Religious reformation in England was the outcome of a redistribution of political power that occurred in the 1530s after a clash between King and Pope caused the Atlantic isles to leave the hegemony of Catholic Europe. What began with Henry VIII’s desire to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was decades of religious unrest and turmoil in England. Henry’s divorce is the acknowledged catalyst which brought about separation of the Church of England from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Political differences between England and Rome permitted growing theological disputes to erupt. Before the break with Rome, doctrine was decided by the Pope and general church councils. Moreover Rome collected a lucrative tax from the Church and the Pope reserved the power to appoint bishops. The split from Rome made the English monarch the Supreme Governor of the English church by ‘Royal Supremacy’, and established the Church of England as the nation church. All doctrinal and legal disputes within the church now rested with the monarch and the papacy was deprived of revenue and was unable to appointment of bishops. However, to what extent can Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon be seen as the major cause of the English Reformation? Certainly there is much debate amongst historians with regards to the divorce’s significance to the English reformation and many academics suggest that the spread of Protestantism in England is a more important factor. Indeed Elton (1974) gives this assessment: “It did not alone cause the Reformation; it did not even, if we like, play a large part in bringing about a movement which rested on national feeling and the scandal of a corrupt Church” (p.114). However, Elton does make one important concession: “without it there would still have been no Reformation because the powerful intercession of the crown would have been against it and not for it” (p.114). In other words, had Henry and the Pope not been involved in an altercation which irreparably damaged their relationship, the King’s strong Catholic faith would have prevented and resisted the extension of the reformation into the Atlantic Iles. Therefore Henry’s divorce should be judged as an important cause of the English Reformation because it led to hostility between King and Pope, it resulted in England’s break from Catholic authority and Henry’ new role as Supreme head of the English Church requiring him to assert his control, and finally Wolsey’s failure to secure a papal annulment and his downfall allowed for the rise of Thomas Cromwell.
Central to the divorce is Henry’s desire for a son so that his legacy and the Tudor Dynasty would be assured. Shortly before his coronation in 1509, Henry VIII had married the Catherine of Aragon. His marriage to Catherine, his late brother’s wife, had only produced a daughter amongst a series of miscarriages and infant deaths. In addition by 1518 it was evident that Catherin’s child-bearing years were drawing to a close (Dickens, 1968, p.105). Thus Henry desired to end this marriage and find a new Queen to deliver the male successor he desired. Henry’s concern about the provision of a male successor was complimented and intensified by the arrival to the court of Anne Boleyn as MacCulloch explains; “This undoubtedly genuine conviction quickly coincided with his discovery of a fascinatingly intelligent and high spirited new potential bride” (p.198).Although pretexts for royal divorces were easily fabricated, Henry felt that his case, built upon biblical law, was far more credible and convincing. According to the book of Leviticus, Henry was forbidden from marrying his brother’s wife and thus ir had been necessary to acquire a special dispensation from Pope Julius II in 1503 which authorised the union (Ridley, 1984, p.159). Because Catherine’s only surviving child was a daughter, Princess Mary, “Henry became convinced that his lack of male heir proved that a previous Pope should never and could never have given him dispensation to let this marriage go ahead; now it must be declared null” (MacCulloch, 2004, p.198). Nevertheless, despite Henry’s belief that his case was watertight, his request was met with a number of obstacles. The first and most significant of Henry’s problems was Charles V, Catherine’s nephew. Pope Clement VII feared the wrath of Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops “had subjected the papal city to such appalling sack and slaughter” in 1527 and thus it was that “Clement VII …had no freedom to grant Henry a divorce against the will of his political master” (Dickens, p.106). A similar view is advanced by Elton (1974) who believes that much as Clement “dreaded the spread of schism in the north, nothing could overcome the near presence and definite views of the emperor or the pope’s primary interest in Italian affairs” (p.118). Furthermore Clement was reluctant to contradict or repeal any papal rulings of his predecessors and risk undermining the fragile position of the Catholic Church in 1520s European society. Rex (2002) asserts that this was bad timing as the Protestant reformation was rapidly sweeping through Germany and Switzerland, and as it advanced it challenged papal authority in principle and impugned it in practice with accusation that the Catholic Church was corrupted by wealth and power (p.56). So when in 1527 Henry implored Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, the King’s demands were unsatisfied and, after Henry’s case was rejected in the 1529 summer hearing at Blackfriars, London, Henry began to search for an alternate strategy. Nevertheless, a reformation and redistribution of power in England was not an expected occurrence because, as Haigh believes, despite the disagreement between King and Pope, it was “clear that judgements on the Aragon marriage as yet bore no relationship to any emerging division between Catholics and Protestants in England or Europe” and that “Since there seemed no prospect that the issue would be solved except within the framework of papal law and theology, it had no broader implications” (1993, p.100). In other words both parties believed that a solution would be found within the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. This was not to be the case. In the September of 1530 a collection of documents and precedents, called the Collectanea satis copiosa, was compiled and delivered to Henry. This provided evidence that the English Church had provincial rights and independent jurisdiction, and the English king had sovereign authority over Church and realm. Having been told about in August, the King had ceased his pleading and threats and, through his ambassadors in Rome, had informed the pope that “by ancient privilege no Englishman could be cited outside the real to answer to a foreign jurisdiction” (Haigh, 1993, p.102). Essentially what had occurred was that “International political reality had brought Henry to recognize that he would get no help from Rome; spurious historical argument brought him to recognize he did not need it” (Haigh, 1993, p.102). In other words, the Collectanea asserted that the King was the highest authority in England, under God. Henry was thus enabled the ability to grant himself a divorce without the consent of foreign authorities, including the pope. What does all this reveal in regards to the importance of Henry’s divorce to the English Reformation? Quite simply it demonstrates what Elton (1974) means by “powerful intercession of the crown” (p.114). Prior to this conflict between king and pope, Henry’s faith had been firmly Catholic. Indeed: in 1521 Pope Leo X awarded him the title ‘Defensor Fidei’, that is, “Defender of the Faith”, a book he wrote, probably with considerable help from Thomas More, entitled Assertio Septem Sacrementorum or The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, in which he defended the Catholic Church from Martin Luther’s accusations of heresy (Scarisbrik, 1968, pp.58-60). A man of such strong faith would certainly have vigorously resisted Protestant reform. However because of the hostility that developed between himself and Clement VII, Henry gained a deep resentment towards papal authority which was able to be exploited by Protestant forces in his kingdom.
