Radical Departures

If the recall of his divorce case to Rome was an infuriating setback for Henry VIII, it did have one advantage. It could easily be blamed on Thomas Wolsey. Easily but unfairly, because the king had given the cardinal a weak case to work with, at crucial junctures had gone around him in trying to influence the papal court, and had refused to consider compromises that might have put the entire matter to rest.

And if the Peace of Cambrai was a disaster for English foreign policy, one that turned France from an ally of England into an ally of the Hapsburg empire and closed the breach between empire and pope while leaving England isolated, that too was easily blamed on Wolsey. And more fairly this time, because it was Wolsey who had overreached and Wolsey’s ambitious strategy that had failed.

What was worst for the cardinal, he was nearly without friends. That Queen Catherine held him responsible for the king’s rejection no longer mattered, but Anne Boleyn and her family had, with even less reason, persuaded themselves that Wolsey was not only failing to pursue the divorce with all possible vigor but secretly undercutting Henry’s efforts. The nobility had always despised and resented Wolsey for being not only a lowborn upstart but an insufferably haughty one, while the people at large, conveniently for the king, believed him to be at fault for the financial burdens imposed by Henry’s wars. In 1525, when Wolsey attempted to levy what he laughably called an “Amicable Grant” to pay for a new continental campaign that the king was determined to launch (it was not a grant at all, of course, but a proposed confiscation of between a sixth and a third of the incomes and movable goods of almost every subject clerical or lay), protests came so close to turning into rebellion that Henry called off both the campaign and the levy. In doing so he pretended that the whole thing had been Wolsey’s idea and that he himself had known nothing about it, cheerfully allowing the cardinal to take the blame. Later Wolsey drew both the king’s wrath and that of Anne and her family by blocking the appointment, as abbess of the ancient convent at Wilton, of a Boleyn in-law named Eleanor Carey, a woman notorious for sexual promiscuity. The post went instead to the choice of the sisters of Wilton, an old woman known to be “wise and discreet.” By doing the right thing, however, Wolsey had given the Boleyns fresh reason to regard him as their enemy, and by allowing the issue to become a royal domestic dispute he had deeply annoyed the king.

As for the world on the other side of the Channel, if the cardinal’s many years in command of English diplomacy had won him any real friends there, those friends were, in the aftermath of Cambrai, unable or unwilling to do anything for him. On the contrary, all across Europe there were influential people who, if they were not exactly his enemies, could see little reason to lament his fall.

He had become eminently dispensable, a wonderfully convenient scapegoat. But for Henry, somehow, it was not enough merely to dismiss the man who had served him so faithfully and in most ways so effectively for two decades. The king wanted Wolsey’s humiliation—his public humiliation and total ruin. On October 9, 1529, the day the cardinal was opening a session of the Westminster court over which he presided as chancellor, he was suddenly charged with several dozen crimes. Most strikingly, he was accused of violating the laws dealing with what was called praemunire, the interference by foreign courts—which in practice meant the papal court—in English affairs. These laws had been passed in the second half of the fourteenth century, mainly during the period when King Richard II was embroiled in a conflict with the pope, and after Richard was deposed they were almost never invoked though they were also never repealed. By making them his weapon as he now did, Henry underscored what would have been obvious in any case: that in throwing the book at Wolsey he was attacking not only the pope’s legate but the papacy itself. He was taking a step the meaning of which could have been apparent only to those few English people who had any real knowledge of what Martin Luther and other reformers were doing in Germany. He was moving toward the separation of the English from the universal church. The fact that he was also destroying the most hated man in the kingdom, a man whose existence had become an inconvenience and whose ruin would deflect criticism away from the throne, was in the great scheme of things almost incidental.

