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British Church in United Kingdom

The Church of England claims to be a branch of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; it is episcopal in its essence and administration, and is established by law in that the state recognizes it as the national church of the English people, an integral part of the constitution of the realm.

History in relation to Law

The rise of Wessex to power seems to have been aided by a good understanding between Ecgbert and the church, and his successors employed bishops as their ministers. Æthelred, who was specially under ecclesiastical influence, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, and before his departure made large grants for pious uses. His donation, though not the origin of tithes in England, illustrates the idea of the sacredness of the tenth of income on which laws enforcing the payment of tithes were founded. (…)

In 1070 papal legates were received and held a council by which Stigand was deposed. Lanfranc, abbot of Bec, was appointed archbishop of Canterbury and worked harmoniously with the king in bringing the English Church up to the level of the church in Normandy. Many native bishops and abbots were deposed, and the Norman prelates who succeeded them were generally of good character, strict disciplinarians, and men of grander ideas. A council of 1075 decreed the removal of bishops’ sees 445 from villages to towns, as on the continent; the see of Sherborne, for example, was removed to Old Sarum, and that of Selsey to Chichester, and many churches statelier than of old were built in the Norman style which the Confessor had already adopted for his church at Westminster. In another council priests and deacons were thenceforward forbidden to marry. William and Lanfranc also worked on Hildebrandine lines in separating ecclesiastical from civil administration. Ecclesiastical affairs were regulated in church councils held at the same time as the king’s councils. Bishops and archdeacons were no longer to exercise their spiritual jurisdiction in secular courts, as had been the custom, but in ecclesiastical courts and according to canon law. The king, however, ruled church as well as state; Gregory granted him control over episcopal elections, he invested bishops with the crozier and they held their temporalities of him, and he allowed no councils to meet and no business to be done without his licence. Gregory claimed homage from him; but while the king promised the payment of Peter’s pence and such obedience as his English predecessors had rendered, he refused homage; he allowed no papal letters to enter the kingdom without his leave, and when an anti-pope was set up, he and Lanfranc treated the question as to which pope should be acknowledged in England as one to be decided by the crown. The Conquest brought the church into closer connexion with Rome and gave it a share in the religious and intellectual life of the continent; it stimulated and purified English monasticism, and it led to the organization of the church as a body with legislative and administrative powers distinct from those of the state. The relations established by the Conqueror between the crown, the church and the pope, its head and supreme judge, worked well as long as the king and the primate were agreed, but were so complex that trouble necessarily arose when they disagreed. William Rufus tried to feudalize the church, to bring its officers and lands under feudal law; he kept bishoprics and abbacies vacant and confiscated their revenues. (…)

Reforms in discipline and clerical work were inculcated by provincial legislation, and two legates, Otho in 1237 and Ottoboni in 1268, promulgated in councils constitutions which were a fundamental part of the canon law in England. Religious life was quickened by the coming of the friars (see Friars). Parochial organization was strengthened by the institution of vicars in benefices held by religious bodies, which was regulated and enforced by the bishops. It was a time of intellectual activity, in character rather cosmopolitan than national. English clerks studied philosophy and theology at Paris or law at Bologna; some remained abroad and were famous as scholars, others like Archbishops Langton, and Edmund Rich, and Bishop Grosseteste returned to be rulers of the church, and others like Roger Bacon to continue their studies in England. The schools of Oxford, however, had already attained repute, and Cambridge began to be known as a place of study. (…)

In 1296 Boniface VIII., by his bull Clericis laicos, forbade the clergy to grant money to lay princes, and Edward’s request for a clerical subsidy was in 1297 refused by convocation led by Archbishop Winchelsea. The king thereupon outlawed the clergy. (…)

