In Parts I and II we examined the background events and players in the English Reformation that led up to the breach with Rome and the creation of the Church of England. In this post, we’ll examine the actual breach itself and look at some of the key players involved in these events.

In Part II we discussed how Cardinal Wolsey fell from favor with Henry VIII by failing to procure the King’s annulment. After Wolsey’s fall his secretary, Thomas Cromwell, began to emerge as Henry’s most trusted adviser and would eventually become Lord Chancellor (after the execution of Thomas More) and help lead the English Reformation.

Thomas Cromwell 

Cromwell’s partner in these events was Thomas Cranmer, a priest and theologian from Cambridge who proposed that Henry’s case for annulment be put to leading intellectuals from the great universities of Europe. Henry had Cranmer travel to Rome in 1530 to argue his case personally.

The Parliament of 1529 was strongly anti-clerical and in 1530, urged on by Cromwell, began to take steps to establish the King’s authority over the English church. The entire English clergy (remember, they were Roman Catholic at the time) was charged with Praemunire, which, as we discussed in Part II, was an English legal doctrine that held you could not serve the King and a foreign master (i.e. the Pope) simultaneously. The clergy, led by then-Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, agreed to a settlement with Henry in which they paid a significant fine and received a pardon. The Pardon of the Clergy also required the clergy to admit that Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church of England, “so far as the law of Christ allows.”

Parliament, urged on by Cromwell, continued to take action against the church and in 1532 passed the Supplication Against the Ordinaries, which was a list of grievances against the English church by parliament. Some of the grievances included the independent legislative powers of the church in such areas of marriage.

Warham, who was ailing at the time, settled this matter as well with a settlement known as the Submission of the Clergy, where the English church agreed to have its canons reviewed by the King, who could veto any legislation passed by the Convocation, which was the governing council of the church.

Thomas Cranmer

Shortly thereafter, Warham died and Henry VIII appointed Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer, who was traveling in Europe at the time, perhaps knew the challenges (or dangers) of working so closely with Henry, and tried not to respond to the letter as long as he could. In the end, however, he accepted the appointment and the Papal Bulls, or formal order, appointing him to the position arrived in England by March, 1533. Henry was so enthusiastic to have Cranmer as Archbishop that he paid for the bulls from his own funds (at that time the customary fee for a Papal Bull was the one year’s income from the benefices held by the office).

After Cranmer was consecrated Archbishop  in March, 1532 Parliament continued to move against the Pope. They passed the Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates, which halted the payment for Papal Bulls for offices such as bishoprics (the money went to the Royal Treasury instead) and in 1533 passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which denied appeal to Rome in cases of marriage and other matters, and instead gave final authority in these matters to Henry’s archbishop, Thomas Cranmer.

Parliament acted again in 1534 and passed the Act of Supremacy which confirmed Henry’s title as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, effectively separating the church from the Pope. Opposing the Royal Supremacy was punishable by death.

After the Act in Conditional Restraint of Annates, Henry appealed to Cranmer regarding his marriage. Cranmer annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in May, 1533 and validated Henry’s previously secret marriage to Anne Boelyn. On June 1, 1533 Cranmer crowned Anne as Queen of England. Pope Clement VII’s response was to excommunicate Henry, Anne, Cranmer and others unless Anne was repudiated. This, of course, did not occur and Anne, who was pregnant when she secretly married Henry, gave birth to the Princess Elizabeth on September 7, 1533. An excellent timeline of these legislative acts can be seen here.

The English Reformation had begun. The Church of England was free from Rome, but it wasn’t remotely Anglican and still very Catholic. Mass was still said in Latin, priests were supposed to be celibate, and the calendar of the saints was still followed.

What distinguishes this part of the English Reformation was that it wasn’t a reformation in terms of doctrine, but rather, some excellent lawyering on the part of Cromwell and his allies in the Reformation Parliament. It was a reformation by statute, not from changed doctrine.

The emergence of protestant ideas would come in the next phase, from committed Reformers such as Cranmer, Cromwell, and others. But with the King a fairly contended Catholic, how far would they go? We’ll address that in our next post on the English Reformation.

