Henry VIII and the First Totalitarian State

Part 2— The Closure of the Commonwealth

The idea of the commonwealth, as it became articulate during the sixteenth century, is the idea of the closed, secularized, autonomous polity. In order to understand the implications of the idea, we must briefly enumerate the various aspects of closure and secularization. By closure is meant jurisdictional independence from empire and papacy.

Jurisdictional independence from the empire could be formalized very simply through a declaration enunciating the principle of imperator in regno suo, which had become current in the Middle Ages.

The jurisdictional independence from the papacy was a more complicated matter. Here we have to distinguish between the autonomy of the Ecclesia Anglicana, achieved by submitting its canonical legislation to the consent of the king; and the actual secularization of spiritual power, achieved by transferring the infallible authority in matters of faith to the king in Parliament.

The first group of measures, advancing Anglicanism, means no more than a decentralization of church government according to national regions.

The second step, the schismatic break, destroys the institutions that embody the universality of the church; but the situation created by this measure did not differ substantially from the situation that existed in Christianity through the schism between Western and Eastern churches.

The third step, consummated through the Act for Submission of the Clergy (23 Henry VIII, c.19), of 1534, is a real attack on the church because it abolishes its self-government.

And only the fourth step [The Act of Supremacy] destroys the spiritual substance of the church by making the symbols of faith a matter of secular declaration. Only this fourth step establishes what today we call a totalitarian government. This last proposition, however, must be qualified by the reminder that the king and his advisers did not know what they were doing and that, when the consequences of totalitarianism began to show, the result was a formidable constitutional struggle.

Nevertheless, we must realize that the English development of the sixteenth century was not simply an assertion of national independence, and that it was considerably more than a "break with Rome." It entailed, indeed, the establishment of the first totalitarian government, foreshadowing the possibilities of a future when the creed promulgated by the government would have become anti-Christian.        

From the numerous enactments that have a bearing on the closure of the commonwealth, we shall select only a few passages in which the idea of the autonomous polity receives explicit formulation.

The Act in Restraint of Appeals (24 Henry VIII, c. 12), of 1533, opens with the declaration:

By divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporalty, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.

The declaration of England as an empire, as we have indicated, does no more than resume the idea of the imperator in regno suo; the style of imperator had been claimed for the first time by Edward I in the thirteenth century.

In the Act in Restraint of Appeals it is the preliminary to the enactment that no appeal can lie from an English court, spiritual or temporal, to a foreign higher instance; and that no decision rendered by a foreign authority in contravention of this act can be enforced by an English court, and in particular not by English "prelates, pastors, ministers and curates." Behind this sudden concern about appeal to "foreign princes and potentates" lies the king's secret marriage with Anne Boleyn in January 1533. While the act cuts off the embarrassing appeals to Rome, it does not impair the spiritual substance of the Ecclesia Anglicana; the autonomy of the "Spirituality" remains untouched— barring of course the king's prodding for a favorable decision in his marital affairs.

The Act of Supremacy and Spiritual Authority

The Act of Supremacy (26 Henry VIII, c. I), of 1534, adds the headship of the Church of England to the imperial crown:

The King our Sovereign Lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia, and shall have and enjoy annexed and united to the imperial Crown of this realm as well the title and style thereof, as all honours, dignities, etc.

The function implies the jurisdiction "to visit, repress, redress, reform, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities whatsoever they be" that come within spiritual authority and jurisdiction.

The language of the act is comprehensive but vague. That it actually implied the secularization of the Church of England is convincingly shown by later enactments. The act extinguishing the authority of the Bishop of Rome, of 1536, for instance, admirably shows the new atmosphere as well as the precise nature of the new headship. The act is directed against "the pretended power and usurped authority of the Bishop of Rome, by some called the Pope"; and it assumes spiritual authority in pronouncing not only on the pope's ambitions and tyranny but also on his nefariousness in "excluding Christ out of his kingdom" and seducing English subjects "unto superstitious and erroneous opinions" to the great damage of their souls.

And the Statute of Six Articles, "abolishing diversity in Opinions," of 1539, finally, establishes through king in Parliament the correct view of transubstantiation in terms of "real presence." With this intervention in matters of dogma begins something like an opera buffa of infallibility: the First Prayer Book, of 1549, bent the sacrament of the altar more in the Lutheran direction; the revised Prayer Book, of 1552, went more in the direction of Zwingli; the Elizabethan Prayer Book, of 1559, achieved a diplomatic compromise.

Property Seizure and Ceremonial Confession

The Supremacy was not concerned only with such questions as independence from the bishop of Rome and the secularization of the Church of England; of equal, if not greater, importance was the dissolution of the monasteries and the appropriation of abbey lands and other property for secular purposes.

The techniques employed in this vast campaign of confiscation are of considerable value for understanding the general atmosphere in the secularized polity. There are preserved "confessions" by the monks whose houses were dissolved. A few passages from the confession concerning St. Andrew's Priory in Northampton, of 1537, signed by the prior, the subprior, and eleven brethren, will illustrate the problem.

The confessing monks address themselves to the king and assure him that they are "stirred by the grief of our conscience unto great contrition for the manifold negligence, enormities, and abuses" committed "under the pretence and shadow of perfect religion." They confess "voluntarily and only by our proper conscience compelled" that they and their predecessors have never used the revenue of the priory for the purposes for which it was destined but

Taking on us the habit or outward vesture of the said rule (of Saint Benedict) only to the intent to lead our lives in an idle quietness and not in virtuous exercise, in a stately estimation and not in obedient humility, have under the shadow or color of the said rule and habit vainly, detestably, and also ungodly employed, yea rather devoured, the yearly revenues . . . in continual ingurgitations and farcings of our carayne bodies, and of others, the supporters of our voluptuous and carnal appetite, with other vain and ungodly expenses, to the manifest subversion of devotion and cleanness of living, and to the most notable slander of Christ's holy Evangel.

Moreover, they have corrupted the simple and pure minds of the king's subjects, "steering them with all persuasions, engines, and policy, to dead images and counterfeit relics for our damnable lucre." But now they admit their "most horrible abominations and execrable persuasions of your Grace's people to detestable errors, and our long covered hypocrisy cloaked with feigned sanctity"; they ponder them continually in their sorrowful hearts; they perceive the bottomless gulf of everlasting fire ready to devour them; they are constrained by the intolerable anguish of their conscience; they prostrate themselves at the king's noble feet and crave his pardon.

In order that such horrors will never happen again in the monastery, finally, they beseech the king "graciously to accept our free gifts without coercion, persuasion, or procurement of any creature living other than of our voluntary free will," offering the possessions and the rights of their priory to dispose of them at his discretion. 1

The Moscow trials and the trials of churchmen in the Soviet satellite states have trained our ear for the overtones of "confessions." The abject self-accusations of the monks of St. Andrew's Priory have the authentic ring of the ceremonial confessions exacted by totalitarian governments.

1. All quotations are from the reprint of the confession in J. R. Tanner, Tudor Constitutional Documents, 2d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930), 89 ff.

Religion and the Rise of Modernity, CW Vol 23
Ch 3, The English Commonwealth—Hooker
§2. The Closure of the Commonwealth
pp 74-77.