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Excerpts, Part 13: Capitulation and Submission of the Clergy

John Fisher, together with his brother bishops of Bath and Ely, appealed directly to the pope, begging him to intervene to prevent the continued encroachments upon the Church in England. This gave the king his opportunity. An edict forbidding such appeals was issued, and the three bishops arrested. Their imprisonment lasted only a few months, but it gave Henry the idea for the audacious plan of threatening not simply the three bishops but the entire clergy with prosecution under the fourteenth-century statutes of Præmunire. These statutes had the purpose of protecting rights claimed by the English crown against encroachment by the papacy. They forbade the withdrawal from England to Rome of cases which should be decided in the King's Courts, prohibiting appeals that might "touch our lord the king, against him, his crown and his royalty or his realm", and forbade the introduction of papal orders into England without the king's consent. It was for the last of these offences that Wolsey had been indicted, and the charge was monstrous as Præmunire only applied to bringing papal orders into the country without the consent of the king. Henry himself had encouraged and accepted the bestowal of legatine authority upon Wolsey; and it had been conferred with the greatest pomp in his own palace at Greenwich. Wolsey had been careful to obtain a patent under Henry's own great seal, authorizing him to exercise the legatine authority, and had acted as legate under the authority of this seal for fifteen years without the least suggestion that he was violating the law. The penalty in case of conviction for Præmunire was forfeiture of all possessions and life imprisonment. The king claimed that by accepting the authority of Wolsey as papal legate the entire body of the clergy, from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to the most humble curate, were guilty of Præmunire. In December 1530 a writ was issued in the King's Bench indicting the whole body of clergy for having accepted Wolsey's legatine authority. Had the clergy made a united stand against this absurd and tyrannical charge the king would not have been able to proceed. He could hardly have imprisoned every cleric in the kingdom. But the clergy panicked and the Province at Canterbury offered to buy its pardon with the grant of £100,040 8s 8d to the royal exchequer, and that of York with £18,840 0s 10d.

Henry was delighted with the success of this royal blackmail, and with the clergy still consumed by terror, he decided to strengthen his power over the Church by demanding that he be recognized as the only Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy. Frightened though they were, this new phrase gave the bishops pause. Immediately the Court party swarmed about them, insisting that no offer of money would avail without the concession of this title to the king. This was a very different matter from Henry's extortion of money from the clergy, unjust though this had been. Fisher insisted that the title could not be conceded as it undermined the very basis of papal authority and he protested with all the force at his

Henry saw that he had gone too far too soon, and he also saw that but for the Bishop of Rochester he would have succeeded. His hatred for Fisher became even more intense. He decided that a personal appeal to the bishops would be effective. Henry could terrify those brought before him with outbursts of rage, but he could also be very persuasive and exercise great charm. 57

Then the king hearing what was done, and perceiving that the whole convocation rested upon this worthy bishop, he wrought by sundry means to bring the matter about . . . Then the king sent for divers of the bishops and certain others of the convocation to come to him at his palace of Westminster, to whom he proposed with gentle words his request and demand, promising them in the word of a king that if they would among them acknowledge and confess him for supreme head of the Church of England, he would never by that grant assume unto himself any more power, jurisdiction or authority over them than all kings of this realm, his predecessors, had done before; neither would take upon him to make or promulgate any spiritual laws, or exercise any spiritual jurisdiction, nor yet by any means intermeddle himself among them, in altering, changing, ordering, or judging of any spiritual business. "Therefore having made you," he said, "this frank promise, I do expect that you shall deal with me as frankly again, whereby agreement may the better continue between us."

Nevertheless, Fisher persisted in his gallant resistance. If the king meant nothing new by this title, it was hard to see why he coveted it so tenaciously. The courtiers then devised a new line of attack. If the clergy would not believe the word of their king they could hardly be loyal-minded subjects. "If any man would stick now against his Majesty on this point, it must needs declare a great mistrustfulness they had in his highness' words, seeing that he had made so solemn and high an oath." Very few of the clergy were willing to put themselves in the position of refusing to accept the word of a monarch who was notorious for his vindictiveness. The majority were willing to capitulate and grant the king the title that he coveted. John Fisher warned them of the consequences of such a surrender. "What if he (the king) should shortly change his mind, and exercise in deed the supremacy over the Church of this realm? Or what if he should die, and then his successor challenge continuance of the same?"

The debate went on for days, the claims of religion growing feebler with each repetition, the threat of the King's anger coming nearer with every mention. John Fisher sat somberly silent while Convocation voted to admit the title "and to credit his princely word so faithfully and solemnly promised unto them:' The Bishop of Rochester sprang to his feet, and he besought them with all his force not to weaken. It was of no avail. Whatever price had to be paid for safety; that price the clergy would pay and wrench their consciences afterwards to justify it. Fisher made one last despairing effort.

He then advised the Convocation that, seeing the king, both by his own mouth and also by sundry speeches of his orators, had faithfully promised and solemnly sworn, in the high word of a king, that his meaning was to require no further than quantum per legem Dei licet ("so far as the law of God permits"), and that by virtue thereof his purpose was not to meddle with any spiritual laws, spiritual jurisdiction, or government more than all other his predecessors had always done befor., If so be that you are fully determined to grant him his demand (which I would rather wish you to deny than to grant), yet, for a more true and plain exposition of your meaning towards the king and all his posterity, let these conditional words be expressed in your grant: Quantum per legem Dei licet. Which is no otherwise (as the king and his learned council say) than themselves mean . . . then the clergy answered, with full resolution, that they neither could nor would grant this title and dignity of supremacy without these conditional words: Quantum per legem Dei licet.

