Canon Law, a collection of ecclesiastical constitutions for the regulation of the Church of Rome, consisting for the most part of ordinances of general and provincial councils, decrees promulgated by the popes with the sanction of the cardinals, and decretal epistles and bulls of the popes. The earliest canons are the apostolical canons, and though it has never been proved that they were the work of the Apostles, there is no doubt that they were promulgated at a very early period of ecclesiastical history. The Canon Law was first digested in 1151 by Gratian into the Decretum Gratiani or Concordia Discordantium Canonum, subsequently added to and continued by or at the request of Gregory IX. in 1230 in the Decretalia Gregorii Noni, subsequently still further added to by Boniface VIII. in 1208 in the Sextus Decretalium, afterwards by Clement V. in 1317, in the Clementine Constitutions, and completed by John XXII. in the Extravagantes, i.e. Riders. In addition to the Canon Law properly so-called, there exists also a large compilation of legatine and provincial constitutions which are generally treated as forming part of the Canon Law.
The introduction of this new code brought into existence a body of practitioners, commentators, and judges. The main object of the Canon Law was to establish (1) the supremacy of the ecclesiastical authority over the temporal, (2) the entire non-dependence of the clergy upon the laity, (3) that the laws of laymen cannot bind the Church to its prejudice, (4) that the constitutions of princes relating to ecclesiastical matters are of no authority, (5) that subjects owe no allegiance to an excommunicated lord. These are the most important doctrines of Gratian's Decretum and Decretals. The encroachments of the Church upon the temporal power were always disfavoured in England. There was, indeed, a kind of national Canon Law, composed of legatine and provincial constitutions, in force in the English Church. The former were ecclesiastical laws enacted in national synods held under the Cardinals Otho and Othobon, legates from Pope Gregory IX. and Clement IV., in the reign of Henry III. The provincial constitutions were the decrees of provincial synods held under divers Primates, from Stephen Langton, in the reign of Henry III., to Henry Chichele in the reign of Henry V., and adopted also by the Province of York in the reign of Henry VI.
With respect to these canons it was at the Reformation provided by a statute passed in the 25th year of the reign of Henry VIII. that they should be reviewed by the sovereign and certain commissioners, but that till such review should be made all canons, constitutions, ordinances, and synodals provincial, being then already made and not repugnant to the law of the land, or the king's prerogative, should still be in force. No review took place in Henry's time, but under Edward VI. a new code of ecclesiastical law was promulgated by a commission appointed by the Crown under statute. The confirmation of this was prevented by the death of the king; and although the project for a review of the old canons was revived in the reign of Elizabeth, it was soon dropped, and has not since been proceeded with.
So much of the English canons which existed previously to the statute of Henry VIII. before referred to as not repugnant to the Common or Statute Law are still in force in this country. It was, however, long since decided that the canons of the Convocation of Canterbury in 1603 (which, though confirmed by King James I., never received the sanction of Parliament) do not (except so far as they are declaratory of the ancient Canon Law) bind the laity of this country. It has also been decided that not only the clergy but the laity were bound by the then existing canons, but that the canons of 1603 (and generally all canons subsequently made) never having received parliamentary sanction do not proprio vigore bind the laity, but the clergy only. In the ecclesiastical courts, consisting of the Archdeacon's Court, the Consistory Courts, the Court of Arches, the Court of Peculiars, the Prerogative Courts of the two Archbishops, the Faculty Court, and the Privy Council, which is the Appeal Court, founded entirely upon custom, the Canon Law is, under certain restrictions, used. It is also used in the courts of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, but the Canon Law in this case derives additional support from the Acts of Parliament which confirm the charters of these bodies. They are all, however, subject to the control of the Common Law, now administered by the High Court of Justice, which possesses the exclusive power of expounding all statutes relating to the ecclesiastical courts, and will prohibit them from going beyond the limits of their jurisdiction, and from all of them there lies an appeal to the sovereign in the last resort. Henry VIII. in the 27th year of his reign issued a mandate to the University of Cambridge that there should thenceforth be no lectures on Canon Law, nor any degrees whatever in that faculty conferred in the university for the future. Degrees in Canon Law have ever since been discontinued in England.