For success in procuring the divorce, the Duke of Norfolk, who had come to the front on Wolsey's fall, relied not only on the alliance and aid of the Emperor, but on the support which the project was expected to receive from Parliament. The reassembling of the two Houses marked the close of the system of Wolsey. Instead of looking on Parliament as a danger the monarchy now felt itself strong enough to use it as a tool; and Henry justly counted on warm support in his strife with Rome. Not less significant was the attitude of the men of the New Learning. To them, as to his mere political adversaries, the Cardinal's fall opened a prospect of better things. The dream of More in accepting the office of Chancellor, if we may judge it from the acts of his brief ministry, seems to have been that of carrying out the religious reformation which had been demanded by Colet and Erasmus, while checking the spirit of revolt against the unity of the Church. His severities against the Protestants, exaggerated as they have been by polemic rancour, remain the one stain on a memory that knows no other.
But it was only by a rigid severance of the cause of reform from what seemed to him the cause of revolution that More could hope for a successful issue to the projects which the Council laid before Parliament. The Petition of the Commons sounded like an echo of Colet's famous address to the Convocation. It attributed the growth of heresy not more to "frantic and seditious books published in the English tongue contrary to the very true Catholic and Christian faith " than to " the extreme and uncharitable behaviour of divers ordinaries." It remonstrated against the legislation of the clergy in Convocation without the King's assent or that of his subjects, the oppressive procedure of the Church Courts, the abuses of ecclesiastical patronage, and the excessive number of holydays. Henry referred the Petition to the bishops, but they could devise no means of redress, and the ministry persisted in pushing through the Houses their bills for ecclesiastical reform. The questions of Convocation and the bishops' courts were adjourned for further consideration, but the fees of the courts were curtailed, the clergy restricted from lay employments, pluralities restrained, and residence enforced.
In spite of a dogged opposition from the bishops the bills received the assent of the House of Loids, "to the great rejoicing of lay people, and the great displeasure of spiritual persons." The importance of the new measures lay really in the action of Parliament. They were an explicit announcement that church-reform was now to be undertaken, not by the clergy, but by the people at large. On the other hand it was clear that it would be carried out, not in a spirit of hostility, but of loyalty to the church. The Commons forced from Bishop Fisher an apology for words which were taken as a doubt thrown on their orthodoxy. Henry forbade the circulation of Tyndale's translation of the Bible as executed in a Protestant spirit, while he promised a more correct version. But the domestic aims of the New Learning were foiled by the failure of the ministry in its negotiations for the divorce. The severance of the French alliance, and the accession of the party to power which clung to alliance with the Emperor, failed to detach Charles from his aunt's cause. The ministers accepted the suggestion of a Cambridge scholar, Thomas Cranmer, that the universities of Europe should be called on for their judgement; but the appeal to the learned opinion of Christendom ended in utter defeat.
In France the profuse bribery of the English agents would have failed with the university of Paris but for the interference of Francis himself. As shameless an exercize of Henry's own authority was required to wring an approval of his cause from Oxford and Cambridge. In Germany the very Protestants, in the fervour of their moral revival, were dead against the King. So far as could be seen from Cranmer's test every learned man in Christendom but for bribery and threats would have condemned Henry's cause.
It was at the moment when every expedient had been exhausted by Norfolk and his fellow ministers that Cromwell came again to the front. Despair of other means drove Henry nearer and nearer to the bold plan from which he had shrunk at Wolsey's fall. Cromwell was again ready with his suggestion that the King should disavow the Papal jurisdiction, declare himself Head of the Church within his realm, and obtain a divorce from his own Ecclesiastical Courts. But with Cromwell the divorce was but the prelude to a series of changes he was bent upon accomplishing. In all the chequered life of the new minister what had left its deepest stamp on him was Italy. Not only in the rapidity and ruthlessness of his designs, but in their larger scope, their clearer purpose, and their admirable combination, the Italian state-craft entered with Cromwell into English politics. He is in fact the first English minister in whom we can trace through the whole period of his rule the steady working out of a great and definite aim. His purpose was to raise the King to absolute authority on the ruins of every rival power within the realm. It was not that Cromwell was a mere slave of tyranny.
Whether we may trust the tale that carries him in his youth to Florence or no, his statesmanship was closely modelled on the ideal of the Florentine thinker whose book was constantly in his hand. Even as a servant of Wolsey he startled the future Cardinal, Reginald Pole, by bidding him take for his manual in politics the "Prince" of Machiavelli. Machiavelli hoped to find in Caesar Borgia or in the later Lorenzo de' Medici a tyrant who after crushing all rival tyrannies might unite and regenerate Italy; and it is possible to see in the policy of Cromwell the aim of securing enlightenment and order for England by the concentration of all authority in the Crown. The last check on royal absolutism which had survived the Wars of the Roses lay in the wealth, the independent synods and jurisdiction, and the religious claims of the Church. To reduce the great ecclesiastical body to a mere department of the State in which all authority should flow from the sovereign alone, and in which his will should be the only law, his decision the only test of truth, was a change hardly to be wrought without a struggle; and it was the opportunity for such a struggle that Cromwell saw in the divorce. His first blow showed how unscrupulously the struggle was to be waged.