The very gratitude of Englishmen for fresh spiritual enlightenment was to tell to the profit of the royal power. No conception could be further from that of the New Learning, from the plea for intellectual freedom which runs through the life of Erasmus, or the craving for political liberty which gives nobleness to the speculations of More.
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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The arrest of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace was followed by ruthless severities. The country was covered with gibbets. Whole districts were given up to military execution. But it was on the leaders of the rising that Cromwell’s hand fell heaviest. He seized his opportunity for dealing at the northern nobles a fatal blow. “Cromwell,” one of the chief among them broke fiercely out as he stood at the council board, “it is thou that art the very special and chief cause of all this rebellion and wickedness, and dost daily travail to bring us to our ends and strike off our heads. I trust that ere thou die, though thou wouldst procure all the noblest heads within the realm to be stricken off, yet there shall one head remain that shall strike off thy head.”
But the warning was unheeded. Lord Darcy, who stood first among the nobles of Yorkshire, and Lord Hussey, who stood first among the nobles of Lincolnshire, went alike to the block. The Abbot of Barlings, who had ridden into Lincoln with his canons in full armor, swung with his brother-abbots of Whalley, Woburn, and Sawley from the gallows. The abbots of Fountains and of Jervaulx were hanged at Tyburn side by side with the representative of the great line of Percy. Lady Bulmer was burned at the stake. Sir Robert Constable was hanged in chains before the gate of Hull.
The defeat of the northern revolt showed the immense force which the monarchy had gained. Even among the rebels themselves not a voice had threatened Henry’s throne. It was not at the King that they aimed these blows, but at the “low-born knaves” who stood about the King. At this moment, too, Henry’s position was strengthened by the birth of an heir. On the death of Anne Boleyn he had married Jane Seymour, the daughter of a Wiltshire knight; and in 1537 this Queen died in giving birth to a boy, the future Edward VI. The triumph of the Crown at home was doubled by its triumph in the great dependency which had so long held the English authority at bay across St. George’s Channel.
With England and Ireland alike at his feet, Cromwell could venture on a last and crowning change. He could claim for the monarchy the right of dictating at its pleasure the form of faith and doctrine to be taught throughout the land. Henry had remained true to the standpoint of the New Learning; and the sympathies of Cromwell were mainly with those of his master. They had no wish for any violent break with the ecclesiastical forms of the past. They desired religious reform rather than religious revolution, a simplification of doctrine rather than any radical change in it, the purification of worship rather than the introduction of any wholly new ritual. Their theology remained, as they believed, a Catholic theology, but a theology cleared of the superstitious growths which obscured the true Catholicism of the early Church.
In a word, their dream was the dream of Erasmus and Colet. The spirit of Erasmus was seen in the articles of religion which were laid before convocation in 1536; in the acknowledgment of justification by faith, a doctrine for which the founders of the New Learning, such as Contarini and Pole, were struggling at Rome itself; in the condemnation of purgatory, of pardons, and of masses for the dead, as it was seen in the admission of prayers for the dead and in the retention of the ceremonies of the Church without material change.
A series of royal injunctions which followed carried out the same policy of reform. Pilgrimages were suppressed; the excessive number of holy days was curtailed; the worship of images and relics was discouraged in words which seemed almost copied from the protest of Erasmus. His appeal for a translation of the Bible which weavers might repeat at their shuttle and ploughmen sing at their plough received at last a reply. At the outset of the ministry of Norfolk and More, the King had promised an English version of the Scriptures, while prohibiting the circulation of Tyndale’s Lutheran translation. The work, however, lagged in the hands of the bishops; and as a preliminary measure the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments were now rendered into English, and ordered to be taught by every schoolmaster and father of a family to his children and pupils. But the bishops’ version still hung on hand; till, in despair of its appearance, a friend of Archbishop Cranmer, Miles Coverdale, was employed to correct and revise the translation of Tyndale; and the Bible which he edited was published in 1538 under the avowed patronage of Henry himself.
But the force of events was already carrying England far from the standpoint of Erasmus or More. The dream of the New Learning was to be wrought out through the progress of education and piety. In the policy of Cromwell, reform was to be brought about by the brute force of the monarchy. The story of the royal supremacy was graven even on the title-page of the new Bible. It is Henry on his throne who gives the sacred volume to Cranmer, ere Cranmer and Cromwell can distribute it to the throng of priests and laymen below. Hitherto men had looked on religious truth as a gift from the Church. They were now to look on it as a gift from the King. The very gratitude of Englishmen for fresh spiritual enlightenment was to tell to the profit of the royal power. No conception could be further from that of the New Learning, from the plea for intellectual freedom which runs through the life of Erasmus, or the craving for political liberty which gives nobleness to the speculations of More. Nor was it possible for Henry himself to avoid drifting from the standpoint he had chosen.