Henry VIII and Cromwell


  • 360 degree swing. Pollard — Cromwell ‘sordid slave’; Elton — hero of administrative revolution, English Reformation, social policy. Elton later critiqued by Starkey, Guy, Haigh, Bernard.
  • We need to deconstruct or decouple ‘Henry VIII and Cromwell’. Not two halves of a pantomime horse. Different political outlooks, different intellectual genes. BUT this requires attention to slant or ‘take’.


1. Whereas by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire… Henry and Cromwell enacted the break with Rome

  • Cromwell steered Reformation legislation through Parliament. BUT he was the man who put the policy of others into practice. Henry VIII stood for the thesis of ‘imperial’ kingship as set out in Collectanea satis copiosa. Cromwell’s political creed was centred on the model of ‘king-in-Parliament’. NB Contrast between the ‘official’ thesis of ‘imperial’ kingship and the ‘counter-thesis’ of ‘king-in-Parliament’ (cf. views of Cranmer, Stephen Gardiner, St German, William Cecil). Genuine debate on this until 1688.
  • Submission of the Clergy (1532): Cromwell wanted a parliamentary statute for the submission.

2. Henry VIII and Cromwell dissolved the monasteries

  • Cromwell investigated the condition of the monasteries and dissolved them. Responsible for ensuring that all the ex-religious assets came to the king and were accounted for. (NB 3 stages: 1536 [smaller], 1537-40 [larger], 1540 [Ireland].
  • But Henry VIII and Cromwell have different ‘slants’. Henry VIII not opposed to monasteries as such, but anti-papal and ‘imperial’. He sees monasteries as foci of papal jurisdiction and resistance to break with Rome. And wants money and power. But Henry NOT anti-monastic. He founds monasteries in 1530s and is largely Catholic in theology. Whereas Cromwell IS anti-monastic, and wants abolition on grounds of superstition (monasteries, shrines, veneration of saints and images, pilgrimages, purgatory).

3. Henry and Cromwell issue religious formularies and injunctions in 1530s

  • Religious policy was Henry VIII’s policy in 1530s, but Cromwell brings an evangelical and providential edge.
  • Henry VIII has largely orthodox views on sacraments (cf. Act of Six Articles), apart perhaps from baptism and auricular confession. Focus is on Bible as the Word of God, i.e. ‘efficacious Word’ which is itself a sacrament and doesn’t need the clergy to mediate or do a miracle. Cf Holbein title page where Henry VIII appears as Christ. Overall Henry wants Catholic doctrine BUT without a mediating clergy, and therefore although Catholic he is against cults of saints, intercessions to saints and therefore images and pilgrimages for the people at large (not chapels royal).
  • Cromwell also wants Bible, but wants it as the supreme authority by which the church and clergy should be judged. Wants abolition of superstition. Against oral tradition. NB Vicegerential synod (1537) in run up to Bishops’ Book: the church should be judged by scripture, not vice-versa. Cromwell reformed on issue of authority, but he did not deny real presence in the Eucharist nor teach ‘justification by faith alone’. His emphasis on faith, the Bible, and preaching put him in the ‘reformed’ camp. Best term is ‘EVANGELICAL’.
  • So Cromwell’s injunctions (1536, 1538) attacked images idolatrously abused and the vicegerent attacked shrines, cults of saints, pilgrimages, doctrine of purgatory etc. There can be no holiness in stones, wells, shrines, relics. But Henry attacked them because they were foci of pro-papal opposition to the royal supremacy.
  • English Bible, 1539, repr. 1540. In every church by the death of Henry VIII. Henry wants supreme head to be the direct intermediary between God and the people, but Cromwell is ideologically committed. Puts up £400 of his own cash for printing Bible.
  • Cromwell shared Luther’s social gospel: ‘kingdom of God in this world’, not secular model. Anne Boleyn interested, but not Henry VIII.
  • Unofficial actions: Cromwell and the printers and translators (Richard Taverner, William Marshall), printing context of Ten Articles (1536), impresario of evangelical books.
  • Cromwell’s household (cf More).

4. Henry and Cromwell pursue a pro-German European diplomacy in 1530s

  • Foreign policy was Henry’s policy (even Cleves marriage), but Cromwell added an evangelical ‘slant’. Keystone is diplomacy with Schmalkaldic League (Charles V will not risk religious war in Germany) which is cemented by Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Important continental ‘reformed’ connections built up here. Cf. 1550s and Walsingham in 1570s.
  • Cleves alliance needed in 1538-9 (France and Spain at peace). BUT Cromwell is seen to have trapped Henry in an unfruitful marriage: can’t release him without catapulting the Howards into power. But France and Spain fall out again over Milan and northern Italy in 1540 and Henry VIII doesn’t need Schmalkaldic League or Cleves any more.
  • Henry VIII wants French and Scottish conquests in 1540s. NB Wolsey was a war minister, Cromwell was a peace minister (‘ungracious dogholes’ in France).

5. Henry wants money and Cromwell offers to make him the ‘richest prince in Christendom’

  • Crown finance: Cromwell wants to use dissolution lands and proceeds to re-endow the patrimony of the ‘imperial’ crown (put Fortescue into practice).
  • Henry VIII wants Boulogne campaign. Cromwell only gets into spending dissolution proceeds because they need fortifications in 1539.

6. Conclusion

  • Henry VIII and Cromwell working together at the same time, but they occupy DIFFERENT SPACE. Basic plan the same, but the conceptual space is entirely different. Henry wants break with Rome but is conservative in theology, Cromwell wants break with Rome but wants an evangelical polity in which superstition as well as pope is extirpated.
  • Contingent events (fall of Wolsey, divorce, act of Appeals) bring Henry VIII and Cromwell together and keeps them together until pope is out, the monasteries are dissolved, and Cleves alliance is in place, BUT when Charles V and Francis I fall out again, Henry VIII doesn’t need Cromwell any more and it’s clear by then that Cromwell’s religious policy is MORE advanced than Henry’s, so he is dispensable. The branch is cut off. (NB Pilgrimage of Grace).
  • Maybe hard to get a fix on Cromwell since it IS so much based on slants rather than exact statements, But (1) family memory: Cromwell ‘loved not the men who pedantically boasted their reading, but that rationally made use of it’ [D. Lloyd, State Worthies, 1766, I, 78]. (2) Cromwell wrote his own epitaph when he said that he saw himself as God’s ‘instrument’ (letter to Bishop Shaxton, 1538). ‘My prayer is, that God give me no longer life, than I shall be glad to use mine office in edification, and not in destruction’.

NB ‘edification’ is an evangelical buzzword. In that phrase, Cromwell calls to us across the centuries. He followed Henry’s policy template much more than was supposed by Elton. But despite all the reservations I’ve expressed, he wasn’t a ‘sordid slave’ and was an architect of the English Reformation as resumed under Edward VI and Elizabeth and vindicated in 1689 when the royal supremacy was finally subordinated to Parliament.

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