Henry VIII and the First Totalitarian State

Part 3— The Literary Chorus

We should like to warn the reader that the preceding section has not given a historical survey of enactments concerning the Church of England in the sixteenth century. We have selected only a very few decisive statutes that were apt to illustrate the commonwealth idea. Nothing could be gained for our study of the typical features, for instance, by going into the details of the Six Articles, or by dwelling on the Ten Articles of Henry, or the Forty-Two Articles of Edward VI, or the Thirty-Nine Articles of Elizabeth — except additional proof that the Tudor mess was truly gorgeous.

The idea of the commonwealth as a closed, world-immanent, secularized polity has become clear. The church is an "aspect" of the commonwealth; and the symbols of faith are defined by the king in Parliament. Nonrecognition of royal supremacy in matters of faith is high treason. A dangerous development that began in the thirteenth century has now reached its grotesque end.

At the core of the Inquisition's persecution of heretics had been the doctrine, invented by the lawyer Pope Innocent III, that heresy was high treason against God and must be punished in the same manner as high treason against political authority; now doubts about the spiritual infallibility of the government have become heresy and are counted as temporal high treason.

The problem in itself is clear. Hence, we shall not go into details of the enormous literature that was provoked by the Supremacy. It is, according to the capacities of the authors, learned, serious, persuasive, vehement, and bitter, but intellectually it is undistinguished.

Let us only characterize the positions that, from the nature of the problem, had to be represented. On the one side there would be the partisans of the Supremacy. On the other side, there would have to be the partisans of spiritual autonomy, differentiated according to the various religious divisions and subdivisions. This fundamental pattern would, then, suffer some distortion through the fact that partisans of spiritual autonomy would also support on occasion the position of the king when, and as long as, they believed that the king was on the side of their peculiar brand of reformation.

On the whole, we may say that Catholics such as More, Cardinal Pole, and Cardinal Allen had a clearer view of the problem than others— not because they were Catholics but because anybody who had a clearer view and some personal integrity probably would be forced to the Catholic side in the dilemma.  And a clearness of simplicity was to be found at the opposite extreme where a lawyer such as Christopher Saint Germain roundly identified realm and church and accorded to the king in Parliament the right of expounding Scripture with binding force for the people; or where Sir Thomas Smith laid down the rule: "The Parliament legitimateth bastards, establisheth forms of religion, altereth weights and measures." 2

The spiritually concerned Protestants inevitably cut the sorriest figure because they were caught between their rejection of Catholicism and the frustration of their aspirations through the Elizabethan settlement; to be for and against the Supremacy at the same time was, indeed, a difficult position.

The term Puritan has its origin in this peculiar situation. It seems to have been used for the first time in 1567, in the course of the vestiarian controversy; it probably originated among the separatists in order to characterize the thoroughness of their reform, was then used by the partisans of Supremacy with slanderous intention against all reforming groups, and was gradually accepted as a designation for all those who wished to purify the established church according to some discipline derived from Calvinism. 3

The intellectual level of this whole body of literature, as we have said, was not very high. Nevertheless, after two generations, there emerged something like a "sense of the meeting" —if we may apply this phrase to the bitter controversy. While everybody still insisted that he himself was just plain right, everyone had become aware at last that something was fundamentally wrong when the other fellow wanted to be just plain right, too.

The invective sharpened to the mutual accusation of popery. To be sure, the pope himself still held a place of distinction as the pestilent idol and the Antichrist; but before the end of the century the partisans on the other side had, in one form or another, called each other "little popes" all round.

Through the fracas about jurisdictions of ecclesiastical courts, payments and appeals to Rome, surplices and squares, taking the sacrament in one or two forms, taking it kneeling or standing, ecclesiastical supremacy of the king and alliances of Catholics with Spain, episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational organization, altars, images, relics, organs, and Sabbatarian holiness— the essential point began to dawn on the happy warriors: that they could not replace the pope by Scripture but only by a plurality of popes.

The problem of institutionalizing the spirit in society was still with them; the rejection of the universal authority in matters of faith had resulted in a multiplicity of particular authorities.

Even the gentlemanly opportunists who occupied episcopal thrones under Elizabeth began to understand that the spiritual substance of the church was no joke. Under the pressure of the younger generation of Puritans, of Cartwright and Travers, they found it increasingly difficult to maintain order in their church with no other authority than that of servants of the crown; and toward the end of the century the trend becomes noticeable of claiming an authority jure divino for the bishops of the establishment.

After 1570 it became increasingly clear that the Supremacy was seriously threatened by the Puritan movement. Disciplinarian ministers within the established church grew in numbers, presbyterian classes were formed, and the movement spilled over into congregational separatism.

The strength of the movement lay in its spiritual seriousness; the demands for disciplinarian reform were carried by the consciousness that a church was no church when its spiritual substance was determined by the civil government. Against this dangerous enemy was directed the great work of Richard Hooker in defense of Supremacy. 4


2. More's Apology was published in 1533. It is an answer to Saint Germain's Treatise concerning the division between the spiritualtie and temporaltie (ca. 1532). Cardinal Pole's Pro ecclesiasticae unitatis defensione was published in 1536, Cardinal Allen's Apology in 1581, and his Defence of English Catholics in 1584. Sir Thomas Smith's De republica Anglorum was published posthumously in 1583. For a careful presentation of the vast Tudor literature the reader should refer to Allen's History of Political Thought and for an even more detailed study of the rise of Puritanism to M. M. Knappen's Tudor Puritanism (Chicago, 1939).

3. See on this question Knappen, Tudor Puritanism, 488f.

4. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, in Works, ed. John Keble, 7th ed., rev. R. W. Church and F. Paget (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1888), vols. 1-2. The first four books of Ecclesiastical Polity were published in 1594 and the fifth book in 1599. After Hooker's death, two Puritan ministers called at his home and, apparently with connivance of Hooker's widow, destroyed the unpublished remaining three books. Books VI-VIII in their present form go back to rough drafts of the manuscript. A critical edition of book VIII has been edited by R. A. Houk (New York: Columbia University Press, 1931).

 The publication of Ecclesiastical Polity provoked an answer by an anonymous author (whose identity Hooker has not revealed but seems to have guessed) under the title A Christian Letter of Certaine English Protestants, 1599. There is extant a copy of the Christian Letter with Hooker's marginal notes; almost all of the annotations are published in Keble's edition of the Works. The Christian Letter with the notes is reprinted in R. Bayne's edition of the fifth book of Ecclesiastical Polity, 1902. New edition: The Folger Library Edition of the Works of Richard Hooker, W. Speed Hill, gen. ed., 6 vols. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977-  ). Student's edition: Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Preface, Book I, Book VII, ed. A. S. McGoode (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

 The anonymous Christian Letter was answered, after Hooker's death, by William Covell in his Just and Temperate Defence of the Five Books of Ecclesiastical Policie (London, 1603). A brief but excellent study of Hooker is to be found in Alexander Passerin d'Entrèves, The Medieval Contribution to Political Thought (London: Oxford University Press, 1939); see also the same author's Riccardo Hooker: Contributo alia teoria e alia atoria del diritto naturale (Turin: Instituto giuridico della R. Università, 1932).

Religion and the Rise of Modernity, CW Vol 23
Ch 3, The English Commonwealth—Hooker
§3. The Literary Chorus
pp 77-80.