The praemunire charges against Wolsey were true in a strictly literal sense but also absurd. Obviously the cardinal, by accepting his appointment as legate and then using his legatine powers, had made himself of-finally the pope’s man in England; that was the very definition of the job. But all of it had been done with the king’s knowledge and consent and often at the king’s insistence—Henry had nagged at Pope Leo X to make Wolsey his legate, and at Leo’s successors to renew the appointment and finally to make it permanent. For the king to now criminalize the very career that he himself had made possible was little less than an outrage. The cardinal would have had no difficulty in mounting a strong defense, had he chosen to do so. But he knew better than any man that he could have no hope of saving himself by opposing the king. He understood his sovereign’s mind, and that resistance could only inflame the royal wrath. And so he surrendered immediately, without hesitation or argument, confessing himself guilty as charged. As the king demanded more and more of him, he continued to give ground. He handed over the Great Seal, and with it the office of chancellor, on October 17. He gave up the Bishopric of Winchester, and the handsome income that went with it, at about the same time. He also gave up his position as abbot of St. Albans, the wealthiest monastery in England. At the king’s orders he withdrew to a rural manor house distant from any center of power.

For years Wolsey had been diverting part of his immense income to the creation of a college at Oxford (Cardinal College, it was to be called) and a grammar school in the town of Ipswich, where he had been born to a butcher’s wife some fifty-five years before. In 1528 he had asked Pope Clement to permit him to shut down (to “suppress”) twenty-nine small and presumably failing monasteries and use their revenues (mainly rental income from farmland) in the endowment of these projects. Assured that the monasteries in question were places “wherein much vice and wickedness were harbored,” and eager as always to show as much friendliness to Henry and his chancellor as possible, Clement assented, cautioning only that the displaced monks must not be cast adrift but placed in other monasteries. In a seemingly trivial step that would have vast consequences, Wolsey gave responsibility for closing the monasteries and diverting their income to a resourceful new member of his retinue, a self-made lawyer named Thomas Cromwell. Soon after Wolsey’s fall, the seized properties along with the other assets of his schools, which were to have been his legacy, were confiscated by the Crown. Cromwell moved with them as manager, thereby benefiting rather than suffering as a result of the cardinal’s disgrace.

And so entered the service of Henry VIII the most remarkable figure of the entire Tudor era. Thomas Cromwell was sui generis—his own creation, like nobody else, about as self-made as it is possible for a human being to be. Born around 1485, the son of a blacksmith who was brought before the local authorities in his home village of Putney so many dozens of times that he must have been a troublemaker and probably was a drunk, young Thomas had grown up without connections, money, or much in the way of education. For reasons unknown he left England while still an adolescent, joined the army of the king of France and went with it to Italy where he may have been in a battle, and got himself hired by a banker in Florence. Later he worked in the cloth trade in Flanders. By the time he returned to England, aged about thirty, he spoke several languages, was an experienced businessman, and apparently had made enough money to set himself up in London and marry a widow of some means. He traded in cloth, became an agent for other merchants, and dabbled in moneylending and the providing of legal counsel. He must have made a powerful impression, because by 1523 he was a member of the House of Commons and a year later a fellow of Gray’s Inn, part of the inner sanctum of the legal establishment. What most set him apart was his brainpower and his willingness to try anything. Once, on a business trip to Rome (where he inveigled an unscheduled appointment with the pope and supposedly used a gift of candies to win from him a favor sought by his client), he filled tedious weeks in the saddle by memorizing the New Testament in Latin.

He did not need long to get the attention of the king. His opportunity came when Henry, in attempting to take over the revenues of the suppressed monasteries, ran up against a legal complication. The pope had allowed Wolsey to seize those revenues only on condition that they be used for the endowment of his schools. By any reasonable interpretation of the law, the king had no right to them at all. Cromwell, characteristically, simply swept the problem aside, declaring that he had “discovered” that Wolsey’s agreement with the pope was in violation of the praemunire statutes. Thus it was the cardinal who had no right to the money, which therefore—somehow—became the property of the Crown. As legal theory it may have been nonsense, but it satisfied the king and no one dared to raise questions. Building on his strong start, Cromwell began acting as liaison between the disgraced but still formidable Wolsey and the king, showing himself to be adroit enough to avoid offending either party. Soon he secured a seat in the Parliament summoned to meet for the first time in November 1529—the one that would become forever famous as the Reformation Parliament. In short order he was handling all the Crown’s land transactions and overseeing its many construction projects. His access to Henry attracted clients eager to pay for his advice and support. There were complaints about his methods—people said he extorted backroom payoffs whenever he could—but if he was guilty it did him no harm.

