The Henrician Reformation was a series of events during the reign of King Henry VIII in which the Church of England – and thereby England – broke away from the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, ultimately ending centuries of religious and political ties with the Catholic Church. Despite being a religious reformation, there is much dispute over the true role religion may have played in bringing it about.

Historians such as Diarmaid MacCulloch are of the view that the reformation was brought about by “the explosive power of an idea… a new statement of Augustine’s ideas on salvation,” while other historians attribute it to other factors such as “the corruption of the old Church, the greed of monarchs for church wealth, the questing individualist spirit of humanism, [and] forces of ‘modernity.’”

This essay seeks to deal with the extent to which religion played a role in the Henrician Reformation, and the role of other factors such as power, prestige, money, humanism, faction, and indeed Protestantism in bringing the Reformation about.

Henry’s desire for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon was unquestionably the most immediate cause of the Church of England’s break from Rome, and possibly even the king’s supremacy – if not of the dissolution of monasteries and Protestant changes.

It could be argued, even, that the annulment was the catalyst for the entirety of the English Reformation because it brought about the break from Rome – an event that represented the seismic religious and/or political changes taking place in England; and that if Henry had not wanted the annulment, the Church of England would have stayed obedient to the papacy – at least in the short term.

Regardless of other causes and justifications for the Reformation that may have arisen during Henry’s reign, it is almost certain that as far as Henry was concerned, the only thing that drove him to break with Rome was his dire need to remarry to, according to him, beget a male heir to ensure the survival of his dynasty.

Evidence for this is not only the fact that Henry had, previously, been a notable champion of the papacy in a quarrel with Martin Luther, but that he was even awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X for his defence of the Roman Catholic Church in a book he wrote entitled “The Defence of the Seven Sacraments”. This support Henry and indeed his closest advisor Cardinal Wolsey displayed for the Catholic Church, evidences the fact that it wasn’t – at least initially – theological differences that brought about the Reformation, but rather, the King’s personal need.

This is what distinguishes the Henrician Reformation from the wider European Protestant Reformation. However, the crucial understanding of the annulment’s impact on the Reformation lies in both the implications of the answer/s to, and the question of whether or not the break from Rome was essential in order to gain the annulment. It could be argued that had the Pope granted papal dispensation for the annulment, the Reformation may not have occurred, therefore indicating that it was only personal/political differences that led to the break from Rome which caused the Reformation.

However, this seems unrealistic as there certainly were other pervasive factors that would have made the Reformation inevitable, such as anti-clericalism, the influence of factions, and the appeal of Protestantism. On the other hand, it could be argued that a break from Rome wasn’t truly necessary for Henry to have his marriage annulled, as his power as King of England should have given him some sort of liberty to do as he pleased without too much backlash from the church.

However, he seemed extremely keen to obtain the Pope’s approval, such that the appeal for an annulment dragged on for several years, despite the Pope refusing to grant it for various reason – Henry even went to the extent of threatening him – which belies the fact that Henry did still value the Pope’s say and power. This would mean that the break from Rome – the event that essentially catalysed the Reformation, or at least signalled the beginning of the monumental changes that were to come to England – wasn’t brought about by religious differences.

Another potential cause for the Reformation was hunger for power, prestige, and money – not just Henry’s but that of those who surrounded him. This explains Henry’s passing the Act of Supremacy in 1634 – this could certainly be linked to religion, as it was the clergyman Thomas Cranmer and the king’s influential adviser Thomas Cromwell – both Protestants – who built a convincing case that England’s king should not be subject to the pope’s jurisdiction, and eventually led him to pass this act which went a step further than the break from Rome in asserting the invalidity of the papacy in all English affairs.

Their influence on the king will be evaluated fully later, but an important piece of evidence against Cranmer’s and Cromwell’s – and therefore religion’s – influence in bringing about the reformation, and in favour of Henry’s own hunger for power is the fact that in 1515, years before the two came into Henry’s sphere of influence, he was recorded as having said: “Kings of England…have never had any superior but God alone”. This meant that he’d had visions of gaining Supremacy from the beginning of his reign – which isn’t surprising, considering he was one of the proudest and most egotistical monarchs England had seen thus far.

