Henry VIII and Thomas More



IN the Parliament that assembled at Westminster on November 3, 1529, the controlling groups—the nobles in the Upper House, the merchants in the Commons—agreed on three policies: the reduction of ecclesiastical wealth and power, the maintenance of trade with Flanders, and support of the King in his campaign for a male heir. This did not carry with it approval of Anne Boleyn, who was generally condemned as an adventuress, nor did it prevent an almost universal sympathy with Catherine.1 The lower classes, politically impotent, were as yet unfavorable to the divorce, and the northern provinces, intensely Catholic, sided wholeheartedly with the Pope.2 Henry kept this oppisition temporarily quiet by remaining orthodox in everything but the right of the popes to govern the English Church. On that point the national spirit, even stronger in England than in Germany, upheld the hand of the King; and the clergy, though horrified at the thought of making Henry their master, were not averse to independence from a papacy so obviously subject to a foreign power.

About 1528 one Simon Fish published a six-page pamphlet which Henry read without known protest, and many read with frank delight. It was called “The Supplication of the Beggars,” and asked the King to confiscate, in whole or part, the wealth of the English Church:

In the times of your noble predecessors past, [there] craftily crept into your realm... holy and idle beggars and vagabonds .... bishops, abbots, deacons, archdeacons, suffragans, priests, monks, canons, friars, pardoners, and summoners. And who is able to number this idle, ruinous sort, which (setting all labor aside) have begged so importunately that they have gotten into their hands more than a third part of all your Realm? The goodliest lordships, manors, lands, and territories are theirs. Besides this, they had the tenth part of all corn, meadow, pasture, grass, wool, colts, calves, lambs, pigs, geese, and chickens.... . Yea, and they look so narrowly upon their profits that the poor wives must be countable to them of every tenth egg, or else she getteth not her rights at Easter.... . Who is she that will set her hand to work to get 3d. a day, and may have at least 2od. a day to sleep an hour with a friar, a monk, or a priest? 3

The nobles and merchants might have admitted some exaggeration in the indictment, but they thought it led to a charming conclusion—the secularization of Church property. “These lords,” wrote the French ambassador Jean du Bellay, “intend... to impeach... the Church and take all its goods; which it is hardly needful for me to write in cipher, for they proclaim it openly .... I expect the priests will never have the Great Seal”—i.e., never head the government—“again, and that in this Parliament they will have terrible alarms.”4 Wolsey had held off this attack on Church property, but his fall left the clergy powerless except through the (declining) faith of the people; and the papal authority that might have protected them by its prestige, its interdicts, or its allies, was now the main object of royal wrath, and the football of Imperial politics. Custom required that legislation affecting the Church in England should be passed, or require confirmation, by the Convocation of the clergy under the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Could this assembly assuage the anger of the King and check the anticlericalism of Parliament?

The battle was opened by the Commons. It drew up an address to the King, professing doctrinal orthodoxy, but strongly criticizing the clergy. This famous “Act of Accusation” charged that Convocation made laws without the consent of King or Parliament, seriously limiting the liberty of laymen, and subjecting them to heavy censures or fines; that the clergy exacted payment for the administration of the sacraments; that the bishops gave benefices to “certain young folks, calling them their nephews,” and despite the youth or ignorance of such appointees; that the episcopal courts greedily exploited their right to levy fees and fines; that these courts arrested persons, and imprisoned them, without stating the charges against them; that they indicted and severely punished laymen upon suspicion of the slightest heresy; and the document concluded by begging the King for the “reformation” of these ills.5 Henry, who may have been privy to the composition of this address, submitted its main points to the Convocation, and asked for an answer. The bishops admitted some abuses, which they attributed to occasional individuals; they affirmed the justice of their courts; and they looked to the pious King, who had so nobly rebuked Luther, to aid them in suppressing heresy. Then, grievously mistaking the royal temper, they added warlike words:

Forasmuch as we repute and take our authority of making the laws to be grounded upon the Scriptures of God and the determination of Holy Church... we may not submit the execution of our charges and duty, certainly prescribed to us by God, to your Highness’ assent.... With all humility we therefore beseech your Grace... to maintain and defend such laws and ordinances as we .... by the authority of God, shall for His honor make to the edification of virtue and the maintaining of Christ’s faith.6

The issue was joined. Henry did not meet it at once. His first interest was to get Parliament’s approval for a strange request—that he be excused from repaying the loans that had been made to him by his subjects.* The Commons protested and consented. Three other bills were introduced, which aimed to check the authority of the clergy over the probate of wills, their exaction of death taxes, and their holding of plural benefices. These bills were passed by the Commons; they were passionately opposed by the bishops and abbots sitting in the Upper House; they were amended, but in essence they were made law. Parliament adjourned on December 17.

