Was Henry VIII a Renaissance Monarch?

In this paper, I will argue that King Henry VIII was a Renaissance monarch and England was a Renaissance nation during his reign based on Henry’s extensive education; the humanist influence on his court and nation, particularly through the creation of schools; and the religious reform he implemented which was in line with the Renaissance in northern Europe. The Renaissance refers primarily to the rebirth of a society. Both secular and spiritual traditions were combined in early concepts of the Renaissance; the secular being the restoration of society to a former, greater era and the spiritual being the rebirth of society in Christ.[1] Henry’s father, Henry VII had surrounded himself with Renaissance men of the “new learning” and had his son educated by tutors who had visited Italy and seen the Renaissance firsthand.[2], [3] William Grocynn and Thomas Linacre were two Renaissance Englishmen who visited the Italian states and took what they had seen and learned back to their country.[4] Unlike the secular rebirth in Italy, the English Renaissance followed the path of northern Europe which as a whole was more pious than their neighbors to the south. This manifested itself with a sharp rise in literary pursuits, the difference being that these pursuits were almost all of a Christian nature rather than producing an infatuation with the classics of ancient Greece and Rome.[5]
Henry VIII had a love of lyricism, writing, and performing. Henry was tutored by humanist literary scholar, John Skelton and Henry VII’s French Latin secretary and historian, Bernard AndrĂ©. Henry’s mother, grandmother, and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon took part in writing poetry.[6] Henry admitted to Thomas Wolsey that he found writing “tedius and paynefull,” but nevertheless wrote quite a bit during his reign, his most famous piece being his response to Martin Luther’s On the Babylonian Captivity, his Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, or Defense of the Seven Sacraments. This prompted Pope Leo X to name him “Defender of the Faith.” He also authored a number of ecclesiastical books, masses, as well as love poems.[7] According to Raymond Siemens, Henry VIII “personalized the English courtly love lyric, and added to it as none had before a dimension of power to the powerless poetic personae he employed in his work.[8]
As the Renaissance spread to the north, worldly humanism gave way to a literary Christianity as the more pietistic, northern Europeans adapted the Renaissance to their deep spirituality. Instead of spending their time translating and commenting on ancient pagan and secular texts, the northern Europeans devoted their time to translation, study, and writing of Christian works, most notably the Scriptures which they translated into nearly every vernacular, European tongue.[9]
In England, Anti-clericalism was strong in London because of numerous injustices carried out by English bishops against the poorest of society and humanist scholarship and calls for reform had already undermined papal primacy.[10] An edition of Lorenzo Valla’s attack of one of the pillars of papal authority which argued that popes had usurped power that should be retaken by kings was published in London in 1534.[11] The Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam greatly influenced the humanism that manifested itself in England during Henry’s reign. Like many northern European Renaissance men, Erasmus rejected the Aristotelian nature of the southern Renaissance and instead became a Platonian as he and others felt that Plato’s views more closely mirrored those of a Christian worldview.[12] Erasmus never became a Protestant, but his humanism greatly facilitated the spread of Lutheranism in England. Many English humanists eventually became Protestants. Already by 1520, influential groups of Lutherans were meeting at Cambridge and Oxford.[13]
Henry’s switch to Protestantism was one of convenience, but did allow humanism to spread much faster in England than if that country had remained Catholic. When Henry’s alliance with Emperor Charles V fell apart in 1525, the queen, who was the emperor’s aunt became the symbol of a rebuffed alliance.[14] Henry pointed to Leviticus 20:21 to make the claim that it was against God’s law for him to have his brother’s wife, even if it was his dead brother’s wife. Opponents refuted this claim, pointing to a passage in Deuteronomy in which God specifically commanded the Israelite men to take their deceased brothers’ wives to show that the Leviticus passage did not refer to dead brothers.[15] When the Pope did not endorse Henry’s divorce of Katherine and marriage to Anne, Henry grew impatient and began looking for local avenues to get what he wanted. Henry tried to play King Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V off one another as both of them were attempting to control Rome in order to gain concessions from the Pope. When Archbishop Warham died in 1532, Henry appointed the Protestant Thomas Cranmer to succeed him.[16] In May 1533, Archbishop Cranmer officially annulled the marriage between Henry and Katherine of Aragon.[17]
On May 10, the Canterbury Convocation was told that the king required submission to three articles: all future legislation would be subjected to royal veto; existing canons would be examined by a committee made of clergy and laymen; and all remaining canons would have to stand by royal authority. The bishops submitted rather than face the king’s wrath individually.[18] The Convocation only agreed to Henry’s demand that they recognized him as ‘Supreme Head’ of the English Church by tacking on the words “so far as the law of Christ allows.”[19] In 1536, Henry’s administration turned the heat of their attention to the monasteries and within four years had seized over eight hundred religious houses. Some of these were retained by the Crown and the rest were sold, greatly adding to the king’s coffers.[20]
G.W. Bernard rejects the interpretation given by the sixteenth century historian John Foxe in Acts that King Henry VIII was the “the prisoner of his own advisors” and the pawn of whoever happened to have his ear at the time and that his religious policies fluctuated accordingly.[21] One of the ways that Bernard supports this argument is by showing that in 1534, Lord Cranmer reproved Archdeacon Thirlby for preparing a letter in the king’s name about the doctrine of miracles without explaining the details to him. Later, in 1540, he noted on a declaration about the sacraments, “This is myne opinion and sentence at the present, which I do not temararyously define, but do remytt the judgment thereof holly unto your majestie.”[22] This demonstrates that Cranmer at least did not presume to use the king as his pawn in religious matters. Later, In 1540, Thomas Cromwell, the king’s minister told the German Lutherans that he was in negotiation with that he would hold whatever beliefs his lord the king held.[23] The means with which Henry ruled greatly mirrored Machiavelli’s The Prince which advocated for a strong ruler who could make promises and keep them at will as the ends justified the means.
While Henry himself was most concerned with power, the men he put in place to administer that power implemented reforms that were very much in line with the Renaissance. Cromwell was a convinced Protestant, but was also an outstanding administrator and implemented important secular reforms that were clearly influenced by the humanism that had trickled into England over the previous three decades. These included rationalizing and strengthening the administrative structure of the State, as well as economic and social reforms.[24] Cromwell’s social welfare policies did not meet with as much success as his administrative reforms, but he can be credited with extending firm monarchical rule over all of England, incorporating Wales into the kingdom, and implementing much needed law and order.
Whether the newfound power that came on the king through reformation slowly grew on him or was simply a means to putting away one wife for another has been debated by historians, but regardless of his original beliefs and intentions, as time transpired, he clearly convinced himself that he was the rightful head of the Church of England.[25] A series of Parliamentary acts in the early and mid-30s deprived the Pope of English revenue and redirected that revenue to the new order of king and country.[26]
Henry’s greatest service to the cause of Protestantism was the fact that he authorized the publication of vernacular bibles which greatly increased Bible reading throughout the realm. Henry had always opposed Tyndale’s New Testament, so in 1535, Miles Coverdale, an English, Protestant clergyman published the first complete English translation of the Bible. Cromwell convinced the king to allow the sale of this translation as well as another translation in 1537 called the ‘Matthew Bible. A more standardized version was produced by Coverdale in 1539 that became known as the ‘Great Bible’ which became a resounding success with the laity.[27] The dispersion of English Bibles increased literacy and contributed to English literature throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which were riddled with references and allusions to the Bible.[28] Between 1527 and 1547, around eight hundred separate editions of religious works, many of them Protestant works were printed in English.[29]
Henry VIII was a Renaissance monarch in that he was highly educated by educated Renaissance men who had visited Italy during that period’s height. Like his father, he surrounded himself with men who had been influenced by the “new learning,” and like his peers in other northern European nations, Henry rejected papal authority and consolidated the nation state under monarchical rule which ushered in the era of Protestantism and Biblical literacy among the common people. He was primarily concerned with marrying whomever he pleased and it was this led to a break with the Pope and Rome. But, led him to appoint strong, anti-papists as his bishops and the majority of these anti-papists were of the Protestant persuasion on the issue of doctrine.[30] His support of the Scriptures in English paved the way for classical English literature that was to follow in the following two centuries. While his later years were marked by paranoia and inconsistency, England made great literary and cultural strides during his reign.[31]

