Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

How Henry VIII Changed the Old Order; or the Breach with Rome

Henry VII was succeeded on the throne by his son Henry VIII, whose reign is one of the most important in English History.

His first minister was Thomas Wolsey; he was the son of an Ipswich wool merchant, and soon all Europe was ringing with his fame. So much power did he obtain that it was said he "ruled both the King and the whole realm." Honors were heaped upon him; he was made in quick succession Archbishop of York and Chancellor by the King, and Cardinal and Papal Legate (or Ambassador) by the Pope,

So long as he was useful to his royal master, his power and influence increased; but so soon as he could not carry out the King's wishes, he fell from power. Henry VIII grew tired of his first wife, Catharine of Aragon, and fell in love with her maid Anne Boleyn; so Henry sought from the Pope, as supreme judge in Canon Law, that is the law of the Church, a declaration that his marriage with Catharine, his brother's widow, was not valid, or sound in law. This the Pope refused, but he appointed judges to hear the evidence. As Wolsey failed to get the divorce, Henry VIII soon found some pretext to have him arrested. Before he could be tried, he fell ill and died suddenly at Leicester Abbey.

Thomas Wolsey


Henry VIII now determined to try other methods—to get his way with or without the Pope.

From the days of William the Conqueror, English kings had on many occasions tried to limit the power of the Church in this country. The Church, however, invariably resisted these encroachments on her privileges, but frequently agreed to a working arrangement by which the king's legitimate interests might be safeguarded. This happened, as you will remember, in the dispute between Henry I and Anselm respecting the investiture of bishops.

By the time Wolsey's career had ended, Henry VIII had learned how great were his powers. He had now made up his mind to get rid of Catharine, so that he might marry Anne Boleyn. To get his way, he was determined to subject the Church and, the clergy to his own authority and continue to be the absolute ruler not only of the State but of the Church also.

So far he had worked with the Pope. Now he intended to become master of Parliament and of the Church, and through these to threaten the Pope. If, after many threats, the Pope would not divorce him, then he would have no more of the Pope in England. "Well-beloved subjects," said the king, "we thought that the clergy of our realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well seen that they are but half our subjects." Henry VIII determined to finish the work of Henry II, who quarrelled with Becket about the rights of the Church. The clergy should be put severely under him, just as the nobles had been.

The Parliament that assembled in 1529 was one of the most important in our history. The same year was also a landmark in the history of Europe, for it was then that the followers of the German monk Luther became Protestants. That is, they took what was then the strong step of "protesting" against the Emperor's decree against Luther, which made all religious changes in Germany unlawful. Luther had already made serious attacks on the Pope and burned before a large crowd, the papal bull issued against him.

This Long Parliament was not chosen freely like the Parliaments in our day. The king sent down letters ordering the electors to choose certain persons named by him. A Parliament so elected was bound to be favourable to the king and willing to carry out the wishes of such a strong ruler as Henry had proved himself to be.

Martin Luther


At its very first meeting, Parliament attacked the clergy and limited their fees. The clergy replied that the "Commons seek the goods, not the good, of the Church."

The next year there was no meeting, for Henry tried once more to get the Pope to divorce him. But the Pope was immovable. The Emperor Charles would not be bribed by Henry, for he was not, he said, a merchant to sell the honour of his aunt (Queen Catharine). The queen herself stood up passionately for her rights—"Go where I will, I shall still be his lawful wife."

Two new advisers to the king now came to the front. One, Thomas Cranmer, had been a chaplain in the Boleyn family, and had suggested to the king that he should find out what the universities of Europe thought about his divorce.

Cranmer now became archbishop, and the foremost of the Reformers in England. He was a man of great caution and succeeded in winning Henry's confidence completely. He wanted the king, rather than the Pope, to be supreme in the Church in England. He believed that it was best that the King of England should be the sole lord in his own land, and now helped the king to become supreme.

The other new favourite, Thomas Cromwell, gave the king a hint that he might first make himself master of the Church and then get it to divorce him. Cromwell, like Wolsey of old, soon began to rule in everything concerning Church and State.

The next year, in the Long Parliament's second session, the first step was taken to make the king head of the Church, and, as he hoped, to frighten the Pope to do what he wanted. The nation was now accused of breaking the same law as Wolsey had broken, for they had recognised. Wolsey as the Pope's Legate. It made no difference to this self-seeking king that he himself had asked the Pope to make Wolsey legate. The king pretended to pardon the nation, but the clergy had to buy their pardon by paying him huge sums. They were also made to call Henry "as far as the law of Christ allows, supreme head of the Church," and to agree to make no new Church laws without the king's consent. The first great blow was thus struck at the freedom of the Church, and the king took the Pope's place in the English Church.