Although speculative, it can be contended that Cromwell’s rise to prominence is directly linked to the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, and Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor between 1515 and 1530. Wolsey securely held Henry VIII’s confidence until Henry decided to seek an annulment of his union to Catherine of Aragon, to allow him the option of marriage to Anne Boleyn and, potentially, to father a male heir. Historians consider Wolsey’s failure to secure the annulment to have directly caused his downfall and arrest. Wolsey’s unsuccessful appeal to the Pope for a divorce pursued two key strategies. Firstly, he tried to demonstrate that the original papal dispensation was void as the marriage clearly violated the laws of the book of Leviticus. Secondly, Wolsey petitioned the Pope to allow the final decision to be made in England, which of course, as papal legate, would be supervised by him (Rex, 2002). In 1528, the Pope decided to allow two papal legates to decide the outcome in England: Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio. While Wolsey was confident of this decision, Campeggio was slow to arrive, and when he finally did turn up he delayed proceedings so much tha the case had to be suspended in July 1528. Meanwhile Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn faction convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately slowing proceedings, which led to his arrest in 1529 and the loss of his government office and property, although he was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. Shortly after his dismissal he was accused of treason and ordered to London, however Wolsey fell ill and died on the way. Elton summarizes and captures the central reason for Wolsey’s decline thus: “Wolsey fell because he could not serve the man who had made him. His dependence on the papacy had only lost him the one favour that mattered; he had no prop but the king” (1974, p.120). Although Wolsey was succeeded by Thomas Moore as Lord Chancellor, it was Cromwell, “one of the leading members of Wolsey’s enormous household” who benefited from his master’s fall (Dickens, 1968, p.110). Indeed Elton suggests that Cromwell continued to work for the fallen cardinal and “used Wolsey’s affairs to bring himself to Henry’s notice” because he had calculated that “with the king a reputation of faithfulness would be worth having” (p.129). Nevertheless Cromwell entered parliament in 1529 without official patronage, but through a constant display of astounding administrative ability he progressed through the civil service until at last he gained the King’s confidence. In this way he assumed a political position that afforded him the ability to revolutionize the English constitutional monarchy and insured that “Henry was personally granted the power to define the doctrine of his church and to amend it as he saw fit” (Rex, 2002, p.70). Cromwell, during his prominence, exercised considerable sway over the King and was thus able to influence the doctrine of the church and reform it according to the beliefs of Protestantism and it is for this reason that Cromwell became, in the view of John Foxe, 16th century martyrologist, “the great instrument of God who had persuaded Henry to make England Protestant” (Ridley, 1984, p.297). Thus had Henry not sought a divorce or had Wolsey been successful in obtaining a papal dispensation, Cromwell may not have risen to such a prominent position, and if he had he would most likely have faced opposition from Cardinal Wolsey who would still have retained the favour of the king, and Henry who would still have retained a strong Catholic faith and respect for papal authority.
The beginning of Henry’s reformation dealt with the broken relationship between the English monarch and Pope through the restructuring of the Church of England. It was not, however, a religious reformation at this stage but rather was essentially a redistribution of political authority. The jurisdiction over the Church and clergy which Henry gained for the role of English monarch would be most important as a tool for Protestant reformers who were able to gain the ear of the King. It is clear that despite the events that followed the divorce and dispute with the Papacy, “Henry VIII had not embarked on a Reformation, and he had no clear strategy” (Haigh, 1993, p.105) This is evident from the fact that Henry never formally repudiated the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church despite declaring himself supreme head of the church in England. It was therefore necessary to validate this new position of authority and between 1533 and 1536 the legitimacy of Henry’s claim was affirmed by a series of legislative acts of the English Parliament under the direction of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s new chief minister. Most important of these was the 1534 Act of Supremacy which “spelled out without qualification the royal Supreme Headship over the Church of England” (MacCulloch, 2004, p.199).
