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Henry VIII

Schism and Reformation

"The King's Great Matter"

A European Monarch

Summary

The first events of the English Reformation occurred Alongside Henry VIII's sensational divorce proceedings. Henry himself was not a Protestant, and the great majority of the English people, though they may have been somewhat anti-clerical, were, at the time, piously devoted to the Catholic Church. In the 1520s, Lutheranism had made some inroads at the university of Cambridge, and the leading English Protestant of that decade, William Tyndale, had created some sensation when he fled England in 1524 to translate the bible into English and conduct a pamphlet war with Sir Thomas More. Henry himself was very much opposed to the spread of Lutheran and other Protestant doctrines, his 1534 break with Rome notwithstanding

In July 1536, Henry's government issued the Ten Articles, which upheld traditional Catholic teachings on the sacraments of the altar, penance, and baptism. In 1537, the other four traditional sacraments of confirmation, holy matrimony, holy orders, and extreme unction were defended in an official primer called The Institutions of a Christian Man, also known as "The Bishops' Book." Henry demonstrated a more firm commitment to Catholic theology with the 1539 passage through Parliament of the Six Articles. These articles stated that the Church of England upheld the traditional doctrines of Transubstantiation, celibacy for priests, the inviolability of monastic vows, the legality of private masses, and the necessity for oral confessions to a priest. Parliament next passed a statute that appointed penalties for violations of the Six Articles.

At the same time, obedience to the authority of the Roman Church was made treason, punishable by death. Sir Thomas More, who had resigned the chancellorship in 1532 because he could no longer support conscientiously Henry's schismatic actions, was executed for treason in June 1535. Bishop John Fisher was also executed that summer, along with six monks and several other priests who would not swear loyalty to the new regime. Catholics looked upon these men as saintly martyrs. Henry later proved equally cruel to Protestants, having a number of them burned at the stake for heresy.

1536 brought the dissolution of Catholic monastaries throughout England. Henry ordered that the vast tracts of land owned by Catholic bishops and by the religious communities be taken over by the new regime, and the lands were handed over both to members of the nobility and other loyal laymen, as well as to conforming clergymen who embraced the new order and renounced their allegiance to the pope. Many of the old monastic buildings were destroyed, along with some libraries and works of art–depictions of Catholic saints and of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, were targetted particularly. In 1538, Henry ordered a campaign against relics–preserved body parts of saints and other objects considered to be holy by Catholics–and the 350-year-old tomb of Thomas Becket of Canterbury, medieval England's most beloved saint, was destroyed.

Aside from individual opposition by monks and men such as More and Fisher, Henry's newly named Church of England saw one major movement against it while Henry reigned as king. In October 1536, there was an uprising under a man named Robert Aske in northern England. The rebels called the movement the Pilgrimage of Grace, and among them were groups of Catholic monks. Henry sent his able general Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk to quash the uprising. The rebels were executed for treason in 1537. To further establish the supremacy of the Church of England and to control more eficiently places such as the northern counties which were far from London and the primary seat of the Church at Canterbury, Henry established six new episcopal sees–Oxford, Chester, Gloucester, Bristol, Peterborough, and Westminster.

Analysis

A primary point of contention among English Reformation scholars is the nature of Henry's break with Rome. They debate whether it was a political and jurisdictional separation from the Papacy or a doctrinal reform that paved the way for Protestant Christianity? The issue is complicated by both Henry's known commitment to orthodox Catholic theology and his simultaneous elevation and loyal, long-term support of the Protestant-minded Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

Whatever Henry's deeper convictions and understanding of the religious implications of his political reformation, the manner in which he both played upon the anti-clerical feelings of many in Parliament and destroyed the propertied influence of the secular clergy and the monastaries was crucial to the advancement of Protestant religious doctrines in later decades. At the time of Henry's break from Rome, the English people were relatively content with the teachings of the Catholic Church, even if they sometimes resented occasionally hypocritical and worldly priests. Men such as Cranmer who studied Lutheran and other Protestant teachings and found them favorable were very rare in the kingdom, and most Englishmen hated Protestant heresies as violently as did King Henry when he had numbers of Protestants burned at the stake.

The competing religious tendencies between government and people and between various factions within the government did not work themselves out in favor of a more Protestant religious establishment until after Henry's death. The most important aspect of the Reformation during Henry's reign is precisely its confusion and its openness to many different interpretations by historians. Henry always considered himself "catholic" in his beliefs and wished the Church of England to remain so as well: he hoped to find a Via Media, or "Middle Way" between what he considered to be the extremes of both Roman Catholicism–with its popes and devotions to the Virgin Mary and the saints–and heretical Protestantism, which denied the truth of Transubstantiation and the validity of other sacraments and which tended to de-emphasize the importance or necessity of a rigidly hierarchical, ordained priesthood in the Christian Church.

While he was king, Henry fulfilled the role of Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England with ruthless success, but his desires to uphold rigidly most of Catholic orthodoxy was not long championed by the majority of Parliament or by the effective will of future English monarchs.

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