The following question is a bit of a follow-up to On Bishops Who Refused to Sign Henry VIII's Oath of Succession?.

In an article "The Cardinal Martyr of England" found here: Catholic Culture,

it is stated (under Persecution and Consolation)

In May 1532, Thomas More resigned the chancellorship, and in June, Fisher preached against the divorce and in defense of the Church's independence. In August, Archbishop Warham of Canterbury died, and Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry's minions, was nominated at once for the post.

QUESTION: Prior to Henry VIII's break with the Roman Catholic Church, did he (and if so, to what extent) have any say in the bishops that Rome appointed to his Realm? e.g., did Henry himself "nominate" Thomas Cranmer to the Pope to replace the deceased Archbishop Warham? If so, how long had such a practice been taking place? Remark: In 1532, Clement VII was pope. He is sometimes referred to as "the most unfortunate of the popes."

4 Answers 4


Over many centuries there were disputes over exactly what role pope, king (or in Germany the Holy Roman Emperor) or local clergy should play in the choice of bishops. These disputes were known as the Investiture Controversies.

Whatever the legal position, which was rarely very settled, the approval of both the king and the pope was required in practice. In the early thirteenth century the Pope appointed, or purported to appoint, an archbishop without the King's approval, whereupon the King refused to allow that person into the country. The result was the Interdict, with church services largely banned throughout England. The King was John, the Pope was Innocent III and the Roman nominee as archbishop was Stephen Langton. The matter was complicated because the chapter had appealed to the Pope.

Certainly by Henry VIII's time, the role of cathedral chapters, that is representives of local clergy (or clergy who occupied local positions but may have been usually absent) was only a nominal responsibility to elect the new bishop. They were not permitted to proceed with an election without permission from the King, who generally only gave them permission to elect a specific person, his nominee. However, a bishop could still only be consecrated with permission from the Pope.

So in this way the King effectively chose bishops but the pope could effectively veto that choice by not granting permission for consecration. Rome did not appoint English bishops. The chapter could, in theory, refuse to elect anyone.

Cranmer was appointed by the King in the early Autumn of 1532. The papal bull approving his consecration was received in late March 1533 and he was consecrated on March 30th 1533. It may seem strange that Rome would approve a known supporter of Royal Supremacy, and someone prominent in the campaign for the annulment of Henry's marriage with Catherine of Aragon. Matters were not seen by everyone in such stark terms as they were by Bishop Fisher of Rochester.

Later in 1533, the law was changed to remove the need for papal approval. To this day Church of England bishops are elected by chapters by the command of the monarch who specifies who they may elect. If they refuse then the monarch (in practice the Prime Minister) can make the appointment anyway. However, the newly appointed bishop cannot be formally consecrated and confirmed without the involvement of other bishops and a mandate from the monarch.

The monarch acts on the advice of the Prime Minister who is advised by a committee including diocesan representatives. It is perhaps one of the more bizarre aspects of the British constitution, which however seems to work tolerably well.

A curiosity easily overlooked is that the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, is still elected solely by representatives of the clergy in the Diocese of Rome. How can this be? Because every cardinal is appointed to a titular church in the diocese of Rome. That too may seem slightly bizarre, but it too seems to work.

  • This is actually a more complete answer than my own (a hasty effort drawing upon memory), Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 6:04
  • Thank you for posting this answer.
    – DDS
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 10:59

No historian doubts that the Protestant Cranmer was the king's choice. He had been one of Henry's advisors in the campaign to get the marriage legally annulled. He was actually notified of his appointment by royal letter dated 1 October 1532.

On the question of "how long the practice?" there can be no simple answer. Consider this as what Wikipedia calls a "stub", to provide a rough answer until somebody with more details at his fingertips can provide a fuller one.

This was a grand political issue over several centuries of mediaeval history, in the major countries of western Europe. In theory, bishops were elected by the chapters of their cathedrals. In practice, kings liked to nominate to the important bishoprics, partly because bishops were also royal officers in practice, and to provide jobs for their friends, and as a way of collecting useful fees. Thomas Becket was one famous royal appointment.

