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Henry VIII and his Ministers

John Guy doubts whether policy was ever imposed on the most wilful of kings.

The choice of a ruler's ministers is a very important matter; whether they are good or not depends on the ruler's shrewdness'. So Machiavelli began chapter 22 of his manual of statecraft, The Prince. The relationship between Henry VIII and his ministers has sparked an enduring debate about policy-making under the Tudors. Was Crown policy formulated by the king or his advisers? Was Henry the architect of his own policy, or was he little more than an articulate puppet manipulated in turn by Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell?

Henry VIII was less attentive to mundane affairs of state than either Henry VII or Elizabeth I. He was relatively manipulable by women and intimates. In his youth he revelled in 'pastime with good company': this he boasted in a song he wrote himself. Yet always he was king. His voice was dominant in politics; his merest whisper could dictate the fundamental decisions of the reign.

By conventional standards Henry allowed his servants a remarkable degree of latitude. But he always retained the right to have the last word; therefore he was the ultimate arbiter of policy. For much of the twentieth century it has been claimed that Wolsey and Cromwell enjoyed 'prime-ministerial' ascendancy during Henry's reign, but this paradigm is borrowed from an understanding of Victorian politics. In Tudor terms it is anachronistic and misleading. Henry's ministers advised the king and controlled the implementation of Crown policy once a strategy had been conceived. But, since the king might intervene or change his mind at will, policy might waver, collapse or undergo revision at any moment in the interests of European diplomacy or domestic expediency. It is scarcely surprising that under so volatile a system Wolsey and Cromwell became the victims less of their own mistakes than of their master's egoism.

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