A History of England
England Breaks With The Roman Church, Destruction Of The Monasteries
Author: Green, John Richard
Their death was soon followed by that of More. The interval of
imprisonment had failed to break his resolution, and the new statute sufficed
to bring him to the block. With Fisher he was convicted of denying the King's
title as only supreme head of the Church. The old bishop approached the
scaffold with a book of the New Testament in his hand. He opened it at a
venture ere he knelt, and read, "This is life eternal to know thee, the only
true God." In July More followed his fellow-prisoners to the block. On the
eve of the fatal blow he moved his beard carefully from the reach of the
doomsman's axe. "Pity that should be cut," he was heard to mutter with a
touch of the old sad irony, "that has never committed treason."
Cromwell had at last reached his aim. England lay panic-stricken at the
feet of the "low-born knave," as the nobles called him, who represented the
omnipotence of the crown. Like Wolsey he concentrated in his hands the whole
administration of the state; he was at once foreign minister and home
minister, and vicar-general of the Church, the creator of a new fleet, the
organizer of armies, the president of the terrible star chamber. His Italian
indifference to the mere show of power stood out in strong contrast with the
pomp of the Cardinal. Cromwell's personal habits were simple and
unostentatious; if he clutched at money, it was to feed the army of spies whom
he maintained at his own expense, and whose work he surveyed with a ceaseless
vigilance. For his activity was boundless.
More than fifty volumes remain of the gigantic mass of his
correspondence. Thousands of letters from "poor bedesmen," from outraged
wives and wronged laborers and persecuted heretics, flowed in to the
all-powerful minister, whose system of personal government turned him into the
universal court of appeal. But powerful as he was, and mighty as was the work
which he had accomplished, he knew that harder blows had to be struck before
his position was secure.
The new changes, above all the irritation which had been caused by the
outrages with which the dissolution of the monasteries was accompanied, gave
point to the mutinous temper that prevailed throughout the country; for the
revolution in agriculture was still going on, and evictions furnished
embittered outcasts to swell the ranks of any rising. Nor did it seem as
though revolt, if it once broke out, would want leaders to head it. The
nobles, who had writhed under the rule of the Cardinal, writhed yet more
bitterly under the rule of one whom they looked upon not only as Wolsey's
tool, but as a low-born upstart. "The world will never mend," Lord Hussey had
been heard to say, "till we fight for it."
"Knaves rule about the King!" cried Lord Exeter; "I trust some day to
give them a buffet!" At this moment, too, the hopes of political reaction were
stirred by the fate of one whom the friends of the old order looked upon as
the source of all their troubles. In the spring of 1536, while the
dissolution of the monasteries was marking the triumph of the new policy, Anne
Boleyn was suddenly charged with adultery and sent to the Tower. A few days
later she was tried, condemned, and brought to the block. The Queen's ruin
was everywhere taken as an omen of ruin to the cause which had become
identified with her own, and the old nobility mustered courage to face the
minister who held them at his feet.
They found their opportunity in the discontent of the North, where the
monasteries had been popular, and where the rougher mood of the people turned
easily to resistance. In the autumn of 1536 a rising broke out in
Lincolnshire, and this was hardly quelled when all Yorkshire rose in arms.
From every parish the farmers marched with the parish priest at their head
upon York, and the surrender of this city determined the waverers. In a few
days Skipton castle, where the Earl of Cumberland held out with a handful of
men, was the only spot north of the Humber which remained true to the King.
Durham rose at the call of the chiefs of the house of Neville, Lords
Westmoreland and Latimer. Though the Earl of Northumberland feigned sickness,
the Percies joined the revolt. Lord Dacre, the chief of the Yorkshire nobles,
surrendered Pomfret, and was acknowledged as their chief by the insurgents.
The whole nobility of the North were now enlisted in the "Pilgrimage of
Grace," as the rising called itself, and thirty thousand "tall men and well
horsed" moved on the Don demanding the reversal of the royal policy, a reunion
with Rome, the restoration of Catherine's daughter, Mary, to her rights as
heiress of the crown, redress for the wrongs done to the Church, and above all
the driving away of base-born councillors, or, in other words, the fall of
Cromwell. Though their advance was checked by negotiation, the organization
of the revolt went steadily on throughout the winter, and a parliament of the
North, which gathered at Pomfret, formally adopted the demands of the
insurgents. Only six thousand men under Norfolk barred their way southward,
and the Midland counties were known to be disaffected.
