When More and Fisher opposed themselves obstinately to the King's will, there was no doubt that the King would see to it that they paid the penalty. But we may suspect that it was not Henry's brain but Cromwell's which devised the policy of presenting them with the fatal dilemma. Before they were put to death, the minister's supremacy was already established by his appointment as Vicar-General, with full power to exercise on the King's behalf all the rights vested in the Supreme Head of the Church: rights which - however it might be asserted that they were and had been at all times inherent in the sovereign - were now to be interpreted in a novel and comprehensive spirit. But besides the development alike in extent and intensity of the attack on the clerical organisation, we now find foreign policy taking a new direction for which Cromwell was assuredly responsible.

[Sidenote 1: The German Lutherans] [Sidenote 2: Overtures]

Hitherto, since the fall of Wolsey, the Emperor had been in steady antagonism to the English King: so had the Pope, except when he had hopes of the Imperial pressure on him being removed. France had on the whole given support to England, usually of a lukewarm character. But it does not appear that, until this time, Henry had learnt to look upon the German Lutherans as an available political force: while his active hostility to the Lutheran theology seemed to preclude anything in the nature of a rapprochement with the Protestant princes. Yet the Lutherans, like Henry, had repudiated papal authority. Recently the French King had taken up the idea of bringing about a compromise between the Pope on one side, and the Lutherans and English on the other, which would place Charles in dangerous straits. The prospect however was unpromising at the best; a reconciliation with Rome was really impossible. Cromwell, then, conceived the idea of a Protestant league, which would suggest to Francis the advantage of following Henry's lead in throwing off the Roman allegiance, and ranging himself with the Lutherans and the English. Henry's own theological predilections stood in the way, and the Lutherans regarded him with suspicion: but Cromwell looked to political expediency as a potent salve for healing controversial differences. Thus in the late summer of 1535, the first advances were made in the direction of seeking a mutual understanding with the German Protestants - not without hints that Henry had an open mind on the subject of the Augsburg Confession. The Germans however were in no haste to accept Henry as a brand plucked from the burning; rather, they had a not unnatural suspicion that he merely wanted to make use of them. They propounded conditions, which Cromwell submitted to Gardiner, at this time ambassador at Paris. Whatever Gardiner's views were as to papal ascendancy, he was no Lutheran; and he pointed out that to accept the terms would deprive England of her ecclesiastical independence. Thus the negotiations fell through - as might have been expected. Nevertheless, the desire for the Lutheran alliance remained at the back of Cromwell's policy; not avowed but latent; and it was in an attempt to entangle Henry irrevocably in that policy that he committed, not five years later, the blunder which cost him his head.

[Visitation of the Monasteries]

In the same Autumn - 1535 - Cromwell as Vicar-General opened his great campaign against the monasteries; actuated, according to the historians on one side, by a determination to remove a cancer which was destroying the morality of the nation; according to the historians on the other side, by the vast opportunities afforded for plunder.

[1536 Suppression of Lesser Houses]

Heretofore the visitation of "exempt" monasteries had lain with the Superiors of their respective orders, except when special authority had been granted by the Pope to a Morton or a Wolsey. In other cases it had been deputed to the bishops, each in his own diocese. At the time of the recent Peter Pence Act (1534) the exempt houses had been formally subjected to the King. Cromwell now took upon himself the right of visitation, not only of the exempt monasteries, but of the others as well, suspending the jurisdiction of the bishops while his enquiries were going forward, and thus emphasising the doctrine that that jurisdiction was derived from the King. Commissioners were appointed - Legh, Leyton, Bedyl, and Ap Rice - to investigate and report upon the conduct and the finances of the various houses. In a period of about three months (Oct.-Jan.), they made their investigations and prepared their report, keeping up an active correspondence with Cromwell in the meantime. On the strength of this report, a bill was laid before Parliament and passed in February (1536), suppressing all houses with less than £200 a year, 376 in number - of which however 31 were reinstated later in the year as having been well conducted. In part, their inmates were to be redistributed among the greater houses; in part they were to be released from their vows; and in part they were to receive some compensation.

[The evidence discussed]