“Beknaved” by the King, whose confidence in him waned as he discerned the full meaning of the religious changes which Cromwell had brought about, met too by a growing opposition in the council as his favor declined, the temper of the man remained indomitable as ever. He stood absolutely alone.
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.
Previously in Henry VIII Makes Himself Head of the Church of England.
A miraculous rood at Boxley, which bowed its head and stirred its eyes, was paraded from market to market and exhibited as a juggle before the court. Images of the Virgin were stripped of their costly vestments and sent to be publicly burned at London. Latimer forwarded to the capital the figure of Our Lady, which he had thrust out of his cathedral church at Worcester with rough words of scorn: “She with her old sister of Walsingham, her younger sister of Ipswich, and their two other sisters of Doncaster and Penrice, would make a jolly muster at Smithfield.” Fresh orders were given to fling all relics from their reliquaries, and to level every shrine with the ground. In 1538 the bones of St. Thomas of Canterbury were torn from the stately shrine which had been the glory of his metropolitan church, and his name was erased from the service-books as that of a traitor.
The introduction of the English Bible into churches gave a new opening for the zeal of the Protestants. In spite of royal injunctions that it should be read decently and without comment, the young zealots of the party prided themselves on shouting it out to a circle of excited hearers during the service of mass, and accompanied their reading with violent expositions. Protestant maidens took the new English primer to church with them and studied it ostentatiously during matins. Insult passed into open violence when the bishops’ courts were invaded and broken up by Protestant mobs; and law and public opinion were outraged at once when priests who favored the new doctrines began openly to bring home wives to their vicarages.
A fiery outburst of popular discussion compensated for the silence of the pulpits. The new Scriptures, in Henry’s bitter words of complaint, were “disputed, rhymed, sung, and jangled in every tavern and alehouse.” The articles which dictated the belief of the English Church roused a furious controversy. Above all, the sacrament of the mass, the centre of the Catholic system of faith and worship, and which still remained sacred to the bulk of Englishmen, was attacked with a scurrility and profaneness which pass belief. The doctrine of transubstantiation, which was as yet recognized by law, was held up in scorn in ballads and mystery plays. In one church a Protestant lawyer raised a dog in his hands when the priest elevated the host. The most sacred words of the old worship, the words of consecration, “_Hoc est corpus_,” were travestied into a nickname for jugglery as “Hocus-pocus.”
It was by this attack on the mass, even more than by the other outrages, that the temper both of Henry and the nation was stirred to a deep resentment. With the Protestants Henry had no sympathy whatever. He was a man of the New Learning; he was proud of his orthodoxy and of his title of “Defender of the Faith.” And above all he shared to the utmost his people’s love of order, their clinging to the past, their hatred of extravagance and excess. The first sign of reaction was seen in the parliament of 1539. Never had the houses shown so little care for political liberty. The monarchy seemed to free itself from all parliamentary restrictions whatever when a formal statute gave the King’s proclamations the force of parliamentary laws.
Nor did the Church find favor with them. No word of the old opposition was heard when a bill was introduced granting to the King the greater monasteries which had been saved in 1536. More than six hundred religious houses fell at a blow, and so great was the spoil that the King promised never again to call on his people for subsidies. But the houses were equally at one in withstanding the new innovations of religion, and an act for “abolishing diversity of opinions in certain articles concerning Christian religion” passed with general assent. On the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was reasserted by the first of six articles to which the act owes its usual name, there was no difference of feeling or belief between the men of the New Learning and the older Catholics. But the road to a further instalment of even moderate reform seemed closed by the five other articles which sanctioned communion in one kind, the celibacy of the clergy, monastic vows, private masses, and auricular confession.
A more terrible feature of the reaction was the revival of persecution. Burning was denounced as the penalty for a denial of transubstantiation; on a second offence it became the penalty for an infraction of the other five doctrines. A refusal to confess or to attend mass was made felony. It was in vain that Cranmer, with the five bishops who partially sympathized with the Protestants, struggled against the bill in the lords: the commons were “all of one opinion,” and Henry himself acted as spokesman on the side of the articles. In London alone five hundred Protestants were indicted under the new act. Latimer and Shaxton were imprisoned, and the former forced into a resignation of his see. Cranmer himself was only saved by Henry’s personal favor. But the first burst of triumph was no sooner spent than the hand of Cromwell made itself felt. Though his opinions remained those of the New Learning and differed little from the general sentiment which found itself represented in the act, he leaned instinctively to the one party which did not long for his fall. His wish was to restrain the Protestant excesses, but he had no mind to ruin the Protestants. In a little time therefore the bishops were quietly released. The London indictments were quashed. The magistrates were checked in their enforcement of the law, while a general pardon cleared the prisons of the heretics who had been arrested under its provisions.
A few months after the enactment of the Six Articles we find from a Protestant letter that persecution had wholly ceased, “the Word is powerfully preached and books of every kind may safely be exposed for sale.” Never indeed had Cromwell shown such greatness as in his last struggle against fate. “Beknaved” by the King, whose confidence in him waned as he discerned the full meaning of the religious changes which Cromwell had brought about, met too by a growing opposition in the council as his favor declined, the temper of the man remained indomitable as ever. He stood absolutely alone.