Henry VIII

Schism and Reformation

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.