Story of England - S. B. Harding

Henry VIII. and the Separation from Rome


Dates of Henry VIII.'s reign; expectations of scholars; their disappointment.

Territories ruled over by Charles V.; his war with France; how England profited by this situation.

How Wolsey became Henry's chief minister; his position in the English Church; his policy; the "Field of the Cloth of Gold."

Grounds on which Henry sought a divorce from Queen Catherine; the Pope refuses to grant it; Wolsey's dismissal and death; his last words; Henry divorces Catherine and marries Anne Boleyn; the Pope's authority abolished in England; Henry takes the title, "Supreme Head of the Church of England"; the Bible translated; the monasteries dissolved; the "Pilgrimage of Grace."

Origin of "Protestant" teachings; the attitude of Henry VIII. toward changes in doctrine; he persecutes both Catholics and Protestants; Sir Thomas More executed.

Henry married six times; two wives divorced; two executed; his three children; his character; for what his reign is chiefly remembered.

Upon the death of his father, in 1509, Henry VIII. became King. He was a handsome youth of eighteen years, and was educated in the New Learning, as well as skilled in all manner of athletic games. Scholars believed that they at last had a King after their own heart; but he soon showed that the glory of war weighed more with him than the New Learning, and that the ruling motive of his life was to gratify his own will and his own pleasures.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Henry VIII

Three strong young Kings had begun to rule in western Europe within a few years of each other—Henry VIII. of England, Francis I. of France, and Charles of Spain.

From his grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella, King Charles inherited Spain, Sicily, southern Italy, and the vast Spanish possessions in America and the Far East. From his father he received Holland and Belgium (called the Netherlands, or "Low Countries"). Then (in 1519), he was chosen Emperor, over both Francis I. and Henry VIII., and as Charles V. became the head of Germany also.

Already France and Spain had been at war over Italy; and now a new war broke out between them, which lasted (with some interruptions) for forty years.

Henry VIII., at first, sought to take advantage of this war to win back what he called "our inheritance of France." But a wiser mind than his own soon pointed out that it was to England's interest rather to maintain a balance of power between France and Spain, and in this way increase England's power among nations.

The man who gave this advice was Thomas Wolsey. He was the son of humble parents, but rose to be the first man in England, after the King. At the age of fifteen he was graduated from the University of Oxford; then, becoming a priest, he was appointed chaplain to Henry VIII. His energy and attention to business attracted the King's notice. When Henry sent him as a messenger to the Emperor, in Flanders, Wolsey made the journey and back in four days. When he presented himself before the King, Henry reproached him with his delay in starting. He then learned, to his surprise, that Wolsey had gone and returned. He informed Wolsey that he had sent after him a courier, with fuller instructions.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding


"Sire," replied Wolsey, "I met him on my way back, but I had already taken it upon myself to fulfill what I foresaw would be your intentions."

Such intelligence and industry won rapid advancement for Wolsey, and soon he was Henry's principal minister. He was made Chancellor of the kingdom, and Archbishop of York; and Henry secured from the Pope his appointment as Cardinal and the Pope's legate or representative in England. Soon all the business of the government passed through his hands. He conducted himself with haughtiness, and lived in great state. In this way, he made enemies of the ancient nobles, who considered him a low-born upstart. Not content with the position which he held in England, Wolsey planned, with the aid of Henry VIII. and the Emperor Charles V., to secure his own election as Pope, and thus win the highest position to which man might aspire. But the Emperor's promises were not sincerely meant, and Wolsey's hopes were disappointed.

Under Wolsey's skilful guidance, England was soon raised to a position of great importance. Her alliance was eagerly sought by both the King of France and the Emperor. In 1520, a great meeting took place, in France, between King Henry and King Francis, at the "Field of the Cloth of Gold." Henry VIII. came with 5,000 personal attendants, while his Queen brought 1,000. Stately palaces of wood were erected for the occasion in the flat meadows; and everything was more splendid than had ever before been seen. King Francis believed that he had gained his end, and that thenceforth England was his ally. But Wolsey steadily followed the policy of favoring now one and now the other party to the war, and so increased England's power and reputation.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Scene from a War of Henry VIII Against France

The end of Wolsey's rule is connected with King Henry's divorce, which introduced the Reformation into England.

When Henry VIII. became King, he married Catherine of Aragon, his older brother Arthur's widow. This marriage was against the law of the Church, but a "dispensation" was granted by the Pope, as head of the Church, which claimed to remove the difficulty. For many years, little more was thought of the matter; but, at last, Henry began to have doubts of the power of the Pope to grant such a "dispensation," and to question whether Catherine was really his wife. Perhaps he was influenced, too, by the fact that their only living child was a girl (later Queen Mary), and that it was doubtful whether a woman would be permitted to succeed him on the English throne. On the other hand, it is certain that he had grown tired of Catherine, and that he had shamelessly fallen in love with a young noblewoman of the court, named Anne Boleyn.

If the Pope had been willing to grant Henry a divorce, all might have been well. But, in addition to the great injustice which would thereby be done to Queen Catherine, there was the fact that she was the aunt of the Emperor Charles V., whom the Pope did not wish to offend. So, in spite of long negotiations, the Pope would not grant the divorce.

Then, in furious anger, Henry turned against his minister, Wolsey, who for fifteen years had served him faithfully and well. Unfortunately for himself, Wolsey was "feared by all, but loved by few or none at all." Henry VIII. dismissed him from his office of Chancellor, and confined him to his duties as Archbishop of York; and soon after this he had him arrested on a charge of treason. Wolsey's health and spirits were now broken; and he died, while on the road to London to be imprisoned in the Tower. In his last hours he said:

"Had I but served my God as faithfully as I have served the King, he would not have given me over in my old age!"

