The Break From Rome

This article is part one in a four part series.

Henry VIII set off an extraordinary chain of vents in the 1530s when he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, becoming the first European monarch to deny the power of the Papacy, and establishing himself as “Supreme Head” of the church in England. This article examines why and how Henry initiated the break with the Papacy and is the first of a series of articles on the English Reformation.

The English break from Rome created one of the first controversies over the distinction between church and state power. The execution of Henry VIII’s chief counselor, Sir Thomas More, who supposedly died declaring himself “the king’s faithful servant but God’s first,” is one of the best-known events of the sixteenth century—at least in English-speaking countries.1

England’s break from Rome has more than historical interest, however, because it triggered a process with extraordinary ultimate outcomes: religious diversity in North America, with the consequent separation of church and state in the United States. How the medieval ecclesia anglicana became the Protestant Church of England and then fragmented into multiple denominations is thus of great significance.

Recently some Roman Catholic apologists have asserted that the Reformation in England was not truly about theology, spirituality, or liturgy—it was about the lusts of Henry VIII. While they recognize that the events of subsequent centuries and the divergence between Protestant and Catholic in the English-speaking world cannot simply be erased, they seem to think that if the root causes can be shown to have been unworthy, theologically unimportant, or both, then it will be easier for the consequences to be undone. Much is riding on an accurate understanding of the English Reformation.

This series will demonstrate collectively two significant points. First, that “Protestantization” (to use an ugly but useful term) occurred in England alongside and independent of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, and really dates from after his reign—the English Reformation was only just beginning at Henry’s death and, as one authority notes, “England had discontinuous Reformations and parallel Reformations.”2 Second, underlying the process of religious change were substantive doctrinal differences—indeed a very different conception of man’s relationship with the Divine. These fundamental differences were far more important in the divergence of Catholic and Protestant in sixteenth-century England (and after) than were either the indiscretions of a willful, lascivious, and self-indulgent king, or the extraordinary personalities of his children, each of whom reigned in turn after his death.

The English Reformation and America

“Christianity’s twenty-first-century profile in the four nations of the British Isles is a result of [early-modern religious] upheavals.”3The same can be said, albeit to a more limited degree, of North America, because the pattern of religious life was shaped largely in pre-Revolutionary America and reflected its English heritage. That pattern was maintained largely in the subsequent century, although it inevitably was affected significantly by emigration from central and eastern Europe—which had different religious histories—and eventually by emigration from Africa and Asia, which introduced non-Christian faiths into the American religious matrix. Nevertheless, the various new religious traditions and attitudes were integrated into the existing model; they reshaped the mold, but did not break it. Because the English influence was there at the beginning, it was formative and still shapes American government, American law—and American religious life.

The controversies generated during the English Reformation (circa 1540s–1600) and civil wars and revolution (1641-1658), and the churches and sects created thereby, are the basis of the denominational divisions in America; they provided a template for how most American churches are organized; and in them lie the origins of many of the practices and attitudes of American Christians. 4In those sixteenth-and seventeenth-century events are, moreover, the roots of religious diversity and religious liberty as understood in the United States today.

Put simply, because England had a reformation, which then fragmented, turning homogeneity into plurality, and because the United States originated as English colonies, America was from its earliest days characterized by religious diversity. Only where there is religious diversity is there a need for religious liberty; diversity of belief within and between the original 13 colonies meant that there could be no one national church within the United States.

Thus, the modern concepts of the division of church and state and of religious liberty both have their roots in the English Reformation. Its roots, in turn, lie during the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547).

Henry VIII

Henry VIII looms large in history, literally and figuratively. His decision “to declare unilateral independence from Rome” has traditionally been portrayed in British and American historical writing as creating a new England, which was a model of a new type of state, “fully sovereign within itself.”5 It has also traditionally been seen as the cause of the English Reformation—indeed sometimes as in and of itself constituting the English Reformation!

There are several problems with this view. Even apart from the complex issue of whether the government of England under Henry and his successors really was dramatically different and new, which has been much debated by constitutional and political historians, there is the question of whether considerations of national and personal prestige, or of religion, really were important in Henry’s decision to break with Rome. There is also the question of whether the decapitation of the medieval head of the English Church—the pope—and his replacement by the king—Henry—truly represented religious reform in any meaningful sense. We shall come to this last issue later.

Henry VIII holds the hand of Anne Boleyn. On the right the unhappy Pope Clement VII looks at the couple sideways. In the background Henry VIII 's existing wife, Catherine of Aragon, is seated on the throne and pointing at the couple.