The BBC’s A History of Britain episode on the English Reformation continues with Simon Schama’s Burning Convictions, Parts II and III:


In Part I we set the stage for the beginnings of the English Reformation. Now its time to look at what the religious climate was in England immediately before the breach with Rome and the beginnings of the Church of England.

The Roman Catholic Church in early 16th century England was very much like the Catholic Church in the remainder of Europe. Mass was said in Latin, the Bible was not available to lay people, priests did not marry and a person could receive forgiveness of sins by the purchase of indulgences from the Church. Masses were said for the dead to allow them to escape purgatory and priests were paid from the estate of the deceased to say Mass regularly on their behalf.

Martin Luther

The Reformation on the continent did not go unnoticed in England, however. As the  laity began to become more educated, reforming ideas from Europe  became to be regularly discussed in England as well. The printing  press proved to be a major catalyst in the Reformation, both in  England and the continent, especially considering that you didn’t  need to know Latin or Greek, or be a university scholar or in Holy  Orders, to be able to read and discuss religious issues.

By 1521 Lutheran books were coming into England and people were discussing religious issues. Luther, a German monk and New Testament scholar, challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s views on salvation, indulgences, and the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest during Mass actually becomes the physical body and blood of Christ.

Bishop John Fisher

The reaction to this by the English Church and the Crown was swift. Bishop John Fisher, along with other English bishops, led the charge against Luther’s works and a ceremonial burning of Luther’s works was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 1521.

Other notable English clergy were involved in discussing Luther’s ideas, including a group of Cambridge scholars many of whom would become first generation English reformers (and martyrs) including William Tyndale, Thomas Parker, Hugh Latimer, Thomas Cranmer, and Nicholas Ridley.

William Tyndale, a committed reformer, translated the Bible into English. Fearing for his safety he traveled to Germany and met Luther. He translation of the New Testament appeared in England in the late 1520’s, and he produced other writings that discussed the supremacy of Scripture over everything else. He was eventually tracked down by English agents in Brussels, and in 1536 condemned to death for heresy. He was strangled to death and then burned on the stake, as depicted below in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, which chronicled the martyrs of the English Reformation. Tyndale’s final words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”

Tyndale's Execution

Henry VIII’s response to Lutheran ideas was similar to that of the bishops. Henry wrote a response to Luther, opposing Lutheran doctrine and for the supremacy of the Pope. For his efforts, he was rewarded with the title of “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, a title that English monarchs carry to this day.

If Luther’s ideas gave some in England reason for thought, the actions of the English clergy gave rise to strong feelings of anti-clericalism. The poster child for anticlericalism at the time was Henry’s chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey was held multiple titles including Cardinal, Archbishop of York, and a number of other bishoprics, which was not uncommon at the time. Fabulously wealthy, he built Hampton Court Palace (which he would later give to Henry VIII in a desperate attempt to save himself from being charged with treason-it didn’t work), and endowed a college at Oxford. Like many of the clergy at the time he had a mistress and several illegitimate children

Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey, who arose from humble beginnings, was given significant power by Henry VIII for handling the day to day business of the monarchy. Wolsey also arranged to be appointed a papal legate, which meant he acted in the name of the Pope in England. His significant power and wealth caused resentment among other bishops and members of Henry’s court, so much that once he failed to please the King, his downfall was assured.

That downfall stemmed from Henry’s attempts to get an annulment from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Remember that by 1525 Catherine had failed to produce a male heir for Henry and Henry’s attentions were focused on Anne Boleyn. Wolsey tried to intervene on Henry’s behalf with Pope Clement to grant an annulment, but Clement would not overrule the dispensation that had been given to Henry by then-Pope Julius. Clement’s refusal to grant an annulment was undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Catherine of Aragon’s uncle was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, who actually attacked Rome in 1527 and kept Pope Clement VII under house arrest for a while.

Cardinal Campeggio

By 1527 Henry had decided to marry Anne and began annulment proceedings. Clement sent another cardinal and papal legate, Cardinal Campeggio, who presided with Wolsey inannulment hearings inn England in 1528. Unfortunately, for Wolsey, Henry did not get the result he wanted, an annulment, and the case was remanded to Rome for a decision by the Pope. Given the situation with Charles V, it was obvious that the result was not going to be good for Henry.

