Significant Change in Henry VIII Reign

Categories: ChurchEngland

During Henry VIII’s reign religious life changed significantly, both doctrinally, culturally and despite some difficulties Henry faced in the process of the implementation of change. To say that religious life changed significantly would be to encompass the idea that there was not only de jure change but also de facto, in that change occurred in principle and in practice. This can be seen in the various doctrinal and cultural changes, for instance in the sanctioning of the Act of Supremacy and also the implementation of the dissolution of the monasteries.

The public response to these acts can also be recognised as evidence of significant change as continuity would not warrant such an extreme reaction as the Pilgrimage of Grace, for example, which was certainly the largest revolt but also arguably the most dangerous of all Tudor revolts. However, historians such as J.J. Scarisbrick have previously argued that the extent to which religious life changed significantly is limited as there was nothing new in the ideas of reformist figures such as Thomas Cromwell.

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Ultimately, however, religious life did change significantly during Henry VIII’s reign as can be seen in the fact that Henry’s changes shaped the religious life of England in many years to come.

Evidence for significant change in religious life can be seen firstly in the doctrinal changes that took place during Henry VIII’s reign. The first significant changes began with the enforcement of the Royal Supremacy as under the Act of Supremacy in 1534 Henry was declared Supreme Head of the Church.

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This is evidence of significant doctrinal change as it severed relations with Rome and replaced the Pope as the head of the Church in England, thus transforming the tradition of religious life indefinitely. Felicity Heal added that ‘much of the rest of the decade was to be devoted to articulating the nature of that supremacy and to enforcing it within England’ This highlights how a lot of effort and time was needed to enforce the changes which demonstrates that significant change was taking place. In order to reinforce these changes Thomas Cromwell, as the kings vicegerent, encouraged a preaching campaign in parish churches which promoted the legality of the Royal Supremacy. Geoffrey Elton is quick to pick up on the efforts of Cromwell, emphasising that there was a revolution in Tudor Government. He justifies his opinion by exploring how the state had been ‘reformed’ due to its ‘rejection of the medieval conception of the kingdom as the king’s estate’. Here, Elton chooses to use the structure of medieval government to highlight how Tudor Government had now become a national state and Henry was not an autonomous ruler, thus presenting a significant change in religious life. In terms of doctrinal change, therefore, significant changes can be seen in Henry VIII’s reign. Examining the ways in which change in religious life effected society and culture also allows for understanding of the significant changes as it shows how Henry was able to make both doctrinal and practical transformations.

The most important practical change to religious life was arguably the dissolution of the monasteries from 1536. The Act of the Dissolution of the Lesser Monasteries closed the monasteries that made less than £200 a year and affected 372 monasteries in England. To go from a society in which monasteries organised a large percentage of people of both genders, provided medical care, sat as hubs of spiritual life and brought prosperity to communities, to a religious life that had essentially eradicated previous traditions in just 4 years was a hugely significant change. The dissolution of the monasteries was also significant as this was a change that no other monarch and no other protestant reformation sect in the continent managed to achieve. Even the cities and principalities in the Holy Roman Empire in which the Lutheran reformation had its greatest success did not manage to close the monasteries. Another aspect of the dissolution which shows its significance in changing religious life relates to the reactions to these changes.

The Pilgrimage of Grace was the largest uprising of Henry’s reign and was in direct retaliation to the dissolution act. The thousands of rebels drew up demands for the return of the traditional Catholic religion, the papal supremacy and the reinstatement of the monasteries. This rebellion was eventually put down, and it did not deter Henry and Cromwell from dissolving the larger monasteries however it did pose a significant threat to the government because of the sheer number of participants and the fact that both upper and lower classes were involved. The rebellion therefore shows that changes to religious life were significant as the rebels would not have produced such a dangerous threat over nothing. Peter Marshall picks up on this idea, arguing that scholars such as Christopher Haigh have highlighted how there was ‘much resistance and reluctance at the popular level to the implementation of reform’. By emphasising that resistance to reform was ‘popular’, it is made clear that practical change to religious life was significant as without significant change, there would have been no reason for this many people to be discontented. Conversely, however, historians have argued that religious life didn’t change significantly as changes were limited in their success and Cromwell could not fully stamp out catholicism in Henry’s reign.

Revisionist Scarisbrick argues that Cromwell was not successful in his transformation of religious life and that catholicism was still ‘alive and kicking’ as he criticises Elton’s view that Cromwell had revolutionary ideas. Scarisbrick puts forward the idea that ‘there was nothing new in Cromwell's ideas and methods’ and thus it would follow that religious life did not see a significant change. Evidence for this can be seen by the fact that Cromwell had to issue a second set of injunctions to the clergy in 1538, suggesting that the first set were not as successful as he had hoped they would. Evidence from wills also imply that Cromwell did not create significant change as they show how there was still a strong popular belief in traditional Catholic doctrine, especially in relation to the afterlife. In London, for example, a place where Protestantism became popular the quickest, 85% of wills made in the 1530’s used conventional references to saints and prayers for the soul after death. Therefore, it is understandable that some historians have argued that the extent of religious change was still limited. However, traditional wills would gradually decline during the rest of the Tudor period and although it may be accurate to say that change was limited up until the early 1530s, permanent and significant changes had been made by 1536.

Traditional ideas of purgatory, pilgrimages, saints and images were under attack and indulgences had almost entirely disappeared. In combination with the dissolution of the monasteries, therefore, this shows that a Protestant form of worship had been introduced and significant changes to religious life had taken place if not by 1530, but certainly by 1536. In conclusion, despite arguments that changes were unsuccessfully implemented or that changes were nothing new, it is clear that religious life changed significantly during the reign of Henry VIII. This can be seen most patently by looking at both the doctrinal changes and cultural changes that took place as a result of reformist ideas which Henry implemented. The Act of Supremacy, for instance, marks a monumental change in the religious hierarchy in England, making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church when he had previously been subservient to the Pope.

The dissolution of the monasteries too signifies crucial practical change to religious life as the entire way of life attached to monasticism had been effectively eradicated in 4 years. The Pilgrimage of Grace was in direct retaliation to these liturgical changes and thus also shows the vast significance of the changes as the public was obviously alarmed at the gravity of the transformations taking place. Therefore, in light of evidence and various arguments, religious life did change significantly during Henry VIII’s reign.

Updated: Feb 23, 2024
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Significant Change in Henry VIII Reign. (2024, Feb 23). Retrieved from

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