Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER X: Of Henry the Eighth.—The Reformation.—Its Causes.—The Effects of it upon the Influence of the Crown. - An Historical View of the English Government
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CHAPTER X: Of Henry the Eighth.—The Reformation.—Its Causes.—The Effects of it upon the Influence of the Crown. - John Millar, An Historical View of the English Government 
An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688, in four volumes, edited by Mark Salber Philips and Dale R. Smith, introduction by Mark Salber Philips (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Of Henry the Eighth.—The Reformation.—Its Causes.—The Effects of it upon the Influence of the Crown.
Henry the eighth reaped the full benefit of those favourable circumstances which began to operate, and of that uniform policy which had been exerted, in the reign of his father. By uniting, at the same time, in the right of his father and mother, the titles of the two houses of York and Lancaster, he put an end to the remains of that political animosity which had so long divided the nation, and was universally acknowledged by his subjects as the lawful heir of the kingdom. The personal character of this monarch was better suited to the possession and enjoyment of power, than to the employment of the slow and gradual means by which it is to be acquired. Vain, arrogant, headstrong, and inflexible, he shewed little dexterity in the management of his affairs; was unable to brook opposition or con-<427>troul; and, instead of shunning every appearance of usurpation, was rather solicitous to let slip no opportunity for the display of his authority.
The most remarkable event, in the reign of Henry the eighth, was the sudden downfal of that great system of ecclesiastical tyranny, which, during the course of many centuries, the policy of the Roman pontiff had been continually extending. To this religious reformation, the minds of men, in other European countries as well as in England, were predisposed and excited by the changes which had lately occurred in the general state of society.
1. The christian religion, by teaching mankind to believe in the unity of the Deity, presented to their minds the contemplation of the astonishing attributes displayed in the government of the universe. While the professors of christianity thus agreed in the main article of their belief, their disposition to speculate upon other points was promoted by their differences of opinion, by the controversies with one another in which they were unavoidably engaged, and by the variety of sects into which they were at length divided. The church, however, assumed the<428> power of determining the orthodox faith; and by degrees availed herself of the prevailing superstition, in order to propagate such opinions as were most subservient to her interest. Hence the doctrines relating to purgatory, to the imposition of penances, to auricular confession, to the power of granting a remission of sins, or a dispensation from particular observances, with such other tenets and practices as contributed to encrease the influence of the clergy, were introduced and established. Not contented with requiring an implicit belief in those particular opinions, the church proceeded so far as to exclude entirely the exercise of private judgment in matters of religion; and, in order to prevent all dispute or enquiry upon that subject, even denied to the people the perusal of the sacred scriptures, which had been intended to direct the faith and manners of christians. A system of such unnatural restraint, which nothing but extreme ignorance and superstition could have supported, it was to be expected that the first advances of literature would be sufficient to overturn. Upon the revival of letters, accordingly, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was no longer pos-<429>sible to prevent mankind from indulging their natural propensity in the pursuit of knowledge, and from examining those fundamental tenets of christianity which had been so anxiously withheld from their view. They were even prompted, so much the more, to pry into the mysteries of religion, because it was prohibited. To discover the absurdity of many of those doctrines, to which an implicit assent had been required, was not difficult. But the mere examination of them was to reject the decrees of the church, and to merit the censure of contumacy.
2. While the advancement of knowledge disposed men to exert their own judgment in matters of religion, the progress of arts, and of luxury, contributed to diminish the personal influence of the clergy. “In the produce of arts, manufactures, and commerce,” says the ingenious and profound author of the Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations,* “the clergy, like the great barons,<430> found something for which they could exchange their rude produce, and thereby discovered the means of spending their whole revenue upon their own persons, without giving any considerable share of them to other people. Their charity became gradually less extensive, their hospitality less liberal, or less profuse. Their retainers became consequently less numerous, and by degrees dwindled away altogether. The clergy, too, like the great barons, wished to get a better rent from their landed estates, in order to spend it in the same manner, upon the gratification of their own private vanity and folly. But this increase of rent could be got only by granting leases to their tenants, who thereby became, in a great measure, independent of them. The ties of interest, which bound the inferior ranks of people to the clergy, were, in this manner, gradually broken and dissolved.—The inferior ranks of people no longer looked upon that order, as they had done before, as the comforters of their distress, and the re-<431>lievers of their indigence. On the contrary, they were provoked and disgusted by the vanity, luxury, and expence of the richer clergy, who appeared to spend upon their own pleasures what had always before been regarded as the patrimony of the poor.”
