The beginning of the English Reformation is classically placed at the moment leadership of the Church in England was assumed by a monarch who wanted a divorce and beheaded several of his six wives. However, the break in England, originally not a theological dispute, can be traced to long-standing political and economic quarrels between Church and king.
These quarrels date at least to 1165 and Henry II’s Constitutions of Clarendon, which Thomas à Becket, then archbishop of Canterbury, declined to sign. The Constitutions were a legal declaration that restricted ecclesiastical privileges and curbed the power of ecclesiastical courts and the extent of papal authority in England.
To be fair to the king, it can be argued that during general anarchy and the civil war that broke out under Henry II’s predecessor, Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, the Church had taken on some roles of government that were properly secular. An English complaint of the time was that clergy charged with serious secular crimes were tried in ecclesiastical courts by “benefit of clergy,” then given a slap on the wrist.
On the Church’s behalf, ecclesiastical authorities assumed needed roles in England much as they had in the rest of Europe when the Roman Empire collapsed. Moreover, ecclesiastical courts were very limited as to the sentences they could mete out to a convicted felon—in particular, they could not sentence to death as royal courts could. Last, although the Constitutions were considered a restoration of the law, they actually expanded royal jurisdiction over the Church and civil law as a small step in a continued push by English kings to seize, control or tax Church land and revenue.
In the 16th century, the chasm between church and king broadened as feudalism declined while nationalism and the central authority of the monarchy rose, common law resurged, the printing press was invented and Bibles began to circulate among the upper and new urban middle classes.
Enter Henry Tudor (1491-1547), son of the first Tudor monarch, who—but for the untimely death of his older brother Arthur at the age of 15—might have become a clergyman, given his theological interests, rather than King Harry as the people called him, crowned Henry VIII in 1509.
Early in his reign, Henry was a devout and scholarly Catholic. In 1521 he wrote a theological treatise, Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (“Defense of the Seven Sacraments”) contesting some of Luther’s claims after his 95 Theses. The paper, still highly regarded among the first generation of anti-Protestant polemics, earned Henry the title Fidei Defensor (“Defender of the Faith”) from Pope Leo X.
Alas, Henry inherited not only the crown, but his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, who had been Arthur’s wife for about five months. The marriage of Arthur, prince of Wales, to Catherine, the youngest child of King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, had been arranged as the dynastic match of the century when Arthur was about two or three years old. Keep in mind that England was then a backwater island mired in the mind-set of the Middle Ages. Spain, meanwhile, was acquiring an empire of incalculable value—thanks to the voyage of its sponsored explorer Christopher Columbus to the continent soon to be known as America.
Indeed, Henry’s major political headache with Catherine was that her nephew was Charles I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire. Charles, as monarch of Spain, Germany and the Low Countries, as well as territories in America and Asia, was the first European monarch whose domain—totaling about 1.5 million square miles—was described as “the empire on which the sun never sets.” However, rather than the politics of his marriage, it was the ecclesiastical rules around it that led to the break with Rome.
When he sought to marry his brother’s widow, by Henry’s account at the deathbed behest of his father, Henry VIII sought a papal dispensation (or special permission to overcome a canonical prohibition). This was to pose future problems for complicated canonical reasons.
Canonists agree that, since Catherine and her dueña claimed that the marriage to Arthur was never consummated, Henry should have requested to be dispensed of the impediment of “public honesty.” This prohibits the marriage of people closely linked by family, even though not related by blood; for example, marriage of a parent and stepchild, which could offend public morals even absent wrongdoing. The idea was to avoid scandal, or leading people into behavior that might be immoral.
However, Henry VIII and the Spanish ambassador went for broke and—just in case Arthur and Catherine had consummated their marriage—sought and obtained a dispensation from “affinity.” This is an impediment to matrimony mildly related to incest that was developed by the clergy to stop endless dynastic, but wholly insincere, marriages of the nobility in the Middle Ages. Affinity is a relationship arising from sexual intercourse—inside or outside of marriage—capable of yielding children, by which the man becomes related to the woman’s blood relatives and vice versa.
Henry and Catherine married in 1509, the groom 18 years old and the bride almost five years older. Catherine had two children, a stillborn girl and a boy who died within seven weeks, before she gave birth to a girl, Mary. Their marriage is reported as happy and it is not clear just why Henry wanted to get rid of Catherine.
