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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 23 — Protestantism in England From the Times of Henry VIII

Chapter 8 — Cranmer — Cromwell — the Papal Supremacy abolished

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The King at; Waltham Abbey — A Supper — Fox and Gardiner Meet Cranmer — Conversation — New Light — Ask the Universities, What says the Bible? — The King and Cranmer — Cranmer Set to Work — Thomas Cromwell — advises the King to Throw off Dependence on the Pope — Henry Likes the Advice — resolves to Act upon it — takes Cromwell into his Service — The Whole Clergy held Guilty of Praemunire — Their Possessions and Benefices to be Confiscated — Alternative, Asked to Abandon the Papal Headship — Reasonings between Convocation and the King — Convocation Declares King Henry Supreme Head of the Church of England.

THE Great Ruler brings forth men as he does the stars, each in his appointed time. We have just seen the bitterest, and certainly the most powerful enemy of Protestantism in all England, quit the stage; two men, destined to be eminently instrumental in advancing the cause of the Reformation, are about to step upon it.

The king, on his way from Grafton to London, halted at Waltham, Essex, to enjoy the chase in the neighboring forest. The court was too numerous to be all accommodated in the abbey, and two of the king's servants — Gardiner his secretary, and Fox his almoner — were entertained in the house of a citizen of Waltham, named Cressy. At the supper-table they unexpectedly met a former acquaintance, a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge. His name was Thomas Cranmer, and the plague having broken out at Cambridge, he had now come hither with his two pupils, sons of the man at whose table the secretary and almoner found him. How perfectly accidental, and how entirely without significance seemed it, that these three men should that night sit at the same supper-table! and yet this meeting forms one of the grand turning-points in the destiny of England. Thomas Cranmer was born (1489) at Alsacton, near Nottingham, of a family whose ancestors had come into England with the Conqueror. [1] He received his first lessons from an old and inflexibly severe priest, who taught him little besides submission to chastisement. On going to Cambridge his genius opened, and his powers of application became such that he declined no labor, however seat, if necessary to the right solution of a question. At this time the fame of the Lutheran controversy reached Cambridge, and Cranmer set himself to know on which side was the truth. He studied the Hebrew and Greek languages, that he might have access to the fountains of knowledge, for he felt that this was a controversy which must be determined by the Bible, and by it alone. After three years spent in the study of the Scriptures, [2] without commentaries or human helps of any kind, the darkness of scholasticism which till now had hung around him cleared away, and the simple yet majestic plan of salvation stood forth in glory before his eyes on the sacred page. Forty years had he. passed in comparative seclusion, preparing, unsuspected by himself, for the great work he was to perform on the conspicuous stage to which he was to pass from this supper-table.

His two friends, who knew his eminent attainments in theology, directed the conversation so as to draw from him an opinion upon the question then occupying all men's minds, the royal divorce. He spoke his sentiments frankly, not imagining that his words would be heard beyond the chamber in which they were uttered. "Why go to Rome?" he asked; "why take so long a road when by a shorter you may arrive at a more certain conclusion?" "What is that shorter road?" asked Gardiner and Fox. "The Scriptures," replied Cranmer. "If God has made this marriage sinful the Pope cannot make it lawful." "But how shall we know what the Scriptures say on the point?" inquired his two friends. "Ask the universities," replied the doctor, "they will return a sounder verdict than the Pope."

Two days afterwards the words of Cranmer were reported to the king. He eagerly caught them up, thinking he saw in them a way out of his difficulties. Henry had previously consulted the two English universities, but the question he had put to them was not the same which Cranmer proposed should be put to .the universities of Christendom. What Henry had asked of Oxford and Cambridge was their own opinion of his marriage, — was it lawful? But the question which Cranmer proposed should be put to the universities of Europe was, What does the Bible say of such marriages? does it approve or condemn them? and, having got the sense of Scripture through the universities, he proposed that then the cause should be held as decided. This was to appeal the case from the Pope to God, from the Church to the Scriptures. With this idea Henry at once fell in, not knowing that it was the formal fundamental principle of Protestantism that he was about to act upon. Cranmer was immediately summoned to court; he was as reluctant as most men would have been forward to obey the order. He would have preferred the calm of a country parsonage to the splendors and perils of a court. The king was pleased with his modesty not less than with his learning and good sense, and commanded him to set immediately to work, and collect the opinions of the canonists and Papal jurists on the question whether his marriage was in accordance with, or contrary to, the laws of God. It was also resolved to consult the universities. Clement VII had cited the King of England to his bar: Henry would summon the Pope to the tribunal of Scripture.

