Christianity in England always differed from Romanism. Study shows differences in liturgy, ecclesiastical structures, tonsure and monastic organization. We know the British Isles had churches by the middle of the third century but it remained for Augustine of Canterbury to bring papal oversight to the islands.
Some suggest English reform began with the Magna Charta. By the time of Henry VIII, however, the monarchy held the country in a strong grip. Parliament existed, but the royalty controlled it. Some of the king's power derived from the Court of the Star Chamber begun by Henry VI. According to historian Will Durant,
Although the English and French fought over mainland soil for years, Henry VIII made an abortive attempt to reclaim English soil. The English supported his effort apathetically. He twice made forays into France and twice he retreated. England's powerful navy did not yet exist and England ruled little more than England.
The Renaissance's new learning made headway in England. Colet had the greatest Renaissance influence in England. Henry VII invited Erasmus to visit court and pleaded with him to remain in England. Thomas More wrote his Utopia adding to the intellectual ferment. Even Henry VIII adopted a humanistic stance.
I. Henry VIII, a Promising King
Henry VII intended for Henry's older brother, Arthur, to succeed him to the throne. Had it not been for Arthur's death, Henry may well have enjoyed a long church career. One of Henry's recent biographers said no proof supports this, but Henry certainly had the qualifications. The church recognized him as a scholarly theologian well versed in Scripture. At one point, Henry wrote a rebuttal of one of Luther's pamphlets then circulating in England. As an expression of thanks, the pope awarded Henry the title, "Defender of the Faith." When Henry ascended the throne he did so as a totally "orthodox" Catholic and he remained so for 20 years following.
Henry became king at age 18. He was a fine looking young man with a good complexion, attractive features and an athletic body. He excelled in tennis, archery, hunting and wrestling. He also was an accomplished vocal and instrumental musician. He wrote two masses for the church demonstrating both his musical and theological skills. He did enjoy fine dress, good food, and festive occasions. Overall, the English people liked him! When he took the throne, people hailed his coronation as the dawn of an English golden age.
II. The Marriage to Catherine of Aragon and Problems
In an attempt to secure good will between Spain and England, Henry VII arranged a marriage between Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. Catherine was the well set daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. Five months after the wedding, however, Arthur died. Either unwilling or unable to return the dowry, Henry VII arranged for Catherine to marry his younger son. At the time, Henry was only 14 and Catherine a ripe 22. Henry objected to the marriage but his father forced it upon him. Henry VIII openly stated that when he reached adulthood he might not honor the marriage. Archbishop Warham held doubts about the marriage's propriety because of the then common understanding of Leviticus 20:21.
In the beginning, Henry observed a proper relationship with Catherine. In fact, historians report Henry's devotion to her. You must separate his ultimate desertion of Catherine from his infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Henry married Catherine June 11, 1509, but by 1514, all her children were stillborn or died in infancy. Henry believed God was punishing him for violating Leviticus 20:21. Catherine conceived seven times but only one child survived, a girl, Mary. We know Mary later as "Bloody Mary."
If Henry and Catherine had been a normal couple, the marriage may have lasted. Henry and almost all England hoped for a male heir. A marriage of Mary to a foreign prince would bring England under foreign domination. England had enough problems without that! Even worse, what if Mary were to wed one of the hated French princes? Queens historically did poorly in England. That fact alone caused concern. All this hit Henry hard. He considered making Henry Fitzroy, an illegitimate son, his heir but Fitzroy died in 1536.
III. "The King's Business"
Concern for a male heir obsessed Henry. Finally, he began seeking some way to solve the problem. He first tried annulling his marriage to Catherine on the grounds that it violated Leviticus 20:21. Royal annulments required papal approval. Many precedents seemed to support Henry. Other European rulers obtained annulments for far shakier reasons. At the time, however, the Pope faced difficulties from Emperor Charles V, a relative of Spain's Ferdinand and Isabella. The Pope, therefore, found himself between a rock and a hard place and simply could not afford angering either the Holy Roman Emperor or the Spanish crown. He denied Henry's request.
Henry found sympathy among the English clergy. Cardinal Wolsey summoned Catherine and Henry to appear before him. He asked Henry why he lived with his brother's wife. Henry admitted his guilt but Catherine maintained she never consummated the marriage with Arthur.
Wolsey then sent representatives to Rome seeking permission to settle Henry's "problem" himself. Wolsey hoped the Pope would recognize England's succession problem and allow it to be settled "in house." Wolsey also subtly suggested the English church might withdraw if the Pope refused. The Pope then sent Campeggio to look into the situation. If anything, Campeggio defended the marriage. The papal representative heard the case in court. English jurists later interpreted this as allowing an English monarch to be tried before a foreign court and Wolsey falls into disrepute because of it.
