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Henry VIII and his Church.

by Richard Rex

`O fall the miracles and wonders of our time, I take the change of our sovereign lord's opinion on matters concerning religion to be even the greatest.' Richard Morison, one of Thomas Cromwell's pet humanists, made many such shrewd and perceptive comments on the Henrician Reformation. Assessing and explaining Henry's change of opinion has challenged historians ever since. judgements upon Henry's achievement have ranged from `Catholicism without the pope' through a via media to a rather conservative and ceremonial variant of Protestantism, a Reformation biding its time.

A theological hotchpotch

All these views have something to be said for them. As early as 1540 a French ambassador remarked that Henry was Catholic in all that did not bring him profit. Henry liked to conceive of himself as above religious controversy, sitting in judgement on the conflicting tendencies within the church. Others, led by John Foxe, saw him as more puppet than master, swayed this way and that by rival factions as now Anne Boleyn, Cranmer and Cromwell, now Gardiner, Tunstall and Norfolk, held his ear. And certainly there is a prima facie case against the theological coherence of a church which on the one hand rejected the papacy, monasticism and the cult of relics and images, and yet on the other upheld free will, the real presence and the sacrifice of the mass. The contradictions can be refined more closely still. Henry's church denied purgatory but retained prayers for the dead, accepted images but rejected the veneration of images. Henry alone among sixteenth-century persecutors managed the unlikely feat of executing, on the same day, three Catholics for affirming the primacy of the pope and three Protestants for affirming justification by faith alone, sending them to the same shambles in three pairs. With moderation like that, who needs extremism? It is hardly surprising, then, that some have doubted whether Henry had any consistent or coherent religious policy after 1534. Perhaps it was, as Diarmaid MacCulloch has recently described it, nothing more than a `ragbag of emotional preferences'.

Simple terms like `Catholic' or `Protestant' (or even `evangelical', to use the earlier term) will not serve to describe Henry's church, which, whatever else it was, was not simple. Nor was money the $decisive issue, for if money alone was at stake he would undoubtedly have taken the attack to the Mass. Thus Marillac's explanation will not do. The concept of the via media is more helpful. As Diarmaid MacCulloch has shown, comments by Henry himself and his close advisers spread across his last ten years insistently present a king who, in Cromwell's words, `leaned neither to the right nor to the left hand'. When the famous `six preachers' were established in the reorganised Canterbury Cathedral Chapter in 1540, it was decided by Cranmer and the king that there should be `three of the old learning and three of the new', a characteristic balancing act. When Henry, as so often happened, was presented with a theological book, he would solicit rival reviews from among the chaplains and scholars of his court, one of the old school and one of the new, and then reach his own views after listening to their criticisms and appreciations.

Nevertheless, we must beware of being inveigled into thinking that we have found the key to Henry's policy in the concept of via media, that middle way so beloved to the English self-image of tolerance and moderation. For there is no policy so outlandish that it cannot be plausibly presented as a middle way between two carefully chosen extremes. The concept can be especially misleading in the light of the theological importance of the via media in Anglicanism. It is fair enough, if you find it helpful, to identify both Henry's Church of England in the 1540s and Elizabeth's Church of England in the 1560s as `middle ways'. But it would be absurd to identify them as the same. In the 1540s, the Catholic theologian Richard Smyth felt at home in Henry's church, while the Protestant writer John Bale fulminated against it from exile. In the 1560s it was Bale who felt at home in Elizabeth's church, and Smyth who sought refuge abroad. The middle way which counted seven sacraments and the real presence in 1543 (in the King's Book) was not the same as that which counted two sacraments and denied the real presence in 1563 (in the Thirty-Nine Articles). The concept of via media, although an important element in Henry's self-image, will not on its own help us understand what religious positions the king adopted and why.

A royal role model

Since a pioneering article by Pamela Tudor-Craig alerted us to Henry VIII's identification of himself with King David, historians of the English Reformation have seen a model of Old Testament kingship as a crucial element in Henry's understanding of his role after 1534 as supreme head of the Church of England. As I have argued elsewhere, in my view it is to this model of kingship that we must look for an explanation of how Henry made sense of what must otherwise seem the religious confusion of his reign.