More evidence in favour of power and money having had played an integral part in the anti-Catholic activities the King carried out during the reformation was the dissolving and fining of “deviant” monasteries – the dissolution of which yielded $1.3 million from 1536 to ’47, and the taxing of which gained Henry approximately $406,000 from 1535 to ’40. It could be argued that the monasteries were dissolved with religious reformation in mind, however, evidence against this is the fact that leading reformers, led by Anne Boleyn, wanted to convert monasteries into “places of study and good letters, and to the continual relief of the poor.”

Instead, in 1536, the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries Act closed smaller houses valued at less than £200 a year. Henry used this revenue to help build coastal defences against expected invasion, and all the land was given to the Crown or sold to the aristocracy; additionally monasteries were able to pay to be exempt from the Act – thirty-four did. The fact that there were altruistic, beneficial ways to dissolve the monasteries, and yet Henry chose the one with monetary benefit for him evidences his greed.

In fact, despite Henry having said: “There be none Houses suppressed where God was well served, but where most vice, mischief, and abomination of living was used,” he still dissolved a monastery “found in perfect order” – one of many reported cases. Such cases would have not occurred had Henry truly dissolved monasteries based on their virtue, rather than their ability to pay for an exemption.

Furthermore, it is also possible that following the Pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment, Henry felt slighted by both the Pope and everything the Catholic Church stood for, which may have caused him to go on the rampage against the Church that led to much of the Reformation’s biggest changes, such as the dissolution of monasteries, and the printing of the English Bible – both acts in defiance of the power of the Catholic Church, and strong statements establishing Henry’s autonomy and power separate from the Church.

This rampage eventually simmered down, as seen in the significant reduction in anti-Catholic rhetoric from the Act of 10 Articles to the Act of 6 Articles – the inconsistency of which signified that it was Henry’s want for power and prestige that was a significant cause for the Reformation, rather than actual religious change.

However, it could be argued that the reason Henry changed his views so drastically over the years was not because of any lack of true conviction in changing and reforming religion, but because of the religious views of those who surrounded him. This is an important consideration and will be fleshed out in the following paragraphs about the influence of foreign policy, faction, and other parties on Henry.

Anne Boleyn, her faction, Cromwell, and Cranmer and their ideologies are also an important consideration in the Henrician Reformation. Seeing as there is so much debate over whether much of Henry’s decisions were made of his own judgement and volition or whether they were influenced by external forces, it is important to consider each party’s influences over the king’s decisions which in turn led to and defined the Henrician Reformation.

This Reformation saw much fluctuation in terms of commitment to either Protestant or Catholic views. The indictment and subsequent death of his chancellor Cardinal Wolsey in 1529 for praemunire (taking the authority of the papacy above the Crown) left Henry open to the opposing influences of the supporters of the Queen and those who sanctioned the abandonment of the Roman allegiance and for whom an annulment was an important political opportunity.

Henry appointed Cranmer, a key part of the Boleyn faction as the Archbishop of Canterbury, after which Cranmer quickly granted Henry’s divorce from Catherine, thus winning over Henry’s confidence in both him and the Evangelical beliefs he stood for. We see an equally quick pivot of favour in the changes of religious documents that would dictate the beliefs of the people. They varied from predominantly Protestant – as in the Act of Ten Articles; to predominantly Catholic – as in the Act of Six Articles and the Bishop’s Book; and even went from printing English Bibles such that religion could be more accessible to people to actively restricting the public reading of the Bible in 1543 to licensed clergy.

Henry was vulnerable to such manipulation of thought as a result of his lack of interest in reading and writing – instead of reading the religious books and sources that would dictate the ideologies of the citizens he’d force them upon, Henry instead relied on people representing opposite ideas to come up with their own interpretations and leave it to him to decide which he agreed with most.