While Cranmer is beginning his work, which is to give him the primatial mitre of England in the first place, and the higher glory of a stake in the end, we must mark the advent on the stage

of public affairs of one destined to contribute powerful aid towards the emancipation of England from the Popedom. This man was Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell had commenced life in the English factory at Antwerp; he afterwards accompanied the German army to Italy as a military adventurer, where he served under Bourbon, and was present at the sack of Rome. He then returned to his native country and began the study of law. It was in this capacity that he became connected with Wolsey, whom he faithfully served, and whose fall, as we have seen, he helped to break. He had seen that Wolsey's overthrow was largely owing to his subserviency to the Pope; he would make trial of the contrary road, and lift up England and England's king above the haughty head that wore the tiara. Full of this idea he sought and obtained an interview with Henry. With great courage acid clearness he put before the king the humiliations and embarrassments into which both Henry himself and his kingdom had been brought by dependence on the Pope. Who Was the Pope, he asked, that he should be monarch of England? and who were the priests, that they should be above the law?

Why should not the king be master in his own house? why should he divide his power with a foreign bishop? To lower the throne of England before the Papal chair, and to permit English causes to be tried at Italian tribunals, was only to be half a king, while the people of England were only half his subjects. Why should England impoverish herself by paying taxes to Rome? England at this moment was little else than a monster with two heads. Why should not the king declare himself the head of the Church within his own realm, acid put the clergy on the same level with the rest of the king's subjects? They swore, indeed, allegiance to the king, but they took a second oath to the Pope, which virtually annulled the first, and made them more the Pope's subjects than they were the king's. The king would add to his dignity, and advance the prosperity and glory of his realm, by putting an end to this state of things. Did he not live in an age when Frederick the Wise and other sovereigns were throwing off the Papal supremacy, and did it become England to crouch to a power which even the petty kingdoms of Germany were contemning? [3] The few minutes which it required to utter these courageous words had wrought a great revolution in the king's views. Treading in the steps of his royal ancestors, he had acquiesced blindly in a state of things which had been handed down from remote ages; but the moment these anomalies and' monstrous absurdities were pointed out to him he saw at once his true position; yet the king might not have so clearly seen it but for the preparation his mind had undergone from the perplexities and embarrassments into which his dependence on the Papacy had brought him.

Fixing a keen eye on the speaker, Henry asked him whether he could prove what he had now affirmed? Cromwell had anticipated the question, and was prepared with an answer. He pulled from his pocket a copy of the oath which every bishop swears at his consecration, and read it to the king. This was enough. Henry saw that he reigned but over his lay subjects, and only partially over them, while the clergy were wholly the liegemen of a foreign prince. If the affair of the divorce thwarted him in his affections, this other sorely touched his pride; and, with the tenacity and deter-ruination characteristic of him, Henry resolved to be rid of both annoyances.

Thus, by the constraining force of external causes, the policy of England was forming itself upon the two great fundamental principles of Protestantism. Cranmer had enunciated the religious principle that the Bible is above the Pope, and now Cromwell brings forward the political one that England is wholly an independent State, and owes no subjection to the Papacy. The opposites of these — that the Church is above the Scriptures, and the Popedom above England — were the twin fountains of the vassalage, spiritual and political, in which England was sunk in pre-Reformation times. The adoption of their opposites was Protestantism, and the prosecution of them was the Reformation. This by no means implies that the Reformation came from Henry VIII. The Reformation came from the two principles we have just stated, and which, handed down from the times of Wicliffe, were revived by the confessors and martyrs of the sixteenth century. Henry laid hold on these forces because they were the only ones that could enable him to gain the personal and dynastic objects at which he aimed. At the very time that he was making war on the Pope's jurisdiction, he was burning those who had abandoned the Pope's religion.