The model of Old Testament kingship was invoked from the hazy dawn of the royal supremacy in the early 1530s. In the Collectanea satis copiosa, the warehouse of precedents and proof-texts put together to support Henry's campaign against the papacy and the clergy, the cases of Hezekiah and Jehoshaphat are already being proposed as evidence of a Christian king's power over his priests. It was from these raw materials that the new ideology of kingship was forged in the course of the 1530s. When the message of the Collectanea was distilled and repackaged for public consumption in 1534, as The true difference between ecclesiastical and royal power (De vera differentia regiae potestatis & ecclesiasticae), the definition of royal power was almost entirely handled in terms of the scriptures. What was initially at stake, of course, was the basic issue of a king's power over the (or `his') priests. This claim to authority over the priesthood had been comprehensively denied by the medieval Catholic Church in the name of `ecclesiastical liberty', a cause symbolically enshrined in the cult of St Thomas Becket of Canterbury. The dramatic elimination of that cult in late 1538 symbolised the overthrow of the medieval church system in England. It is fitting that it was this event which finally provoked the papacy into formally excommunicating Henry VIII and releasing his subjects from their allegiance.

The kings of Israel

In the later 1530s, the casting of Henry in the image of the Old Testament kings becomes a recurrent theme in official or semi-official propaganda. Richard Sampson, who in his capacity as Dean of the Chapel Royal was quite close to Henry on religious matters, made the point in his Latin commentary on the first fifty Psalms, which he dedicated to the king. `If,' he wrote, `the bishops and ministers of the word neglect their duties, then it pertains to the Christian Prince, by the example of the best kings, such as David, Hezekiah, and Jehoshaphat, to bring such bishops and ministers back into line, and to encourage, admonish, and compel them to carry out their duties conscientiously'. In a draft justification of the king's proceedings which survives in the Public Record Office, Henry is said to have taken the title of supreme head `following the right of the kings in Judah and Israel', and on this basis to have instituted enquiries into the life of his clergy, especially those in the religious houses. The document does not go on to recall how Josiah had punished idolatrous priests and closed the houses of sodomites, but it might well have done so, and thus have drawn out still more explicitly the parallel with the dissolution of the monasteries. The conservative Cuthbert Tunstall felt able, in 1539, to justify Henry VIII's religious policy precisely in terms of Old Testament kingship, maintaining that he had acted `as the chief and best of the kings of Israel did, and as all good christian kings ought to do'.

The opening of Henry's eyes to his God-given authority in church and realm was of the very essence of his `change... of opinion on matters concerning religion'. It was indeed a religious conversion. The revelation that he had hitherto been deceived by the established ecclesiastical authorities as to the nature and extent of his royal power was also fundamental to his new theological viewpoint. He knew precisely where to pin the blame: on the papacy, which for him and many of his theological advisers was increasingly identified with Antichrist. Yet this identification was not based, as it was for the Protestant Reformers, on the papacy's alleged substitution of a `works religion' for the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it was based on the papacy's alleged intrusion into the place of kings and princes, an unholy usurpation of divine right monarchy which inverted the proper order of society and consequently corrupted religious doctrine and practice. Thus when the rather old-fashioned Henry Parker, Lord Morley, took up the trendy jargon of Antichrist in a little piece he wrote in support of the king, the besetting sin of the papacy was in his view not theological deviation but political ambition, the desire `to bring in his subjection all the princes of the world'.

One of the characteristics of the `best of the kings of Israel' was a profound concern for the Law of God. The paramount example of this was King Josiah, whose emotional reaction when the law was first read to him by Shaphan the scribe is recorded in 2 Kings 22.11: `And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes'. After which lie himself proclaimed the law to all his people in Jerusalem (2 Kings 23.2). Much of what Henry did with the Church of England once lie had appointed himself its head involved the promulgation and enforcement of a divine law which he clearly felt he now understood for the first time. When Coverdale's Bible of 1535 presented Henry VIII as Josiah in its dedication, this was perhaps more than mere wishful thinking from a radical exile. For an appeal to a king who had already made clear his intellectual descent from the kings of Israel, the dedication to Coverdale's Bible was particularly well chosen. The depictions of Esdras reading the Law to the leaders of the people, and of Christ commissioning his apostles to preach the gospel were gentle nudges to remind Henry of his royal duty to see that the Word of God was being promulgated by its appointed ministers -- a duty which he is then shown performing in handing the Bible to his clergy (see page 33).

The uses of scripture

Even before the break with Rome, Henry had more than once made it clear that lie had no objections in principle to the Publication of the Bible i n English. However, in common with conservative theologians like Thomas More, he had doubts as to the timeliness of launching a vernacular Bible in a period of religious turmoil, He promised his people an English Bible if they turned away from new-fangled heresies, but in the event lie gave it to them despite the continuing if still limited advance of evangelical doctrine in his realm. What changed his mind? Probably a new perception of the potential value of the English Bible, in transmitting to his people that exalted vision of kingship which he believed was enshrined in the scriptures. As I have argued elsewhere, the function of the English Bible, as Henry saw it, was to teach people their obligations to God, king and neighbour. The intrusion of the monarch into the usually binary structure of the commandments of love (`Love the Lord thy God', and `Love thy neighbour as thyself') itself creates a revealing triad. The obligation of the people to their king, as Henry's preachers and propagandists never tired of announcing, was wholehearted obedience.

