Henry VIII’s Reformation

1. The debate

  1. Was the Henrician Reformation popular or unpopular?
  2. Was Protestantism forced unwillingly on a devout Catholic people (Scarisbrick, Duffy), or was it welcomed with open arms by an anticlerical laity (Dickens, cf Kümin)?
  3. Is the whole notion of an “English Reformation” a conceptual sham (Haigh)? Was Tudor church policy so piecemeal, politically expedient, and theologically half-baked that it ought not to be called a Reformation at all (Haigh)?

2. Forces for Reformation: before 1531

  1. Lollardy (John Wyclif c.1329-84); lay piety (15th century humanism); printing press (especially translations from abroad)
  2. Humanists: John Colet (sermon calls for reform of the Church 1512); Thomas More (Utopia); Erasmus (Praise of Folly, Greek New Testament): emphasis on Bible, literary, on going back to a “simple philosophy of Christ”.
  3. Native English evangelists: Robert Barnes; Thomas Arthur; Thomas Bilney – preached in East Anglia, Kent and London. Were they Protestants? William Tyndale’s New Testament (1525-35) is Lutheran in slant.
  4. Influence of continental reformers: Luther, Melanchthon. Main evangelical issues: (1) sola scriptura (“Scripture alone”; (2) Was Scripture antecedent to the Church and should the Church be judged by Scripture alone, and not by Catholic tradition as approved by popes and Church Councils? (3) Theology of grace in contention. Was salvation God’s free gift to believers, or was it conveyed by the Church through the sacraments?

3. The process of Reformation: Henry VIII’s divorce is the trigger

Stage 1
1531: Pardon of the Clergy (Henry is “supremum caput” as far as the law of Christ allows); Act of Appeals (1533); Act of Supremacy (1534); Act of Treasons (1534); trials of More and Fisher (1535); Act Extinguishing the Authority of the Bishop of Rome (1536).

Stage 2: Dissolution of the monasteries and Cromwell’s vicegerency

  1. Cromwell investigated the condition of the monasteries and dissolved them. Responsible for ensuring that all the ex-religious assets came to the king and were accounted for. (NB 3 stages: 1536 [smaller], 1537-40 [larger], 1540 [Ireland].
  2. Henry VIII and Cromwell have different “slants”. Henry VIII not opposed to monasteries as such, but policy anti-papal and “imperial”. He sees monasteries as foci of papal jurisdiction and resistance to break with Rome. And wants money and power. But Henry NOT anti-monastic. He founds monasteries in 1530s and is largely Catholic in theology. Whereas Cromwell IS anti-monastic, and wants abolition on grounds of superstition (monasteries, shrines, veneration of saints and images, pilgrimages, purgatory).

Stage 3: Henry and Cromwell issue religious formularies and injunctions in 1530s

  1. Religious (i.e. doctrinal) “Reformation” starts with Cromwell and Cranmer. Wider anti-papal policy was Henry VIII’s in 1530s, but Cromwell and Cranmer give it an evangelical edge.
  2. Henry VIII has largely orthodox views on sacraments, apart perhaps from baptism and auricular confession. Focus is on Bible as the Word of God, i.e. “efficacious Word” which is itself a sacrament and doesn’t need the clergy to mediate or do a miracle. Henry thinks the godly prince should trigger obedience to Scripture and issue a vernacular Bible.  He is accountable to God for it.
  3. 1535 Coverdale bible – recension 1, dedicated to Henry VIII
    1539 Great Bible = Coverdale recension 2, made the official Bible of Henry VIII’s Church by Cromwell and Cranmer
  4. Overall Henry wants Catholic doctrine BUT without a mediating clergy, and therefore although Catholic he is against cults of saints, intercessions to saints and therefore images and pilgrimages for the people at large.
  5. Cromwell also wants Bible, supported by Cranmer. But they want it as the supreme authority by which the church and clergy should be judged. Want abolition of superstition. Against oral Catholic tradition. Cromwell summons a vicegerential synod (1537) in run up to Bishops’ Book: the church should be judged by scripture, he says, not vice-versa. Emphasis on faith, the Bible, and preaching put them in the “reformed” camp. Best term is “EVANGELICAL”.
  6. Cromwell’s injunctions (1536, 1538) attacked images idolatrously abused and the vicegerent attacked shrines, cults of saints, pilgrimages, doctrine of purgatory etc. There can be no holiness in stones, wells, shrines, relics. But Henry attacked them because they were foci of pro-papal opposition to the royal supremacy.
  7. English Bible, 1539, repr. 1540 with Cranmer’s Preface. In every church by the death of Henry VIII. Henry wants supreme head to be the direct intermediary between God and the people, but Cromwell is ideologically committed. Puts up £400 of his own cash for printing Bible.
  8. Cromwell and Cranmer shared Luther’s social gospel: “kingdom of God in this world”, not secular model. Anne Boleyn is a supporter of this, but not Henry VIII.
  9. Unofficial actions: Cromwell sets to work the evangelical printers and translators (Richard Taverner, William Marshall).
  10. Cromwell’s household is a centre of evangelical ideas and reform.

