Henry VIII and the English Reformation

By Arthur J. Slavin | Go to book overview
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KING OR MINISTER?

G. R. ELTON

G. R. Elton was born in 1921. After coming to England from Prague, he began historical studies and took a Ph.D. at University College, London. Since 1948 he has established himself as a leading authority on the Tudor period, especially on constitutional matters relating to the Reformation. He is currently Professor of Constitutional History in Cambridge University and a fellow of Clare College. Among his many provocative articles and books the most important are his The Tudor Revolution in Government and The Tudor Constitution. Among his other works Star Chamber Stories provides unique insights into the impact of government on Englishmen of every rank and station. His interests in the Reformation period outside of England are illustrated in his editorship of Volume Two of the New Cambridge Modern History and the brilliant feat of compression entitled Reformation Europe, 1517-1559.

THE QUESTION whether Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell supplied the ideas and the policy which underlay the break with Rome is of more interest than may be imagined. Until it is answered neither the men nor the event can really be understood. The English Reformation gave to England, the English monarchy, and the English church a character quite their own: this makes it important to know just how and why and through whom it happened. It may perhaps be thought strange that so well-worked a part of English history should be supposed to retain some mysteries still. . . . On the face of it, a new study of those critical years in the 1530's might, to say the least, not be without reward. Here I shall attempt only to elucidate the true relationship between the two leading personalities of that age, for the prevailing notions seem to me to do scant justice to the genius of the minister and vastly to overrate the genius of the king. One's opinion of Henry VIII must stand by one's view of his part in the Reformation. The positive achievements of his long reign were crowded into its middle years; if he deserves the high opinion of his skill and understanding which so many moderns seem to hold it must be because he was "the architect of the Reformation." But whether he was that remains to be seen.

Since it is the purpose of this paper to set up Thomas Cromwell as the moving spirit in the early Reformation, it will be of assistance to recall that this view is far from original. It was held, to begin with, by some of Cromwell's contemporaries -- by Cardinal Pole, for instance, by the imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, and by John Foxe.1 It was adopted outright -- mainly in reliance on Pole and without proper investigation -- by many nineteenth-century historians. But then came Pollard, who held that the Reformation was a natural development from discoverable causes which was given its particular direction by the king himself; and he had the support of the other early-Tudor pundit of the day, Gaird

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From G. R. Elton, "King or Minister? The Man Behind the Henrician Reformation," History, XXXIX ( 1954), pp. 216-32. Reprinted by permission of the author, and the editor of History, Professor Alfred Cobban .
1
The Protestant martyrologist ( Acts and Monuments, more familiarly Foxe Book of Martyrs).

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