The history of the English Reformation

King Henry VIII of England by Hans Holbein the Younger

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In the early morning of May 19th, 1536, Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second and most famous queen stepped onto a chilly scaffold dressed in an ermine lined dress of damask at Tower Green, London, and after a brief speech to a small selected crowd was beheaded with a single blow from a Frenchman’s sword. Her rise and fall from power - only reigning as queen for three years - was a shocking and controversial end to a tumultuous and passionate relationship with the king that had caused England’s break from the all-powerful Church of Rome.

In some ways such dramatic events which saw Tudor England sever itself from the religious bosom of a mainly Catholic Europe presided over by the Pope, could be compared to Britain’s controversial break from the European union four hundred and eighty years later in the 2016 referendum, which resulted in what the media coined Brexit.

Although the June 2016 referendum was spared of the kind of vicious bloodshed and violent executions witnessed in the early 16th century, it was still politically volatile and equally divisive for the country, creating a schism in British society.

However, the English Reformation, masterminded by Henry VIII’s brilliant but ruthless secretary Thomas Cromwell, in order to make England a secular power, allowed England to be released from the shackles of Rome’s religious laws. It shared a similar strategy to Brexit’s main objective to seek sovereign independence and the means for self-governance. Four hundred and eighty-four years earlier England separated itself from a European club of religious hegemony ruled by papal power that was to bring about seismic changes to the country’s principal religion and ways of worship, which in some cases such as with the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, has repercussions today.

The Origins of the Reformation

King Henry’s need for a male heir after twenty years of marriage to the Catholic Catherine of Aragon - which had only produced a living female (Mary) as Henry’s legitimate successor - meant that another child-bearing wife was needed to produce sons to continue his bloodline and succession of the throne. This was a time when few women were considered capable to rule a country, particularly in England (one rare precedent being Isabella I of Castile (1451-1504) mother of Catherine of Aragon) meant Henry was determined to be rid of Catherine in order to marry the young woman he had fallen in love with at court, Anne Boleyn.

Catherine’s powerful living relatives included the Emperor, Charles V of Spain, her nephew, but also closely connected her through religion to Pope Clement VII (1478 – 1534). It was a powerful alliance, therefore, that was prepared to block Henry’s demand for an annulment of his marriage to the pious Spanish queen. Despite Henry’s belief that his marriage to Catherine was invalid - due to him marrying his elder brother’s widow and therefore offending god - the Pope took Catherine’s side that she was his rightful wife and that no biblical reference in the Book of Leviticus could undermine its moral legitimacy. A radical plan needed to be masterminded to open a way for Henry to remarry and beget sons. That plan which led to Boleyn’s tragic execution on the scaffold was orchestrated by his ambitious secretary Thomas Cromwell.

Challenging the Pope

From the time Henry VIII fell in love with the outspoken and vivacious Anne Boleyn in 1527, it was to take seven long protracted years of religious and political debate with Rome before Cromwell’s unorthodox and radical plan legitimised Henry banishing Catherine and making Boleyn his legitimate wife and Queen.

Legislation to restrict papal power in England actually went back as far as a hundred years earlier with the act of praemunire, which in the 14th Century made it an offence under English law to appeal or obey a foreign court to challenge the Crown. This was the springboard allowing Henry to look for new methods to resolve his marital dilemma (divorcing Catherine) if only for the purpose of threatening the pope with their use.

In the summer of 1529, he adopted Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s suggestion to marshal the opinions of the universities of Christendom, including scholars, to take on the task of discovering whether the provincial church could legally settle the marital crisis. The results of such a theological poll were mixed and failed to give Henry the kind of theological leverage he sought to back his case. Another plan was needed.

Cromwell's Master Plan

Thomas Cromwell’s revolutionary strategy to get Henry off the papal hook in order to marry Anne Boleyn and sire the male heir he desperately wanted risked being viewed as heretical by religious leaders and figures in both England and abroad. Cromwell’s bold plan to make Henry the head of England’s Church and free him from legal interference from the Pope’s ecclesiastical authority.

Cromwell's theological game of chess shocked the Western world. It was a dangerous ploy, setting England against Rome and one which Cromwell believed was worth it, not just to secure the succession line for an ageing monarch but also because of the rich revenues he could exploit. Even before Cromwell had set his sights on the wealth of England’s monasteries and to fleece them of their assets and valuables, he pre-empted this audacious act of state-authorised piracy with a taster of what was to come for the Rome-governed clergy of England.

A note written by Cromwell in October 1530 reveals the decision was made to charge the entire clergy of England with the illegal use of their spiritual jurisdiction. To receive a royal pardon, the clergy had to accept the king as their supreme head and were pressurised to pay £100,000 (£44m in today’s currency). This edict under the existing law of praemunire was the first official challenge by Henry’s secretary to papal authority, designed to help Henry’s case for divorce while at the same time enriching his coffers.

The Scarlet Woman

Henry VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn, beginning under the watchful eye of his long-suffering wife Catherine began around 1526 and was seen by many at court as a controversial union, particularly due to Boleyn’s Lutheran and reformist religious interests that jarred with traditional Catholic beliefs, both within the royal court and outside it.

