CHAPTER I. RELIGIOUS CONDITION OF ENGLAND BEFORE THE REFORMATION
It may be said in a general way that the relations between priests and people were neither particularly close nor particularly strained. The rights and privileges claimed by the clergy did indeed give rise to murmurings and complaints in certain quarters, but these were neither so serious nor so general as to indicate anything like a deep-rooted and sharp division between priests and people. The question of the rights of sanctuary, according to which criminals who escaped into the enclosures of monasteries and churches were guaranteed protection from arrest, led to a sharp conflict between the ecclesiastical and secular jurisdictions, but with a little moderation on both sides it was not a matter that could have excited permanent ill-feeling. In the days when might was right the privileges of sanctuary served a useful purpose. That in later times they occasioned serious abuses could not be denied, and on the accession of Henry VII. the Pope restricted the rights of sanctuary very considerably, thereby setting an example which it was to be expected would have been followed by his successors. The privilegium fori, by which clerics were exempted from punishment by a secular tribunal, was another cause of considerable friction. In 1512 Parliament passed a law abolishing this privilege in case of clerics accused of murder, etc., and though it was to have force only for two years it excited the apprehension of the clergy more on account of what it heralded than of what it actually enacted. When it came up again for discussion in 1515 even those of the clergy who were most remarkable for their subservience to the king protested vehemently against it. In a discussion that took place in the presence of Henry VII. one of the friars brought forward many arguments to prove that such a law was not outside the competence of the state, much to the disgust of the bishops and of Cardinal Wolsey. The king was most emphatic in his declaration that he intended to take such action as would vindicate and safeguard his rights as supreme lord of England, but notwithstanding this sharp reproof to his opponents the measure was allowed to drop.
The excessive fees charged in the episcopal courts for the probate of wills, the gifts known as mortuaries claimed on occasions of death, the absence of the bishops and the clergy from their dioceses and parishes to the consequent neglect of their duties to the people, the bestowal of benefices oftentimes on poorly qualified clerics to the exclusion of learned and zealous priests, the appointment of clerics to positions that should have been filled by laymen on the lands of the bishops and monasteries, and the interference of some of the clergy both secular and regular in purely secular pursuits were the principal grievances brought forward in 1529 by the House of Commons against the spirituality. But in determining the value of such a document it should be remembered that it was inspired by the king, and in fact drafted by Thomas Cromwell, at a time when both king and minister were determined to crush the power of the Church, and that, therefore, it is not unreasonable to expect that it is exaggerated and unfair. According to the express statement of Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, who was in a position to know and appreciate the relations between clergy and people, the division was neither so acute nor so serious as it was painted by those who wished to favour religious innovations or to ingratiate themselves with the king and his advisers.
But, even though there existed some differences of opinion about matters concerned with the temporalities of the Church or the privileges of the clergy, there is no indication during the thirty years preceding the revolt of any marked hostility to the doctrines and practices of the Church. In an earlier age the Lollards, as the followers of Wycliff were called, put forward doctrines closely akin to those advocated by the early Reformers, notably in regard to the constitution of the Church, the Papacy, the Scriptures, Transubstantiation, Purgatory, and Tradition, but the severe measures adopted by both Church and State had succeeded in breaking the influence of Lollardy in England. Very few if any followers of this sect remained to disturb the peace of the community in the early years of the reign of Henry VIII., though it is quite possible that the memory of their teaching and of the sturdy struggle which they had waged did not fail to produce its effects at a later period. It is true that in 1512 the statement is attributed to the Bishop of London in connexion with the trial of an ecclesiastic, that on account of their leaning towards heresy any twelve men of the city would bring in a verdict of guilty against a cleric placed on his trial before them, but it is impossible to believe that such a statement conveys an accurate view of the state of affairs. It is out of harmony with the results of the episcopal visitations, with the records of the few trials for heresy which took place, most of which resulted in the repentance of the alleged culprits, and with the considered judgment of such a well qualified contemporary authority as Sir Thomas More.