The English Reformation started in the reign of Henry VIII. The English Reformation was to have far reaching consequences in Tudor England. Henry VIII decided to rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. He had already decided who his next wife would be – Anne Boleyn. By 1527, Catherine was considered too old to have anymore children.

Portrait of Catherine of Aragon

Obtaining a divorce was anything but straightforward, particularly for a figure like King Henry VIII. His deep devotion to the Roman Catholic faith presented significant obstacles, given that the leader of his church was none other than the Pope in Rome, who strongly opposed divorce. King Henry's wish to sever ties with Catherine of Aragon, his queen consort, was driven by his desire for a male heir and his growing attraction to his mistress, Anne Boleyn. The clash between his personal demands and the edicts of his religion were to play a leading role in triggering the English Reformation. When King Henry found his path to divorce obstructed by the Pope's verdict, he broke free of Papal authority and proclaimed himself as the leader of the Church of England. This version throws light on how the King's personal feelings became entangled with dramatic religious and historical shifts, deepening the understanding of the matter, that fits the overarching narrative of the article.

The Roman Catholic faith believed in marriage for life. It did not recognise, let alone support, divorce. Those who were widowed were free to re-marry; this was an entirely different issue. But husbands could not simply decide that their marriage was not working, divorce their wife and re-marry. The Roman Catholic Church simply did not allow it.

This put Henry VIII in a difficult position. If he went ahead and announced that as king of England he was allowing himself a divorce, the pope could excommunicate him. This meant that under Catholic Church law, your soul could never get to Heaven. To someone living at the time of Henry, this was a very real fear, and a threat which the Catholic Church used to keep people under its control.

Another approach Henry used was to make a special appeal to the pope so that he might get a special “Papal Dispensation”. This meant that the pope would agree to Henry’s request for a divorce purely because Henry was king of England but that it would not affect the way the Catholic Church banned divorce for others. The pope refused to grant Henry this and by 1533 his anger was such that he ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant him a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn.


Portrait of Anne Boleyn


The Archbishop granted Henry his divorce – against the wishes of the pope. But what else could the archbishop do if he wanted to remain on good terms with Henry?

This event effectively lead to England breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. Henry placed himself as head of the church and in that sense, in his eyes, his divorce was perfectly legal. In 1533, few were brave enough to tell him otherwise!

How did the people of England react to this? In fact, the vast bulk of the population were very angry at the way the Roman Catholic Church had used them as a source of money. To get married you had to pay; to get a child baptised (which you needed to be if you were to go to Heaven – so the Catholic Church preached) you had to pay; you even had to pay the Church to bury someone on their land (which you had to do as your soul could only go to Heaven if you were buried on Holy Ground). Therefore, the Catholic Church was very wealthy while many poor remained just that….poor. Their money was going to the Catholic Church. Therefore, there were no great protests throughout the land as many felt that Henry would ease up on taking money from them. Henry knew of the Catholic Church’s unpopularity and, therefore, used this to his advantage.

Henry was made Supreme Head of the Church by an Act of Parliament in 1534. The country was still Catholic but the pope’s power had been ended.

The most wealthy Catholics in England were the monasteries where monks lived. They were also the most loyal supporters of the pope. This made them a threat to Henry.

By the time of Henry, many monks had grown fat and were lazy. They did not help the community as they were meant to do. All they seemed to do was take money from the poor. Also some monasteries were huge and owned vast areas of land. So here were monks not loyal to Henry who were also very wealthy. Henry decided to shut down the monasteries of England. The monasteries were to disappear like sugar dissolves in hot liquid. This is why Henry’s attack on the monasteries is called the ‘Dissolution’ – they were to be dissolved!

Henry wanted to make the Dissolution appear to be backed by law. He sent round government officials to check up on what the monks were doing. This was organised by his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The officials knew what the king wanted in their reports – information that the monks were not working, were not saying their prayers etc. Anything to discredit the monks was considered useful. Sometimes, the monks were asked trick questions. “Do you keep all of your vows?” If the monks answered “yes”, but had taken a vow of silence, they had not kept all of their vows. If they refused to answer because of their vow of silence, they would be accused of failing to help the king. Or worse, were they trying to hide something?

One report sent to Cromwell commented that the head of the monastery visited, the prior, was a “virtuous man”. However, his monks were “corrupt” and “full of vice”. The report claimed that the monks had eight to ten girl friends each. This was all that Cromwell needed to shut down the monastery.

The allegations against some monks and nuns ‘spoke’ for themselves. At Bradley monastic house, the prior was accused of fathering six children; at Lampley Convent, Mariana Wryte had given birth to three children and Johanna Standen to six; at Lichfield Convent, two nuns were found to be pregnant and at Pershore Monastic House, monks were found to be drunk at Mass.

The smaller monasteries were shut down by 1536 while the larger and more valuable ones were shut by 1540. Few people in England were sorry to see them go. Few monks protested as they were given pensions or jobs where their monastery was. The abbot of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, Marmaduke Bradley, was given a £100 pension a year for life – a considerable sum of money then. Some chief monks – abbots – were hanged but this was a rarity.

Some monastery buildings were reduced to ruin as the local population was allowed to take what they wanted as long as the silver and gold in the monastery went to the Crown. This meant that expensive building bricks etc. could be acquired for free. This alone made the Dissolution popular with the majority of the people who tended to dislike lazy monks anyhow.

Photograph of the ruins of Battle abbey

The ruined abbey at Battle – a victim of the Reformation

However, the vast bulk of the wealth of the monasteries went to Henry. Some was spent building defences against France on the south coast around Portsmouth; a small amount went on paying pensions to monks and abbots.

The only real protest in England to what Henry was doing came in 1536 with the Pilgrimage of Grace. This was lead by Robert Aske, a lawyer. He wanted the monasteries left alone. Aske, along with several thousands of others, marched to London. Henry promised to look into their complaints and many of the protesters went home satisfied with this. Their complaints were never looked into.

Aske was arrested and hung from a church tower in chains until he died of starvation.

When Henry became king in 1509, the church in England was as follows:

Head of the Church: the pope based in Rome Church services: all were held in Latin Prayers: all said in Latin Bible: written in Latin Priests: not allowed to marry

By the death of Henry in 1547, the church in England was as follows :

Head of the Church : the king Church services : held in Latin Prayers: most said in Latin. The “Lord’s Prayer” was said in English Bible: written in English Priests: not allowed to marry.

To reform means to change. This is why this event is called the English Reformation as it did change the way the church was run throughout England. However, the death of Henry in 1547 did not see an end of the religious problems of England.

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