Monday, July 10, 2017

What Was Henry VIII’s Real Motivation For Founding The Church Of England?

Henry VIII founded the Church of England not because he was a Protestant, but because he needed an avenue to assert his autonomy from the Roman Catholic Church in order to put away his queen, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn, while still maintaining local church support. When the Protestant Reformation broke out in Europe, Henry persecuted Lutherans and other Protestants who tried to disperse their works in England. William Tyndale was in fact forced to translate the New Testament into English in Germany.[1] 

After waiting several years for the Pope to consent to his putting away his wife Katherine and marrying his mistress Anne Boleyn, Henry's patience came to an end, and he appealed to English Common Law that allowed him to assert his authority over the church. In 1532, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer declared his marriage with Katherine void and married him and Anne, who was pregnant with his child.[2] This break from the Roman Church allowed Reformers and Protestants to gain political power in Henry’s court and thereby change the structure and doctrines of the English Catholic Church. The English Christians were as a whole unready for this change, and so it would be decades before the English Reformation was complete, but Henry’s political necessity transformed itself into Reformation that would, it could be argued, alter the course of English and world history.

The Reformation in England was a process that stretched through the 1520s and 30s that involved more political than religious issues. [3] The king had only had one daughter by his queen, Katherine of Aragon and had lost affection for her as early as 1514 when he took his first known mistress. He had a son of wedlock in 1519 and continued to commit adultery through the 1520s. Around 1525, he developed affections for his mistress Anne Boleyn and decided to divorce Katherine and marry Anne.[4]

In the early 20s, The Holy Roman Empire and France were at war, and Henry was allied with Emperor Charles V against King Francis I. In 1525, that alliance crumbled and the queen, who was the emperor’s aunt came to be seen as the symbol of a rejected alliance.[5] After nearly two decades of marriage years of marriage, Henry was suddenly enlightened to the Biblical revelation of Leviticus 20:21 that it was an abomination for him to have his brother’s wife…even if his brother was dead.[6] This was a dubious piece of theology and was hotly contested, but like most megalomaniacs, he stood firm on religious doctrine when it suited his purposes.

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. He continued to try to play Francis I of France and the Charles V off one another as both of them were attempting to control Rome in order to gain concessions from the Pope. But when Charles captured Rome, his chances for success in this area faded. When Archbishop Warham died in 1532, Henry appointed the Protestant Cranmer to succeed him and when Cardinal Wolsey failed in his diplomacy to secure papal recognition of the Biblical soundness of Henry’s divorce, Henry replaced him with the Protestant Thomas More and made veiled threats to the imperial ambassador that his nation could go Protestant if the Pope’s arrogance and obstinacy continued.[7], [8] In May 1533, Archbishop Cranmer officially annulled the marriage between Henry and Katherine of Aragon.[9]

The English, Catholic clergy under Archbishop Warham had made significant reforms during the time of Luther’s attacks on the Church that neutralized many of the Protestant claims of theological and economic corruption.[10] The attack on purgatory and icons in England had a very limited effect on the general population and the sale of indulgences was not nearly as common among English Catholics as it was in the German churches, so opposition to the Roman Church on this front remained mostly an academic debate and did not provoke any widespread, grassroots revolt in opposition to ecclesiastical corruption since there was not much that the average person could find. Thus, it would end up being “the thieving of Henry VIII and not the theology of Martin Luther” that would remove church endowments.[11]

The fact that Henry was no Protestant and used the Reformation to attain the marriage and power he wanted is seen in his persecution of Protestants from the first infiltration of Lutheranism. Under Henry’s rule, Cardinal Wolsey and English Church authorities had vigorously Luther’s works and imprisoned his followers wherever they found them. Furthermore, at Wolsey’s request, Henry wrote a rebuttal to Luther for which Pope Leo X gave Henry the title of “Defender of the Faith.”[12]  As late as 1530, Henry instructed secular authorities to assist ecclesiastical authorities in stamping out heretics.[13]

Henry had helpful, legal precedents to draw from in removing the English Church from under the control of Rome. In 1485, Chief Justice Hussey declared that the King of England was above Papal authority in his own realm and that any ecclesiastical legislation would be invalid if it disagreed with royal legislation. Henry refused to allow church clerks to be tried in their own courts for civil offenses and occasionally made statements that drew on lay lawyers’ interpretation of the English common law, declaring the superiority of his majesty to all but God alone.[14] The break came, however, when Henry saw no reason to continue holding out for Papal acceptance of his marriage to Anne Boleyn and felt he had enough authority from English common law to take over the Church. 

In the late 1520s, Henry had weakened the English clergy and in 1529, a Reformation Parliament met and issued a series of attacks on Church abuses. From 1530-1532, Henry effectively subjected the English Church to royal authority.[15]

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.[16] 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.”[17] 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.[18]

Henry was primarily concerned with marrying whomever he pleased and it was this that led to a break with Rome. This prompted 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.[19] Cromwell and Cranmer were convinced Protestants and pursued vigorous Protestant policies. However, despite their personal beliefs, like Henry, they both leaned toward the Enlightenment in that they seemed just as interested in creating an efficient, well-managed nation-state as a theocratic Protestant one.[20]

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 one in 1537 called the ‘Matthew Bible. A more standardized version was produced by Coverdale in 1539 that became known as the ‘Great Bible.’ This became a great success with the laity.[21] Between 1527 and 1547, around eight hundred separate editions of religious works, many of them Protestant works were printed in English.[22]

Henry did not found the Church of England out of any religious motivation. He was searching for a way to legitimize his divorce to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn without provoking domestic revolt or a Papal invasion. He can best be described as a secular dictator who ruled in a theocratic age in which he found he had to seize power of the church in order to effectively seize absolute control of his nation. But, Henry was no humanist cynic in disguise. He did personally hold enough Protestant beliefs to stomach the new ecclesiastical order. His break with Rome allowed Protestant Reformers to gain positions of political as well as ecclesiastical leadership that produced the authorization of English Bibles that would eventually lead to a thorough reformation of the English Church by the turn of the next century from both the top-down and bottom-up. Even though Henry VIII was not personally a reformer or even much of a Protestant for that matter, his failed marriage, desire for a male heir, lust, and thirst for absolute power ended up handing the Protestant Reformers a victory in England that in all likelihood would have otherwise never happened, at least not for another half-century.


Haigh, Christopher. English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors.         Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Smith, Alan G.R. The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660. New York: Longman Group Limited, 1984, 15, 16.

[1] Alan G.R. Smith, The Emergence of a Nation State: The Commonwealth of England 1529-1660, New York: Longman Group Limited, 1984, 15, 16.
[2] Smith, 21.
[3] Christopher Haigh, English Reformations: Religion, Politics and Society under the Tudors, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, 14.
[4] Haigh, 88-90.
[5] Smith, 18.
[6] Smith, 19.
[7] Smith, 21.
[8] Haigh, 99.
[9] Haigh, 116.
[10] Haigh, 86.
[11] Haigh, 70.
[12] Smith, 19.
[13] Haigh, 88.
[14] Haigh, 74, 82.
[15] Smith, 21.
[16] Haigh, 114, 115.
[17] Smith, 21.
[18] Smith, 29.
[19] Haigh, 125.
[20] Smith, 24.
[21] Smith, 32.
[22] Smith, 33.

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