In Rome the agents of Francis I., fearing that an alliance between France and England would be impossible were Henry to throw off his allegiance to the Church, moved heaven and earth to prevent a definitive sentence. The fact that the Emperor was both unable and unwilling to enforce the decision of the Pope, and that instead of desiring the excommunication and deposition of Henry he was opposed to such a step, made it more difficult for the Pope to take decisive measures. Finally after various consultations with the cardinals, sentence was given declaring the marriage with Catharine valid and the children born of that marriage legitimate (23rd March, 1534). When the news of this decision reached England Henry was alarmed. He feared that the Emperor might declare war at any moment, that an imperial army might be landed on the English shores, and that Francis I. yielding to the entreaties of the Pope might make common cause with the imperialists. Orders were given to strengthen the fortifications, and to hold the fleet in readiness. Agents were dispatched to secure the neutrality of France, and preachers were commanded to denounce the Bishop of Rome. As matters stood, however, there was no need for such alarm. The Emperor had enough to engage his attention in Spain and Germany, and the enmity between Charles V. and the King of France was too acute to prevent them from acting together even in defence of their common religion.
Meantime it was clear to Henry that popular feeling was strong against his policy, but instead of being deterred by this, he became more obstinate and determined to show the people that his wishes must be obeyed. A nun named Elizabeth Barton, generally known as the "Nun of Kent," claimed to have been favoured with special visions from on high. She denounced the king's marriage with Anne, and bewailed the spread of heresy in the kingdom. People flocked from all parts to interview her, and even Cranmer pretended to be impressed by her statements. She and many of her principal supporters were arrested and condemned to death (Nov. 1534). It was hoped that by her confession it might be possible to placate Bishop Fisher, who was specially hated by Henry on account of the stand he had made on the question of the marriage, and the late Lord Chancellor, Sir Thomas More. Both had met the nun, but had been careful to avoid everything that could be construed even remotely as treason. In the Act of Attainder introduced into Parliament against Elizabeth Barton and her confederates, the names of Fisher and More were included, but so strong was the feeling in More's favour that his name was erased. Fisher, although able to clear himself from all reasonable grounds of suspicion, was found guilty of misprision of treason and condemned to pay a fine of ￡300. Fisher and More were then called upon to take the oath of succession, which, as drawn up, included, together with an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the children born of Henry and Anne, a repudiation of the primacy of the Pope, and of the validity of Henry's marriage with Catharine. Both were willing to accept the succession as fixed by Act of Parliament, but neither of them could accept the other propositions. They were arrested therefore and lodged in the Tower (April 1534).
Commissions were appointed to minister the oath to the clergy and laity, most of whom accepted it, some through fear of the consequences of refusal and others in the hope of receiving a share of the monastic lands, which, it was rumoured, would soon be at the disposal of the king. A royal commission consisting of George Brown, Prior of the Augustinian Hermits, and Dr. Hilsey, Provincial of the Dominicans, was appointed to visit the religious houses and to obtain the submission of the members (April 1534). By threats of dissolution and confiscation they secured the submission of most of the monastic establishments with the exception of the Observants of Richmond and Greenwich and the Carthusians of the Charterhouse, London. Many of the members of these communities were arrested and lodged in the Tower, and the decree went forth that the seven houses belonging to the Observants, who had offered a strenuous opposition to the divorce, should be suppressed. The Convocations of Canterbury and York submitted, as did also the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
When Parliament met again in November 1534 a bill was introduced proclaiming the king supreme head of the Church in England. The measure was based upon the recognition of royal supremacy extracted from Convocation three years before, but with the omission of the saving clause "as far as the law of Christ allows." According to this Act it was declared that the king "justly and rightly is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church in England, and to enjoy all the honours, dignities, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits and commodities" appertaining to the dignity of the supreme head of the Church. An Act of Attainder was passed against Fisher, More, and all others who had refused submission. The First Fruits, formerly paid to the Pope, were to be paid to the king, and bishops were allowed to appoint men approved by the crown to be their assistants.