But Cromwell remained undaunted by the peril. He suffered, indeed,
Norfolk to negotiate; and allowed Henry under pressure from his council to
promise pardon and a free parliament at York, a pledge which Norfolk and Dacre
alike construed into an acceptance of the demands made by the insurgents.
Their leaders at once flung aside the badge of the "Five Wounds" which they
had worn, with a cry, "We will wear no badge but that of our lord the King,"
and nobles and farmers dispersed to their homes in triumph. But the towns of
the North were no sooner garrisoned and Norfolk's army in the heart of
Yorkshire than the veil was flung aside. A few isolated outbreaks in the
spring of 1537 gave a pretext for the withdrawal of every concession.
The arrest of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace was followed by
ruthless severities. The country was covered with gibbets. Whole districts
were given up to military execution. But it was on the leaders of the rising
that Cromwell's hand fell heaviest. He seized his opportunity for dealing at
the northern nobles a fatal blow. "Cromwell," one of the chief among them
broke fiercely out as he stood at the council board, "it is thou that art the
very special and chief cause of all this rebellion and wickedness, and dost
daily travail to bring us to our ends and strike off our heads. I trust that
ere thou die, though thou wouldst procure all the noblest heads within the
realm to be stricken off, yet there shall one head remain that shall strike
off thy head."
But the warning was unheeded. Lord Darcy, who stood first among the
nobles of Yorkshire, and Lord Hussey, who stood first among the nobles of
Lincolnshire, went alike to the block. The Abbot of Barlings, who had ridden
into Lincoln with his canons in full armor, swung with his brother-abbots of
Whalley, Woburn, and Sawley from the gallows. The abbots of Fountains and of
Jervaulx were hanged at Tyburn side by side with the representative of the
great line of Percy. Lady Bulmer was burned at the stake. Sir Robert
Constable was hanged in chains before the gate of Hull.
The defeat of the northern revolt showed the immense force which the
monarchy had gained. Even among the rebels themselves not a voice had
threatened Henry's throne. It was not at the King that they aimed these
blows, but at the "low-born knaves" who stood about the King. At this moment,
too, Henry's position was strengthened by the birth of an heir. On the death
of Anne Boleyn he had married Jane Seymour, the daughter of a Wiltshire
knight; and in 1537 this Queen died in giving birth to a boy, the future
Edward VI. The triumph of the Crown at home was doubled by its triumph in the
great dependency which had so long held the English authority at bay across
St. George's Channel.
With England and Ireland alike at his feet, Cromwell could venture on a
last and crowning change. He could claim for the monarchy the right of
dictating at its pleasure the form of faith and doctrine to be taught
throughout the land. Henry had remained true to the standpoint of the New
Learning; and the sympathies of Cromwell were mainly with those of his master.
They had no wish for any violent break with the ecclesiastical forms of the
past. They desired religious reform rather than religious revolution, a
simplification of doctrine rather than any radical change in it, the
purification of worship rather than the introduction of any wholly new ritual.
Their theology remained, as they believed, a Catholic theology, but a theology
cleared of the superstitious growths which obscured the true Catholicism of
the early Church.
In a word, their dream was the dream of Erasmus and Colet. The spirit of
Erasmus was seen in the articles of religion which were laid before
convocation in 1536; in the acknowledgment of justification by faith, a
doctrine for which the founders of the New Learning, such as Contarini and
Pole, were struggling at Rome itself; in the condemnation of purgatory, of
pardons, and of masses for the dead, as it was seen in the admission of
prayers for the dead and in the retention of the ceremonies of the Church
without material change.
