The restriction of the right of preaching to priests who received licenses from the Crown silenced every voice of opposition. Even to those who received these licenses theological controversy was forbidden . . . .
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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In the general carelessness which prevailed as to the spiritual objects of their trust, in the wasteful management of their estates, in the indolence and self-indulgence which for the most part characterized them, the monastic establishments simply exhibited the faults of all corporate bodies that have outlived the work which they were created to perform. They were no more unpopular, however, than such corporate bodies generally are. The Lollard cry for their suppression had died away. In the north, where some of the greatest abbeys were situated, the monks were on good terms with the country gentry, and their houses served as schools for their children; nor is there any sign of a different feeling elsewhere.
But they had drawn on themselves at once the hatred of the New Learning and of the monarchy. In the early days of the revival of letters, popes and bishops had joined with princes and scholars in welcoming the diffusion of culture and the hopes of religious reform. But, though an abbot or a prior here or there might be found among the supporters of the movement, the monastic orders as a whole repelled it with unswerving obstinacy. The quarrel only became more bitter as years went on. The keen sarcasms of Erasmus, the insolent buffoonery of Hutten, were lavished on the “lovers of darkness” and of the cloister.
In England Colet and More echoed with greater reserve the scorn and invective of their friends. The monarchy had other causes for its hate. In Cromwell’s system there was no room for either the virtues or the vices of monasticism, for its indolence and superstition, or for its independence of the throne. The bold stand which the monastic orders had made against benevolences had never been forgiven, while the revenues of their foundations offered spoil vast enough to fill the royal treasury and secure a host of friends for the new reforms. Two royal commissioners, therefore, were dispatched on a general visitation of the religious houses, and their reports formed a “Black Book” which was laid before parliament in 1536.
It was acknowledged that about a third of the houses, including the bulk of the larger abbeys, were fairly and decently conducted. The rest were charged with drunkenness, with simony, and with the foulest and most revolting crimes. The character of the visitors, the sweeping nature of their report, and the long debate which followed on its reception leave little doubt that these charges were grossly exaggerated. But the want of any effective discipline which had resulted from their exemption from all but papal supervision told fatally against monastic morality even in abbeys like St. Albans; and the acknowledgment of Warham, as well as a partial measure of suppression begun by Wolsey, goes some way to prove that, in the smaller houses at least, indolence had passed into crime.
A cry of “down with them” broke from the commons as the report was read. The country, however, was still far from desiring the utter downfall of the monastic system, and a long and bitter debate was followed by a compromise which suppressed all houses whose income fell below two hundred pounds a year. Of the thousand religious houses which then existed in England, nearly four hundred were dissolved under this act and their revenues granted to the crown.
The secular clergy alone remained; and injunction after injunction from the vicar-general taught rector and vicar that they must learn to regard themselves as mere mouth-pieces of the royal will. The Church was gagged. With the instinct of genius, Cromwell discerned the part which the pulpit, as the one means which then existed of speaking to the people at large, was to play in the religious and political struggle that was at hand; and he resolved to turn it to the profit of the monarchy.
The restriction of the right of preaching to priests who received licenses from the Crown silenced every voice of opposition. Even to those who received these licenses theological controversy was forbidden; and a high-handed process of “tuning the pulpits,” by express directions as to the subject and tenor of each special discourse, made the preachers at every crisis mere means of diffusing the royal will. As a first step in this process every bishop, abbot, and parish priest was required by the new vicar-general to preach against the usurpation of the papacy, and to proclaim the King as supreme head of the Church on earth. The very topics of the sermon were carefully prescribed; the bishops were held responsible for the compliance of the clergy with these orders; and the sheriffs were held responsible for the obedience of the bishops.
While the great revolution which struck down the Church was in progress, England looked silently on. In all the earlier ecclesiastical changes, in the contest over the papal jurisdiction and papal exactions, in the reform of the church courts, even in the curtailment of the legislative independence of the clergy, the nation as a whole had gone with the King. But from the enslavement of the priesthood, from the gagging of the pulpits, from the suppression of the monasteries, the bulk of the nation stood aloof. There were few voices, indeed, of protest. As the royal policy disclosed itself, as the monarchy trampled under foot the tradition and reverence of ages gone by, as its figure rose bare and terrible out of the wreck of old institutions, England simply held her breath.