But the English church had been founded as a Roman mission in the first place (in the sending of St Augustine), and Archbishops were routinely apppointed by Rome before England became a single kingdom. Later in the Middle Ages Popes resumed offering their own nominations, because candidates asked them to, and to provide jobs for their own friends, and as a way of collecting useful fees. English critics felt a grievance because papal nominees were more likely to be foreigners and were slightly more likely to be absentees. Individual rival claims could become legal and/or political disputes.

Part of the compromise which emerged over time was that archbishops, whatever the origin of their nomination, would be expected to go and get themselves invested by the Pope, collecting their "pallium". Thus William de Melton was Keeper of the [royal] Household Wardrobe at the time when he was elected by the chapter of York (1315), a fairly typical royal nominee, but he had to wait two years before he got the papal endorsement at Avignon.

The post-Reformation system in which chapter elections were expected to rubber-stamp the royal choice represents the final victory in a very long argument.


It might be helpful to wind the clock back by 6 Henry's, to see how the process used to work.

[Thomas] Becket was nominated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162, several months after the death of Theobald. His election was confirmed on 23 May 1162 by a royal council of bishops and noblemen. Henry may have hoped that Becket would continue to put royal government first, rather than the church, but the famed transformation of Becket into an ascetic occurred at this time....Becket was ordained a priest on 2 June 1162 at Canterbury, and on 3 June 1162 was consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and the other suffragan bishops of Canterbury.

So we have someone who wasn't even a priest (although in minor orders) being rocketed by the king to the highest office in the Church in England. (Spoiler: it didn't work out very well). Interestingly, the Pope--Alexander III--doesn't appear to have become involved until later, when Becket appealed to him.


According to the author (Nicolas Sanders), Book I Chap. 13, of "The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism" (first published c. 1573) one surmises that prior to his break with Rome, Henry VIII determined who was to be put forth ("nominated") as bishop (in this case, Archbishop of Canterbury) to the Pope; who, thereupon, required (it seems) to take an oath of obedience to the Roman Pontiff.

The following are some excerpts (pages 87-89 of an 1877 edition by Burns And Oates, London):

(Beginning with the death of William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury)

and thereupon Henry, not willing that a place of honour so high should be fruitless to himself, determined to bestow it upon no one that would not minister with all his might to his passions. There was no one in the whole kingdom comparable to Reginald Pole, and to him therefore the king made the first offer of the archiepiscopal dignity, but on the condition of a distinct promise beforehand on his part to further the divorce with all his might. Pole heard of this dishonourable condition, and refused to sit in the chair of pestilence.

When this came to the ears of Thomas Boleyn, the reputed father of Anne, he went to the king and said to him: ``I have had for some time in my family a certain priest, grave, learned, and modest, whose fidelity to your majesty has been abundantly shown in the business on which he was sent to the Pope. He had been then for some time my chaplain, and I know him to be so well affected to the divorce that I will answer for him, if your majesty will make him archbishop, he will do whatever may be asked, or even desired, from any subject.''

The proposal pleased the king ... Cranmer is therefore nominated, on the condition that, being archbishop, he will, though the Roman Pontiff should give sentence in favour of the marriage [to Anne Boleyn]...

But as Henry had not yet withdrawn from the communion of the Holy See, Cranmer must obtain from the Pope the confirmation of his dignity. He [Cranmer] saw at once that every avenue to his consecration was closed against him if he did not declare upon oath, according to the canons, that he would never depart from the communion of the Roman chair; but he saw also into the intentions of the king, who would reject that communion utterly rather than not be married to Anne Boleyn.

[Cranmer] was fond of the king from his heart, because he was very like himself, and the Pope he regarded only with fear; and so the impious man, to please the king, determined to commit perjury ... Accordingly he sends for a public notary and tells him that he is about to take the canonical and accustomed oath of obedience to the Roman Pontiff, but before doing so it was his will and wish that the notary should place it on record in a public document that he took the oath on compulsion, and that nothing was further from his thoughts than to keep faith with the Roman Pontiff to the damage of the king.

When this declaration had been made---and lest, perchance, the king might have some doubts about his breach of faith, in the presence of witnesses recorded and sealed --- he took the solemn oath of obedience to the Pope as his predecessors had done, and at the same time took possession of the archbishopric like a thief.

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