A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
THE SUPREMACY OF ELIZABETH

THE early Tudors were engaged in releasing England from its 'liberties', and the greatest of these were those attached to the Church. 'They did it by means of Parliament and could not have done it without.'1 Along with the development of the theory of royal supremacy in the Church there went necessarily what Professor Pollard has called 'a novel theory of an omnicompetent crown in Parliament'.2 It was not the need of an anti-Papal theory that was the driving force in that development. Nothing was easier than the formulation of anti-papal theory; and no mere anti-papal theory involved any sort of royal supremacy in the Church. The great Tudor sovereigns were creating a national State and a national government. To that creation the repudiation of papal authority was incidental, and the establishment of national control of the Church a necessity of the moment. So the Tudor Reformation involved the evolution and the partial acceptance of a theory that made of Church and State two aspects of one thing, the Commonwealth. Under Henry VIII that identification was already being made by lawyers, if not by theologians. Unfortunately the theory of royal supremacy involved that for all practical purposes the decisions of Parliament on religious questions had to be taken as though they were infallible. Whatever was the case with the theologians, the Tudor lawyers seem to have found no difficulty here. They revered the common law;3 they did not revere the Church and they cared little, or nothing, for theology. They accepted, without misgiving, the idea of a High Court of Parliament delivering final judgements on questions of religious belief. 'The Parliament,' remarks Sir Thomas Smith, 'legitimateth bastards, establisheth forms of religion, altereth weights and measures.'4 To him, apparently, it did not

____________________
1
Pollard: Evolution of Parliament, p. 175.
2
Ib., p. 215.
3
In his Dialogues, St. Germain, very confusedly but almost completely, identifies the English common law with what he calls the law of reason; another name, he explains, for the law of nature. See McIlwain summary of his incoherencies in The High Court of Parliament and its Supremacy, 1910.
4
De Republica Anglorum, 1583, ed. L. Alston, p. 49.

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