My study is in two parts. The first is a consideration of the condition of the church on the eve of the Reformation. In common with many scholars in the last two decades, I came to question
the tenaciously held orthodoxy view of the late medieval church as riddled with abuses and thus an easy and inevitable and justified target of reformers. My own developing interest in parish church architecture - especially the rebuilding of churches in the perpendicular style - reinforced my conviction that there was an extraordinary vitality in the life of a late medieval church very much cherished by an overwhelming majority of laypeople. And yet such an approach seemed somehow insufficient, a deficiency crystallised for me by Eamon Duffy's Stripping of the Altars (1992), doubtless against the writer's intentions. The central problem is that it makes the subsequent reformation inexplicable: how could so vital and so popular a church be overturned?
The answer, it has increasingly seemed to me, is that the late medieval church was characterised not just by vitality but by vulnerability, and that perception has guided my researches on such themes as the bishops, the clergy, confraternities and chantries. My published paper on pilgrimage shows how I am exploring this counterpoint between vitality and vulnerability. More broadly the vitality of practices such as pilgrimage must be measured against the level of theological knowledge of those who took part in them. How much did lay religious activity reflect mere social conformity, how far deep conviction and genuine understanding? How mechanical and superstitious was late medieval lay piety, and how far did that leave the church highly vulnerable to criticism from an Erasmian or protestant approach? One of my principal claims is that the church was in many respects a 'monarchical church', a theme I have explored for the century after the break with Rome in a paper in History. By that I mean that the interests and ambitions of monarchs tended to be predominant, and also that monarchs saw themselves, and were seen by their subjects, as the guardians of the spiritual well-being of the church within the realm. In many ways such close association with the monarchy was a source of strength for the church, but in other respects - for example the involvement of leading churchmen in secular government - it left the church ill prepared to resist the hostility of Henry VIII.
The second and larger part of my study is consideration of the break with Rome and the subsequent development of religious policy. Here the novelty of my argument lies in my claims for the central role of Henry VIII. Far from being a weak man, the plaything of factions, and dominated by a Wolsey or a Cromwell, as the professional orthodoxy has had it, Henry was very much the principal political force. Those are claims I have explored in my book on the Amicable Grant of 1525 and in a series of papers on the politics of Henry's reign, particularly the fall of Wolsey, the fall of Anne Boleyn, and Elton's Cromwell, to be republished in Power and Politics in Tudor England (Ashgate, 2000). Factional explanations of politics have been very fashionable. Much such writing has, however, been flawed: evidence has often been deployed selectively in order to conform to a pre-determined overall thesis. Correcting such misconceptions has demanded a great deal of work, going over the same ground, scrutinising the wording of a sentence, assessing the tone of voice of a letter, setting each sentence and each letter in its proper context. Henry VIII has emerged as the ultimate decision maker.
In this project I have been developing those perceptions in relation to the king's part in the making of religious policy. Increasingly, my studies have suggested that the king did indeed have what can be seen as a policy. In reassessing the divorce, I should wish to show that there was throughout a broad strategy that evolved tactically. From an early stage Henry was prepared, if necessary, to break with Rome. In considering the making of religious policy subsequently, I have come to emphasise Henry's involvement. An essay I published in Historical Journal summarised a much longer preliminary draft. My concern has been over how far Henry was involved in religious debates and in efforts to define true religion, how far and in what circumstances bishops and councillors contributed to the evolution of policy. I should particularly wish to elucidate further the political and religious circumstances of the fall of Cromwell in 1540, including an assessment of Cromwell's religion. And I should wish to take further my tentative claims that Henry VIII's religious policy after the break with Rome can best be seen as a consistent search for a middle way, between 'the old devotion to the usurped power of the Bishop of Rome' and its associated superstitions on the one hand, and the subversive radicalism of the reformers on the other. That will require further consideration in particular of the government's justifications - in tracts, in proclamations and circular letters.
In a key respect my ideas on the nature of the king's role have evolved. I had begun by thinking that Henry's religion was essentially conservative, the iniquities of the papacy apart, and that his skill had been to appropriate the rhetoric of the Lutheran reformation in order to justify his royal supremacy. Undoubtedly Henry always refused to go along with the German or Swiss reformations, refusing in particular ever to accept the Confession of Augsburg. But immersion in the sources convinced me that Henry was by his lights something of a reformer, influenced by Erasmus, and committed to the purification of the church. How seriously should Henry's denunciation of superstition and abuses be taken? In my most recent period of leave I researched and wrote a monograph-length study of the dissolution of the monasteries and the dismantling of shrines, considering how far the dissolution could be seen not as financially driven but as a manifestation of quasi-Erasmian reforming ideals, though with scepticism towards monasteries turning into something closer to outright hostility to monasticism. That view of Henry as a reformer, which I have briefly explored in an essay on 'The piety of Henry VIII', links back to my interpretation of the late medieval church, and in particular on those features which many, not least Henry, saw as in need of reform.