At the next session, the king carried the war against the Pope still further, for he would not allow anything or anybody to thwart his will and desires. The clergy were at last under his thumb. Henry now had a law passed that the clergy should no longer pay their first year's incomes to the Pope, as had been the custom for many centuries. But the Pope was still the Emperor's prisoner. The next year Henry took the law into his own hands and married Anne Boleyn. Soon afterwards, Archbishop Cranmer declared that the marriage with Catharine was void from the first. At the end of the year, the Princess Elizabeth was born and the Pope excommunicated both her parents. It seemed as if a crusade of Catholic nations would be sent against Henry, but the Emperor and the King of France were too busy with their own quarrels to march against England.

Parliament had already passed a law against the right of the clergy to appeal from the English courts to the Pope at Rome. The clergy could therefore no longer ask a foreign court to protect them, and the King of England was supreme over all in his own realm. At last the Pope gave his sentence against Henry, amid great rejoicings and the firing of cannon at Rome. But the crafty Henry knew how to take his revenge. In the fifth and most famous meeting of this Parliament, the breach with the Pope was made final.

An Act was passed declaring that Anne Boleyn's children should succeed to the throne, thus shutting out Mary, the daughter of Catharine. Then came an Act of Supremacy, which summed up all the previous laws against the clergy and the Pope. The king became the "only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England," and all the powers and wealth in England which once belonged to the Pope now passed to the king.

But Henry could not allow anybody to differ from him, for fear the people should rebel against his new power. A new and terrible Treasons Act  was passed, thundering out terrible and hideous penalties against those who should even suggest in speaking or writing that the king was a heretic or a tyrant.

The king still called himself the Defender of the Faith, and said that there was no separation in England from the Catholic faith of all Christian countries, though the Pope had no more power here.

Thomas Cromwell now became Vicar-General of the Church, and acted as chief officer over both Church and State. He was not slow to show what the king's supremacy meant. A visit to all churches, monasteries, and colleges was decided upon, but it was the turn of the monasteries first.

For many centuries, the abbeys and monasteries had done a most important work for the country. They helped the poor in the days before workhouses; they tended the sick, and acted as doctors; they were the only inns for travellers, both rich and poor. They acted as bankers, taking care of valuables. They were pioneer farmers and wool-traders; and for many centuries they had been the centres of learning and education.

However, no chronicler existed in the abbeys in Henry's days. The abbeys were very wealthy; the king and others cast longing eyes on their possessions. Vague charges were made against the abbeys, that many of the monks were idle and lazy, that their charity had been carelessly given, that thereby "sturdy vagabonds were encouraged," and these vagabonds were the plague of the country-side. With the rise of the middle class, there were many men who saw with envy and greed the broad acres of the abbeys, and these men would be only too glad to share in the plunder.

So Cromwell sent some men round to the monasteries to report to them of their condition. But these men were dishonest and untrustworthy. They thought most of pleasing their master, and were always ready to help themselves to bribes and to the gold and silver crosses of the abbeys and monasteries.

Their visits were paid to the numerous monasteries very hurriedly in a single summer, and their reports were so bad that they were called the Black Book.

The monks were looked upon as the soldiers of the Pope and the abbeys were so many of his garrisons in this country. The king and his advisers therefore thought they were very dangerous to the king's rule over the Church. It was claimed that the smaller houses were of little use, and in some cases there may have been vice.

All was now ready for Parliament to condemn the monasteries. Cromwell took steps to inflame the citizens of London against the monks by giving them numerous pamphlets and sermons. The king told the House of Commons "that he would either have the Bill or some of their heads." So the Long Parliament at its last meeting passed an Act destroying the smaller monasteries. The people fondly hoped that when the king had got the wealth of the abbeys there would be fewer taxes to pay. But although about three hundred and seventy-six houses were destroyed, most of the wealth went to the king and his friends.

By the destruction of the abbeys, poverty and misery were increased. The poor lost some of their best friends, and some ten thousand people, monks and their dependents, lost their living. The poor nuns were cast adrift with a gown apiece, and others fared not much better. The wealth of the monks went to make new nobles, who would therefore have a lasting though selfish interest in the breach with Rome. In this way the Reformation would not be undone.

This memorable Parliament had now finished its work. Henry VIII had compelled the clergy and the nation to make him supreme ruler in the Church as well as in the State, and the greatest change in our history had now been effected. With all its cruelty, hard-heartedness and pillaging, we should not nowadays call the Age of the Reformation a religious age. Still we must take care not to judge by modern ideas the doings of three hundred years ago. There were many devout people then as now, and the services of the old Church still held sway over the hearts of the nation.

There existed a strong religious life and feeling; even memories of the teachings of Wycliffe and of the Lollards had never been quite lost. These memories were now being revived and strengthened by the teachings of the German Reformer Luther which were gradually becoming known in this country.

[Illustration] from Tudors and Stuarts by M. B. Synge