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.

Bernard’s title means what it says: this is not a biography. And it is not about Henrician politics in general. Surprisingly, Bernard deals hardly at all with the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. Some have seen Anne’s active interest in evangelical religious reform, and in particular her concern that the proceeds of the dissolution of religious houses be invested for the public good, as having had something to do with her demise. But Bernard will have none of this. Almost alone among Tudor historians (and unlike Greg Walker), he appears to believe that Anne was guilty of some at least of her adulteries. In that sense her tragedy is marginal to the story of ‘the remaking of the English Church’ as such.

Nor is this a book about the English Reformation, a complex and multi-faceted process, with deep roots running below the soil of the later Middle Ages. The subject is that more limited thing, the Henrician Reformation, which some historians, notably Christopher Haigh, make a matter of politics not religion and detach from the Reformation. Bernard, without any prolegomena, or rather only 124 words, plunges straight into 72 pages on the ‘King’s Great Matter’, the divorce. The implication is clear: without the need to replace Catherine of Aragon with a more fertile wife, and to salve the king’s conscience, there would have been no Reformation, no ‘remaking of the English Church’. Bernard is totally at odds with Elton, who doubted whether Henry was the architect of anything, ‘least of all of the English Reformation’.

On the contrary, Henry was the architect and deviser of everything. Everyone else’s parts are only walk-on, reactive. Bernard asks us to believe in Henry’s unassisted, uncounselled agency. It was not Anne Boleyn who insisted on marriage before admitting Henry to her bed but Henry who feared that reports of illicit sex would compromise his case for a tidy and legally binding divorce. Well, maybe. Henry himself was in complete intellectual command of the arguments for the invalidity of his first marriage, ‘a very active captain’ of the team seeking a legal annulment. As early as 1527 he could see that he might have to achieve his aims unilaterally, without Rome. He did not need Cromwell to tell him what to do and how to do it.

It’s an important feature of Bernard’s sustained argument for Henricentrism that the king’s command of the situation was such that there was almost no organised, let alone conspiratorial, opposition to his proceedings. Sir Thomas More died for a devoutly held principle, for which he had to die, not as a conspirator. The Observant Franciscans and Carthusians who were bloody victims of the Henrician Reformation (Elton wrote of monks who were ‘foolish enough to get themselves hanged’) were not involved in political intrigue. They suffered not for what they had done but for what they had not done, for their refusal to endorse the royal supremacy. Bishops like Archbishop Warham and Cuthbert Tunstal were passive, not active dissidents. As for aristocratic opposition to the king, we are heavily dependent for evidence of this on the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who knew no English; and when it suits him, Bernard discounts Chapuys’s evidence. The Pole family were a real threat, with their royal blood as well as their politics, although in the case of Reginald Pole the threat amounted to little more than impotent home thoughts from abroad. The nullification of the Poles culminated in the execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, a septuagenarian who had to be carried to the scaffold in a chair. Greg Walker calls this ‘the nadir of royal vindictiveness’. Vindictiveness it was. Bernard finds no evidence here for a political and military conspiracy against Henry. As Walker points out, only the last of his victims, the poet Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, had challenged the authority of the king directly.

In 1536, of course, the case was different. Much of the North of England exploded in the largest and most threatening of all the rebellions against the Tudors, the Pilgrimage of Grace. Such major events deserve exhaustive treatment, and Bernard gives the Pilgrimage more than a hundred pages. Against a mass of scholarship which investigates the various social and political dimensions of this convulsive event, Bernard insists, almost monocausally, on its religious motivation. The Pilgrimage was provoked by the king’s unprecedented onslaught on traditional religion, and above all by the first steps taken to dissolve the monasteries. The result was a jihad. This seems to me right-headed, especially Bernard’s insistence that it is anachronistic to use modern categories to separate material and spiritual concerns. As for the king whose policies the Pilgrims had challenged, the fury, deceitfulness and ultimately the savagery of his response indicates that Henry had not merely been threatened politically, but challenged and called to account for his dealings in the matter of religion in which he profoundly believed.

This brings us to the heart of Bernard’s reading of the Henrician Reformation. The dissolution of the monasteries was part of an eclectic but consistent religious programme which was not Protestantism nor an unqualified Catholicism but Henricianism. Henricianism was not so much Catholicism without the pope as Catholicism without images, pilgrimages and other cults of doubtful probity, practices invariably attracting the epithet ‘vain’; a Catholicism which venerated the holy sacrament and anathematised those ‘sacramentaries’ who denied its truth; a Catholicism which differed from Luther on the matter of justification by faith but laid an almost Lutheran premium on the Bible. Insofar as this religious policy could be described and defended pragmatically, it was a middle way between the increasingly divergent versions of Christianity on offer in the 1530s.