For the Bible was now held to contain not only a blueprint for Christian princes in the careers of the Old Testament kings, but also (courtesy of Martin Luther and William Tyndale) clear instructions on the duty of Christian subjects towards their rulers: obedience. Besides the teaching of St Paul in Romans 13, support was drawn from no less a source than the Ten Commandments. In the 1520s, Luther had popularised a rather novel exposition of the commandment to honour one's father and mother, according to which the prince, as father to his people, was entitled to demand their full respect and obedience. This new exposition was circulated in English by William Tyndale in his Obedience of a Christian Man, and found its way in the 1530s into all sorts of official and semi-official publications in England. Thus Richard Morison was able to assure his readers in the 1530s that, of all the commandments, the most necessary was `Obey ye your king'. Henry's evangelical supporters and advisers left him in no doubt as to their own confidence that the English Bible would instil a new spirit of obedience into the hearts of his faithful people. As early as November 1533 Henry was identifying his agenda with the `word of God'. According to the French ambassador Chastillon, he had `made up his mind to a final and complete revolt from the Holy See. He says that he will have the "holy word of God" preached throughout the country'. A couple of years later, Richard Sampson summed up Henry's biblicism in this pithy definition: `the word of God is obedience to the king rather than to the pope'.

The destruction of idolatry

As John King and Margaret Aston have shown with particular reference to the art and literature of Edward VI's reign, the image of the Old Testament king was intimately associated with the suppression of idolatry. Edward was to be identified with Josiah even more insistently than his father had been, perhaps because the original Josiah, like Edward, had come to the throne as a boy. But the iconoclastic implications of Old Testament kingship were already being explored in Henry's reign, and not merely by the optimistic Protestant fringe. Evangelical chords were already being struck in official religious documents, such as Cromwell's visitation articles for the monasteries in 1535, which inveighed against the superstition, hypocrisy and `idolatry' of much of what was then known as `religion' (that is, the `religious life' of monks and nuns). The royal purge of venerated images in 1538 is in one official document explicitly predicated on the example of `King Ezechias [Hezekiah], who destroyed the image of the serpent, made by Moses by God's commandment, for idollatry, through the which that image was missused' (2 Kings 18.4). Interestingly, the interpretation of scripture here falls well short of what Professor Collinson identifies as Reformed `iconophobia'. A later generation of reformers would take a far harsher line against images. John Hooper, in the next reign, would regard the mere presence of graven or painted images in church as in itself an `abuse', and this view shaped Edwardian royal policy. But the Henrician line was that religious images were in themselves harmless, even useful, and that royal policy was directed solely against images abused by idolatry. The serpent set up by Moses was a lawful image, set up at God's command. But even the good could be abused, and Hezekiah destroyed the serpent because it became the object of idolatry.

Margaret Aston has pointed out the significance of the fact that when, in 1537, the Church of England issued its first catechism (the Bishops' Book), it abandoned the traditional medieval numbering of the Ten Commandments, renumbering them in accordance with the practice of Reformed Zurich. This gave new prominence to the commandment against graven images, separating it from the general commandment to worship no other gods but the Lord. As Aston observes, this new numbering of the commandments made images an issue, and was the theological underpinning of iconoclasm. The fascinating feature about the Henrician interpretation of what was now the second commandment was that it did not read as a wholesale prohibition of religious images: `By these words we be utterly forbidden to make or to have any similitude or image to the intent to bow down to it or worship it'. Only images which were abused by being made the object of veneration were deemed to come within its scope, which left room for religious art with decorative or instructive functions: angels around altars, saints in stained glass, crucifixes and representations of biblical stories. Although the iconoclasm of the Henrician Reformation has often been exclusively associated with the dominance of Thomas Cromwell in the later 1530s, several historians have pointed out recently that even during the so-called `reaction' of the 1540s Henry never retreated from his earlier position. Several shrines and images were pulled down in the 1540s, and the critique of `idolatry' remained prominent in official religious literature. The second commandment retained its new prominence in the King's Book of 1543. Having, like Josiah, had his eyes opened to the teaching of the law, Henry taught it to his people and never withdrew the lesson.

A Tudor theocracy?

