CHAPTER VI. HENRY VIII (ii), 1509-32 - BIRTH OF THE REFORMATION
The wholesale condemnation of later days has been largely due to the acceptance without qualification of denunciations poured forth in the heat of controversy, in days when men did not mince words and were not given to the careful weighing of evidence. Typical of such works is the Supplicacyon for the Beggers produced by one Simon Fish in 1527, which has been seriously treated as a sober indictment. The Clergy, from Bishops to "Somners" are a "rauinous cruell and insatiabill generacion" ... "counterfeit holy and ydell beggers and vacabundes" ... "that corrupt the hole generation of mankind," committing "rapes murdres and treasons". They are a "gredy sort of sturdy idell holy theues" habitually guilty of every conceivable form of vice and profligacy. The pamphlet teams with arithmetical absurdities. It is simply inconceivable that the growth within the realm of such an organisation as is here depicted would have been permitted; or that, if there, it would not have been sternly repressed by Henry VII.; or that if it had survived the first Tudor, the second would have suffered it to flourish unregarded for eighteen years of his reign. The exaggeration is so flagrant that we can hardly infer from it even a substratum of truth. Such diatribes as this must be referred to, not as being valid evidences against the accused, but as proving the passion of the controversy, and the hesitation necessary before accepting conclusions traceable to the wild and whirling words of such controversialists.
[Sidenote 1: Clerical privileges] [Sidenote 2: Tentative reforms]
In another respect however there was a serious demand for reform; namely the legal and judicial privileges which the ecclesiastical body had acquired in the course of centuries, and which had gradually become the source of serious abuses. The administration of certain branches of the Civil Law had been absorbed by the Clerics, who were charged with converting their functions into an elaborate machinery for extorting fees; and on the Criminal side, what was known as Benefit of Clergy, as well as the rules of Sanctuary, had become not merely anomalous but an actual encouragement to crime. Any criminal or accused person who succeeded in reaching Sanctuary was safe from the secular arm; and any one who could produce evidence, even of the flimsiest character, that he was a cleric could claim to be tried by the ecclesiastical instead of the secular courts. Originally these privileges had been of very great service in the wild days when judicial treatment was at least more readily obtainable from the Clergy, when trial by ordeal was common, and the merciless punishments of the ordinary law gave place to the milder but not ineffective penalties of Ecclesiastical discipline. Even the legal fictions by which evildoers were allowed to claim Benefit of Clergy as Clerics had their justification. But when even murderers could escape with a moderate penance as Clerics, because they could read, the general public were hardly the better. A beginning of reform in this direction had been made when Henry VII. obtained a Bull diminishing the rights of Sanctuary in cases of treason; and again in 1511 when the rights both of Sanctuary and Benefit of Clergy were withdrawn from murderers. It was noteworthy however that there was a protest against even this made by the Clergy in 1515; when one Dr. Standish, for justifying the measure, was attacked by the Bishops in Convocation. Warham and Fox both supported the old privileges. The temporal lords on a commission appointed to enquire into the matter sided with Standish, and declared that the Bishops had incurred the penalties of praemunire. Wolsey tried to persuade the King to refer the question to the Pope, but the King asserted the rights of the Crown in uncompromising terms. The Bishops had to submit to a sharp rebuke, and Standish was made a Dean not long after. The episode was a premonition of future events.
[The Educational Movement]