In the reign of Edward III. the popes, though appointing to bishoprics by provision, did not give them to foreigners, but they appointed foreigners, enemies of England, to lesser preferments, deaneries and prebends. In 1351 the Statute of Provisors declared provisions unlawful. Capitular elections, however, remained mere forms; the king nominated, and the popes provided, and took advantage of their claim to appoint to sees vacant by translation. Papal interference in suits concerning temporalities was checked by a law of 1353 (the first statute of Praemunire), which made punishable by outlawry and forfeiture the carrying before a foreign tribunal of causes cognizable by English courts. This measure was extended in 1365, and in 1393 by the great statute of Praemunire. Indignant at the law of 1365, Urban V. demanded payment of the tribute promised by John, which was then thirty-three years in arrear, but parliament repudiated the claim. The Black Death disorganized the church by thinning the ranks of the clergy, who did their duty manfully during the plague. In the diocese of Norwich, for example, 800 parishes lost their incumbents in 1349, 83 of them twice over (Jessopp). Large though insufficient numbers were instituted to benefices and unfit persons received holy orders. (…)

With the accession of the Lancastrian house the crown allied itself with the church, and the bishops adopted a repressive policy towards the Lollards. By the canon law obstinate heretics were to be burnt by the secular power, and though England had hitherto been almost free from heresy, one or two burnings had taken place in accordance with that law. In 1401 a statute, De heretico comburendo, ordered that heretics convicted in a spiritual court should be committed to the secular arm and publicly burned, and, while this statute was pending, one Sawtre was burned as a relapsed heretic. Henry V. was zealous for orthodoxy and the persecution of Lollards increased; in 1414 Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham, who had been condemned as a heretic, escaped and made an insurrection; he was taken in 1417 and hanged and burned. Lollardism was connected with an insurrection in 1431; it then ceased to have any political importance, but it kept its hold in certain towns and districts on the lower classes; many Lollards were forced to recant and others suffered martyrdom. The church was in an unsatisfactory state. As regards the papacy, the crown generally maintained the position taken up in the previous century, but its policy was fitful, and the custom of allowing bishops who were made cardinals to retain their sees strengthened papal influence. The bishops were largely engaged in secular business; there was much plurality, and cathedral and collegiate churches were frequently left to inferior officers whose lives were unclerical. (…)

