The Royal Road to the Church of England and Legitimacy of Elizabeth I

The Royal Road to the Church of England and Legitimacy of Elizabeth I

“It’s notoriously difficult to pour a gallon of water into a pint pot,” writes JRH Moorman in the preface to his excellent book, A History of the Church of England. For me, the task was to take what Moorman’s poured into the pint pot and then spill that into a teaspoon. It’s a challenge worth picking up, though one must overlook the summation of hundreds of years and many complex issues. To understand Tudor England, one must comprehend the religious and ruler-ship issues which shaped and informed Henry VIII’s decision and authority to break with the Catholic Church and establish the Church of England and his nation’s autonomy.

Origen writes of Britain as a place where Christians can be found as early as 240AD, and St. Patrick was famous for missionizing England from Ireland, but pick up the story in 1066 as the Normans invade England. There was only one Christian church during this era, seated in Rome, and headed by the Pope.

Moorman tells us that once he became king, William the Conqueror “…would not allow the pope to interfere with what he regarded as the king’s lawful business…He (William) consequently made it clear from the start that he regarded himself as the head of the Church in England. He nominated the bishops and abbots and invested them with ring and staff. He summoned Church Councils. He expected his churchmen, just as much as his laymen, to pay respect to his wishes, and he refused to allow any foreign interference with his sovereignty.” This is an important trail to follow one hundred years or so later to King Henry II.

The country had just undergone a punishing civil war whereby Henry’s mother, Matilda, had tried to claim the throne of her father, Henry I, but Stephen of Blois, her cousin and also a grandchild of William I, had claimed it instead. Many noblemen, having come from France where the Agnetic Succession laws forbid a woman from inheriting a throne, believed that a woman should not reign and blamed the unrest partially on a female claimant. Grateful for relative peace and calm, the nation hungered for stability after Stephen’s death. Moorman reminds us that Henry II was “a wise and strong ruler who was determined to restore law and order.” However, there remained a glitch.

Henry believed there must be one standard of law for all, rich or poor, lowborn or high, churchman or not, and he strove to set aside what was known as “Benefit of Clergy.” This benefit allowed any member of the clergy to be punished by church courts, where he might possibly receive no punishment at all for crimes, including murder and rape. Sometimes the only test of clergy was to have one’s hair shaved into a tonsure, which Moorman says many non-clergy members did to escape civil justice.

Henry wanted justice to be fully invested in the civil law of the land, not of the church: all Englishmen, regardless of station or position, should be ruled by English law. The church, including Henry’s very good friend Archbishop Thomas Becket, disagreed, and stood in the way of this reform. Some years later, Henry II moaned something along the (apocryphal) lines of, “Can no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Four men took him seriously and murdered Becket in the Cathedral at Canterbury. The world was shocked and Henry II never regained his moral authority. There was some merit to his concerns, though. Is the King truly the ruler over all England and Englishmen? Moorman tells us, ” For over three hundred years, the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury stood as a witness to the triumph of Church over State. It was no wonder, therefore, that in 1538 Henry VIII took steps to have it destroyed and the martyr’s bones scattered.”

Although there was some movement toward church reform via Wycliffe and his followers, the Lollards, for the most part the ruling classes of England stayed true to the Catholic Church right up till Henry VIII in the sixteenth century. Henry, a handsome, jovial, and learned king was used to getting his own way. He was also used to having lots of money—his father, a notorious pinch-penny, left Henry a flush kingdom. He was a staunch supporter of Catholicism in the face of calls for church reform from people such as Martin Luther. In fact, the Pope awarded Henry the title, “Defender of the Faith,” a title which the crowned head of England still claims, through Anglicanism. But regardless of everything obtained, he did not have the one thing he most wanted: a legitimate son.

The question has long been posed: Would Henry have set aside Katherine of Aragon and broken with the church of England if he had a lawful son? The simple fact is, he didn’t have one. He felt he needed one—remember the civil war that had rent England during the turmoil between Matilda and Steven? The Wars of the Roses had just been “solved,” and Henry meant to keep the peace … and the Tudor line … going. When the Pope refused to allow him to dissolve his marriage to Queen Katherine, Henry’s advisers came up with a number of assists. They reminded him of the passage in Leviticus which claimed a man should not lie with his brother’s wife (Henry had married his brother’s widow). They also helped him reconsider who was final authority in England: Pope or King?

Parliament eventually passed several acts separating England from Rome, including the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which asserts that, “this realm of England is an empire and the king is supreme head of both Church and State.” Doing so provided Henry the legal and religious right to govern his own people without their ability to seek recourse from a foreign entity (the Church in Rome), dissolve his marriage to Katherine and marry Anne Boleyn, and have sovereignty over the properties in England, including the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He got the money (from the church properties he’d claimed), the girl, and was the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. One thing he didn’t get. A son. Instead, an “s” was hastily added to the announcement of the arrival of a Princess, not a Prince.

However, those parliamentary acts allowed Queen Elizabeth I, the longest reigning and most important of Henry’s children, to have unshakable civil legitimacy, if not in the eyes of the Catholic Church. All of Henry’s wives from Anne Boleyn on were what we would now refer to as Protestant. But it would be Elizabeth who would firmly establish the Church of England: an excellent queen to be sure, and perhaps the world first female head of a Church. A Tudor.

{Main photo credit: By Peter of Langtoft –; original held in British Library, Royal 20 A II folio., Public Domain,

{Photo of stained glass window: Photo by Christian Bowen on Unsplash }

{Photo of Elizabeth I: Workshop of Nicholas Hilliard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, Scanned from Jane Ashelford, The Art of Dress, London, National Trust, 1996, Public Domain,}