Henry VIII And Anglicanism
"Here I Take My Stand"
Author: Lewis Hackett
The early English Reformation created an Anglican Church even more
politically oriented than Lutheranism. The leader of the Reformation in
England was not a dissenting priest but rather the reigning monarch, Henry
VIII (1504-1547). His primary motive was securing his Tudor dynasty, although
access to the wealth of the English Catholic Church was also a major
consideration. Protestant ideas concerning theology and ritual did not much
interest him, as was demonstrated by his persecution of dissident Protestants
as well as Catholics. While Henry lived, the English Church reflected his
will, but after his death, the country was nearly torn apart by corrupt
politics and religious fanaticism.
The Annulment Issue
Henry's immediate problem in the 1520s was the lack of a male heir. After
eighteen years of marriage, he had only a sickly daughter and an illegitimate
son. His queen, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), after four earlier
pregnancies, gave birth to a stillborn son in 1518, and by 1527, when she was
42, Henry had concluded that she would have no more children. His only hope
for the future of his dynasty seemed to be a new marriage with another queen.
This, of course, would require an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. In
1527, he appealed to the pope, asking for the annulment.
Normally, the request would probably have been granted; the situation,
however, was not normal. Catherine had first been the wife of Henry's deceased
brother Arthur. Her marriage to Henry had required a papal dispensation, based
on her oath that the first marriage had never been consummated. Now Henry
professed concern for his soul, tainted by living in sin with Catherine for
eighteen years. He also claimed that he was being punished, citing a passage
in the Book of Leviticus, which predicted childlessness for the man who
married his dead brother's wife. The pope was sympathetic and certainly aware
of an obligation to Henry, who for his verbal attacks against Luther had been
named "Defender of the Faith" by a grateful earlier pontiff; but granting the
annulment would have been admission of papal error, perhaps even corruption,
in issuing the dispensation. Added to the Lutheran problem, this would have
been doubly damaging to the papacy.
A more formidable problem for Henry was Catherine. She was a cultured
Spanish woman a respected consort, and a devoted wife, who had had
successfully conducted a war against Scotland while Henry was campaigning in
France. Henry recognized her strong character in their daughter, Mary, whom he
appointed Princess of Wales and heir apparent, in the absence of a prince. As
late as the mid-1520s, he sought Catherine's counsel and her companionship.
Henry soon learned that Catherine would never accept an annulment, and he was
afraid she might lead rebellion against him. As the aunt of Charles v, whose
armies occupied Rome in 1527, she also exerted considerable pressure on the
Despite these difficulties, Henry could hope for success in his appeal to
the pope. Any conflict with Rome was in accord with national pride, often
expressed in traditional resentment against Roman domination. Late medieval
English kings had challenged the popes over Church appointments and revenues.
More than a century and a half before Luther, an Oxford professor named John
Wycliffe had denounced the false claims of popes and bishops. In more recent
times, English Christian humanists, such as Sir Thomas More, had criticized
the artificialities of Catholic worship. Thus when the pope delayed making a
decision, Henry was relatively secure in his support at home.
The English Reformation And Reaction
During the three years after 1531, when Catherine saw him for the last
time, Henry took control of affairs. Lodging his daughter and his banished
wife in separate castles, he forbade them from seeing each other. He also
intimidated the clergy into proclaiming him head of the English Church "as far
as the law of Christ allows," extracted from Parliament the authority to
appoint bishops, and designated his willing tool, Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556),
as Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1533, Cranmer pronounced Henry's marriage to
Catherine invalid, at the same time legalizing the king's union with Ann
Boleyn, a lady of the court who was already carrying his unborn child.
Parliament also ended all payments of revenues to Rome. Now, having little
choice, the pope excommunicated Henry, making the breach official on both
Amid a marked anti-Catholic campaign in the 1530s, Henry secured the
Anglican establishment, which became an engine for furthering royal policies,
with the king's henchmen controlling every function, from the building of
chapels to the wording of the liturgy. Former church revenues, including more
than 40,000 a year from religious fees alone, poured into the royal treasury.
In 1539, Parliament completed its seizure of monastery lands, selling some for
revenue and dispensing others to secure the loyalties of crown supporters.
Meanwhile, Catholics suffered. Dispossessed nuns, unlike monks and priests,
could find no place in the new church and were often reduced to despair. One,
the famous "holy maid of Kent," who dared to rebuke the king publicly, was
executed, as were other Catholic dissidents, including the king's former
chancellor, Sir Thomas More, and the saintly Bishop Fisher of Rochester. Henry
even forced his daughter, Mary, to accept him as head of the church and admit
the illegality of her parents' marriage.
The new English Church, however, brought little change in doctrine or
ritual. The "Six Articles," Parliament's declaration of the new creed and
ceremonies in 1539, reaffirmed most Catholic theology, except papal supremacy.
Henry, in his later years after the execution of Anne in 1536, grew
increasingly suspicious of popular Protestantism, which was spreading into
England and Scotland from the Continent. He refused to legalize clerical
marriage, which caused great hardships among many Anglican clergymen,
including some bishops, and their wives. Henry's sixth wife, the former
Catherine Parr, who was sympathetic to the reformers, narrowly escaped the
king's displeasure by humbly appealing to his vanity. Others were not so
lucky. Perhaps the most notable among many Protestant martyrs was Anne Askew,
a woman of Lincolnshire, who was tried before a church court for heresy and so
confounded her judges that she became a legend. She was nevertheless burned in
1546, a year before Henry died.
The Turmoil Of Extremes
The decade after Henry's death brought social and political upheaval, as
religious fanaticism shook the country. For six years, amid growing political
corruption, Protestants ruled the country and the frail young King, Edward VI
(1547-1553), who was the son of Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. When he died
in 1553, Mary Tudor came to the throne and strove to restore Catholicism until
her death in 1558. The succeeding reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), Henry's
daughter by Anne Boleyn, triggered a national awareness that diminished
In Edward's reign, the government was controlled by a Regency Council,
dominated first by the Duke of Somerset and then, after 1549, by his rival,
the Duke of Northumberland. While the Council members furthered their own
ambitions, many parishes were engulfed by a wave of Protestantism, which
overturned religious traditions. Foreign refugees contributed to the unrest,
although many were aided by English sympathizers like Catherine Willoughby,
Duchess of Suffolk, and other Protestant court ladies. Starting slowly under
Somerset and moving faster under Northumberland, the government sought
political support by courting Protestants. It repealed the Six Articles,
permitted priests to marry, replaced the Latin service with Cranmer's English
version, and adopted the Forty-Two Articles, an embodiment of extreme
Protestantism. Such policies frightened Catholics, but there were only two
religious burnings, and one of these victims was an Anabaptist woman.
Frightful persecutions of Protestants marked the reign of Mary Tudor.
Although known in history as "Bloody Mary," the new queen possessed many
admirable qualities, including intelligence, dignity, compassion, and a strong
moral sense; but she was handicapped by a religious obsession and by a
hopeless love for her husband, Philip II of Spain, who married her in 1554,
courteously abandoned her soon after, and returned only once, briefly, to ask
her aid. At first successful in putting down rebellion, Mary squandered her
early popularity by imposing her will on a divided people. This involved
restoring the Catholic church service, proclaiming papal authority, forging a
Spanish alliance, and burning 300 Protestants, including Cranmer and two other
bishops. Most victims, however, were of the middle and lower classes; 55 of
these were women; and two were blind girls. At the end, Mary died pitifully,
rejected by her husband and people, but unmoved from her determined hope to
save English Catholicism.