Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and the Church reformation of England



TIMES were changed in England since the second Henry walked barefoot through the streets of Canterbury and knelt while the monks flogged him on the pavement in the Chapter House, doing penance for Becket's murder. The clergy had won the battle in the twelfth century because they deserved it. They were not free from fault and weakness, but it is indisputable that they felt the meaning of their profession. Their hearts were in their vows, their authority was exercised more justly, more nobly, than the authority of the crown; and therefore, with inevitable justice, the crown was compelled to stoop before them.

The victory was great, but, like many victories, it was fatal to the conquerors. It filled them with the vanity of power; they forgot their duties in their privileges and when, a century later, the conflict recommenced, the altering issue proved the altering nature of the conditions under which it was fought. The nation was ready for sweeping remedies. The people felt little loyalty to the pope. The clergy pursued their course to its natural end. They sank steadily into that condition which is inevitable, from the constitution of human nature, among men without faith, wealthy, powerful and luxuriously fed, yet condemned to celibacy and cut off from the common duties and common pleasures of ordinary life.

Many priests spent their time in hawking or hunting, in lounging at taverns, in the dissolute enjoyments of the world. If, however, there were no longer saints among the clergy, there could still arise among them a remarkable man. In Cardinal Wolsey, the king found an adviser who was essentially a transition minister, holding a middle place between an English statesman and a Catholic of the old order. Under Wolsey's influence, Henry made war with Louis of France in the pope's quarrel, entered the polemic lists with Luther and persecuted the English Protestants.

Fish's famous pamphlet shows the spirit that was seething. He spoke of what he had seen and knew. The monks, he tells the king, 'be they that have made a hundred thousand idle, dissolute women in your realm.' But Wolsey could interfere with neither bishops nor monks without a special dispensation from the pope. A new trouble arose for the nation in the desire of Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon, who had been his deceased brother's wife, was six years older than himself and was an obstacle to the establishment of the kingdom. Her sons were dead, and she was beyond the period when more children could be expected. Though descent in the female line was not formally denied, no queen regent had ever, in fact, sat upon the throne; nor was the claim distinctly admitted, or the claim of the House of York would have been unquestionable. It was, therefore, with no little anxiety that the council of Henry VIII perceived his male children, on whom their hopes were centred, either born dead, or dying within a few days of birth.

The life of the Princess Mary was precarious, for her health was weak from her childhood. If she lived, her accession would be a temptation to insurrection; if she did not live and the king had no other children, a civil war was inevitable. The next heir in blood was James of Scotland, and gravely as statesmen desired the union of the two countries, in the existing mood of the people, the very stones in London streets, it was said, would rise up against a king of Scotland who entered England as sovereign.

So far were Henry and Catherine alike that both had imperious tempers and both were indomitably obstinate; but Henry was hot and impetuous, Catherine cold and self-contained. She had been the wife of Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII, but the death of that prince occurred only five months after the marriage. The uncertainty of the laws of marriage and the innumerable refinements of the Roman canon law affecting the legitimacy of children had raised scruples of conscience in the mind of the king. The loss of his children must have appeared as a judicial sentence on a violation of the Divine law. The divorce presented itself to him as a moral obligation when national advantage combined with superstition to encourage what he secretly desired.

Wolsey, after thirty years' experience of public life, was as sanguine as a boy. Armed with this little lever of divorce, he saw himself in imagination the rebuilder of the Catholic faith and the deliverer of Europe from ecclesiastical revolt and from innovations of faith. The mass of the people hated Protestantism as he, a true friend of the Catholic cult, sincerely detested the reformation of Luther. He believed that the old life-tree of Catholicism, which in fact was but cumbering the ground, might bloom again in its old beauty. But a truer political prophet than Wolsey would have been found in the most ignorant of those poor men who were risking death and torture in disseminating the pernicious volumes of the English Testament.

CATHERINE being a Spanish princess, Henry, in 1527, formed a league with Francis I, with the object of breaking the Spanish alliance. The pope was requested to make use of his dispensing power to enable the king of England to marry a wife who could bear him children. Deeply as we deplore the outrage inflicted on Catherine, and the scandal and suffering occasioned by the dispute, it was in the highest degree fortunate that at the crisis of public dissatisfaction in England with the condition of the Church, a cause should have arisen which tested the whole question of Church authority in its highest form. It was no accident which connected a suit for divorce with the reformation of religion.

The Spanish emperor, Charles V, gave Catherine his unwavering support and refused to allow the pope to pass a judicial sentence of divorce. Catherine refused to yield. Another person now comes into conspicuous view. It has been with Anne Boleyn as with Catherine of Aragon-both are regarded as the victims of a tyranny which Catholics and Protestants unite to remember with horror and each has taken the place of a martyred saint in the hagiology of the respective creeds. Anne Boleyn was the second daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn, a gentleman of noble family. She was educated in Paris, and in 1525 came back to England to be maid of honour to Queen Catherine and to be distinguished at the court by her talents, accomplishments and beauty.

The fortunes of Anne Boleyn were unhappily linked with those of men to whom the greatest work ever yet accomplished in this country was committed. In the memorable year 1529, after the meeting of parliament, events moved apace. In six weeks astonished Church authorities saw bill after bill hurried up before the lords, by which successively the pleasant fountains of their incomes would be dried up to flow no longer. The great Reformation had commenced in earnest.

The carelessness of the bishops in the discharge of their most immediate duties obliged the legislature to trespass in the provinces most purely spiritual and to undertake the discipline of the clergy. Bill after bill struck hard and home on the privileges of the recreant clergy. The aged Bishop of Rochester complained to the lords that in the lower house the cry was nothing but 'Down with the Church.' Yet, so frightful were the abuses that called for radical reform that even persons who most disapprove of the reformation will not at the present time wonder at their enactment, or disapprove of their severity. The king treated the bishops, when they remonstrated, with the most contemptuous disrespect.

Archbishop Cranmer now adopted a singular expedient. He advised Henry to invite expressions from all the chief learned authorities throughout Europe as to the right of the pope to grant him a dispensation of dissolution of his marriage. The English universities, to escape imputations of treason and to avoid exciting Henry's wrath, gave replies such as would please him, that of Oxford being, however, the more decided of the two. Most of the Continental authorities declined to pronounce any dictum as to the powers of the pope.





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