"The Making of Religious Policy, 1533–1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the Middle Way" by G. W. Bernard, in The Historical Journal (June 1998), Cambridge Univ. Press, Journals Dept., 40 W. 20th St., New York, N.Y. 10011–4211.
Who was the architect of King Henry VIII’s religious policy after he broke with Rome in 1533? Thomas Cromwell, say many historians of the Tudor era. Henry was only "the plaything of factions," dominated during that decade by Cromwell, his principal adviser.
Bernard, a historian at the University of Southampton, England, paints a different picture, one of a determined king who knew his own theological mind very well.
"A break with Rome was being threatened and ideas that could justify it were being aired," Bernard says, "as early as 1527," when the king began his effort to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (who had not produced a son), and marry Anne Boleyn. This was well before Cromwell’s rise to prominence. That the actual break with Rome did not take place until after Cromwell’s rise was not due to kingly indecision. Henry had to lay the groundwork in his own realm first, Bernard points out. After the break did occur, Henry "was deeply involved in efforts to define true religion," Bernard notes. "Many prefaces, petitions, and letters reveal his participation in debates." The king, he argues, skillfully and consistently sought "a middle way" between the papists and religious radicals such as the Sacramentarians (who regarded the sacraments as merely symbolic) and the Anabaptists (who opposed infant baptism). "He was antipapal, against the monasteries, against superstitious and idolatrous abuses, but he was also opposed to novelties, to justification by faith alone, and upheld something like traditional teaching on the mass."
By the mid-1530s, Henry’s bishops in the Church of England were split over various theological issues. He chose "repeatedly to gather bishops and theologians together and to cajole and to persuade them to reach an agreement on the principles of true religion," Bernard says. Inevitably, this meant compromise, ambiguity, and even contradiction— which Henry "skillfully used...to advance" his own complicated religious convictions on such matters as freeing departed souls from purgatory.
Cromwell, whose own theological beliefs are hard to discern, says Bernard, was "immensely useful" to Henry. But by 1540, his reputation as a radical Protestant had made him a liability, especially since the king was considering an alliance with Catholic France or the Holy Roman Empire. So Cromwell was dismissed, and executed as a heretic and a traitor. But this, Bernard writes, did not usher in "any sustained conservative inquisition," or end Henry’s determined quest for "a middle way."