In the annals of history, England’s King Henry VIII and his desire for an “heir male” should hardly have caused a ripple. However, because he was a powerful king, willing to lock horns with the religious authorities of his day, he ended up changing his country’s destiny, as well as that of Western Europe. It was Henry’s obstinate insistence to Pope Clement VII for an annulment that lit the fuse for the English Reformation.
Henry was married in 1509 at age 17 to Catherine of Aragon. The Spanish princess had formerly been married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, who had died in 1507, possibly of tuberculosis. Arthur was a sickly individual and Catherine ever maintained their marriage had never been consummated. Papal dispensation was obtained, clearing the way for a legal marriage between herself and Henry.
Henry was amenable to the match, but when he was crowned king in June, 1509, the pressure for Catherine to produce a male heir to the throne increased. Princess Mary, born in 1517, was the only one of Catherine’s children to live past infancy, but Henry, wanting to avoid the sort of civil war that landed his father, Henry VII on the English throne, wanted a prince. Also, Catherine was six years older than he and was beginning to look like the middle-aged woman she was becoming. Henry had a roving eye, to say the least, and he was ready for a new queen.
Sociable, outgoing and a ladies’ man, “bluff King Hal” as he was called, found himself ill-matched with a woman who cared little for the elaborate amusements of the English court. Henry had also become smitten with the dark, mysterious and intelligent Anne Boleyn. The idea of an annulment might have been fermenting in Henry’s brain before, but meeting Anne ripened it.
The idea of being king by God’s divine will was still the popular view in Henry’s day, and he decided the lack of a male heir should be enough to get an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. In his plea to Pope Clement VII, he stated that God had not blessed their marriage with a male child because it was not legal in God’s eyes. Therefore, it should be annulled.
Pope Clement took a less flexible view of the situation, however, since according to Canon Law, he could not annul a marriage based on a situation which had a papal dispensation of approval previously issued on it. Clement also worried about Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, whose troops had sacked Rome earlier and briefly taken the Pope prisoner. Annulling the marriage between Catherine and Henry might well bring Charles down on his head once again. But not annulling it would certainly anger Henry. He dithered about making a decision, so Henry made his own.
King Henry’s first action was to have papal legate and Chancellor Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, stripped of his government office. At Anne’s urging, Henry then had Wolsey arrested for high treason, since she suspected him of delaying the annulment question with the Pope. Wolsey died on the way to London, a broken man. Parliament member Thomas Cromwell also rose in prominence at this time.
This man, and others like him in Parliament, who had Lutheran leanings and problems with the authority and widespread corruption of the Catholic Church, supported Henry in his quest for an annulment and in his marriage to Anne Boelyn. Eventually, in 1531, Henry, by means of virtual blackmail, bullied the clergy into supporting the King, not the Pope, as the Supreme Head and protector of the Church of England. Several Acts of Parliament followed, further establishing Henry’s authority as Supreme Head of the Church, including those declaring England a completely independent nation and that Henry’s Supreme Head status was not to be challenged by any foreign authority.
In 1533, Henry married a pregnant Anne Boelyn, with the support of Parliament, and had her crowned queen. Catherine had been long since banished from court and lived in exile. Thomas Cranmer had been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and ruled that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was null and void and that his marriage to Anne Boelyn was legal and right. Anne gave birth to a princess, Elizabeth, in September, 1533. Henry was excommunicated by the Pope, but when Parliament decreed Henry’s marriage legal, Henry went about his usual business of hunting, attending Court functions and womanizing. Further diplomatic troubles with Rome followed, but Parliament dealt with these difficulties by passing Acts declaring it treason not to acknowledge Henry’s status as Supreme Head of the Church, as well as the Peter’s Pence Act, which said England had no supreme authority except God and the King.
One might think such a decision as repudiating the authority of the Church and Pope would have caused more government upheaval in Parliament than it did. However, since scholar-priest John Wycliffe had expressed disgust with Church corruption in the 14th century, and Martin Luther’s more recent activities in Germany, all Europe was astir with debate about the Church’s power, her priests and her structure. The Catholic Church was slowly losing its primacy among Christian people. Italy and Spain, in particular, remained staunchly Catholic nations, and later troubles with Spain had their roots in this English treason against the Church. Many members of Parliament were at the very least suspicious of the Catholic Church’s prerogatives and more were openly hostile to the authority she presumed.
When a powerful country like England turned its back on the Catholic Church, more nations were sure to follow, and in 150 years, much of Europe was more Protestant than Catholic. The Church had by no means lost all her support or members, but the scales were more evenly balanced.
This religious sea change did not occur without its problems, however. England routinely faced serious problems with Spain, whose ambition was to conquer England and turn her back to the Church. When Henry and his son, Edward VI, died, their successor, Queen Mary, married King Phillip of Spain and attempted just that. Mary was a devout Catholic and wanted her country to be a Catholic one. Her persecutions of Protestants earned her the nickname “Bloody Mary.”
Mary left her sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, in a bad situation when Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. However, the new queen had, she said, “no desire to make windows into men’s souls,” and as long as her subjects were loyal to her, she didn’t care where they went to church. Still, she was forced to deal with Mary, Queen of Scots and her Catholic supporters. Mary’s execution quelled most of the Catholic groundswell against Elizabeth and when Mary’s son, James (a staunch Presbyterian), succeeded to the throne, he further solidified the Protestant Church’s authority. However, anti-Catholic sentiment had risen high in England, mostly because of Queen Mary’s activities, and the people were deeply suspicious of a Catholic monarch. This is how the Hanovers took the throne in the 1700s, after the House of Stuart ran out of Protestant heirs.
England would probably have become a Protestant country in any case. However, Henry’s actions hastened the day. England’s turn to the Protestant faith deeply affected Europe, and even the destiny of 13 little colonies founded a few years later across the Atlantic Ocean.