As Cromwell rose, Wolsey continued his decline, surrendering one by one all the things he had accumulated during his decade and a half of power. Several years before, in a timely response to mounting criticism, Wolsey had voluntarily handed over to the king the magnificent palace that he had built for himself at Hampton Court. This palace was so much grander than any of Henry’s own residences that it had become an embarrassment, a too-vivid example of the grandeur in which the cardinal lived. Now, in giving up nearly everything else, he hesitated only when ordered to sign over London’s opulent York Place, soon to be renamed Whitehall and to provide adjoining apartments for Henry and Anne Boleyn. He explained that York Place was not his property but the church’s, belonging to the Archdiocese of York, so that he had no right to give it to anyone. Told otherwise by the king’s legal scholars, he yielded with wry good cheer. “Inasmuch as ye, the fathers of the laws, say that I may lawfully do it,” he said, “therefore I charge your conscience and discharge mine. Howbeit, I pray you, show his majesty from me, that I most humbly desire his highness to call to his most gracious remembrance that there is both heaven and hell.”

Those were bold words to be addressed to Henry VIII, especially by a man who remained desperately hopeful, throughout his final tribulations, of being restored to royal favor. Henry encouraged Wolsey’s hopes, periodically sending him little tokens of goodwill. Perhaps he was merely playing with his victim, as a cat will toy with a mouse. Perhaps, in spite of everything that Anne and her father and her uncle the Duke of Norfolk were doing to poison his mind against Wolsey, Henry was not yet certain that he could spare the cardinal. When he learned that Wolsey had fallen ill, he dispatched three court physicians to attend him. “God forbid that he should die!” Henry said. “I would not lose him for twenty thousand pounds.”

But Henry had learned many things from Wolsey over the years, and now he was learning from Wolsey’s destruction. He was even learning how to get along without Wolsey while making full use of his example. By achieving domination over the administrative machinery of church and state alike, the cardinal had demonstrated how the secular and ecclesiastical dimensions of English life might be pulled together into a single entity entirely subordinate to the Crown. By closing monasteries as a way of filling his coffers, he had demonstrated—Cromwell would soon show that he had understood this lesson best—how to tap a reservoir of seemingly limitless wealth. By not defending himself against ridiculous charges, Wolsey had shown the king how potent a weapon the praemunire statutes could be. By yielding without argument to the king’s every demand, he had given Henry what must have been a deeply gratifying demonstration of how infinitely more powerful he was than even the mightiest of his subjects.

Henry was by this time developing a lofty conception indeed of the extent of his authority. On October 26, in conversing with an ambassador newly sent by Charles V, he concluded a monologue about the need for church reform, and the responsibility of rulers to effect reform, by stating that the clergy had no power over laymen except the power, through the sacrament of penance, to forgive sins. It can be difficult to grasp just how astonishing an assertion this was in the Catholic Europe of the 1520s. The word of the church had long been accepted as final in many areas of life, and in an age when religious faith was so nearly universal as to be taken for granted, those areas were widely regarded as more important than the ones under secular jurisdiction. The result was a division of power between church and state, a balance that by Henry’s time had been in shifting and sometimes precarious equilibrium for hundreds of years. It had been sustained less by raw political (or military or economic) power than by an enduring consensus on how and for what purposes society should be organized. The papacy if not the church itself would have been extinguished many times over, between the end of the Roman Empire and the start of Henry’s reign, except that an overwhelming majority of Europe’s people were content to let it continue. Part of the consensus was an understanding, more often assumed than asserted or discussed, that the church must be free to govern itself, and that it was the church’s responsibility to bring God and God’s word to the people. Henry’s comment to the ambassador provides a glimpse into a mind that was ceasing to believe such things, that wanted to move the boundary between church and state drastically in the state’s (meaning in his own) favor. Over the centuries many European rulers, in England and elsewhere, had wanted something similar. Virtually all had failed, often paying a high price for their failure. None of those who succeeded had done so to such an extent as to overturn the ancient consensus.