3. The improvement of arts, which obliged the dignified clergy, as well as the great barons, to dismiss their retainers, enabled this inferior class of men to procure subsistence in a different manner, by the exercise of particular trades and professions. By this way of life, they were placed in a condition which rendered them less dependent upon their superiors, and by which they were disposed to resist every species of tyranny, whether ecclesiastical or civil. That spirit of liberty, however, which, from these circumstances, was gradually infused into the great body of the people, began sooner to appear in opposing the usurpations of the church, than in restraining the encroachments of the king’s prerogative. In pulling down the fabric of ecclesiastical power, and in stripping the clergy of their wealth, all who had any prospect of sharing in the spoil might be expected to give their concurrence. But in<432> limiting the power of the crown, the efforts of the people were counteracted by the whole weight of the civil authority. Thus, in England, the reformation was introduced more than a century before the commencement of the struggle between Charles the first and his parliament; although the same principle which produced the latter of these events, was evidently the chief cause of the former.
But whence has it happened, that the circumstances above-mentioned have operated more effectually in some parts of Europe than in others? What has enabled the pope to retain in obedience one half of his dominions, while the other has rejected his authority? That this was owing, in some measure, to accident, it seems impossible to deny. The existence of such a person as Luther in Germany, the dispute that arose in England between Henry the eighth and his wife, the policy of particular princes, which led them to promote or to oppose the interest of his holiness; these, and other such casual occurrences, during the course of this great religious controversy, had undoubtedly a considerable influence in determining its fate. We may take notice, how-<433>ever, of certain fixed causes, which contributed more to the progress of the reformation in some of the European countries than in others.
1. The Roman pontiff found it easier to maintain his authority in the neighbourhood of his capital than in countries at a greater distance. The superstition of the people was not, indeed, greater in the neighbourhood of Rome than in the distant parts of Europe. The contrary is well known to have been the case. But Rome was the centre of ecclesiastical preferment, and the residence, as well as the occasional resort, of great numbers of the most opulent churchmen, whose influence over the people was proportionably extensive. Here the pope was a temporal, as well as an ecclesiastical sovereign; and could employ the arm of flesh, as well as the arm of the spirit. Besides, he had here a better opportunity, than in remoter countries, of observing and managing the dispositions and humours of the inhabitants; and, being at hand to discover the seeds of any disorder, was enabled to crush a rebellion in the bud. This circumstance tended to prevent, or to check, the reformation in<434> Italy, or in France, more than in Sweden, in Denmark, in Germany, in England, or in Scotland.
2. Independent of accidental circumstances, it was to be expected that those countries, which made the quickest progress in trade and manufactures, would be the first to dispute and reject the papal authority. The improvement of arts, and the consequent diffusion of knowledge, contributed, on the one hand, to dispel the mist of superstition, and, on the other, to place the bulk of a people in situations which inspired them with sentiments of liberty. That principle, in short, which is to be regarded as the general cause of the reformation, produced the most powerful effects in those countries where it existed the soonest, and met with the greatest encouragement.
This alone will account for the banishment of the Romish religion from the independent towns of Germany, from the Dutch provinces, and from England; those parts of Europe which were soon possessed of an extensive commerce. In the ten provinces of the Netherlands, the advancement of trade and manufactures was productive of similar effects. The<435> inhabitants acquired an attachment to the doctrines of the reformation; and maintained them with a degree of courage and firmness which nothing less than the whole power of the Spanish monarchy was able to subdue. In France too the same spirit became early conspicuous, in that part of the inhabitants which had made the greatest improvement in arts; and, had it not been for the most vigorous efforts of the crown, accompanied with the most infamous perfidy and barbarity,1 and assisted by the celebrated league of the Catholic powers, it is probable that Calvinism would have obtained the dominion of the Gallican church. The tendency of mercantile improvements to introduce an abhorrence of the Catholic superstition, and of papal domination, is thus equally illustrated from the history of those kingdoms where the reformation prevailed, as of those where, by the concurrence of casual events, it was obstructed and counteracted.