Whilst listening to Cromwell, astonishment mingled with the delight of the king: a new future seemed to be rising before himself and his kingdom, and Cromwell proceeded to point out the steps by which he would realize the great objects with which he had inspired him. The clergy, he showed him, were in his power already. Cardinal Wolsey had pleaded guilty to the infraction of the law of Praemunire, but the guilt of the cardinal was the guilt of the whole body of the clergy, for all of them had submitted to the Legantine authority. All therefore had incurred the penalties of Praemunire; their persons and property were in the power of the king, and Henry must extend pardon to them only on condition of their vesting in himself the supremacy of the Church of England, now lodged in the Pope. The king saw his path clearly, and with all the impetuosity and energy of his character he addressed himself to the prosecution of it. He aimed mainly at the

Pope, but he would begin at home; the foreign thralldom would fall all the more readily that the home servitude was first cast off. Taking his ring from his finger, and giving it to the bold and resolute man who stood before him, the king made Cromwell a Privy Councilor, and bade him consider himself his servant in the great and somewhat hazardous projects which had been concocted between them.

Vast changes rapidly followed in the State and Church of England. The battle was begun in Parliament. This assembly met on November 3rd, 1529, and instantly began their complaints of the exactions which the clergy imposed on the laity. The priests demanded heavy sums for the probate of wills and mortuaries; they acted as stewards to bishops; they occupied farms; abbots and friars traded in cloth and wool; many lived in noblemen's houses instead of residing on their livings, and the consequence was that "the poor had no refreshing," and the parishioners "lacked preaching and instruction in God's Word." [4] Such were the complaints of the Commons against the clerical estate, at that time the most powerful in England, since the nobility had been weakened by the wars, and the Commons were dispersed and without union. This most unwanted freedom with sacred men and things on the part of the laity exceedingly displeased Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. The prelate rebuked them in an angry speech in the Lords, saying "that the Commons would nothing now but down with the Church," and that all this "came of want of faith." [5]

His brethren, however, deemed it wiser policy to allay the storm that was rising in Parliament against the Church, at the cost of some concessions. On the 12th of November it was decreed by Convocation that priests should no longer keep shops or taverns, play at dice or other forbidden games, pass the night in suspected places, be present at disreputable shows, go about with sporting dogs, or with hawks, falcons, or other birds of prey on their fists. These and other acts of a yet grosser sort were subjected to heavy fines; and laws were also enacted against unnatural vices. [6]

The Commons urged forward their attack. Their next complaint was of the laws and constitutions of the clergy. The Commons affirmed that their provincial constitutions made in the present reign encroached upon the royal prerogative, and were also burdensome to the laity. In this matter the Parliament carried fully with it the sympathy of the king. He felt the great I/resumption of the clergy in making orders, of the nature of laws, to bind his subjects, and executing them without his assent or authority. The clergy stood stoutly to their defense in this matter, pleading long prescription, and the right lodged in them by God for the government of the Church. But, replied the Commons, this spiritual legislation is stretched over so many temporal matters, that under the pretext of ruling the Church you govern the State. Feeling both the nation and the throne against them, and dreading impending mischief, the Convocation of the Province, of Canterbury prepared an humble submission, and sent it to the king, in which they promised, for the future, to forbear to make ordinances or constitutions, or to put them in execution, unless with the king's consent and license. [7]