But the world was changing. The foundations of the old equilibrium had grown brittle, and were more eroded than most people imagined. In the north of Germany the revolt of a single Augustinian friar, Martin Luther, had been enough to bring the whole traditional structure crashing down. Timbers were creaking in France and elsewhere. Everywhere people expressed discontent with the wealth and power of the church and its departures from its own standards, though the breadth and intensity of that discontent and the extent to which it was justified are impossible to measure. Throughout Europe, and for varied reasons, the general tendency of the sixteenth century was toward strong central governments dominated by monarchs who inevitably regarded the church skeptically, as a dangerous rival needing to be subdued. In country after country the church was on the defensive, and it would have been so even if the conduct of the clergy had been above reproach. It was under attack both by increasingly powerful princes and by religious reformers of many different kinds with widely differing aims.

Inevitably two of the great issues of the day, the condition of the church and the nature of kingship, became entangled. From an early age Henry had displayed an exceptionally keen appreciation of the powers and prerogatives of kings—exceptional even for the time, and even for a ruling monarch—while simultaneously making a great show of his Catholic orthodoxy and loyalty to the pope. As early as 1515 during a dispute with the clergy, he had angrily declared that “kings of England had never had superiors but God alone.” Wolsey had defused that crisis by leading his fellow bishops in submission to the king, and by dissolving a Parliament that was raising unwelcome questions about the mysterious death of an accused heretic while in the custody of the bishop of London. But the idea of limitless royal authority to which Henry had briefly given voice continued to simmer not only in his own brain but in those of the most alienated and ambitious reformers. It also had the enthusiastic approval of some of the most powerful nobles in England, men who hated and feared Wolsey and after his fall directed their hatred at the ecclesiastical system that had produced him. In London and at Cambridge University and port cities like Bristol, those lawyers and merchants and scholars who were embracing the Lutheran ideas coming out of Germany supported this idea as well.

By 1529 those ideas were bursting into print, a still-novel phenomenon made possible by Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type almost a century before. The year before, two remarkable works had been widely circulated and much talked about in London. The well-named Obedience of a Christian Man by William Tyndale, one of the first translators of the Bible into English, claimed for the king as much authority and as much right to the unqualified loyalty of every subject as any tyrant could have wished for. “God hath made in every realm [the king] judge over all, and over him there is no judge,” Tyndale wrote. “He that judgeth the king judgeth God; and he that layeth hands on the king layeth hands on God; and he that resisteth the king resisteth God, and damneth God’s law and ordinance.” To justify these words, which would have raised the eyebrows of anyone familiar with English law and tradition, Tyndale invoked the example of the priest-kings of the Old Testament, chosen by God to rule Israel. Henry read Tyndale’s book, possibly with the encouragement of Anne Boleyn, and of course was charmed. “This,” he is supposed to have said, “is a book for me and for all kings to read.” Tyndale’s time as a royal favorite would be brief: within a year he infuriated Henry by condemning his efforts to rid himself of Catherine, dismissing the divorce case as the work of the papist archfiend Wolsey, and rejecting items of church doctrine that the king was determined to uphold.

Out of Antwerp there came at the same time A Supplication for the Beggars by an English lawyer named Simon Fish. It was a depiction of the abuses of the church so impossibly exaggerated as to be self-defeating where credibility was concerned. England was crowded with paupers, said Fish, because its wealth was being drained away into the church. England was flooded with women turned into whores by a lascivious clergy. The orders of friars that supported themselves by begging were draining £40,000 pounds or more out of the economy annually. (This utterly impossible number rivaled the regular revenues of the Crown.) Fish’s diatribe was of course welcomed by those willing to use any stick to beat the church, but what particularly pleased Henry was his insistence that all these terrible abuses must be corrected by the king, the church itself being too sunk in corruption. Henry is said to have summoned Fish, extended assistance to him and his wife, and shielded him from prosecution.

