Henry VIII and The English Reformation

Posted on November 18, 2011 by


The English Reformation was one of many smaller reformations of the Roman Catholic church that budded from the larger Reformation happening throughout Europe. In brief, the European Reformation entailed the split from the Roman Catholic church which was instigated by Martin Luther, a priest who was deeply dissatisfied with the inner workings of Catholicism.  Although Martin Luther himself ignited the initial conflict of the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the door of a church, many people around Europe wanted change. On some level, almost everyone had been disappointed with the church’s bureaucracy, arrogance, and abuse of power. Many thought that reform was the only way to restore the ecclesiastical community to a more balanced position. The English Reformation though, was more centered around governmental power than theological disputes.  It was the culmination of a series of events in the 16th century in which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.

The ring leader of this reformation was Henry VIII, who took the throne in 1509 at age 17. His first marriage was to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, a devout and very pious Catholic.   Henry was a faithful Catholic by birth, who didn’t doubt his religion until he began an illicit romance with Anne Boleyn, who arrived in court in 1522.   Anne had been Queen Catherine’s Lady in Waiting, and as a follower of Martin Luther, was thus a threat to Henry’s chancellor, Thomas Wolsey, who supported the Catholic church.  Because of Catherine’s presumed inability to produce a male heir, Henry wanted his marriage to her annulled in the late 1520’s.  When Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, the Pope refused according to Canon Law, (a set of rules created by Catholic authority), which did not allow the annulment of marriages under any circumstance. Henry, however, was not ready to give up.  He claimed that since the two had gotten a special “ok” from Pope Julius II to allow their wedding in the first place, as he was marrying his brother’s widow, his marriage to Catherine had been ethically “wrong” from the start.   Unfortunately for Henry though, this line of reasoning did not persuade the Pope.

In addition to Anne Boleyn’s charms, the death of Cardinal Wolsey added to Henry’s growing doubts about Catholicism. Once his chief advisor was not there to advise him any longer, he began to open up to all kinds of new ideas. At the time, this meant many of Luther’s ideas, which were not totally against annulment. Since Henry was still pushing to rescind his marriage, Parliament eventually had to deal with the King’s wish. Thomas Cromwell, then came into the picture. Cromwell was a lawyer and member of parliament as well as a Lutheran evangelical who, among other things, wanted to abolish various privileges of the Pope. Cromwell and Henry soon became quite close, considering their mutual desire to advance the power of the English throne in opposition to the Pope. The ultimate result of this collaboration was the advancement of the Royal Supremacy, which was the movement to switch power from the hands of the Pope to the monarch of England.
After years of no change in his quest for annulment, Henry wanted to ignore the Pope’s refusal to annul his marriage, and instead let parliament empower the archbishop to do so. Parliament, of course, refused to let this happen considering that not everyone agreed with Henry’s desires. So instead, Henry was “forced” to bully the priests into abiding by his wishes. In doing this, Henry charged the entire clergy with the crime of praemunire (asserting obedience to a foreign ruler, the Pope, as opposed to the King of England). Along with this charge came a huge fine which ultimately threatened to bankrupt the monasteries and abbeys of England. After some quarreling over the conditions of the payment of these fines, Henry finally wrangled the clergy into agreeing to a 5 year payment plan, as long as they abided by a set of 5 rules that the King dictated.

Henry wanted the clergy to recognize him as the “Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England”. He also wanted the right to make religious laws, to have immunity, privilege, and complete power over the law. Finally, Henry wanted his bullying of the clergy to appear as if it had never happened, so he pardoned all charges upon the clergy and laity. In 1531, these 5 conditions were agreed upon and Henry was paid the money, and thus granted his annulment.

Soon after this, Cromwell presented to Parliament the Supplication Against the Ordinaries, which listed nine injustices of the Catholic church. In response to this, the power of making laws was taken away from the Catholic church by an act called Submission of the Clergy. This act recognized that Royal Supremacy (Henry as King) ruled over the church, so it could no longer make canon law without consulting the King first. Soon, even taxes to Rome were revoked, and Cromwell declared England an independent country in every respect. This was not a smooth process at all.  Sir Thomas More, Henry’s chancellor, was a very vocal opponent of Cromwell and resigned in indignation when Cromwell’s advice was taken above his own. This left Cromwell and his Lutheran ideology as the King’s chief advisor.

In 1534 The Act of Supremacy was invoked. This act was seen as part of a broader policy aimed at increasing the power of the current monarch, and trying to push Rome even further away. It declared that the monarch of England was “the only supreme head on earth of the Church in England” and that the English crown would boast “all honours, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to said dignity”. In the body of the Act, Parliament is not mentioned and it is made clear that Parliament is not granting the King this title, but that Henry himself has asserted this statute as a fact. This small detail included in the act is just another example of Henry’s proclamation of his power over everyone.  After all the conflict Henry waded through in his first annulment, The Act of Supremacy was a sort of confirmation and official documentation which confirmed his power over the church and even people of England. By now, the Catholic Church was completely stripped of its rule over Britain.

Although a Reformation had been brewing for over a century, the Act of Supremacy marked the beginning of the English Reformation as a whole. By intertwining the church and state so intricately together, support for Catholicism became not just an expression of personal religious views, but a refutation of the authority of the King and thus a treasonable act. In a way, this personalization of politics to the crown, made it so that if you believed something different from the monarch, you were therefore against your country entirely. As a result, Catholicism was outlawed and greatly suppressed until much later in the Reformation. If it weren’t for King Henry’s Act of Supremacy all those years ago, England, and America for that matter, might have an entirely different religion even today.

While the English Reformation was preceded, and stimulated by developments in continental Europe, it took a unique form: it was led by the King of England, whose motives were deeply personal as well as political. This Reformation created a new state religion, the Anglican Church, and moved England to a new level of independence in relation to the power of Rome. The Anglican Church in England and the Episcopal Church elsewhere stand today as products of this far reaching historical development. Furthermore, the spirit of political independence, which this development reflects, might be considered as an influential precursor to the independence of England’s American colonies 150 years later.

The Act of Supremacy

“Albeit the king’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England, and so is recognized by the clergy of this realm in their convocations [gatherings], yet nevertheless, for corroboration [their opinion] and confirmation thereof, and for increase of virtue in Christ’s religion within this realm of England, and to repress and extirpate [destroy completely] all errors, heresies [different opinions], and other enormities and abuses heretofore used in the same, be it enacted, by authority of this present Parliament, that the king, our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted, and reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England, called Anglicans Ecclesia; and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united [given] to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof, as all honors, dignities, preeminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of the supreme head of the same Church belonging and appertaining [relating to]; and that our said sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, record, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offenses, contempts and enormities, whatsoever they be, which by any manner of spiritual authority or jurisdiction ought or may lawfully be reformed, repressed, ordered, redressed, corrected, restrained, or amended, most to the pleasure of Almighty God, the increase of virtue in Christ’s religion, and for the conservation of the peace, unity, and tranquility of this realm; any usage, foreign land, foreign authority, prescription, or any other thing or things to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.”

Works Cited

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