Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rightful Head of England: Pope vs. King

By Rosanne E. Lortz

We thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects: for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope, clean contrary to the oath that they make to us, so that they seem to be his subjects, and not ours.
On May 11, 1532, King Henry VIII uttered this complaint to Parliament, that the clergy of the realm cared more for the Pope’s commands than they did for his own. Any Tudor-phile can tell you what happened next. Two years later Henry issued the Act of Supremacy, severing the connection with Rome and making himself “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England.”

But how did the Church of England become so reliant on the Church of Rome in the first place? How did the Pope, the bishop of the far-away city of Rome, gain authority over what happened in the British Isles?

Augustine of Canterbury
The story of the Pope’s involvement with the island of England goes back to the sixth century, nearly a thousand years before Henry VIII’s complaint. The island of Britain had been evangelized by Christian missionaries in the first several centuries A.D., but after the invasion of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, it became pagan once again. In the late sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great, the bishop of Rome, felt a great burden to Christianize these people. Bede records that Gregory, “prompted by divine inspiration, sent a servant of God named Augustine and several more God-fearing monks with him to preach the word of God to the English race.”

With his mission accomplished, Augustine sent to Rome “to inform the pope St Gregory that the English race had received the faith of Christ and that he himself had been made their bishop. At the same time he asked his advice about certain questions which seemed urgent.”

What follows is a list of questions about liturgy, governance, and conduct, but the important thing is the way it is phrased. Augustine seeks Pope Gregory’s advice.

The Pope, as the successor of Saint Peter and the ruler of the “apostolic see”, had always been seen as an important spiritual leader in the Church, but it is anachronistic to suppose that he wielded as much power in the early church as he did in days of the Tudors. Historian Gerd Tellenbach notes that after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the foundation of new kingdoms by the Germanic tribes, “the national and regnal churches were to a greater or lesser extent autonomous and not easily influenced from outside.”

Tellenbach confirms what we observe in Bede, saying:
Only exceptionally did popes play a significant role beyond their own region before the middle of the eleventh century. They were normally active only when called upon to be so, not on their own initiative; their advice or judgements were not compulsory; they could be accepted, ignored, or rejected at will.
In the centuries subsequent to Augustine’s missionary activities, we see the English kings looking up to the Pope with respect and rendering them obedience in spiritual matters. One example of this is Alfred the Great who, as a young child, accompanied his father on a pilgrimage to Rome to see Peter’s Successor. The Pope later became a godfather of sorts to Alfred, but he made no attempt to interfere with his subjects’ loyalties.

Pope Gregory VII
What happened then in the eleventh century to change things? Several successive “Reform” popes, Gregory VII being the most famous, saw it as their divinely-appointed task to combat corruption in the church. One especial sin that needed to be purged was “lay investiture,” the practice of political rulers appointing men for church office. In response to the Holy Roman Emperor arrogating to himself the power to appoint bishops, the Pope arrogated to himself the power to depose emperors (by excommunicating them, and thus freeing their subjects from the necessity of obeying them).

Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor whom Gregory would depose, saw no justification for the Pope throwing his weight around in such a manner:
You dared to threaten to take the kingship away from us—as though we had received the kingship from you, as though kingship and empire were in your hand and not in the hand of God…. As the tradition of the holy Fathers has taught, I am to be judged by God alone and am not to be deposed for any crime unless—may it never happen—I should deviate from the Faith. For the prudence of the holy bishops entrusted the judgment and the deposition even of Julian the Apostate not to themselves, but to God alone. The true pope Saint Peter also exclaims, “Fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 2:17). You, however, since you do not fear God, dishonor me, ordained of Him.
The battle between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor would soon have repercussions in England. In 1162, the English king Henry II installed his friend Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately for the king, Becket soon came to see that his own ordination was just one example out of many of how Henry was encroaching upon the liberty of the church. He rebuked Henry for these incursions and took it upon himself to become the church’s defender.

The murder of Thomas Becket
The story of the conflict between the two men is famous, and I will not take the time to tell it all here; however, it is interesting to note the role of the Pope during these events. When Becket excommunicated lower clergymen who had dared to side with Henry, they appealed to the higher authority of the Pope in order to have their excommunications revoked. Several times throughout the conflict, both Henry and Becket appealed to the Pope to give a ruling, not in the sense of giving advice, but in the sense of giving a binding judgment. These instances show how a formal hierarchy had developed with the Pope at the apex, and how papal power was continuing to increase throughout the twelfth century.

The rule of Henry’s son John in the thirteenth century would see an even greater increase in papal power. When John tried to follow in his father’s footsteps and select the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope Innocent III rebuked him and put forward his own candidate for the position. John refused to comply. Pope Innocent put England under an interdict, prohibiting the clergy from conducting any religious services. John seized the lands of the clergy who followed the Pope’s orders. More excommunications and seizures of money followed. When John still proved recalcitrant, the Pope incited the French king to prepare an invasion against him (not that Philip II needed much incitement…). Fearful of an attack from France, John finally submitted his will to the Pope’s, and did homage to Innocent for the country of England.

Innocent’s letter to John following these events shows how outrageous the papal aggrandizement of power had become:
The king of kings and lord of lords, Jesus Christ…has set over all one whom he appointed to be his vicar on earth so that, just as every knee on earth and in heaven and even under the earth is bowed to him, so all should obey his vicar and strive that there be one fold and one shepherd. The kings of the world so venerate this vicar for the sake of God that they do not regard themselves as reigning properly unless they take care to serve him devotedly. Prudently heeding this, beloved son…you have decreed that your person and your kingdom should be temporally subject to the one to whom you knew them to be spiritually subject, so that kingship and priesthood, like body and soul, should be united in the one person of the vicar of Christ to the great advantage and profit of both. 
The Popes of the next three centuries tried, with varying degrees of success, to maintain the high position to which Innocent had elevated the papacy, but their rhetoric and resplendence never quite measured up. When the Pope removed to France for seventy years during the Avignon Papacy, the English lost a great deal of respect for Peter’s Successor. After winning one of the early battles of the Hundred Years’ War, the English bandied about a jest (which, yes, also appears in the Heath Ledger movie A Knight’s Tale), saying, “The Pope may be French, but Jesus Christ is English.”

The Papal Schism which followed the Avignon Papacy in 1378, saw two different Popes battling for the position over the course of forty years. This weakened the Papacy even further as France, the Spanish kingdoms, and Scotland supported one Pope while England and the Holy Roman Empire supported the other.

By the time Henry VIII took the throne in England, the papacy was not as much of a force to be reckoned with. The Pope was still a political player in Europe, but no longer the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room.

So, all this goes to show that when Henry VIII was complaining to Parliament of the Pope’s undue influence over English clergy, what he really should have been doing was counting his blessings. If he had had Innocent III to deal with instead of Clement VII, he might have met his match, he might have stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, and he might never have become the star of a Showtime television series. The title of "Supreme head of the Church in England" would have remained with the Pope, and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn might have contrived to keep her head.

Henry VIII, painted by Hans Holbein the Younger


Rosanne E. Lortz is the author of two books: I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, a historical adventure/romance set during the Hundred Years' War, and Road from the West: Book I of the Chronicles of Tancred, the beginning of a trilogy which takes place during the First Crusade.

You can learn more about Rosanne's books at her Official Author Website where she also blogs about writing, mothering, and things historical.


Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Tellenbach, Gerd. The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century. Trans. Timothy Reuter. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Tierney, Brian. The Crisis of Church and State 1050-1300. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.