Henry VIII and the English Reformation
What led the Tudor king to sever the Church of England from the pope?
Live on stage at Lantern Theater Company March 10 through April 9, 2022, Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is set during an inflection point in English history: the English Reformation, the split between the Church of England and the Catholic Church. The play uses this momentous time to explore the moral surety of Sir Thomas More and the various degrees of flexibility in those around him.
Ten years before the historical moments depicted in A Man for All Seasons, Martin Luther was a German priest and theologian who had come to reject many teachings of the Catholic Church. He was particularly upset by the practice of indulgences, whereby priests traded forgiveness from sin for donations. He also believed that forgiveness was only available through God’s grace, not good deeds, and that the Bible should be widely accessible, which challenged the primacy of the pope as a channel for God’s word. In October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging the practice of indulgences and launching the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther faced a particularly powerful critic: King Henry VIII, who was a devout Catholic. After reading Luther’s attacks on indulgences, the king wrote The Defence of the Seven Sacraments between 1519 and 1521 with Thomas More’s input (though the amount of that input is in dispute). It became one of the most popular anti-Protestant writings of the time, and Pope Leo X gave Henry the title Defender of the Faith for this work— a title that would be stripped from him during the English Reformation.
Protestantism was slower to take hold in England than it did in continental Europe. While there were pockets of interest in Protestantism and a good deal of discussion among academic circles, there was not a wide groundswell of support for it. That was soon to change.
Queen Catherine’s many pregnancy losses, as well as Henry’s increasing tensions with her father, King Ferdinand of Spain, contributed to Henry’s estrangement from his wife. She became increasingly devout in her Catholicism, and he became increasingly frantic for a son. He came to believe that his marriage was cursed by God — that the papal dispensation that allowed him to marry Catherine in the first place was wrongly given, and that they were living in sin by continuing to stay married. He believed their lack of a male heir was God’s punishment. He was also in love with Anne Boleyn, who was refusing to be just his mistress.
To remedy his situation, Henry requested a second dispensation from the pope, asking for his marriage to be annulled, as divorce was not allowed in Catholicism. He had every reason to believe the request would be granted — popes of the time deferred to rulers’ need to protect their realms and dynasties. But Henry had not counted on one thing: Catherine’s nephew Charles was now the Holy Roman Emperor, and he had just sacked Rome. Pope Clement VII was essentially under Charles’ control, and he did not want to see his aunt dishonored.
Rather than refuse outright, Pope Clement VII dragged the discussions on for years, and Henry’s patience grew thin. He decided that, as the monarch, he belonged at the head of the Church of England, not the pope. Henry put himself at the head of the Church and dissolved the monasteries. He required that English clergy swear allegiance to him as the supreme leader of the church; when the bishops at the Convocation at Canterbury did so in 1532, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor. In 1533 Henry married Anne Boleyn, and in 1534, a spate of laws was passed cementing his position.
First came the Act of Supremacy, which placed King Henry VIII and all future English monarchs as the Supreme Head of the Church of England rather than the pope. The wording of the act was very careful to assert that the king’s supremacy over the church was an established fact, not something that Parliament was giving him and could later take away. It was not enough to simply declare the monarch of England head of the English church, however. Shortly after the Act of Supremacy was passed, Parliament also passed the Treasons Act of 1534. This act established it as high treason, punishable by death, to disavow the Act of Supremacy or to speak or act against the ruler’s rightful position at the head of the church. There was also an Oath of Supremacy; if a government figure refused to sign, his refusal was considered treason.
Parliament then passed the Act of Succession, which asserted Anne Boleyn’s children were the rightful heirs and once again denied the pope’s authority. This, too, came with a required oath that affirmed the signer’s belief in the Act’s assertions. The government was now legislating not just behavior but beliefs, making it a crime to refuse to “declare in [one’s] Conscience” that the King of England was the supreme spiritual leader of the country. It was under these laws that Thomas More was punished.
All this upheaval was largely a matter of church governance during Henry’s reign; he remained basically a practicing Catholic until his death. The theological questions of the Reformation and the daily religious practice of the English people changed some, but it was not until after his death that the Reformation was truly embedded in day-to-day practice — and that violent conflict and national instability erupted. The schism was deep, and the transition was not smooth. When Henry VIII’s daughter Mary, a staunch Catholic, became queen, she repealed the Acts of Supremacy and Succession and restored Catholicism as the official religion — and she had Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had granted her parents’ divorce, burned as a heretic. When Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth I ascended, she returned the country to Protestantism and brought back the Act of Supremacy. But Elizabeth had learned about the dangers of policing beliefs: For the first decades of her rule, she made accommodations for Catholics to believe what they chose without being charged with treason.