It is possible to argue that the break from Rome only occurred because Henry VIII had asserted the claims his divorce had made necessary, rather than for any other contending reason, as conflicts with the church began with the conception of the idea of annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry, convinced that his marriage to Catherine was “against God’s law and clearly void” was so convinced at the expense of good relations with the church and Pope – as the implications of him declaring his marriage against God’s wishes were that the papal decision to marry them in the first place was wrong.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the break of Rome arose due to a culmination of other factors too – clerical corruption, Henry’s supremacy, Cromwell’s influence, and popular support may have well all been contributors to the ultimate and drastic decision to break from Rome.

Source D is both an implicit and explicit reference to all these factors – “the clergy […] make many […] laws […] without [King Henry’s] knowledge”. That the source presents clerical corruption, implies that parties other than the king are seizing power thus undermining his, and is written by Cromwell reflects many of the probable factors other than the annulment for the break from  Rome.

The leading cause of the break with Rome was the annulment of King Henry’s marriage to Catherine. Having been unsuccessful in bearing a male heir to the throne, Henry became convinced that this was his punishment from God for having married his dead brother’s widow.

His reasons for wanting the annulment, as source A suggests, is that he had “so long lived in adultery to God’s great displeasure, and [had] no true heir of [his] body to inherit [the] realm [of England].” However, the annulment in itself wasn’t what caused the break of Rome, but rather the Pope’s refusal to grant it on many occasions.

It is interesting to note though, that Henry, on more than one occasion threatened the Church to grant the annulments – signifying that he wasn’t completely ready to go ahead with the break from Rome and still wished to come up with a compromise with the church. This is evidence for the fact that it wasn’t only the divorce that caused him to push for a break from Rome, but a combination of other factors too, as he needed as many other reasons to convince himself that breaking with Rome was the right decision.

This is further supported by the fact that the radical and – in some people’s eyes – blasphemous idea to break from Rome didn’t begin with the conception of the prospect of an annulment, but rather a few years later. Initially, it was unlikely that Henry intended to break with Rome as a result of these proceedings but it is evident that he was prepared to defy the Pope in his efforts to secure a male heir.

However, the state of the church too played a significant part in the break from Rome. Wolsey – the king’s right hand man for the initial years of his rule – himself represented the clerical excesses that were so contradictory to the fundamental values of the church and were, ironically, so offending to the King in the eve of the break with Rome. Source D reflects facts that were sure to have made the King feel extremely indignant and disrespected, with Cromwell claiming that “the clergy […] make many […] laws […] without [King Henry’s] knowledge […] which laws [his] said lay subjects have [… been] constrained to obey [… and] been continually held to importable charges”.

The ego Henry was famous for surely would have not allowed him to sit back and take such an overt snubbing of his power and influence as king, and could certainly have led to the break of Rome in an attempt to regain the power over his subjects King Henry believed he had lost. Source D not only claims that the clergy was subverting and undermining the King’s power, but suggests that bribery and corruption was rampant, with claims that the clergy would “exact and take of [King Henry’s] humble servants divers sums of money for the sacraments […] sometimes denying the same without they be first paid”.

That the clergy would take bribes in order to carry out sacraments – one of the most basic and common duties of a clergyman suggests that this anger at the clergy stemmed not only from Henry, but from common folk too. However whether or not the anticlericalism that was prevalent at the time was a popular opinion or one that festered solely in the upper echelons of the King’s court is arguable. Source E claims that “in 1530 […] the future of the Church had appeared to be secure. […] The laity were buying books in unprecedented quantity […] and there were few signs of local friction between priests and people.”

This could reflect the nature of the claims that there were conflicts between the clergy and the people and that the latter were being abused and exploited by the former – made with ulterior motives by Thomas Cromwell such that he achieved his end of a break with Rome of which he was a strong proponent. The claims that “the disruptions of 1529 were not the product of deep-seated division between clergy and laity : there was no such division” in this context, would seem to be reasonably justified assertions.

