Henry VIII and his contribution to the Reformation.

Following his marriage and coronation in June 1509  Henry spent a great deal of time and money in splendid entertainments and jousting tournaments in which he enjoyed participating, meeting with success on merit. But the joys of the new king were soon dimmed by a proposition from Pope Julius II to attack France. Feeding vanity once more Julius offered to give Henry the title `Most Christian King`. Cardinal Bembridge wrote to Henry " His holiness hopes  that your grace  will utterly exterminate the King of France". Despite sound advice to the contrary Henry chose war  and in the June of 1511 invaded France accompanied by his almoner, the rising star Thomas Wolsey. At the battle of Spurs (so called because the French knights ran for their lives rather than fight) Henry had a convincing win but did not follow up his advantage to seize the whole country. In the event, Louis XII at 53 years old  and a widower, sued for peace and the hand of Henry`s sister, the 16 year old Princess Mary. The Princess did her duty and married although she was in love with a courtier, Charles Brandon. Among her attendants that went to France was a young Anne Boleyn. It was a short marriage, wed on 9 October 1514 - Louis died 1 January 1515 allowing a happy ending as Mary was reunited with her paramour, married and later forgiven by Henry for acting without his permission. In later years Henry was not so forgiving.

About this time the focus for culture and learning moved from Italy and France to Oxford where several young men were critical of the church, they made sarcastic comments, and suggestions of reform were discussed... " to burst the bonds of clerical domination and emancipate the human mind" . Henry turned to literature and summoned Sir Thomas More to his Court and before long More was a constant companion. Meanwhile critics focussed on the monasteries and held up as an example the abbot of St Albans who had taken a married woman as his concubine and placed her at the head of a nunnery; profligacy and lechery was rampant among the monks. Notably Wolsey complained to the pope and obtained permission to secularise some 22 institutions.  He then appropriated  their £2000 revenues to found colleges at Ipswich  and Oxford. Significantly the monasteries had been attacked by a cardinal, and Thomas Cromwell, now Wolsey`s secretary, duly noted the action taken.  A particular friend in London to the men of letters, was Dean Colet of St Paul`s who made many sermons supportive of reformation.

Avoiding entanglement in wars on the continent, Henry turned inwards to his kingdom into which, in 1516, arrived the  New Testament translated into Greek, with a new Latin translation, by Erasmus. It was received with unprecedented enthusiasm. Instantly the church reacted, not by attacking men of social standing and intellect, but by monks and friars trying to stir up the common people. To add to the consternation of the clerics Erasmus was very vocal in his support for translations into vulgar tongues. Cleverly the priests accused Erasmus of `correcting` the Vulgate Bible and pointed to some minor word changes, thus the cry of heretic was made. The cry was taken up especially by  Edward Lee, archdeacon  of Colchester and Archbishop of York. Lee organised what we would call `briefing material` which was circulated to monasteries and convents et al, and enabled a concerted attack to be made on the new publication

" In every place of public resort, at fairs and markets, at the dinner table and in the council chamber, in shops, and taverns and houses of ill fame, in churches and universities, in cottages and palaces  the league blathered against Erasmus and the Greek Testament."

But it was too late to stop the book being circulated and read, and discussed. The seeds of the Reformation had been sown, now it was being nurtured not least by Martin Luther declaring his Theses on All Souls day, 31 October 1517 in Wittenberg, Germany. Among those at Trinity Hall Cambridge, was Thomas Bilney, a young man who cared greatly for his soul. He later went on to teach at Cambridge and become another sufferer for his beliefs at the hands of the prelates.

Throughout his lifetime Henry always claimed to be a “Catholic.” But, for political expediency he excluded the pope from home affairs, whether political or religious. When it suited him, as in 1529, he allowed quite severe changes in law concerning probate etc in order to get a money bill passed by the Commons. Nevertheless he retained many of the old doctrines, without examining them for himself in the light of Scriptures.  He was proud to think of himself as a  `Defender of the Faith` but had no qualifications for being so - save a great vanity. With the help of Sir Thomas More he had written an attack on the writings of Luther which became a best seller of its day. But he executed a number of Roman Catholics who would not agree to his opposition to the papacy, including Sir Thomas More. At the same time he continued to allow burning at the stake for heresy (under changed rules), usually for denying transubstantiation. In all this he was malignly served by the papist Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, who continued to inveigle change that reverted to the practices of Rome, even to the extent of trying to entrap Katherine Parr, Henry`s sixth wife.

Worse was to follow in 1546, again with the connivance of Gardiner, in that a league was proposed between the Emperor, France and England. Gardiner advised that the ongoing Reformation would be a hindrance to an agreement. Thus Henry instructed Cranmer to stay further changes until a more propitious time. Yet on 8 July 1546 there was a Proclamation abolishing  English Books, including Tyndal`s English version.

Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547.

In the longer term Henry facilitated  the Protestant Reformation  by:
i. Throwing off  the  burden and alleged supremacy of the papacy in both religion and politics.
ii. Abolished the monasteries not only for the revenue they raised, but also any future use by the papacy of either the system or the physical premises, in a resurgence of the pope`s influence.
iii. Gave the people their own English Bible, perhaps an unconscious response  to Tyndale’s prayer before his martyrdom, “Lord, open the eyes of the king of England.” It was also a significant tactical response to the desire of the people for liberty of conscience.

But the Protestant Reformation was not completed in his reign, this would be done by his second daughter Queen Elizabeth I, born of the marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Home Scottish Reformation The Covenanters Ulster Scots English Reformation European Reformation General Topics & Glossary My Books & Bibliography Contact