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The Roles Of King Henry Viii History Essay

King Henry VIII and his minister Cromwell both made significant contributions to the Henrician English Reformation of 1530-1540. A contemporary question raised in this theme is who was the prime mover? Two schools of thought take opposing views on this question. The Whig-Protestant school that views the Reformation under King Henry VIII as the rise of Protestantism against the backdrop of medieval Christendom contends that Cromwell was the prime mover. Author G.R. Elton is a member of the Whig-Protestant tradition. In contrast the Revisionist school that views the Reformation under King Henry VIII as a vicious and merciless attack on traditional Christendom argues that the king was the prime mover. Author Scarisbrick is a member of this school. This essay explores the sharp conflict between these competing schools of thought to determine which of the two figures was most responsible for the Reformation. The evidence compellingly demonstrates that King Henry VIII was the prime mover.

Whig-Protestant Author Elton argues that Cromwell was the prime mover of the English Reformation. Cromwell drafted and secured the ratification of the Act in Restraint of Appeals in February 1533. This Act initiated a political progression of the Roman Catholic Church transferring its political authorities to King Henry VIII and his government. Cromwell wrote into the act that England was now an empire. Among its other clauses were that appeal to Rome and the Pope became prohibited, England was established as a sovereign state which no foreign ruler could interfere with, and it attributed England’s self-government on the single foundation of secular history. (Elton 1954, 231) The king had made many of these same statements in the previous three years. However, Elton argues that if Cromwell had not canonized these arguments they would have remained as merely royal ideas and notions. Thus, Cromwell made valuable contributions regarding establishing the concepts of national sovereignty, royal supremacy over the church, consolidation of national territory, changing the central administration of government and making parliament the centre for national sovereignty. (Elton 1955, 34)

Elton also argues that when Anne Boleyn became pregnant King Henry VIII decided to marry her in secret due to Cromwell’s crafting of the Act in Restraint of Appeals. The King was secure in marrying Boleyn because the Act was going to empower the throne and help in legitimizing his actions. Elton argues that Cromwell did not draft the Act in response to the king deciding to marry in secret. (Elton 1974, 132)

Revisionist author Scarisbrick refutes Elton’s arguments on several different levels. He states that King Henry VIII initiated the arguments for the creation of the Act in Restraint of Appeals. The king voiced the intellectual content of the Act for three years up until it was passed. Since he initiated the arguments that made the act possible, Cromwell would not have been able to have ratified the Act had it not been for the king’s prior actions. Cromwell was dependent on the king in this regard. (Scarisbrick 1968, 287) Regarding Boleyn’s pregnancy, Scarisbrick argues that Henry in response took the law into his own hands and decided to stop waiting for Rome to give him approval to marry her. Hence he held a secret marriage with her on 25 January 1533 because he wanted his heir to be legitimate. (Scarisbrick 1968, 309) It is also important to note that the crown did not become strengthened and attain a new sense of decisiveness due to Cromwell stepping in as the King’s leading minister. Rather, Cromwell’s emergence as leading minister and the new strength and decisiveness of the crown were a result of King Henry VIII’s initiatives and actions. (Scarisbrick 1968, 313) Historian S.T. Bindoff concurs stating “as in all branches of public policy, the initiative lay with the King” (Bindoff 1950, 98)

Scarisbrick argues that the doctrine of Royal Supremacy originated with King Henry VIII. Cromwell worked in furthering the work and goals that originated with the king. It is important to distinguish the role of Cromwell. He was an executive that put into motion many of King’s ideas but he relied on the King’s favour and approval to take action. Rarely was it the case that he would put into motion an idea of his own without consulting the king. The evidence that Royal Supremacy originated with the king includes examples such as that the first recorded statement of Royal Supremacy in late 1529 as well as the emergence of anti-papalism in 1530 originated with the king. (Scarisbrick 1968, 287) The doctrine of Royal Supremacy was based on three principles. All three of them are closely interrelated.

The first was that the King had divine right and responsibility of spiritual and pastoral care over English people. In late 1529 King Henry VIII started taking up the pastoral role in England as King. He was greatly influenced by William Tyndale’s “Obedience of the Christian Man” (1528). This book was about Ceasaropapism that is the right and duty of a monarch to claim total allegiance from his or her subjects with evidence to support it from the Old Testament and early Christian history. Furthermore he exercised this role of pastoral care by calling a meeting of bishops in May 1530. In the meeting he asked if they would agree to create a translation of the New Testament in English. Despite their objections, he went ahead and ordered the creation of a purely English translation of the New Testament.

The second principle of Royal Supremacy was that the King was the chief head over the English clergy. King Henry VIII believed in the Erastian theory that the church should be inferior in power to the secular authority. (Dickens 1968, 166)According to the Act of Pardon the king confronted the clergy on a vital issue by pronouncing illicit “the most cherished prerequisite of the medieval church –its independent jurisdiction”. (Scarisbrick 1531, 25) In 1530 and again in 1531 the king attacked all ecclesiastical jurisdictions that were beyond royal control hence demonstrating his commitment to Ceasaropapism. Scarisbrick claims that Henry VIII left manuscripts that communicate his views on the correct relationship between the King and the church. In 1531 reform was beginning to be discussed by the clergy and in the end the Southern Convocation created a document of reform ordinances. Yet before they ratified it, at the start of 1532, the king reviewed it. Immediately following the clergy’s statement that the clerics religiously required everyone to head the constitutions and canons of the Church the king added that this is true only for the legislation that has been lawfully received and approved by the kingdom. (Scarisbrick 1968, 276) Hence Henry’s perspective of exclusive sovereignty over the church predated Cromwell.