A series of royal injunctions which followed carried out the same policy
of reform. Pilgrimages were suppressed; the excessive number of holy days was
curtailed; the worship of images and relics was discouraged in words which
seemed almost copied from the protest of Erasmus. His appeal for a
translation of the Bible which weavers might repeat at their shuttle and
ploughmen sing at their plough received at last a reply. At the outset of the
ministry of Norfolk and More, the King had promised an English version of the
Scriptures, while prohibiting the circulation of Tyndale's Lutheran
translation. The work, however, lagged in the hands of the bishops; and as a
preliminary measure the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments
were now rendered into English, and ordered to be taught by every schoolmaster
and father of a family to his children and pupils. But the bishops' version
still hung on hand; till, in despair of its appearance, a friend of Archbishop
Cranmer, Miles Coverdale, was employed to correct and revise the translation
of Tyndale; and the Bible which he edited was published in 1538 under the
avowed patronage of Henry himself.
But the force of events was already carrying England far from the
standpoint of Erasmus or More. The dream of the New Learning was to be
wrought out through the progress of education and piety. In the policy of
Cromwell, reform was to be brought about by the brute force of the monarchy.
The story of the royal supremacy was graven even on the title-page of the new
Bible. It is Henry on his throne who gives the sacred volume to Cranmer, ere
Cranmer and Cromwell can distribute it to the throng of priests and laymen
below. Hitherto men had looked on religious truth as a gift from the Church.
They were now to look on it as a gift from the King. The very gratitude of
Englishmen for fresh spiritual enlightenment was to tell to the profit of the
royal power. No conception could be further from that of the New Learning,
from the plea for intellectual freedom which runs through the life of Erasmus,
or the craving for political liberty which gives nobleness to the speculations
of More. Nor was it possible for Henry himself to avoid drifting from the
standpoint he had chosen. He had written against Luther; he had persisted in
opposing Lutheran doctrine; he had passed new laws to hinder the circulation
of Lutheran books in his realm. But influences from without as from within
drove him nearer to Lutheranism. If the encouragement of Francis had done
somewhat to bring about his final breach with the papacy, he soon found little
will in the French King to follow him in any course of separation from Rome;
and the French alliance threatened to become useless as a shelter against the
wrath of the Emperor.
Charles was goaded into action by the bill annulling Mary's right of
succession; and in 1535 he proposed to unite his house with that of Francis by
close intermarriage, and to sanction Mary's marriage with a son of the French
King if Francis would join in an attack on England. Whether such a proposal
was serious or no, Henry had to dread attack from Charles himself and to look
for new allies against it. He was driven to offer his alliance to the
Lutheran princes of North Germany, who dreaded like himself the power of the
Emperor, and who were now gathering in the League of Smalkald.
But the German princes made agreement as to doctrine a condition of their
alliance; and their pressure was backed by Henry's partisans among the clergy
at home. In Cromwell's scheme for mastering the priesthood it had been
needful to place men on whom the King could rely at their head. Cranmer
became primate, Latimer became Bishop of Worcester, Shaxton and Barlow were
raised to the sees of Salisbury and St. David's Hilsey to that of Rochester,
Goodrich to that of Ely, Fox to that of Hereford. But it was hard to find men
among the clergy who paused at Henry's theological resting-place; and of these
prelates all except Latimer were known to sympathize with Lutheranism, though
Cranmer lagged far behind his fellows in their zeal for reform.
The influence of these men, as well as of an attempt to comply at least
partly with the demand of the German princes, left its stamp on the articles
of 1536. For the principle of Catholicism, of a universal form of faith
overspreading all temporal dominions, the Lutheran states had substituted the
principle of territorial religion, of the right of each sovereign or people to
determine the form of belief which should be held within their bounds. The
severance from Rome had already brought Henry to this principle, and the Act
of Supremacy was its emphatic assertion.
In England, too, as in North Germany, the repudiation of the papal
authority as a ground of faith, of the voice of the Pope as a declaration of
truth, had driven men to find such a ground and declaration in the Bible; and
the articles expressly based the faith of the Church of England on the Bible
and the three creeds. With such fundamental principles of agreement it was
possible to borrow from the Augsburg Confession five of the ten articles which
Henry laid before the convocation. If penance was still retained as a
sacrament, baptism and the Lord's Supper were alone maintained to be
sacraments with it; the doctrine of transubstantiation, which Henry stubbornly
maintained, differed so little from the doctrine maintained by Luther that the
words of Lutheran formularies were borrowed to explain it; confession was
admitted by the Lutheran churches as well as by the English. The veneration of
saints and the doctrine of prayer to them, though still retained, were so
modified as to present little difficulty even to a Lutheran.