3. In those countries where the smallness of a state had given rise to a republican constitution, the same notions of liberty were easily extended from civil to ecclesiastical government. The people, in those governments, were<436> not only disposed to reject the authority of the pope, as they did that of a temporal sovereign; but were even disgusted with the hierarchy, no less than with that subordination which is required in a monarchy. Hence that high-toned species of reformation, which began in Geneva, and in some of the Swiss cantons; and which, from the weakness and imprudent opposition of the crown, was introduced by the populace into Scotland.
The small states of Italy, indeed, although they fell under a republican government, and some of them were distinguished by their early advancement in commerce, have remained in the Catholic church. In some of the cantons of Switzerland, notwithstanding their very limited extent, and their popular government, the reformation has likewise been unsuccessful. The vicinity of the pope’s residence, and of his temporal dominions, appear, in spite of the circumstances which had so plainly an opposite tendency, to have retained them under his jurisdiction. It may deserve, however, to be remarked, that the Venetians, the principal traders of Italy, and who formed the most eminent republic, though they did not establish<437> the doctrines of any sect of the reformers, effected what is perhaps more difficult, and had more the appearance of moderation: they diminished the authority of the pope, without rejecting it altogether; and, though they did not attempt to root out the ancient system, they lopped off such parts of it as they deemed inconsistent with their civil constitution.
After the controversy between the Catholics and Protestants had proceeded so far, in England, as to divide the whole nation, Henry the eighth became possessed of additional influence, by holding a sort of balance between the two parties.2 Although that prince had quarrelled with the papal authority, and was willing to enrich himself by the plunder of the church, he adhered religiously to many of those tenets which had given the greatest offence to the reformers. While he took the lead in the reformation, he assumed the power of directing and controuling its progress; and, as he still kept measures with both parties, he was at the same time feared and courted by both. In the end, however, he established a system which was agreeable to neither.<438>
The reformation, as it was modelled in this reign, opened a new source of influence and authority to the sovereign. The dissolution of the monasteries, whose revenues were immediately annexed to the crown, bestowed upon him a large accession of riches. These funds, indeed, in consequence of the improvements in trade and manufactures, which tended to augment the expences of the king, as well as of the great barons, were afterwards dissipated, and, in the end, transferred to that lower order of people, who, by their industry, were enabled to accumulate wealth.
As the pope was stripped of all that authority which he had possessed in England,3 the king became the head of the church; and as the English hierarchy was, without any variation, permitted to remain, he acquired, by the disposal of all the higher benefices, the entire direction of the clergy, and consequently the command of that influence which they still maintained over the people. By claiming, at the same time, the supremacy of the Roman pontiff, the sovereign was furnished with a new pretext for assuming the power to dispense with the law.<439>
But, notwithstanding all the circumstances which contributed to extend the influence of the crown, the prerogative, during the greatest part of this king’s reign, appears to have remained upon the same footing as in that of his predecessor. Through the whole of it, the power of imposing taxes was uniformly exercised by parliament. Upon one occasion, a loan was demanded by the king; but so little money was raised by it, that an immediate application to parliament became necessary for procuring a subsidy.
Cardinal Wolsey,4 in the plenitude of his power, seems to have projected an encroachment upon this branch of the constitution. He began by interfering in the debates of the commons, in relation to a money-bill, and insisted upon the liberty of reasoning with them upon the subject. But this demand was peremptorily refused; and he was unable to procure the supply, in the terms which he had proposed. Not long after, he attempted to levy a tax by the authority of the crown; but this measure excited such universal commotion, and resentment, that Henry thought fit<440> to disavow the whole proceeding, and sent letters all over England, declaring, that he would ask nothing but by way of benevolence.*
From this time no money was levied by the king without the consent of parliament; except in the thirty-fifth year of his reign, when a benevolence was again solicited. It is further to be observed, that the parliamentary grants of supply to the king, were sometimes preceded by an inquiry into the propriety of the wars which he had undertaken, or of the other measures of government by which his demand of money had been occasioned.