The naive biblicism of Henry's religion is typified in his profoundly literalistic understanding of divine providence, which, as Pamela Tudor-Craig has observed, is seen in the identification of Henry VIII with King David in the illustrations and annotations of the king's psalter, where David is depicted with Henry's figure and features (see page 35). Much of the Old Testament offers a `covenantal' or contractual understanding of the relationship between God and tile human race. If people obey God's law, then divine providence will smile upon them and they will enjoy untold blessings. If, however, they break the law, punishments will surely follow. David's own career offered an object-lesson in divine providence, and Henry certainly saw his own career in, the same light, Henry's conversion to a naive providentialism can be traced to the divorce controversy, during which he became convinced that he had incurred the penalty threatened by Leviticus 20.21: `And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother's nakedness, and they shall be childless'. Henry's scholars assured him (correctly) that `childless' meant `with-out sons', and he had no difficulty in believing that this was the reason why his marriage to Catherine of Aragon had not been blessed with male offspring. From Henry VIII's reign, the legislation of Leviticus 20, rather than the medieval canon law sanctioned by the papacy, became the foundation of matrimonial law in England: a concrete example of how, in the jargon of the Henrician Reformation, the `word of God' was displacing `human traditions'. In this context, it is worth observing that in 1534 Henry VIII decided to remedy what he had obviously come to think a major lacuna in the statute book by passing through Parliament an act imposing the death penalty for sodomy (hitherto an offence punishable only in church courts, and comparatively mildly). The death penalty for sodomy was laid down by exactly the same chapter of the Bible which forbade marriage to a brother's wife: Leviticus 20. Like any worthy king of Judah or Israel, Henry was making sure that the law revealed by the Lord was proclaimed to, and as far as possible obeyed by, his people.

In saying that after the break with Rome Henry VIII saw himself in the guise of an Old Testament king, we are not saying all there is to be said about his Reformation. The age was one of religious debate and dispute, in England as elsewhere. Catholic and Lutheran elements can be discerned in the mixture, as can the influence of Erasmus and of the French evangelicals led by Jacques Lefevre d'Etaples. But Henry's new-found sense of his own unlimited royal power, and of his subjects' unqualified duty of obedience, were formulated and justified in terms which owed more to the Old Testament than to the New. Royal power and popular obedience form the common thread which runs through Henry's Reformation. The religious errors which he set out to reform were identified and corrected in terms which reflected an agenda of royal power. Richard Morison, as ever, got to the heart of the matter: `Where before he was called king, and yet had against all right and equity a ruler above him, which ever enforced himself to keep his highness and all the rest of his subjects in servitude, error, and idolatry; God has made him, as all his noble progenitors of right ought to have been, a full king, that is, a ruler, and not ruled in his own kingdom as others were'.

RELATED ARTICLE: Timecheck on henry VIII's religious see-saw

1530-1 First blueprint for Break with 
Rome cites kings of Israel as

1534 Henry as heir of kings David and
Solomon asserts his authority
over the priesthood

1535 More and Fisher beheaded for
opposing Royal Supremacy

1536 Monastic Visitation articles
attack idolatry

1537 Lesser monasteries dissolved

Ten Articles stick mainly to
Catholic line

1538 Bishops Book compromises with
Protestant doctrine

1539 Attack on idolatry -- destruction
of abused relics and images

Bible in English installed in
churches to teach people their
duty to God and King

Six Articles re-emphasise Catholic

Greater monasteries dissolved

1540 Fall of `Protestant' Cromwell

1543 King's Book stresses Catholic
beliefs and condemns idolatry

Bible translation restricted to
clergy and upper classes

1546 Burning of heretical books and
Protestant courtiers

1547 Dissolution of chantries halted
by Henry's death
RELATED ARTICLE: Books on Henry VIII and Religion

M Aston, England's Iconoclasts: 1. Laws Against images (Oxford 1988)

P Collinson, The Birthpangs of Protestant England: Religious and Cultural Change in the Sixteen and Seventeenth Centuries (London 1988)

J King, English Reformation Literature: the Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton 1982)

D MacCulloch, `Henry VIII and the reform of the Church', in D MacCulloch (ed.), The Reign of Henry VIII: Politics, Policy and Piety (London 1995)

V Murphy, `The literature and propaganda of Henry VIII's first divorce', in D MacCulloch (ed), The Reign of Henry VIII

G Nicholson, `The Act of Appeals and the English Reformation', in C. Cross et al (ed.), Law and Government under the Tudors (Cambridge 1988)

G Redworth, `A study in the formulation of policy: the genesis and evolution of the Act of Six Articles', in Journal of Ecclesiastical History 37 (1986)

R Rex, Henry VIII and the English Reformation (London 1993)

R Rex, `The crisis of obedience: God's Word and Henry's Reformation', in Historical Journal 39 (1996)

P Tudor-Craig, `Henry VIII and King David', in D Williams (ed.), Early Tudor England: proceedings of the 1987 Harlaxton Symposium (Woodbridge 1989)

Richard Rex is a lecturer in Reformation history at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge. His publications include Henry VIII and the English Reformation (Macmillan 1992) add he researches on a range of subjects from Lollardy and Lutheranism to the. Protestant Reformation in England and the Catholic Reformation in France.