The English Reformation


            The English Reformation, leading to the separation of the Anglican Church from Rome, was not based upon religious conviction nor humanist thinking, but rather the desire of King Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) to secure a divorce and produce a male heir.


The King's Great Matter: Henry was the second son of Henry VII, victorious at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and first of the Tudor Line. The elder son, Arthur, was the heir apparent. Henry VII had arranged for Arthur to marry Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The marriage not only brought a sizeable dowry to Britain, but also gave the upstart Tudor regime a degree of legitimacy. The marriage was arranged when Arthur was two, and celebrated in November, 1501 when he had just turned fifteen.


Four months after the marriage, Arthur, who had never been healthy, died of “consumption.”  Faced with losing the dowry and the Spanish connection, Henry VII convinced the Spanish to marry Arthur’s young widow to the second son, Henry, who was now first in line. Never mind that Henry was six years younger than Catherine. There was a Biblical problem, however, as it was sinful, according to the Old Testament, for a man to marry his brother’s widow.


The passage in question was Leviticus 20:21: And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.


Henry sent emissaries to Pope Julius II (who had commissioned Michelangelo) to secure a papal dispensation. His theologians argued two points:


  1. At the tender age of fifteen, it was highly doubtful that Arthur had consummated his marriage to Catherine. In the eyes of the Church, an unconsummated marriage was no marriage at all; therefore the marriage of Arthur and Catherine never truly existed.


      Henry managed to secure testimony from Catherine that the marriage had never been consummated, although there is some question about the veracity of the documents. Information about marital relations would normally only be revealed at confession, not something that one would discuss publicly.


  1. Even if Arthur, at the tender age of fifteen, had been precocious enough to pick the Spanish flower, the controlling scripture was not Leviticus, but Deuteronomy 25:5


            When brothers shall dwell together, and one of them dies without children, the wife of the deceased shall not marry another; but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother.


Pope Julius granted the dispensation, and Henry married Catherine on June 11, 1509, several weeks after the death of his father. At the time, he was eighteen, and Catherine was twenty five.


As a young man, Henry VIII was very athletic and talented. He has been described as a gifted athlete, musician, and poet. A loyal Catholic, he published a treatise in 1521 which opposed the doctrines of Martin Luther which so impressed the Pope that he awarded Henry the title, “Defender of the Faith.” English Monarchs still use the title to this day. The only thing more imposing than Henry’s talent was his ego. He did not take no for an answer. He kept at least two mistresses by whom he had illegitimate children, and was something of a glutton. By the time of his death in 1527, he weighed over 300 pounds. The table at which he dined was cut in an inverse oval to allow room for his prodigious belly. Among his more dubious contributions to society, Henry is the King of Hearts on playing cards.


Henry was married to Catherine for twenty four years. She became pregnant five times, but all her children save one were either stillborn, or died shortly after birth. Her sole surviving child was a daughter, Mary (b. 1516). Who figures prominently in later lessons. Henry was not comfortable with a female heir apparent. He felt that it was necessary to have a son if the Tudor line was to be considered legitimate. Divorce seemed to be the only solution; however divorce was not allowed under Roman Catholicism. The only solution was to have the marriage annulled (to say that it never legally existed.)


To facilitate the annulment, Henry and his lawyers decided, conveniently, that the marriage of Catherine to Arthur had in fact been consummated, and Henry had sinned by marrying his brother’s wife. The Princess Mary apparently did not count as a “child.”


To further complicate matters, Henry had become attracted to Anne Boleyn. He had previously had a child by Anne’s sister, but Anne was not so easily conquered. She kept him begging for five years, and eventually secured a promise of marriage before sharing his bed.


Henry sought help from his Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey  was a lecherous man who loved good food and loose women. Despite his vow of celibacy, he kept a wife, and lived like a king himself in a palace at Hampton Court. He held several church titles, and aspired to become the next Pope. He had been a very capable administrator, and as a prince of the church, neither man anticipated any difficulty securing the annulment.


