Since I was a sixth-former at Reading School, where I was inspired by Frank Terry’s peerless teaching, I have been fascinated by the history of England in the sixteenth century. I have long been intrigued by the nature and expression of power, that is to say the ability of rulers to take and to enforce a decision. How was it that Henry VIII and his leading minister Thomas Wolsey were able to raise extraordinarily high sums by way of loans in 1522-23 and persuade parliament to grant unprecedented levels of taxation more closely based on actual wealth and income than ever before, yet in 1525 provoked protests on such a scale that the demand for an Amicable Grant was abandoned without a penny being paid? That was the subject of my second book, War, Taxation and Rebellion in early Tudor England: Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey and the Amicable Grant of 1525 (1986). Earlier as an undergraduate I had been struck how in continental Europe noblemen were presented by historians as men of wealth and influence while the prevailing view of noblemen in England was that they were in decline, a view encapsulated in the title of Lawrence Stone’s study, The Crisis of the Aristocracy. As I studied the English nobility, focussing on the Talbots earls of Shrewsbury, particularly George (d. 1538), the fourth earl, and Francis (d. 1560), the fifth earl, I was struck by their loyalty to successive monarchs, notably Earl George’s instinctive and immediate decision to raise armed force against the commons of Lincolnshire up in arms in October 1536 against the dissolution of the smaller monasteries and feared further religious changes. The nobility remained powerful in Tudor England, I argued in my D.Phil. thesis and subsequent book, The Power of the Early Tudor Nobility: the fourth and fifth earls of Shrewsbury (1985), but the relationship between crown and nobility should be seen not as a contest but as a partnership.
My interests then turned to Henry VIII, not least when I came to Southampton and began teaching a Special Subject on the Henrician Reformation. The fashionable view among professional historians was that Henry was a weak king, essentially the play-thing of factions and the politics of his reign was to be understood in terms of the swirl of faction. Sir Geoffrey Elton saw Thomas Cromwell as the victim of a factional putsch in 1540, still a common view. Eric Ives and Elton’s pupil David Starkey developed such notions across the reign. Initially I was sympathetic but as I studied William Compton (d. 1528), Henry VIII’s groom of the stool, and realised, to my surprise, that Compton played no significant political role, concentrating instead on serving the king and enriching himself. And the more I studied the reign, the more central Henry appeared to me in his search for an annulment of this marriage to Catherine of Aragon, in the pressures against churchmen, in the break with Rome, and in subsequent religious policy.
In my book The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the remaking of the English Church (2005; paperback 2007), I present evidence and reasoning in support of my claim that Henry was a king who ruled as well as reigned. I argue that from the beginning of his campaign for a divorce he saw that one solution might be to renounce papal authority and act independently. But he was cautious in his methods and proceeded by putting a great deal of pressure on churchmen to go along with his wishes. Many were uneasy but only a few, notably Thomas More and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, were prepared to defy the king and even they did not form an organised ‘opposition’.
Once the break with Rome had been accomplished Henry did not leave things there. Already, I contend, he had shared a sense, widespread across Christendom, that aspects of the church needed reform and I argue that he was in many ways influenced by the ideas of the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus. I see the dissolution of the smaller monasteries as intended to reform rather than destroy the monasteries. But it provoked a huge rebellion in the north of England in autumn 1536, a counter-revolutionary protest against the religious changes which had taken place and the further changes which were feared. That enraged Henry and from late 1537 commissioners were sent round the country to persuade abbots and monks ‘voluntarily’ to surrender their houses to the king. Here, as with the compulsory swearing of oaths to the new order, Henry’s rule approached tyranny.
In the course of preparing The King’s Reformation I wrote several articles dealing with specific aspects of his rule. I looked closely on how far Henry turned into a tyrant. I argued that Henry’s religious convictions were genuine and that there was a continuity between the early and later parts of his reign. Responding to Elton’s characterisation of Cromwell as a reforming minister who masterminded ‘a Tudor revolution in government’, I drew on Cromwell’s surviving memoranda – lists of things to do – so often including reminders ‘to know the king’s pleasure’, to argue that Cromwell was the servant of the king, taking great care to be sure of the king’s wishes. I looked closely at the falls of Wolsey and Cromwell, questioning prevailing factional explanations.