Wolsey’s standing with Henry was significantly diminished after the case was sent back to Rome, especially after Anne and her supporters (who were pro-Reformation) at Court convinced Henry that Wolsey was putting the interests of the Church over Henry’s. Wolsey was deprived of the Chancellor’s office and forced to return to being Archbishop of York, the second-ranking primate in England (the Archbishop of Canterbury is first), and actually had to go to York, where he had never been before, although he was Archbishop (the requirement for Bishops to reside in their seas was one product of the Reformation). However this wasn’t enough for the anticlerical Reform-minded activists at Court, and Wolsey was eventually was charged with treason. He was charged under an ancient common law principle that it was illegal to serve another monarch (the Pope) at the expense of the King, and brought to Court under a writ of praemunire. Apparently, all of Wolsey’s actions as papal legate were illegal! Who knew?

Wolsey died in 1530 enroute to the Tower of London of natural causes and never faced the executioner. His final words included, “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

At Court, Wolsey was gone and there was a strong reforming influence led by Anne and her supporters. Henry was determined to get his marriage to Catherine overturned, however, and began to take steps to assume more control of the English church. While Reforming principles were on the minds of many at Court, Henry remained a fairly content Catholic in matters of doctrine.

So, perhaps, maybe it was really all about Anne. In Henry’s mind it probably was. In the next post, we’ll examine the actual breach with Rome and learn about the key players involved, most of whom were committed reformers, and how they used the breach as an opportunity to bring reforming principles to England.

Henry VIII as portrayed by Hans Holbein

We Anglicans know the abbreviated version. How many times have we heard in casual conversation, Christian education programs, or elsewhere the short version of how Anglicanism came into being. It goes something like this “Henry VIII wanted a divorce from his wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn and when the Pope wouldn’t give him one he started the Church of England.” Remember that the final result, the separation of the English church from Rome wasn’t remotely “Anglican” in the sense we know it today. It wasn’t even the Church of England. That would come much later.

While Henry’s marital woes being the cause of the breach with Rome does have some truth to it, there’s a lot more to the story than just an expedient way to get a new Queen. In the next few posts we’re going to take a look at what led up to the separation between England and the Catholic Church, the influence of the Reformation on the Continent, the various players involved, and a whole lot more information about how the English Church came about.

Events of the Early 16th Century: Henry VII, Prince Arthur, Catherine and the Pope

Henry VIII became king with his father, Henry VII, died in 1509, at the age of eighteen. Henry VII won the throne in the War of the Roses in 1485. His successor was to be his eldest son, Arthur, however Arthur died in 1502. Arthur was married to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. The marriage was arranged to forge an alliance between England and Spain. In order to preserve the alliance, Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon. Before Henry could marry Catherine a dispensation had to be obtained from the Pope, Julius II, which was done in 1503.

The dispensation itself is important as it would become the basis of Henry’s argument for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Julius II granted the dispensation on the grounds that Arthur and Catherine had only been married for a short period of time, three months, and that the marriage was never consummated. If this appears to be shaky ground, remember that the Vatican at the time derived a significant income stream from high level dispensations such as this and international politics played a significant role in this as well.

Catherine of Aragon

Henry and Catherine were married in 1509, shortly after Henry’s accession to the throne. She and Henry had six children, but only one, Mary Tudor, later Queen Mary of England, would survive to adulthood.

The lack of a male heir worried Henry, and, once again, this would become part of his case for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. In years to come, Henry would rely on two verses of Leviticus for the Scriptural basis of his annulment namely, “thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it [is] thy brother’s nakedness,” (Lev 18:16) and “And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it [is] an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” (Lev. 20:21, both KJV)

So now the stage is set. We have Henry VIII, concerned about a male heir, and Catherine of Aragon, a devout Roman Catholic who cannot produce one, who also happens to be five years older than the King. These are only two of the players in the story. The next area to explore in early sixteenth century England is what was happening in the English church at the time, and see why it was fertile ground for a reformation, although that wasn’t exactly what Henry had in mind.

The English Reformation continues here on the blog. See Part II

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