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Henry VIII's Role in the English Reformation

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An admittedly lame paper on Henry VIII...but these are some pretty good sources in any case.

           Henry VIII is probably best known for his multitude of wives.  But his greatest impact was probably his separation from Rome and the creation of the Church of England.  He brought the reformation to England not for religious reasons, but to gain political authority.  In doing so, he ended a long period of declining papal authority by establishing that secular monarchs held their power separate from Rome.

            The power of the Roman church over monarchs had been on the decline for quite some time.  The church had lost power over the course of the late middle ages and early renaissance periods.  The lowest point before Henry was perhaps the short reign of Pope Boniface VIII.  Boniface issued Unam Sanctum, declaring the supreme power of the church.  In 1303 Philip the Fair of France responded by sending men to pillage the papal palace Anagni and terrorize the pope.[1]  When this incident is compared to the strong reign of Gregory VII.  This earlier pope had successfully excommunicated monarchs, turned the people of Germany against excommunicated leaders, and strengthened the authority of the pope.  Even though he failed to gain complete control over secular kings, he made great strides towards establishing a papacy with authority beyond that of secular lords and powers.[2]  The difference between the two popes is obvious.  One was strong and able to exert power over kings; kings attacked the other.  And although they were both exceptional cases, the comparison of the two does serve to indicate the trend towards a weaker papacy and stronger monarchies. 

            It is also important to note Henrys earlier theological experiences.  Most accounts seem to indicate that Henry had a strong grasp of theology.  He was, at any rate, especially learned for a king.[3]  He considered himself a staunch Catholic and labored in the cause of his church.  In response to Luthers objections doctrine on the sacraments of the Catholic Church, he published a book entitled Assertion of the Seven Sacraments in 1521.  When this book found favor in the eyes of the pope, who gave Henry and his successors the title Defender of the Faith.[4]  The abilities of an amateur theologian would be useful in his life as king, allowing him to take steps against the power of Rome and to continue opposing Lutheranism.

On 23 April 1509 Henry VII succeeded his father as king of England.  During the early days of his reign, Henry took care in earning the respect and love of his people.  He pardoned criminals, forgave debts, and sponsored numerous pageants and tournaments.  Although money was quickly disappearing from the royal treasury, the people loved him.[5]  Upon his ascension, he quickly married Catherine of Aragon.  Because Catherine had been the wife of Henrys dead brother Arthur, the marriage required a papal dispensation.  This dispensation was easily achieved.  Because of the family ties Catherine had as daughter to the monarchs of Spain and was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, the pope quickly allowed the marriage to continue.[6]  The stage had been set for the English Reformation.

Henry and Catherine were married for entirely political reasons.  The marriage reinforced an alliance with Spain against France.[7]  However, they did seem to be rather happy in their marriage.  However, after eighteen years of marriage, Catherine had failed to produce a male heir to the throne of England.  By 1525, Catherine was nearly past childbearing age, and the dynastic line seemed insecure.[8]  In addition, Catherine had become less attractive, and Henry was noticing one of her ladies in waiting, Anne Boleyn.  And so Henry set out to divorce Catherine and marry Anne.  Once again, the king of England needed permission from the pope.  To accomplish this he sent Thomas Cardinal Wolsey to the pope asking for an annulment of Henrys marriage to Catherine.  The pope, afraid of the political ramifications of such an act, refused to void the marriage.[9]

Henry began instituting a series of legal steps to do as he wished.  In the middle of January 1533, Anne told Henry she was pregnant, and on 25 January, they were secretly married, regardless of the fact that Henry was still married to Catherine.[10]  Henry also appointed Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury.  Using the new leverage gained by this, he had Cranmer null the marriage to Catherine on the basis of a passage in Leviticus which forbids the marriage of a man to his brothers wife.[11]  Thus, the marriage was illegal in the first place, and not valid. 

Henry also passed several laws through Parliament.  The first was the Act in Restraint of Appeals.  This act denied the jurisdiction of the pope over England.[12]  This act was also largely responsible for Pope Clement VII excommunicating Henry from the church.  However, unlike the earlier King John, Henry had enough support from the nobles and commoners of England that he was able to effectively ignore the punishment and remain in power.[13]  Henry also retaliated against the Pope by cutting off all revenues that the Catholic Church would have gained from England.[14]  He passed the Act of Supremacy in 1534.  This act declared Henry VIII, as the king, to be the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.[15]  In other words, the pope was declared to be completely without authority in England.  Henry could make ecclesiastical appointments, and all clergymen owed allegiance to him, not the pope or Roman Catholic Church.  Henrys final parliamentary action of this sort was the Act of Dissolution.  The Act of Dissolution was aimed at monasteries, and dissolved most of them.  The monks were then given the choice of joining one of the few remaining monasteries or of entering the new secular clergy.[16]

Other reforms Henry made to the church in England came in the form of drawing up a common definition for faith, and the publication of the Book of Common Prayer in 1536.  This was not done because of any sort of religious piety, but because Henry did not want any separations or schisms within his kingdom and church.[17]  The effect was that everyone had the same rule to follow.  Henry saw the Wittenberg definition of faith as being too unorthodox, and so applied his own knowledge of theology to the matter.  After several publications, the Kings Book was produced in the year 1543.  The creed produced was thoroughly Catholic.  The exceptions were the emphasis placed on the Bible as a source of authority and on jurisdiction by faith.[18]