Stage 4: Henry VIII’s Later Reformation – strong conservative tinge

  1. Pilgrimage of Grace (1536-7): a major rebellion gives Henry pause (and cause) for thought;
  2. Paul III pronounced the long-delayed sentence of excommunication against Henry. Threat of crusade and invasion after Franco-imperial peace of Nice (June 1538);
  3. Case of John Lambert (November 1538) makes Henry believe that there really are dangerous Protestants in England;
  4. Act of Six Articles (1539). Henry VIII personally behind the Act (strategy of balance, or just a conservative reaction?) – either way, the Act marks a Catholic turn in theology;
  5. 1540: fall of Cromwell (no replacement vicegerent – Henry now runs his own Church with Cranmer’s help);
  6. King’s Book of 1543 (teams of conservative and evangelical theologians set to work to tease out the truth of doctrine, e.g. Gardiner, Tunstall versus Cranmer, Latimer, who each prepared drafts of particular texts or articles, e.g. the sections on purgatory, confession, marriage, ordination, confirmation, extreme unction etc.) – Henry opts for the conservative, Catholic positions (but without the pope);
  7. Act for Advancement of True Religion (1543) – all this a setback for the evangelicals

The king acted as the final redactor and umpire in forcing a compromise in line with his own personal theology and his opinion of himself as the keeper of the “conscience” of the church and realm of England. NB Henry theologically dyslexic: he abolishes Catholic works theology, purgatory and mediation of saints, but refuses to accept the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith. Council of Trent rewrites the rule book.

4. What were the effects of Henry’s Reformation?

  1. The pope abrogated, the monasteries dissolved, pilgrimages, shrines (e.g. Becket’s) abolished, the English Bible introduced, Church resources pillaged for the state and the laity, and the monarch becomes Head of the Church. As to the progress of Protestantism, that is much less strong than historians used to think. By 1547, the geographical extent of Protestantism is 30%-40% in London, 15% in the south-east region and in the provincial towns; around 10% in the Midlands outside the towns, and in the north and south-west region almost nil.
  2. The “failure”, “flaw” or “defect” of Henry VIII’s Reformation is, of course, that after the Council of Trent (1545-63) set to work to modernize Catholicism in response to Luther, the idea of “Catholicism without the pope” becomes an oxymoron – not possible. The Counter-Reformation Catholic Church will move on and leave all remnants of the notion that you can still be a Catholic, but reject the pope or tradition, high and dry.
  3. Was Henry VIII’s Reformation unpopular or popular? Protestantism was deeply unpopular, royal supremacy divided opinion. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was accepted largely because the laity themselves soon profited from the sales of the land.
  4. Was Protestantism forced on an unwilling Catholic people – yes, but in Edward VI’s reign, not Henry VIII’s.
  5. Is notion of “English Reformation” a conceptual sham (Haigh)? No, I don’t think so – Cranmer and Cromwell had genuine ideas of religious, evangelical reform- but these marked a short burst of energy in the 1530s, and when king pulled back in the 1540s, Cranmer was forced to reign in the Reformation.


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