In 1521 Henry VIII. wrote a book against Luther in which he maintained the papal authority, and was rewarded by Leo X. with the title of Defender of the Faith. Henry, however, whose will was to himself as the oracles of God, finding that the pope opposed his intended divorce from Catherine of Aragon, determined to allow no supremacy in his realm save his own. He carried out his ecclesiastical policy by parliamentary help. Parliament was packed, and was skilfully managed; and he had on his side the popular impatience of ecclesiastical abuses, a new feeling of national pride which would brook no foreign interference, the old desire of the laity to lighten their own burdens by the wealth of the church, and a growing inclination to question or reject sacerdotal authority. He used these advantages to forward his policy, and when he met with opposition, enforced his will as a despot. The parliament of 1529 lasted until 1536; it broke the bonds of Rome, established royal supremacy over the English Church, and effected a redistribution of national wealth at the expense of the spirituality. It began by acts abolishing ecclesiastical exactions, such as excessive mortuaries and fees for probate, and by prohibiting pluralities except in stated cases, application to Rome for licence to evade the act being made penal. Henry having crushed his minister Cardinal Wolsey, archbishop of York, declared the whole body of the clergy involved in a praemunire by their submission to Wolsey’s legatine authority, and ordered the convocation to purchase pardon by a large payment, and by acknowledging him as “Protector and Supreme Head of the English Church and Clergy.” After much debate, the acknowledgment was made in 1531, with the qualification “so far as the law of Christ allows.” A “supplication” against clerical jurisdiction and legislation by convocation was obtained from the Commons in 1532, and Henry received from convocation the “submission of the clergy,” surrendering its legislative power except on royal licence, and consenting to a revision of the canon law by commissioners to be appointed by the king. A bill for conditionally withholding the payment of annates, or first-fruits, to Rome was passed, and Henry took advantage of the fear of the Roman court lest it should lose these payments, to obtain without the usual fees bulls promoting Cranmer to the see of Canterbury in 1533, and thus was enabled to gain his divorce. Cranmer pronounced his marriage to Catherine null, and declared him lawfully married to Anne Boleyn. Clement VII. retorted by excommunicating the king, but for that Henry cared not. Appeals to Rome were forbidden by statute, and the council ordained that the pope should thenceforth only be spoken of as bishop of Rome, as not having authority in England. In 1534 the restraint of annates was confirmed by law, all payments to Rome were forbidden, and it was enacted that, on receiving royal licence to elect, cathedral chapters must elect bishops nominated by the king. The papal power was extirpated by statute, parliament at the same time declaring that neither the king nor kingdom would vary from the “Catholic faith of Christendom.” The submission of the clergy was made law. Appeals from the archbishops’ courts were to be to the king in chancery, and were to be heard by commissioners, whence arose the Court of Delegates as the court of final appeal in ecclesiastical cases. The first-fruits and tenths of benefices were given to the king, and his title as “Supreme Head in earth of the Church of England” was declared by parliament without the qualification added by convocation. Fisher, bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, lately chancellor, the two most eminent Englishmen, were beheaded in 1535 on an accusation of attempting to deprive the king of this title, and some Carthusian monks suffered a more cruel martyrdom in the same cause. Meanwhile New Testaments were burnt, and heretics, or reformers, forced to abjure or, remaining steadfast, were sent to the stake, for though the heresy law of Henry IV. was repealed, heresy was still punishable by death, and persecution was not abated. By breaking the bonds of Rome Henry did not give the church freedom; he substituted a single despotism for the dual authority which pope and king had previously exercised over it. In 1535 Cromwell, the king’s vicar-general, began a visitation of the monasteries. The reports (comperta) of his commissioners having been delivered to the king and communicated to parliament in 1536, parliament declared the smaller monasteries corrupt, and granted the king all of less value than £200 a year. A rebellion in Lincolnshire and another in the north, the formidable Pilgrimage of Grace, followed. The suppression of the greater houses was effected gradually, surrenders were obtained by pressure, and three abbots who were reluctant to give up the possessions of their convents for confiscation were hanged. Monastic shrines and treasuries were sacked and the spoil sent to the king, to whom parliament granted all the houses, their lands and possessions. Of the enormous wealth thus gained Henry spent a part on national defence, a little on the foundation of the bishoprics of Westminster, dissolved in 1550, Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford and Peterborough, and gave the lands to men either useful to or favoured by himself, or sold them to rich purchasers. In 1536 he dictated the belief and ceremonial of the church by issuing Ten Articles which were subscribed by convocation. This first formulary of the English Church as separate from Rome did not contravene Catholic doctrine, though it showed the influence of Lutheran models. Another exposition of Anglican doctrine was made in the Institution of a Christian Man or “Bishops’ book,” in some respects more likely to satisfy those attached to the tenets of Rome, in others, as in the distinct repudiation of purgatory and the declaration that salvation depended solely on the merits of Christ, showing an advance. It was published in 1537 with Henry’s sanction but not by authority. In that year licence was granted for the sale of a translation of the Bible, and in 1538 another version called Matthew’s Bible, was ordered to be kept in all churches (see 448 Bible). Pilgrimages were suppressed and images used for worship destroyed. Denial of the king’s supremacy, denial of the corporal presence in the Eucharist, and insults to Catholic rites were alike punished by cruel death. The publication abroad of the king’s excommunication rendered an assertion of orthodoxy advisable for political reasons, and in 1539 came the Act of the Six Articles attaching extreme penalties to deviations from Catholic doctrines. The backward swing of the pendulum continued; Cromwell was beheaded and three reforming preachers were burnt in 1540. Prosecutions for heresy under the act were fitful: four gospellers were burnt in London in 1546, of whom the celebrated Anne Askew was one. Cranmer, however, did not lose the king’s favour. A fresh attempt to define doctrine was made in the Necessary Doctrine and Erudition of a Christian Man, the “King’s Book,” published by authority in 1543, which, while repudiating the pope, was a declaration of Catholic orthodoxy. A Primer, or private prayer-book, of which parts were in English, as the litany composed by Cranmer, and virtually the same as at present, was issued in 1546, and further liturgical change seemed probable when Henry died in 1547. (…)