This is especially so as despite all these abuses on the part of the clergy, it is possible that faith remained strong within the people, as questioning the actions and behaviour of priests was thought to be an act of heresy – a sin the people certainly would not have wanted to be committing.

Regardless of whether or not anticlericalism was a popular sentiment held amongst the people, what would potentially have truly caused the decision to break with Rome to go through was the king’s beliefs, and the influence of Cromwell and other likeminded individuals certainly could have held much sway over the king. However, anticlericalism – though certainly influencing the king greatly – should not be seen as a vital cause, but rather as a contributory cause of the break with Rome – it created an environment in which a break from the power of the Pope was at least conceivable.

The influence of Cromwell and certain members of the Boleyn faction are also important factors that caused the break with Rome. Henry was greatly influenced by Anne Boleyn’s acquaintance with a group of reformist – and possibly even radical – writers. Many of their ideas served to suit his own purpose extremely effectively – after all, Henry was known for his dogged pursuit of a justification for many of his actions such that his conscience remained clean.

Source E suggests that “some of [Anne’s] allies had been proposing a drastic solution […] the confiscation of church property and the abolition of Pap authority, so the divorce could be settled in England”. These acquaintances – most notably Cranmer – certainly fed his hungry ego, with statements proclaiming the King’s “plenary, whole, and entire power, pre-eminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction” over the realm of England.

Their ideas, summarised succinctly and convincingly in a book called Colectanea Satis Copiosa, also included those such as the King’s subjects should owe allegiance only to their king – clearly excluding those allegiances to ‘foreign’ authorities such as the Pope. These reformers’ and their beliefs confirmed Henry in his view that he was well within his rights to reject the authority of the Pope in what was a domestic affair.

Some of these reformers’ ideas even caused the King to accuse the clergy – including Wolsey, one of the most powerful men both within the church and the King’s court – of praemunire – the offence of recognising or responding to a foreign authority (in this case the Pope) instead of the king. What King Henry wished for – and was increasingly convinced was an acceptable wish – was increased royal authority as Supreme Head of the Church, even going so far as to be given the title of  “singular protector, supreme lord, and even, so far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the English church and clergy”.

That he was given this title should in theory have been a validation of the argument that Henry’s wish for supreme power was not a reason for the break with Rome as he was, after all, granted it. However, in reality this title gave him no power and was instead a pacifier for the church to prevent further complications or hostility with the king.

Cromwell, a staunch proponent of the break with Rome, on the grounds that the power of the king was being suppressed by virtue of Papal power being deemed to be legitimate was a major influence on Henry on the eve of the break with Rome. It is the petition drafted by him against the clergy – possibly of his own initiative – that is quoted in Source D.  It is also interesting to note that Cromwell’s appointment as Lord Chancellor was unusual, even unprecedented.

However, the fact that Henry went to great lengths in order to find a solution that included the Pope suggests that he was not completely against Papal authority, and did not find it easy to go through with the break from Rome. While some historians argue that Henry’s own pride, power hunger, and ego led him to feel threatened by the church and therefore that he needed to curb its power, it is possible to argue that this may not have been a factor at all – or that it may well have been, but was also blown out of proportion.

The evidence for this argument that lies within Henry’s hesitance to break from Rome could reflect the fact that the annulment was the sole reason for the break from Rome 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.

It is also possible to argue that the foreign affairs of Europe to force him to break from Rome – 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 to negotiate with the king was severely limited as the Pope was imprisoned by Charles V.

It also signified the king’s loss of control over the Church, and according to source E, “in the right circumstances, Henry would no doubt have moderated (or even abandoned his supremacy) […] but […] the king, it seems clearly, actually believed he was the rightful supreme head.” I was King Henry’s conviction in his own power as head of the church that led him to take the church’s overstepping of power far more personally than otherwise, and therefore to feel more strongly in favour of the break with Rome.

The break from Rome may well have only occurred because Henry ‘had asserted the claims his divorce had made necessary’, but it was the combination of many factors such as the influence of Cranmer, and Cromwell and the Boleyn faction, Henry’s belief in his supremacy, and anticlericalism along with the annulment that caused him to carry out his break with Rome.

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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