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7.5: The English Reformation

  • Page ID
    12479
  • Whereas Lutheranism and Calvinism had both come about as protests against the perceived moral and doctrinal failings of the Catholic church, the English Reformation happened because of the selfish desires of a king. Henry VIII (r. 1509 – 1547) had received a special dispensation from the papacy to marry his brother’s widow (a practice banned in the Old Testament of the Bible), Catherine of Aragon, aunt of Charles V and hence a member of the most powerful royal line in Europe. Catherine, however, was only able to bear Henry a daughter, Mary, and failed to produce a son. Henry decided he needed a new wife and another chance at a male heir, so he started an affair with Anne Boleyn, a young noblewoman in his court. Simultaneously, Henry petitioned the pope for a divorce - a practice that was strictly forbidden. The pope refused, and in defiance in 1531 Henry, under the auspices of a compliant local Catholic leader, divorced Catherine and married Anne.

    When Anne did not produce a male heir in a timely manner, Henry trumped up charges of adultery and had her beheaded. In 1534, as papal threats escalated over his impiety, Henry issued the Acts of Supremacy and Succession, effectively separating England from the Catholic Church and founding in its stead the Church of England. The Church of England was almost identical to the Catholic Church in its doctrine and rituals, it simply substituted the king at its apex and discarded allegiance to the Roman pope. It also gave Henry an excuse to seize Catholic lands and wealth, especially those of England’s rich monasteries, which funded the crown and its subsequent military and naval buildup into the reign of his daughter Elizabeth.

    Portrait of Henry VIII in his robes of office looking very pleased with himself.
    Figure 7.5.1: Easily the best-known portrait of Henry VIII in the prime of life.

    Henry went on to marry an astonishing total of six wives over the course of his life, with two divorced, two executed, one dying of natural causes, and the last, Katherine Parr, surviving him. In the end, Henry had three children: a young son, Edward, and two older half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. They each took the throne in fairly rapid succession after his death in 1547; under Edward and Mary (both of whom died of natural causes after only a few years), the kingdom oscillated between a more extreme form of Protestantism and then an attempted Catholic resurgence. Elizabeth I went on to rule for decades (r. 1558 – 1603) as one of Europe’s most effective monarchs. Part of her success was in stabilizing the religious issue in England: she insisted that her subjects be part of the Church of England, but she did not actively persecute Catholics.

    The end result of the English Reformation was that England and Scotland were divided between competing Christian factions, but ones very distinct to the British Isles in comparison to the more straightforward Catholic versus Protestant conflicts on the continent of Europe. The Church of England, whose adherents are known as Anglicans, had an official "high church" branch supported by the nobility and the monarchy itself. A growing movement within the Church of England, however, openly embraced Calvinism, and that movement became known as Puritanism (or "low church") - still technically Anglican, but rejected by the Church hierarchy. Meanwhile, numerous Catholics continued to worship in secret. Finally, most of Scotland became devoutly Calvinist, under the Presbyterian branch of the Calvinist movement (many Scottish nobles remained Catholic until well into the seventeenth century, however).