One possibility was the very real worry that without a male heir, his dynasty might be challenged and removed from the throne or, worse, that civil war could break out. For several centuries the country had been subject to endless murderous plots and outbreaks of civil war (in particular the 1455-1487 War of the Roses) to a point that, politically, medieval Britain could be called a “banana monarchy.”
Maybe it was the amply documented philandering by Henry, a young man in his prime with enormous power surrounded by a court full of young women willing and able to cavort with him. His many mistresses may have included Elizabeth or Anne Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon; Catherine’s maid of honor Elizabeth Blount, the only one who bore him a son, Henry Fitzroy, made Duke of Richmond; and fatefully for Christianity in England, Mary Boleyn, Catherine’s lady in waiting.
Mary Boleyn’s sister, Anne, had served as a maid of honor in the French court. Anne, 25 when she came to Henry’s court as part of Catherine’s entourage, resisted Henry’s advances and refused to become his mistress. Her experience in France had made her a devout Christian in the new evangelical style of Renaissance humanism; she was a champion of the Bible in the vernacular but kept up devotion to the Virgin Mary. Later she would embrace the reformist position that the papacy was corrupting Christianity.
In 1527, Henry VIII became obsessed with passion for Anne, who not only had her charms but was young enough to produce an heir, and began to plot a way to get rid of Catherine. This came to be described at court as the King’s “great matter.” Playing the theologian, Henry convinced himself that in marrying Catherine, his brother's wife, he had violated Leviticus 20:21; moreover, he decided that the pope did not have the authority to dispense with such a sin.
First, Henry deployed Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and the second most important cleric in England, who also served at court as Lord Chancellor and was one of the pope’s several legates. After conferring with his ecclesiastical peer at Canterbury, Wolsey appealed to the pope for an annulment, arguing that the original dispensation was worthless since the marriage clearly went against Leviticus and that in any case the dispensation was incorrectly worded (unfortunately for Wolsey a correctly worded version was found in Spain shortly after the allegation). To ensure the desired outcome Wolsey asked that the final decision be made in England; this would allow him to closely supervise it, as papal legate. All this did was tip Henry’s hand to Catherine and the Spanish ambassador.
Next, Henry sent his secretary to Pope Clement VII to seek a declaration that his union with Catherine was invalid because the dispensation had been obtained under false pretenses. The pope was not misled by either set of claims. Moreover, as a virtual prisoner of Charles V, whose troops had overrun Rome as part of other unrelated developments, the pope was not inclined to displease Catherine’s nephew.
The last attempt was a series of parleys with another papal legate, but after less than two months of hearing evidence, Clement called the case back to Rome in July 1529, fully intending to bury it.
Three rounds of political musical chairs in England changed the landscape. First, Wolsey fell from grace, and the king stripped him of his royal positions. Sir Thomas More, a devout Catholic and opponent of the annulment, became Lord Chancellor and chief minister. Second, Catherine was banished from court, and her rooms were given to Anne. Third, Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham died, and Henry proposed Thomas Cranmer, a trustworthy supporter of the annulment, to fill the vacancy.
In the winter of 1532, Henry, now 41, and Anne, now 32, were secretly wed in Dover. In May 1532 More resigned as Lord Chancellor, leaving Thomas Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. Anne soon became pregnant and there was a second wedding service in London in 1533. Shortly after, Cranmer, sitting in judgment at a special ecclesiastical court, declared the marriage of Henry and Catherine invalid and that of Henry and Anne valid. Catherine was formally stripped of her title as queen, and Anne was crowned queen consort; she gave birth to a daughter in September, who was christened Elizabeth.
Following the marriage came something known as the Reformation Parliament, which essentially legitimized what was a fait accompli. By the Act of Succession, Catherine’s daughter, Mary, was declared illegitimate; the marriage to Anne was declared legitimate and issue from that union declared next in the line of succession.
On July 11, 1533, Pope Clement VII excommunicated Thomas Cranmer and declared Henry expelled as well unless he “put away the woman he had taken to wife and take back his Queen.” In the Act of Supremacy of 1534, Parliament declared the King head of the church in England and abolished the right of appeal to Rome.