The legislative authority of the national council was no less regularly exerted. It was by act of parliament that the monasteries were suppressed; that the king became the head of the church; that the authority of the pope in England, together with all the revenues which he drew from that kingdom, was abolished; in short, that the ancient system of ecclesiastical government was overturned. In the numerous divorces procured by the sovereign, in<441> the regulations that were made concerning the legitimacy of the children by his different wives, in the various and contradictory settlements of the crown, Henry never pretended to act by virtue of his own prerogative, but continually sheltered himself under the sanction of parliamentary establishment.
Nothing, indeed, could exceed the servility with which the parliaments, especially in the latter part of this reign, complied with the most eccentric inclinations of the monarch. Pleased with the general tendency of his measures, by which the nation was delivered from the yoke of papal dominion, they seem to have resolved not to quarrel with his ridiculous humours, nor even with particular acts of tyranny and oppression. In a dangerous distemper, they were unwilling to reject a violent medicine, on account of the uneasiness and trouble with which its operation was attended. Their complaisance, however, was at length carried so far as to make them abandon their own privileges. In the thirty-first year of Henry the eighth, it was enacted, “That the king, with the advice of his council, might issue pro-<442>clamations, under such penalties as he should think necessary, and that these should be observed, as though they were made by act of parliament,” with this limitation, “that they should not be prejudicial to any person’s inheritance, offices, liberties, goods, chattels, or life.”* What are the particular subjects of proclamation, which do not fall within the restrictions mentioned in this act, is not very clear. But there can be no doubt that it contains a delegation, from parliament, of its legislative authority; which, in practice, might soon have been extended beyond the original purpose for which it was granted. By another statute, about the same time, the king was impowered, with the assistance of a committee, or even by his own authority alone, to regulate the religious tenets, as well as the external observances, of the kingdom.
If these powers had been ascertained, and confirmed by usage, the government of England would have become as absolute as that of France was rendered by Lewis the eleventh.<443> Fortunately, the English monarch, from the obsequiousness of parliament, had little occasion to exercise this new branch of prerogative; and, as he did not live to reduce it into a system, the constitution, in the reign of his successor, returned into its former channel.5 The last years of Henry the eighth exhibited the greatest elevation, which the crown ever attained, under the princes of the Tudor family.<444>
[* ]I am happy to acknowledge the obligations I feel myself under to this illustrious philosopher, by having, at an early period of life, had the benefit of hearing his lectures on the History of Civil Society, and of enjoying his unreserved conversation on the same subject.—The great Montesquieu pointed out the road. He was the Lord Bacon in this branch of philosophy. Dr. Smith is the Newton. [[Adam Smith (1723–90): Millar’s teacher and mentor at the University of Glasgow and author of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). Millar’s footnote to this section is an often-quoted tribute to his teacher, and it expresses the view that, while Montesquieu was the pioneer of the Enlightenment’s naturalistic approach to the study of human society, Smith was its true founder. For the influence of Smith’s teaching, see the introduction. For the quoted passage, see WN, bk. 5, 1, 3, 3. Smith’s argument about the effects of luxury encompassed the nobility as well as the clergy, but Millar makes most use of it in relation to the Church.]]
[1. ]Thousands of Huguenots were killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. The League, headed by the Guise family, was formed in 1576 to stamp out Protestantism in France. See p. 471, note 27.
[2. ]Henry clashed with the papacy not only over his proposed annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, but also over the perceived ecclesiastical abuses of the English clergy. Henry’s “reforms” were largely political rather than doctrinal. The Six Articles in 1539 reasserted the fundamentally Catholic doctrines of the new English Church.
[3. ]After the Act of Annates (1532), Act of Appeals (1533), Act of Supremacy (1534), First Act of Succession (1534), and the Treasons Act (1534) effectively replaced papal supremacy with regal supremacy, Henry enriched the Crown by the dissolution of the monasteries (1535).
[4. ]Thomas Wolsey (ca. 1473–1530), cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church and lord chancellor of England from 1515.
[* ]This attempt was made in the year 1526, and the 17th of this king. See Parl. History, vol. III.
[* ]31 Henry VIII. ch. 8.
[5. ]Millar stresses that although the final years of Henry VIII’s reign brought England as close to absolutism as it ever came, the power of Parliament was retained. This is aimed at Hume’s view that the Tudor monarchs “drew the constitution so near to despotism, as diminished extremely the authority of parliament.” HE, 5:557.