Page 1 of 3from The Collected Works
Henry VIII and
the First Totalitarian State
Part 1— The Beginnings of English Political Thought
While continental thinkers groped their way through the troubles of the Reformation toward the idea of an autonomous, secularized polity, England entered the age of Reformation with a polity that was autonomous and centralized enough to reform the church by transforming it into an adjunct of the secularized commonwealth.
In the wake of the Norman Conquest, and aided by geographical isolation, there had grown a national society, politically articulated and represented in Lords and Commons, institutionally unified through royal administration, courts, and common law. By the time of the Tudors, England had become “in fact,” that is, in sentiment and institutions, a closed national polity ready to crown this development by the idea of its autonomous existence when the emergency should arise.
The pathos of this polity found its illuminating expression when Henry VIII addressed his Parliament in George Ferrers’s case (1543):
The well-knit body politic of king and Parliament is the unquestioned governing authority of England: the king being enhanced in his royal estate when he participates in the representation of the realm, the Parliament participating in the privileges of majesty when it functions as the king’s high court.
The unquestioned existence of the polity and its institutions must be presupposed as a fundamental fact when we approach the evolution of English politics in the age of Reformation. It is the key to understanding otherwise baffling ideas and attitudes.
When we reflect, for instance, on the crazy sequence of Henrician almost Catholic supremacy, Edwardian Lutheran reformism, Marian Catholic reaction, and Elizabethan settlement, all within a generation, we begin to wonder what sort of people these English are who switch dogmas every ten years along with their kings, and who do not respond to the secularization of their church for scandalous reasons with a major civil war and the ejection of the dynasty.