The priest was a plain man, with a talent for the practical, and knew nothing of the vision that the young monk beside him was seeing—of the air about the gallows crowded with the angels of the Agony and Passion, waiting to bear off the straggling souls in their tender experienced hands; of the celestial faces looking down, the scarred and glorious arms stretched out in welcome; of Mary with her mother’s eyes, and her virgins about her—all ring above ring in deepening splendour up to the white blinding light above, where the Everlasting Trinity lay poised in love and glory to receive and crown the stalwart soldiers of God.
Ralph kept his resolution to pretend to try and save Sir Thomas More, and salved his own conscience by protesting to Beatrice that his efforts were bound to fail, and that he had no influence such as she imagined. He did certainly more than once remark to Cromwell that Sir Thomas was a pleasant and learned man, and had treated him kindly, and once had gone so far as to say that he did not see that any good would be served by his death; but he had been sharply rebuked, and told to mind his own business; then, softening, Cromwell had explained that there was no question of death for the present; but that More’s persistent refusal to yield to the pressure of events was a standing peril to the King’s policy.
This policy had now shaped itself more clearly. In the autumn of ’34 the bill for the King’s supremacy over the Church of England began to take form; and Ralph had several sights of the documents as all business of this kind now flowed through Cromwell’s hands, and he was filled with admiration and at the same time with perplexity at the adroitness of the wording. It was very short, and affected to assume rather than to enact its object.
“Albeit the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be,” it began, “the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognised by the clergy of this realm in their Convocations, yet, nevertheless, for corroboration and confirmation thereof ... and to repress and extirp all errors, heresies and other enormities ... be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the King our sovereign lord ... shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicans Ecclesia.” The bill then proceeded to confer on him a plenitude of authority over both temporal and spiritual causes.
There was here considerable skill in the manner of its drawing up, which it owed chiefly to Cromwell; for it professed only to re-state a matter that had slipped out of notice, and appealed to the authority of Convocation which had, truly, under Warham allowed a resolution to the same effect, though qualified by the clause, “as far as God’s law permits,” to pass in silence.
Ralph was puzzled by it: he was led to believe that it could contain no very radical change from the old belief, since the clergy had in a sense already submitted to it; and, on the other hand, the word “the only supreme head in earth” seemed not only to assert the Crown’s civil authority over the temporalities of the Church, but to exclude definitely all jurisdiction on the part of the Pope.