One of the most remarkable developments in the recent historiography of the English Reformation under Henry VIII is the general abandonment of the term "Protestant" to refer to its leading reforming representatives.4 English reformers simply did not refer to themselves by this term, which they tended to use instead to refer to German Lutheranism, especially seen from a political perspective. The term "evangelical" is increasingly being used to designate the English reformers of the 1520s and 1530s, who did not regard themselves as confessionally "Protestant" but rather saw themselves as "Catholics" who believed their church required reform and renewal from within.5 Recent studies have pointed out how the Christo-centric piety characteristic of the late Middle Ages may have contributed to the continuity between pre-Reformation and evangelical piety in England.6 The perception that England's religious reformers were Protestant dates from the reign of Edward VI and marks a significant shift of understanding in the transformation then under way within the English church.
Where some older Protestant accounts of the Reformation in England asserted that the late medieval English church was moribund and corrupt, yearning for the kind of reform that Luther espoused, recent studies of English church life on the eve of the Reformation have pointed to its vitality and diversity.7 Often drawing heavily on local archival sources, these studies have added weight to the increasingly secure view that the English Reformation was largely, from its outset, imposed "from above" by successive governments on the English people, who were generally unsympathetic to the official "new religion."8 There is no doubt that the English people were dissatisfied to some degree with the state of the English church in the late Middle Ages. Visitation records show a degree of concern being felt at the episcopal level over the low quality of the clergy and misgivings being expressed over various aspects of church life. There were also clear signs of hostility toward the clergy in urban contexts, most notably in London. Nevertheless, animosity toward the clergy was by no means universal. In many parts of England—especially in the west and in northern regions such as Lancashire and Yorkshire—the clergy were, on the whole, well liked, and there was no particular enthusiasm for any radical change.
As Luther's books began to be imported into England in the early 1520s—legally or otherwise—from continental ports such as Antwerp, his ideas began to be discussed. Perhaps the greatest interest in his writings at this stage was among academics, particularly at Cambridge University. The "White Horse" group, which met at a long-vanished tavern of that name, included some of the future leaders of the Reformation in England. Although it is thought that accounts of the activities and influence of this group may have been somewhat embellished, there is no doubt that Cambridge was an important early center for discussion of Luther's doctrine of justification by faith. Luther's appeal to sections of the English church may have been enhanced through the influence of Lollardy, a pre-Reformation indigenous movement that was associated with activists such as John Wycliffe and was severely critical of many aspects of church life.9
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that the origins of the Reformation in England cannot be convincingly attributed either to popular dislike or criticism of the late medieval church or to a growing academic interest in Lutheranism. These factors may well have served as catalysts to that Reformation once it had begun. The evidence strongly points to the personal influence of Henry VIII on the origins and subsequent direction of the English Reformation. That influence was modulated and moderated in often subtle ways, reflecting a mixture of resistance, collaboration, and acquiescence on the part of the English population.10
The causes of the English Reformation, though complex and various, are widely held to be linked primarily to Henry's attempt to set up a smooth transition of power after his death by ensuring that he had a son as an undisputed legitimate heir to the English throne.11 Henry had a daughter through his first wife, Catherine of Aragon—the future queen, Mary Tudor. Yet this marriage had not only failed to produce the requisite son and heir but also reflected the political realities of an earlier generation: an alliance between England and Spain had been seen as essential to a sound foreign policy, which was then held to depend on a secure relationship with the Holy Roman Empire. The weakness of this assumption had become clear by 1525, when Charles V declined to marry Henry's daughter by Catherine. Henry subsequently began the process by which he could divorce Catherine.
Under normal circumstances, this procedure might not have been expected to encounter any formidable obstacles. An appeal to the pope to annul the marriage could have been anticipated to secure the desired outcome. However, the situation was anything but normal. Rome was under virtual siege by the army of Charles V, and Pope Clement VII was understandably feeling somewhat insecure. Catherine of Aragon was the aunt of Charles V, and it was inevitable that the pope would wish to avoid giving unnecessary offense to the emperor at such a sensitive moment. Unsurprisingly, the petition for a divorce failed. As if to add insult to injury, Clement VII informed Henry that he would be excommunicated if he married again.
Henry's response was to assert both the independence of England— as not only a nation-state but a separate province of the church—and the autonomy of the English king.12 The most persuasive narrative linking the various events of Henry's reign is that of a reformation imposed from above by Henry and his court, with the objective of developing an English form of Catholicism, stripped of its traditional allegiance to the pope. It is becoming increasingly clear that traditional Catholics and reforming evangelicals in England around this time shared many common religious values and that the ensuing Reformation was thus both possible and successful.13 A nationalist agenda is easily discerned at this point: Henry wished to retain the notion of a state church as the guarantor of national unity.14
It is impossible to speak of any coherent English "Protestantism" at any point during Henry's reign, in that Henry appears to have had no interest in adopting either Lutheranism or Zwinglianism. Nor did evangelicals use the term "Protestant" to refer to each other. Rather, we may identify a variety of evangelical factions, which became radicalized as Henry's religious policies seemed increasingly erratic in their direction and inconsistent in their application.15
On November 3, 1529, Henry convened a parliament that attempted to reduce the power of both church and clergy. The initial refusal of the English clergy to concede these points prompted Henry to undertake more severe measures in order to persuade them. The most important of these took place over the period 1530-31, during which time Henry argued that the English clergy, by virtue of their support for Rome, were guilty of praemunire—a technical offense that can be thought of as a form of treason in that it involves allegiance to a foreign power, namely, the papacy. With this capital charge hanging over them, the clergy reluctantly agreed to at least some of Henry's demands for recognition of his ecclesiastical authority.