The way being so far prepared by these lesser attacks, the great battle was now commenced. To lop off a few of the branches of the Pontifical supremacy did not content Henry; he would cut down that evil tree to the root; he would lay the axe to the whole system of ecclesiastical legislation under a foreign prince, and he would himself become the Head of the Church of England. On the 7th of January, 1531, Cromwell, obeying Henry's orders, entered the Hall of Convocation, and quietly took his seat among the bishops. Rising, he struck them dumb by informing them that they had all been cast in the penalties of Praemunire. When and how, they amazedly asked, had they violated that statute? They were curtly informed that their grave offense had been done in Cardinal Wolsey, and that in him too had they acknowledged their guilt. But, they pleaded, the king had sanctioned the cardinal's exercise of his Legantine powers. This, the bishops were told, did not in the least help them; the law was clear; their violation of it was equally clear. The king within his dominions has no earthly superior, such had from ancient times — that is, from the days of Wicliffe; for it was the spirit of Wicliffe that was about to take hold of the priests — been the law of England; that law the cardinal had transgressed, and only by obtaining the king's pardon had he escaped the consequences of his presumption. But they had not been pardoned by the king; they were under the penalties of Praemunire, and their possessions and benefices were confiscated to the crown. This view of the matter was maintained with an astuteness that convinced the affrighted clergy that nothing they could say would make the matter be viewed in a different light in the highest quarter. They stood, they felt, on a precipice. The king had thrown down the gauntlet to the Church. The battle on which they were entering was a hard one, and its issue doubtful. To yield was to disown the Pope, the fountain of their being as a Romish Church, and to resist might be to incur the wrath of the monarch.

The king, through Cromwell, next showed them the one and only way of escape open to them from the Praemunire in the toils of which they had been so unexpectedly caught. They must acknowledge him to be the Head of the Church of England. To smooth their way and make this hard alternative the easier, Cromwell reminded them that the Convocation of Canterbury had on a recent occasion styled the

king Caput Ecclesiae — Head of the Church — and that they had only to do always what they had done once, and make the title perpetual. [8] But, responded the bishops, by Ecclesiae we did not intend the Church of England, but the Church universal, spread over all Christendom. To this the ready answer was that the present controversy was touching the Church of England, and it alone, and the clergy of the same. [9] But, replied the bishops, Christ is Head of the Church, and he has divided his. power into temporal and spiritual, giving the first branch to princes and the second to priests. The command, "Obey and be subject," said the king, does not restrict the obedience it enjoins to temporal things only; it is laid on all men, lay and clerical, who together compose the Church. Proofs from Scripture were next adduced by the clergy that Christ had committed the administration of spiritual things to Priests only, as for instance preaching and the dispensation of the Sacrament. [10] No man denies that, replied the king, but it does not prove that their persons and deeds are not under the jurisdiction of the prince. Princes, said the bishops, are called filii Ecclesiae — sons of the Church. The Pope is their father, and the Head of the Church; to recognize the king as such would be to overthrow the Catholic faith. The debate lasted three days.

The Bishops of Lincoln and Exeter were deputed to beg an interview with the king, in order to entreat him to relinquish his claim. They were denied access into the royal presence. The clergy showed no. signs of yielding; still less did the king. The battle was between Henry and Clement; for to give this title to the king was to dethrone the Pope. It was a momentous time for England. In no previous age could such a contest have been waged by the throne; it would not even have been raised; but the times were ripe — although even now the issue was doubtful. The primate Warham, prudent, and now very aged, rose and proposed that they should style the king "Head of the Church" quantum per legem Christi licet — so far as the law of Christ permits. Henry, on first hearing of it, stormed at the proposed modification of his powers; but his courtiers satisfied him that the clause would offer no interference in practice, and that meanwhile it would prevent an open rupture with Rome. It was not so easy, however, to bring the other side to accept this apparent compromise. The little clause would be no effective bulwark against Henry's aggression. His supremacy and the Pope's supremacy could not stand together, and they clearly saw which would go to the wall. But they despaired of making better terms. The primate rose in Convocation, and put the question, "Do you acknowledge the king as your supreme head so far as the law of Christ allows?" Igor a member spoke. "Speak your minds freely," said Warham.

The silence was unbroken. "Then I shall understand that, as you do not oppose, you give consent." [11] The silence continued; and that silence was accepted as a vote in the affirmative. Thus it passed in the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury that the king was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. A few months later the same thing was enacted in the Convocation of the Province of York. On the 22nd March, 1532, Warham signed the submission which was sent in to the king, styling him "Protector and Supreme Head of the Church of England." A subsidy of L100,000 from the clergy of the Province of Canterbury, and L18,000 from those of York, accompanied the document, and the king was pleased to release them from the penalties of Praemunire. This great revolution brought deliverance to the State from a degrading foreign thralldom: that it conferred on the Church an equal measure of freedom we are not prepared to say.

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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