The ideas of Tyndale, Fish, and other reformers represented a radical departure from traditional political thought in England. Certainly kings had always been exalted above mere holders of high office. Their coronations were quasi-sacramental occasions, centered upon an anointing with holy oil that made the person of the monarch almost, if not quite, sacred. From 1066, when William the Conqueror sailed from Normandy to win the English crown, to the first Tudor’s capture of the same crown at Bosworth Field in 1485, successful claimants had offered the fact of their success as evidence that God wanted them to succeed. Those who never had to fight for the crown similarly regarded their possession of it as proof of divine favor.

But none of this was the same as saying that kings were God’s unique representatives on earth and must be obeyed in exactly the same way that God must be obeyed: absolutely, at all times, and in all things. What the Tyndales and Fishes were preaching, what Henry and other princes were eagerly professing to believe, required the repudiation of the prevailing thought of the Middle Ages. If it had roots anywhere in the Western past, they were to be found in the despotism of the Roman Empire and perhaps (as the most zealous reformers liked to claim) in the kings of the Old Testament. It is hard to know what could have motivated it except a burning hatred of the old religion.

For an expression of what was still Europe’s living tradition, the tradition that the most radical of the new thinkers wanted to cast aside, one need look no further than to the man Henry chose as Wolsey’s replacement in the office of lord chancellor. (The king’s great friend the Duke of Suffolk had wanted the post, but the jealous opposition of the Duke of Norfolk made his appointment seem inadvisable.) Sir Thomas More was a prominent exponent of the so-called “new learning” but a traditionalist in every really deep sense—a man who loved and revered the church, England’s heritage of individual rights under the common law, and the whole ordering of society that had taken shape in medieval times. He embodied nearly everything that the radical reformers sought to reject. For centuries he would be cast, throughout most of the English-speaking world, as the defender of precisely those things that had to be jettisoned in order for what is best in the modern world to emerge. Henry, by contrast, would long be seen as the man who had liberated his people from those same dark things. Today the truth appears to be very near to the reverse.

Henry, whose opinion of himself had always been grandiose (early in his reign he had boasted of not being able to see “any faith in the world, save in me,” so that “God Almighty, who knows this, prospers my affairs”), was by 1529 arriving at the conviction that God intended him to have dominion over every aspect of the lives of his subjects, and that in ruling his kingdom he required the consent of no one other than God. But when on November 3 a new Parliament opened at Westminster, its members heard an opening address by More as chancellor that did not sit at all easily with what the king was coming to believe. Indulging the interest in philosophical questions that had already helped make him one of the best-known humanist thinkers in Europe, drawing upon ideas that he had earlier developed in his famous book Utopia and in a biography of King Richard III that would not be published in his lifetime, More invited his listeners to consider the question of where the princes of the world derive their power. His answer, which sounds startlingly modern, was based solidly on the mainstream thought of the preceding centuries. Genuine and legitimate power, More said, comes to the prince not from above but from below, from the community that is governed, “so that his people make him a prince.” Society functions as it should when a prince, a monarch, acts in harmony with the will of the people. When on the other hand a prince acts at cross-purposes to what his people believe and want, the result is disorder.

These words were not thrown down as a challenge to the king, who stood at More’s side as he spoke them. On the contrary, much of More’s speech was a tiresomely commonplace exercise in political flattery. It praised Henry for his wisdom, his mercy, and most pointedly (if perhaps somewhat ignobly) for his ability to see through the schemes of Cardinal Wolsey and cast him aside. Henry loved flattery and easily mistook it for truth, and there is no evidence that he even noticed what More had said about the true source of his power. Nonetheless that part of the speech stands as an unmistakable early signal of just how far apart were the tradition represented by More, a tradition embodied in the Magna Carta and Parliament and indeed in the established relationship between church and state, and Henry’s increasingly ambitious view of his place in the world.

