The Tudors - A Century of Change

4. Religion & the Crisis of Authority

During the Middle Ages the Church was a great and powerful organisation. All important churchmen, whatever their nationality, owed their primary allegiance to the pope as Christ's representative on earth. Throughout Europe kings promised in their coronation oaths that they would protect the Church in its work of saving souls. As we have seen, this meant giving anyone who could claim to be a member of the clergy immunity from ordinary arrest and prosecution.

Why did monarchs appear to give away their authority in this way? The answer lies in the origins of Christianity. Christ is only known to us through the accounts of the gospel writers. In the days before printing, when manuscripts were very precious, these accounts had to be read to the faithful and explained to them. It is not surprising therefore that the first leaders of Christian communities were called bishops from a Greek word episcopus, meaning 'reader' or 'teacher'.

When the Roman emperor Constantine made Christian worship legal in 312 AD bishops became important people and when the empire fell they survived to assist the barbarian kings who took over from the Romans, offering a supply of literate and obedient administrators in return for protection - a situation that remained fundamentally unchanged until Henry VIII's day. In such circumstances the privileged position of the Church actually increased the king's authority and it is not surprising to find Henry defending it in a book he wrote in 1521 called 'Assertion of the Seven Sacraments', for which he was given the title 'Defender of the Faith' by the then pope, Leo X, a title retained by English sovereigns to this day.

His subjects were less enthusiastic. As the 17th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote: 'the chiefest cause of Reformation be unpleasing priests.' What was so unpleasing about England's priests at the beginning of the Tudor period? Firstly, some of them had become very grand. Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, seemed to live more splendidly than his master. It did not take a great mind to see the contrast between this and the life of Christ - a carpenter's son. Meanwhile ordinary people found themselves squeezed for money every time they had any dealings with the Church. They paid to have their children christened and their sons and daughters married; they paid when they went to confession and they paid when they were taken to be buried. In between they paid tithes, a tenth of their income every year. And the Church was inexorable: a man who refused to make the appropriate offering could see his goods seized and himself accused of heresy - a dreadful crime punished by the most excruciating of deaths.

A single case - that of Richard Hunne - epitomised all these issues. Imprisoned in 1520 for refusing to hand over his dead child's christening cloth as a fee Hunne was almost certainly murdered by agents of the bishop of London who then tried to make the crime look like suicide. The king intervened to protect the men involved but he was well aware of a rising tide of anti--clerical feeling in Parliament. A law passed two hundred years earlier (when the pope was a Frenchman) had made it illegal to recognise a power higher than the king's. Technically this meant that the entire English Church could be indicted. When it looked as if the English bishops would oppose his divorce of Catherine of Aragon Henry appeared ready to let such a prosecution go ahead, bringing them swiftly to heel (The Submission of the Clergy: 1532). With the subsequent appointment of his own man, Thomas Cranmer, as archbishop of Canterbury, Henry was able to use Parliament to dismantle the pope's authority and so gain the divorce he wanted. In the process he himself became 'pope'.


For many Englishmen this was going too far. They might dislike arrogant priests but they didn't want to see them replaced a a coterie of grasping courtiers who would use the royal supremacy to enrich themselves. We have to remember how important the promise of an after-life was to ordinary people. It gave hope of a better future, even if it threatened the possibility of a terrible alternative. It reinforced ideas about right and wrong and it reassured decent and law-abiding people that - whatever indications there might be to the contrary - everyone would get their just deserts in the end. On a practical level, the practices of the Church were intimately bound up with the progress of the agricultural year, as ceremonies of a pagan origin like Harvest Festival still bear witness. To interfere with what was age-old and sanctioned by time was profoundly unlucky, the more so since, in Henry's case, it was in pursuit of carnal desire (the woman who denounced Anne Boleyn as a 'goggle-eyed whore'' spoke for the great majority of the king's subjects). The result was the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536, one of the most dangerous rebellions faced by a Tudor monarch. Amongst the demands of the 'Pilgrims' were the following:

To have the supreme headship of the church touching the cure of souls restored unto the see of Rome as before it was accustomed to be... To have the suppressed abbeys restored to their houses, lands and goods.... To have the lord Cromwell and Sir Richard Rich, knight, to suffer condign punishment as subverters of the good laws of the realm and maintainers of the false set of heretics, being the first inventors and bringers in of the same... To have a parliament in a convenient place at Nottingham or York... To have the privileges and rights of the church confirmed by act of parliament and priests not to suffer by the sword (i.e. be executed) unless they are disgraced (i.e. de-frocked)... To have the statute of treasons for words and such like, made in the twenty first year of the king's reign, repealed...

There could be no more succinct indictment of Henry's actions. As is so often the case today people wanted reform - an end to abuses - not wholesale revolution. Such sentiments would linger for many years to come in the conservative north, to re-emerge in Elizabeth's reign with the last major rebellion against a Tudor monarch, that led by the Catholic earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland in 1569. Oddly enough they were sentiments with which Elizabeth herself sympathised. No radical in religious matters she wanted the worship of the Church to be orderly and decent. Had she not been illegitimate in Catholic eyes and determined to prove that she was different to her sister Mary, the Church of England might have followed a very much more traditional pattern.

Meanwhile Henry survived because no credible alternative to his rule was available and the majority of the nobility stood by him. As he grew older he oscillated between the Catholic and Protestant factions at his court, giving neither of them the upper hand. The Six Articles (1539) re-stated the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, firmly isolating those who took a rationalist view of this 'conjured up miracle'. Henry himself interrogated a leading radical Robert Barnes, prior to his burning in 1540, yet he continued to protect Archbishop Cranmer whose views he suspected to be equally heretical. At the end he seems to have realised the dangerous divisions that his policies had created. Speaking to Parliament for the last time in 1545 he summed up the situation thus:

My loving subjects, study and take pains to amend one thing which surely is amiss and far out of order, to the which I most heartily require you, which is that charity and concord is not among you, but discord and dissensions beareth rule in every place. What love and charity is amongst you when one calleth the other heretic and anabaptist and he calleth him again, papist, hypocrit and pharisee? I see and hear daily how you the clergy preach one against another, teach one contrary to another, inveigh one against another, without charity or discretion...And you the laity, you be not clean and unspotted of malice and envy, for you rail on bishops, speak slanderously of priests and rebuke and taunt preachers.. Of this I am sure, charity was never so faint amongst you, and virtuous and godly living was never less used, nor God himself amongst Christians never less reverenced, honoured or served...

If all this was indeed true, whose fault was it but his own?

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