Henry VIII Causes Himself to be Head of the Church of England
Introduction to our series of excerpts selected from A Short History of the English People by John R. Green published in 1874:
It had been Henry’s passion for Anne Boleyn, and the resulting necessity for divorce from his wife Catherine, that caused Wolsey’s fall. On the same passion did Cromwell build his rise. He secretly urged the King to break with Rome entirely and declare himself sole head of the English Church. Thus he could divorce himself. Henry first tried a last negotiation with the Pope; that failing, he turned to his new adviser and became a monster. And now, John R. Green.
Cromwell was again ready with his suggestion that the King should disavow the papal jurisdiction, declare himself head of the Church within its realm, and obtain a divorce from his own ecclesiastical courts. But the new minister looked on the divorce as simply the prelude to a series of changes which he was bent upon accomplishing. In all his checkered life, that had left its deepest stamp on him in Italy. Not only in the rapidity and ruthlessness of his designs, but in their larger scope, their admirable combination, the Italian statecraft entered with Cromwell into English politics. He is in fact the first English minister in whom we can trace through the whole period of his rule the steady working out of a great and definite aim, that of raising the King to absolute authority on the ruins of every rival power within his realm.
It was not that Cromwell was a mere slave of tyranny. Whether we may trust the tale that carries him in his youth to Florence or not, his statesmanship was closely modelled on the ideal of the Florentine thinker whose book was constantly in his hand. Even as a servant of Wolsey he startled the future Cardinal, Reginald Pole, by bidding him take for his manual in politics the _Prince_ of Machiavelli. Machiavelli hoped to find in CC&sar Borgia or in the later Lorenzo de’ Medici a tyrant who, after crushing all rival tyrannies, might unite and regenerate Italy; and, terrible and ruthless as his policy was, the final aim of Cromwell seems to have been that of Machiavelli, an aim of securing enlightenment and order for England by the concentration of all authority in the Crown.
The first step toward such an end was the freeing the monarchy from its spiritual obedience to Rome. What the first of the Tudors had done for the political independence of the kingdom, the second was to do for its ecclesiastical independence. Henry VII had freed England from the interference of France or the house of Burgundy; and in the question of the divorce Cromwell saw the means of bringing Henry VIII to free it from the interference of the papacy. In such an effort resistance could be looked for only from the clergy. But their resistance was what Cromwell desired. The last check on royal absolutism which had survived the Wars of the Roses lay in the wealth, the independent synods and jurisdiction, and the religious claims of the Church; and for the success of the new policy it was necessary to reduce the great ecclesiastical body to a mere department of the state in which all authority should flow from the sovereign alone, his will be the only law, his decision the only test of truth.
Such a change, however, was hardly to be wrought without a struggle; and the question of national independence in all ecclesiastical matters furnished ground on which the Crown could conduct this struggle to the best advantage. The secretary’s first blow showed how unscrupulously the struggle was to be waged. A year had passed since Wolsey had been convicted of a breach of the Statute of Provisors. The pedantry of the judges declared the whole nation to have been formally involved in the same charge by its acceptance of his authority. The legal absurdity was now redressed by a general pardon, but from this pardon the clergy found themselves omitted. In the spring of 1531 a convocation was assembled to be told that forgiveness could be bought at no less a price than the payment of a fine amounting to a million of our present money, and the acknowledgment of the King as “the chief protector, the only and supreme lord, and head of the Church and clergy of England.”
Unjust as was the first demand, they at once submitted to it; against the second they struggled hard. But their appeals to Henry and Cromwell met only with demands for instant obedience. A compromise was at last arrived at by the insertion of a qualifying phrase, “So far as the law of Christ will allow”; and with this addition the words were again submitted by Warham to the convocation. There was a general silence. “Whoever is silent seems to consent,” said the Archbishop. “Then are we all silent,” replied a voice from among the crowd.
There is no ground for thinking that the “headship of the Church” which Henry claimed in this submission was more than a warning addressed to the independent spirit of the clergy, or that it bore as yet the meaning which was afterward attached to it. It certainly implied no independence of Rome, for negotiations were still being carried on with the papal court. But it told Clement plainly that in any strife that might come between himself and Henry the clergy were in the King’s hand, and that he must look for no aid from them in any struggle with the Crown. The warning was backed by an address to the Pope from the lords and some of the commons who assembled after a fresh prorogation of the houses in the spring.
“The cause of his majesty,” the peers were made to say, “is the cause of each of ourselves.” They laid before the Pope what they represented as the judgment of the universities in favor of the divorce; but they faced boldly the event of its rejection. “Our condition,” they ended, “will not be wholly irremediable. Extreme remedies are ever harsh of application; but he that is sick will by all means be rid of his distemper.” In the summer the banishment of Catherine from the King’s palace to a house at Ampthill showed the firmness of Henry’s resolve. Each of these acts was no doubt intended to tell on the Pope’s decision, for Henry still clung to the hope of extorting from Clement a favorable answer; and at the close of the year a fresh embassy, with Gardiner, now Bishop of Winchester, at its head, was dispatched to the papal court. But the embassy failed like its predecessors, and at the opening of 1532 Cromwell was free to take more decisive steps in the course on which he had entered.