It could be argued that the reason the Act of 6 Articles is decidedly less Protestant than that of 10 was that Stephen Gardiner, a famed Catholic and rival of Cromwell was able to have access to King Henry since Cromwell was sick. Despite Cranmer’s best efforts to prove to the King that people are “justified by Faith only [and that that] is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the homily of Justification,” he was not able to win over the King from this point onward, despite having had the king convinced a mere few years ago.

This tug-o-war, almost, of ideologies, presents quite the conundrum. Is it representative of religion being a central consideration or a reflection of power politics and the influence of third parties over Henry? The answer here lies in evaluating the motives of those who did have some influence. The Boleyn faction was obviously in favour of Protestantism because it would grant them a considerable measure of power in court if one of their members married the king – but that is not to say that they didn’t genuinely follow and wish to promote the Protestant religion.

Not only was Anne’s brother Lord Rochford a committed evangelical, but Cranmer, in Source C has said of Anne herself that he “loved her not a little for the love which [he] judged her to bear towards God and his Gospel”. At one point, Henry was forced to rely on the Boleyn faction due to conservative opposition to the divorce, and not surprisingly, it was during Anne’s reign as Queen that the Reformist faction was in ascendancy.

This gave them an opening to influence the King in favour of evangelical beliefs, as well as to curry more favour for themselves. Cromwell and Cranmer too were huge proponents of the Reformation who used their positions of power to fully set in motion and establish a religious reformation. Cranmer was a member of the White Horse Group of Lutherans at Cambridge, believed in justification of faith alone, and was even secretly married to the niece of the Protestant Osiander – a marriage he later had to keep secret by sending her away as a result of the Six Articles making clerical marriages treason.

His conviction in his Protestant beliefs was so strong that he was willing to oppose Henry himself, even defending the implied solifidianism (the belief that faith alone, without the performance of good works, is all that is necessary for salvation) in the Bishop’s Book. He played a lead role in all religious change, and showed consistent support for reform, leading the writing of the 10 Articles, and preaching against images and purgatory. That he was willing to oppose Henry’s views makes it even more certain that his motives were mostly deeply religious, and that he truly did want to see religious change spread throughout England.

Cromwell, Cranmer’s ally, was also an ardent Erastian humanist with evangelical sympathies. There is little doubt that he exploited Henry’s obsession with money and power to achieve religious aims, even being called “the driving force behind the Reformation in the 1530s,” but the fact that he used Henry’s obsession with power and money not to increase his own power and money, but to effect religious change, is evidence for the fact that religion certainly was an important consideration in the Henrician Reformation.

Cromwell was responsible for propaganda in favour of reform such as printing, preaching, and universities, and was responsible for the English Bible –even loaning $400 to fund it himself. However, the argument could be made that his decisive actions in bringing about the dissolution of monasteries such as organising dissolutions through Acts of Parliament and using intimidation were all to the end of increasing financial security for the Crown.

On the other hand, however, he did also call for state provision of education and poor relief to be provided with the fund appropriated from the dissolution of monasteries, implying at least some level of altruistic and religious motivation. It definitely seems, that overall while there was still some level of selfish motivations amongst those who influenced Henry’s decisions, they were, for the most part, driven by a genuine need to further their religion, therefore proving that religion was not an unimportant consideration in the Henrician Reformation..

Possibly one of the most important and relevant factors to consider the influence of on the Reformation is anti-clericalism. This, along with the outlook on humanism and reformation that will be evaluated subsequently would decide whether there was, in fact, any religious basis for the reformation at all.

If these are proved as strong enough causes of the Reformation, the argument for the fact that religion was an important consideration in the Henrician Reformation would be very well supported, because religious or political change cannot arise from a vacuum – there must be some grievance for any change to arise, including in the case of the English Reformation. The argument made is that the people themselves were agitating for at least reform of the monasteries due to the fact that they felt exploited and undervalued by the very institutions that existed to make them feel safe.

They obviously wouldn’t want the institutions that were meant to be the beacons of society to be rife with “vice, mischief, and abominations of living.” Priests such as Cardinal Wolsey – arguably the epitome of clerical abuses with his flagrant violations of the most basic of priestly duties through absenteeism, pluralism, nepotism, and immorality – being in such high positions of power truly reflected the state of decay of the Catholic Church.

