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Henry VIII: The Anglican Church

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  • 0:05 England vs. Rome: Old…
  • 2:35 Thomas Cromwell:…
  • 5:32 Excommunication & The…
  • 7:45 The Anglican Church
  • 10:27 The Catholic Backlash
  • 11:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the various steps Henry VIII took in breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church. You'll learn how Henry managed to get what he wanted by going through legal means and playing off of others who also had problems with the Church.

England vs. Rome: Old Conflict, New Henry

As the Protestant Reformation swept across northern Europe, a very different sort of reformation was taking place in England. Unlike the reformations of the mainland, which were mostly theological in nature, England's Reformation was decidedly political. The debate in England was not about whether one was saved by Protestant faith or by Catholic sacrament. Instead, it was about who had the greater authority in England - the King or the Pope.

This debate was not a new one for England. English monarchs have a long history of butting heads with the Pope. Many English kings saw the Roman Catholic Church as having entirely too much power in their country. Conversely, many popes saw the English Crown as too eager to stick its fingers into matters of faith.

Four centuries earlier, during the Investiture Conflict of 1103, Henry I of England challenged the Pope over the right to appoint people to local Church positions. A generation later, Henry II also tried to decrease the Pope's influence in England. In the Constitutions of Clarendon of 1164, Henry asserted that clergymen accused of civil crimes were subject to the civil law of the land, rather than the ecumenical law of the Church.

In this light, Henry VIII was simply resuming a centuries-old conflict between the King of England and the Pope in Rome. Though Henry VIII would eventually gain the power to appoint bishops or to hold criminal priests to account, his initial conflict with the Pope was much more personal. Henry was simply trying to provide an heir to his throne, and the Pope got in the way by refusing to annul Henry's marriage to the then-barren Catherine of Aragon. You can find a full description of this conflict in our lesson on The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Henry VIII struggled with Rome to get his annulment.
King Henry VIII Painting

For this lesson, you need only know that the conflict over annulment eventually led Henry to circumvent the Pope's authority and have his marriage to Catherine annulled by Parliament, rather than by the Pope. The annulment was not the first challenge to the Pope's authority. It was preceded by many acts that gradually took powers that were traditionally associated with Church authorities in Rome and transferred them to secular authorities in England.

Thomas Cromwell: Undermining the Papacy

Henry was aided in his struggle with Rome by an English statesman named Thomas Cromwell. Thomas Cromwell was an active supporter of the Reformation and a harsh critic of the Papacy. It was Cromwell who persuaded Henry to turn his battle over annulment into a full-scale legal break from Rome. With Henry's approval and Cromwell's goading, Parliament passed a series of laws undermining Papal authority.

In 1529, Henry began by finishing what his predecessor, Henry II, had started so long ago, ensuring that the clergy were subject to the common laws of England, rather than the Church laws of Rome.

The next year, 1530, Henry had Parliament declare that it was illegal to appeal to any external power for resolution of a problem in England. They called this crime praemunire, and it basically ensured that no Englishmen would be appealing to the Pope for aide.

A couple years later in 1532, Parliament published the Supplication Against the Ordinaries. The supplication was a treatise, not unlike Luther's 95 Theses, criticizing the Church's abuses. The Supplication mostly focused on the unjust prosecution of people accused of heresy, but it also condemned the Church's greed in demanding excessive court fees for these trials.

Cromwell supported the Protestant Reformation.
Thomas Cromwell

The Supplication was quickly followed by the Submission of the Clergy, which stated that all church law was subject to review by the King and Parliament. When the English clergy balked at this request, Henry called them out, saying:

Well beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects; for all the prelates at their consecration make an oath to the Pope, clean contrary to the oath that they make to us, so that they seem to be his subjects, and not ours.

Chivvied so by the King, the English clergy fell in line. Yet the act that cut the Church the deepest was the 1532 Act of Annates, which greatly reduced the amount of Church income paid to Rome. This essentially reduced the money flowing from England to Rome from a torrent to a trickle.

Parliament added salt to the wound with the 1533 Act in Restriction of Appeals, which stated once and for all that England did not need to appeal to Rome for matters involving Church law.

And since England did not need the Church to handle matters of Church law, Parliament was free to formally annul Henry's marriage to Catherine with the First Succession Act of 1533.

Excommunication and the Break from Rome

Enraged by Henry's attempts to undermine his authority, the Pope threatened Henry with excommunication in 1533. This excommunication threatened to cut Henry off from the sacraments of the Church and, thus, deny him the possibility of ever going to heaven. Moreover, since Henry was a king, the excommunication also threatened the souls of his subjects. This put Henry in a difficult position.

If he recognized the authority of the Church and his excommunication, his only recourse was to go crawling back to the Pope and beg for forgiveness. Yet, if he broke from the Church, Henry feared he would have to risk the rebellion that had accompanied the Protestant Reformation across Europe. Henry was not about to bow to the Pope, and as we shall see, he had his own methods for repressing rebellion.

The following year, 1534, Henry and Cromwell pushed a variety of new acts through Parliament, resulting in a total break from the Roman Catholic Church.

With the The Ecclesiastical Appointments Act, Parliament decreed that the King, not the Pope, would be responsible for appointing clergy to high positions in the Church. This, in effect, settled the investiture conflict of England that had so troubled Henry I some four centuries earlier.

Citizens had to recognize Henry as the supreme head of the Church of England.
Henry VIII Supremacy Oath

The official break with the Roman Catholic Church came shortly after in the form of the first Act of Supremacy, in which Henry was recognized as the only supreme head of the Church in England. This removed any last vestiges of authority that Rome had in England. It was now the King who would determine Church law, it was the King who would collect Church income, and, of course, it was the King who would grant annulments. Every English citizen was supposed to swear an oath affirming Henry's supremacy.

And just in case someone didn't want to take that oath, Parliament passed the Treasons Act, which made refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy an act of treason punishable by death. This provided legal grounds for Henry and Cromwell to purge Rome's supporters from the government and dispose of some of its more vocal critics.

The Anglican Church

The 1534 Act of Supremacy established the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. Yet, because this English Reformation had been more political than theological and because Henry did not want a religious rebellion on his hands, the bulk of Catholic practices and doctrines remained unchanged. Henry had no problem with a system that conferred great wealth and authority upon its leader. He just wanted that leader to be him, not the Pope.

Therefore, Anglicans still engaged in most of the same sacraments of Catholicism: baptism, the Eucharist, and confession. The only real difference was that the prestige and revenues that the Church gained from these sacraments now found their way to Henry, instead of to the Pope.

In this sense, Henry seems to have found a middle ground. On the one hand, Henry had replaced the distant and often arbitrary authority of Rome with the local and invested authority of the King of England. On the other hand, Henry had fallen short of the full-scale reformations taking place across the channel, shattering the dreams of many Reformers who had hoped for more, including his ally Thomas Cromwell.

The following years would see the King pulled back and forth between the conservative tendencies of his orthodox subjects and the revolutionary designs of Reformers. Henry flip-flopped on issues of faith regularly.

On the conservative side, in 1539, Henry rejected the proposed Lutheran reforms of the Anglican Church and instead supported Parliament's Act of the Six Articles, which upheld many Catholic practices and beliefs:

  1. Transubstantiation
  2. The right to deny wine to common people during communion
  3. The celibacy of priests
  4. The vows of chastity
  5. The right to hold private masses
  6. The sacrament of confession

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