Church, State and Community in England During the Reign of Henry VII, 1485-1509

Kieran Hughes MA, Nov 2019

Throughout the reign of Henry VII the Catholic Church remained an integral part of the fabric of every community. Its eight thousand churches were the bedrock of spiritually, morality, culture and socio-economic existence. The pope did very little to interfere with its day-to-day running and the king retained his prerogative and regalian rights without question. It was Pope Martin V, 1417-1431, who stated that it was the king and not the pope who controlled the Church in England.[1] Prayers were commonly said for the pope during mass and a relationship of cooperation between England and Rome continued. There was no sign of decay or tiredness of tradition.

In terms of English culture, in the localities people lived their lives in line with the Church calendar and ceremonies. A sense of community was enhanced by the generous work of guilds and fraternities. Individual religious experiences were moulded by communal worship, good fellowship, charitable deeds, community collaboration and employment offered by these great landowning establishments. Living in line with the seven sacraments gave individuals structure and contentment.

Politically at home and abroad the role of the Church was significant. Eamon Duffy identified the strength the Church held over the population explaining that ‘late-Medieval Catholicism exerted an enormously strong, diverse and vigorous hold over the imagination and loyalty of the people.’[2]  In reality it was a political tool to control the people. Bishops and abbots of the larger houses sat in the House of Lords and often had political power to match their ecclesiastical roles. Henry changed the nature of the bishops’ bench in England, appointing men of legal and administrative ability, seeing this as more important than their spiritual experience and capabilities. One more change that happened was the reduction of the social standing of bishops, avoiding recruitment from the aristocracy. Bishop John Morton and Archbishop Richard Fox became the most important men of religious business during Henry’s reign. Service to the State, even to the detriment of the Church, was required of Henry’s bishops according to John Guy. [3] The archbishops of York and Canterbury sat over seventeen bishops’ dioceses and many took part in high level political processes. The clergy dominated the highest ranks of government. Henry’s deliberate change of the nature of the bishops’ bench was profound and forward thinking.

In legal terms Church courts operated in perfect synergy with the English legal system. However, Henry VII did attempt to update some ecclesiastical laws, for example, not giving automatic immunity to clerks from the secular courts. They could avoid prosecution if they could demonstrate good literacy skills. Henry also challenged the Medieval practise of ‘Privilege of Sanctuary’ and ‘Oath of Abjuration.’ Henry VII wrote a letter to the pope wanting to, ‘prohibit sanctuary to all such as had once enjoyed it; and to adjudge all Englishmen who fled to the sanctuary for the offence of treason, to be enemies to the Christian faith.’[4] Henry was successful in his plea to the pope to use his authority in this matter; Pope Alexander agreed to the king’s demands.

Meanwhile, doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church enjoyed almost unchallenged superiority in England. Catholics were devoted to their pilgrimages, saints’ holidays and the mass. Mass was important as it was performed by the local priest on behalf of the community’s congregation, a sacred ritual for everyone to enjoy. Teachings were enacted in the Corpus Christi and Miracle plays. Meanwhile, doom paintings and church windows gave the traditional religious stories and messages. The Church set out a structured path for religious thought and deeds to reduce purgatory and get to Heaven. The seven sacraments provided a blueprint for attainment and religious satisfaction. 

The Church was also a money machine, linking Crown, people and the Church. People left money in their will to the Church to be remembered in local worship and to reduce time spent in purgatory. Benefactors left money for the foundation of chantries, again, a route to eternal peace in Heaven. Henry VII saw the Church as a source of potential revenue, moving bishops from once diocese to another. Regalian rights of a monarch allowed him to receive the income from the estates of a vacant bishopric or abbacy. He took full advantage of this ancient practice.  The Church was not taxed but Henry also enjoyed his ancient right of encouraging financial gifts to be donated to his coffers.  Henry VII was also a devoted church builder, creating a splendid chantry chapel in Westminster Abbey and founding two Observant Franciscan houses: one in Greenwich (1482), and one in Richmond (1500). There is evidence that many monks drawn to larger orders like the Cistercians and Carthusians were drawn from a range of social groups.  Some of the Benedictine monasteries recruited monks from the wealthiest people. There were around 900 monastery communities offering, employment, rest, alms and hospitality, integral to the community, a lifeline that Henry VIII would later obliterate. Orders of friars were different, recruiting from lower down the social scale and dependent on bequests in wills and charitable donations.

There was some opposition to Church, practises and doctrine by individuals and groups at this time. Some called for the abuses to stop. Can elements of worship be described as abusive? There are several problems with this; what was not seen as abuse in 1490, for example, might be seen as abuse at a later date.  Also, how can one describe abuse within this context, is it because the Church charged for some of its services or because it promised too much without proof? There was certainly opposition to Church culture and finances but there was little papal opposition. Anti-clericalism existed on a number of levels, most famously in the shape of the Lollards. Lollardy prospered among traders, city artisans and the gentry classes. They based their beliefs on the Bible but were clearly anti-papal, in 1489 describing the pope as ‘an old whore’. Their founder John Wycliffe favoured an English Bible as he believed in a strong understanding of the Bible but was sceptical about the Eucharist and transubstantiation. Lollards saw the Catholic Church as corrupt and said that there was no special status for priests. Then there was John Colet, a Humanist who campaigned for change in the Church from within. Colet believed that Bible study was the one true route to holiness. He attacked the abuses and idolatry within the Church and demonstrated views that were too radical for many at the time.[5] Overall, there was criticism of the Church but anti-clericalism was neither widespread nor overwhelming during Henry’s reign. Christopher Haig says outbursts were rare and politically motivated.[6]  

On the whole pre-Reformation Church in England was with little trouble. Humanists did not strongly challenge Catholic principles but they did criticise some practices, like transubstantiation. Lollards were firmly put in their place. Matters changed from 1529 to the end of the Tudor regime when other motives led rebellion but religion fronted grievances. For example, a bitter Aragonese faction supported the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, and the Western Rebellion of 1549 might have been triggered by the Book of Common Prayer but  the actual cause was more about the economy; trust between labourers and landowners. Rebellions during Elizabeth's reign were a mixture of doctrine and power. Historians should examine the link between cause and trigger and be content to consider any continental context as well. 

[1] M. Tillbrook, The Tudors 1485-1603, published 2015.

[2] E. Duffy, The Stripping of the Alters: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580, published 1992.

[3] J. Guy, The Tudors, published 1988.

[6] Quoted in R. Whiting, The Blind Devotion of the People: Popular Religion and the English Reformation, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p.262.