Many parish priests were illiterate, and very few knew Latin – which was especially problematic as Catholicism is hinged upon only priests being able to read the Bible as the intermediaries between citizens and God. As MacCulloch argues in Source E, “people may have felt a real weariness about the old system in northern Europe and its labour-intensive devotion, and were ready to hear a message which involved reform of the system.” This labour intensive devotion included, essentially paying your way out of purgatory, and having to constantly renew or prove worthiness of salvation.

This opened poor peasants up to exploitation as corrupt clergy saw this as an opportunity to extort money and property of those desperate to remain in God’s favour. However, the true extent of anti-clericalism amongst peasants is unknown, as there are no records of the peasantry’s thoughts on the clergy, given the fact that none of them could read or write. It is possible that the records the King received of peasant unrest regarding the clergy were either fabricated or exaggerated by those nobles who would benefit from England’s conversion to Protestantism – either religiously or politically.

Evidence for this is the fact that there was a surge in demand for Catholic books, there was a popularity of festivals, saints, and images, and even, according to Source E, “the majority of will-makers in Norfolk left money to the gilds or confraternities which sustained prayers and Masses for the dead.” However, it does also counter this fact by asserting that “far fewer did so in Buckinghamshire or Berkshire (where concentrations of Lollard sympathisers may quietly have induced a mood of local scepticism about the whole Purgatory industry)”

Despite the possibility that record of peasant unrest may be fabricated or exaggerated, it isn’t unjustified to assume that, by all logic, there must have been some sort of unrest, as there certainly was bound to be exploitation of peasants by the clergy, in them turning the idea of salvation into an industry, and that therefore anti-clericalism was a considerable cause of the Reformation.

The pervasive anti-clericalism was both a cause and result of Humanism, and therefore agitation for reforms spreading. The renaissance, having introduced ideas of individuality, free will, science, and a more holistic and arguably more pragmatic approach to religion, caused ripples of discontent and calls for reform throughout the whole of Europe.

These humanistic ideas even reached Henry – evidenced by the fact that his beliefs over time evolved, for example regarding the mediation of saints which he defended in the 1530s, but not in 1545. He also supported the 1545 English Litany which was a new service in English and therefore accessible to the general public – which completely went against the principles of Catholicism that so strongly stress on priests being the only ones with direct access to the word of God.

The creation and printing and selling of an English Bible itself was a momentous symbol of Humanistic ideals of education, knowledge, and learning being injected into pre-existing Christian structures. Even at the height of conservative ascendancy, Henry ordered the removal of remaining shrines, omitted most saints and holy days in the King’s Primer, and personally intervened in 1545 to abolish the traditional ‘Creeping to the Cross’.

Even the King’s Book, a comparatively catholically inclined book, omitted references to Purgatory and attacked related abuses – reflecting awareness of the need for reform of the Church. The need to keep up with new and evolving ideas, and certainly peasants growing aware enough to grow weary of the Church’s excesses could definitely have been a cause for the reformation, rather than an evolving of religious beliefs. It is argued by some historians such as A.G. Dickens that the situation in the 1530s was very similar to that of France, where humanism, an evangelical court, and the influence of a Queen brought about a reformation.

That a situation very similar to England’s resulted in a reformation even without a need to break from Rome implies that it may have been equally likely that humanism alone in England would and could have brought about a reform. This could be backed up by drawing parallels to other European nations which had already adopted Protestantism such as Germany as a result of the influence of Martin Luther and his teachings. If reforms occurred in other similarly Catholic countries, surely it shouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that humanism and reformation elsewhere in the continent would certainly have influenced, and propelled the Henrician Reformation as well.

The most important factor to evaluate in the spread of the Henrician Reformation is Protestantism – not only the appeal of it, but also its spread. If religion is to be proved to be an important consideration in the Henrician Reformation, it would need to be proved that Protestantism carried some measure of genuine appeal amongst the people and nobles, and that it caught on and spread throughout England as it was introduced by King Henry.

