This year we are building and, Corona Virus notwithstanding, hoping to display a huge model to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflwower. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs about the events that paved the way for her voyage and the reasons for those on board, who have been called the Pilgrim Fathers, for making the risky voyage across the Atlantic and establishing an English colony at Plymouth (or Plimoth) Colony, Massachusetts, America. In this blog we look back to reformations of Henry VIII.
In 1517 the German theologian, priest and monk, Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg marking what is often identified as the start of the Reformation. The new protestant branch of Christianity spread quickly throughout northern Europe, with England becoming one of the most powerful nations to adopt it as the state religion. It was not however initially welcomed and indeed there was a rocky road to the country reaching the point of no return. In this blog we explore how England came to break with Rome.
Henry VIII had come to the English throne in 1509 and was in a dynastic marriage with Catherine of Aragon when Luther published his theses. He was an observant Roman Catholic, hearing up to up to five masses a day. Indeed, in 1521, he wrote a book The Defence of the Seven Sacraments attacking Luther and for this was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith" by Pope Leo X.
Protestant ideas had however been permeating England and the English court, and among the courtiers with Lutheran sympathies was the attractive, charismatic Anne Boleyn who had arrived at court in 1522 as maid of honour to Queen Catherine.
By 1527, Henry wanted his marriage to Catherine annulled. She had not produced a male heir who survived longer than two months, and Henry wanted a son to secure the Tudor dynasty, eager to avoid the civil warfare that had placed his father on the throne. Catherine was now in her 40s and the prospect of another child seemed unlikely. Consequently, Henry decided to ask the Pope for an annulment arguing that it was that this lack of a male heir was because Henry’s marriage was “blighted in the eyes of God”. Catherine had been his late brother Arthur's wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her. It was therefore argued the marriage was never valid because the biblical prohibition was part of unbreakable divine law, and even popes could not dispense with it. However Pope Clement VII refused to annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed.
In 1529, the King summoned Parliament to deal with annulment, however on this matter no progress seemed possible. Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s chief advisors, wished simply to ignore the Pope, but in October 1530 a meeting of clergy and lawyers advised that Parliament could not empower the archbishop to act against the Pope's prohibition.
Henry thus turned on the priests, resolving to charge the whole English clergy with praemunire to secure their agreement to his annulment. While the Statute of Praemunire of 1392, which forbade obedience to the authority of the Pope or of any foreign rulers, had been used before using it against the whole clergy was a massive an unprecedented step. Henry claimed £100,000 from the Convocation of Canterbury (a representative body of English clergy) for their pardon, which was granted by the Convocation on January 24th 1531. Henry agreed to a five-year period of payment providing that:
In return, the King pardoned the clergy for violating the statute of praemunire.
From 1532 Henry and Cromwell bought numerous Acts before parliament breaking up the power of the clergy and their links with Rome. They banned from making cannon law without the King’s permission and prohibited from paying more than 5% of their first year's revenue (annates) to Rome. In 1533 the The Act in Restraint of Appeals, drafted by Cromwell, was passed. Apart from outlawing appeals to Rome on ecclesiastical matters, it declared that:
“This realm of England is an Empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one Supreme Head and King having the dignity and royal estate of the Imperial Crown of the same, unto whom a body politic compact of all sorts and degrees of people divided in terms and by names of Spirituality and Temporality, be bounden and owe to bear next to God a natural and humble obedience.”
This declared England an independent country in every respect and expounded a theory of national sovereignty.
Meanwhile, in August 1532 Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, who had strongly opposed Henry’s annulment, died. He was replaced by Thomas Cranmer who was prepared to grant the annulment, going so far as to pronounce the judgment that Henry's marriage with Catherine was against the law of God. In January 1533 therefore, Henry was able to marry Anne Boleyn. Anne gave birth to a daughter, Princess Elizabeth, in September 1533. The Pope responded to the marriage by excommunicating both Henry and Cranmer from the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1534, the Acts of Supremacy made Henry "supreme head in earth of the Church of England" and disregarded any "usage, custom, foreign laws, foreign authority [or] prescription". In case any of this should be resisted, in the same year, Parliament passed the Treasons Act, which made it high treason punishable by death to deny Royal Supremacy. Finally, in 1536, Parliament passed the Act against the Pope's Authority, which removed the last part of papal authority still legal. This was Rome's power in England to decide disputes concerning Scripture.
Thus England’s break with Rome happened almost accidentally, and certainly grudgingly. Yet by the end of the century England and indeed Scotland were regarded as the cornerstones of Protestant Europe. In our next blog on the English Reformation, we will look at the reforms that occurred during the remainder of Henry VIII's reign as well as those advanced during the short reign of Edward VI. This period ends in 1553 and the ascension of the Catholic Queen Mary I to the throne - the subject of another blog later this summer.
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