However disguised in form, the doctrinal advance made in the articles of
1536 was an immense one; and a vehement opposition might have been looked for
from those of the bishops like Gardiner, who, while they agreed with Henry's
policy of establishing a national church, remained opposed to any change in
faith. But the articles had been drawn up by Henry's own hand, and all
whisper of opposition was hushed. Bishops, abbots, clergy, not only
subscribed to them, but carried out with implicit obedience the injunctions
which put their doctrine roughly into practice; and the failure of the
Pilgrimage of Grace in the following autumn ended all thought of resistance
among the laity.
But Cromwell found a different reception for his reforms when he turned
to extend them to the sister-island. The religious aspect of Ireland was
hardly less chaotic than its political aspect had been. Ever since
Strongbow's landing, there had been no one Irish church, simply because there
had been no one Irish nation. There was not the slightest difference in
doctrine or discipline between the Church without the pale and the Church
within it. But within the pale the clergy were exclusively of English blood
and speech, and without it they were exclusively of Irish. Irishmen were shut
out by law from abbeys and churches within the English boundary; and the
ill-will of the natives shut out Englishmen from churches and abbeys outside
As to the religious state of the country, it was much on a level with its
political condition. Feuds and misrule told fatally on ecclesiastical
discipline. The bishops were political officers, or hard fighters, like the
chiefs around them; their sees were neglected, their cathedrals abandoned to
decay. Through whole dioceses the churches lay in ruins and without priests.
The only preaching done in the country was done by the begging friars, and the
results of the friars' preaching were small. "If the King do not provide
remedy," it was said in 1525, "there will be no more Christentie than in the
middle of Turkey."
Unfortunately the remedy which Henry provided was worse than the disease.
Politically Ireland was one with England, and the great revolution which was
severing the one country from the papacy extended itself naturally to the
other. The results of it indeed at first seemed small enough. The supremacy,
a question which had convulsed England, passed over into Ireland to meet its
only obstacle in a general indifference. Everybody was ready to accept it
without a thought of the consequences. The bishops and clergy within the pale
bent to the King's will as easily as their fellows in England, and their
example was followed by at least four prelates of dioceses without the pale.
The native chieftains made no more scruple than the lords of the council
in renouncing obedience to the Bishop of Rome, and in acknowledging Henry as
the "supreme head of the Church of England and Ireland under Christ.There was
none of the resistance to the dissolution of the abbeys which had been
witnessed on the other side of the channel, and the greedy chieftains showed
themselves perfectly willing to share the plunder of the Church.
But the results of the measure were fatal to the little culture and
religion which even the past centuries of disorder had spared. Such as they
were, the religious houses were the only schools that Ireland contained. The
system of vicars, so general in England, was rare in Ireland; churches in the
patronage of the abbeys were for the most part served by the religious
themselves, and the dissolution of their houses suspended public worship over
large districts of the country. The friars, hitherto the only preachers, and
who continued to labor and teach in spite of the efforts of the government,
were thrown necessarily into a position of antagonism to the English rule.
Had the ecclesiastical changes which were forced on the country ended
here, however, in the end little harm would have been done. But in England
the breach with Rome, the destruction of the monastic orders, and the
establishment of the supremacy had aroused in a portion of the people itself a
desire for theological change which Henry shared and was cautiously
satisfying. In Ireland the spirit of the Reformation never existed among the
people at all. They accepted the legislative measures passed in the English
Parliament without any dream of theological consequences, or of any change in
the doctrine or ceremonies of the Church. Not a single voice demanded the
abolition of pilgrimages or the destruction of images or the reform of public
The mission of Archbishop Browne in 1535 "for the plucking down of idols
and extinguishing of idolatry" was a first step in the long effort of the
English government to force a new faith on a people who to a man clung
passionately to their old religion. Browne's attempts at "tuning the pulpits"
were met by a sullen and significant opposition. "Neither by gentle
exhortation," the Archbishop wrote to Cromwell, "nor by evangelical
instruction, neither by oath of them solemnly taken nor yet by threats of
sharp correction, may I persuade or induce any, whether religious or secular,
since my coming over once to preach the Word of God, nor the just title of our
Even the acceptance of the supremacy, which had been so quietly effected,
was brought into question when its results became clear. The bishops
abstained from compliance with the order to erase the Pope's name out of their
mass-books. The pulpits remained steadily silent. When Browne ordered the
destruction of the images and relics in his own cathedral, he had to report
that the prior and canons "find them so sweet for their gain that they heed
not my words."
