Reviewed by Bruce Heydt
By G.W. Bernard
Yale University Press, New Haven

The Protestant Reformation that swept across Western Europe in the 1500s was less than monolithic in nature. Reformers in Germany, France, Switzerland and elsewhere, while adhering to many common essentials of faith, each overlaid the reform movement with distinctive nuances that typically led to squabbles among the many resulting reform factions. Nowhere, though, was the reform movement more distinctive than in England, and nowhere was there a reformer as controversial and enigmatic as King Henry VIII.

This new book, which bills itself as “a major reassessment of England’s break with Rome,” explores Henry’s motives, methods and policies during the most dramatic religious transformation in the British Isles since the Dark Age mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury. Bernard shows, convincingly, that Henry’s reformation was the result of a well-formulated, proactive policy, not an inadvertent and shortsighted reaction to his desire to have annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who had unexpectedly failed to bear him a son. Nor was Henry cleverly manipulated by counselors such as Cromwell, Wolsey and Cranmer, Bernard argues, but instead he played the role of the mastermind who was willing to let his subordinates take the fall when pawns needed to be sacrificed.

The author makes the case for Henry’s disagreement with Rome being sincerely based on religious scruples, not merely a cynical excuse by which he could pave the way for a marital union with Anne Boleyn. “Henry saw himself as God’s lieutenant,” Bernard believes, “whose divinely ordained mission was to purify the church.”
Through an overwhelming mass of documentation, Bernard demonstrates that the king was firmly in control of just such a reform throughout the marriage controversy and its aftermath, and that few of his bishops and courtiers challenged him forcefully, and none effectively.

While Henry responded to this belief in the need for a break with Rome, he stopped well short of taking up the banner of Luther or Zwingli; instead he aimed at a more measured and moderate reform based on his own royal supremacy and his distaste for the “superstition” permeating the Roman church.

According to this view, the dissolution of the monasteries was prompted not by the king’s desire to confiscate the wealth of the church, as so often postulated, but rather to dismantle the infrastructure of the cult of relics and shrines that had flourished at the start of Henry’s reign.

Less controversial, perhaps, is Bernard’s conclusion: “The king’s reformation, for all its radicalism over monasteries and pilgrimage shrines, was not a road towards protestantism. Henry would have no truck with Lutheran notions of justification by faith or Zwinglian doctrines of the eucharist: It is not convincing to present Henry as a protestant, an evangelical or even a half-protestant. But that did not…make him a conservative exponent of traditional religion: ‘catholicism without the pope.'” Indeed, Henry was Henry, a reformer unique unto himself.