The 1950s witnessed one of the most intriguing debates in historical studies. This debate which originated in the question about King Henry’s role in the theological, political and liturgical transformations in England in the 16th century ultimately questioned and changed the methodological outlook of many historians. History as an academic discipline now incorporated an appreciation of the complementary character of the various sub-disciplines in historical studies.
At the centre of the debate lay the question whether a singular personality, such as Henry VIII could be the driving force and mastermind behind the fundamental change in English society in the first half of the 16th century.
However, the debate Elton caused with his pamphlet Henry VIII. An Essay in Revision had a deeper lying subtext. The fundamental question, one the Elton never explicitly raised, was one of methodological approach. When criticising his main advocate of the opposing viewpoint, Pollard, he admits repeatedly that simply more historical evidence is available today than at Pollard’s times. Also, he cites advances in understanding of the economic conditions of Henry’s England that may occasion a re-think amongst historians about Henry’s role in the English Reformation. Yet, he fails to mention the different methodological impetus of historical writing. Pollard wrote biographical history in the best meaning of the word. He was a historian whose works reflected the prevailing liberal outlook of the times (the beginning of the 20th century). The biographical focus of his work predetermined to a certain extent the form of the narrative and hence the result of his research.
Pollard failed to appreciate those political institutions that were about to emerge in England around that time. Also, the wider intellectual context in Britain as well as Europe had an often decisive influence on which options Henry had. While Pollard explained Henry’s behaviour by reference to his immediate surroundings, Elton favoured a more complex and subtle explanation of the English transformation, one that ultimately would ‘match’ the historical sources. In short, at heart was an issue about which methodological approach was most suitable to explain changes in 16th century England, and perhaps inadvertently instigated by Elton, the biographical method lost ground to other explanatory modes, only to re-appear in popularised form, this time mostly outside the academic discipline. Let us review some of the issues that define the two positions.
There is first of all, the question of authorship of the reformation and the motivations for such profound change. Second, the question arises who formulated the reform ideals. Pollard’s view, adopted by many other historians still today, was that Henry himself was interested in theology, and received extensive training in theological studies: something that enabled him to articulate complex theological views and express informed endorsement of papal views on salvation in the fight against the emerging Lutheran doctrine. Henry remained orthodox throughout his life not simply out of opportunism, but because of his profound insight and knowledge of liturgical and theological issues involved. Elton argues that this is not borne out by the facts.
A further issue concerns the context in which monarchical figures such as Henry operated in the 16th century and which receives little attention in Pollard’s portrayal of the king. Focussing on Henry as a personality surrounded and influenced by his ministers, Pollard apparently failed to appreciate the institutional continental and English context that acted as a backdrop for many of Henry’s decisions. Radical as he was, there were remarkable continuities in the Tudors reign and, not least of all, it was Henry himself who attempted to cement some of these during his dominion.
This leads to the underlying fascinating issue of the emerging of state institutions and the transformation of government in 16th century England. Wolsey and Cromwell contemplated reforms of English government but shirked from it out of fear it would undermine and diminish their own positions. The significance of Henry for the events during his reign depends crucially upon which view one takes on the issue of governmental efficiency and structure. The advent of the ‘imperial’ idea finds its appropriate context here.
Last but not least, there is the issue of the King’s personality on which historians disagree strongly. Elton in fact hinges the initial criticism of Pollard’s view on the question of how to assess Henry’s personality in view of the evidence. He argues that Pollard’s portrayal of Henry that rests in a questionable periodisation, is not convincing. Elton argues in favour of a detectable continuity of character in Henry which makes more sense of his action during his early and later rule. Let us look at the opposing views in more detail now.
I will concentrate on Pollard’s version of the events first and then contrast it with Elton’s. Inevitably, Pollard’s view may sound somewhat naive to us with the benefit of hindsight, just as it may come to us as a reflection of Elton’s criticism. Still, it is a formidable account of Henry’s life and deserves an esteemed place in the biographical literature. Even Elton concedes that Pollard’s account was of such quality that it dominated scholarship for more than six decades. Although it is hagiographic in character it offers a useful portrait of the young and more mature king.
Pollard suggests that Henry’s life is marked by two distinct periods. The first period lasted from about 1514 to 1529, roughly the era of Wolsey’s ministry. Beginning in 1529, as the King’s outlook on world and country matured, he asserted his personal supremacy over government and people. While Henry interfered little in the matters of government during the Wolsey era, he emerged principally responsible for the various policies of his government from 1529 to his death in 1547. For Pollard this periodisation should give us some indication as to Henry’s importance in the English Reformation.
For Elton, this periodisation is equally the crux of the matter; while maintaining that Pollard asserts or assumes rather than argues for this differentiation into two periods in Henry’s life. Ultimately, Elton argues this is where Pollard gets it wrong. With respect to the foreign policy blunders that marked the end of Henry’s reign, Pollard can see no fault. The French war of 1542-44 he calls wise, where the attack on Scottish independence in 1545-46 is in Pollard’s eyes a constructive policy. Pollard attempts to draw a connection between the two by arguing that the rationale for both military adventures was to prevent a Franco-Scottish personal union. Elton believes this thesis lacks any evidential substance.
Pollard’s version of the events hinges much on how to interpret the early years of Henry. For Pollard his adolescent years were spent far away from routine politics and Henry abstained from meddling in current affairs. The more important it seems that signs of Henry’s overbearing personality, such as the murder of Dudley, secure no place in Pollard’s narrative, a point which Elton seizes upon when trying to formulating an alternative view of Henry’s early years. Pollard all in all sketches a picture of Henry as a politically adept monarch, his congenial vision of politics only frustrated by fearful and fainthearted ministers and court officials.
For Pollard the significance of Henry is clear, he is the instigator and mastermind behind the events that rocked 16th century England. His will transformed the country radically and would have done so even more if his vision was not often neutralised by a frightened and inept bureaucracy. Elton’s stringent criticism strikes at the core of the historical method: he argues that Pollard’s portrayal of the proactive, principled king cannot be validated by the historical evidence. In fact, it relies on crucial and inadmissible omissions.
Elton first attacks the coherence of the view that Henry’s character somehow suggests a twofold periodisation. Critical to evaluating Henry’s importance for Elton is to answer the question whether there was some continuity in character that undermines Pollard’s twofold period scheme. Was Henry really that innocent in his youth?
Elton argues that Pollard’s view of Henry is motivated by providing a romantic picture of the king, in which his personality stands at the centre of ideas and governmental activity determining the course of history. In contrast, plausibility and historical evidence needs to be brought to bear upon the narrative to arrive at reliable conclusions. In general, the thrust of Elton’s argument concerns the environment in which Henry operated and the continuity of character which Pollard neglected in his portrayal of the king. Even more popular accounts of Henry’s life concur with Elton’s view here. In a substantial more recent biography of the king Bowle writes:
‘Psychologically as well as politically, Henry was consistent; from his adolescence a cunning realist; never, as Pollard thought him, a political innocent.’
For Elton, the king was less the originator of the fundamental changes rather than the catalyst of events. His motivation was governed by personal gain and interest, rather than principled conduct. Elton points out that this was very much in line with the prevalent idea of royal supremacy at that time when the interest of the king was thought to be identical to that of the country and her people. More importantly, to assess Henry’s importance for the historical events one must ask who was in fact in control of policy at the time. Elton maintains that most ideas originated somewhere else, a view that was corroborated by subsequent research.
Henry, so Elton argues, could not have been the centre of policy formulation simply because he read little and was not involved in routine governmental business. Of the little he wrote, Henry expressed views that seem ‘platitudinous’ rather than original. His theological views hardly reflected the radical ideas that came to determine the course of the English Reformation. Elton rightly points to the fact that Henry’s title ‘fidei defensor’, awarded to him by the pope after reading his invective against Luther, had no impact on actual policy that he subsequently pursued.
While Elton argues that Henry remained aloof from the day to day business of English politics and failed to engage actively in the administration of his country, the genesis of the Act against Appeals to Rome in 1533 is crucial. Elton suggests that while the last word remained with the king, the decisions were generally left to Wolsey or Cromwell, and hence their outcome was often predetermined. Elton goes as far as attributing the reform of government to Cromwell, a view that has been challenged by recent scholarship.
