Since 1393, the chief restriction in law upon papal intervention in the English church was the statute of Praemunire. In origin, this had been intended to exclude from the realm papal decrees which interfered with rights of the English bishops. The courts slowly widened its application. Wolsey was accused under Praemunire, after his fall, on the absurdly unjust ground that he had acted as papal legate in England.
In January, 1531, this vague and menacing weapon was turned, by the lawyers, against all the clergy of England. They were charged with an offense against Praemunire because they had administered Roman canon law in their courts. “No one,” wrote the imperial ambassador, “can fathom the mysteries of this law. Its interpretation lies solely in the king’s head, who amplifies and declares it at his pleasure and applies it to anyone he pleases.” The convocations of the church, after stiff protest and without verbally admitting guilt, bought their forgiveness for 118,000 English pounds (100,000 English pounds for the convocation of Canterbury, 18,000 English pounds for the convocation of York) and were then forced, by the king, into recognizing the king as the head of the church – “especial protector, only and supreme lord and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even supreme head.”
The formula meant little enough. This was not a repudiation of papal power. The phrase as far as the law of Christ allows could cover all manner of limitations. But the lords and lawyers of Parliament were agreed with the king in pressing forward against the pope. Among the advisers, one of Wolsey’s lieutenants, Thomas Cromwell, now rose to the top. Experienced in Wolsey’s method of controlling church and state as a unity, he aimed at a similarly unified control achieved by king and Parliament, with the pope excluded from the realm.
From: The Reformation by Owen Chadwick; 3rd edition; The Pelican History of the Church, Volume 3 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1972), pp. 100-101. First edition published in 1964.