To What Extent Did Thomas Cromwell Shape The English Reformation
To What Extent Did Thomas Cromwell Shape The English Reformation

To What Extent Did Thomas Cromwell Shape The English Reformation

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  • Published: June 29, 2018
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The nature of the English Reformation has generated fierce debate among scholars since writing began on the subject.

Assumptions have changed and opinions have varied, but from Elton and Dickens to the ‘revisionists’ the prominent historians of the 20th Century have all agreed that Thomas Cromwell played a significant role in the tumultuous events of the 1530’s. However, it is disputed whether it was King or Minister who orchestrated the reforms of the Reformation Parliament. Did Cromwell merely respond to the opportunities Henry VIII presented him with, or would events have differed considerably without Cromwell’s presence?Cromwell’s administrative genius made him a truly exceptional statesman; arguably as effective and capable as England has ever seen. It could be said that in just a decade of power he permanently changed the course of English history, laying the first steps of religious reform on which Protestantism climbed its way to state religion. This of course is the central dispute here, but what is clear is that as Chief Minister he was blessed with a logical and efficient mind in an age all too devoid of them. Cromwell was determined to empower the machinery of state and in the process made statute law the 16th century’s greatest weapon. He used Johann Gutenberg’s invention of printing press to spearhead propaganda campaigns that England had never yet experienced. G R Elton, one of the great historians of the 20th century, ranked him as “the most remarkable revolutionary in English History,”1 quite a statement considering Cromwell’s namesake Oliver for on

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Yet it is not called the Henrician Reformation for nothing and after all it was Henry’s aggressive desire for clinical action to secure a male heir and dynastic stability that started the reforming ball rolling. The King was an opportunist who disliked papal authority and interference in his realm. He sought the vast wealth the English church possessed and often desperately short of money, it was near-blasphemy for his subjects to pay taxes directly to Rome. In any age and any land, war is the most expensive action a monarch can undertake. 16th century Europe rarely saw a year without military conflict and thus money was incessantly sought after at any cost. Professor Scarisbrick points out that in Henry “the ancient ambition to recover at least part of a lost empire was probably still alive in the very core of the man.”2 Scarisbrick suggests that the king’s rivalry with Francis I was perhaps his primary motivation, and that religious change did not come about as a result of a Lutheran minister, but a deeply motivated king who would stop at nothing to fulfill his ambitious.In order to analyse Cromwell’s significance, the central government of the 1530’s and the Reformation as an event must be appreciated and understood.

The explosion of Historical research after 1960 has given us unrivalled detail about the workings of Tudor administration and its politics. In the last decade Christopher Haigh for one has fore fronted revolutionary thinking into the state of the church declaring, “there is nothing to indicate that we are on the eve of a Reformation, or that there was any decay

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of conventional piety.”3 The theory that there existed an anti-clerical populace has been renounced and we can now say with accuracy that the Church was not ripe for the picking (records of diocesan administration and parish life for example give substantial evidence to support the notion).The traditionalist view of the Reformation has been demolished and it is now general consensus that Protestantism never bubbled up in the countryside or the towns as a result of a decaying church; change came directly from above. The reformation was a series of complex processes and manoeuvrings that asserted secular control over Catholicism by suppressing its institutions and breaking with papal authority. Crown and Parliament, king and minister, cut the spiritual, juridical and financial bonds which linked the English Church with the papacy. England had been a “thoroughly papalist country, perhaps the most so in Western Europe”.4 Changes were enforced by deliberate government action and the people were enticed and persuaded by propaganda and the honing of the treason law.

The power of statute law was being used to its optimum potential, proving it to be the formidable enforcer of the 16th century. Those who lived in Tudor England saw the Reformation on their part as obedience rather than conversion. As it moulded English religion, it was itself moulded by religious influences.The fall of Chief Minister Wolsey in 1529 left a striking void in the Tudor Government. For 15 years the Cardinal was arguably as powerful as the young king and it has been widely claimed he was effectively ruling the country. Henry listened to Wolsey above all others and up until 1529, took heed of the Cardinal’s advice in almost every matter. Yet for all the political talent and ruthlessness Wolsey possessed, for all the time and effort that were put into his last task, he couldn’t find an answer to his king’s greatest dilemma; that of the ‘great matter.’ It seemed a divorce was not possible, that Henry would never have Anne Boleyn as Queen, that for the dynastic stability a male heir brought, an illegitimate son would be the only option.

There was but one mind in the land that saw a way out for the king; the mind of Thomas Cromwell.The first critical achievement was the realisation that parliament was not a rarely called upon commodity but a body of potential power that could install secular authority over Rome. By 1532 Thomas Cranmer had already risen to prominence as Archbishop of Canterbury and used this new found standing to champion the cause of a Royal Supremacy. Also the country’s leading law theorist Christopher St. German provided the detailed theoretical justifications that were needed in undertaking this most ambitious of reforms, but both lacked the method and vision that was required.It was Cromwell who suggested that parliament be used to revolutionise the relationship between Church and State and it was Cromwell who persuaded Henry that in doing so he was the man to orchestrate the solution to the ‘great matter’. Henry and Wolsey had busied themselves with the theological intricacies and contradictions of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and while they had a

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