Given what appear to most of us to have been the fluid inconsistencies of official religious policy from the break with Rome to Henry’s later years, it is this central assertion of Bernard’s book which will most fail to convince. Can we really believe that Henry intended a reform of monastic life rather than its extinction, until provoked by the Pilgrimage of Grace into a final (dis)solution? Bernard thinks so. The dissolution of the smaller monasteries had been a demonstration of Henry’s ‘right and duty to reform the church’. All those injunctions and instructions were seriously and sincerely meant, not cynical propaganda.

Henry VIII set out to abolish what he called ‘diversity in opinions’, to declare, on the authority of his bishops and ultimately of himself, what all of his subjects were to believe, on the most central and currently contested doctrines making up the Christian religion. So far so good. No one will quarrel with that. But most historians have viewed successive versions of official Henrician doctrine as a mishmash and muddle, committee work, a constantly moving target, from the Ten Articles to the Bishops’ Book to the King’s Book: four of the seven sacraments lost, then found again. These chops and changes have been explained diplomatically, as the Henrician regime sought to counter the danger of a French-Imperial alliance by negotiating with the German Lutheran princes; and politically, as reformers and conservatives jostled for control of the king’s mind and conscience, Cranmer and Cromwell versus Bishop Stephen Gardiner and the Duke of Norfolk.

Bernard strikes out on his own, and sees Henry as the guiding light through all this encircling gloom. Cranmer and Cromwell are made out to have been less independently and evangelically minded than we had supposed, and to have been secondary rather than prime movers of policy. (And Anne Boleyn’s religion, and role, is not even discussed.) This is unpersuasive. To focus on the reactionary and conservative Act of Six Articles of 1539, Bernard does not satisfactorily engage with what Rory McEntegart has told us about the Articles’ gestation. What transmogrified a White Paper intended to accommodate the Lutherans into something like the opposite was that in August 1539 Cranmer was tied up in negotiations with the Germans at Lambeth while Henry was in thrall to Bishop Cuthbert Tunstal.

Bernard calls the destruction of Thomas Cromwell ‘the calculated act of a tyrant’. Tyranny is not a concept he invokes very often, although his final word is that in the 1530s Henry ‘turned into a tyrant’. But it is the ground bass to the theme of Greg Walker’s Writing under Tyranny. Walker was once Bernard’s pupil and, while I would not expect them to agree on all matters, Walker, too, believes in the Henrician middle way.

That Henry was a tyrant was a commonplace in Europe at the time. The Welshman William Thomas found himself defending the indefensible in a dinner-table conversation in Bologna, soon after Henry’s death. His host denounced Henry as ‘the greatest tyrant that ever was in England … I wot not what Nero, what Dionysius, or what Mahomet may be compared unto him.’ Walker’s subject is the response to that incipient tyranny of some of Henry’s own subjects; not so much the resisters we learn about from Bernard – high-profile politicians and churchmen, More and Fisher and Pole, or the cast of thousands which was the Pilgrimage of Grace – as those middling public figures who were also important to the history of Tudor literature: John Heywood, Sir Thomas Elyot, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Henry Howard, ‘writers who in one way or another tried to come to terms with the experience of writing under a despotic monarch’.

Walker’s strength is that he understands and engages intimately with the culture of a generation schooled in the rhetorical tradition, in the exercise of arguing in utramque partem – ‘What if … ? Suppose that …’ A classic and central case was true, good monarchy versus tyranny, the tyrant being defined not so much by barbaric acts, although these were likely to follow, as by a disposition to put his own interests before the public good, and to follow the evil advice of those corrupt and equally self-interested counsellors who seduced him along that road. These were the issues traversed in the copious ‘Mirror of Princes’ literature, to which Erasmus made the most famous contribution. Under the youthful Henry, all seemed set fair. Thomas More extolled him as ‘such a king as will wipe the tears from every eye, and put joy in the place of our long distress’. ‘In your reign, Sire, the golden age has returned.’ But now, with the imposition of Henry’s royal supremacy, intellectuals found that they were no longer able to discuss such matters in utramque partem. Even inside their own heads, it could be treason. Under the terms of the Acts of Succession and Supremacy, thought was no longer free.

Walker is a most acute critic of the literature of an age when most published writers were active politicians and most politicians were writers, at least of verse, although not usually for print publication. He gives a very close, contextualised and sensitive reading of texts, and he works himself, and his readers, very hard. His book need not have been quite so long. The theme throughout is the way intellectuals and writers, immersed in a humanist set of values which emphasised the public role, as counsellor, of the enlightened scholar, came to terms with a monarch who was no longer disposed to listen: the problem of counsel laid down for all time, and proleptically, in More’s Utopia.