Bernard, G.W. “The Making of Religious Policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the

Middle Way.” The Historical Journal. 41.2, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2640109.

Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors,
(Oxford University Press, 1993)
Siemens, Raymond G. “Henry VIII as Writer and Lyricist.” The Musical Quarterly. 92, 2009,
137, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27751856, accessed February 1, 2016.
Smith, Alan G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660.
(London: Longman Group Limited, 1984).

[1] Myron, “Renaissance,” 379.
[2] Robert Trout, “Henry VII and the Creation of Shakespeare’s England,” schillerinstitute.org, accessed February 4, 2016, http://schillerinstitute.org/fidelio_archive/2002/fidv11n01-02-2002WiSp/fidv11n01-02-2002WiSp_063-henry_vii_and_the_creation_of_sh.pdf.
[3] Myron, “Renaissance,” 384-385.
[4] Myron, “Renaissance, 384.
[5] Myron, “Renaissance,” 384-385.
[6] Raymond G. Siemens, “Henry VIII as Writer and Lyricist,” The Musical Quarterly, 92, 2009, 137, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27751856, accessed February 1, 2016.
[7] Siemens, “Henry VIII as a Writer and Lyricist,” 138.
[8] Siemens, “Henry VIII as a Writer and Lyricist,” 155.
[9] Myron, “Renaissance,” 384-385.
[10] Alan G.R. Smith, The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660, (London: Longman Group Limited, 1984.) 14, 15.
[11] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 123.

[12] Charles Nauert, “Desiderius Erasmus,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 22, 2008, accessed February 5, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/erasmus/.

[13] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 15.
[14] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 18.
[15] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 19.
[16] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 21.
[17] Haigh, “English Reformations,” 116.
[18] Haigh, “English Reformations,” 114, 115.
[19] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 21.
[20] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 29.
[21] G. W. Bernard, “The Making of Religious Policy, 1533-1546: Henry VIII and the Search for the Middle Way,” The Historical Journal, 41.2, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2640109, 322.
[22] Bernard, “The Making of Religious Policy,” 323.
[23] Bernard, 345.
[24] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 24.
[25] Haigh, “English Reformations,” 121.
[26] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 22.
[27] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 32.
[28] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 33.
[29] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 33.
[30] Haigh, “English Reformations,” p. 125.
[31] Smith, “The Emergence of a Nation State,” 61.


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