MacCulloch argues that “the medieval Western Church […] was not in terminal decay…The old Church was immensely strong,” therefore countering the argument about anti-clericalism and a weakened church. Acknowledging the prevailing power of the Catholic Church, McCulloch goes on to argue that it was, therefore, not the weakness of the church but the “explosive power of an idea… a new statement of Augustine’s ideas on salvation” that brought about the Reformation and caused Protestantism to spread.

However, there is still some considerable debate over the rate at which Protestantism spread. Some historians, like Duffy, claim that Protestantism spread slowly, and the majority of the population remained strongly attached to traditional devotion, ritual, and practice.

Other historians like Haigh use the existence of wills that, for example, “left money to the gilds or confraternities which sustained prayers and Masses for the dead,” also as proof for the fact that Protestantism was not, in fact latching on, and instead was being forced upon the people by Henry and other nobles as a result of power play and pride.

However, Duffy fails to consider the fact that much of the rituals being carried out were more pagan than Christian; thriving elements of which would have been attacked by Catholic reformers and Protestants alike; and Haigh showcases excessive and unrealistic expectations despite the gradual pace of reform, and ignores the continuity of the Reformation despite changes in official religion.

MacCulloch’s argument, which emphasises the genuine appeal of Protestantism and Luther’s idea of justification by faith, which “tore through their experiences and memories and made them behave in new ways,” and led to the rapid collapse of the purgatory industry. HE provides evidence supporting the assertion that it was not only in more progressive, urban areas that Protestantism took hold – or at least Catholicism lost its appeal – but even in “possibly the most intense area of traditional practice in England, most major church-building projects seem to have been over by 1500” – even before Henry came into power, bringing with him monumental political and religious change.

The appeal that Protestantism would have had has been explained in the paragraphs on anti-clericalism, and Humanism and reform, but essentially, it was the newfound awareness and ability – and willingness to grasp and accept ideas such as the fact that “some of the devotions which most deeply satisfied them, and convinced them that they were investing in an easier passage to salvation, were nothing but clerical confidence tricks.” These sort of ideas could have existed in a vacuum and not spread, but it was the people’s mindsets that allowed these ideas to propagate – had ideas like this existed during the Middle Ages, for example, they certainly would not have taken hold, simply because people lacked the knowledge and awareness required to grasp them.

Foreign policy and affairs too may have played a role in the Henrician Reformation. The sack of Rome by Charles V, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, undermined what could have been an amicable agreement on the annulment between Henry and the Pope, and any ability the latter would have had to negotiate with the king was severely limited as the Pope was imprisoned by Charles V.

Henry himself never truly accepted justification by faith alone, and himself left money in his will for masses of his soul, indicating that Henry was a committed Catholic who had to make some temporary concessions to German Lutherans as a result of their power and influence, and also because he would have had to curry favour with them after having fallen out of the favour of Catholics subsequent to the break with Rome. Henry obtaining Supremacy and a position of Head of the Church would have given him a significant upper hand over other European nations.

All the factors that are considered as being causes for the Henrician Reformation tie into each other almost inextricably. Henry’s hesitance to break from Rome could reflect the fact that the annulment was the sole reason for the break from Rome and therefore an important consideration in the Reformation as issues such as anticlericalism could have been solved by the reformation of the Church and the investigation of the corruption that caused negative sentiments toward the Church.

The influence of external parties on Henry’s decisions that led to reformation indicate both the influence of faction on reform, but also the religious beliefs of those factions. The argument, however, that religion was an important consideration in the Henrician Reformation stands strong, because of factors such as humanism playing into the increased awareness of people as well as their ability to grasp the concept of Protestantism.

In conclusion, while there certainly were other factors that brought about the reform, it seems that MacCulloch’s view on the reformation is evidenced by the spread of Protestantism : “The old Church was immensely strong, and that strength could only have been overcome by the explosive power of an idea.  The idea proved to be a new statement of Augustine’s ideas on salvation…  Monarchs, priests, nuns, merchants, farmers, labourers were seized by ideas which tore through their experiences and memories and made them behave in new ways.”

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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