Cromwell, however, was resolute for a religious uniformity between the
two islands, and the primate borrowed some of his patron's vigor. Recalcitrant
priests were thrown into prison, images were plucked down from the rood-loft,
and the most venerable of Irish relics, the staff of St. Patrick, was burned
in the market-place. But he found no support in his vigor save from across
the channel. The Irish council looked coldly on; even the Lord Deputy still
knelt to say prayers before an image at Trim. A sullen, dogged opposition
baffled Cromwell's efforts, and their only result was to unite all Ireland
against the Crown.
But Cromwell found it easier to deal with Irish inaction than with the
feverish activity which his reforms stirred in England itself. It was
impossible to strike blow after blow at the Church without rousing wild hopes
in the party who sympathized with the work which Luther was doing oversea. Few
as these "Lutherans" or "Protestants" still were in numbers, their new hopes
made them a formidable force; and in the school of persecution they had
learned a violence which delighted in outrages on the faith which had so long
trampled them under foot. At the very outset of Cromwell's changes, four
Suffolk youths broke into a church at Dovercourt, tore down a wonder-working
crucifix, and burned it in the fields.
The suppression of the lesser monasteries was the signal for a new
outburst of ribald insult to the old religion. The roughness, insolence, and
extortion of the commissioners sent to effect it drove the whole monastic body
to despair. Their servants rode along the road with copes for doublets or
tunicles for saddle-cloths, and scattered panic among the larger houses which
were left. Some sold their jewels and relics to provide for the evil day they
saw approaching. Some begged of their own will for dissolution. It was worse
when fresh ordinances of the vicar-general ordered the removal of objects of
superstitious veneration. Their removal, bitter enough to those whose
religion twined itself around the image or the relic which was taken away, was
embittered yet more by the insults with which it was accompanied.
A miraculous rood at Boxley, which bowed its head and stirred its eyes,
was paraded from market to market and exhibited as a juggle before the court.
Images of the Virgin were stripped of their costly vestments and sent to be
publicly burned at London. Latimer forwarded to the capital the figure of Our
Lady, which he had thrust out of his cathedral church at Worcester with rough
words of scorn: "She with her old sister of Walsingham, her younger sister of
Ipswich, and their two other sisters of Doncaster and Penrice, would make a
jolly muster at Smithfield." Fresh orders were given to fling all relics from
their reliquaries, and to level every shrine with the ground. In 1538 the
bones of St. Thomas of Canterbury were torn from the stately shrine which had
been the glory of his metropolitan church, and his name was erased from the
service-books as that of a traitor.
The introduction of the English Bible into churches gave a new opening
for the zeal of the Protestants. In spite of royal injunctions that it should
be read decently and without comment, the young zealots of the party prided
themselves on shouting it out to a circle of excited hearers during the
service of mass, and accompanied their reading with violent expositions.
Protestant maidens took the new English primer to church with them and studied
it ostentatiously during matins. Insult passed into open violence when the
bishops' courts were invaded and broken up by Protestant mobs; and law and
public opinion were outraged at once when priests who favored the new
doctrines began openly to bring home wives to their vicarages.
A fiery outburst of popular discussion compensated for the silence of the
pulpits. The new Scriptures, in Henry's bitter words of complaint, were
"disputed, rhymed, sung, and jangled in every tavern and alehouse." The
articles which dictated the belief of the English Church roused a furious
controversy. Above all, the sacrament of the mass, the centre of the Catholic
system of faith and worship, and which still remained sacred to the bulk of
Englishmen, was attacked with a scurrility and profaneness which pass belief.
The doctrine of transubstantiation, which was as yet recognized by law, was
held up in scorn in ballads and mystery plays. In one church a Protestant
lawyer raised a dog in his hands when the priest elevated the host. The most
sacred words of the old worship, the words of consecration, "Hoc est corpus,"
were travestied into a nickname for jugglery as "Hocus-pocus."
