Reformation in Ireland

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter XXIV

Henry made his first appearance at establishing his spiritual supremacy in the year 1534, by appointing an Augustinian friar, who had already [9] become a Protestant, to the see of Dublin. He was consecrated by Cranmer, always the servile instrument of the royal pleasure. The previous events in England, which resulted in the national schism, are too well known to require much observation. It must be admitted as one of the most patent facts of history, that the English King never so much as thought of asserting his supremacy in spiritual matters, until he found that submission to Papal supremacy interfered with his sinful inclinations. If Pope Clement VII. had dissolved the marriage between Queen Catherine and Henry VIII. in 1528, Parliament would not have been asked to legalize the national schism in 1534. Yet it would appear as if Henry had hesitated for a moment before he committed the final act of apostacy.

It was Cromwell who suggested the plan which he eventually followed. With many expressions of humility he pointed out the course which might be pursued. The approbation of the Holy See, he said, was the one thing still wanting. It was plain now that neither bribes nor threats could procure that favour. But was it so necessary as the King had hitherto supposed? It might be useful to avert the resentment of the German Emperor; but if it could not be obtained, why should the King's pleasure depend on the will of another? Several of the German princes had thrown off their allegiance to the Holy See: why, then, should not the English King? The law could legalize the King's inclination, and who dare gainsay its enactments? Let the law declare Henry the head of the Church, and he could, as such, give himself the dispensations for which he sought. The law which could frame articles of faith and sanction canons, could regulate morals as easily as it could enact a creed.

Such counsel was but too acceptable to a monarch resolved to gratify his passions at all hazards, temporal or spiritual. Cromwell was at once appointed a member of the Privy Council. He received a patent for life of the Chancellorship of the Exchequer, and he was authorized to frame the necessary bills, and conduct them through the two houses.[1] Parliament complied without hesitation; the clergy in convocation made a show of opposition, which just sufficed to enhance their moral turpitude, since their brief resistance intimated that they acted contrary to their consciences in giving their final assent. The royal supremacy in matters ecclesiastical, was declared to be the will of God and the law of the land.

The King's mistress was now made his wife, by the same authority which had made the King head of the Church; and it was evident that the immediate cause of the separation of the English nation from the Catholic Church was the desire of the monarch, that his profligacy should obtain some kind of sanction. But this commencement of the Anglican Establishment, however true, is so utterly disreputable, that English historians have been fain to conceal, as far as might be, the real cause, and to justify the schism by bringing grave charges [2] against the Church. This, after all, is a mere petitio principii.

It has been already remarked that England was demoralized socially to an extraordinary degree, as a nation always has been by a continuance of civil war. The clergy suffered from the same causes which affected the laity, and the moral condition of the ecclesiastical body was not all that could be desired. These were remote causes, which acted powerfully as they rolled along the stream of time, and which broke the barriers of faith like an overwhelming torrent, when an additional impetus was given. But it should be distinctly remembered (1) that the direct act of schism was committed when Henry required Parliament and Convocation to exalt him to the spiritual supremacy; and (2) that the sins of churchmen and the faith of the Church are two distinct questions. There may have been more corruption of life and morals, both in the laity and the priesthood of the Catholic Church at the Reformation, than at any other period of the Church's history; but the Jews had been commanded to obey the Scribes and Pharisees, because they sat in Moses' seat, at the very time when the Lamb of God could find no milder term to describe their hypocrisy and iniquity than that of a generation of vipers.

If schism is admitted to be a sin, it is difficult to see how any amount of crime with which other individuals can be charged, even justly, lessens the guilt of the schismatic. There can be little doubt that the members of the Church are most fervent and edifying in their lives, when suffering from persecution. Ambition has less food when there are no glittering prizes within its reach. Faith is more sincere when there are no motives for a false profession, and every natural motive to conceal religious belief. The Irish clergy were never charged with the gross crimes which have been mentioned in connexion with some few of their brethren in England. Those who ministered outside the Pale, lived in poverty and simplicity. The monasteries were not so richly endowed as the English conventual houses; and, perhaps, this freedom from the world's goods, served to nerve them for the coming trial; and that their purer and more fervent lives saved the Irish Church and people from national apostacy.


[9] Already.—Mant describes him as a man "whose mind was happily freed from the thraldom of Popery," before his appointment.—History of the Church of Ireland, vol. i. p. 111.

[1] Houses.—Lingard, vol. vi. p. 203.

[2] Charges.—Mr. Froude has adopted this line with considerable ability, in his History of England. He has collected certain statements, which he finds in the books of the Consistory Courts, and gives details from these cases which certainly must "shock his readers" considerably, as he expects. He leaves it to be implied that, as a rule, ecclesiastics lived in open immorality. He gives names and facts concerning the punishment of priests for vicious lives (History of England, vol. i. pp. 178-180); and asserts that their offences were punished lightly, while another measure was dealt out to seculars. He might as well select the eases of scandal given by Protestant clergymen in modern times from the law books, and hold them up as specimens of the lives of all their brethren. The cases were exceptions; and though they do prove, what is generally admitted, that the moral condition of the clergy was not all that could be desired in individual cases, they also prove that such cases were exceptional, and that they were condemned by the Church, or they would not have been punished. With regard to the punishment, we can scarcely call it a light penance for a priest to be compelled to go round the church barefoot, to kneel at each altar and recite certain prayers, and this while High Mass was singing. It was a moral disgrace, and keener than a corporal punishment. The writer also evidently misunderstands the Catholic doctrine of absolution, when he says that a fine of six-and-eightpence was held sufficient penalty for a mortal sin.