When Henry VIII acceded to the throne of England in 1509, he embodied the fond hopes of his people. He sought to distinguish himself as a monarch in a European theater that was still very medieval in its forms and characters. When Henry died in 1547, he left to his son, the boy-king Edward VI, a bitter, bloodstained realm increasingly torn by religious strife. By that time, England was gaining new prominence as a constitutional monarchy in an altered European theater freshly divided by the Protestant Reformation and by the wars between France and the Holy Roman Empire of Charles V–a Europe which was in the first throes of its political and cultural modernity.
Henry VIII's reign, in some respects, marks England's transition from a medieval to a modern nation. This is particularly evident in the political changes resulting from Henry's policies during and after his break with the Roman Catholic Church. This break represented England's maturity into a wholly independent, sovereign nation-state. Also, though Parliament's significance was overshadowed at the time by Henry's domineering personality, the break with Rome was crucial for the establishment of England's constitutional monarchy. Henry's revolutionary claims – among them that he was the Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England – needed the support of Parliament to become a political reality. Henry received this support, laying down constitutional foundations that set England apart from monarchies such as France and Spain, which tended more toward royal absolutism.
The unique political situation of Henry's England made his country's religious reformation similarly unique. Perhaps unwittingly, Henry catalyzed a reformation of religious doctrine with his schism from Rome. Like the great majority of his traditionally pious subjects, Henry remained committed to a doctrinal orthodoxy very much in line with the teachings of the outlawed Roman Church. It was the political and legal domination of the Papacy he expelled from England by naming himself Supreme Head of the Church. It was never his intention to expel orthodox teachings on matters such as Transubstantiation. Henry's violent persecutions of Protestants testifies as much. At the same time, Henry's policies, secured a bright future for Protestantism in England, though the Church establishment would remain very traditional in form.
Outside England, the Reformation took a much more visibly partisan shape with the arrival of Martin Luther's dramatic reform movement in 1519 and the subsequent splintering of northern Europe into a confused battleground for religious warfare. During the decades of Henry's reign, England's relations with the various European powers were likewise confused. In the early 1520s, Henry was a staunch opponent of Lutheranism as well as an opponent of French encroachments on Papal lands in Italy. In those years, he fought alongside the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Charles, the young Habsburg nephew of Catherine of Aragon, had inherited the crowns of Spain, Austria, and Burgundy along with his 1519 election to the imperial seat by the German princes and other magnates. This situation greatly tipped the scales of the European balance of power, and while Henry was quick to ally himself with Charles against France in 1522, he reversed this alliance entirely in 1528 to fight alongside the French King Francois I against an imperial power which rejected Henry's desires to divorce Queen Catherine. After the English break with Rome had established its irreversible course, Henry switched his foreign policy once again near the end of his reign, invading France in 1544 after forming another alliance with Charles V, who was also occupied with fitful struggles against the Lutheran princes of his German domains.
Amidst these major political and religious changes, Henry's England saw significant social and economic changes, such as the weakening of old feudal institutions under the slow but sure strengthening of a national government in London. The break-up of the Catholic Church's vast landholdings had the effect of strengthening the landed aristocracy and binding up its fortunes more closely with the fate of the national government. Henry also oversaw during his reign increased efforts to enclose public lands along with increased taxation to finance his wars in Europe, policies which often turned commoners' opinions against the Crown. Early sixteenth-century England also saw a gradual expansion of the merchant classes, forecasting the burgeoning of the middle class and town life which would characterize a later era in England.
Medieval legal and social institutions throughout the realm were overwhelmingly stabile and persistent. Henry's England was in a great period of transition, but the protection of the English common law heritage, a formally orthodox Church establishment, and a centuries-old spirit of national independence is a less conspicuous but very crucial aspect of the story.
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