Fate intervened. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, sacked Rome in the summer of 1527, and the Pope, Clement VII, was a virtual prisoner. Charles was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, and Catherine had made it known that she opposed the divorce. A devoutly religious woman, she was appalled at Henry’s suggestion that they had been “living in sin.” Charles had no intention of allowing the Pope to disgrace his aunt. Additionally, Pope Clement was already reluctant to grant the annulment, as it would mean that the dispensation granted by his predecessor, Julius II, was wrong.


Henry was furious when Wolsey failed to get the divorce, and removed him from office. His next Chancellor was Sir Thomas More. A year later, Wolsey was charged with treason, and would have been beheaded, however he died of a heart attack before he could be brought to the block. More, the devout Catholic and humanist, vigorously persecuted Protestants in England.  He also managed to secure the appointment of Thomas Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer, bolder than his predecessors, pronounced the dissolution of Henry’s marriage to Catherine, and celebrated the marriage of Henry to Anne, who was pregnant at the time.


Although Catherine had been immensely popular in England, Henry was aided by the efforts of Thomas Cromwell, a lawyer who had worked under Wolsey. It was Cromwell who suggested to Henry that as King of all England, he should also be “supreme head of the Church in England.” To make the separation from Rome legal, he proposed several laws passed by Parliament, the most important of which was the Act of Supremacy, which made Henry head of the Church of England. This latter was too much for More, who had previously resigned as Chancellor, and refused to sign the oath of supremacy as a matter of conscience. He was beheaded on July 7, 1535, and his head displayed at Traitor’s Gate on London Bridge as a warning to anyone else who dared oppose the King.


Cromwell also was instrumental in turning public opinion against the established church. Instances of church corruption were well publicized, and exaggerated if it suited his purpose. In 1529, a pamphlet written by Simon Fish entitled The Supplication of Beggars stated that monks were after “every man’s wife, every man’s daughter, and every man’s soul.” As a result, public reaction to the divorce was muted. Catherine herself, who was shut up in a convent, refused to encourage rebellion. Henry purportedly was elated when she died on January 7, 1536, saying, “God be praised, the harridan is dead.”


Cromwell used the growing unpopularity of the Catholic church as an excuse to seize the wealth of the church in England. Five hundred monasteries were closed, and their lands ceded to the Crown, the largest transfer of English real estate since the Norman Invasion of 1066. Cromwell justified his actions by complaining of the corruption of the monasteries. He accused the monks of a variety of sins, including “secret, solitary vice.” Yet monks were still required to keep their vows.


Closing the monasteries did result in a rebellion in northern England, known as the “Pilgrimage of Grace.” It was not as organized or as great a threat as the German Peasant’s Revolt, but Henry put it down with equal severity.


Henry’s problems—and marriages—were not over. The child whom Anne Boleyn carried turned out to be a red haired, blue eyed girl. Henry was so disappointed, he refused to kiss his daughter until she was christened, some months later. The child was named Elizabeth, after Anne’s mother, and later was Queen Elizabeth I. Anne had several more children, but like Catherine, they were all either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Henry was getting up in age, and increasingly desperate for a male heir that he believed Anne would not give him. He could not annul his marriage to Anne as he had Catherine—it would have been too convenient an excuse—so he instead accused her of adultery. Witnesses were forced under torture to admit to an adulterous relationship. Among those accused was Anne’s own brother. Existing evidence makes it highly doubtful that Anne, pious and religious, was every unfaithful to Henry; however Adultery was a convenient excuse. Anne was convicted and beheaded inside the Tower of London on May 19, 1536.


Under English law, adultery with the Queen is an act of high treason, of which both the Queen and her paramour are guilty.


Even before Henry had decided to dispose of Anne, his eye was turned by Jane Seymour, a shy young lady eighteen years younger than he. (One would presume that this would make Henry a “dirty old man.”) Jane bore him a son, but tragically died in childbirth. The child was named Edward. He was the future Edward VI. Thomas Cranmer was concerned that Henry might backtrack on the reformation, so he arranged a political marriage to a German (and conveniently Protestant) princess, Anne of Cleves. Henry had not seen Anne, and would not marry her sight unseen, so he dispatched his favorite artist, Hans Holbein, to paint her. Holbein’s portrait flattered Anne; in fact it did not show her smallpox scars. A marriage was arranged by proxy, and the new bride went to England to meet her new husband. Both were turned off by the other. Henry because he found her unattractive (he referred to her as the “Flanders Mare.”) and Anne by Henry’s girth. His former 32 inch waist was now a size 52. The marriage was quickly annulled, and Anne dispatched to the country with a handsome allowance. She was treated kindly, rather than upset the alliance in Germany. This was wife number four.


