A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
THE THEORY OF ROYAL SUPREMACY UNDER HENRY VIII

THE Tudor government undertook the task of forcing upon a necessarily more or less reluctant population a change of religious habits. It was an operation that was gradually and most skilfully performed. But it was an operation of great difficulty. Henry VIII had with him the great prestige already attaching to the successful new monarchy and the generally hearty support of the landed and moneyed classes except in the far north. He had behind him the old eagerness to appropriate Church property which, according to Bodin, was the main factor in the Reformation everywhere. He had with him the new national consciousness and the old and widespread dislike of Papal interference and jurisdiction. He found leverage in the grievances of the clergy against the Pope, of seculars against regulars and of laity against clergy. He had with him the sense, widespread among the more educated of the laity, that clerical ascendancy in school and college was obstructive and obscurantist, and that an ignorant clergy, for grossly material and selfish purposes, was pandering to and making use of a mass of popular superstition. For all that, the difficulty of effecting the great change was enormous.

In that difficulty the Pope counted for little. The claims of the unreformed Papacy were, as things stood, the weakest point in the Catholic position. The fact that those claims conflicted with the nationalist sentiment and dislike of foreign interference strengthened the hands of the government. Henry VIII had not to meet or to fear any serious opposition based on the conception of a great Christian commonwealth centralized at Rome. That particular ideal, which had for a very long time been in a very low condition, was practically dead when the Reform Parliament met in 1529. To educated Catholics the recognition of Papal supremacy in the Church might seem for many reasons absolutely essential: its necessity was certainly not appreciated by the mass of everyday Catholicism in England. Even among educated Catholics there seem to have been few in England or in France who were prepared to admit that Papal headship of the

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