Henry VIII and the English Reformation

Henry VIII, leader of the English Reformation, was born in 1491 into royalty. He was the son of the frugal King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. He received an excellent education and because he was the younger son of the family was being groomed for a life in the church. His older brother Arthur, who would be king and was current Prince of Wales, was married to Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of the Ferdinand and Isabella who sent Columbus on his Voyage) in 1501.

Drawing of Henry VIII based on portrait

When Arthur died about four months into the marriage, the king determined that his second son, Henry, should be married to Catherine. The marriage was largely an effort to maintain treaty obligations with Spain. A papal dispensation was granted for the marriage to take place because the church frowned on a brother marrying a dead brother's wife as per several passages in the Bible.

The marriage between Catherine and Henry took place in 1509. Henry had just been elevated to the throne and was 17 years old. The young Henry strived to be a Renaissance man. He wrote music and poems. Yet he revealed somewhat of a callous nature when he had two unpopular ministers, who had served his father, beheaded for treason. He seems to have had conventional views on religion and even wrote a tract against Protestantism and its practices.

From 1514 to 1529 the state was largely run by Cardinal Wolsey just one of many churchmen who ran nation states during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Wolsey and the king spent profligately. The treasury felt the strain. Meanwhile Henry was becoming worried about his legacy, his dynasty. Catherine had born him only a single daughter, Mary. He had been lobbying for a divorce, but the Pope resisted giving his permission because Catherine's powerful nephew Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor) was against it - and the Pope at this juncture was a prisoner of the Emperor.

Henry saw the answer to both his marital and financial problems - first by getting rid of Wolsey (arrested for treason) and then by Act of Parliament. Parliament passed an Act of Supremacy, making the King the head of the Church of England. After the Pope excommunicated Henry, there was an effective split of the Catholic Church from the English Church. While Henry wished to retain most of the forms of Catholicism, he saw advantages in dissolving the monasteries and forfeiting their property to the state. As these organizations owned vast tracts in England, he believed the resulting revenues would solve his financial problems.

Indeed, the confiscations brought in much wealth for the crown. Henry sold the lands to his adherents for far less than the market value of the properties because the market became glutted. However, this had the effect of cementing the support of the nobility for the English Reformation, as any return to the Catholic Church could mean the nobles would have to give up vast profitable estates.

Henry's reformation would create many martyrs, both Protestant and Catholic. William Tyndale, Sir Thomas More, and John Fischer to name but a few. The destruction of the monasteries created some uprisings, but these were swiftly put down. Now that his divorce with Catherine had the sanction of his church - in 1533 Henry VIII married again. He chose Anne Boleyn. She had a daughter, Elizabeth. However, subsequent attempts to have children failed. In 1536 there was the miscarriage of a son. Henry now longed to install another woman in Anne's place and had her executed for adultery and high treason.

The remaining years of Henry VIII were spent going through a succession of four more wives. He tightened his grip on the church and though many tried to influence him to move away from Catholic forms such as weekly communion, the sacraments, and a hierarchical structure, he remained adamantly conservative in his views in this matter. It became a bone of contention between himself and his final wife, Catherine Parr. Though various sects would arise in later centuries including Quakers, Puritans, and Methodists, the Church of England would remain largely an Apostolic church along the lines of the Catholic church only with the king as its head.

Henry VIII died in 1547 at the age of 55. He had become hugely obese and was suffering from many ailments including gout and depression. It is thought he may also have had diabetes.

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