Thomas Cromwell, the King's adviser, suggested that Henry take matters into his own hands. Henry agreed. In December 1530, he prosecutes clergymen under the Statue of Praemunire. Praemunire was the practice of allowing an Englishman to be tried before a foreign court. He judges Campeggio's hearing a foreign court. In 1531, the crown announced all prosecution would cease upon admission of guilt and the payment of $11 million. The church raised the money and admitted guilt but Henry didn't close the case. He went on to demand that the English churchmen recognize him as the sole head of England's church. With that demand, the English reformation began.
In July 1531, Henry sent Catherine to Windsor Castle. Henry never saw her again. Catherine still insisted the validity of her marriage and her daughter, Mary, always considered herself the only valid heir to the throne. On January 25, 1533, Henry secretly married a four months pregnant Anne Boleyn. On January 7, 1536, Catherine died of cancer and she was buried at Peterborough Cathedral.
Anne Boleyn was no more successful at bearing a male heir than Catherine. Her only surviving offspring, Elizabeth, later became Queen. Henry could not know the determinative factor for a child's gender lies in male chromosomes. Anne bore a son, Edward, but he lived until only age 11.
Still desperate for a male heir, Henry charged Anne with adultery just five months after Catherine's death. He had reasons for his suspicions, but all the evidence was circumstantial. Authorities sent several men, including Anne's brother, to the tower. All of them, except of Mark Smeaton, refused to admit their guilt. Smeaton confessed only when threatened with torture. By May 15, 1536, courts found them all guilty and condemned. On May 17, Archbishop Cranmer pronounced the Boleyn marriage invalid and she died at noon on the gallows.
By this time, Henry had his eye on Jane Seymour but she would not accept his advances. On June 4, 1536, a clerical dispensation allowed Henry to marry her. Jane bore Henry a son, his only legitimate male heir, but he was never healthy.
Marriages followed with Anne of Cleves whom Henry divorced. Henry never saw Anne before their marriage. Instead he sent representatives, including the portrait painter Holbein, throughout Europe looking for suitable brides. These representatives sent back portraits for Henry's evaluation. Evidently the painter took a bit of liberty with Anne. Henry referred to her as "his Flanders Mare." She was not attractive! He also married Catherine Howard whom he later beheaded and Catherine Parr who outlived him.
IV. The Process of Reform
English reform was political not religious. The state determined how and what reformation occurred.
The Parliament, under the king's direction, ruled that the clergy under the rank of sub-deacon could stand before civil courts. The crown reduced fees and fines levied by ecclesiastical courts. Parliament also abolished fees paid when a family member died and they lowered probate fees. Annates ceased. In time, the transfer of English monies to Rome dried up altogether. Parliament did suggest the money might again flow if the Pope were to recognize Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Two Parliamentary acts contributed to the reform's success. First, the Act of Succession was passed at Thomas Cromwell's suggestion on March 30, 1534. The act declared Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid, made Mary an illegitimate child, and named Elizabeth to the succession unless Anne should have a son. It then became a capital crime to question Henry's marriage to Anne. The Act required a loyalty oath and both Thomas More and John Fisher refused to sign it. They were subsequently imprisoned and beheaded.
The second act was the Act of Supremacy which passed November 11, 1534. This act confirmed Henry's control over both church and state. The act formally gave the English church the name "The Church of England" and gave the king control of morals. All Bishops had to accept royal authority without question. Henry then persecuted everyone: Catholic and Protestants. Catholics because they continued their allegiance to Rome, Protestants because they were heretics.
In 1535 Cromwell sent out "visitors" to survey the conditions in English monasteries. The whole operation was a royal smokescreen since the crown determined to close them down to acquire their vast property holdings. The visitors returned with reports of sexual deviation and the worship of false relics. On January 4, 1536, Cromwell presented a "Black Book" to Henry in which he spelled out all of the monasteries' faults. The crown then closed all those with an income of 250 pounds or less. By 1540, all monastic property passed to the king. In all, 548 monasteries and 160 convents closed. Six thousand monks and 1,560 nuns had no place to go. Henry's spoils totalled about $140 million.
Henry needed the money. He had very high personal expenses and his government cost a fortune. There was also a need for defense. Reginald Cardinal Pole, banished to France, attacked the English church constantly and some feared he would make a military attempt to reinstate Catholicism.
Some of the money derived from the monasteries Henry gave away. It created a new aristocracy loyal to the king. This added another barricade to Catholicism.
The lower classes saw none of it. With the addition of former nuns and monks, the problems attendant to the lower classes increased. Crime increased, charity decreased and education per se dropped since the monasteries operated most schools.
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