Page 1 of 2from The Collected Works
Henry VIII and
the First Totalitarian State —Part 2
The Closure of the Commonwealth
The idea of the commonwealth, as it became articulate during the sixteenth century, is the idea of the closed, secularized, autonomous polity. In order to understand the implications of the idea, we must briefly enumerate the various aspects of closure and secularization. By closure is meant jurisdictional independence from empire and papacy.
Jurisdictional independence from the empire could be formalized very simply through a declaration enunciating the principle of imperator in regno suo, which had become current in the Middle Ages.
The jurisdictional independence from the papacy was a more complicated matter. Here we have to distinguish between the autonomy of the Ecclesia Anglicana, achieved by submitting its canonical legislation to the consent of the king; and the actual secularization of spiritual power, achieved by transferring the infallible authority in matters of faith to the king in Parliament.
The first group of measures, advancing Anglicanism, means no more than a decentralization of church government according to national regions.
The second step, the schismatic break, destroys the institutions that embody the universality of the church; but the situation created by this measure did not differ substantially from the situation that existed in Christianity through the schism between Western and Eastern churches.
The third step, consummated through the Act for Submission of the Clergy (23 Henry VIII, c.19), of 1534, is a real attack on the church because it abolishes its self-government.
And only the fourth step [The Act of Supremacy] destroys the spiritual substance of the church by making the symbols of faith a matter of secular declaration. Only this fourth step establishes what today we call a totalitarian government. This last proposition, however, must be qualified by the reminder that the king and his advisers did not know what they were doing and that, when the consequences of totalitarianism began to show, the result was a formidable constitutional struggle.
Nevertheless, we must realize that the English development of the sixteenth century was not simply an assertion of national independence, and that it was considerably more than a “break with Rome.” It entailed, indeed, the establishment of the first totalitarian government, foreshadowing the possibilities of a future when the creed promulgated by the government would have become anti-Christian.
From the numerous enactments that have a bearing on the closure of the commonwealth, we shall select only a few passages in which the idea of the autonomous polity receives explicit formulation.
The Act in Restraint of Appeals (24 Henry VIII, c. 12), of 1533, opens with the declaration:
The declaration of England as an empire, as we have indicated, does no more than resume the idea of the imperator in regno suo; the style of imperator had been claimed for the first time by Edward I in the thirteenth century.
In the Act in Restraint of Appeals it is the preliminary to the enactment that no appeal can lie from an English court, spiritual or temporal, to a foreign higher instance; and that no decision rendered by a foreign authority in contravention of this act can be enforced by an English court, and in particular not by English “prelates, pastors, ministers and curates.” Behind this sudden concern about appeal to “foreign princes and potentates” lies the king’s secret marriage with Anne Boleyn in January 1533. While the act cuts off the embarrassing appeals to Rome, it does not impair the spiritual substance of the Ecclesia Anglicana; the autonomy of the “Spirituality” remains untouched — barring of course the king’s prodding for a favorable decision in his marital affairs.