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Marsilius of Padua and the Henrician Reformation

  • Harry S. Stout (a1)


Judged by any standard, Marsilius (Marsiglio, 1270–1343) of Padua represented one of the most strikingly innovative thinkers in the history of Christian thought. Because he was one of the pioneers in the struggle for an uncontested erastianism and because of his forthright condemnation of the papacy, it was inevitable that his epitaph would be shrouded in controversy. A movement that clearly evidenced a positive dependence on Marsilius' thought was the Henrician Reformation. Although many students of the Henrician Reformation (notably A.G. Dickens) have recognized the figure of Marsilius looming in the background, none have delineated the precise relationship of his thought to the English Reformation. Contrary to prevailing assumptions, Marsilius, not Machiavelli, Wycliff, Erasmus or Tyndale furnished the prevailing ideological framework within which the Henrician Reformation was justified.



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1. Dickens, A. G., The English Reformation (New York: Schocken Books, 1964), pp. 8486. My own conclusions regarding the influence of Marsilius on the Henrician Reformation conform closely to Dickens' conclusions, and my purpose in writing here is to present as fully as possible the evidence upon which the conclusions are based. For other works recognizing the impact of Marsilius on Henrician thought see, for example, McConica, James K., English Humanists and Reformation Politics Under Henry VIII and Edward VI (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. 136, 161, 167168; or Baumer, Franklin LeVan, “Thomas Starkey and Marsilius of Padua,” Politica 2 (1936): 188205.

2. A lively debate presently exists over the relative roles of Cromwell and Henry in originating the Reformation policies. Elton, G. R., for example, credits Cromwell with the sole design of the English Reformation in England Under the Tudors (London: Methuen and Co., 1955); while Scarisbriek, J. J.presents a more balanced appraisal of the Reformation that emphasizes the centrality of Henry in Henry VIII (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969). In a similar vein, students of the Henrician period disagree over the relative importance of theoretical ideals and political necessities in Henry's break with Rome; compare, for example, A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation, with Hill, Cristopher, Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century (New York: Schocken Books, 1958). Did the Reformation proceed from sincere theoretical grievances with Rome, or was the theory merely a cloak for political necessity? It is not the purpose here to digress on these very pressing historiographical issues, but rather to recognize that, (1) irrespective of motive, there existed a compelling necessity for some theoretical justification if the Reformation was to succeed, and (2) regardless of who originated the Reformation policy (Henry or Cromwell), all scholars agree that Cromwell was responsible for providing the theoretical framework that justified Henry's behavior. For this reason, special attention must be paid to the influences of Marsilian theory on Cromwell's policy.

3. Elton, G. R., “The Commons Supplication of 1532,” English Historical Review 66 (1951): 523.

4. On the dissemination of Marsilian theory in the Conciliar Movement see Sabine, George H., A History of Political Theory (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961, orig. pub. 1937), pp. 313314. Marshall's translation is discussed in Elton, G. B., Policy and Police: The Enforcement of the Reformation in the Age of Thomas Cromwell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 186. See also Zeeveld, W. Gordon, Foundations of Tudor Policy (Cambridge: Methuen Press, 1948), p. 133.

5. Herrtage, Sidney, ed., England In the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, Part 1: Starkey's Life and Letters (London, 1878), p. xxv. Hereafter Thomas Starkey, Life and Letters.

6. Defensor Pacis, 1. 1. 8. References to the Defensor Pacis will be taken from the English translation by Gewirth, Alan, Marsilius of Padua The Defender of Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), vol. 2. The three-fold references correspond to book, chapter and section in the Defensor Pacis.

7. Defensor Pacis, 2, 1, 4.

8. Defensor Pacis, 1. 1. 1. “the greatest good of man, sufficiency of life, which no one can attain without peace and tranquility.”

9. Defensor Pacis, 1. 13. 4.

10. Britain, Great, The Statutes of the Realm (Loudon, 1817), vol. 3, 25 Hen VIII, c.21. Hereafter 25H, c.21, and so on.

11. 26H. e.21.

12. 24H. c.12.

13. 23H. c.21.

14. Marsilius drew from Aristotle and Latin Averroism a theoretical base in biology and in the natural necessity of the state to administer to the biology needs of society.

15. Gewirth, 1:132.

16. The efficient cause was the means or moving force required to bring change, while the final cause was the end or purpose toward which movement or change was directed. The Marsilian emphasis on efficient causality led to a corresponding emphasis on political means rather than ideal theological ends.

17. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 53. See also Zeeveld, p. 130.

18. The material aspect of law was a statement in the form of a doctrine of justice concerning the right and the good, while the formal dimension of law referred, in Marsilius, to the existence of laws on the basis of coercive command. See for example, Defensor Pacis, 1. 11. 4. Although Marsilius readily conceded that human law should incorporate both the material and formal elements of law, the essence of law lay in its formal basis in power.

19. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 15.

20. Defensor Pacis, 2. 9. 2.

21. 31H. c.1O. “And Forasmuch as the King's Majesty is justly and lawfully Supreme Head … of the Church of England … hath made Thomas Lord Crumwel and Lord Privy Seal, his vicegerent, for good and due Ministration of Justice to be had in all causes and cases touching the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction. …”

22. 25H. c.20.

23. Ibid.

24. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 15.

25. Sabine, p. 297.

26. Marsilius' definition of the legislator was taken from Aristotle's Politica which Marsilius interpreted in three parts as meaning “the legislator … is the people or the whole body of citizens or the weightier part thereof.” Defensor Pacis, 1. 12. 3. An amplification of Marsilius' concept of the legislator in terms of the people appears in the Defensor Minor, a treatise completed in 1342.

27. Defensor Pacis, 1. 19. 3.

28. Quoted in Hughes, Philip, The Reformation in England, 3 vols. (London, 1950), 1: 332.

29. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 170.

30. Defensor Pacis, 1. 15. 3.

31. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 101.

32. Ibid.

33. Defensor Pacis, 1. 17. 1.13.

34. 26H. c.13.

35. Quoted in Zeeveld, p. 155. See also Dickens, pp. 179–180.

36. Defensor Pacis, 1. 16. 11.

37. 24H. e.12.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., “causes of Matrimony and Divorces … shall be from henceforth … adjudged and determined within the King's jurisdiction and not elsewhere. …”

40. Brampton, C. Kenneth, ed., The Defensor Minor of Marsilius of Padua (Birmingham, 1922), p. vi.

41. Elton, G. R., ed., Renaissance and Reformation 1300–1648 (New York: Macmillan Co., 1968), p. 200.

42. Ibid.

43. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. 102. Reiterating the Marsilian preference for election, Starkey never doubted that “through hyt be so that some one may chaunce by suecessyon to be borne worthy … hyt is syldom that happenyth.”

44. Elton, G. R., “The Commons Supplication of 1532,” 513514.

45. SeeHughes, 1: 282.

46. Cognizant of the milieu in which he wrote, Marsilius spent considerable energy in reconciling his political theory with scripture.

47. Defensor Pacis, 2. 15. 4.

48. Defensor Pacis, 2. 16. 4.

49. Defensor Pacis, 2. 16. 11. “And consequently the successors of the apostles have no coercive jurisdiction over one another.”

50. Baumer, pp. 202–203.

51. Dickens, p. 168.

52. Duffield, Gervase E., ed., The Work of Thomas Cranmer (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957), p. 17.

53. Starkey, Thomas, Life and Letters, p. XXIX.

54. Defensor Pacis, 2. 20. 5. The conciliar idea was not original with Marsilius, but his inclusion of the laity on the council added a radical twist to the conventional conciliar theory.

55. 31H. c.10.

56. Pollard, Albert F., Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation (New York: Burt Publishing Co., 1906), p. 81.

57. Rozak, Theodore, “Thomas Cromwell and the Henrician Reformation,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1958), p. 90.

58. Dickens, p. 176.

59. Grisar, Hartman, Martin Luther His Life and Work (Westminister, Maryland: Newman Press, 1960), p. 416.

60. Duffield, , ed., The Work of Thomas Cranmer, p. 73.

61. In addition to the perennial anti-clerical tithe disputes, the Hunne affair in 1515 witnessed an intensified backlash of mass discontent that did not cease until the break with Rome. SeeDickens, pp. 90–93.

62. 25H. c.21.

63. 26H. c.21.

64. Defensor Pacis, 2. 10. 8.

65. Defensor Pacis, 2. 17. 9. This theme underwent extended consideration in Marsilius' later treatise the Defensor Minor. See for example, Defensor Minor, 13. 6. Rursum eaedem esse possunt personae, et earum consimiles actus, quibus et de quibus, tam circa temporalia quam circa spiritualia, praecipit utraque lex.

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Church History
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