On 3 November 1534 King Henry VIII became the Head of the newly founded Church of England. At the time this was a seismic shift in the power dynamics of Europe, as England’s split from Rome was confirmed.
This act signalled the beginning of the English Reformation, heralding the start of bloody religious tensions in Great Britain that would last centuries and claim thousands of lives.
Why did he split with Rome?
The split with Rome wouldn’t have seemed likely in the early years of Henry’s reign. Far from it, he appeared a devout Roman Catholic who heard up to five masses a day. Indeed he was even named “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope in 1522 for his defence of Catholicism against Martin Luther.
Yet this faith was not to last. By 1527 he was desperate for an annulment from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and denied it by the Pope, Henry saw leaving the Catholic Church as his only option.
There have been many suggestions as to why Henry wanted an annulment, from the lack of a male heir, to falling in love with his new mistress Anne Boleyn. Henry himself claimed that his marriage was cursed by God as Catherine was his brother’s widow.
Regardless, the annulment was denied by the Pope who may have been afraid of Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
After the execution of the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s pre-eminent advisors favoured reform. A Parliament convened to deal with the annulment provided an opportunity for these reformists to be heard.
Thomas Cromwell was a prominent figure, who was opposed to the theology of Rome. He and Anne Boleyn wanted Henry to simply ignore the Pope, yet this was advised against by a meeting of lawyers and clergy.
Thus Henry piled increasing pressure on the clergy, and through a series of acts asserted Royal supremacy over the Church. This culminated in the 1534 Act of Supremacy followed shortly by the Treasons Act. These granted him sovereignty over the Church in England and made disavowing this treason.
Given that this had never happened in the thousand year history of Christianity in England, it required a comprehensive restructuring of every sector of English governance and society in an age where religious matters were of great importance.
Further reform followed in the reigns of Henry and his son Edward. However, this was not always accepted quietly. In the summer of 1549 a number of uprisings occurred. Known collectively as the Prayer Book Rebellion, they were eventually put down, though at serious cost of life.
Under Henry’s daughter Mary, England reverted back to Catholicism. The prolific burnings of Protestant heretics earned her the moniker of “Bloody Mary“.
Her sister Elizabeth turned England yet again to Protestantism, and as such Anglicanism remains the third largest sect of Christianity. However the bloody conflicts and repression continued throughout the centuries, and their impact can still be felt in the current day with the not so long ago Troubles in Northern Ireland.