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.


  1. Great information. Thank you, and the images are excellent. The saying 'things happen for a reason' comes to mind....

  2. Thanks for this very interesting article on the Papacy as a power player at different stages of its history. It is worth noting that Pope Adrian IV is the only Englishman who sat on the Papal throne during the middle of the 12th century . As such he was a contemporary of both Henry II and Thomas a’Becket which might help to explain why the Papacy had so much say in the Angevin Empire at the time. Adrian was not averse to using Papal power for the benefit of his own countrymen as in the case of his letter ‘Laudabiliter’ which granted Ireland to King Henry II should he decide to go there, ostensibly to “reform” the Celtic Church, whose practices were coming into line but were not then exactly in line with those of the Roman Church. Early and Medieval Popes considered themselves to have power over “the Isles of the West” (Great Britain and Ireland); inherited from the old Roman Emperors of centuries before. (Even though no Roman soldier had ever even set foot in either Scotland or Ireland!). Also the See of Canterbury desired to have power over the Irish Church.

    I hope to amplify on these and other issues, which deal specifically with the relationship between Ireland and the Papacy, in a future post on the website.

    1. I didn't realize Pope Adrian was an Englishman. Thanks for the further information on the twelfth century. Looking forward to your post on the subject.

  3. Roseanne, a superb article!
    There was another episode of English/papal affairs that had a long lasting effect. Circa 1254 Henry III pledged the Crown of England to Pope Alexander IV as surety for a debt England was incurring to pay papal forces to attempt to seize Sicily from the emperor Frederick II's heir Manfred.
    King Henry's intent was to have the Crown of Sicily for his son Edmund Crouchback. But, when he demanded the tax needed to pay the papal army, his barons refused the money and instead drafted the Provisions of Oxford -- the document that actually founds Parliament as a government inclusive of elected representatives with power over the Crown. This signal event, prompted by a papal threat to England, marks the beginning of modern democracy.
    The 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris spends a good deal of ink denouncing the taxes levied by the Pope's legates. Apparently from King John's time onward they visited England's religious houses with blank documents, to be filled out on site for whatever the legate deemed worth taking. Paris's work was much reprinted in Tudor times to justify England's departure from the Mother Church.

    1. Thanks for sharing another piece of the puzzle! This is definitely a topic I would love to write about in more depth...I kept having to cut out paragraphs to keep this blog post from being too long. :-)

  4. Thank you Rosanne - very interesting post. I wonder if you know if anything changed in the relationship between the Pope and the English crown in 1066? Clearly the Pope supported William's claim. Did William offer anything specific back?
    I must look out your Tancred book...

    1. Good question! William of Malmesbury says that the Duke of Normandy "sent to the pope...alleging the justice of the war he meditated with all the eloquence of which he was master. Harold omitted to do this, either because he was proud by nature, or else distrusted his cause; or because he feared that his messengers would be obstructed by William and his partisans, who beset every port. The pope duly examining the pretensions of both parties, delivered a standard to William, as an auspicious presage of the kingdom." It doesn't mention William offering something in return (someone more conversant with the other chroniclers from the period might know if a quid pro quo is recorded elsewhere).

      Pope Alexander II, who held office during the Conquest, was the immediate predecessor of Gregory VII, the pope who tried to depose the Holy Roman Emperor. The very fact that William asks the pope to weigh out the justice of his claim is telling--it shows that the pope at this time is considered an arbiter for the secular lords. It is also interesting to note that the Englishmen did not accept the pope's judgment automatically. We don't see Harold setting aside his claim just because the pope has ruled against him, and to my knowledge, none of the English refused to fight against the invading Normans on the grounds that the pope had chosen William.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Sorry, don't mean to 'break in' on what Rosanne and other are saying, but Richard Lee might be interested in an article on the English Church before 1066 here.

      Apparently, Rome was not too happy with some of the things the English church was doing, or certain persons within it.

    4. Thank you Medieval Girl - certainly an interesting article by Geoff. As with so many things it looks as if you could take entirely differing views based on the sources.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.