It was a clear signal that, even at the start of his chancellorship, More was too far out of step with the king ever to become as powerful or even as useful as Wolsey had been. That the gulf between them was so wide that it would have been better for both if More had never become chancellor.



THE ENGLAND OF 1530 CONTAINED SOME NINE THOUSAND parish churches, each a center of community life for the people living nearby. Each church had at least one resident priest, and attached to many were chantries, chapels with their own endowments for the support of additional clergy.

These parishes, along with those of Wales, were organized into twenty-one dioceses, each headed by a bishop or archbishop and supporting a cathedral with its chapter of canons and other clerics. The dioceses, in turn, made up two separate provinces: York in the north with only three sees, Canterbury with eighteen.

Additionally, nearly ten thousand monks and sixteen hundred nuns lived in more than six hundred monasteries scattered across the landscape. Nearly two hundred other houses, many of them situated in cities and towns, were occupied by the various orders of mendicant friars.

The kingdom’s only universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were ecclesiastical institutions, administered by churchmen and dedicated chiefly to the education of clerics (many of whom, upon completing their studies, found employment in government or the service of leading men). The church operated an overwhelming majority of the lower schools and virtually every “hospital” (a broad category covering not just treatment of the sick but many charitable functions). Its courts had responsibility for everything from matrimonial law to the probating of wills.

The church was, in short, a massive and all-pervading institution, an essential and conspicuous part of England’s public and everyday life. It was so big and so diverse, changing constantly as the society and economy with which it was intertwined changed, that evidence can be found to support almost anything said about it, whether in support or condemnation.

Was its leadership corrupt? Anyone wishing to say so need look no further than the greatest churchman of them all, Thomas Wolsey, archbishop of York, lord chancellor, cardinal, and papal legate. He had a bastard son, Thomas Winter, for whom he secured appointments as dean of Wells Cathedral, rector of several churches, and canon of still others. Together these offices generated annual income of £2,700, more than that of most bishops and many barons. And all while Winter was still a child. But to portray Wolsey as only corrupt would be an injustice. We have already seen him intervening to prevent a well-connected woman of bad character from becoming head of an important abbey. He spent years making the law courts more accessible to ordinary subjects and less biased in favor of the wealthy.

Nor was Wolsey’s corruption typical. Other men, William Warham and Richard Fox among them, spent long years at the pinnacle of church and royal court without a whiff of scandal, cheerfully leaving the king’s service as soon as they became free to do so and devoting themselves exclusively to their ecclesiastical duties.

Was the church the enemy of progress? Did it try, for example, to bar the door against the so-called “new learning” coming northward out of Renaissance Italy? This has often been alleged, but few charges could be more absurd. That the church contained conservatives who felt threatened by innovations such as critical analysis of the ancient sacred texts cannot be denied and is hardly surprising. But such men were not only balanced but outnumbered by the many prominent churchmen—Warham and other bishops among them—whose encouragement and support and own writings caused Erasmus to call England the great hope for the future of European scholarship.

Were the parish priests, especially those in the poorest and remotest districts, an ill-educated and brutish lot? Were the denizens of the convents and monasteries lazy, self-indulgent, and sexually licentious? Human nature being what it is, and considering that we are speaking of tens of thousands of people living under almost infinitely varied conditions, it would be a miracle if some were not. For centuries after the Tudor era it was taken for granted that many or even most were, but the writers who encouraged that assumption had axes of their own to grind. More recent scholarship, the kind that became possible only when sectarian passions cooled, has shown the reality to have been considerably less horrifying.