It was by this attack on the mass, even more than by the other outrages,
that the temper both of Henry and the nation was stirred to a deep resentment.
With the Protestants Henry had no sympathy whatever. He was a man of the New
Learning; he was proud of his orthodoxy and of his title of "Defender of the
Faith." And above all he shared to the utmost his people's love of order,
their clinging to the past, their hatred of extravagance and excess. The
first sign of reaction was seen in the parliament of 1539. Never had the
houses shown so little care for political liberty. The monarchy seemed to
free itself from all parliamentary restrictions whatever when a formal statute
gave the King's proclamations the force of parliamentary laws.
Nor did the Church find favor with them. No word of the old opposition
was heard when a bill was introduced granting to the King the greater
monasteries which had been saved in 1536. More than six hundred religious
houses fell at a blow, and so great was the spoil that the King promised never
again to call on his people for subsidies. But the houses were equally at one
in withstanding the new innovations of religion, and an act for "abolishing
diversity of opinions in certain articles concerning Christian religion"
passed with general assent. On the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was
reasserted by the first of six articles to which the act owes its usual name,
there was no difference of feeling or belief between the men of the New
Learning and the older Catholics. But the road to a further instalment of
even moderate reform seemed closed by the five other articles which sanctioned
communion in one kind, the celibacy of the clergy, monastic vows, private
masses, and auricular confession.
A more terrible feature of the reaction was the revival of persecution.
Burning was denounced as the penalty for a denial of transubstantiation; on a
second offence it became the penalty for an infraction of the other five
doctrines. A refusal to confess or to attend mass was made felony. It was in
vain that Cranmer, with the five bishops who partially sympathized with the
Protestants, struggled against the bill in the lords: the commons were "all of
one opinion," and Henry himself acted as spokesman on the side of the
articles. In London alone five hundred Protestants were indicted under the
new act. Latimer and Shaxton were imprisoned, and the former forced into a
resignation of his see. Cranmer himself was only saved by Henry's personal
But the first burst of triumph was no sooner spent than the hand of
Cromwell made itself felt. Though his opinions remained those of the New
Learning and differed little from the general sentiment which found itself
represented in the act, he leaned instinctively to the one party which did not
long for his fall. His wish was to restrain Protestant excesses, but he had
no mind to ruin the Protestants. In a little time therefore the bishops were
quietly released. The London indictments were quashed. The magistrates were
checked in their enforcement of the law, while a general pardon cleared the
prisons of the heretics who had been arrested under its provisions.
A few months after the enactment of the Six Articles we find from a
Protestant letter that persecution had wholly ceased, "the Word is powerfully
preached and books of every kind may safely be exposed for sale." Never indeed
had Cromwell shown such greatness as in his last struggle against fate.
"Beknaved" by the King, whose confidence in him waned as he discerned the full
meaning of the religious changes which Cromwell had brought about, met too by
a growing opposition in the council as his favor declined, the temper of the
man remained indomitable as ever. He stood absolutely alone. Wolsey, hated as
he had been by the nobles, had been supported by the Church; but churchmen
hated Cromwell with an even fiercer hate than the nobles themselves. His only
friends were the Protestants, and their friendship was more fatal than the
hatred of his foes. But he showed no signs of fear or of halting in the
course he had entered on. So long as Henry supported him, however reluctant
his support might be, he was more than a match for his foes.
He was strong enough to expel his chief opponent, Bishop Gardiner of
Winchester, from the royal council. He met the hostility of the nobles with a
threat which marked his power. "If the lords would handle him so, he would
give them such a breakfast as never was made in England, and that the proudest
of them should know."
He soon gave a terrible earnest of the way in which he could fulfil his
threat. The opposition to his system gathered, above all, round two houses
which represented what yet lingered of the Yorkist tradition, the Courtenays
and the Poles. Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter, was of royal blood, a
grandson through his mother of Edward IV. He was known to have bitterly
denounced the "knaves that ruled about the King"; and his threats to "give
them some day a buffet" were formidable in the mouth of one whose influence in
the western counties was supreme.
