Losing our religion – how Henry VIII changed the world and his wife

King Henry VIII, Holbein, English ReformationNo challenge blighted Henry VIII’s accession to the throne.  England was at peace and it seemed a golden age.  In contrast to the ailing, bloated, tyrant he was to become, the youthful king is often portrayed as a true renaissance prince – a modern man of his time.  He was handsome (apparently), athletic, well-educated, a patron of the arts and a lover of warfare, rapidly spending the treasure so carefully gathered by his father.  He fought and beat both the French and Scots – his sister Margaret’s husband, James IV of Scotland was killed at the Battle of Flodden Field, near Branxton in Northumberland, in 1513 – and he attempted to influence the balance of power in Europe between France and the Holy Roman Empire (Austria, Spain, the Netherlands and Italy).

People may remember King Henry VIII as the one with the six wives: Catherine of Aragon – divorced; Anne Boleyn – beheaded; Jane Seymour – died; Anne of Cleves – divorced; Catherine Howard – beheaded; Catherine Parr – survived.  But his lasting legacy was triggering the English Reformation, the break with the Church – the Catholic Church – which had wielded enormous political and social power, not always benignly, throughout the Middle Ages.

Anne Boleyn, Enry VIII, English ReformationIt took Henry 18 years to realise that he didn’t want to stay married to the first Mrs Tudor, Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow.  Catherine had produced a daughter, Mary – who by all accounts Henry adored.  And Henry had a son, the subtly named Henry Fitzroy, with his mistress Elizabeth Blount.  But his marriage with Catherine had failed to provide a surviving male heir.  Perhaps, Henry thought, there was something wrong with Catherine; or perhaps they could not have a son because he should not have married his brother’s wife.  Henry’s obsession with being able to pass the crown on to a son has been explained by some historians as being motivated by the desire to avoid the chaos and anarchy of previous reigns, often brought about by a crisis in succession.  Which sounds fair enough.

Henry had a roving eye and several mistresses.  Catherine, aging and probably worn out by living in Tudor Britain and several miscarriages, was less alluring than one of her ladies in waiting, the saucy-eyed (and apparently multi-fingered) Anne Boleyn, sister of another of Henry’s conquests.  Anne, though, played hard to get; she would not share his bed while he was still married to Catherine.  The fate of a nation turned on a man’s lust and a woman’s sexual scruple – or can we say naked ambition?

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, English ReformationUp to that point, Henry had been as keen a Roman Catholic as he was expected to be.  In 1521, having written a pamphlet against the views of the German reformer, Martin Luther, the Pope even appointed Henry ‘Defender of the Faith’.  But the Pope would not give Henry a divorce, partly for fear of upsetting Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (and Catherine’s nephew), even though there were possible theological grounds for annulment because she had been his brother’s widow.  If Henry became head of the church of England, though, anything was possible; his own Archbishop of Canterbury could grant a divorce.

Thus was conceived the English Reformation, eventually making England a Protestant country and precipitating all manner of unpleasantness.  The course of history was re-written, not because of any alleged moral imperative, but as a matter of expediency, to enable Henry to get his own way.  Henry simply jumped on the convenient bandwagon of a wider movement for religious reform.  The Act of Supremacy in 1534 created the Church of England and made Henry its head – and as a consequence Britain changed forever.  It also meant that anyone who refused to swear an oath accepting Henry’s position – like a religious dissenter, or his erstwhile friend and minister, Thomas More,  – could be guilty of treason and executed.

Whitby Abbey, Yorkshire, English ReformationHenry’s principal advisors were now more likely to be laymen – men like More, and his successor, Thomas Cromwell.  The break with Rome also proved to be a catalyst for dissolving some 800 Catholic monasteries, a policy which offered a neat, and opportunist, prospect for wealth creation at the same time as ridding the land of allegedly corrupt institutions.  Selling off monastic lands to merchants and others also brought new landowners onto the king’s side. Most of the monks and nuns were treated well and given pensions, though any who objected could expect harsh treatment, including execution.  One consequence of the dissolution – apart from the cultural vandalism that Henry is often accused of – is the gap that the removal of monasteries left in communities and society in general.  Whatever failings monasteries had (and there were a few), it has been claimed that their passing set English society back many years – because monasteries provided rudimentary education, health care and social welfare – and there was no plan to fill the vacuum left by their departure.  A glance at the news today shows that these problems are still with us.

Unfortunately, Anne did not bear Henry a son either; but she did give birth to a rather memorable daughter, Elizabeth.  Henry did finally get his son and heir, the sickly Edward who succeeded his father as Edward VI, born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, who died shortly after giving birth.  The last decade of Henry’s reign was undoubtedly a period of terror.  Yet he left England strong and his interest in the navy did no harm to a nation that was cut adrift from its traditional Catholic roots and would come to rely on maritime skills.

Whatever the job title, in 1547 Henry died the Catholic he had always been.  It was Edward VI’s brief reign that seriously advanced the cause of Protestantism in Britain.  In 1549, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, one of the architects of the English Reformation, published the Book of Common Prayer and its use was imposed throughout the country.

Bloody Mary, Queen Mary I of EnglandThe position was reversed under Queen Mary, Henry’s Catholic daughter with Catherine of Aragon.  There were religious zealots of all shapes and sizes, Catholic and Protestant, in Tudor England.  And there were many who just simply wanted to hold their faith and worship in peace.  But insecurity, real or imagined, often drives those in power to persecute those they feel threatened by.  Religious persecution took many forms; at its most extreme, people were tortured horrifically in an effort to persuade them to recant (or deny) their beliefs.  If that didn’t work, they could be burned alive.  Burnings always took place in public and invariably on market days to attract maximum exposure.  Of the almost 400 people estimated to have been burned as heretics throughout the Tudor period, the vast majority were actually Protestants and most of those were burned during Mary’s 5-year reign. The repercussions of the English Reformation punctuate the story of Britain and the consequences, however bizarre they may seem to well-balanced agnostics, are unfortunately still with us today.

One postscript on Bloody Mary’s tenure on the throne – the English lost Calais, the last remnant of a once significant European empire.

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