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Henry VIII

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Henry's Last Years

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Study Questions

What was the relationship between Henry VIII's desire to divorce Catherine of Aragon and the onset of the English Reformation?

Henry's move to reform the Church in England began with his desire to divorce Queen Catherine, who had not borne him any surviving male children. Henry wished to remarry with the young Anne Boleyn, but to do that he needed a dispensation from the Pope to declare the marriage with Catherine null and void. Since Henry had received a dispensation to marry Catherine in the first place–she had been his brother Arthur's widow, and therefore needed special permission to marry Henry–Pope Clement VII was not eager to grant the new dispensation, which would have implied that his predecessor had erred in granting the first dispensation. Henry employed his chief minister of the time, Thomas Wolsey, to put pressure on Pope Clement, but the Pope would not budge.

Rather than submit to the wishes of Rome, however, Henry chose instead to sidestep established canonical procedure. In 1532 he took away the legal independence of the clergy and bishops of England through the bill called the Supplication against the Ordinaries, which passed easily through the increasingly anti-clerical House of Commons in Parliament. In 1533, the Act of Appeals cut off all legal ties to the Papacy, making it illegal to appeal court cases to Rome. Also that year, Henry married Anne Boleyn in defiance of the Pope, and named Thomas Cranmer, a reform-minded cleric, to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer declared the marriage with Catherine false, and the one with Anne true, at his court in Dunstable. In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared the king the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. This act was followed by the administering of the Oath of Succession, which required all government and Church officials to swear to the new regime. This new regime rejected "Popery", as Roman Catholicism was called, and made allegiance to the Pope a capital offense. Soon afterwards, the government began a campaign to dissolve the monastaries in England.

In what ways was Henry's break with Rome much more of a political event than a religious one?

Thomas Wolsey was Henry's most important minister early in his reign. Wolsey became Archbishop of York in late 1514, was created a cardinal of the Catholic Church the following November, and became Lord Chancellor of the realm in December 1515. Wolsey achieved singular stature in these offices. Since Henry was not so interested in administration as his minister, Wolsey took over many of the duties of kingship, overseeing England's finances and diplomatic relations with other European powers. Henry became extremely dependent on Wolsey, whose zeal and ability as an administrator made him indespensable. Among Henry's contemporaries on the European continent, many considered Wolsey to be the true ruler of England, since it was to him that foreign officials were often directed to address concerns meant for the English king.

After Wolsey failed Henry in the matter of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, however, his power was taken from him, and Henry soon became dependent on another minister, the politically enterprising Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell's 1531 appointment to the inner ring of Henry's council signified the start of a political revolution in England. It was Cromwell who suggested first to Henry that he break all ties with Rome in 1532, and it was he who engineered, with Henry's sanction, some of the greatest political changes in sixteenth century England. The Act of Appeals, for example, was largely Cromwell's work. In January 1535, Henry named Cromwell his Viceregent. Together Henry and Cromwell presided over the parliaments which passed the Ten Articles, the Six Articles, the establishment of new episcopal sees, and many other political reforms which were integral to the shaping of the new regime under the Church of England. Cromwell also engineered major changes in the bureaucratic structure of Henry's administration. By 1536, for example, the inner ring of the king's council had been transformed into a proper institution known as the Privy Council. By the 1540s, the financial administration and other ministries had been streamlined and made more efficient, and the Crown was bringing in increased revenues from taxation.

How important were ministers such as Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell to Henry's reign?

Henry always considered himself orthodox or catholic in his religious beliefs and he wished the Church of England–which he had created by the Act of Supremacy in 1534–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. His religious persecutions were carried out in the name of that Via Media. Catholics were persecuted largely on the grounds of political subversion–as allegiance to the Papacy was seen not as a legitimate religious conviction, but rather as a political sentiment which led to the subversion of the new English regime, which sought absolute independence from all human powers outside its borders. Catholics were also persecuted on grounds of "superstition"–i.e. for praying to saints and to the Virgin Mary, and for believing in the holy power of relics. Protestants, on the other hand, were persecuted for denying several teachings that the Church of England upheld as fundamental to true religion. The king viewed Protestant beliefs as subversive not to the political order, but to the moral and spiritual order, and hence they were punished not for treason but for heresy, usually by burning at the stake.

Essay Topics

What were Henry's reasons for persecuting both Catholics and Protestants in the later years of his reign?

What was the role of Parliament in Henry's religious and political reformation, and why is this role significant?

Describe Henry's relationships to fellow monarchs such as Emperor Charles V and France's King Francois I. What do these relationships tell us about the success of Henry's efforts to win prestige on the European stage?

What were some of the economic problems faced by Henry's subjects, and how did the king help or exacerbate these problems?

In what ways did Henry's religious and political reforms affect directly the lives of his subjects, and what can we say about their relative support or opposition to those reforms?

What do Henry's six marriages tell us about the political importance of royal marriages in the sixteenth century?

In your opinion, does Henry VIII deserve his historical reputation as a tyrant? Why or why not?

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