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Henry VIII


Lucy Wooding


Routledge Historical Biographies

London: Routledge, 2015 (Second Edition [First edition, 2008])

Paperback. xvii+365 p. ISBN 978-1138831414. £24.99


Reviewed by C.D.C. Armstrong

Queen's University of Belfast


This book is the second edition of a work first published in 2008. The new version is slightly longer than its predecessor and the author has taken some account of literature published since the original appearance of the book. Otherwise, however, differences between the two editions are few and minor; the order of the chapters is the same and there is little alteration to the contents of those chapters. Some changes should have been made: it is odd to read in a book published in 2015 that we are embarking on the twenty-first century [307]. Dr Wooding writes [7] that our understanding of her subject is "continually [sic] evolving"; in this account of that subject the evolution over the last seven or so years appears slight to the point of imperceptibility.

Dr Wooding's approach is rigidly chronological. We move from 1491 to 1547 in six chapters. Only the introduction and the conclusion on Henry VIII's legacy are thematic. This structure results in some obvious weaknesses. A fuller account of the extensive historiography of the subject would have been helpful; one is disinclined to admire very strongly a book on Henry VIII which mentions Sir Geoffrey Elton as often (once) as Ray Winstone and Sid James. Fuller consideration of the part played by international politics and diplomacy would also have been of use. That crucial figure, Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, appears only four times. The reader might also have been served better by fuller comparison of Henry VIII with his contemporaries Charles V and François I. Serious factual errors are few surprisingly so but it should be noted that Stephen Gardiner was not yet a bishop when he was on embassy in Rome in the late 1520s [147].

Dr Wooding made her reputation as an historian of religious thought in Tudor England; her other book is Rethinking Catholicism in Reformation England (2000). The approach taken to religion in this book will not surprise readers of that much earlier work. It is unfortunate therefore that Dr Wooding has yet to take into consideration the very detailed and severe criticisms of her previous work made by the late Fr Bill Wizeman, S.J. as well as those offered by this reviewer.

She argues that "Protestant" and "Catholic" did not bear "their contemporary [sic] meanings during Henry's own lifetime" [93]. One assumes that by "contemporary" Dr Wooding means (incorrectly) modern rather than (correctly) at the same time as (in which case her sentence would be nonsensical ). But even if she is using contemporary in the incorrect former sense, her assertion is disputable. By the middle of the 16th century the term Protestant was already associated with the denial of transubstantiation, solafidianism and the principle of sola scriptura; and even 450 years ago the term Catholic denoted doctrines still asserted today.

Just as questionable is her case for the coherence of Henry's religious policy. She ignores to a large extent the role of contingency in the formation of policy. First, the policy of schism and the assertion of supremacy would not have emerged at all if the King's first marriage had resulted in healthy male issue ideas of supremacy and ecclesiastical autonomy were formed in tandem with the failure of the divorce negotiations. Second, her case for coherence fails to recognise the differences made by the dominance at one time or another of various ministers, in particular by the great antagonists Cromwell and Gardiner. Third, she does not take into proper account the part played by international politics in the formation of religious policy. To write of Henry's "vision of the Church" [241] is to credit him with greater consistency than is reasonable. To write of his "moderation" in religious matters [273] is at the very least to confuse rhetoric with actuality; it is also to ignore the King's readiness (notorious to everyone else) to kill those who conflicted with his views.

Above all she fails to see that (in the words used elsewhere by this reviewer) Henricianism was predicated on Henry. His Church after the schism autocephalous and Caesaropapist in ecclesiology, Catholic yet anti-papal in theology and liturgy, hostile to monasticism and shrines emerged out of the failure of a marriage and the subsequent and consequent political and diplomatic exigencies of the 1530s and 1540s. It was in other words a temporary phenomenon made to suit one man's needs and urges. The Henrician Church of England scarcely outlived its founder; under Edward VI the supremacy was retained but the Church became thoroughly Protestant. Among the most prominent figures of Henry's Church after the break with Rome it is hard to think of one who was absolutely committed to Henricianism. Cranmer believed in the Royal Supremacy but was a clandestine Protestant; Gardiner defended obedience to the King but was a covert papalist. Dr Wooding's summary of Henry VIII's reign is efficient and her bibliography is extensive; but it is impossible to recommend this book as a convincing interpretation of its subject.


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