Henry VIII begins the Dissolution of the Monasteries
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
This year 1529 and its predecessors introduce to us three men, all of whom were to become exceedingly prominent. First in order of time comes Stephen Gardiner, a cleric brought up in the New Learning, who in 1528 was employed in the negotiation with Pope Clement.
In his diplomatic capacity he had done something more than hint to the pope that the recognition of his authority in England was at stake, and that he might find England prepared to dispense with a pope who obstinately ignored her just demands. Gardiner was rewarded with the bishopric of Winchester, vacated by Wolsey; possibly Henry at this time intended him to go to Canterbury when old Archbishop Warham should die.
But before that time arrived Henry had discovered a man much better suited to serve as his instrument in the campaign which he contemplated Gardiner had in the interval shown an independence and a loyalty to his order which hardly commended him to the king. Thomas Cranmer on the other hand, was avowedly an Erastian from the outset; that is to say, he always asserted the supremacy of the civil power, and the clerical duty of submission to the civil power; and this was precisely the attitude desired by Henry for the primate of the English Church.
Cranmer was a Cambridge scholar of considerable attainments, inclining to new ideas, impressionable of a tender but adaptable conscience. An accidental conversation with Gardiner and Foxe, the king's almoner, caused the Cambridge divine to be brought to the king's notice — he had suggested that the best way of settling the divorce affair was to take the opinion of the European universities on the question of the validity of the dispensation granted by Julius. If they condemned it, the king's courts could settle the matter without further reference to the pope.
The king sent for Cranmer, detecting in him precisely the man he wanted, and at once employed him on a series of continental missions which brought him much in contact with several of the Reformation leaders.
The third personage was Thomas Cromwell, reputed to be the son of a Putney blacksmith, a man who had certainly spent a good many years in Italy and in the Low Countries as an adventurer, possibly as a soldier, certainly as a trader. On his return to England he added the practice of the law to his other pursuits. Wolsey had come across him, employed him on business of bis own, and finally made him his secretary.
He had somehow found a seat in the last parliament, and appeared again, as we have seen, in the parliament of 1529. As a politician he was deeply imbued with the ideas crystallised in the Prince of the great Florentine, Machiavelli. Now he became the master-builder to whom Henry entrusted the carrying out of his policy.
The first business of the parliament was, as we have seen, the attack upon Wolsey; the second was an attack on some quite obvious clerical abuses which even the clergy themselves hardly pretended to defend. No further action on its part was called for till two years had passed; but in the interval the king himself had struck a hard, blow at the clergy. He called their attention to the fact that they as well as Wolsey had been guilty of a breach of the Act of Praemunire in recognising the cardinal's legatine authority.
Technically the thing was true; the authority had been granted and exercised at the king's desire, but without the sanction of parliament. He therefore invited Convocation to procure pardon for the clergy by paying a fine of a hundred thousand pounds, which today would be represented approximately by a couple of millions. They were at the same time required to recognise him as "Protector and only supreme head of the Church in England."
The clergy lay absolutely at the king's mercy, and were obliged to accept that objectionable title, though with the saving clause, "So far as the laws of Christ permit".
Meanwhile, however, to the king's annoyance, the Universities had returned answers strictly according to their political leanings. It was quite impossible effectively to claim that the learning of Christendom had decided in favour of Henry's views. So parliament was set to work again. In the first place, the pope must be definitely threatened, and, in the second place, the clergy must be completely brought to heel.
The Annates Act
To the former end was directed the Annates Act, which authorised the king to suspend the payment of what were called Annates to Rome. The Annates were a tax, amounting to one year's income, payable by each of the higher clergy on taking up an appointment. Owing to a misapprehension, it was universally believed till quite recently that the clergy themselves petitioned for the abolition of the Annates, but this has now been proved to be an error.
Supplication against the Ordinaries
Against the clergy was directed a petition known as the Supplication against the Ordinaries. This was a grand remonstrance against the legislative powers of Convocation in ecclesiastical matters, and against the procedure of the ecclesiastical courts. Convocation replied that they were themselves dealing with the questions of procedure, while the canon law could not conflict with, the civil law. They were prepared to go so far as to promise that in future their ordinances should not be promulgated until they had received the royal assent.
The king, however, was resolved that the independent ecclesiastical legislation should cease. The "submission of the clergy" was extorted from Convocation; by which they entirely surrendered the right-to make new canons except with the king's authority, while a portion of the whole of the existing canon law—the language employed is ambiguous—was to be submitted to a Royal Commission. The blow killed old Archbishop Warham, and caused the chancellor, Sir Thomas More, to resign, since he would not be a party to the claim of the civil authority to usurp a spiritual authority over the Church.
Now at the end of 1532, Francis of France was making a display of friendship to England in order to bring pressure to bear on the emperor for his own ends. Henry felt, so secure of the support of Francis that he privately married Anne, probably in November.
There were signs of a weakening on the part of Clement, who wished to avoid alienating France as well as Henry. But French diplomacy achieved its end, Charles made the concessions which satisfied Francs, Clement was relieved from the fear of France; and although he assented to the appointment of Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in place of the deceased Warham, a threat he made public of excommunication against Henry unless he again recognised Katharine as his queen, which for some time past be had refused to do. Henry therefore was left with the alternatives of complete submission or point-blank defiance.
Act in Restraint of Appeals
Henry chose defiance—and vengeance. His position was decisively affirmed by the Act in Restraint of Appeals, the final confirmation of all past pronouncements and all legislation directed against the Roman jurisdiction. Following this up, the new Archbishop convened a court to try the question of the validity of the marriage with Katharine of Aragon.
Katherine denied the jurisdiction and refused to appear; the court pronounced that her marriage had been invalid, that it had never at any time been a bar to another marriage, and that by consequence the secret marriage to Anne Boleyn was valid and legitimate. Cranmer's action was absolutely in accord with the principles which he had always professed, principles which in a layman could have excited neither surprise nor indignation, though the cleric who acted upon them was necessarily, in the eyes of nearly every member of his order, a traitor to his spiritual office.
Convocation, however reluctantly, declared against Katharine. The pope did not immediately issue an excommunication, but he declared that the judgment of the English court was void. Henry rejoined by confirming the Annates Act—the Annates themselves were not remitted, but appropriated to the Crown—and the Act in Restraint of Appeals, both of which had been held temporarily in suspense. Early next year, Clement definitely pronounced his own judgment affirming the validity of Katharine's marriage. The door to reconciliation was bolted and barred.
This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.