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The English Reformation

The king takes over from the pope
The monasteries
People involved in the English Reformation

The Shaping of Modern Europe Index

Introduction to the Reformation
The Church before the Reformation I : Indulgences, Relics and Pilgrimages
The Church before the Reformation II : The Wealth and Political Power of the Church
The Church before the Reformation III : The Clergy
The Church before the Reformation IV : Inside a Church
The Lutheran Revolt
Conflict between Luther and the Church
The Church reacts to Luther
The Catholic and the Lutheran Church
Huldreick Zwingli

17th Century Europe

Europe in the 1600s
17th Century Europe

History Chapters Main Index


King Henry VIII of England (1509-1547)

Portrait of Henry VIII

Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein c. 1536

In 1527 Henry VIII decided to marry again. The only problem was that his wife, Catherine of Aragon, was still very much alive. Henry was very determined, however, and sought Pope Clement VIII's permission to annul (cancel) his marriage. Henry badly wanted a male heir and Catherine had only produced a daughter, Mary. After nineteen years of marriage, Catherine was too old to have any more children and, besides this, Henry had become infatuated with Anne Boleyn, a Protestant lady-in-waiting, and was intent on making her his wife.

Unfortunately for Henry, the pope was in no position to grant his request even if he had wanted to. Clement VIII was practically the prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. Charles had invaded Rome in the same year, 1527, and he happened to be Catherine of Aragon's nephew. The pope failed to give Henry a hearing and, for two years, put off making any decision.

Henry was not a man to wait for too long and, when Anne became pregnant in 1533 he married her anyway, in secret. Now, with two wives, he by-passed the pope and used the Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, to call a meeting of the clergy and declare his marriage to Catherine annulled. The English clergy had already recognised the king as the head of the English Church and, in 1534, the Act of Supremacy confirmed the king as the "only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England". Of course, there were some people who refused to accept this act and Henry had them executed. Among those who died were Bishop John Fisher and Henry's ex-chancellor, Sir Thomas More.

Now all that had belonged to the pope belonged to Henry and the Church funds went to the king's treasury. Henry was able to appoint whoever he wished to positions within the clergy. Between 1536 and 1540 Henry dissolved (closed) all the monasteries, seizing their lands and possessions for the crown. A lot of ex-monastery land was sold.

Although he had broken away from the pope, Henry remained very Catholic in his beliefs. Certain changes were made, however, which pleased the Protestants. In 1535 Miles Coverdale published his English version of the Bible and, by 1536, every church had copies of the Bible in both Latin and in English.



Thomas Cromwell

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein (1532)


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The English Reformation


During the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-1547), Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England and Wales underwent a series of religious (and social) reforms that changed the way the country was governed, the way people lived their lives and the power that the Church had. All these changes were as a result of the Lutheran, Calvinist and Zwingliism movements in the rest of Europe. However, the English Reformation was very different because it was the monarchs who led it rather than the people, as had been the case in Switzerland and "Germany".


Henry VIII

The origins of the English revolution lie with Henry VIII - king of England. He was, on the face of it, a very religious man - a devout Roman Catholic. In 1521 he wrote a book called "The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments", which was an attack on Luther. He earned Pope Leo X's respect and the title "Defender of the Faith".

What is difficult to explain, therefore, is how by 1534, only thirteen years later, he had become the only powerful monarch in Europe to defy the pope and set himself up as head of the Church in England.


The Power of the Church

At the beginning of the 16th century, about a third of the land in England belonged to the Church; it collected its own taxes; the clergy had their own legal system and exemption from taxes.


Cardinal Wolsey

Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey by Sampson Strong (1526)


Henry's chief minister, Wolsey (in power from 1514-1529), controlled the kingdom but only because he was a cardinal as well as chief minister. He received power through the pope - as a papal legate and cardinal; through the Church in England, because of the taxes and ownership of land; and from the king, because he was ruler of the rest of the land and the most powerful single person in England.



Wolsey, although a cardinal, was not an honest man. He took the revenues from being Archbishop of York and the wealthy Abbey of St. Albans, even though he never went to these places. He took bribes, if they were big enough, and spent this money on his personal property. He was also a womaniser and had at least two children, for whom he found good positions in life. People soon became angry at these abuses, especially when they were seen in the light of the general state of the Church at this time.


The king takes over from the pope

In 1531, by using a series of obscure laws, some over 200 years old, Henry VIII took over as head of the Church of England from the pope. By the Act of Supremacy (1534) Henry was appointed Supreme Head of the Church of England. This gave him the powers to collect Church taxes, own Church land, control the way churches were run and appoint all clergy.

There was some opposition from the clergy who refused to give up their loyalty to the pope. In 1535 Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More (an ex-chancellor) were beheaded for refusing to acknowledge Henry as head of the English Church.


Thomas More

Portrait of Thomas More by Hans Holbein (1527)


Thomas Cromwell, the new chancellor, set up a Commission of Visitations, in 1535, to look into the way parishes, abbeys and monasteries were run.


The arguments against change

Many priests were used to the old ways and, therefore, did not want to change. Others were concerned that the king, who needed money, would confiscate Church land to pay for wars. Ordinary people and the clergy were also worried that Lutheranism would spread - this might bring about wars of religion, as it had in the rest of Europe.

The greatest fear for the bishops was that it was Parliament which had passed the Act of Supremacy - that meant the Church's power was limited and the power of the middle class was increasing.

The pope was verbally attacked by priests in England. The priests were ordered to do this, but it was not always a success. The Archbishop of York ordered his priests to read a declaration against the pope but there were very few priests in the diocese who could read. The pope's reaction was the excommunication of all England. This used to be very serious, but the real power of the pope to do anything was no longer there; Henry merely ignored it.

The biggest reaction to these changes was felt by the monasteries, which were suppressed by Cromwell and Henry.


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