During the summer of 1530 the King received some costly encouragement. Thomas Cranmer, a doctor of divinity at Cambridge, suggested to Henry that the major universities of Europe should be polled on the question whether a pope could permit a man to marry his brother’s widow. A merry game of rival bribery ensued: Henry’s agents scattered money to induce negative judgments; Charles’s agents used money or threats to secure affirmative replies.7 The Italian answers were divided; the Lutheran universities refused any comfort to the Defender of the Faith; but the University of Paris, under pressure by Francis,8 gave the answer so doubly dear to the King. Oxford and Cambridge, after receiving stern letters from the government, approved Henry’s right to have his marriage annulled.

So strengthened, he issued through his attorney general (December 1530) a notice that the government intended to prosecute, as violators of the Praemunire Statute, all clergymen who had recognized Wolsey’s legatine power. When Parliament and Convocation reassembled (January 16, 1531), the King’s agents happily announced to the clergy that the prosecution would be withdrawn if they would confess their guilt and pay a fine of £118,000 ($11,800,000?).9 They protested that they had never wanted Wolsey to have such power, and had recognized him as legate only because the King had done so in the trial of his suit before Wolsey and Campeggio. They were quite right, of course, but Henry sorely needed money. They mournfully agreed to raise the sum from their congregations. Feeling his oats, the King now demanded that the clergy should acknowledge him as “the protector and only supreme head of the Church and clergy of England”—i.e., that they should end their allegiance to the Pope. They offered a dozen compromises, tried a dozen ambiguous phrases; Henry was merciless, and insisted on Yes or No. Finally (February 10, 1531) Archbishop Warham, now eighty-one, reluctantly proposed the King’s formula, with a saving clause—“so far as the law of Christ permits.” The Convocation remained silent; the silence was taken as consent; the formula became law. Mollified, the King now allowed the bishops to prosecute heretics.

Parliament and Convocation adjourned again (March 30, 1531). In July Henry left Catherine at Windsor, never to see her again. Soon thereafter she was removed to Ampthill, while Princess Mary was lodged at Richmond. The jewels that Catherine had worn as Queen were required of her by Henry, who gave them to Anne Boleyn.10 Charles V protested to Clement, who addressed a brief to the King (January 25, 1532) rebuking him for adultery, and exhorting him to dismiss Anne and keep Catherine as his lawful queen until decision should be given on his application for annulment. Henry ignored the rebuke, and pursued his romance. About this time he wrote one of his tender missives to Anne:

Myne awne Sweetheart, this shall be to advertise you of the great ellingness [loneliness] that I find here since your departing; for, I ensure you, me thinketh the Tyme longer since your departing now last than I was wont to do a whole Fortnight; I think your Kindness and my Fervence of love causeth it.... . But now that I am coming toward you, me thinketh my Pains by half released... in wishing my self (especially an evening) in my Sweethearts Armes whose pretty Duckys [breasts] I trust shortly to kysse. Writne with the Hand of him that was, is, and shall be yours by his will, H.R.11

When Parliament and Convocation reconvened (January 15,1532) Henry secured from all four houses further anticlerical legislation: that clerics under the degree of subdeacon, when charged with felony, should be tried by civil courts; that fees and fines in ecclesiastical courts should be reduced; that ecclesiastical death dues and probate fees should be lowered or abolished; that the annates (the first year’s revenues of a newly appointed prelate) should no longer be paid to the Pope; and that the transfer of English funds to Rome for dispensations, indulgences, and other papal services should cease. A sly hint was sent to the Curia that the annates would be restored to the Pope if the marriage with Catherine should be annulled.