By these measures the constitution of the Church, as it had been accepted for centuries by the English clergy and laity, was overturned. The authority of the Pope was rejected in favour of the authority of the king, who was to be regarded in the future as the source of all ecclesiastical jurisdiction. This great religious revolution was carried out without the consent of the bishops and clergy. With the single exception of Cranmer the bishops to a man opposed the change, and if they and the great body of the clergy made their submission in the end, they did so not because they were convinced by the royal arguments, but because they feared the royal displeasure. Neither was the change favoured by any considerable section of the nobles and people. The former were won over partly by fear, partly by hope of securing a share in the plunder of the Church; the latter, dismayed by the cowardly attitude shown by their spiritual and lay leaders, saw no hope of successful resistance. Had there been any strong feeling in England against the Holy See, some of the bishops and clergy would have spoken out clearly against the Pope, at a time when such a step would have merited the approval of the king. The fact that the measure could have been passed in such circumstances is in itself the best example of what is meant by Tudor despotism, in the days when an English Parliament was only a machine for registering the wishes of the king.
In January 1535 an order was made that the king should be styled supreme head of the Church of England. Thomas Cromwell, who had risen rapidly at court in spite of the disgrace of his patron, Cardinal Wolsey, was entrusted with the work of forcing the clergy and laity to renounce the authority of the Pope. The bishops were commanded to surrender the Bulls of appointment they had received from Rome, and to acknowledge expressly that they recognised the royal supremacy. Cromwell was appointed the king's vicar-general, from whom the bishops and archbishops were obliged to take their directions. Severe measures were to be used against anybody who spoke even in private in favour of Rome. The Prior of the London Charterhouse and some other Carthusians were brought to trial for refusing to accept the royal supremacy (April, 1535). After an able and uncompromising defence they were found guilty of treason and were put to death with the most revolting cruelty. Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, who were prisoners in the Tower, were allowed some time to consider their course of conduct. Fisher declared that he could not acknowledge the king as supreme head of the Church. While he lay in prison awaiting his trial, Paul III., in acknowledgment of his loyal services to the Church, conferred on him a cardinal's hat. This honour, however well merited, served only to arouse the ire of the king. He declared that by the time the hat should arrive Fisher should have no head on which to wear it, and to show that this was no idle threat a peremptory order was dispatched that unless Fisher and More took the oath before the feast of St. John they should suffer the penalty prescribed for traitors. Fisher, together with some monks of the Carthusians, was brought to trial (June 1535), and was found guilty of treason for having declared that the king was not supreme head of the Church. The prisoners were condemned to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. In the case of the Carthusians the sentence was carried out to the letter, but as it was feared that Fisher might die before he reached Tyburn he was beheaded in the Tower (22nd June), and his head was impaled on London bridge.
Sir Thomas More was placed on his trial in Westminster Hall before a special commission (1st July). Able lawyer as he was, he had no difficulty in showing that by silence he had committed no crime and broken no Act of Parliament, but no defence could avail him against the wishes of the king. The jury promptly returned a verdict of guilty. Before sentence was passed the prisoner spoke out manfully against royal supremacy, and in defence of the authority of Rome. He declared that the Act of Parliament, which conferred on the king the title of supreme head of the Church, was opposed both to the laws of God and man, that it was in flagrant contradiction to the Magna Charta, and that the king of England could no more refuse obedience to the Holy See than a child could refuse obedience to his father. Even after his trial and condemnation another attempt was made to induce him to submit, but he refused, and on the 6th July he finished his career as a martyr for Rome.
The execution of Fisher and More showed plainly to all that the breach with Rome was not likely to be healed. When news of what had taken place in England reached Rome Paul III. was anxious to issue a decree of deposition against Henry. Had he done so, and had he been supported by the Emperor and Francis I. there is no doubt that many of the English noblemen would have joined the standard of the invaders, but the hostility between France and the Emperor saved Henry. Neither party was willing to aid the Pope lest the other should form an alliance with England. Fearing such a union, however, between Francis I. and Charles V. Henry hastened to seek the aid of the Protestant princes of Germany. From 1531 he had been in communication with them urging them to be careful about introducing religious innovations, but he was now so alarmed lest the Emperor and the King of France might join hands to assist the Pope in convoking a General Council, that English envoys were directed to meet the Protestant princes at Schmalkald (1535), to arrange for common action. A close union between England and the Protestant states of Germany could not be effected, because the Protestant princes insisted that Henry should accept the Confession of Augsburg, and Henry refused to permit such interference in the religious affairs of England. Still, English divines were instructed to remain at Wittenberg, and Lutheran theologians were invited to come to England for the discussion of religious differences.
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