Parliament ordered that bishops should be appointed by letters patent and hold their courts in the king’s name. An act of the last reign granting the king all chantries and gilds was enlarged and enforced with cruel injustice to the poor. On the petition of convocation parliament allowed the marriage of priests; and it further ordered that the laity should receive the cup in communion. A communion book was issued by the council in English, the Latin mass being retained for a time. Many German reformers came to England, were favoured by the council, and gained influence over Cranmer. The first Book of Common Prayer was authorized by an Act of Uniformity in 1549; it retained much from old service books, but the communion office is Lutheran in character. It excited discontent, and a serious insurrection broke out in the West, the insurgents demanding the revival of the Act of the Six Articles and the withdrawal of the new service as “like a Christmas game.” After Somerset’s fall the government rapidly pushed forward reformation. A new Ordinal issued with parliamentary approval in 1550 was significant of the change in sacramental doctrine, and the four minor orders disappeared. Altars were destroyed and tables substituted. Five bishops, Bonner of London, Gardiner of Winchester, and Heath of Worcester, then already in prison, and two others, were deprived; and the Lady Mary, who would not give up the mass, was harshly treated. The reformers were not tolerant; for a woman was burnt for Arianism in 1550 and a male Anabaptist in 1551. Under the influence of foreign reformers, who took a lower view of the Eucharist than the Lutheran divines, Cranmer soon advanced beyond the prayer-book of 1549. A second prayer-book, departing further from the old order, appeared in 1552, and without being accepted by convocation was enforced by another Act of Uniformity, and in 1553 a catechism and forty-two articles of religion were authorized by Edward for subscription by the clergy, though not laid before convocation. A revision of the canon law in accordance with the act for “submission of the clergy” was at last undertaken in 1551, but the only result was a document entitled Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum, which never received authority. Edward died in 1553. Apart from matters of faith, the church had fared ill under a royal supremacy exercised by self-seeking nobles in the name of the boy-king. Convocation lost all authority and bishops were treated as state officials liable to deprivation for disobedience to the council. (…)

Apparently Mary at first believed that her authority would be accepted in religious matters; but she met with opposition, partly provocative, for Wyat’s rebellion consequent on her intended marriage to Philip of Spain was closely connected with religion, and more largely passive in the noble resolution of those who chose martyrdom rather than denial of their faith. To the nation at large, though not averse from the old doctrines and practices of the church, a return to the Roman obedience was distasteful. Nevertheless, Cardinal Pole was received as legate, and the title of Supreme Head of the Church having been dropped, a parliament carefully packed, and the fears of the rich appeased by the assurance that they would not have to surrender the monastic lands, he absolved the nation in parliament and reunited it to the Church of Rome on November 30, 1554, the clergy being absolved in convocation. Parliament repealed all acts against the Roman see since the twentieth year of Henry VIII. The heresy laws were revived, and a horrible persecution of those who refused to disown the doctrines of the prayer-book began in 1555, and lasted during the remainder of the reign. Nearly 300 persons were burned to death as heretics in these four years, among them being five bishops. (…)

