Magna Carta and Religious Change in the Tudor Era

Magna Carta was drawn up in 1215 with the intention of limiting the power of the crown and has since been used to defend individual liberties.[1] It was used frequently with the intention of affecting religious change during the Tudor period.

Magna Carta was primarily used to aid the learning of young lawyers at the Inns of Court.[2] Tutors, named ‘readers,’ would choose a clause, and use it to teach pupils through means of assessment and discussion.[3] Magna Carta provided students with an inactive legal statute to study, as the Charter was not seen as a living constitution.[4] Lawyers were taught at an early age that the king and governing classes should prioritise ‘matters concerning God and the Church,’ as described in a Reading dating back to the early 1530s.[5] As lawyers were taught that the king should prioritise the Church above all else; they, as well as opposers to religious reform, were provided with a legitimate document that they could use to discredit religious change, in the form of Magna Carta. This explains why Magna Carta was used with the intention of affecting religious change throughout the Tudor period, in response to events like The Break with Rome.

The Break with Rome was prompted by Pope Clement VII’s refusal to grant Henry VIII a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.[6] In response to this, Henry sought to obtain Royal Supremacy, which would grant him absolute power over church policy within England, thus allowing him to grant himself a divorce.[7] Parliament had to pass a series of laws to facilitate The Break with Rome, which led to the formation of the Church of England.[8] Churches which still had ties to the Roman Catholic Church were stripped of their land and value, their riches being added to the king’s coffers in an act known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.[9] The Dissolution led to outrage and encouraged people to cite the first clause of Magna Carta in attempts to affect the current religious changes.[10]

The first clause stated that the ‘English Church shall be free and shall have all its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.’[11] In 1532, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, wrote a speech opposing the proposed reforms to the churches in England, to be delivered to the House of Lords.[12] He argued that the ‘liberties of the Church are guaranteed by Magna Charta,’ signalling a resurgence in peoples’ use of the document in attempts to affect religious change.[13] Warham’s successor, Matthew Parker, too cited Magna Carta to defend the state church against the religious reforms.

Magna Carta was also cited by the fifty thousand people taking part in the Pilgrimage of Grace,[14] a mass northern uprising led specifically to combat the ‘suppression’ of the churches.[15] Leader Robert Aske specifically cited Magna Carta as the rioters’ ‘warrant for rebellion,’ as they argued that they were defending the freedoms of the church, which were outlined in Magna Carta.[16] As well as citing Clause 1 of Magna Carta, Clause 29 was also referenced to ensure the liberty of the people, defending them from unlawful imprisonment. Clause 29 stated that ‘No man shall in future be arrested or imprisoned […] except by lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’[17] Despite the efforts of those above, the Dissolution of the Monasteries continued and the government quashed the Pilgrimage of Grace, executing Robert Aske in 1537.[18]

Thomas More cited Magna Carta as a form of personal defence against the law. More was a conservative Catholic, who opposed The Break with Rome and Henry’s divorce.[19] This prompted More to resign as chancellor in May 1532.[20] The 1534 Act of Succession, demanded that everyone swear to the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne, prioritising any of their children as legitimate heirs to the throne.[21] More refused to comply, and in response was imprisoned.[22] At his trial, More referenced Magna Carta, declaring that the indictment against him and the treatment of the church was ‘both contrary to the laws and statues of this our land yet unrepealed, as they might evidently perceive in Magna Charta.’[23] More used Magna Carta to justify his own religious beliefs, and his belief in the freedom of the church, both of which were being attacked by the proposed religious reforms.[24] However, his citing of the document did not help to win his cause, as he was executed in 1535.[25]

When she came to the throne in 1558, Henry and Anne’s daughter Elizabeth I inherited a divided England.[26] Her predecessor, Mary I, had attempted to restore the Catholic faith and stamp out Protestantism by restoring England to the Roman Catholic Church.[27] This led to the formation of an extremist Protestant faction, known as the Puritans, based in the heart of Elizabeth’s government, who tried to prioritise their own interests to the detriment of the remaining Catholics in England.[28] Elizabeth proclaimed herself the Supreme Governor of the Church of England under her Act of Uniformity in 1559, breaking with the Roman Catholic Church as her father Henry did.[29] Elizabeth’s religious settlement was less harsh than total Protestant uniformity, which discomforted the Puritans.[30] Elizabeth appointed John Whitgift as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1583, who was tasked with dealing with those Puritans who opposed Elizabeth’s milder religious settlement.[31]