He begins with the great edition of the Complete Works of Chaucer, dedicated to Henry in 1532, ostensibly by William Thynne, a minor functionary. Chaucer was both a national icon (this edition made him so) and an ideological football, for or against traditional ways in religion. Walker’s sustained argument for Brian Tuke’s authorship of the preface, and his co-editorship of the volume, leads to the conclusion that this edition was intended as ‘a precise and carefully constructed intervention in the political debates of the moment of its production … Here indeed was a Chaucer fit to guide Henry VIII through the troubled waters of 1532 and beyond.’ Much good it did. With Heywood, we are in the relatively calm waters before the cataracts. It was still possible, on stage, to comment critically on politics, as Heywood did in Play of the Weather, which was not about the weather, but which laughed at Jupiter’s thunderbolts. Here there was still ‘licence on the part of the playwright to touch on highly sensitive political and personal issues, without fear of recriminations’. The theatre seems to have retained that privileged status, of licensed misrule, throughout the years of supposed Tudor despotism. ‘This is all about me,’ Elizabeth I told the Spanish ambassador while they watched a play which dealt in code with the most sensitive political issue of the day, the succession to the crown.

But with Sir Thomas Elyot the going gets tougher. Elyot, a diplomat as well as one of the most learned men of his generation, began by trusting in the humanist dream: that good counsel, eloquently expressed, would prevail. His progressive disillusionment can be traced through several books. In the dialogue called Pasquil the Plain the character of Harpocrates holds his finger to his mouth, advocating a judicious silence as the best policy (by Harpocrates Elyot seems to have meant Thomas Cranmer). But Elyot was never silent. Pasquil was preceded by his most considerable and famous book, The Book Named the Governor (1531), of which Walker provides a surely definitive reading. Some have regarded the Governor as a volume about the education of a new governing class, and about language – which among other things it is. Those who have acknowledged that it is also a political treatise have, it seems mistakenly, read the book as an apology for the kind of regime symbolised by the royal supremacy, even as a justification of absolutism. Walker believes that Elyot’s book was a tract for the times, and double-edged. Elyot advocated the fashioning of a virtuous prince as the solution to the nation’s woes, precisely because he saw the prospect of Henry becoming the opposite, a tyrant. Even as Elyot was writing, the king was turning whole swathes of Westminster into a building site, displacing hundreds of households to build his new palace of Whitehall.

To admonish by praise was the oldest trick in the rhetorical toolkit. But it no longer worked. Only an already good prince would be susceptible to good counsel. By 1534, with much blood on his hands, it was clear that Henry was more tyrant than good prince. And ‘where counsel was concerned, there was no Plan B.’ Or rather there was Elyot’s apotheosis, his The Image of Governance, a translated life of the Emperor Alexander, rightly called Severus, his last and most audacious political treatise, which in its veiled, ironic and satirical exploration of contemporary issues, especially the brutal degradation and extinction of Thomas Cromwell, was Elyot’s Utopia. In it he appears to toy with the fantasy of his own elevation to a position of real and virtuous power.

With the asphyxiation of counsel, the critical voice which remained was that of the poet, and specifically the poetic voice of the reinventors of English poesy, fertilised from Italian sources, Sir Thomas Wyatt, diplomat and courtier, and Henry Howard, heir to a dukedom. Walker’s most ambitious claim is that that reinvention was forged in the conditions of the late Henrician tyranny, an almost necessary precondition for it. Both Wyatt and Surrey were living on the edge, both in and out of prison, both bitterly resentful of their own treatment and the cruel punishments meted out to their friends. The media they employed were satires, deriving from Horace and Petrarch; and the popular mode of biblical paraphrase, of the seven penitential psalms and the opening chapters of Ecclesiastes. King David was believed to be the author of those psalms, his son Solomon of Ecclesiastes: two deeply flawed monarchs with whom Henry VIII identified. For Wyatt there were self-imposed limits. Verse was about what could not be achieved in the real world. ‘He was tacitly admitting defeat,’ Walker says. But when Surrey turned his hand to eulogising for all posterity his friend Wyatt (remarkably, for such an aristocrat, in the vulgar medium of print) and to paraphrasing the bleak philosophy of Ecclesiastes, the conventions of loyal counsel were jettisoned, the unthinkable thought. ‘And they shall fall …/So shall their glorye faade; Thy sword of vengeaunce shall/Unto their dronken eyes, in blood disclose their errours all.’

Walker notes that Elton’s idea of a ‘Tudor revolution in Government’ is now dead. But he finds in the 1530s and early 1540s ‘a revolution in English literary culture’ and ‘a revolution in sensibility’, the birth of the author as an authentic, alienated voice, commenting on the state of the world from his own private space. The texts in question are palimpsests, written over and over from their classical, biblical and Renaissance sources to the encoded, indirect and satirical strategies of their authors, and almost smothered in the varnish of modern critical scholarship. They have been and will be read in a variety of ways. As he approached the block, just eight days before the death of the tyrant, Surrey composed his own epitaph: ‘To think, alas, such hap should granted be …/To spill that blood that hath so oft bene shed/For Britannes sake, alas, and now is dead.’