The Political Revolution
Thomas Cromwell's 1531 appointment to the inner ring of the king's council signified the start of a political revolution in England, though Henry VIII himself was likely unaware of its nature. It was Cromwell who suggested first to Henry that he break all ties with Rome in 1532, and it was he who engineered, with Henry's sanction, some of the greatest political changes in sixteenth century England.
The most significant political motions in Henry's break with Rome were, first, the passage through the House of Commons of the Supplication against the Ordinaries, or the Submission of the Clergy in 1532, and, second, the March 1533 restraint of all legal appeals to Rome. The Commons' Supplication, received enthusiastically by Henry, overthrew the constitutional independence of the Church and described the king as the "supreme legislator" in the realm. The Act of Appeals, largely the work of Cromwell, stated the following in its preamble: "This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown of the same." In other words, England, along with her king, was absolutely independent and owed no allegiance to any other figure or body, religious or political, on earth.
In January 1535, Henry named Cromwell his Viceregent, giving him the sort of political sway Thomas Wolsey once possessed. Together, Henry and Cromwell presided over the parliaments which passed the Ten Articles, the Six Articles, established new episcopal sees, and made many other political reforms which were tied into the constitution and reconstitution of the Church of England. Henry and Cromwell used Parliament extensively in the cause of the new regime.
Cromwell engineered major changes in the bureaucratic structure of Henry's administration. By 1536, the inner ring of the king's council had been transformed into a proper institution known as the Privy Council. It was no longer an informal body wielding uncertain amounts of influence over the king's decision-making. It became a formal body, with defined conciliar functions. By the 1540s, the financial administration and other ministries had been streamlined and made more efficient, and the Crown was bringing in increased revenues from taxation.
Thomas Cromwell possessed a secular mindset that enabled him to look at the forms of the new Church of England as serving more of a worldly function than a spiritual one. He wished to see England become a great political state, in the modern sense of that word. The concept of national sovereignty was not commonly accepted or understood in the early sixteenth century, but it was at the heart of Cromwell's political understanding. Henry's marriage crisis and attendant break from the Roman Church catalyzed England into a political culture animated by a principle of absolute national sovereignty.
It is of revolutionary significance in English history that Henry described himself not only as Supreme Head of the Church of England, but also that he considered himself "the supreme legislator" of the realm. This may not seem revolutionary to us in the twenty-first century, but in the terms of political philosophy debated at the time, the idea of "supreme legislator" involved a law- making power reserved first to God and that which He delegated to the Pope. It also related to an idea of imperial authority which the Roman emperors once wielded, but which no Christian monarch of Henry's stature had so boldly claimed for himself. This meant that the English government, for the first time, was acknowledging the supremacy of man-made law in the realm. In contrast to the medieval understanding that it was the primary business of government to discover laws and then administer them, Henry's new regime made it the central business of government to make and then administer the law.
Ironically, while Henry claimed for himself powers never claimed before by any English king, the underlying story of his political revolution is not his personal lust for power, but rather his unprecedented employment of Parliament in his service. The 1534 Act of Supremacy established the absolute sovereignty of the king in Parliament. Although this did not mean that Parliament conferred sovereignty upon Henry, it did mean that England's monarchy was a constitutional monarchy, and not an absolute one as was often the case in nations such as France and Spain.
Practically speaking, Henry had little choice in employing Parliament as he did in his reformation. He could not break all of England's ties to Rome by himself, and he needed the force of parliamentary law to see his plans through to success. It was fortunate that Henry had Cromwell at his side to employ Parliament as skillfully as he did, simultaneously establishing the supreme authority he desired as King of England and establishing important institutional groundwork for the future stability and effectiveness of the English constitution. Parliament was an essential element in Henry's political revolution.
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