Whitgift forced all suspected Puritans to take an ex officio oath, swearing to Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, and thus acknowledging Elizabeth’s milder religious settlement.[32] To facilitate this, the Court of High Commission was created in 1559.[33] The Court fined those suspected of heresy and incarcerated them without bail, powers which were not given to ordinary spiritual courts.[34] In response to this, attorney James Morice used Magna Carta to defend Puritan sympathiser Robert Cawdry in 1591, declaring that there was an imbalance of equality between lay ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as the Court drew power from the crown, an unchecked power.[35] Diplomat Robert Beale acted similarly in 1593, using Magna Carta to defend the Puritans while criticising Whitgift and the Court.[36] Beale argued that the oath and the Court came into conflict with Clause 29 of Magna Carta,[37] which stated that one could not be starved of their liberties without being judged by the law.[38] Both Beale and Morice believed that the Court of High Commission should not be given the authority to ‘change or alter the lawes of this Realme,’ which were detailed in Magna Carta.[39] Despite Beale and Morice’s protests, and attempts to use Magna Carta to ensure that the rights of the Puritans were not unlawfully encroached upon, they were ignored and the Court of High Commission continued to practice until 1641.[40]

Magna Carta was frequently cited within the Tudor period with the intention of affecting religious change. However, its lack of success, evidenced by the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace, More’s execution and the continuing practices of the Court of the High Commission, confirm that it was correctly viewed by those it was used to educate, as an in inactive document.

Thanks for reading!


[1] RV. Turner, Magna Carta Through the Ages (New York, 2003), p. 8.

[2] M. McGlynn, ‘From Charter to common law: the rights and liberties of the pre Reformation Church’ in Griffith-Jones, R. & Hill, M. (eds.), Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2015), p. 57.

[3] Ibid., p. 57.

[4] J. Baker, The Reinvention of Magna Carta 1216 – 1616 (Cambridge, 2017), p. 86.

[5] ‘Reading 10, circa 1530’, in M. McGlynn, The Rights and Liberties of the English Church: Readings from the Pre-Reformation Inns of Court (London, 2015), p 141.

[6] J. Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 2000), p. 116.

[7] Ibid., p. 39.

[8] Guy, Tudor England, p. 116.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] F. Thompson, Magna Carta: Its Role in the Making of the English Constitution (Minnesota, 1972), p. 140.

[11] Magna Carta (1225), Clause 1, trans. in H. Rothwell (ed.), English Historical Documents Volume III, (London, 1995), p.333-338.

[12] Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 140.

[13] ‘Undelivered speech to the Parliament of England, August 1532,’ in F. Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 140.

[14] S. Lipscomb, 1536: The Year that Changed Henry VIII (London, 2009), p. 148.

[15] Ibid., p. 156.

[16] Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 141.

[17] Magna Carta (1225), Clause 29.

[18] Lipscomb, 1536, p. 166.

[19] Guy, Tudor England, p.141.

[20] D. Starkey, Six Queens: The Wives of Henry VIII (New York, 2004), p. 450.

[21] Lipscomb, 1536, p. 41.

[22] Guy, Tudor England, p. 40.

[23] ‘Speech of Thomas More at Westminster Hall, July 1535,’ in F. Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 140.

[24] Guy, Tudor England, p. 141.

[25] Ibid., p. 139.

[26] A. Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London, 2009), p. 3.

[27] Ibid., p. 2.

[28] Ibid., p. 3.

[29] JP. Somerville, Royalists and Patriots: Politics and Ideology in England (New York, 1986), p. 94.

[30] Guy, Tudor England, p. 261.

[31] Weir, Elizabeth the Queen, p. 347.

[32] Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 212.

[33] J. Baker, ‘Magna Carta and personal liberty’ in Griffith-Jones, R. & Hill, M. (eds.), Magna Carta, Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2015), p. 98.

[34] Ibid., p. 98.

[35] Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 219.

[36] Baker, ‘Magna Carta and personal liberty’, p. 100.

[37] Ibid., p. 100.

[38] Magna Carta (1225), Clause 29.

[39] James Morice, Brief Treatise of Oathes Exacted by Ordinaries and Ecclesiasticall Judges, trans. in F. Thompson, Magna Carta, p. 219.

[40] Baker, ‘Magna Carta and personal liberty’, p. 100.

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: