The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church by G W Bernard - review by Lucy Wooding

Lucy Wooding

God’s Lieutenant on the Road to Reform

The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church


Yale University Press 1736pp £29.95 order from our bookshop

The most decisive developments of Henry VIII’s turbulent reign came in the 1530s, when the king denied the authority of the Pope, asserted his own supposedly God-given right to control the Church, and set about redesigning English religion, a process which he was to continue until the end of his reign. These actions were to have momentous consequences. Henry effectively reconfigured English kingship by adding to the crown the enormous wealth and authority of the Church, yet at the same time endangered it by creating a basis for principled religious opposition to royal authority. He left a legacy of conflict to English Protestants and Catholics alike, who ever since have been fighting over quite what the religious ambiguities of his reign should mean for their separate traditions. He also created a thorny historical problem. What exactly had the king intended to achieve with this religious and political revolution? Was he merely trying to replace his obstinate wife, whose sons had all died, with a more likely child-bearing contender, and getting carried away? Was this the beginning of Protestantism in England, as the institution of an English Bible and the dissolution of the monasteries seem to suggest? Or was it ‘Catholicism without the Pope’, as many others have argued, since Henry always upheld the importance of the Latin Mass, and refused the central doctrines of Protestantism? Had Henry been tempted by the possibilities of Continental reform, only to lose his nerve? Many historians have taken refuge in the argument that Henry’s apparent inconsistencies can best be explained by the workings of faction: the picture emerges of a king who was forceful but wayward, impulsive and vindictive, swayed by his councillors, courtiers and wives. In short, we have been led to believe, the Henrician Reformation was an exercise in incoherence; the alarming vacillations of a king desperately anxious about the future of his dynasty, and prepared to countenance any possible way of producing a legitimate male heir and securing his authority. 

George Bernard has set out to prove that the many variations on this view are wrong. Henry did have a clear vision of what he wanted, and pursued it remorselessly, energetically and with conviction. The same could be said of the author in pursuit of his thesis. This book bears

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