How Did Henry VIII Become Head of the Church of England? | History Hit

How Did Henry VIII Become Head of the Church of England?

Catherine of Aragon pleads her case against divorce from Henry VIII. Painting by Henry Nelson O'Neil
Image Credit: Henry Nelson O'Neil, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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 across England that would last centuries and claim thousands of lives.

Why did he split with Rome?

Breaking with Rome would have seemed impossibly unlikely in the early years of Henry’s reign. He was a devout Roman Catholic who heard up to five masses a day, and was even named Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by the Pope in 1522 for his defence of Catholicism against the diatribes of Martin Luther.

Yet his unwavering commitment to his faith was challenged by the Church’s failure to grant Henry an annulment from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After years of prevarication, the Pope eventually refused Henry’s wish, marking a moment in which Henry’s relationship with his faith changed. Henry saw leaving the Catholic Church as his only option.

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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, quoting passages from Leviticus which reinforced his view.

Regardless, the annulment was denied by the Pope. In other circumstances perhaps it would have been granted, but Catherine, his wife, was a Spanish princess and aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had encircled Rome at that time.

Leaving Catholicism

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. Aided and abetted by the intelligent Anne Boleyn, the pair began to try and convince Henry to ignore the Pope and establish his own church in England, of which he should and could be head. This was advised against by a meeting of lawyers and clergy.

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As a result, 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.

The consequences

This unprecedented change meant that a comprehensive restructuring of every sector of English governance and society was required: in an age where religious matters were of great importance and the Church was extremely powerful, life without Rome had been unthinkable.

Many also believe Henry’s decision was motivated, at least in part, by financial gain. As Head of the Church in England, all of the church’s properties would become his: they were a huge source of revenue. In 1536, Cromwell and Henry began a process that became known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

They disbanded monasteries, convents, nunneries and friaries across the country, seizing their material assets, siphoning off their income and often destroying the buildings themselves or selling off the land they were built on for profit.

The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, which was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1539.

Image Credit: Elena Dijour / Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, Henry’s actions met with a reaction from the population. In 1536, he also faced a major rebellion in the north, known today as the Pilgrimage of Grace. This was partly motivated by religious concerns, as well as economic and political. Many ordinary people feared their way of life would be altered or made worse by Henry’s religious changes.

However, despite the upheaval of the momentous Act of Supremacy, Henry did achieve one aim with no issue: his divorce. His marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled in May 1533, although he married Anne Boleyn earlier than this being formalised.

Religious legacy

Further reform followed during the reign of Henry’s son, King Edward VI. 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.

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Sarah Roller