King Henry VIII and the Reformation

Categories: ReformationReligion

For many years leading up to the reign of King Henry VIII, zealous souls were searching more than ever for a meaningful faith-based life for themselves and all of society. The people of England were becoming more and more confused about what the Church actually taught and were developing skeptical feelings towards the spiritual and physical power used and displayed by the clergy. [1] These feelings of the English people were reaching an all time high around the time that Henry VIII had succeeded his father’s throne in 1509.

King Henry VIII had mostly selfish and prideful incentives to separate from the Roman Catholic Church. He had no religious intent in mind, but little did he know that he would contribute to the rise of the Protestant Reformation and a long-term religious change in England that would eventually spread to the rest of the world. [3] The dissatisfaction with the corruption of the Church and hunger for change led to the ideas of Christian humanism and the influence of Greek learning.

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This idea portrayed an order of peace, justice, and humanity that could be taught and advanced through education. ] The humanist with the greatest influence of the time was Erasmus of Rotterdam who favored simple biblical piety founded on textual scholarship and study of the Greek New Testament over scholasticism and elaborate ritualism. [5] Erasmus believed in studying and understanding the scriptures for oneself and wanted to reveal the extreme hypocrisies of the Church. Erasmus’ radical writings and teachings began to spread, and soon after the writings and teachings of Thomas More and Martin Luther arose.

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More wrote the book Utopia which described an idealized society that lived in an uncorrupted world in perfect accordance with the principles of natural virtue. [6] This was a completely unrealistic idea, but it still gave hope to the people for a reform and a better society. Around 1517, Martin Luther created a real reaction and uproar from the people as his ideas rapidly spread against the practices and underlying rationale of the Church. [7] This created an uprising and following of Luther’s teachings as his ideas and books quickly spread throughout England.

Luther’s ground breaking concepts encouraged “new learning” and it soon took hold on the University of Cambridge. [8] When word of the vastness of Luther’s teachings and all of the new ideas of change and reform against the church reached King Henry the VIII, he was livid. In 1521, he excommunicated Luther and ordered all Christian princes to “suppress his errors” that Luther and others had spread. [9] Sermons were preached all across Europe denouncing Luther and many of his books were burned.

King Henry went as far as to write an essay opposing Luther and his views on the Eucharist and the pope awarded him with the great title “Defender of the Faith. ”[10] Even though King Henry tried his best to stop Luther and his ideas, Luther soon earned his voice in Germany and hundreds of his books and pamphlets poured back into England with even more criticisms of the Church’s practices and leaders. [11] Soon many revolts broke out between 1524 and 1526 dubbed the Peasants’ War, and the Protestant Reformation was flooding in.

This was the start to a violent political, spiritual, and social struggle between the advocates and the enemies of change in England that lasted for many years. English men and women began to think of themselves as “Catholic” or “Protestant” and separated themselves accordingly. [13] Catholics and evangelicals protested and condemned each other from the pulpit and through printed writings. [14] Change was definitely in the air. In the midst of all of the uprisings against the Church and songs of reformation, King Henry VIII developed his own personal problems and turmoil. King Henry had been happily married to Catherine of Aragon until he realized that she was not producing him a male heir that he longed for.

The King had met and fallen in love with a woman named Ann Boleyn who was a strong, intelligent, and determined woman. Henry was determined to marry her and try to produce a son for a male heir to the throne. [15] In order to divorce Catherine, Henry needed a special papal dispensation. The pope refused to grant it, and Henry suspected that because the pope was related to the King of Spain that they were undermining England in the favor of Spain and therefore denying him the right to an heir.

After many attempts to get the popes permission for the divorce and approval to marry Ann with no success, King Henry VIII made a decision that would change history forever. Henry fired his closest advisor Cardinal Wolsey who was Lord Chancellor of England and replaced him with Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell. [17] These two men advised the King to split the English church off from the Roman church in order to become head of the church and gain the marriage that he desired. This idea began the years of the Reformation Parliament in which the English parliament granted powers over the church clergy to the King in stages.

The Act of Appeals in 1533 made Henry VIII the source for all English jurisdictions both secular and religious, and then the Act of Supremacy in 1534 declared the King of England as supreme head of the Church of England, not the pope. [18] Another act was passed in 1534 called the Act of Succession, which declared the children of Ann Boleyn as rightful heirs to the throne. [19] It was now official; England was completely isolated and broken away from the Roman church and began their independent journey of the Church of England.

