Letter: Church and state

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Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith seems to think that the right of bishops to sit in the House of Lords results from Henry VIII's claim to be Supreme Governor of the Church of England. (Actually, Henry claimed to be "of the Church of England and also of Ireland in Earth the Supreme Head": it was Elizabeth I who changed "Head" to "Governor".)

In fact Henry VIII reduced the church's representation in the Lords. The bishops' places date back to the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot, and throughout the Middle Ages bishops and abbots had seats in the Lords by virtue of the lands they held from the Crown. In Henry VII's first Parliament, the 29 lay lords were heavily outnumbered by 2 archbishops, 19 bishops, and 28 mitred abbots.

Thanks to Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of their lands, the abbots lost their seats. Though Henry created some new bishoprics, the Lords thereafter only contained 26 spiritual peers. Since then many new lay peers have been created, but there are still just 2 archbishops and 24 bishops in the Lords.


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