Despite all the efforts of the courtiers to block even this concession, Convocation remained firm. The phrase "so far as the law of God permits" was a salve to their bruised consciences, and on 11 February 1531, they hailed Henry as "Protector and Supreme head of the English Church and Clergy so far as the law of God permits." It was a hollow compromise; Fisher was well aware how hollow, but at least it had averted open capitulation. Without Fisher's intervention the Bishops would have accepted Henry's wording exactly as it stood.


A few days later, several of the Bishop's servants were taken ill after eating some porridge served to the household, and two actually died. Popular opinion regarded this as an attempt to murder the bishop who had, fortunately, not partaken of the poisoned dish. It was widely suspected that the Boleyn family was behind the attempt and that even the king himself might be implicated. In order to disarm suspicion, Henry claimed to be outraged at the attempt or the Bishop's life, and caused Parliament to pass an ex post facto law requiring anyone found guilty of poisoning to be boiled to death. An arrest was conveniently made and the hapless individual, who may or may not have been guilty, was duly boiled alive. This did no prevent a second attempt on the Bishop's life soon afterwards when a bullet was fired through the window of the study of his London house. It was discovered that the shot had come from the home of Anne Boleyn's father on the other side of the Thames.


In May a delegation of several lords went to see the queen at the palace of Windsor where she was then living. They begged her fo the sake of the king's conscience to allow the matter to be settled once and for all by a tribunal of four temporal and four spiritual peers. The queen replied:

God grant him a quiet conscience, but this shall be your answer: I am his wife lawfully married to him by order of holy Church; and so I will abide until the court of Rome, which was privy to the beginning, shall have made thereof an end.

Henry's response was to send a second deputation ordering Catherine to leave the palace at Windsor. She replied with great courage: "Go where I may I shall still be his lawful wife." In obedience to the king Catherine went to live at Ampthill where she was deprived of all the honours due to a queen.

Pope Clement received a letter from Catherine informing him of the scandalous manner in which she had been treated, and in January 1532 the pope wrote a forthright but affectionate letter to the errant king. He pointed out the infamy attached to the monarch's character as a result of his action. He had married a princess of distinguished virtue, allied in blood to the Emperor Charles V; the foremost sovereign in Europe; and now after more than twenty years of marriage he had ignominiously driven her from his court to introduce in her place another woman with whom he publicly cohabited. Let him recall his queen and dismiss her rival. He not only owed this to himself; but the pope would consider this gesture as the most signal favour that Henry had ever conferred upon the Apostolic See.

Henry no longer possessed the least desire to conciliate the pope. He had decided to obtain his way by intimidation. In the parliamentary session of May 1532 the king showed what he understood by "so far as the law of God permits" by making demands which completely subordinated the Bishops' authority in spiritual matters to his own will. Convocation could be summoned in future only with the king's consent, no canons could be promulgated without his consent, and canon law was to be revised by a royal commission. The imperial ambassador Chapuys commented that in the future the clergy in England would be of less account than shoemakers who had the power "of assembling and making their own statutes". John Fisher was ill in his house at Lambeth and Convocation felt the lack of his intrepid leadership. In their dismay they adjourned for three days while a deputation was sent seek his advice, but without the presence of Fisher the result was a foregone conclusion, and in May the Submission of Clergy was passed by Convocation.

An act prohibiting all appeals to Rome in cases of wills, marriages, and tithes was rushed through Parliament and passed on 6 February 1533. John Fisher fought tooth and nail against it, but in vain. He saw clearly that this Statute of Appeals was nothing less than a total repudiation of the authority of Rome. This statute is in all probability the most important statute in the entire constitutional history of England. "By this act the pope's juridical power over the English layman was utterly abolished; for the act laid down that appeals in cases about wills, marriages, rights of tithes, oblations and obventions should not henceforth be made to Rome, but be heard and finally decided within the realm." 58

In a very sophisticated act of blackmail the king also forced through Parliament the anti-papal Annates Act Annates, also known as First Fruits, were the first year's income of their sees paid by new bishops to the pope. They represented an important source of revenue for the Holy See. The payment would instead be made to Henry's government. What made this act so unusual was the fact that it did not take immediate effect and would only become an act or statute if the king chose to declare it as such. The message to the pope was clear, unless you grant the annulment you will lose your annates. That Henry still did not wish to make a formal breach with Rome is proved by the fact that the act authorized newly appointed bishops to pay five per cent of the amount of their yearly income to the Holy See to cover the basic costs of preparing and despatching the bulls necessary for them to occupy their sees lawfully. This concession was accompanied by the threat that if the bulls were refused, the new prelate would be consecrated without them by an Archbishop and two bishops, and any censures imposed upon them by the pope for doing so would be utterly disregarded. In 1534 after the breach with Rome had been formalized an act was passed bestowing the annates that had previously gone to the pope upon the king personally, and not to the government.

Fisher knew that the vengeance of the king was certain to come, and he prepared himself against the supreme crisis of his life. When his household celebrated the greater feasts at table, he would soon excuse himself: saying that one so near to death had much to do and little time to do it, and begging that they would not allow his absence to mar their enjoyment. He was ill for most of the winter, with a persistent cough and a fever and aches and swellings in his legs and feet.

57. In October 1536 the people of the North rose in protest against the erosion of the Catholic faith, the famous Pilgrimage of Grace. Their army of 30,000 men was far too powerful for the forces at the king's disposal. Henry invited Robert Aske, the leader, to meet him, "and by that charm of which he had the secret, won him over to a wholehearted conviction of the royal good will." He promised to redress the rebels' grievances and charmed them into disbanding their army. How could they doubt the word of a king? A few months later, in January 1537, he broke his royal word and took his revenge, having Aske and 200 of the other leaders executed. Hughes, op. cit., pp. 316-319.
58. Hughes, op. cit., p. 245.


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