Partially because of his earlier generosity towards his people, Henrys reforms met little opposition in his country.  However, he did have several detractors, the most famous being Thomas More and the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher.  They spoke out against Henry for the sundering of Christendom and against what they perceived to be tyrannical acts.[19]  Both had been friends with Erasmus, and like him, they saw many problems and abuses within the Catholic Church.  However, they wanted to change it from within.  When Henry separated England from the church, they perceived it in the same manner that orthodox Catholics did throughout Europe.  They saw the nation of England being led to hell by their king.[20]  Both went to the headsmans block for their opposition.  However, they were the exception rather than the rule.  The English reformation was peaceful and nearly bloodless.

Henrys reforms won him few friends on the continent.  Rome was obviously turned against him.  But by that time the Pope lacked the authority to rule kings.  The papacy had been on a decline in power.  Because of this, Henry was able to resist Papal excommunication and the interdict that had defeated Harold and John Lackland.  Besides the Pope, Martin Luther was perhaps the most outspoken of Henrys critics.  Previously the two had quarreled, as the kings saw Luthers defiance of papal authority as a foreshadowing of a future defiance of secular authority.[21]  Henry and England were catholic at that time.  But now their quarrel was renewed, for Luther found fault in Henrys new doctrine.  He said of Henry, This King wants to be God.  He founds articles of faith, which even the Pope never did.[22]  Luther became a vocal opponent of Henrys new church, which he saw as nothing more than simply replacing not only the Pope, but also God with an earthly monarch.  A further point of contention was over the sacraments.  Henry saw himself still as a good Christian in the Catholic tradition, and so upheld the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, he formalized the sacraments in 1539 by enacting the Act of Six Articles, in which he reaffirms transubstantiation, the celibacy of priests, private masses, confession, and Communion.[23]   After he reaffirmed many of the Catholic ideals, he began a persecution of Protestants in England.  He declared all Lutherans to be heretics. At the same time, he increased the power of the crown over the papacy by declaring all Romanists to be traitors.[24] 

Henry VIII had no interest in reforming the church.  His focus was on maintaining power over everyone else.  The change in Englands religion can easily be seen as the end of a long trend.  Since the middle of the Middle Ages, papal authority had decreased.  When Henry declared the Church of England separate from Rome and named himself as the head of his church, he ended the transition.  Now rulers were supreme over the church.[25]  Yes, Henry VIII created the Church of England as a separate entity from the Roman Catholic Church.  But the importance of this act is much more secular than religious, for by doing so Henry raised secular, national authority over the authority of Pope.  No longer was the pope supreme.  Henry, almost single handedly, ended the long period of complete papal authority and power.  Even though such authority had been on the decline for a long period of time, lip service was still paid to the idea by most people.  Henry VIII, King of England, ended that tradition.

[1] C. Warren Hollister, Joe W. Leedom, Marc A. Meyer, and David S. Spear.  Medieval Europe: A Short Source Book (McGraw Hill: New York, 1982; 4th ed., 2002), 313-316.

[2] C. Warren Hollister and Judith M. Bennett.  Medieval Europe: A Short History (McGraw Hill: New York, 1964; 9th ed., 2002), 208-209.

[3] J. J. Scarisbrick.  Henry VIII (University of California Press: Berkley, 1970), 15.

[4] Jasper Ridley.  Henry VIII: The Politics of Tyranny (Viking: New York, 1984), 127-129.

[5] W. E. Lunt. History of England  (Harper & Roe: New York, 1938), 301.

[6] Edith Simon.  The Reformation (Time-Life: New York, 1966), 80.

[7] Simon, Reformation, 80

[8] Scarisbrick.  Henry VIII, 151.

[9] Simon, Reformation, 81.

[10] Alison Plowden.  Tudor Women: Queens and Commoners.  (Atheneum: New York, 1979), 60.

[11] Simon, Reformation, 81.

[12] Karl H. Dannenfeldt, The Reformation in England and Scotland in The Reformation, ed. Stephen Thompson (Greenhaven: San Diego, 1999), 103.

[13] Simon, Reformation, 81.

[14] Dannenfeldt, Reformation, 104.

[15] Vergilius Ferm.  An Encyclopedia of Religion (Philosophical Library: New York, 1945), 750.

[16] Simon, Reformation, 81.

[17] Simon, Reformation, 82.

[18] Simon, Reformation, 82.

[19] Simon, Reformation, 82

[20] Lunt, History of England, 308.

[21] Ridley, Henry VIII, 126.

[22] Martin Luther as cited in Edith Simon.  The Reformation (Time-Life: New York, 1966), 82.

[23] Dannenfelt, Reformation in England, 105.

[24] Edith Simon, Reformation, 82.

[25] Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Political and Cultural Consequences of the Reformation in The Reformation, ed. Stephen Thompson (Greenhaven: San Diego, 1999), 228.