Historical counterfactuals are invariably entertaining, and occasionally instructive. As a Catholic, I’ve become familiar with certain counterfactuals regarding the English Reformation—What if Catherine had been able to bear a healthy son? What if Henry had died before his divorce? What if Mary had conceived, or Elizabeth married a Catholic (a prospect which at times she did contemplate, to the alarm of certain hardliners in her court)?
But these are counterfactuals involving matters largely outside of human control; they ask, in essence, What if God had chosen to intervene here? Perhaps a more interesting kind of historical counterfactual—more interesting, because it tells us something about the power and responsibility which human beings have in making history—arises in David Loades’s Tudor Government.
By 1536 there was no doubt that the Reformation parliament had trespassed upon hitherto forbidden ground. Why so conservative a body should have leant itself to a revolutionary programme of action requires some explanation, because the whole subsequent course of English government was altered by the events of these years. The habit of obedience was deeply engrained, and both Henry VIII and his father had made effective use of the fifteenth-century wars to discourage opposition. It was also generally recognized that the king needed a male heir. Anti-clericalism in the traditional sense, and disillusionment with a papacy which had consistently failed to provided [sic] the English church with a much-needed programme of reform, also made their contribution. But the most important factor was probably a deeply rooted scepticism about the king’s intentions. Once Catherine had gone and the succession issue had been resolved, no one really believed that Henry would persist with his ecclesiastical supremacy. … the rhetoric was not taken seriously, and neither individual lords nor members of the Commons were prepared to risk their lives and fortunes for a cause which would be restored by negotiation as soon as it suited Henry’s convenience. That may even have been the king’s original intention, since his own cast of mind was a conservative as any. However, by the summer of 1536 he had changed his opinion. With a capacity for self-persuasion which was typical of him, he had become convinced that the royal supremacy did indeed represent the way in which God intended his church to be run, and when both Catherine and Anne were dead, he declined to renegotiate his relations with the pope. By then it was also beginning to occur to his parliamentary accomplices that there were great possibilities for their own profit in the new situation, and by the time Cromwell had fallen in 1540 the king’s right to govern the church had been accepted by the vast majority of his subjects. In doing that they sanctioned the new role which parliament had adopted in the affairs of the kingdom.
In 1565 Sir Thomas Smith summarized parliament’s functions in sweeping terms:
The Parliament abrogateth old laws, maketh newe, giveth orders for thinges past, and for thinges hereafter to be followed, changeth rights and possessions of private men, legitimateth bastards, establisheth forms of religion, altereth weights and measures, giveth forms of succession to the Crown, defineth of doubtful rights whereof is no law already made, appointeth subsidies, tallies, taxes and impositions, giveth most free pardons and absolutions, restoreth in blood and name as the highest court, condemneth or absolveth them whom the prince will put to that trial. And, to be short, all that ever the people of Rome might do either in Centuriatis comitiis or tributis, the same may be done by the Parliament of England.
From being a specialized instrument, used for a limited number of purposes, statute had become the standard means of authorization for all types of business. In 1536 statute abolished the ancient franchises of the Welsh marches, reduced Wales to shire ground, and conferred parliamentary representation upon the new counties. In the same year all religious houses worth less than £200 per annum were delivered into the king’s hand, and in 1539 the Act of Six Articles laid down a standard of orthodoxy for the English church. A decade earlier none of these things could have been done. Had a Succession Act been a viable option in 1527, the king’s Great Matter might never have come about. By the time he died Henry had rearranged the succession three times by that means, and in 1571 parliament was to declare it to be high treason to deny the authority of statue to determine the identity of the next ruler. (Loades, 44-5).
What might have been here belongs clearly to the area of human choice and political determination. Ironically, had England possessed a more centralized government to begin with, one that recognized the king’s power in parliament to do pretty much as he willed, Henry might well have been able simply to declare one of his illegitimate children, or a nephew or cousin, his heir (though his own considerable pride would perhaps have stood in the way of that recourse). On the other hand, had Henry been less “self-persuasive”, or members of parliament more clear-sighted, it would have been possible at multiple points throughout Henry’s reign to set things right. Henry II, after all, as well as John, had both run afoul of Rome before; and in the end both their cases were resolved without serious damage to the English church. It should be no surprise, even with the benefit of hindsight, that English Catholics in those days largely shrugged, laid low, and assumed that everything would return to normal soon enough.