By this time a majority of the bishops had been won over to the view that they would not lose in authority or revenue if the English Church were independent of Rome. In March 1532, the Convocation announced its readiness to separate from the papacy: “May it please your Grace to cause the said unjust exactions to cease.... . And in case the Pope will make process against this realm for the attaining these annates .... may it please your Highness to ordain in the present Parliament that the obedience of your Highness and of the people be withdrawn from the See of Rome.”12 And on May 15 the Convocation presented to the King a pledge to submit all its subsequent legislation to a committee—half laymen, half clergymen—empowered to veto any ordinances which it should judge injurious to the realm. So, in this epochal “Reformation Parliament” and Convocation the Church of England was born, and became an arm and subject of the state.

On May 16 Thomas More, having failed to stem the anticlerical tide, resigned as chancellor, and retired to his home. In August Archbishop Warham died, after dictating a deathbed repudiation of the Convocation’s submission to the King. Henry replaced More with Thomas Audley, and Warham with Thomas Cranmer. The revolution proceeded. In February 1533, Parliament enacted a “Statute of Appeals,” by which all litigation that had formerly been sent for judgment to Rome was henceforth to be decided “in the spiritual and temporal courts within the Realm, without regard to any... foreign... inhibition, excommunication, or interdict.”13

On January 15,1533, Henry married Anne, who was already four months pregnant.14 The King had now urgent reasons for the annulment of his union with Catherine. Having made, without result, another appeal to the Pope, he secured from Convocation an approval of his “divorce” (April 15 3 3); on May 2 3 Cranmer, as Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage with Catherine unlawful and void; and on May 28 he pronounced Anne to be Henry’s lawful wife. Three days later Anne, in brocade and jewels, rode to her coronation as Queen of England in a stately pageant designed by tradition and Hans Holbein the Younger. Amid the exaltation she noticed the disapproving silence of the crowd, and she may have wondered how long her uneasy head would wear the crown. Pope Clement pronounced the new marriage null, and its future offspring illegitimate, and excommunicated the King (July 11, 1533). On September 7 Elizabeth was born. Charles’s ambassador reported to him that the King’s mistress had given birth to a bastard.15

Parliament, which had adjourned on May 4, resumed its sittings on January 15, 1534. Annates and other papal revenues were now definitely appropriated to the Crown, and the appointment of bishops became in law, as already in practice, a prerogative of the King. Indictments for heresy were removed from clerical to civil jurisdiction.

In 1533 Elizabeth Barton, a nun of Kent, announced that she had received orders from God to condemn the King’s remarriage, and had been allowed to see the place that was being prepared for Henry in hell. The royal court put her through a severe examination, and drew from her a confession that her divine revelations were impostures, and that she had permitted others to use them in a conspiracy to overthrow the King.16 She and six “accomplices’ were tried by the House of Lords, were judged guilty, and were executed (May 5, 1534). Bishop Fisher was accused of having known of the conspiracy and of having failed to warn the government; it was also charged that he and Catherine had been privy to a plan, conceived by Chapuys and discouraged by Charles, for an invasion of England to coincide with an insurrection of Catherine’s supporters.17 Fisher denied the charges, but remained under suspicion of treason.

Henry’s most aggressive agent in these affairs was Thomas Cromwell. Born in 1485, the son of a Putney blacksmith, he grew up in poverty and hardship, and wandered for years, as practically a vagabond, through France and Italy. Back in England, he entered the textile business, became a moneylender, and made a fortune. He served Wolsey faithfully for five years, defended him in adversity, and earned Henry’s respect for his industry and loyalty. He was made successively chancellor of the exchequer, master of the rolls, and (May 1534), secretary to the King. From 1531 to 1540 he was the chief administrator of the government as an obedient executor of the royal will. His aristocratic enemies, who despised him as a parvenu symbol of their rising rivals, the businessmen, accused him of practicing the principles of Machiavelli’s Prince, of accepting bribes, of selling offices, of inordinately loving wealth and power. His aim, which he hardly sought to disguise, was to make the King supreme over every phase of English life, and to finance an absolute monarchy with the confiscated wealth of the Church. In pursuing his purposes he showed consummate and unscrupulous ability, multiplied his fortune, and won every battle except the last.

