By the mid-1520s, King Henry VIII had grown very unhappy in his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. She had, by then, borne him eight children, with only the Princess Mary (born 1516) surviving infancy. Henry wished for a male heir to stabilize the future succession of the Crown. For state and personal reasons, he sought a divorce from Catherine so that he might marry Anne Boleyn, a young lady of the court with whom he had fallen in love. Between 1527 and 1535, England was preoccupied with the political and religious questions attendant to what was called "the King's great matter."
Divorcing a queen in the early sixteenth century was very serious. Though there were precedents, the reigning laws of the Catholic Church forbade divorce unless the couple were granted a special dispensation from the Pope. Henry convinced himself, however, that his marriage to Catherine had never been a real marriage, because it contradicted a biblical passage, Leviticus 20:21, which forbids a man to marry his brother's widow. In May 1527, Henry arranged to appear before Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in his court to explain why he had been "living in sin with Catherine" for so many years. In April the following year, Pope Clement VII hesitantly granted Henry a papal commission to try the case, sending to him Cardinal Campeggio, the "protector of England" at the Roman Curia, in October.
It was clear from the beginning that the Pope would not grant Henry a dispensation to divorce Catherine. Rather than submit to the wishes of Rome–after many failed efforts by Wolsey and others to pressure the Pope–Henry chose to sidestep established canonical procedure. Wolsey himself became the first victim of the King's anger, losing his office as chancellor in August 1529 because he had failed in the negotiations with Rome. Wolsey was replaced by Sir Thomas More, who took the job on the condition that he not be involved in the divorce matter, and who would later prove a greater problem for Henry than Wolsey. At this time the government was effectively in the hands of the dukes of Norfolk, Suffolk, and Wiltshire, the last of whom was Anne Boleyn's father. .
In July 1531, Henry officially separated from Catherine and began to live openly with Anne Boleyn. Also that year, the politically enterprising Thomas Cromwell was appointed to the inner circle of the king's council, soon gaining the king's confidence and advising him toward a direct break with the Roman Church. Matters came to a head when Henry married Anne Boleyn secretly in January 1533, after discovering she was pregnant with the king's child. Also that month, the reform-minded Thomas Cranmer was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. In March, all appeals to Rome were suspended with Parliament's Act of Appeals, effectively breaking off England's legal ties to the Papacy. In May, Cranmer assembled a court at Dunstable that delivered sentence that the marriage with Catherine was void, and the marriage with Anne was true. Catherine lost her title, Anne was named Queen of England, and the infant Elizabeth born in September 1533 replaced Princess Mary as the legitimate heir to the throne. Henry received his divorce and his new wife, but he did not yet have a male heir, and in conjunction with these events, he declared himself the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England, igniting a virtual revolution of Church and State. The declaration received legal force in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, and was followed by the Oath of Succession which was demanded from all government officials, lay and clerical. The oath concerned the transferral of the primary sovereign right to the inheritance of Anne's daughter Elizabeth, taking it from Catherine's daughter Mary.
No events in Henry's reign have been more studied than those surrounding the divorce from Catherine and the relationship of these events to the English Reformation. Scholars from the sixteenth century onwards have offered a wide range of interpretations of these events, and debate continues to rage among historians of the period. One of the central points at issue is the inevitability of Henry's break with the Roman Church, and also, how much of that break was driven by larger political considerations versus Henry's simple personal motivation to replace the old, tired Catherine with the young, captivating, and fertile Anne Boleyn. These debates show the great importance of individual men and women in the shaping of world events.
The dispensation Henry requested from Pope Clement not only rested on shaky theological grounds–since the passage in Leviticus was contradicted by others in the bible–but it also was politically difficult for the pope to honor the request. First of all, Henry was, in effect, asking Clement to declare that an earlier pope had made a mistake in granting the original dispensation for Henry to marry Catherine of Aragon. The pope was quite unwilling to damage the Church's moral authority with such a sensational declaration. Also, the pope was in a very delicate position where the Emperor Charles V was concerned. The German armies of Charles, who was Catherine's nephew, had sacked Rome in 1527, putting the emperor in possession of much of Italy, and making the pope his virtual prisioner. Henry was basically asking the pope to discard the emperor's aunt, but there was no way the pope would dare resist Charles's wishes, which were very much against the divorce.
This series of events infuriated King Henry, who was determined to marshal all the political force necessary to secure the divorce and to get his male heir. And although Henry was a devout Catholic in many ways, he did not want the pope or the Roman Church itself to stand in his way. His summoning of Parliament at the close of 1529 was the first step in his political war against Rome. Among the members of Parliament were many common lawyers and landowners who resented the power of the Church with its vast landholdings and its court system–which often caused jurisdictional disputes when Church jurists conflicted in their legal opinions with common law jurists. These members of parliament also resented the taxes they had to pay which were sent off to Rome to support the Papacy. Henry did not find it difficult to get such a Parliament to vote with him to override the pope's decisions concerning the divorce and to subordinate the independence of the Church in England to obedience to his crown.
Although Henry at first considered himself the supreme head of the Church in England, his title soon changed to "Supreme Head of the Church of England." This distinction was crucial, because the second title signified a schism with the Catholic Church, which, until the first decades of the sixteenth century, had reigned virtually unchallenged in Western Europe as the ultimate spiritual and temporal authority. Henry, who had once been named Defender of the Faith by a pope, now claimed pope-like authority over the Church in England, which was thenceforth conceived as a distinct body answerable only to God, and to no man outside its national borders. This break with Rome was a revolutionary step for Henry to take, and it required firm support from Parliament and severe methods of enforcement by the government to secure it as reality. These were some of the driving reasons behind the 1534 Act of Supremacy and Oath of Succession, the rejection of which guaranteed the imprisonment and death of men such as Thomas More.