While the case for a divorce against Catherine of Aragon was building, one aspect of the church that the advisors of Henry VIII was studying revolved around what were perceived as church abuses – abuses of church power and authority. If the likes of Thomas Cromwell could prove that the church was letting down its flock as a result of these abuses, then it would seemingly be all the more easy to convince the English public that the church needed wholesale reform without provoking any sort of backlash.
Most of the abuses identified by Henry’s advisors involved money. The Church was a very wealthy organisation and owned vast amounts of land throughout England and Wales. Despite this wealth, the church still charged the general public for its services – be it a baptism, wedding or burial – all Christian ceremonies that took place on a very regular basis. Though the individual amount for each ‘service’ was small, to the poor it was money they could ill afford to pay. This was an easy issue for Henry to target as it was a double-edged attack – your money is being taken by a very wealthy organisation for services that the church states must take place if you are to go to Heaven. Henry’s advisors could play on the money issue and the fact that the church all but demanded this money. However, what was stated – and the money issue was an easy target – and what was truth were two different issues. While the Church was a very rich organisation and men at the top, such as Cardinal Wolsey, were wealthy and lived luxurious lives, this was not universally true throughout the land. Not all priests charged for their services and many were poor. Many priests lived within their communities and worked for their flock. They were certainly not living the style of life experienced by bishops, archbishops etc. However, many served numerous parishes and were seen as absentee priests or non-residential within one parish. Therefore, they could not serve all their flock at once and this left them open to attack – often unfairly – by Henry’s advisors who tried to cultivate a negative attitude not towards Christianity within the land but against those who worked in the Church. As the church played a major part in the day-to-day life of everybody in the kingdom, it was an easy target to attack.
A detailed list of church abuses was aired in the 1529 Reformation Parliament by a group of London MP’s. As there were no parliamentary records kept at this time there are no official records. However, Edward Hall, a Member of Parliament, wrote about this in his ‘Chronicles’. How accurate his writings are is open to debate especially as he was almost certainly a member of the group that aired these abuses. Hall recounted that the House was swept with indignation when it was informed about absentee priests, pluralism etc. If he had been a member of the MP’s who wanted to air these grievances then he was almost certainly exaggerating what occurred. However, three measures were passed by Parliament to limit pluralism and non-residence. If Henry was angered by the Reformation Parliament, he did not show it. What it did demonstrate to the Pope, however, was that anti-clericalism did exist in England and it is thought that it was allowed by Henry so as to put pressure on the Pope to grant an annulment.
Church ‘abuses’ were used as a reason for the government to attack the church. There is little doubt that Henry was very interested in acquiring much of the wealth of the church. He was advised to take legal action against a small group of senior churchmen or against churchmen in general if their loyalty to the king was in question. Another approach against the Church was to put pressure on it to hand over to Henry a very large sum of money as a sign of its loyalty to the king. Henry was also advised to take legal control of the Church – this ended in the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which effectively gave Henry this power. By combining all three, Henry started a movement that was to end the authority of the Pope in England and Wales and ultimately culminated in establishment of the Church of England in the reign of Elizabeth at the expense of Catholicism.
At the end of 1530, all churchmen in England and Wales were charged with praemunire. This was a catch-all legal term that arose from the C14th when laws were passed that forbade all clerics from taking any action that reduced the authority and powers of the crown. In particular, these acts forbade clerics from recognising any foreign authority as being more powerful than the king unless they had the monarch’s express permission to do so. These laws were used to bring down Wolsey. They were then used on all clerics as they had by their very vocation placed the Pope at the top of their ‘loyalty chain’ but without the king’s permission. During the reign of Henry VII this was not an issue as Henry VII was a devout Roman Catholic and during his reign there is no evidence to even suggest the smallest of clashes with the Pope. However, during the whole annulment issue, these C14th laws became invaluable – especially as Henry could claim that they had not been passed by him to influence any decisions, and that he was simply using the law as it stood. If the churchmen were found guilty of breaking the law, they faced the real prospect of losing their property to the Crown.