But if Henry knew what he might do, his break with Rome and the religious policies he subsequently pursued, notably the dissolution of the monasteries, provoked considerable, if ultimately ineffective, opposition. The break with Rome, the king's divorce and the declaration of the royal supremacy provoked many. Catherine of Aragon refused to accept that her marriage to Henry was invalid. Elizabeth Barton, the nun of Kent, prophesied to sympathetic listeners that Henry would not live if he married Anne Boleyn. Several Observant Friars, especially William Peto of Greenwich, vigorously disputed the king's case over the divorce. John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, wrote book after book in defence of Catherine. Fisher, several Carthusian monks, and Sir Thomas More then refused to swear the oath of succession and ultimately lost their lives as a result. In the Reformation Parliament at various points there was outspoken criticism of the king's policies. And from his Italian exile Reginald Pole denounced Henry as a tyrant.
My study will seek to probe how far these dissenters or critics can be treated as an embryonic political opposition, how far their reactions should rather be seen as the consolations of the powerless. Should Catherine of Aragon be seen in Froude's words as 'the nucleus of a powerful political party', the progenitor of an 'Aragonese faction', or was her defiance of Henry essentially personal? Was Bishop Fisher the leader of a clerical group, or do his outbursts testify rather to a man overwrought seeking no more than to bear witness to the truth?
The religious changes of the 1530s, especially the dissolution of the monasteries, and changes or feared changes to the practice of parochial religion, provoked many more to object. I should wish to assess the extent of opposition and dissent at a parish level, looking at parish clergy and at laymen and laywomen caught up in events. Here I shall focus in particular on the Pilgrimage of Grace. Increasingly that rebellion appears as a defence of the northern monasteries. I wish to explore further how far the Pilgrimage can be seen as a positive endorsement of the late medieval church. This will in turn will require consideration of the relative roles in the rebellion of the gentry, the commons and the clergy. It will also involve close scrutiny of the precise demands made by the rebellions in order to assess the nature and the depth of their religious commitment. I also wish to trawl through the sources for instances of opposition and dissent in the 1530s by parish priests and ordinary laymen and laywomen.
I also wish to consider the methods that Henry and his government used in order to neutralise opposition and to secure compliance. How far was the purpose underlying the Act of Six Articles (1539) - 'An Acte abolishing diversity in opinions' - totalitarian in intent, reflecting the king's demand that 'all preachers agree'? How far had Henry and his government had recourse to measures and pressures to secure compliance, manipulating the law, and the processes of law, to frighten men and women into acquiescence? What should be made of the 'voluntary' surrenders of monasteries, and, not least, the signed statements (presumably presented by royal commissioners) in which monks denounced as superstitious and futile their past way of life?
But as a counterpoint to that theme, I shall also wish to explore further the awe, respect and even love that not only many of Henry's counsellors but also enough of the unpaid gentry who enforced the government's will in the localities evidently felt for him. Without such loyalty, Henry could scarcely have achieved his purposes. Was the central role that Henry himself played in the making of religious policy - a theme I have discussed in a recent paper in the Historical Journal - a significant factor in making dissent appear as personal disloyalty?
Moreover, it is my contention that the significance of opposition has been misunderstood in the most recent substantial analysis, that of G.R. Elton, Policy and Police: the Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge, 1972): in particular, by charting popular opposition county-by-county, Elton atomised opposition into insignificance, and by ignoring the Pilgrimage of Grace (except to reinterpret it as a spilling over of court faction) he has seriously undervalued the phenomenon he studied. Elton's dismissal of opposition from courtiers and noblemen as essentially and merely factious also compels scrutiny and challenge.
Much recent writing on the English Reformation emphasises the vitality and popularity of the late medieval church and the reluctant and protracted acquiescence of the population in what might ultimately be termed a protestant reformation. That powerful historiographical shift makes the impact of the religious changes of Henry VIII's reign the more important and the more intriguing to study. If what was happening was sought by only a few, and disliked by many, in all sections of society, just how did Henry VIII and his government get away with it? My attempt to explore and answer that question will contribute to the more general understanding of the nature of royal power and the extent of religious change in early modern England.