Henry was angered that he had been so embarrassed by the Cleves affair, and vented his wrath on Thomas Cromwell. He was removed from office, and beheaded on the same spot where Anne Boleyn had died. In his final words from the block, he professed to be a loyal Catholic.


Wife number five was Catherine Howard, a high spirited young lady; however Henry was overweight and getting old. He was apparently unable to satisfy her sexual needs, so she sought consolation elsewhere, and was caught. It was also revealed that she had shared her bed with another gentleman before she married Henry. She and the two gentlemen were both beheaded.


Wife number six was Catherine Parr. She had been twice widowed before marrying Henry, and became a widow a third time, as she survived him. He was old and disappointed at this time, and she was something of a nursemaid for him. She was a very kind and nurturing stepmother to Henry’s children, who would necessarily have suffered some psychological trauma with so many mothers and stepmothers. Henry ultimately died in 1547, after a long illness. He had suffered several strokes, and had very painful ulcers on his legs. Because of his weight and other indications, there is some argument that he died of diabetes


Edward VI: Became King on the death of his father, but was only ten years old, and in poor health. England was actually ruled by a council of regents, the most powerful of whom was his uncle, Edward Seymour. Seymour was particularly aggressive in moving England more toward Protestantism. To secure his position, he arranged the marriage of his brother, Thomas, to the late king’s widow. He fell from grace when he was found kissing the Edward’s half sister Elizabeth, then fourteen, in a more than stepfatherly fashion. His “romping” with Elizabeth caused her stepmother to send her away to a more protected environment. Edward himself only lived five more years, and died at fifteen, the same age at which his uncle Arthur died.


While Edward was King, Thomas Cranmer issued the Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church. The church exists in America as the Episcopal Church. Additionally, an English version of the Bible was published.


Establishment of the Church of Scotland:  Clerical abuse and corruption had been extreme in the Scottish church, and as a result, Lutheranism originally held a great deal of appeal. King James V and his daughter, Mary Queen of Scots (r. 1560-1567) were staunch Catholics as well as allies of Catholic France, and opposed reform of the Church, However, Scottish nobles supported.


Reform of the Scottish church was largely the work of John Knox, a disciple of Calvin  and who called Calvin's work in Geneva "the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the Apostles." Knox was dour and obstinate in his opinions; but was a passionate preacher who often broke pulpits from pounding them with his fists, actions which earned him the nickname of the "thundering Scot." Knox was determined to fashion the Scottish church after Calvin's example in Geneva.


In 1560, Knox persuaded the Scottish parliament to enact legislation ending the authority of the Pope. Mass was abolished and attendance at Mass was made a capital offense. The church was renamed the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, because it was governed by presbyters, (literally "elders" but in reality the ministers of the church) rather than bishops. The church was strictly Calvinist in doctrine and followed a simple form of worship with an emphasis on preaching. Knox's Book of Common Order was adopted as the liturgical directory for the church. The Church became a state church, many of whose members had close relations with English Puritans.


Protestantism in Ireland: The English reformation exacerbated the traditional bitter hatred of all things English by the Irish. This hatred was not helped by the attitude of the English monarchy to all things Irish. Henry VIII had stated his desire to "reduce that realm to the knowledge of God and obedience to us." In the sixteenth century, the Irish were considered "barbarians" and a policy of complete extermination was considered. It was ultimately abandoned only because "to enterprise (that is, "attempt") the whole extirpation and total destruction of all the Irishmen in the land would be a marvelous sumptious charge and great difficulty." Translation: it would cost too much.


In 1536, the Irish Parliament, acting on orders from London, approved laws effecting the  severance of the Irish church from Rome and declaring the King of England as head of the church. Monasteries were closed, Catholic property confiscated and sold, and the profits sent to England. However, the Irish populace remained defiantly Roman Catholic, if for no other reason, to spite their hated English overlords. Irish Catholicism was soon synonymous with Irish nationalism.