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The Royal Ecclesiastical Supremacy
Author(s): Henry Chadwick
Dated: 1985
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Henry Chadwick. "The Royal Ecclesiastical Supremacy" (1985).


The Royal Ecclesiastical Supremacy, by Prof. Henry Chadwick (Peterhouse, Cambridge).

Summary: The paper seeks to elucidate the different and complex notions of supremacy in 16th century texts, especially in Henry VIII and his main critic Reginald Pole. Henry could exploit the theme that the papacy is antichrist (the prehistory of that notion is briefly outlined), and could model his theory and practice on Justinian, East Roman emperor 527-65. Justinian freely legislated on ecclesiastical matters, appointed bishops, summoned councils, and even tortured a pope into submission to his will. It was self-evident to him that his duty was to keep orthodoxy in the Church, and to brief church councils on what they ought to say. By contrast, in the West Roman primacy had steadily acquired more and more power through appeals, through disputes over episcopal appointments between monarch and cathedral chapter, and through dispensations (i.e. relaxations of the proper rules if and when strict enforcement seemed inhuman or to have grave disadvantages for the Church generally). This concentration of power in the Roman curia in matters affecting ordinary people, e.g. divorce, offended lawyers jealous for national sovereignty, and those remembering an older territorial organisation where such questions were decided locally. Henry VIII could invoke the old Germanic theme that the owner of the land (who had endowed the Church anyway) properly exercised a religious control in his territory. So too he could give teeth to statutes of his medieval predecessors (Provisors, Praemunire).

Henry’s lawyers, esp. St German, did not think of the Church as a sacrament of God’s presence so much as a socially useful instrument for the religion and for the social coherence of the nation. St German encouraged Henry’s assertion of absolute sovereignty, ef being source of all authority whatsoever in his realms and territories. In practice Philip the Fair had made very similar claims for France at the end of the 13th century. Medieval catholic monarchs did not talk or act as if the Church were not their concern. But they wanted their church to be in communion with the Catholica. Henry VIII could have had all he wanted with the gallican model current since 1300; his anger over the divorce affair did not dispose him to accept such a formula. Moreover England had long had voices fiercely critical of Roman jurisdiction in practice – even Grosseteste of Lincoln, but most of all the anticlerical Lollards. Though Henry persecuted Lollardy, it was a continuing force in 16th century England (which may explain why in England Lutheran influence often yielded ground to Zurich and Geneva under Edward VI and even Elizabeth). Tyndale, a man of Lutheran sympathy, provided Henry with a blueprint for his church legislation.

Yet ‘supreme head of the Church’ offended protestants at least as much as catholics; hence Elizabeth’s change to ‘governor’. Thomas Cromwell could use the xing’s title to vest actual control over the English Church in Parliament. He prefigured the erastian, utilitarian view that denied to the Church any ‘divine right’. This view, opposed by e.g. Hooker, Laud, Cosin, et al., was vehemently articulated by William Prynne.

Under Henry VIII royal supremacy came to mean the exclusion of papal authority; it was essentially a negative proposition about Roman authority. Yet under Mary it was the royal supremacy that made possible the restoration of Roman jurisdiction, and under Elizabeth the maintenance of the episcopal succession. The puritan Wiburn complained that royal supremacy was the one doctrine you could be sure of being held by clergy of the Church of England, and that most of them, ordained under the Latin pontifical anyway, were at heart not protestant at all. The attacks of RCs on the Anglican Ordinal were milk and water compared with those of the Puritans for whom it was an intolerably popish book. The defence of catholic order and episcopacy by Elizabeth and her two successors contributed to bringing the monarchy down.