Monday, November 30, 2015

The Reconciliation of England with the Catholic Church

On November 30, 1554, Reginald Cardinal Pole, the Papal Legate, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury, received the submission of the English Parliament and granted absolution to the entire kingdom, reconciling England to the Holy See and the universal Catholic Church. As both Alison Weir and H.F.M. Prescott comment in their biographies of Mary I, the first Queen Regnant of England and Ireland, this must have been one of the happiest days of her life as she witnessed this solemn act. She was married to Philip of Spain, her cousin had returned, Parliament and Convocation were both repenting of the acts led by her father and her half-brother to separate England from the Catholic Church--and she believed she was pregnant (as her doctors had told her).

For this day to occur, several things had to be arranged and decided. First of all, for the Papal Legate to arrive in England, the Act of Attainder against Reginald Pole had to be removed by Parliament. This was the Act that condemned his mother Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, and many others to death. Parliament lifted this sentence of death and Mary invited the Papal Legate to return from exile on November 20, 1554. He would be the first Papal Legate present in England since the trial of her mother's marriage in 1529--when Katherine of Aragon appeared before Cardinal Campeggio and Cardinal Wolsey, appealed to Henry her husband and left the Court, impervious to pleas to return. The matter of former Church lands also had to be decided: Henry VIII and then Edward VI had seized the monasteries and then the chantries and the chantry schools, destroyed most of them, sold or given the lands to courtiers and others who benefited. Were these all to be given back?

The Papal Legate wanted them back, but Mary was concerned about alienating the Court and nobility her reign had so lately unified against the plots of Northumberland to replace her in the succession with Lady Jane Grey and that of Thomas Wyatt the younger to prevent the Spanish marriage and place her half-sister Elizabeth and young Edward Courtenay on the throne. She had to yield on the issue so that she could divest herself of the title Supreme Head and Governor of the Church in England and give it back to the Pope. So the lands and property of the Church stayed with their current owners.
As you might imagine, Cobbett explores this issue of the "plunderers" as he calls them extensively in his chapter on the reign of Mary I:

But when the question came, whether the Parliament should restore the Papal Supremacy, the plunder was at stake ; for to take the Church property was sacrilege and if the Pope regained his power in the kingdom he might insist on restitution. The greater part of this property had been seized on eighteen years before. In many cases it had been divided and subdivided, in many the original grantees were dead. The common people, too, had in many cases become dependants on the new proprietors ; and besides, they could not so easily trace their connexion between their faith and that supremacy, as they could between their faith and the mass and the sacraments. The Queen, therefore, though she most anxiously wished to avoid giving in any way whatever her sanction to the plunder, was reduced to the necessity of risking a civil war for the Pope's supremacy, to leave her kingdom unreconciled to the Church, and to keep to herself the title of Head of the Church, to her so hateful, or to make a compromise with the plunderers. She was induced to prefer the latter ; though it is by no means certain that civil war would not have been better for the country, even if it had ended in the triumph of the plun- derers, which, in all human probability, it would not. But observe in how forlorn a state as to this question she was placed. There was scarcely a nobleman or gentleman of any note in her kingdom who had not in one way or another soiled his hands with the plunder." The Catholic bishops, all but Fisher, had assented to the abolition of the Pope's supremacy. Bishop Gardiner, who was now her High Chancellor, was one of these, though he had been deprived of his bishopric and imprisoned in the Tower because he opposed Cranmer's further projects. These Catholic bishops, and Gardiner especially, must naturally wish to get over this matter as quietly as possible ; for how was he to advise the Queen to risk a civil war for the restoration of that the abolition of which he had so fully assented to and so strenuously supported? And how was she to do anything without councillors of some sort?

On November 28 Cardinal Pole spoke to Parliament and asked them to repeal all the other acts that were obstacles to reunion. On November 29 Parliament did so and then petitioned Queen Mary to intercede with the Papal Legate for absolution and reunion with Rome (two members refused to sign the petition).

Then on St. Andrew's Day Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Mary's Chancellor, led the members of both houses of Parliament to kneel before the Papal Legate and Mary, presenting the petition. The petition proclaimed that Parliament was "very sorry and repentant of the schism and disobedience committed in this realm against the See Apostolic" and begged to be returned "into the bosom and unity of Christ's Church." As Cobbett describes it grandly and effusively:

Thus was England once more a Catholic country. She was restored to the " fold of Christ": but the fold had been plundered of its hospitality and charity, and the plunderers before they pronounced the "amen" had taken care that the plunder should not be restored. The Pope had hesitated to consent to this; Cardinal Pole, who was a man full of justice, had hesitated still longer; but, as we have seen before Gardiner, who was now the Queen's prime minister, and indeed all her council were for the compromise, and therefore these "amen" people while they confessed that they had sinned by that defection, in virtue of which defection, and of that alone, they got the property of the Church and the poor, while they prayed for absolution for that sin, while they rose from their knees to join the Queen in singing Te Deum in thanksgiving for that absolution, while they were doing these things they enacted that all the holders of Church property should keep it, and that any person who should attempt to molest or disturb them therein should be guilty of praemunire and be punished accordingly! 

Cobbett even considers this compromise the greatest error of Mary's reign. She should have made sure the monasteries and chantries were returned to the Church because then Cobbett believes, the Catholic culture and economy that existed before the Dissolution of the Monasteries would have been restored. He does praise Mary for restoring the religious properties like Westminster Abbey and Syon Priory--and the tenths and first fruits of those benefices--that her father had seized.

Cardinal Pole then welcomed "the return of the lost sheep" and granted absolution to the entire kingdom, proclaiming a new Holy Day on November 30: the Feast of Reconciliation. Unfortunately, Cardinal Pole and Mary I would have only three celebrations of this Feast (in 1555, 1556, and 1557)--both died on November 17, 1558.

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