The Commons became increasingly Puritan; they were strongly Protestant and demanded the enforcement of the laws against recusants, who suffered much, specially after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, though they were sometimes shielded by the king. The Commons regarded ecclesiastical jurisdiction with dislike, specially the Court of High Commission, which had developed from the ecclesiastical commissions of Elizabeth and was hated as a means of coercion based on prerogative. The bishops derived their support from the king, and the church in return supported the king’s claim to absolutism and divine right. It suffered heavily from this alliance. As men saw the church on the side of absolutism, Puritanism grew strong both among the country gentry, who were largely represented in the Commons, and among the nation at large, and the church lost ground through the king’s political errors. A restoration of order and decency in worship and the introduction of more ceremonial begun in James’s reign were carried on by Laud (q.v.) under Charles I. Laud aimed at silencing disputes about doctrine and enforcing outward uniformity; the Puritans hated ceremonial and wished to make every one accept their doctrines. Many of the reforms introduced by Laud after he became archbishop in 1633 were needful, but they offended the Puritans and were enforced in a harsh and tyrannical manner, for he lacked wisdom and sympathy. Under his rule nonconforming clergy were deprived and sometimes imprisoned. The cruel punishments inflicted by the Court of Star Chamber of which he was a member, the unpopularity of the High Commission Court, his own harsh dealing, and the part which he took in politics as a confidential adviser of the king, combined to bring odium upon him and upon the ecclesiastical system which he represented. The church was weak, for the Laudian system was disliked by the nation. A storm of discontent with the course of affairs both in church and state gathered. In 1640 Charles, after dissolving parliament, prolonged the session of convocation, which issued canons magnifying the royal authority and imposing the so-called “et cetera oath” against innovations on all clergy, graduates 450 and others. The Long Parliament voted the canons illegal; Laud was imprisoned, and in 1642 the bishops were excluded from parliament. The civil war began in 1642; in 1643 a bill was passed for the taking away of episcopacy, in 1645 Laud was beheaded, and parliament abolished the prayer-book and accepted the Presbyterian directory, and from 1646 Presbyterianism was the legal form of church government. (…)

In accordance with an agreement between Archbishop Sheldon and Lord Chancellor Clarendon, the clergy ceased to tax themselves in convocation, and from 1665 have been taxed by parliament. James II., though a Romanist, promised to protect the church, and the clergy were on his side in the rebellion of the duke of Monmouth, who was supported by dissenters. The church and the nation, however, were strongly Protestant and were soon alarmed by his efforts to Romanize the country. James dispensed with the law by prerogative and appointed Romanists to offices in defiance of the Test Act. In 1688 he ordered that his declaration for liberty of conscience, issued in the interest of Romanism, should be read in all churches. His order was almost universally disobeyed. Archbishop Sancroft and six bishops who remonstrated against it were brought to trial, and were acquitted to the extreme delight of the nation. James’s attack on the church cost him his crown. (…)

A bill for union was rejected in the Commons, where the church party had a majority, though one for toleration of Protestant dissenters became law. William, anxious for concessions to dissenters, appointed a committee of convocation for altering the liturgy, canons and ecclesiastical courts, but the Tory party in the lower house of convocation was strong and the scheme was abortive. (…)

A revival of spirituality and energy at last set in. Its origin has been traced to Law’s Serious Call, published in 1728. Law’s teaching was actively carried out by John Wesley (q.v.), a clergyman who from 1739 devoted himself to evangelization. (…)



Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

J. Collier, Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain (to 1685), ed. T. Lathbury (9 vols., London, 1852); T. Fuller, Church History (to 1648), ed. J. S. Brewer (Oxford, 1845), valuable near the author’s own time; C. Dodd, Church History of England (to 1625, by a Roman Catholic), ed. M. A. Tierney (5 vols., London, 1839-1843); Dean W. F. Hook, Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury (to 1663) (12 vols., London, 1860-1879); G. G. Perry, Students’ English Church History (to 1884) (London, 1887), a carefully written book; A History of the English Church, ed. Stephens and Hunt, in 8 vols., noticed below under various periods; H. O. Wakeman, An Introduction to the History of the Church of England (London, 1896), a brightly written manual by a pronounced high churchman. Documents: D. Wilkins, Concilia (446-1717) (4 vols. fol., London, 1737), a splendid work; A. W. Haddan and Bishop W. Stubbs, Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents (3 vols., Oxford, 1869-1873), supersedes Wilkins so far as it goes, but deals with English Church only to 870, with Welsh, Scottish and Cumbrian churches to later dates; H. Gee and W. J. Hardy, Documents of English Church History (to 1700) (London, 1896), useful for students. Constitutional: Bishop W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England (parts of) (3 vols., revised ed., Oxford, 1895-1897), a work of great learning; F. Makower, Constitutional History of the Church of England, from the German (London, 1895); F. W. Maitland, Roman Canon Law in the Church of England (London, 1898)

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  • Article Name: British Church
  • Author: International
  • Description: The Church of England claims to be a branch of the Catholic and Apostolic Church; it is episcopal in its essence and [...]

This entry was last updated: November 9, 2016



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