By the Act of Supremacy authority in all matters ecclesiastical was vested solely in the Crown. The courts spiritual became as thoroughly the king’s courts as the temporal courts at Westminster.
Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England, featuring a series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
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It was now called to deal a final blow. Step by step the ground had been cleared for the great statute by which the new character of the English Church was defined in the session of 1534. By the Act of Supremacy authority in all matters ecclesiastical was vested solely in the Crown. The courts spiritual became as thoroughly the king’s courts as the temporal courts at Westminster. The statute ordered that the King “shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and state thereof as all the honors, jurisdictions, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity belonging, with full power to visit, repress, redress, reform, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, contempts, and enormities which by any manner of spiritual authority or jurisdiction might or may lawfully be reformed.”
The full import of the Act of Supremacy was only seen in the following year. At the opening of 1535 Henry formally took the title of “on earth Supreme Head of the Church of England,” and some months later Cromwell was raised to the post of vicar-general, or vicegerent of the King in all matters ecclesiastical. His title, like his office, recalled the system of Wolsey. It was not only as legate, but in later years as vicar-general, of the Pope, that Wolsey had brought all spiritual causes in England to an English court. The supreme ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the realm passed into the hands of a minister who as chancellor already exercised its supreme civil jurisdiction. The papal power had therefore long seemed transferred to the crown before the legislative measures which followed the divorce actually transferred it.
It was in fact the system of Catholicism itself that trained men to look without surprise on the concentration of all spiritual and secular authority in Cromwell. Successor to Wolsey as keeper of the great seal, it seemed natural enough that Cromwell should succeed him also as vicar-general of the Church, and that the union of the two powers should be restored in the hands of a minister of the King. But the mere fact that these powers were united in the hands, not of a priest, but of a layman, showed the new drift of the royal policy. The Church was no longer to be brought indirectly under the royal power; in the policy of Cromwell it was to be openly laid prostrate at the foot of the throne.
And this policy his position enabled him to carry out with a terrible thoroughness. One great step toward its realization had already been taken in the statute which annihilated the free legislative powers of the convocations of the clergy. Another followed in an act which, under the pretext of restoring the free election of bishops, turned every prelate into a nominee of the King. The election of bishops by the chapters of their cathedral churches had long become formal, and their appointment had since the time of the Edwards been practically made by the papacy on the nomination of the crown. The privilege of free election was now with bitter irony restored to the chapters, but they were compelled on pain of premunire to choose whatever candidate was recommended by the king. This strange expedient has lasted till the present time, though its character has wholly changed with the development of constitutional rule.
The nomination of bishops has ever since the accession of the Georges passed from the king in person to the minister, who represents the will of the people. Practically, therefore, an English prelate, alone among all the prelates of the world, is now raised to his episcopal throne by the same popular election which raised Ambrose to his episcopal chair at Milan. But at the moment of the change Cromwell’s measure reduced the English bishops to absolute dependence on the crown. Their dependence would have been complete had his policy been thoroughly carried out, and the royal power of deposition put in force, as well as that of appointment. As it was, Henry could warn the Archbishop of Dublin that, if he persevered in his “proud folly, we be able to remove you again and to put another man of more virtue and honesty in your place.” By the more ardent partisans of the Reformation this dependence of the bishops on the crown was fully recognized. On the death of Henry VIII Cranmer took out a new commission from Edward for the exercise of his office. Latimer, when the royal policy clashed with his belief, felt bound to resign the see of Worcester. If the power of deposition was quietly abandoned by Elizabeth, the abandonment was due, not so much to any deference for the religious instincts of the nation as to the fact that the steady servility of the bishops rendered its exercise unnecessary.
A second step in Cromwell’s policy followed hard on this enslavement of the episcopate. Master of convocation, absolute master of the bishops, Henry had become master of the monastic orders through the right of visitation over them, which had been transferred by the Act of Supremacy from the papacy to the crown. The monks were soon to know what this right of visitation implied in the hands of the vicar-general. As an outlet for religious enthusiasm, monasticism was practically dead. The friar, now that his fervor of devotion and his intellectual energy had passed away, had sunk into a mere beggar. The monks had become mere landowners. Most of the religious houses were anxious only to enlarge their revenues and to diminish the number of those who shared them.