By the end of 1531, it was common knowledge that Catherine had been banished from the court

To many, including the English population as well as Rome’s Catholic envoys, Boleyn was seen as the ‘scarlet woman’ and referred to by her enemies as the ‘concubine’. But Boleyn was a shrewd, ambitious game-player and determined not to be cast aside as another mistress of the king and his voracious libido, as had happened to her own elder sister Mary.

By the end of 1531, it was common knowledge that Catherine had been banished from the court and replaced by Boleyn in Henry’s affections as his future queen, who it was hoped would provide him with healthy sons. Henry needed the union to be legitimised for any children by Anne to be regarded as his rightful successors. The Roman Catholic Church and Empire continued to oppose his plea to annul his twenty-five year marriage with Catherine.

Boleyn’s pregnancy sparks the Reformation

Henry and Cromwell had by now battled for seven exhausting years wrangling with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church to have his marriage to Catherine annulled on the grounds that it was invalid, based on the debatable assumption that Catherine’s marriage to Henry’s older brother Arthur had been consummated.

When Boleyn fell pregnant after she and Henry had briefly stayed in Calais during a visit to France, Cromwell hastily drafted the Appeals Statute (Statute in Restraint of Appeals) which was passed in April 1533. This is considered by many historians to be the key legal foundation of the English Reformation. The draft claimed that England was an Empire and that the English crown was Imperial and forbade all appeals to the Pope in Rome on religious or other matters, making the King the final legal authority in all such matters in England.

On 25th January 1533, well before the passage of the Appeals Statute permitting Henry’s divorce case to be settled in England, Henry and Anne who was several weeks pregnant were secretly wed at York Place in London. Henry delayed the announcement of the union until after the end of the spring session of the Reformation Parliament which had approved the statute. By May 1533, Thomas Cranmer, the new archbishop of Canterbury and a leader of the English Reformation held a formal inquiry into the marriage of Catherine and Henry and declared on the 23rd that it was invalid. Five days later he pronounced the union of Anne Boleyn and the king as fully lawful.

The English Reformation

Henry VIII’s desperation for a son is the principal reason why the English Reformation came about but was part of a larger religious movement in Europe that sought to replace Catholicism and Rome’s authority in religious and political matters.

The religious reformers of Western Europe advocating the Protestant faith had mainly begun in Germany with Martin Luther, a German professor of theology (1483-1546) who advocated a radical way for citizens to worship and have a connection with God that didn’t require exclusive intervention by the priesthood or the Pope. Luther’s main ideal was that the bible was the only authority. Such principles disseminated through books was seen by the Catholic Church as heretical. Anne Boleyn’s personal views and religious beliefs also veered towards Lutherism and no doubt her relationship with King Henry helped to influence him in supporting the reformist cause.

Before the break from Rome, it was the Pope and general councils of the Roman Catholic Church that decided doctrine. As well as canal law being governed by Rome, church taxes across the Christian world were paid straight to it. The wealth accumulated by Rome-dominated monasteries in England saw their taxes going directly to the Pope. This rich seam of revenues presented an opportunity for Henry’s secretary Thomas Cromwell to enrich the king’s flagging coffers and strip abbeys and monasteries of their wealth for Henry’s war chest.

Before the Reformation became absolute after 1536 and implemented in law, King Henry found - as any latter-day Prime minister would in today’s climate of opposing political factions - dissent amongst diverse groups of people opposed to such extreme changes in the country’s religious and political base.

The Pilgrimage of Grace, as the multiple ‘risings’ came to be known, consisted of demonstrators made up of northern lords who found their independence threatened by Henry’s determination to break from Rome and become the head of the English Church.

Other dissenters against the idea of the Reformation included people who felt oppressed by Cromwell’s ruthless new taxes. Equally prominent amongst the demonstrators were those who were offended by and resented the religious changes advocating ‘secularism’ that was being imposed by the Reformation’s historic severing from Rome’s control over Christian Europe. It was perhaps inevitable that the effects of the Reformation would result in religious and theological warfare lasting for centuries.

Religious Bloodshed

The effects of the English Parliament passing a series of acts that made King Henry ‘Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England’ turned England into a sovereign state but also created a religious schism in the country between Catholic and Protestant worshippers which at its most bloody saw hundreds of Protestants executed during the reign of England’s first reigning Queen, Mary 1st, the daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon.

During ‘bloody’ Mary’s five year rule (1553-1558) where she was determined to reinstate the Catholic faith and Rome’s authority in England, her actions witnessed over 300 religious dissenters who were burned at the stake in what was known as the Marian persecutions.

A climate of religious and political discord and bloodshed between the two opposing religions as a result of the Reformation continued well into Elizabeth I's forty-four-year reign and into the seventeenth century. In some ways, the theological war between the two faiths has never fully gone away. Somewhat ironically for a Tudor King who relied on the English Reformation to break from Rome’s authority and allow him the freedom to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry still maintained his Catholic beliefs and traditional ways of worship.

Written by:

Richard Bevan

Richard Bevan is an MA Screenwriter/playwright and freelance writer specialising in history and crime investigation writing.  He is currently contributing to History UK channel. Represented by MMB Creative agency.