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The Reformation
in England

Keith Tankard
15 January 2014


The Tudor monarchy was in a fragile state at the end of the War of the Roses. Henry VIII feared that the slightest provocation would plunge the country into yet another civil war. Indeed, his biggest fear was the fact that he himself had no male heir. In his resolve to change that, he brought about a reformation in England.


While the Reformation was sweeping Europe, a civil war known as "the War of the Roses" was under way in England. Indeed, it had significantly weakened the great barons so that Henry VII, the first of the Tudors, was able to put his stamp of authority on the nation.

He would need to act resourcefully, however, to prevent the enemy barons from regaining their power at the expense of the monarchy. It was essential therefore that he be seen as the head of the entire nation, in both its secular and spiritual sphere.


Two things were critical. First, the Reformation could not be allowed to make use of any weakness to undermine the authority of the king. Second, the king needed all the money he could get by way of taxes so as to maintain his hold on the country, support his army and bribe his adversaries. The king could therefore not allow large sums of money to make its way to Rome by way of Papal taxation.

That did not, however, mean that the state was about to break with the Catholic Church. It was quite possible for the state to come to an alliance with the Church which would allow the King a degree of control over the appointment of bishops, would limit the amount of Church taxation and would ensure that England remained a loyal Catholic state. France had already set the example of such an alliance.

While the Reformation was gaining ground in Germany and Switzerland, England stood as a bastion of Catholicism. Although the young Henry VIII showed an interest in Luther's writings and studied them with great zeal, he nevertheless came down on the side of Catholicism and even wrote a treatise in defence of the Church, for which he was given the title "Defender of the Faith". Anyone who read this work was granted an indulgence of 10 years.

Henry was also initially very popular as a king and, being a descendent of both the House of York and the House of Lancaster, he succeeded in putting an end to the struggle which had led to the War of the Roses. He was renowned as a benevolent autocrat, ruling strictly according to the constitution, and was an orthodox Catholic who made sure that the Lollards (a heretical group) were hunted down and destroyed.


Problems, however, arose with his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, who was six years his senior. In the 18 years of their marriage, she had had six children but all except one had died in infancy. Only the girl, Mary, survived. Henry, however, needed a male heir to ensure that the Tudor line, which had only just come to the throne, would continue.

On the other hand, if Henry died, Mary would take the throne but a woman ruler was almost without precedent in England since the Norman conquest in 1066. Indeed, there had only been one woman ruler, Matilda, but that had set in motion a 14 year civil war.

Certainly the marriage of the Queen would be problematic. If she married an Englishman, the rivalry so engendered between suitors could lead to another civil war. If she married a foreigner, it might lead to foreign domination. If she did not marry at all, there would be a civil war over succession.

As long as Catherine was able to have children, Henry was willing to keep her and try yet again for a son. But once she was beyond childbearing, he felt it imperative to take a new wife. There was, however, another reason for the divorce. Catherine had been Henry's brother's wife.

Having decided to dissolve the marriage, Henry found religious reasons for such a step. Did not the Bible state in Leviticus XX, 21: "And if a man shall take his brother's wife, it is an unclean thing .... they shall be childless." Had not all his sons died in infancy? What further proof was necessary to show that the curse of God rested on the marriage?

By 1527, once Catherine was passed the child-bearing age, Henry tried to get the Catholic Church to sanction a divorce, a procedure which the Church had granted to previous kings and influential people on numerous occasions. Pope Clement VII was nevertheless caught in a political stalemate.

Catherine was the aunt of the German Emperor, Charles V, whom the Pope had no desire to offend, particularly with the delicate situation of the spread of Lutheranism in Germany. At the same time, to refuse to sanction the divorce meant possibly allowing England to fall victim to the Reformation.

The Pope sought refuge in procrastination but, by 1531, Henry lost patience. He arranged for an assembly of the clergy to have him declared head of the English Church, a title officially granted to him by Parliament in 1534. That meant in effect that the Pope now had no more jurisdiction in England than any other foreign bishop.


But Henry's scruples regarding his marriage to Catherine were undoubtedly intensified by the fact that he had fallen in love with the young and lively Anne Boleyn, one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting, and 20 years younger than the queen. He wanted merely that the Pope declare the previous dispensation null and void.

Henry regarded his moves in a purely political light and saw it as in no way advancing the cause of the Reformation. Indeed, in 1539 he issued the Six Articles of Faith, a restatement of the basic tenets of the Catholic faith, to counter the spread of "heretical" ideas.

