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Religion, Law, and Confusion in Early Modern England

Indecision, compromise: both seem to be the order of the day in British politics. From indecision over the triggering of the EU’s ‘Article 50’ to the decade-long discussions over Heathrow’s third runway that seem to run and run: in the realm of politics, clear and definite decisions just don’t seem to be forthcoming.

This though is nothing new for the English political system. In the fourth talk in the Religion and Law series, Prof Anthony Milton took us back to Early Modern England and the arrival of Protestantism – and to a remarkable political, legal and religious fudge.

King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine and Rome, and the subsequent creation of the Church of England, led not to a complete abandoning of Catholicism and its influences, but rather to a compromise. The Henrician Compromise allowed the existing Catholic canon laws to remain valid until such time as new law could be made, provided only they didn’t go against the law of the realm and the prerogative of the King.

During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, new laws were actually drafted. In 1552-1553, Thomas Cranmer created a body of Protestant laws, called the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum, as part of a plan for a radical overhaul of the Church. But due to Edward’s early death, the Reformatio was never implemented. And his eventual successor Elizabeth I adopted a policy of ‘masterly inactivity’.

That meant the old laws stayed on the books. And the result was a religious law system in a state of confusion that competed with and clashed with the common law courts. Confusion over what could be discussed in what court led to abuses and delays within the legal system. The Reformatio was re-published several times in an attempt to clean up this ‘unholy mess’, but it was never implemented.

But what if it had been? What would the Church of England have looked like if the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum had been given the force of law? England would have looked very different.

For instance, a key aspect of the Reformatio concerned moral discipline. Anyone found guilty of adultery or of committing serious cruelty towards their wife could be punished with perpetual banishment and excommunication. This excommunication was to be enforced not just by the bishop, but by the local community as a form of social exclusion.

The excommunicate could be reconciled to the Church, but such a process would also have involved the local parish community. Under the Reformatio, the hierarchy of the Church would have been more flexible, with the bishop working alongside the clergy. In short, the implementation of the Reformatio would have changed the way that religion and law worked, devolving power to the local community, rather than to the law courts.

The confusion in Early Modern England due to the inability to define what was meant by Protestantism and Protestant law can still be seen today, as Catholic canon laws are still – remarkably – an element of the English legal system. But such confusion also provides interesting parallels with the political situation of the present, and the position that England once more finds itself in.

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The next talk in the series is held on Wednesday 2nd November at 1:15pm in Sheffield Cathedral, where Imam Sheikh Mohammad Ismail will discuss ‘Sharia Councils in Contemporary British Society: Conflict or not?’ For the full programme of talks see here.

Image: Archive.org (the Reformatio legum ecclesiasticarum  Londini, Impensis Societatis Stationariorum, Thomas Fisher Collection, University of Toronto)

 

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