To assert his control over the English Church, Henry decided to intimidate the clergy with the threat of praemunire, which forbade obedience to the authority of foreign rulers. Firstly a number of individuals were indicted, men known to be supporters of Catherine including Bishops John Fisher, John Clerk, Nicholas West and Henry Standish and archdeacon of Exeter Adam Travers. Henry, in order to secure their agreement to his annulment, then resolved to charge the whole English clergy with praemunire accusing them of being agents of a foreign power, specifically the Pope. Henry set a price of £100,000 for the Convocation of Canterbury of the Church of England to buy their pardon, which was accepted 24 January 1531. Despite the clergy requesting that the payment to be spread over five years Henry refused these terms. The Convocation responded by withdrawing their payment altogether and demanded Henry fulfill certain guarantees before they agreed to give him the money. Henry refused these conditions and agreed only to the five-year period of payment. Then, however, Henry added five articles to the payment which stipulated; that the clergy would recognize Henry as the “sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England”, recognize the King’s spiritual jurisdiction, accept that the privileges of the Church would upheld so long as they did not interfere with the royal prerogative or laws of the realm, that the King would pardoned the clergy for violating the statute of praemunire, and finally that the laity would also pardoned. The Convocation granted consent to the King’s five articles and the payment on 8 March 1531. That same year Parliament passed the Pardon to Clergy Act 1531. This contract allowed Henry to assert himself as Supreme Head of the Church of England and insured that the clergy of the Church of England no longer answered to a foreign power (Rex; Haigh).
Further action was launched in 1532 by Thomas Cromwell who brought before Parliament the Supplication Against the Ordinaries which listed nine grievances against the Church, including abuses of power and Convocation’s independent legislative power. Dickens describes the importance of the Supplication document stating: “it cleverly links together …the legislative action of the church, which the king wanted to control, and the practices of the ecclesiastical courts, from which the laity desired to liberate themselves” (1968, p.114). Finally, on 10 May, the King demanded of Convocation that the Church should renounce all authority to make laws and recognised his Royal Supremacy over the church so that it could no longer make canon law without royal licence. Thus, on May 15, “Convocation acceded to all the royal demands by the document known as the Submission of the Clergy” (Dickens, p.116). Several Acts of Parliament then followed. The Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates, proposing that the clergy should pay no more than 5% of their first year’s revenue to Rome, the Act in Restraint of Appeals, drafted by Cromwell, outlawing ecclesiastical appeals to Rome and declaring that “this realm of England is an Empire …governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic, compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporality, be bounden and owe to bear, next to God, a natural and humble obedience”, thus declaring England an independent country in every respect (Dickens, p.110). English historian Geoffrey Elton takes a similar perspective, describing this Act as an “essential ingredient” of the “Tudor revolution” because it expounded a theory of national sovereignty (Elton, p.160). The subsequent Act in Absolute Restraint of Annates outlawed all annates to Rome and threatened cathedrals which refused the King’s nomination for bishops with praemunire. Finally in 1534 the Acts of Supremacy made Henry supreme head in earth of the Church of England. The above chronological description of Henry’s subjugation of the English church is important because it demonstrates how church authority was transferred from the Pope in Rome, to the English monarchy, a crucial transformation in politics. With the king now in control of all theological disputes, those with ambitions to guide England down a Protestant path, such as Cromwell and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, among others, needed only to secure the Kings confidence and support in order to introduce Protestant reforms. Thus Dickens asserts “The divorce was something more than a mere occasion; without it the schism would not have been consummated by 1533-4” (p.107). Hence it is significant because it led to the split from Rome and therefore placed the requirement upon Henry to redistribute the political power which he had essentially confiscated from the Pope and Catholic Church.
The divorce, then, is important because it created a set of conditions whereby the Protestant reformation could take root in the political elite of England. Papal objection and refusal resulted in hostility between Henry VIII and Pope Clement VII and bred within Henry a strong anti-papal feeling which Protestants in his kingdom were able to exploit. Furthermore, many historians believe Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall to have resulted from his failure to produce papal support for Henry’s divorce although the circumstances in which the request for divorce was set may have been largely out of his control. The significance of Wolsey’s fall from grace is that it created a void which the talented and ambitious Thomas Cromwell was able to fill and from this position of influence bring Protestant reformation to England. Finally, Henry’s need to establish himself as ‘Supreme Head’ of the English Church, a title which resulted from the break with Rome, led to extensive reforms of ecclesiastical political authority which forever altered the structure of the England’s Church. Moreover, as ‘Supreme Head’, Henry held the power to alter Church theology and, because he relied heavily on his advisers, political elites with Protestant agenda’s were able to enact doctrinal reforms to bring the English Church into step with the Protestant reformation occurring in much of northern and central Europe, particularly Germany and Switzerland. To what extent should the divorce be seen as the cause of the Refomation? To reiterate; it created a set of conditions which were conducive to Protestant reformation in England and for this reason it be viewed as critically significant cause.