A challenge was to account for the fall of Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom Henry had been prepared to defy papal authority. How could her arrest, conviction and execution for treason – she had allegedly committed adultery with five men, including her brother – be explained? Explanations that put the responsibility on the king would obviously have fitted my increasing emphasis on Henry but they did not strike me a plausible – would a king invent charges of adultery against his wife, admitting that he had been cuckolded? – and are hard to square with compelling evidence that just before Anne’s fall Henry was still demanding her public recognition as queen by the imperial ambassador. The prevailing factional explanations struck me as even less persuasive. That Thomas Cromwell would invent charges of adultery against a queen simply because she was an obstacle to his supposed foreign policy or supposed plan to dissolve the monasteries seemed disproportionate – and such notions rest more on historians’ constructions than on any evidence. I draw on a little-used source, a poem written by a member of the French ambassador’s household, to suggest how Anne’s misbehaviour came to light. For my claims that Henry was not the plaything of faction it is sufficient to argue that he was sincerely persuaded that Anne was guilty. And I argue that she may well have been guilty of at least some of the adulteries of which he was accused. I develop this in my biography Anne Boleyn: Fatal Attractions (2010, paperback 2012), in which I also question the prevailing beliefs that at the beginning of their relationship it was Anne who held Henry back and that Anne was a supporter of protestants.
Increasing while seeking to understand the workings of power in Tudor England I became more and more interested in the condition of the church and in religious attitudes. At school I had absorbed the prevailing view that the late medieval church was riddled with abuses and thus an easy and inevitable target of critics. When I was a graduate student I discovered Pevsner’s Buildings of England and was inspired to travel across the country. And quickly, as I visited many parish churches lavishly rebuilt in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, I came to question the image of the church with which I had grown up: does not the physical evidence of rebuilt churches give the lie to negative view of the church and does it not suggest that it was still cherished by an overwhelming majority of laypeople? And in my teaching I rode the tide of ‘revisionism’ that has turned more positive assessments of the church into orthodoxy. But over the years I came to think that the increasingly fashionable emphasis on the vitality of the late medieval church, while in many ways convincing, can nonetheless distort. In particular it makes the subsequent Reformation inexplicable. How could so popular a church be overturned, even allowing for the threats and pressures that rulers could impose? What, increasingly, I have come to argue, is that there were vulnerabilities as well as vitality. The church was very much a monarchical church, a source of great strength but also potentially a weakness if a monarch turned on it. Bishops were more administrators than ‘lanterns of light’. The practice of pilgrimage was widespread yet some of its manifestations were open to criticism, indeed satire. The monastic ideal was still influential yet many monasteries were characterised by accidie – sloth. The challenge for historians is to strike the right balance. That is what I attempt in my latest book, The Late Medieval English Church: Vitality and Vulnerability on the eve of the break with Rome (2012, paperback 2013).
Current research and writing
The Triumph of Perpendicular; Churchrebuilding in late medieval England and beyond
My longstanding interest in church architecture was recently supported by the Leverhulme Trust which offered me a Major Research Fellowship to study churchbuilding in late medieval and early modern England. I have begun writing a book provisionally entitled The Triumph of Perpendicular: Churchrebuilding in late medieval England and beyond. I begin with an analysis of style, exploring the elaboration and diffusion of what in the early nineteenth century was labelled the ‘perpendicular style’ from its emergence at St Stephen’s Westminster and Gloucester Abbey in the early fourteenth century, through the remodellings of the Norman naves at Winchester and Canterbury cathedrals, to its spread throughout the country, especially in regions enriched by the wool trade. I look at who funded the rebuilding of churches. And I look closely at the impact on churchbuilding of the religious changes of the sixteenth-century.
Henry VIII: ‘Catholicism without the pope’?
Maintaining my interests in religious policy after the break with Rome, I have just written a paper, ‘Henry VIII: “Catholicism without the pope?”’ which I have delivered as an invited lecture in Charleston, South Carolina and to the Students’ History Society, University of Durham. I consider this common characterisation of Henry VIII’s policies but argue that it is inadequate: the dissolution of the monasteries, the ending of pilgrimage and changes in attitudes to saints and purgatory were much more radical than that formulation suggests.
When did England become a protestant country?
I have on several occasions lectured on the theme ‘When did England become a protestant country?’ Here my approach is to take a variety of criteria by which such a description might be justified and, ranging from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, to suggest that what emerges from such analysis is a church of England that was an extraordinary hybrid.
The king’s painter: Holbein the Erasmian
An exhibition in Basel on Holbein prompted me to write ‘The King’s Painter: Holbein the Erasmian’, which I delivered as the 24th Erasmus Lecture in the University of Toronto. I argue that Holbein’s religious convictions are revealed in his paintings and sketches: he was sympathetic to Erasmus’ critique of the late medieval church. And that, I claim, is why he found working in the service of Henry VIII in England congenial.
Professor G.W. Bernard
History School of Humanities University of Southampton Southampton S017 1BJ All English Historical Review postal correspondence, including the submission of articles, should be sent to me at English Historical Review, Faculty of History, The Old Boys’ High School, George Street, Oxford OX1 2RL.
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