Anyone relying on movies and television for a depiction of England’s bishops and abbots before the Reformation could come to no other conclusion than that their lives were devoted to oppression and denial, to forcing obedience to the most rigid orthodoxy on an unwilling but impotent people and crushing any departure from discredited ways of thinking. But it becomes clear, when one looks closely, that life in England before the 1530s could not have felt like that at all—certainly not for the vast majority of the people. “Heresy” was feared not only by the hierarchy but by people generally. It was feared because it appeared to threaten not just the prerogatives of the institutional church but the structure of society itself, even the meaning of life. But until the religious convulsions of the sixteenth century raised such fears to an unprecedented intensity, extreme measures for the punishment of heresy remained rare. Few English churchmen in positions of authority went out actively looking for trouble, at least where arcane questions of theology were concerned. One way in which Wolsey was typical of pre-Reformation English bishops was his lack of interest in searching out, never mind punishing, possible cases of heresy.

The documentary record—even the archaeological record—suggests that the people of England were strongly attached to their church in Henry VIII’s time. The era was remarkable for the number of people remembering the church in their wills, endowing chantries, hospitals, and the work of the friars. Ordinary people contributed on an unprecedented scale—and, it must be said, voluntarily—to the improvement and adornment of their parish churches. The guilds that were an integral part of parish and therefore community and family life were not only active and prosperous but growing increasingly so.

Perhaps the most alien thing about England of the early sixteenth century, from a twenty-first-century perspective, is the extent to which almost the whole population believed—really believed—what the church taught. The result was not just consensus but something very close to unanimity, with all the advantages (a feeling of security, an immensely strong sense of community) and disadvantages (smugness, intolerance rooted in fear of the unfamiliar) that unanimity can bring. The “one true faith” encompassed not just every walk of life throughout the British Isles, not just all of Europe, but every past generation back to where history dissolved into legend. Few things could be more foreign to the sensibilities of the world we live in now.

England was not intensely anticlerical or anything of the kind. The church saw itself, and taught the faithful to see it, as a family of sinners rather than saints, of pilgrims making their way along the winding road to salvation. Its members generally accepted that in the family of faith, no less than in families of blood, there were drunken uncles as well as loving ones, that some uncles could be loving as well as drunk, and that even when their behavior was unacceptable, even when something had to be done about it, they were still part of the family. This is the spirit that suffuses The Canterbury Tales: some of Chaucer’s clerical characters are absurd and some are unworthy of their positions, but they are not hated and the disappearance of their kind would be unthinkable. Such an attitude still prevailed in early Tudor times. England was not simply formally Catholic, affiliated officially with Rome; it was a deeply Catholic culture.

That culture came early to Britain—rather astonishingly so, considering the island’s remoteness from the Holy Land and even Rome. At the end of the sixth century, when Pope Gregory I dispatched missionaries to Britain, he did so less to convert the inhabitants—he knew that many of them had been Christian for hundreds of years—than to make sure that the church already established there did not lose its connection to his own. That almost aboriginal church (sometimes called “British” by historians, more often “Celtic”) had first taken root in the third or even the second century, when much of Britain was still a thriving province of the Roman Empire. During the generations following the departure of Rome’s legions at the beginning of the fifth century, Britain’s first Christians were able to maintain only informal, mainly commercial contact with the outside world. And though they clung with an odd stubbornness to ideas of their own on such questions as the proper dating of Easter, on essential doctrine they appear to have remained entirely orthodox. Recognition that the church was a unitary international community, and that the bishop of Rome was its leader, seems never to have been an issue: Britain was sending representatives to ecclesiastical councils on the continent even when the so-called Dark Ages were at their darkest. After the arrival of Gregory’s missionaries, the indigenous church (which was especially well established in southwestern England and western Wales, the places most easily reached by traders sailing from the Mediterranean) was absorbed by gradual stages into the structures introduced by Rome.

By the time the future Henry VIII was born, Roman Christianity extended from the islands beyond Scotland to the islands of the eastern Mediterranean, and from the Atlantic Ocean to the western border of Russia. It was an essential element in Western civilization’s understanding of itself, and England had been part of it much longer than it had been a kingdom, longer in fact than it had been “England.” The first English diocese had been established in the year 597 at Canterbury (there were dioceses in Wales much earlier), which thereby became the home of the national church. Other dioceses soon followed—London and Rochester in 604, even York in the far north as early as 625.