It was probably at his suggestion and through his manipulation that Henry, disturbed by increasing hostility among the people, persuaded Parliament to pass an Act of Succession (March 30, 1534) which declared the marriage with Catherine invalid, transformed Mary into a bastard, named Elizabeth heiress to the throne unless Anne should have a son, and made it a capital crime for any person to question the validity of Anne’s marriage to Henry, or the legitimacy of their offspring. All Englishmen and women were by the Act required to take an oath of loyalty to the King. Royal commissioners, supported by soldiery, rode through the country, entered homes, castles, monasteries, and convents, and exacted the oath. Only a few refused it; among these were Bishop Fisher and Thomas More. They offered to swear to the succession, but not to the other contents of the Act. They were committed to the Tower. Finally the Parliament voted the decisive Statute of Supremacy (November 11, 1534); this reaffirmed the King’s sovereignty over Church and state in England, christened the new national Church Ecclesia Anglicana, and gave the King all those powers over morals, organization, heresy, creed, and ecclesiastical reform which had heretofore belonged to the Church. The Act made it treason to speak or write of the King as a usurper, tyrant, schismatic, heretic, or infidel. A new oath was required of all bishops, that they would accept the civil and ecclesiastical suoremacy of the King without the reservation “So far as the law of Christ allows,” and would never in the future consent to any resumption of papal authority in England.

All the forces of the government were deployed to paralyze the opposition to these unprecedented decrees. The secular clergy generally pretended to submit. Many monks and friars, owning a direct allegiance to the Pope, shied away from the oaths, and their resistance shared in the King’s later decision to close the monastries. Henry and Cromwell were especially incensed by the obstinacy of the friars in the Charterhouse, a Carthusian monastery in London. Three Carthusian priors came to Cromwell to explain their reluctance to acknowledge any layman as head of the Church in England; Cromwell sent them to the Tower. On April 26, 1535, they, with another friar and a secular priest, were tried by the King’s judges, who were for pardoning them; but Cromwell, fearing that lenience would encourage wider resistance, demanded a verdict of guilty, and the judges yielded. On May 3 all five men, still refusing to accept the Act of Supremacy, were dragged on hurdles to Tyburn, and one after another was hanged, cut down alive, disemboweled, and dismembered.18 One severed arm was hung over the entrance arch of the Charterhouse to instruct the remaining friars, but none withdrew his refusal. Three were put in the Tower; they were fastened to uprights by irons around their necks and feet, and were forced to stand in that position for seventeen days, fed, but never loosed for any natural need. The remaining Carthusians, still obdurate, were dispersed among other monasteries, with the exception of ten who were imprisoned in Newgate; nine of these died of “prison fever and filth.”19

Henry was now the sole judge of what, in religion and politics, the English people were to believe. Since his theology was still Catholic in every respect except the papal power, he made it a principle to persecute impartially Protestant critics of Catholic dogma, and Catholic critics of his ecclesiastical supremacy. Indeed, the prosecution of heresy had continued, and would continue, all through his reign. In 1531, by order of Chancellor More, Thomas Bilney was burned for speaking against religious images, pilgrimages, and prayers for the dead. James Bainham was arrested for holding that Christ was only spiritually present in the Eucharist; he was tortured to draw from him the names of other heretics; he held fast, and was burned at Smithfield in April 1532. Two others were burned in that year, and the Bishop of Lincoln offered an indulgence of forty days to good Christians who would carry a faggot to feed the fire.20

This reign of terror reached its apex in the prosecution of Fisher and More. Erasmus had described the Bishop of Rochester as “a person loaded with every virtue.”21 But Fisher had himself been guilty of persecution, and he had joined the Spanish ambassador in urging Charles to invade England and depose Henry.22 In law he had committed treason to die state, which could not excuse him on the plea that he had been loyal to the Church. The new pontiff, Paul III, made the mistake of naming the imprisoned Bishop a cardinal. Though Fisher declared that he had not sought the honor, Henry interpreted the appointment as a challenge. On June 17, 1535, the Bishop, now in his eightieth year, was given a final trial, and again refused to sign the oath acknowledging Henry as head of the English Church. On June 22 he was led to a block on Tower Hill; “a long, lean body,” an eyewitness described him, “nothing in a manner but skin and bones, so that the most part that there saw him marveled to see any man, bearing life, to be so far consumed.”23On the scaffold he received an offer of pardon if he would take the oath; he refused. His severed head was hung upon London Bridge; it might now, if it could, said Henry, go to Rome and get its cardinal’s hat.24

But a more troublesome recusant remained.

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