In any case, against the positive views of traditional historiography there is another longstanding idea, which is that the break in the centuries-old relationship between England and Rome was simply due to Henry VIII’s personality and particularly his libido—that religious divergence and then diversity were caused by Henry’s unchecked sexual desire. This view was expressed within Henry’s lifetime (being condemned in Parliament in 1531) and it circulated freely in the years following his death; in 1585, for example, an English Catholic priest, writing about England’s break with Rome, attributed it to the fact that “the king himself was faithful neither to God nor to his first wife.”6 The reality is that, like most European monarchs of the period, Henry had kept several mistresses, by whom he had fathered illegitimate children, yet whom he had never showed the slightest interest in marrying. The reason for the break with Rome was not that Henry was an unfaithful husband, for that had been the case for some years before 1527, when he began the attempt to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon aned; it was Henry’s need (and that of his dynasty and kingdom) for a legitimate son and heir—for he had none.

The modern concepts of the division of church and state and of religious liberty both have their roots in the English Reformation.

An Endangered Dynasty

In 1509 the 18-year-old newly crowned Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, and widow of Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who died before their father, Henry VII. Because Catherine had been married (though only briefly) to Arthur, canon law required a papal dispensation before she could marry Henry. The English government duly obtained this—it was to prove both ironic and a major stumbling block in Henry’s later efforts to annul the marriage.

Although Catherine conceived six times, just two successful pregnancies resulted: she gave birth to a son who lived only a few days, and a daughter, Mary (b. 1516), later Queen Mary I(1553-1558). By 1525, when Catherine turned 40, it was plain that she would have no more children. This was not just a personal or marital issue; it was a key dynastic and political problem.

Today we know that the Tudors were to rule England for 118 years and impel the country toward greatness; we take their success for granted. In 1525 they were parvenu royals. Henry VII had captured the crown in 1485 by force; the legal basis of his claim had been extremely dubious and he had ended the prolonged internecine struggle of the Wars of the Roses (the last battles of which had been fought in 1485 and 1487, within living memory), partly by his personal ability, but partly by being the last man standing after three decades of conflict. His marriage to Elizabeth of York, the heiress of the chief rival family, ensured that his sons had an impeccable dynastic claim to the English throne, but only one son outlived him. Henry VIII had two sisters and a daughter, but as his sisters had married and his daughter would marry, if one of them succeeded him the Tudor name would end. In any case, although English law theoretically allowed a woman to succeed as monarch if she had no brothers or if they died without heirs, this had never actually happened up to that time. Henry probably agreed with the general sixteenth-century view that a woman was bound to be a weak and ineffectual ruler, so that chaos might ensue on a female succession.

Thus, if the Tudor dynasty was to survive, and if England was to be safeguarded from another series of bloody succession wars, it seemed clear to Henry and to those around him that he needed a son—ideally several sons. If Catherine could not supply them, he would have to marry again. The problem was that the Catholic Church did not permit divorce. How was the circle to be squared?

The King’s “Great Matter”

This problem and its possible solutions, the king’s “great matter” as it became known to the king’s counselors, were the chief concern of Henry’s government in the late 1520s and early 1530s. Although divorce was impossible, marriages could be aned, if it could be shown that they had never been consummated or that they should never have been allowed in the first place—that no valid marriage had been contracted. It was on the latter ground that Henry in 1527 began to seek an annulment of his 18-year marriage to Catherine.

Henry VIII holds the hand of Anne Boleyn. On the right the unhappy Pope Clement VII looks at the couple sideways. In the background Henry VIII 's existing wife, Catherine of Aragon, is seated on the throne and pointing at the couple.

Nor was this just a matter of political, personal, and dynastic convenience. For Henry, there might be a theological dimension to his wife’s repeated failed pregnancies. Henry personally was very devout. In 1521 he had worked with a team of scholars to rebut Martin Luther’s anti-papal diatribe De captivitate Babylonica; the refutation was published asAssertio septem sacramentorum (with Henry listed as sole author!) and was (ironically) a defense of papal supremacy for which the king was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the pope. Henry was “meticulous in his religious duties” and so found it all the more disquieting that “his children continued to die in the womb or in infancy. And did not Leviticus 20:21 say that if a man had sexual relations with his brother’s wife, they would be childless?” His lack of heirs proved to Henry that his marriage had always been biblically invalid. Today it may seem that his beliefs were suspiciously congruent with his own interests; they were still sincerely and strongly held. As his most recent biographer observes: “To Henry, God’s commands [were] blindingly obvious. His marriage to Catherine was contrary to divine law as stated in the Bible [which], could not be set aside. It was said that ‘an angel descending from Heaven would be unable to persuade him otherwise.’”7

Personal piety thus combined with personal lust, dynastic anxiety, and concern for national security to produce in Henry the conviction that he not only could end his marriage with Catherine —he must. An annulment would certainly be approved by the English Church courts, but Catherine refused to accept that she was no real wife, so it was certain that she would appeal to Rome, where it could not be presumed that Pope Clement VII would take Henry’s side. Ensuring that he did side with Henry became the chief policy objective of the king’s ministers, and the chief goal of English diplomacy in Europe. The annulment, sure enough, ran into trouble in the Roman courts, both because Henry had already obtained a papal dispensation to allow him to marry Catherine in the first place, and because Clement was rightly afraid of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor. Failure to secure the annulment led in 1529 to the dismissal and imprisonment of Cardinal Wolsey, the king’s chief minister since 1514.

