Henry VIII and the First Totalitarian State

Part 1— The Beginnings of English Political Thought

While continental thinkers groped their way through the troubles of the Reformation toward the idea of an autonomous, secularized polity, England entered the age of Reformation with a polity that was autonomous and centralized enough to reform the church by transforming it into an adjunct of the secularized commonwealth.

In the wake of the Norman Conquest, and aided by geographical isolation, there had grown a national society, politically articulated and represented in Lords and Commons, institutionally unified through royal administration, courts, and common law. By the time of the Tudors, England had become "in fact," that is, in sentiment and institutions, a closed national polity ready to crown this development by the idea of its autonomous existence when the emergency should arise.

The pathos of this polity found its illuminating expression when Henry VIII addressed his Parliament in George Ferrers's case (1543):

We be informed by our Judges that we at no time stand so highly in our estate royal as in the time of Parliament, wherein we as head and you as members are conjoined and knit together into one body politic, so as whatsoever offence or injury (during that time) is offered to the meanest member of the House is to be judged as done against our person and the whole Court of Parliament.

The well-knit body politic of king and Parliament is the unquestioned governing authority of England: the king being enhanced in his royal estate when he participates in the representation of the realm, the Parliament participating in the privileges of majesty when it functions as the king's high court.

The unquestioned existence of the polity and its institutions must be presupposed as a fundamental fact when we approach the evolution of English politics in the age of Reformation. It is the key to understanding otherwise baffling ideas and attitudes.

When we reflect, for instance, on the crazy sequence of Henrician almost Catholic supremacy, Edwardian Lutheran reformism, Marian Catholic reaction, and Elizabethan settlement, all within a generation, we begin to wonder what sort of people these English are who switch dogmas every ten years along with their kings, and who do not respond to the secularization of their church for scandalous reasons with a major civil war and the ejection of the dynasty.

A Byzantine England?

Are the English perhaps a particularly abject, Byzantine race? It would be unfair to answer the question in the affirmative without qualifications. To be sure, there is a streak of genuine Byzantinism in the English pattern of political conduct. The smelly and sticky details in the performance of Henry's bishops and lawyers— especially in view of the royal burlesque, of this barbaric mixture of foul thievery, wenching, vandalism, cruelty, and bloody tyranny with political astuteness, legal rites, dignity, majesty, and humanistic charm—amply justify the judgment.

Nevertheless, we are not dealing with a case of abject submissiveness under a despot—the Byzantinism of Tudor society was strongly tempered by bribery.

Henry fortified his ecclesiastical polity by distributing confiscated monastic lands (through free gifts or nominal sales) to a rather broad stratum of society, numbering about one thousand persons, fifteen peers and thirty commoners receiving grants with a yearly value of more than two hundred pounds. A substantial new upper class, thus, was engaged with its material interests in the Supremacy. And the Marian return to Catholicism again was purchased by leaving the holders of abbey lands in safe possession.

Obviously, it would be grossly inappropriate to approach the problems of the English Reformation with categories taken from the environment of Luther or Calvin. The curious switches of church policy from reign to reign lose much of their strangeness if we realize that English society had so far advanced in secularization of sentiment that the spiritual problems involved were hardly experienced as such except by politically powerless individuals and small groups. The representative ruling class was ready to sell the church for a good price, and even to take it back provided that it could keep the price, too.

While the formal secularization of the church through the Supremacy should not be underrated as an event in itself, it must be placed in the context of social processes in a polity that was already secularized in substance. As far as the structure of the polity is concerned, we can now more clearly understand the social implications of the previously quoted remark of the king in Ferrers's case. The "body politic" of king and Parliament was indeed closely knit; and Henry had contributed materially to conjoining and knitting it even more closely together.

Instead of being used for educational purposes and poor relief, the church plunder had been appropriated by the king to himself, his servants, and his supporters; the community of robbery had created a community of interests that at the moment served the king's purposes well. Even more important, however, was the long-range effect of this astute method of "conjoining" the representative powers of the realm; for the newly created and enriched social stratum became the nucleus of the forces that, in the constitutional struggle of the seventeenth century, were the carriers of the Revolution and ultimately shifted the power of the polity toward the Parliament.

At the opening of the sixteenth century, thus, the English polity had achieved a high degree of secularized, world-immanent existence on the level of sentiments and institutions. In the reign of Henry VIII, under double pressure from the royal marital affairs and the continental Reformation, the process of closing and secularizing the existence of the polity suddenly moved to the level of consciousness.

The Unmysterious English National Character

When we speak of consciousness we do not mean a high degree of intellectual clarity. On the contrary, a style of political thought begins to form in which an unrivaled sense for the concrete in human and legal relations is combined with an almost pathological fear of facing issues on the level of principles. The style is specifically English; and since, by its parochial nature, it prevents a generally communicable expression of problems, it has become the greatest obstacle to an understanding of English politics for anybody who has not grown up on the island.

Nevertheless, there is no sense in attributing this peculiar style to some mystery of the English "national character." It is the quite unmysterious result of the factors that historically contributed to its formation.

The geographically and civilizationally marginal situation of England on an island had produced this style, under both its positive and its negative aspects. The sheltered existence of the centralized polity had made possible the national style of treating political questions in the legal terms of statutes and decisions; and the same sheltered isolation had minimized English participation in the great European debate of the high Middle Ages so that a treatment of politics in terms of metaphysical principles had never been a national concern.

And, finally, we must take into account that England entered its period of continuous political debate precisely at the time when the antiphilosophism of humanists and reformers had ruined the standards of political theorizing.

When we look at the politically astute but intellectually muddled legislation of Henry VIII in matters of church and faith, and when we see the insouciance with which the king in Parliament defines the dogma of transubstantiation for his subjects, we may assume that the problems of the corpus mysticum, of the spiritual substance of the church, of sacerdotium and magisterium were beyond the intellectual grasp of the ruling group of England.

Isolated remarks show that individuals here and there were uneasily aware of the implications of Supremacy, but this occasional awareness found no representative expression. Even the great Hooker, at the end of the century, had not yet understood the connection between secularization and the destruction of spiritual freedom.

Unpropitious as the circumstances were, the continuity of English political thought begins under Henry VIII. In the present context we shall deal with the first great idea that was fully developed before the end of the century through Hooker, that is, the idea of the commonwealth. In the later part of Elizabeth's reign, the evolution of the commonwealth idea overlaps with the beginnings of the constitutional struggle between king and Parliament.

Religion and the Rise of Modernity, CW Vol 23
Ch 3, The English Commonwealth—Hooker
§1. The Beginnings of English Political Thought
pp 70-74.