George Austin describes the increasing conflict between Church and State in the centuries leading up to the breach with Rome

When a new diocesan bishop pays homage to the Queen on appointment, he apparently agrees to hand over both the temporalities and the spiritualities of the see to the monarch in an oath which, until recently, was kept so confidential by the church that the bishop was not allowed to see it until the moment of homage. Perhaps there was a fear that he might refuse on the grounds that the spiritualities belonged to God alone and were not within his power to hand over to a secular ruler. But a hard-won bishopric is probably too great a prize to risk.

It had been so too during the reign of William Rufus when Anselm attempted to save the Church from the ruin the king was bringing by his policies, but the bishops, shrewd enough to know the dangers, let him down. Anselm fled abroad, returning under Henry I only when he knew he could win. In 1106, the king agreed that the investiture of a bishop would be by the Pope, and Anselm made certain concessions in the matter of bishops paying homage to the king. The price was more papal control, for which a greater price would be paid later.

Papal ‘provisions’

Also, it annoyed the king. A bishop was not only a spiritual leader but a feudal tenant-in-chief with great temporal estates as well as much secular power and responsibility, even to the raising of armies to support the monarch. In the fourteenth century, Archbishop Melton of York together with other bishops took troops to fight the Scots, and was roundly defeated at Myton-on-Swale. His successor, William de la Zouche, together with his clergy, led a division to defeat the Scots at the battle of Nevilles Cross.

The castles and palaces of the prince bishops today, not to mention their seats in the House of Lords, are a modern remnant of these medieval ‘temporalities’, not to be relinquished lightly for their symbolic and elitist status even 900 years later.

The greater papal control soon displeased the English Church. As the Pope sought to increase the central power of the papacy, he needed money to pay for more officials in Rome. To do so, he appointed them to benefices they never visited and from which they drew a considerable income, while paying a small stipend to the priest on the spot. These ‘provisions’ became common in England after King John’s submission in 1215, and were increasingly unpopular.

By the second half of the fourteenth century, papal ‘provisions’ were declared by government statute to be invalid to English parishes, and the chronicles and literature of the time are full of laments about the state of the Church – not only about papal power, but also despising ‘worldly and venal bishops; idle, absentee clergy; rich sporting monks; hypocritical and grasping friars.’

Even so, at the time of the Black Death it had been the parish clergy who had almost certainly suffered the highest mortality because of their pastoral care of the sick and dying, so is perhaps not surprising that it is the Poor Parson who is given the most sympathetic treatment in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

State regains control

By the end of the fifteenth century, the State, in the person of the king, was gradually regaining the power it had lost to the Pope. When a see became vacant, the king would select a man whom he thought would be useful to him, forward his name to the Pope, and if the nomination was not ratified, the see remained vacant. When king and Pope agreed to some sort of bargain, the name was sent to the cathedral chapter for election and the canons could not reject the candidate. It is a system that continues even today when any canon who refuses to vote for the monarch’s choice will be declared ‘contumacious.’ Those who have dared to do so say that it leaves a good feeling to be so condemned.

It was in the 1530s that the clash between Church and State approached its climax. King Henry VIII, whose greed had led him to attack the monasteries for their wealth, used the papal problems in Church/State relations as the excuse, and

in neither area did he gain the wholesale support of either the aristocracy or the common people, for whom the Catholic religion played a fundamental part in their lives.

Pilgrimage of Grace

A major manifestation of this was the Pilgrimage of Grace, which began in the autumn of 1536 but which had been smouldering for some nine years. Their leaders insisted throughout that it was not a rising against the king, but rather the result of his new laws against the Church as well as such actions as the divorce of his wife, which had brought condemnation from the Pope.

In particular, it was the behaviour of the king’s commissioners, set the task of inspecting the religious houses and assessing their wealth, that had caused greatest concern. Two commissioners in particular, Layton and Legh, carried out their duties arrogantly, bullying the people and communities they were appointed to examine. As a reward for his efforts, Layton received his thirty pieces of silver in his appointment as Dean of York.

The Pilgrimage was doomed to failure. A truce was negotiated, meetings held, promises made in the king’s name, pardons agreed, and all of it nothing but bluff to produce acquiescence. Some wily aristocrats carefully changed sides; Archbishop Lee of York behaved as he had always done by seeking to avoid any commitment that could be held against him by anyone; a few saved themselves by incriminating others; and its leaders were beguiled into meeting the king, believing they would be received warmly for bringing the revolt to an end.

Instead they were brutally executed, with the Pilgrimage’s major player, Robert Aske, being dragged on a hurdle through the streets of York and slaughtered at Clifford’s Tower, where his bodily remains were left to rot as a warning lest any others revolt against the king.

Shortly afterwards came the final breach with Rome and papal power was at an end. Henry VIII took the spiritualities to himself, declaring that he was the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England, with powers so great as even to include the definition of dogma. The Church now had no king but Caesar.