Failing to obtain a divorce from the Pope, the King obtained one from Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury; and soon it was announced that the King had married Anne Boleyn. The Pope was thus defied. All the ties which bound the English Church to Rome were now broken. Appeals to the Pope's courts were forbidden; all payments to Rome were stopped; and the Pope's authority in England was abolished. By act of Parliament Henry was declared "Supreme head of the Church of England." To deny this title was made an act of treason.

Parliament also made a series of reforms of practical abuses in the Church. The laws which protected clergymen who committed crimes (called "benefit of the clergy") were done away with, and many payments to the clergy were discontinued. Also, the Bible was translated into English, and printed copies were placed in the churches. To prevent their being carried off, the great heavy volumes were chained to the reading desks. In St. Paul's church, London, six copies were provided, but even this number was not sufficient. The practice arose of having some one read aloud from one of the Bibles; and "many well-disposed people," we are told, "used to resort to the hearing thereof, especially when they could get anyone who had a good voice to read to them."

More important than these charges was the breaking up of the monasteries. In spite of the vows of "poverty" taken by the monks as individuals the monasteries had become very wealthy; and with wealth had come idleness and moral decay. The monasteries were said to be dens of vice and evil living; but no doubt the desire to obtain monastery lands and goods was a powerful motive in the attack. Parliament took the King's word for the abuses and ordered first the smaller monasteries, and then all of them, to be dissolved, and the monks and nuns to be scattered. Their lands and goods were turned over to the King.

Thus one of the greatest features of the mediæval Church was wiped out in England. In the northern part of the kingdom, the people rose in rebellion in favor of the monks; but their "Pilgrimage of Grace," as it was called, was put down with bloody cruelty. The lands of the dispossessed monks were largely given to favorites of the King. Thus a large part of the nobles and gentry became financially interested in continuing the separation from the Roman Church.

In Germany and Switzerland, meanwhile, a religious Reformation, much deeper than that in England, had been growing and spreading. Martin Luther, a German monk and university professor, protested against the sale of "indulgences," by which it was claimed that the Pope wiped out the penalty of sin without real repentance on the part of the sinner. The dispute widened, until Luther threw off all obedience to the Pope, and carried out a reform of the German church which touched not only its government, but also its doctrine  or teaching, and its ritual  or worship. Unlike that in England, the "Protestant" movement in Germany and Switzerland began with the people, not the rulers, and was mainly religious, not political, in its motives.

It was not long before these Protestant ideas began to spread into England also. One who opposed them wrote that "even the chiefest and most weighty matters of our religion and faith are called in question, babbled, talked, and jangled upon." Although Henry VIII. had reformed the government  of the Church in England to suit his convenience, he would not permit changes to be made in its doctrine. Indeed, before he began his divorce suit, he wrote so well against Luther that the Pope granted him the title, "Defender of the Faith,"—a title which his successors still bear!

Accordingly, Henry VIII. now persecuted equally the Catholics who would not go as far as he did, and Protestants who went further. His most important victim, for religion's sake, was Sir Thomas More, a learned and noble-minded Englishman, who was Henry's Chancellor, after Wolsey's fall. As Chancellor, More had put to death Protestants, and now it was his turn to suffer death, on a charge of treason, for denying that the King was the supreme head of the Church of England. His gentle bearing and courage on the scaffold aroused the pity and admiration of all. As he laid his head on the block, he moved his beard aside, saying with sad humor:

"It is a pity that that should be cut which has committed no treason."

Henry VIII. did not content himself with putting to death those who differed from him in religion. He was six times married, and two of his wives were executed. Anne Boleyn bore the King one child, the Princess Elizabeth; then after a few brief years she lost the King's favor, and was put to death on a charge of unfaithfulness. A few days later, the King married his third wife, who died in little more than a year, after having given to Henry his only son—the future Edward VI. Henry's fourth wife behaved badly, and she, too, was executed—perhaps justly.

Then Thomas Cromwell, who, after Wolsey and More, was the King's chief minister, brought about a marriage between Henry VIII. and a Protestant German princess; to whom, however, Henry took such a dislike that he divorced her at the earliest possible moment. Cromwell had been a faithful, though unscrupulous, minister to the King; but for making this unsatisfactory marriage, he was now condemned unheard, and sent to the block. With equal bloodthirstiness, every possible rival to the throne was put to death; and thus order and peace was kept in the land.

In his later years, Henry VIII. became very fat, and grew feeble in health. His sixth wife, strange to say, outlived him. He died in 1547, after ruling for thirty-eight important years. He was a strong King, but was wholly selfish and cruel. England prospered greatly in his time, both at home and abroad. His reign is chiefly to be remembered as the time when the old ties were broken which bound the English Church to Rome; but it was not until after his death that changes were made in the doctrine and worship of the Church.


  1. What was the connection between the Renaissance and the changes in religious ideas which make the Reformation.
  2. What did Wolsey do for England?
  3. Was the breaking up of the monasteries just or unjust? Was it a good or a bad thing for England? Why?
  4. Find out what you can of Sir Thomas More.
  5. Was Henry VIII,[.] a good or bad man? Why? Was he a good or bad King? Why?
  6. Was the Church in England Catholic or Protestant at the time of Henry VIII.'s death? Give your reasons.