Yet the essential causes of the English Reformation went deeper than the whim of the ruler. The abolition of papal authority in England was a change which the majority in England desired. Had it lacked the moral support of the nation, the separation from Rome could hardly have become a permanent fact.

Anne Boleyn gave birth to only one child, Elizabeth, and then stopped conceiving, which resurrected Henry's old fears about succession. He could not have that marriage annulled because his own Parliament had acknowledged it. Instead, therefore, he accused Anne of adultery and incest, and she was beheaded.

His third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to a son, Edward, but he was a delicate, sickly lad who was not likely to live long. A few weeks later Jane herself died, which left Henry free to marry again. On that occasion, a marriage was arranged for him by his Chancellor, Oliver Cromwell, to Anna, daughter of a German Lutheran duke.

Anna was a woman whom Henry referred to as "the great Flanders mare" on account of her colossal bulk and her ugliness. He was persuaded to marry her for political reasons, but he very quickly had the marriage annulled. Cromwell was thereupon arrested for treason and executed.

Henry then married Catherine Howard but, after 15 months, the king charged her with immoral conduct and had her beheaded. He thereupon married Catherine Parr, a motherly woman who nursed him through his doddery old age till his death.


Protestant ideas were growing popular, especially when Edward VI took the throne at the age of only 9. Archbishop Cranmer had been influenced particularly by John Knox, and so allowed official recognition of a rather Calvinist form of Protestantism. It was during that period that the Book of Common Prayer was published which confirmed the reformist ideas.

Edward did not live long and in 1553 Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and still a staunch Catholic, took the throne. Mary was deeply bitter over the Reformation because it had led to her mother's disgrace and to her own illegitimacy, which had nearly deprived her of succession to the throne.

She immediately had Parliament officially absolved of schism with the Catholic Church and then undertook a bloody restoration process, during which she had many dissenters (including Archbishop Cranmer) executed. She probably earned the title of "Bloody Mary".

She also married Philip II of Spain and, in doing so, produced neither offspring nor the goodwill of the people who despised the Spanish connection. Indeed, it took England into a disastrous war against France.

When Mary was succeeded in 1538 by her half-sister Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn, the new queen immediately restored the Reformation, had herself declared head of the Church of England and proceeded to iron out Catholic resistance.

Matters came to a head in the two decades from 1570 to 1590, when the Pope officially excommunicated Elizabeth and called on Philip II of Spain to go to war. Elizabeth responded by using such admirals as Sir Francis Drake to harass the Spanish shipping as much as possible.

Finally victory for England was achieved when the Spanish Armada was destroyed in 1588. England was by now firmly on the course of Reformation, adopting many Calvinist ideas, especially those related to work and the place of women. This would surface later with the emergence of so-called Victorian morality.

Read the left column, then think about
the following questions:

  1. Was Henry VIII's reformation a real reformation?
  2. [Need help?]

  3. The irony of Henry's reformation is that it rested on sex, divorce and execution. Do you agree?
  4. [Need help?]

  5. Why would Calvinism in particular have entered England?
  6. [Need help?]

Extract from Time Travellers:

"But hang on a moment," Bronnie said, putting up her hand. "Catherine would still have been a Catholic, right? And she would surely have been desperately bitter at the way her mother had been treated?"

"She would surely have restored Catholicism," Jelly argued. "And then she would have declared war on all her enemies?"

"True, true," Uncle Bertie agreed. "She executed people left, right and centre . . . almost had her own sister, Elizabeth, killed. And she married the king of Spain, which virtually assured his claim on the throne of England."

"Oh my word!" Jelly exclaimed.

"But luckily for England, Mary didn't live for very long. Since she had no children, her sister Elizabeth then came to the throne . . . and she restored the reformation but in a much milder form. What's more, she never got married, which avoided the mayhem her father had predicted."

"And was peace restored?"

"Not for a while yet. The pope now became involved, excommunicated Elizabeth and called on the king of Spain to declare war, conquer England and place himself on the throne . . . restore it as a Catholic country."

The Time Traveller laughed. "This was the time of the famous Spanish armada," he said, "when the pirate Sir Francis Drake came to England's rescue . . . drove his disparate little fleet amongst the cumbersome Spanish galleons and destroyed them all . . . saved England."

From: Keith Tankard's Time Travellers
Book 5: Madness of Europe

Read the whole story!