More than Lust

All this highlights the fact that, both inside and outside England, Henry’s break with Rome involved rather more than the king’s lust. It is true that the king’s first attempts to persuade the pope to annul his marriage to Catherine began about the time that he was “struck with the dart of love” for Anne Boleyn.8 His lawsuit at Rome was obstructed partly because Clement VII presumed “that all Henry wanted was a new bedmate in place of his ageing, barren, and increasingly lachrymose wife.”9 But what he and his great nobles and officials really wanted was a legitimate heir. Henry had already taken Anne’s sister, Mary, as his mistress in the early 1520s; getting rid of his longterm wife, a close relative of Charles V, and making a minor English gentlewoman his queen, with the internal and international disruption that was bound to result, was only worth considering if he would thereby gain a son as well as a lover.

In the end Henry VIII was to gain rather more than an heir. Wolsey was replaced as the king’s chief minister by Thomas Cromwell, who conceived the idea of denying that the pope had any authority over the English Church. This offered the additional immense incentive of giving the king comprehensive power over the church, its wealth, and lands. The conclusion of the king’s “great matter” was thereafter to be intrinsically bound up with attempts to increase the power of the king.

The end result was that in the spring of 1533 Henry wed Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cranmer, freshly installed as archbishop of Canterbury, finally declared the annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine, validating his marriage to Anne. Vehement papal assertions to the contrary had no effect in England, where Henry was now “the only Supreme Head [on] earth of the Church of England.”10

His lack of heirs proved to Henry that his marriage had always been biblically invalid.

Repudiating Rome

The claim made in a 1533 act of Parliament that the king of England had first claim on theallegiance of all his subjects, whether clerical or lay, that within his own kingdom he was supreme, and thus that “this realm of England is an empire,” reinforced by other acts and royal proclamations, was the foundation for all subsequent developments in English government and forEnglish nationhood, as it emerged.11 This is what the rejection of Rome had come to be about, as well as getting a male heir. The break with the Papacy, then, was caused by desire—but desire for dynastic perpetuation and royal dominion, rather than carnal lust. It was about sovereignty and royal supremacy, not sex.

A First Step Toward Reformation?

Yet neither was it about doctrines—about sola scriptura, soteriology, the sacraments, or any of the issues about which Luther and continental reformers had been so exercised since 1517. What relationship was there, then, between separation from Rome and reformation in England? Was not the English Reformation the creation of Henry VIII?

This will be explored in the second part of this article, but we have already seen that the reasons for Henry’s rejection of Roman authority were not religious, but political. What will be seen in part two is that Henry would prove to be happy to moderately reform the English Church, having been given the chance by his assertion of supremacy over it. However, from his point of view, that was merely a fortunate by-product of his claims of ecclesiastical supremacy. His original plan seems to have been Catholicism without the pope.

Protestantism neither caused nor was achieved by the break with Rome. In the long run, as will be seen subsequently, Henry VIII’s denial of papal authority probably was indispensable to the eventual emergence of Protestantism. But the English Reformation was to some extent an unforeseen and unintended consequence of the king’s great matter.

Professor D.J.B. Trim teaches history at New bold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, near London, England.

  1. Patrick Collinson, ed., The Sixteenth Century, in Paul Langford, gen. ed., Short Oxford History of the British Isles (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2002),p. 5; James Monti, The King’s Good Servant but God’s First: The Life and Writings of Saint Thomas More (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997).
  2. Christopher Haigh, English Reformations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), p. 14.
  3. Diarmaid MacCulloch, “The Change of Religion,” in Collinson, ed., The Sixteenth Century, p. 83.
  4. The long-term consequences in the United States of events in England in the1640s-1650s are sketched out in two previous articles: D.J.B. Trim, “Oliver Cromwell: The Intolerant Inheritance of America’s Religious Extreme,” pt. 1, Liberty, Nov./Dec.2006; Trim, “A Moral Vision: Oliver Cromwell and the Transformed Christian Nation . . . ,”pt. 2, Liberty, Jan./Feb. 2007.
  5. Collinson, analyzing earlier historiography of sixteenth-century England on pp.4-8; quotations on p. 6.
  6. Haigh, p. 109; Nicolas Sander, Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism, translated by David Lewis (London: Burns & Oates, 1877; facsimile edition., Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books, 1988), p. 153.
  7. E. W. Ives, “Anne (c. 1500–1536),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004);; accessed May 15, 2008.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Gerald Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation (Cambridge: James Clarke,1994), p. 114, quoted in Ives, op. cit.
  11. Act in Restraint of Appeals, 1533 (24 Henry VIII c.12), printed in G. R. Elton, The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 344-349, at p. 344.

Article Author: David J. B. Trim