Let’s first recall that Henry could not dispose of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn without first becoming Supreme Head of the Church of England, paving the way for an annulment by his appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. That done, the few reforms that followed were engineered by Protestant advisers stealthily, despite Henry’s opposition to doctrinal change.
Three Key Men
First, of course, the Reformation-minded plotters had to do some political maneuvering to remove three key men from Henry’s side.
The first was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, the second most important cleric in England. He had risen politically from the post of King’s Almoner, charged with the Crown’s contributions to the poor. Wolsey, a none-too-chaste glutton fond of luxury who had at least two illegitimate children, rose to Lord Chancellor, the top position in almost all matters of state and seemed unassailable until he failed to get Henry an annulment from the pope. Then his enemies—among them Boleyn and his own protégé, the lawyer and member of Parliament Thomas Cromwell, a Protestant—got him indicted for placing the authority of the Holy See above that of the English Crown. Wolsey, stripped of his posts and even his property, retired to the archdiocese he nominally still led, but died in 1530 on his way to London to answer the charge.
Next was John Fisher, appointed bishop of Rochester at the insistence of Henry’s father and the likely ghostwriter of Henry VIII’s treatise that earned the monarch the title Defender of the Faith from the pope. When Henry tried to divorce Catherine, Fisher supported her. He apparently startled everyone at the papal legates’ court declaring that, like St. John the Baptist, he was ready to die on behalf of the indissolubility of marriage. Richard Rich, a scabrous associate of Cromwell’s, tricked Fisher into declaring privately to him that, no, he did not think the king was actually head of the Church, then publicly accused Fisher of treason. Of his execution, a chronicle of the era tells that he was “locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times till he was dead.”
The third domino was Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England, an intimate of the king and a frequent correspondent with learned men of the age. More refused to acknowledge the validity of either Henry’s ecclesiastical supremacy or the annulment. He resigned in 1532 and, like Fisher, opted at first to remain in silent opposition. Then in 1536, having refused to take the new Oath of Supremacy, he was convicted of treason on the basis of perjured testimony by Rich and beheaded. Before he was beheaded, he is reported to have said, “I die His Majesty’s good servant, and God’s first.”
A 1966 film of More’s story, A Man for all Seasons, won six Oscars. As the film ends, a voiceover offers the following epilogue: “Thomas More’s head was stuck on Traitors’ Gate for a month. Then his daughter, Margaret, removed it and kept it ’til her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The Archbishop [Cranmer] was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the King died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became Chancellor of England and died in his bed.”
As an added postscript, both Fisher and More were canonized in 1935 by Pope Pius XI, with a joint feast day on June 22 (the date of Fisher's execution). In 1980, both were added to the Church of England’s calendar of Saints and Heroes of the Christian Church, commemorated July 6 (the date of More’s execution) as “Thomas More, Scholar, and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, Reformation Martyrs, 1535.”
A Matter of Mammon
The second act is far less dramatic but just as political; it involves mainly the pursuit of wealth along with newfound beliefs.
In 1534, after succeeding More as Lord Chancellor, Cromwell launched a series of visits to monasteries purportedly to examine their character. As elsewhere during the Renaissance, in England monks were broadly disliked for the wealth that their orderly life generated, feeding Europe when no one else did, but also subject to deserved and undeserved criticism for some corruption in their lifestyle. Now, with the king heading the church, supervising monks was arguably under the chief official’s purview. However, the real reason for the visits was to assess their value for expropriation. Cromwell had done the same before on orders of Cardinal Wolsey to raise funds for proposed Oxford colleges. Parliament now enacted the Suppression of Religious Houses Act in 1535 authorizing the king to dissolve religious houses that failed to maintain a religious life. Some 243 smaller houses were dissolved at first blush.
Then began a massive campaign to seize income, dispose of assets and reassign or dismiss members in a total of about 800 monastic houses by 1541. The English Crown disbanded monasteries, priories, convents and friaries in England, Wales and Ireland. Some houses sought exemption by payment; others merged with larger houses; some monks became secular priests. A few, including 18 Carthusians, refused and were killed to the last man.
It is difficult to estimate the sums involved. According to the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia, “the total receipts of the king from the monastic confiscations from April, 1536, to Michaelmas, 1547, was about thirteen million and a half of 1910 money, to which must be added about a million sterling, the melting value of the monastic [valuables].” In 2017 dollars that is approximately $3.9 billion, not including what did not get to the king’s coffers, including the take by local nobility and some who became gentry thanks to land they effectively stole. The value of all the stolen monastic property could be 10 to 20 times more.
The Catholic lore about the seizure of Church property splashes some famous names in modern times. For example, I was told by members of a Catholic religious order, but have not been able to verify, that the Churchill family got its name from land on a hill that they acquired from the Church at about this time.
Attempted Demarche and Denouement
Cromwell, too, as the the film mentioned above prepared us to expect, got his comeuppance (Richard Rich took his seat), leading to a third act in the Henry VIII reformation drama: the attempted demarche. When Cromwell was executed in 1540—essentially for falling out of favor—Cranmer lay low, a canny move since now King Harry himself reversed gears.
The king went after the widespread availability of the Bible. In 1536 Cromwell had ordered each parish to acquire “one book of the whole Bible of the largest volume in English” by 1539 (imagine the money raised from such compulsory purchases!). For this purpose the Great Bible was authorized, but by 1539 Henry announced his desire to have it “corrected,” a task Cranmer cleverly passed on to universities.
Then Henry restricted lawful Bible reading to men and women of noble birth, based on his perception that “the Word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale house and tavern, contrary to the true meaning and doctrine of the same.”
Seeing that they were on the way up, a number of conservatives, led by the Duke of Norfolk, secured appointments to the regency council that would take charge on Henry’s death. But the Earl of Hertford, brother of King Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, snatched the prize away, gaining control of the Privy Council.
Henry promptly died in 1547, and Edward Seymour became Lord Protector, in effect regent for the nine-year-old Edward VI, his nephew, who elevated him to Duke of Somerset, ushering in the denouement of our drama.
Under the child king, images in churches were removed, stained glass windows and statues defaced or destroyed and bells and towers taken down. Vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold. Chalices were melted down or sold. The clergy was no longer required to be celibate, processions were banned and ashes and palms prohibited. Endowments to provide masses for the dead became illegal. In 1550 stone altars were replaced by wooden communion tables, changing the look and focus of church interiors.
Into this atmosphere, Cranmer introduced in 1549 the Book of Common Prayer, to all appearances a missal in English that kept the structure of the Mass, but with a subtly altered theology, eliminating as Luther might have, the sacrificial element wherever possible.
Not all this change was wildly popular—as historians of worship forms well know, the people most resistant to change are in the pews.
Rebellions broke out in Cornwall, Devon, East Anglia and Norwich. Many landowners still paid priests to offer Masses. Many objected to the removal of images, although some made money from the sale of vestments and plates. Many churches hid their vestments and silver and buried their stone altars.
Then Somerset fell from grace, Edward died in July 1553, and the Duke of Northumberland attempted to have the Protestant Lady Jane Grey made queen. However, thanks to the unpopularity of the confiscations, Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, was able to have herself proclaimed queen, first in Suffolk and then in London, to the delight of the crowds. An entirely new drama had begun, one to discuss later.