How Nasty Was Thomas Cromwell?

Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell

by G. R. Elton
Cambridge, 447 pp., $19.50

It is a textbook cliché that during the upheaval of the Reformation, after a period of great uncertainty, the religious configuration of Europe was eventually somehow made to correspond to the political. In the end, the boundaries of nation-states dictated the religious faith to which the great majority of their populations in fact subscribed. This should not surprise us too much, because by and large the same generalization of “cuius regio eius religio” applies even more to the twentieth century, the second era in which Western civilization has been split ideologically down the middle. In Bolshevik Russia, fifty years of political pressure have largely destroyed the Orthodox faith; and another thirty years of political pressure in Eastern Europe will probably suffice to reduce Roman Catholicism east of the Iron Curtain to negligible proportions. In America, on the other hand, members of the Communist Party are as rare as bald eagles, and for much the same reasons.

Curiously, the problem of Protestant thought control during the Reformation has hitherto been badly neglected by historians. Volumes have been written about how the Catholics suppressed Protestantism in Spain or Italy, but very little about how the Protestants suppressed Catholicism in England and Holland. The sixteenth-century states were very much weaker than those of today, and yet after seventy years of Protestant rule, Roman Catholicism in England was reduced from virtually the only religion to that of a tiny ostracized minority. There are three possible explanations of how this came about. Either nobody cared very much one way or the other, so that the state did not need to exert itself; or there was an active and growing minority that was sympathetic to reform anyway, so that state policy was merely following the tide of influential opinion; or the state exerted strong and effective police powers to destroy overt opposition, stamp out vocal dissent, and convert the population, or at any rate the younger generation, to the new orthodoxy.

Dr. Elton is an administrative and constitutional historian, who by his own clearly expressed statements has no time for historical pluralism. He is strongly opposed to such novelties as social history or quantitative methods, and he regards the study of state policy and state power as the highest and truest function of the historian. Not for him the thought that the community of historians might profitably live in many mansions and learn something from each other. He is also a most distinguished historian of the Tudor period, his reputation depending mainly on a major study of the administrative innovations of Henry the Eighth’s chief minister in the 1530s, Thomas Cromwell. He has failed to persuade more than a small minority of his colleagues in the profession that the changes that took place at that time can reasonably be described as a “revolution in government,” but it is an idea with which every serious student of the period must henceforth grapple.

This new book is concerned with the repressive aspects of Cromwell’s bureaucratic …

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