It was a church with firm core beliefs, but it offered many different ways of living those beliefs—ways expressed, for example, in the very different rules of the various religious orders. It claimed to have been founded by Jesus Christ himself. It taught that Jesus had charged his apostles and their successors with bringing salvation to all the peoples of the world; that the bishops were those successors with the bishop of Rome as their chief; and that, as the instruments of salvation, Jesus had instituted seven sacraments—seven means by which the saving grace of God was conferred upon the faithful. One of these, the sacrament of penance or confession, was anchored in the belief that priests were empowered to forgive sin. Another, the Eucharist, was believed to return Jesus physically to Earth in the bread and wine that only priests could consecrate during the “sacrifice” of the mass. The church taught—and as the sixteenth century advanced would be reviled for teaching—that human beings were endowed with free will, so that they could accept or reject salvation, and that acceptance entailed earning divine favor by doing good and avoiding evil. It taught, too, that even most of the saved were at death not yet worthy of union with God, that to be made worthy they had to undergo purification in a process called “purgatory,” and that the process could be speeded by the prayers of the living. It taught that the Bible was the word of God but not the only way of knowing God’s will—that the core traditions of the church, teachings passed down orally from the apostles, carried comparable authority.

Of course, none of this could be “proved” on the basis of empirical evidence. All of it lay beyond the reach of scientific inquiry. It could be dismissed as pure invention, even as a conspiracy by which a cynically self-serving clergy had betrayed Christ and gained control over the minds and pocketbooks of Europe, and in due course it would. In the England of 1530, however, almost no one was prepared to see it in any such way.

Not that there was no trouble. There had always been trouble—how could there not be, with the church exercising so much authority at every level of English life? But the worst of it had generally occurred at a high level, with hierarchy pitted against Crown and the beliefs and practices of most people not affected. This happened in the twelfth century, with the murder in Canterbury Cathedral of Henry II’s onetime friend and great adversary Thomas Becket. It happened later and in different ways under Kings John, Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. These episodes demonstrated that pushing the church too hard could be dangerous, but overall the monarchy more than held its own. Thus it came to be accepted that the king selected England’s bishops, subject only to the formality of papal approval. And that the rules for the clergy of Canterbury and York were set neither by Rome nor by the Crown but by the convocations of the two provinces—regular clerical gatherings, divided like Parliament into upper and lower houses and usually dominated by friends of the king.

When Henry VIII set out to obtain the nullification of his marriage, there were already many points of friction between England’s religious and secular authorities. Most of these involved old and even tiresome questions: whether cases of slander and libel really belonged in the ecclesiastical courts, whether it was necessary for the church’s calendar to allow working people quite so many holidays, whether even holders of minor orders should be able to elude punishment by the civil authorities, how much priests should be allowed to charge for conducting funeral and other services. It can easily seem outrageous, today, that any church should have so much authority over so many things. There is, however, another way of viewing the subject. Twenty years into Henry’s reign, the church was the only element of English society with any real possibility of opposing the Crown. Only it stood between the king and absolute power.

As for the king’s subjects, no doubt many of them felt aggrieved. Many of them may have thought—and justifiably so—that it no longer made sense for the monasteries to own quite as much land as they did. Probably many of them resented the amounts of English money—amounts that tended to be comparatively trivial, actually—sent every year from England to a distant pope about whom they knew little and cared less. Those living in parishes where the rector was never seen would have understood that the practice of “pluralities,” of granting one churchman the incomes of many offices, was much too widespread.

But any notion that the whole system was rotten at its core or was seen as such, or that England’s people were eager or even willing to throw it off and start again with something radically new, is without basis in fact. In religion as in politics, the kingdom was in nothing resembling a pre-revolutionary state. A religious revolution, if there was going to be one, was going to have to come from the top down, not from the bottom up.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!