Policy-making in the Reign of Henry VIII

Political dynamics

What was the political process under Henry VIII? Main players were king, nobles, councillors, courtiers, local governors, also Parliament (since opinion of lawyers and localities represented in House of Commons and Reformation statutes required consent of lords and commons).

1. King:

Henry VIII more in control of his own policy than often suggested, but willing to allow discretion to ministers and councillors. Henry was susceptible to “advice” at any place or time: hence political dynamics of court crucial. Access to king was key to political as opposed to administrative policymaking. Council under Wolsey met in Star Chamber, hence Wolsey saw the king on Sundays and also corresponded. Privy Council in and after 1530s met at court. King did NOT attend Council, therefore process whereby final decisions taken is the key. (NB Health Warning!) Decisions made in conversations ARE NOT USUALLY DOCUMENTED. Further logistical problem is that the court is peripatetic: hence councillors and ministers in London were vulnerable to absence.

2. Ministers:

Key to legitimate rule is “the will of the king counselled”. Wolsey and Cromwell were basically chief councillors, and had to consult and carry the Council or risk impeachment or attainder. Dynamics different for Wolsey and Cromwell. NB the nobility saw themselves as the king’s “natural councillors” and dominated Privy Council in the 1540s.

Councillors and courtiers: note usage of “councillor” and “counsellor”. Counsellor need not be a member of the Council. Could be anyone to whom the king chose to talk, e.g. courtiers, gentlemen of the privy chamber, wives, local magistrates. Cf. Elyot in Book Named the Governor (1531). Court is broader than the privy chamber (affinity).

3. Parliament:

Peers and bishops represented only themselves, abbots removed as part of dissolution of the monasteries, but MPs represented their localities. Opinions of MPs were important, since assent required to Reformation legislation. Many were within the court circle or “king’s affinity” before 1547, hence “threat” of independent Commons barely existed in the reign of Henry VIII. NB 1523 subsidy granted by the “king’s servants” in the House of Commons. Role of lawyers in 1530s (recorders of towns etc, the majority were Catholic but anticlerical).

Examples of “policymaking”

  1. Wolsey’s foreign policy in 1520s — policy NOT just made by Wolsey.
    Policy made in Henry-Wolsey conversations, but Wolsey needs support of Council and tries to keep nobles on board. When policy hits trouble, the nobles walk away and Wolsey finds access to the king obstructed.
    (i) Invasion of France by duke of Suffolk (1523). Invasion of Scotland dropped when Charles, duke of Bourbon, constable of France, rebels, a prospect which made the “Great Enterprise” look feasible. Wolsey first “move[d] the King in this matter”, whereupon Henry “dreamed” of it more and more, “until at the last it came in question among the council in consultation (Cavendish).” Wolsey overruled Richard Pace, Henry’s ambassador with Bourbon during the siege of Marseilles (1524): “All which matters by the King’s Highness and me first apart, and after with the most sad (=wise) and discreet Lords of his most honourable Council, substantially digested, and profoundly debated, it hath been finally, by good deliberation determined …”.
    (ii) After the battle of Pavia (1525), Henry and Wolsey sought to revive the “Great Enterprise” to partition France. Wolsey announced the Amicable Grant, but when it failed Henry denied knowledge or responsibility and the Council left Wolsey exposed. NB Nothing had been in writing! Results in massive policy swing: Anglo-French entente, unpopular with nobles and leads by 1528 to Wolsey’s isolation.
  2. Religious policy in the 1530s and 1540s — policy NOT just made by Henry or Cromwell.
    Small print of policy stems from evangelical-conservative committee reports, but king has overall direction. Cromwell as vicegerent does not have the influence enjoyed by Wolsey in church and state. Religious policy is Henry’s policy. Focus is Bible as Word of God, i.e. “efficacious Word” which is itself a sacrament and doesn’t need the clergy to do a miracle. (Henry has slightly unorthodox views on sacraments, e.g. baptism and auricular confession). But overall Henry wants Catholic doctrine, but without a mediating clergy. Cromwell has different “slant”: wants evangelical “Word” with abolition of superstition (monasteries, veneration of saints and images). But Cromwell’s “slant” imprinted on policy chiefly at the implementation stage! Policy itself was (1) a functional product of the way in which the religious formularies of the 1530s were compiled; and (2) reflected a rift within the king’s own theological outlook. (Henry evangelical on scripture, but conservative, if anticlerical, on sacramental theology.) Henry VIII affirmed his right to define the articles of faith, but logistically he presided over panels of conservative and evangelical theologians (e.g. Gardiner, Tunstall versus Cranmer, Hugh Latimer) who each prepared drafts of specific texts or articles (e.g. Ten Articles, and the sections on purgatory, confession, marriage, ordination, confirmation, extreme unction etc. in King’s Book). The king then acted as redactor and umpire, forcing a compromise in line with his own opinion of himself as the keeper of the “conscience” of the church of England. Cromwell had to work within these limits.
  3. Localities and Parliament — policy NOT just imposed “from above” by central government.
    Policy less “instrumental” than is often supposed except in Wales, Ireland and the far north after 1534. The Reformation Parliament was “managed” by Cromwell, but local and social power was determined by court-country structures modelled on late-medieval patterns, i.e. a strong “royal affinity” (= connection or clientele) was maintained at court and in the country. Nobles and leading magistrates (JPs) sworn as the “king’s servants”. There were keynote policies, e.g. Wolsey’s law enforcement policy and enclosure policy, Cromwell’s anti-papal campaign and socio-economic reforms (poor law, agriculture, trade). But stability was secured by king and local governors within structures of mutual support and interdependence. This exemplified in socio-economic policy-making, where legislation was informed by input from those councillors and MPs who also sat as local magistrates. In Gaelic Ireland and the far north, policy after 1534 was too “instrumental” (i.e. intent on radical changes, and imposed from above). It sought to do too much too fast, and failed. In the north the “old guard” came back after Henry VIII’s death, and in Ireland it increasingly became necessary to rely on military garrisons and armed force, thereby alienating both Gaelic Irish and Old English.


Policymaking involves structures (institutions) and logistics (e.g. access) as well as people and ideas. The potential combinations were kaleidoscopic. Wolsey had more discretion in policy-making than Cromwell. And Henry VIII was in charge. But even KINGS were NOT all powerful. Power ascended “from below” through the consent of nobles and leading landowners as well as descending “from above”: policy was most effectively achieved through accommodation of the bilateral interests of Crown, nobles and magistrates, e.g. (1) JPs not removed in the 1530s and 1540s; (2) through the sales of the ex-religious lands, which cemented the “official” Reformation in England. Would the Reformation have triumphed in 1559 without the local interests established by these sales?

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