Guy takes issue with this view in a recent study. Analysing the policies of the reformation Guy argues that Elton’s view of single advisers as the brain behind English policies is mistaken. ‘Policy was rarely fully coordinated, there was no overall blueprint, decision had to be taken under pressure in response to royal requirements and immediate needs.’ Guy concludes that ‘the search for the intellectual origins of Henrician ‘imperial’ kingship thus extends far beyond the achievements,…, of Thomas Cromwell.’
Guy does not challenge Elton’s view however that, ultimately, the last word lay with the king. As advice failed to impress Henry or ran counter to his personal interests he rid himself of his advisers. The foreign policy blunders (France and Scotland) originate here where Henry was bereft of any reliable advice and acted impromptu.
Elton dwells on the issue of the role of others around him extensively. One critical aspect is why Henry failed to appoint a successor to Cromwell. Pollard maintains that Henry was afraid of another strong minister who may have arrogated decision making to himself, leaving Henry in the cold. Elton holds that this view has little credibility. Henry was aware that he could appoint and remove people from positions around him as he liked. His decision not to replace Cromwell had more to do with the absence of a suitable alternative as well as a fateful overestimation of his own political skills.
In fact, so Elton writes, Henry displayed a remarkable continuity in the choice of his advisers as well as in the manner of dispensing with them. Elton draws a reasonable parallel between the way in which Empson and Dudley were removed and the deposition of Wolsey and Cromwell. Throughout his life the king also showed continuity in his awareness of where the real power laid. In his letters, he admonished others to consider all letters emanating from Wolsey or Cromwell as expressing solely the personal opinion of them.
The evidence of the record is therefore that the king more often than not simply accepted and endorsed policies and measure which he did not initiate. His was the ‘activating force in an engine whose design owed most to other brains and hands’.
A fact that is borne out by the changing characteristics in the reign’s documents as the ministers changed. ‘The policies put into effect at different times varied as Henry’s ministers took over from one another [while] the last seven years when there was no single adviser showed no strong hand’.
In general, so Elton argues, Henry interfered in the political machinery of government as he liked but showed little principled consistency except the pursuit of his own personal interests. Competence in theological and political matters lay squarely with his advisers. Where there was none available, the strains showed his inability to judge reasonably as in the Scottish or French disaster. Elton’s conclusion is devastating: given his absence from routine business of government and his patchy theological knowledge, Henry simply could not have devised nor really comprehended in all its magnitude the English Reformation that was precipitated by the Act against Appeals to Rome.
‘There is no good reason at all for supposing that his own mind was behind these measure and very good reason for supposing that it was not.’
This point seems to be corroborated by more recent research. The overall picture, so Elton suggests, is one of an ‘opportunist, picking up ideas and suggestions from all around him and putting together a usable amalgam without having to do the hard work for himself.’ Within this context the portrait of a monarch who decisively influenced the events of the English Reformation appears less plausible. Even his theological competence is cast in doubt by Elton.
‘The only real programme was advancement of his own interests by whatever means seemed suitable and possible in terms of both law and politics.’
Elton goes as far as suggesting the Henry lacked depth and the ability to think through the problems of government , a verdict for which Elton musters a formidable array of historical evidence. Where does this leave the question of Henry’s significance for English history?
What seems most important is that, although Elton certainly won the immediate argument, neither interpretation has prevailed in the long run. Historical discipline took from Elton that biographical narratives have to be supplemented and supported by economic, social and intellectual history to paint a fuller picture of events.
Although Elton succeeded in arguing for a diminished relevance of Henry VIII as a personality, the transformations of the monarchical idea and the genesis of England as an empire seems to suggest that Henry was, inadvertently perhaps, at the centre of fundamental changes that impacted strongly on country and people in times to come. His self-interest may have determined English history more than Elton would admit. So, while Elton’s criticism certainly inaugurated a diversification of historical research and methodology, the romantic view of Henry as the instigator of the English Reformation lives on in popularised versions of his biography thus representing a final victory for Pollard?
In general one could observe that scholarship has simply moved on. The questions historians ask now are different to those Elton and Pollard focused on. Historians have been able to sketch more in detail the intellectual and European-wide context which shows that the ideas that informed much of the English Reformation were prevalent in Europe. Henry appears more a catalytic figure rather than the source of change. This may perhaps corroborate Elton’s view, yet, it rests on an appreciation of wider historical evidence than even Elton had considered.
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