Henry was presented with an opportunity for advancement of his aims when the aging archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, died in August 1532. Initially, Henry delayed appointing a replacement. However, it became increasingly clear that the resolution of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon demanded a sympathetic replacement, not least because Henry had begun an affair with Anne Boleyn. By December 1532, Boleyn was pregnant, making resolution of the issue a matter of urgency if the ensuing child was to be a legitimate heir to the English throne. Stephen Gardiner, the obvious candidate for the archbish opric, was out of favor. Henry and his adviser Thomas Cromwell identified Thomas Cranmer, who was not even a bishop at this point, as the obvious successor to Warham.
Why Cranmer? The best explanation is that he had earlier indicated his strong support for Henry's divorce proceedings. Cranmer was finally consecrated (possibly against his will) on March 30, 1533. Although the consecration was supported by papal documents, Cranmer declared that he took the obligatory oath to the pope without feeling bound by it. Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled by an English court in May 1533, allowing Anne to be crowned queen on June 1. Her daughter, Elizabeth Tudor, was born on September 7—a legitimate heir to the throne of England, but unfortunately for Henry (and in the light of subsequent events, even more unfortunately for Anne), not a son.
Henry's divorce of Catherine immediately led to the threat of excommunication. Henry now decided to follow through with the course of action on which he had embarked, by which his supreme political and religious authority within England would be recognized. A series of acts were imposed in 1534. The Succession Act declared that the crown would pass to Henry's children. The Supremacy Act declared that Henry was to be recognized as the "supreme head" of the English church. The Treasons Act made denial of Henry's supremacy an act of treason, punishable by death. This final act led to the execution of two prominent Catholic churchmen, Thomas More and John Fisher, both of whom refused to recognize Henry as supreme head of the English church—a title that they believed belonged only to the pope.
Henry now found himself under threat of invasion from neighboring Catholic states. The mandate of restoring papal authority would have been a more than adequate pretext for either France or Spain to satisfy their expansionist ambitions by launching a crusade against England. Henry was thus obliged to undertake a series of defensive measures to ensure the nation's safety. These measures reached their climax in 1536. The dissolution of the monasteries provided Henry with funds for his military preparations. Negotiations with German Lutherans were begun with the object of entering into military alliances. At this point, Lutheran ideas began to be adopted in some official formularies of faith, such as the Ten Articles. Nevertheless, this theological enthusiasm for Lutheranism appears to have been little more than a temporary political maneuver.
When it became clear that there was serious opposition in England to his reforming measures, Henry backtracked. The 1543 "King's Book" clearly indicates Henry's desire to avoid giving offense to Catholics. By the time of Henry's death in January 1547, the religious situation in England was somewhat ambivalent. Although Henry had made some concessions to Lutheranism, he appears to have continued personally to prefer at least some traditional Catholic beliefs and practices. For example, his will made provision for prayers to be said for his soul—overlooking, incidentally, the fact that, less than two years earlier, he had tried to close down the chantries, which existed for precisely this purpose!
From this brief account of the origins of the English Reformation under Henry VIII, it will be clear that there are reasons for supposing that Henry's agenda was political, dominated by his desire to safeguard his succession and secure his own authority throughout his kingdom. Through a series of developments, this required a schism with Rome and an increasingly tolerant attitude toward Lutheranism, in both Germany and England.16 Yet Henry's temporary interest in Lutheranism, which peaked around 1536, does not seem to have been grounded primarily in religious considerations, but rather in the need to secure the support of reform-minded activists in England for his own distinctive style of reformation. The English Reformation was a decidedly Henri-cian affair, aimed at creating a confessionally unified, politically stable nation with a coherent state religion focused on the office and person of the king.
Toward the end of Henry's reign, tensions nevertheless began to emerge as warring factions began to plan for the succession. The monarch's final years were marked by political maneuvering as the increasingly confident evangelical faction within the court aimed to secure Edward's succession, which would allow them to steer England in a Protestant direction that was more explicitly confessional.17 Indeed, Henry may even have colluded with this development, seeing it as the inevitable, if distasteful, outcome of the situation that he himself had created.
On Henry's death, England changed direction significantly. The word "Protestant" now finally became entirely appropriate to describe the new religious situation.
Was this article helpful?