievement of his minister Thomas Cromwell, whose idea it was to declare UDI on the pope, and, in effect, the rest of Europe.

Not all of those who came next, including his own pupils, agreed with Elton. Some very publicly disagreed, and Cromwell was in danger of being sealed back into the sarcophagus which had contained his remains for five centuries until Elton, as if playing Howard Carter in the Public Record Office, excitedly opened it in 1947. But most followed Elton in attributing credit, discredit and, generally, responsibility for what happened in Henry’s reign to others, the politicians, courtiers and prelates who either contributed the big ideas, or manipulated and bent the ear of Elton’s booby: they emphasise ‘faction’, seen as the very stuff of early modern politics. Jack Scarisbrick’s almost definitive biography of 1968, which neither idolised nor underestimated Henry, stood strangely neglected, if unchallenged (except by Elton), perhaps because Scarisbrick chose not to engage polemically with Elton, his mentor.

The evidence, not least for the critical decisions and turning-points of the reign, is often scarce and open to interpretation. George Bernard’s argument frequently proceeds by assertion rather than argument and proof, but, knowing how difficult the record is to interpret, he always asserts what is, in his view, plausible, rather than certain. For example, there is no record of the royal decision to dissolve all the English monasteries, ‘no statement of policy, no report of conversations or gossip’. So Bernard is free to speculate about what he considers ‘the cautious determination of the king’ in this momentous case. ‘There can be little doubt … that at some point in the autumn of 1537 … Henry had determined on a more general dissolution of the monasteries’ – and apparently without the prompting of councillors, courtiers, reformers or other interested parties.

Like Bernard himself, Bernard’s Henry is his own man, the prime mover of all that happened, not so much in the first fifteen years of his reign, when Wolsey looked after the shop, as in the momentous last fifteen, when everything changed, and at Henry’s behest and command. Bernard has made it clear, in many earlier publications, that he discounts ‘faction’ as the motor of Tudor politics. And as for Elton and his alter ego, ‘Geoffrey Elton assumed, rather than demonstrated, that Cromwell’s intelligence was behind everything.’ On the contrary, the minister ‘did not dare act without knowing what the king wanted’.

In denying, in particular, that Cromwell consistently pushed Henry in the direction of reform in a more or less Protestant sense, with consequences ultimately fatal for himself, Bernard admits that he is opposing ‘a formidable consensus of historians’. Later in the book, in offering his own explanation for the sudden and unexpected fall of Cromwell, he admits to flying in the face of ‘a generation of historical consensus’. If Bernard fails to turn that consensus around, as fail he will, it will not bother him too much. Throughout this massively learned book, as in much of his other writing, he is the only one in step.

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