Even though England had split off from the Roman church and was on the brink of reformation, King Henry VIII made virtually no changes in the Church of England. [20] The only major difference from the Catholic Church was that now the king was the head instead of the pope and English Bibles were being used. [21] King Henry VIII reaffirmed his commitment to Catholic practices by passing the Six Articles. The Six Articles validated the transformation of the Eucharist, confession, private masses, celibate vows, and the sanctity of the Eucharist cup.

Despite the fact that King Henry had made no real changes to the church, his break from the Roman Church stirred up a revolution in the making. Ann did not produce a son for King Henry, but she provided him with another daughter named Elizabeth. [23] Ann was sympathetic with Protestant ideas and her daughter would eventually play a key role in Protestant England. [24] King Henry became displeased with Ann, accused her of adultery, and had her beheaded in 1536. [25] Still in search of a son, King Henry VIII married Jane Seymour. She finally gave him the son and heir to the throne that he had been hoping for, Edward IV.

When Henry VIII died in 1547, Edward IV succeeded the throne and the Protestant movement grew stronger than ever. Edward was highly intelligent and a devout Protestant, and he wanted to make numerous changes to the Church of England. [27] He repealed the Six Articles, allowed clergy to marry, and imposed Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer on all church services. [28] England was on its way to becoming a Protestant country, but King Edward died tragically of tuberculosis at age sixteen. Catherine of Aragon’s daughter Mary I then came to the throne in 1553. She was an extreme Catholic with no tolerance for Protestant beliefs.

She declared England to be a Catholic country and converted all churches back to traditional Catholic practices. [30] The people of England were becoming thoroughly confused in their beliefs because they were getting tossed back and forth between two opposite ideals. Mary I soon earned the nickname “Bloody Mary” because she was single-handedly responsible for the executions of many Protestant leaders. [31] She burned more than three hundred men and women at the stake for their unwillingness to give up the ways of the Church of England and turn to the Catholic Church.

These executions did nothing but intensify an anti-Catholic feeling in England, and it would soon become a permanent concept. After Mary I’s death in 1558, England’s future was in the hands of Henry VIII’s last surviving child, Elizabeth I. She was exactly was England needed at the time and was extremely intelligent and cautious. [33] She is considered to be one of the greatest monarchs in the history of England. Elizabeth repealed Mary I’s Catholic legislation for she understood that her country was being torn apart by the wavering doctrines, and she wanted to bring an end to the disunity.

She worked out a compromise known today as the “Elizabethan Settlement” which resulted in a church that retained some Catholic ideas while inserting most of the foundational ideas of Protestantism as well. [34] This settlement would not have been possible if it were not for Henry VIII’s original split from the Catholic Church. The people were ready for the religious strife to end and peaceful worship to be possible. Even though Elizabeth had sought a peaceful compromise, the Catholics rose up in rebellion against her. [35] As they threatened her throne and plotted against her, she intelligently dodged their plan to destroy her.

From this point on, her religious tolerance came to an end, and Catholics were arrested, imprisoned, and heavily fined. [36] Elizabeth ruled on to lead England in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. [37] This was a great turning point in history that not only made England a respected military power, but also solidified the movement of the Protestant Reformation. If Spain had not been defeated, there is a good chance that the Protestant religion would have been crushed altogether. [38] The Protestant breakthrough was a result of feelings of disdain and discontent with the Church that had been building over time.

The Englishmen were feeling resentment against the corruption, and a confidence that a change was possible grew. The vulnerability of the many people who desired this change was key in the wide spread of many revolutionary ideas such as Erasmus, More, and Luther. All of these factors intertwined with the times and rule of King Henry VIII; and as you can see, his decision to break away from the Roman Catholic Church created a spiral of events that became the very segue the reformers needed to have a spiritual breakthrough.

His pride, stubborn attitude, and desire for an heir to his throne led him into a decision that resulted in an extraordinary spiritual affect. Even though King Henry was a devout Catholic who in no way supported Protestant ideas, his very decision helped to bring about the Protestant Reformation. King Henry VIII in all of his selfish, prideful, and stubborn ways was exactly what England needed to push it over the edge and into a flood of a reformation. When King Henry VIII made the official split from the Roman Catholic Church, he made a decision that would affect the rest of history.


Updated: Feb 15, 2022
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King Henry VIII and the Reformation. (2017, Feb 22). Retrieved from

King Henry VIII and the Reformation essay
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