Margaret, the Countess of Salisbury, a daughter of the Duke of Clarence
by the heiress of the Earl of Warwick, and a niece of Edward IV, had married
Sir Richard Pole, and became mother of Lord Montacute as of Sir Geoffry and
Reginald Pole. The temper of her house might be guessed from the conduct of
the younger of the three brothers. After refusing the highest favors from
Henry as the price of his approval of the divorce, Reginald Pole had taken
refuge at Rome, where he had bitterly attacked the King in a book, The Unity
of the Church.
"There may be found ways enough in Italy," Cromwell wrote to him in
significant words, "to rid a treacherous subject. When Justice can take no
place by process of law at home, sometimes she may be enforced to take new
means abroad." But he had left hostages in Henry's hands. "Pity that the
folly of one witless fool," Cromwell wrote ominously, "should be the ruin of
so great a family. Let him follow ambition as fast as he can, those that
little have offended (saving that he is of their kin), were it not for the
great mercy and benignity of the Prince, should and might feel what it is to
have such a traitor as their kinsman." The "great mercy and benignity of the
Prince" was no longer to shelter them.
In 1538 the Pope, Paul III, published a bull of excommunication and
deposition against Henry, and Pole pressed the Emperor vigorously, though
ineffectually, to carry the bull into execution. His efforts only brought
about, as Cromwell had threatened, the ruin of his house. His brother, Lord
Montacute, and the Marquis of Exeter, with other friends of the two great
families, were arrested on a charge of treason and executed in the opening of
1539, while the Countess of Salisbury was attainted in parliament and sent to
Almost as terrible an act of bloodshed closed the year. The abbots of
Glastonbury, Reading, and Colchester, men who had sat as mitred abbots among
the lords, were charged with a denial of the King's supremacy and hanged as
traitors. But Cromwell relied for success on more than terror. His single
will forced on a scheme of foreign policy whose aim was to bind England to the
cause of the Reformation while it bound Henry helplessly to his minister. The
daring boast which his enemies laid afterward to Cromwell's charge, whether
uttered or not, is but the expression of his system - "In brief time he would
bring things to such a pass that the King with all his power should not be
able to hinder him."
His plans rested, like the plan which proved fatal to Wolsey, on a fresh
marriage of his master; Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour, had died in
childbirth; and in the opening of 1540 Cromwell replaced her by a German
consort, Anne of Cleves, a sister-in-law of the Lutheran Elector of Saxony. He
dared even to resist Henry's caprice when the King revolted on their first
interview from the coarse features and unwieldy form of his new bride. For
the moment Cromwell had brought matters "to such a pass" that it was
impossible to recoil from the marriage, and the minister's elevation to the
earldom of Essex seemed to proclaim his success.
The marriage of Anne of Cleves, however, was but the first step in a
policy which, had it been carried out as he designed it, would have
anticipated the triumphs of Richelieu. Charles and the house of Austria could
alone bring about a Catholic reaction strong enough to arrest and roll back
the Reformation; and Cromwell was no sooner united with the princes of North
Germany than he sought to league them with France for the overthrow of the
Had he succeeded, the whole face of Europe would have been changed,
Southern Germany would have been secured for Protestantism, and the Thirty
Years' War averted. But he failed as men fail who stand ahead of their age.
The German princes shrank from a contest with the Emperor, France from a
struggle which would be fatal to Catholicism; and Henry, left alone to bear
the resentment of the house of Austria and chained to a wife he loathed,
turned savagely on his minister.
In June the long struggle came to an end. The nobles sprang on Cromwell
with a fierceness that told of their long-hoarded hate. Taunts and
execrations burst from the Lords at the council table as the Duke of Norfolk,
who had been intrusted with the minister's arrest, tore the ensign of the
garter from his neck. At the charge of treason Cromwell flung his cap on the
ground with a passionate cry of despair. "This, then," he exclaimed, "is my
guerdon for the services I have done! On your consciences, I ask you, am I a
traitor?" Then, with a sudden sense that all was over, he bade his foes make
quick work, and not leave him to languish in prison.
Quick work was made. A few days after his arrest he was attainted in
parliament, and at the close of July a burst of popular applause hailed his
death on the scaffold.