The third principle of Royal Supremacy was that the king did not have to comply with the bishop of Rome. King Henry VIII asserted in 1530 to Rome that he was supreme in the kingdom of England. In November of 1530 he related to the Imperial Ambassador of Rome that he could deal with all crimes in his own kingdom without foreign intervention. (Scarisbrick 1968, 293). In 1530 the king also launched a statement of national immunity against Rome’s sovereignty and a personal claim to imperial status that would not accept or permit any superior in the world. (Scarisbrick 1968, 273)

Henry VIII was clearly the prime mover of the English Reformation. Cromwell was greatly concerned with and involved in areas related to the state, national sovereignty and the Parliament. He was not very religious but was a very astute politician and an idealist. Henry was significantly dependent upon his servants due to his lack of consistency in signing documents, reading official letters, and being involved in daily administrative matters. However, this did not stop him from adamantly putting forth his ideas and convictions for reform. It is important to note that Cromwell never was able to experience the freedom that Wolsey had because since Wolsey’s fall from power the king had become very proactive and involved in state related matters of concern. Despite the fact that Cromwell’s position of minister was far reaching in the king’s business he certainly did not possess ultimate accountability to all procedures. Cromwell acted as a kind of secretary for King Henry VIII. He helped turn the king’s ideas into laws and helped Henry better appreciate what was the actual scope of different scenarios and what could be done about them. “But he neither worked alone nor was the true initiator of these royal undertakings” (Scarisbrick 1968, 304)

Regarding the Supplication Against the Ordinaries and Cromwell’s involvement Elton states that Cromwell likely introduced the king to the potentialities of statute. Cromwell brought the Supplication that was initially begun by the commons in 1529 to the attention of the state. Elton argues that Cromwell prepared the first draft and enabled it to become ratified. (Elton 1955, 230) J.P. Cooper contests Elton’s claims saying that Elton is going contrary to the evidence of the aforementioned matter. Cooper provides manuscripts of eye witness accounts of Edward Hall a member of the commons who recorded complaints from the Common in 1532 hence they were leading the Supplication in contrast to Elton who claims Cromwell led the complaints. (Cooper 1957, 616) Clearly Elton is not properly analysing the available historiography.

Additionally, Elton argues Cromwell was not given his seat in parliament by a politician. Parmiter argues that this is not the case. Cromwell had a seat in parliament because he previously in 1529 went to London, and began working for the Duke of Norfolk, chief enemy of Wolsey. With Norfolk’s influence he obtained a seat and sat as a member for Taunton, a borough of Norfolk. (Parmiter 1967, 145)

Clearly Elton needs to revise his hypotheses and views of both Cromwell and King Henry VIII and base his views more on available evidence. In his pamphlet Henry VIII, An Essay in Revision Elton argues that the King had his way much like a tyrant without ever controlling the kingdom tyrannically, ignoring the law, or being staunchly opposed to the Parliament. (Elton 1962, 24) Yet he also argues that the king seemed to always be the last word regarding political trials and personally involved in persecution of high profile figures in society. In examples such as Cromwell, Wosley and Anne Boleyn the true blood-guilt remains with the king. Repeatedly genuine ferociousness entered these cases exclusively due to his personal participation. (Elton 1962, 15) It is striking that Elton contradicts himself in stating that Henry was able to get his way without being tyrannical but then in the same text stating that his behaviour based on whims was like that of a despot. Elton’s arguments for downplaying the role of King Henry VIII do not hold.

It is clear therefore that King Henry VIII was the prime mover of the English Reformation. Cromwell can be seen as a kind of agent or negotiator. He helped the unification of key interest groups and helped them achieve their aims. However, as an agent he did not take possession of or have legal ownership the subject matter being dealt with. He did the King’s bidding without being the source of key actions that triggered the English Reformation. Cromwell is put in much clearer light by Scarisbrick than Elton because of Elton’s failure to take into account available evidence and recognize the true impact of the King as the source and author of much of the key changes that the Reformation brought about particularly with Royal Supremacy. Scarisbrick’s compelling account of the reformation presents the king as a multidimensional figure whose personal matters and matters of state were not separable for analysis. They are inextricably linked. The king was heavily involved in matters of the state and adamantly opposed anyone who stood in his way. Elton fails in great part due to his emphasis on personality over empirical evidences. Scarisbrick presents a coherent case taking into account the various inputs in the historical procedure. Therefore it is clear that the Revisionist school of thought represented by Scarisbrick presents a more compelling argument emphasizing King Henry VIII as the prime mover than that of the Whig-Protestant school emphasizing Cromwell as the prime mover of the Henrician English Reformation.

Word Count: 2033

The above essay is all my own work: the source of all material used in its compilation has been duly cited and all help received is acknowledged. The essay does not substantially duplicate material previously or simultaneously submitted to academic staff at any academic institution.

Jesse Alvarez


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