Henry VIII And Protestantism In England

Before the reign of King Henry VIII in England, Catholicism was a very strong influence; The Roman Catholic Church was the center of the people’s loyalty and held firm control over their actions. However, the relations between England and the Catholic Church drastically shifted when Henry’s personal life began to interfere with politics. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry initiated a split with Rome, and unknowingly laid the foundations on which England would be transformed from a Catholic into a Protestant nation.
Under the reign of Henry VII, father of Henry VIII, England sought to provide stability, prestige, and power to the maturing Tudor house. To do so, Henry VII proposed a marriage between his first son Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, from Spain. This plan was foiled when Arthur died five months into the marriage, leaving Catherine as well as Spain unhappy. Henry VII quickly suggested that Catherine be married to his second son, Henry VIII, not wanting to lose the alliance with Spain. Before any marriage vows were made, the couple had to seek papal dispensation, since it was illegal for Henry to marry his brother’s widow. Pope Julius II granted this dispensation in 1503, and they were married in 1509. Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Mary Tudor, in 1516, and all pregnancies after that resulted in miscarriages. Henry believed that Catherine’s failure to bear a son was a sign of divine displeasure with him for marrying his brother’s widow, which was incest, according to the Scriptures. Henry claimed that a disputed succession and the anarchy of the Wars of the Roses would be repeated if a woman inherited the throne.
Henry had also fallen in love with Anne Boleyn in 1527, but was not able to marry her until his marriage with Catherine of Aragon was annulled.
In May of 1527, Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII for the annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, saying that he had been living with the sin of an incestuous relationship for eighteen years. Henry’s request for annulment reached Rome as Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, was publishing texts condemning the papacy as the core of wickedness; If Clement had approved Henry’s annulment, it would have been admitting that Julius II had made a mistake, therefore agreeing with papal fallibility and the Lutheran beliefs that popes substituted their own judgments for the law of God. Clement refused Henry’s request, and instead suggested that Catherine become a nun in order to end the marriage. Catherine rejected Clement’s advice, saying that she was Henry’s lawful wife and their daughter the lawful heir.
Henry was severely angered by Clement VII’s refusal of annulment; he began to claim that the Pope’s authority was not a thing intended by God, but nothing more than a vast clerical fraud. Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, suggested that the crown replace the Pope as the head of the church in England; by doing this, Henry could achieve his annulment and possibly produce a male heir with Anne Boleyn. Henry decided to remove the English Church from papal jurisdiction. The English Court granted the dispensation for Henry’s annulment in 1533, to which Clement VII responded by annulling the annulment and excommunicating Henry. Once he was excommunicated, the Supremacy Act was passed in 1534, declaring that the King of England would also serve as the head of the Church of England. However, not all members of Parliament knew that by passing the Supremacy Act, they were also voting for an official break with Rome. The decisive schism was accompanied by a mandatory loyalty oath to the king by all subjects.
Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy was not an introduction to Protestantism; he reaffirmed Catholic dogma in the Statue of Six-Articles in 1539. The Six-Articles preserved transubstantiation, clerical celibacy, the sanctity of monastic vows, auricular confession, and private masses, and declared the denial of any of these to be heresy. However, when Henry dissolved first the smaller and then the larger monasteries in 1536 and 1539, he unconsciously paved the way for Protestant development. As Henry’s opposition to the papacy grew, the production of English tracts depicting the papacy as the political and religious enemy of his subjects expanded correspondingly. Since alliances with Spain and France were broken by his annulment with Catherine as well as Protestant tendencies in England, Henry sought to establish ties with the German Lutheran cities. This, along with Anne Boleyn’s promotion of Protestant bishops, gave unprecedented breathing space to Protestantism in England.
Anne Boleyn gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth, in September of 1533, and all future pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Although Henry was not getting the male heir that he so desired, he could not divorce Anne until Catherine of Aragon died, since that would imply the validity of his marriage to Catherine. Catherine died in January of 1536. Henry’s marriage to Anne was declared void on May 17, 1536, and she was beheaded on May 19, 1536 on charges of adultery. Parliament then stated that Anne’s daughter was illegitimate, and that the throne was left to whoever Henry chose.
Henry married Jane Seymour on May 30, 1536, and she gave birth to a son, Edward, that October, Unfortunately, Jane died during childbirth, and Henry had no children with his next three wives: Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard, and Catherine Parr.
Towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign, protestant literature circulated freely. Henry approved the selection of Protestant tutors for his son Edward. Before Henry died, he persuaded Parliament to reverse the decision on 1536, relegitimating Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I. Henry fixed the succession first in Edward, then Mary, and lastly in Elizabeth.
Henry VIII died in 1547, leaving the throne to nine-year-old Edward VI. His uncle, Edward Seymour, was appointed lord protector. Edward Seymour immediately ended the persecution of Protestants, and led the Parliament in repealing most of the treason and heresy laws, including the Six-Articles. These actions stimulated the return of Protestants to England who had fled from the rule of Henry VIII.
Although Edward Seymour greatly furthered Protestantism in England, the real architect of English Protestantism was Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer, who had served as the archbishop of Canterbury under Henry VIII, legalized clerical marriage and wrote the Book of Common Prayer, which set the tone for English Protestantism. In 1553, Cranmer produced the Forty-Two Articles, which was a statement of faith for the Church of England that was a compromise between Lutheran and Calvinist theologies. Under the reign of Edward VI, Catholic bishops were replaced by Protestants, and the liturgy was simplified. Edward VI’s short rule ended in 1553, and introduced the administration of his half sister Mary Tudor, whose overwhelming passion for the Roman Catholic Church ironically served to strengthen the Protestant cause in England.
Mary Tudor’s hegemony began in 1553 and was characterized by a sharp move back to Catholicism. Mary had been raised Catholic by her mother, Catherine of Aragon, so as soon as she took the throne she rescinded the Reformation legislation of Henry and fully restored Roman Catholicism. Mary was largely unpopular with the citizens of England; her marriage to her cousin Philip II of Spain further displeased the people. Mary acted as the Supreme Head of the Church of England in order to remove Protestant clergymen from their offices, oftentimes using their broken vow of clerical celibacy as her reasoning. She restored mass, and reinstated old heresy laws as well as came up with fierce treason laws of her own. Using these laws as guidelines, Mary conducted heresy trials that led to the burnings of nearly 300 dissenters, Thomas Cranmer included, who became martyrs for the Protestant faith. These deaths fortified Protestantism in England, with those killed having died for their religion. Mary died in November of 1588, completely alienated from her subjects and alone.
Elizabeth I was raised Protestant, but at the start of her reign she was faced with the challenge of mediating between the Catholic population of England and the Puritan population, who wanted to eliminate all Catholic elements in the church. Elizabeth chose to take a middle course; she did not care what people believed in, just as long as they were quiet about it. Parliamentary legislation at the beginning of Elizabeth’s rule, sometimes known as the Elizabethan Settlement, required outward conformity to the Church of England and uniformity in all ceremonies. Everyone had to attend church services – those who didn’t were fined.
Elizabeth’s closest advisors were always Protestants, and English was used in church services instead of Latin. In April 1559, the Act of Supremacy was passed, making Elizabeth the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England. Mary Tudor’s Catholic legislation was rescinded, and Edward VI’s Second Book of Common Prayer was reintroduced. Elizabeth revised Thomas Cranmer’s Forty-Two Articles into The Thirty-Nine Articles. The Thirty-Nine Articles denied transubstantiation, accepted creeds because they can be proven by Scripture, and said that General and Ecumenical councils were not infallible. The article on predestination was written ambiguously, leaving it open to the interpretation of all religious faiths. Under Elizabeth, monasteries were not reestablished, and clergymen were allowed to marry. Bishops remained as church officials, and, apart from the change in language, church services remained quite traditional. Elizabeth’s brand of Protestantism was relatively conservative; it included a liking for some church imagery and elaborate music in worship, as well as a dislike of frequent preaching. By the end of the reign of Elizabeth I, Roman Catholics occupied only a small minority of mainly conservative upper nobility in England.
King Henry’s emotions are responsible for the present-day Protestant nation of England: if Henry had never had such a strong desire for a male heir and a love for Anne Boleyn, he would not have sought out and annulment in his marriage with Catherine of Aragon and a schism with Rome would not have resulted. The removal of the Church of England from papal jurisdiction and his actions after the Act of Supremacy set the stage for Protestantism in England. The stance that Henry took against the Roman Catholic Church laid foundations strong enough to resist Mary Tudor’s attempt to return to Catholicism and sturdy enough for Edward VI and Elizabeth I to build off of in order to transform England into a Protestant nation.

Clebsch, William A., England’s Earliest Protestants 1520-1535 (CT: Yale University Press, 1964).

Hughes, Philip, A Popular History of the Reformation (NY: Hanover House, 1957).

Lindberg, Carter, The European Reformations (MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1996).

MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation A History (NY: Penguin Group, 2004).

McKay, John, Hill, Bennet D., and Buckler, John, A History of Western Society
(MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

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