King Henry VIII, ruler of England from 1509 until his death in 1547, played an instrumental role in the Reformation, with his determined split from the Roman Catholic Church hugely shifting the source of power in 16th Century Europe. Although other rulers before him had various political motivations for breaking away from the church, none of them acted on it, except Henry VIII. Unlike the other kings before him, he had both a political and personal investment in the matter, leading him to accomplish what may not have been accomplished for years had he not been ruler of England.
The fact that Henry VIII was the successor to his father and seized the throne of England was in itself an improbable occurrence. Born as the third child and second son to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Henry would not have become king if it had not been for his older brother Arthur’s death in 1502. Arthur’s death was unexpected and occurred a mere twenty weeks after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon. The marriage was originally a venture to unite England and Spain by forming an alliance and establishing Catherine as an ambassador between the two countries. Arthur’s demise, however, threatened the newly established connection between the two nations, and as an attempt to continue England’s relationship with Spain, it was decided that Henry VIII would marry his brother’s widow.
The wedding was a surprisingly complicated arrangement to pursue with the Roman Catholic Church arguing against the marriage and finally arriving at the necessity of a special dispensation from the Pope, Julius II, in order for the nuptials to be legitimate. Although the marriage was eventually approved, such tension between the government and the Church did not aid any future interactions between the two, and instead contributed to the conflict that would later arise and lead to the separation of the Roman Catholic Church and the state of England.
The real conflict did not begin until much later, when after twenty-four years of marriage, Catherine still had yet to produce a male heir to the throne. Henry’s displeasure with her continued to grow, and as Catherine aged he found himself attracted to the young Anne of Boleyn – who, unlike his current wife, was of perfect childbearing age. His affection for her continued to grow, eventually leading him to desire a divorce from his spouse so that he could marry his mistress instead.
When Henry approached Pope Clement VII about a divorce in 1527 his request was denied. The Roman Catholic Church did not support divorce, but rather believed in marriage for life; due to this, Henry was unable to convince the Pope to annul his marriage. This rejection created quite the predicament for Henry – if he were to ignore the Church and announce that as the king of England he was allowing himself a divorce, he would face huge repercussions, such as excommunication by the Pope. Since he desperately did not want to face such a fate Henry tried to work his way around it, once again approaching the Pope and asking for a papal dispensation. For the second time Henry’s petition for a church sanctioned divorce was rejected, and he was left to either find a way around the church, or to stay married to his current wife.
The solution that Henry VIII arrived at was to go around the Pope and instead order the Archbishop of Canterbury, who desperately wished to stay on good terms with the king, to grant him a divorce. This betrayal of the Pope only continued to add to the tension between the two, eventually resulting in even more conflict, and at last Henry’s decision in 1534 to break away from the Roman Catholic Church and install himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England instead.
This action was completed in the first Act of Supremacy, a piece of legislation stating that “the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognised by the clergy of this realm in their Convocations” (Castelli). At no point in the document does Henry VIII state any recognition of this statement from parliament; the entire text is a description of how wonderful he thinks himself to be, although there is no confirmation of this view from others. He self-appoints himself and his future children as religious leaders of his new church, “the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia” (Castelli), without taking into account the opinions and views of others within his realm; in summary, Henry took full advantage of his powers within the English monarchy.
The entire document is a testament to the newfound independence and power Henry VIII possesses after splitting from the Catholic Church. No longer must he submit to the Pope’s rulings, but rather he can commit any action without facing the judgment of the church. He even goes so far as to declare any person found to be supporting the Catholic Church guilty of treason, further protecting himself from the judgment of any strongly religious people. By installing himself the leader of a new religion, Henry doubles his power, and limits those who can criticize him, thus establishing himself as the sole leader of the country.
One of Henry’s first actions after installing himself as the supreme head of the Church of England was to investigate the wealthy monks and nuns whom had strayed from religious tradition, and instead become fat and lazy. It seemed to Henry that the religious figures failed to contribute to society and were instead just a burden on the people, collecting their money and accomplishing little in return. His solution for such a problem was to order the monasteries of England to be shut down in an act called The Dissolution. By 1540, the majority of the monasteries had been dissolved with few besides the previous inhabitants protesting the change. Once the monasteries had been evacuated, Henry VIII accumulated the majority of the wealth, instead using it for his own devices such as building forts to aid in the country’s defense from France.
The fact that the Dissolution was so well welcomed by the people of England speaks volumes about what the relationship between religious authorities and common people were like in the 16th Century. Instead of the Church working to help it’s subjects and playing the role in society that we now perceive as being fitting for a church, the Roman Catholic Church was, in reality, extremely corrupt. Henry VIII took note of such a thing, and was motivated by it, acknowledging that the money the clergymen were using for unscrupulous methods could be put to better use. Other surrounding countries heard of these occurrences and were motivated by them, realizing that Henry VIII had managed not only to make himself more powerful in his country, but had also managed to gain copious amounts of wealth – the primary goal of any ruler.
Due to the entire nation of England’s departure from the control of the Pope and the rest of the Catholic Church, the power held by Rome diminished greatly. Not only had they lost control of a key part of Europe, but other countries laid witness to such a departure, as well as the results, and thus were inspired by King Henry VIII’s actions. Not all countries and their people decided to follow in his footsteps; however, his turn away from the major source of power at the time showed them that it was indeed possible. Few times before had the Church’s power and leadership been questioned in such an extreme way, and the results that Henry VIII achieved were fully satisfactory, showing others that great progress and growth for one’s country could be made away from the overbearing shadow of the Roman Catholic Church.
Bernard, G. W. The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English
Church. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.
Castelli, Jorge. “Tudor Place.” The Act of Supremacy (1534). N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Nov
“Henry VIII (1491-1547).” BBC History. BBC, 2011. Web. 17 Nov 2011.
“King Henry VIII – Historical profile.” The Tudors Wiki. N.p., 20/3/2011. Web. 17
Trueman, Chris. “The Reformation.” History Learning Site. N.p., 2011. Web. 27 Oct