Key figures of the Reformation: Henry VIII

King Henry VIII of England. Photo: duncan1890/iStock

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a nine-part series where Fr. Dwight Longenecker examines the conflicts of the 16th century through its main players. Each article will connect with contemporary Church life, showing the origin of the Protestant churches and the challenges we face in the Catholic Church today.

Ask the man or woman in the street what they know about King Henry VIII of England, and they’ll probably say, “He’s the one with six wives, right?”

If you were to ask a school-age child in England, he might even recite the rhyme that reminds one of the fate of the six wives: “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

The drama and intrigue of Henry VIII’s romantic life has been the stuff of endless films, television series, and even operas. However, Henry VIII is important for more than just his love life. The reign of one the most famous English monarchs was a turning point for the Catholic Church.

Defender of the faith

Henry VIII was born in 1491 and died at the age of 55 in 1547. He therefore straddled what was one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the Church. To put his life in context, Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517 when Henry VIII was 26, about halfway through his life.

Before Luther’s revolution, all of Europe was Catholic. The Church was at the zenith of her worldly power. She not only controlled huge swaths of land all across Europe, but she also dominated the universities, schools, charities, and law courts.

Henry VIII had received a good, up-to-date Catholic education, and he was a stout defender of the Catholic religion. He penned a rebuttal of Luther’s beliefs, and Pope Leo X even granted him the grand title “defender of the faith.”

Henry VIII’s treatise defended the seven sacraments and the authority of the pope against Luther, so it is ironic that the sacrament of Matrimony and the Holy Father’s power were the blocks that eventually caused the king to stumble.

“Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals” by Raphael, circa 1517. Photo: Public Domain

Wheels within wheels

In 1509, at the age of 17 and less than two months after ascending to the throne, Henry VIII married the widow of his brother Arthur — the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Their marriage was happy at first, but the queen suffered several miscarriages, and only one child, a daughter, Mary, survived.

The marriage also became unsteady because of Henry VIII’s philandering. He had several affairs, and in 1525 a young lady-in-waiting at the court caught his eye. Anne Boleyn was not only a bewitching beauty, she also resisted his advances until they could marry.

Henry VIII’s affair with Anne Boleyn was more than a fervid romance. Anne’s father, Thomas, was a very wealthy and powerful diplomat. Well known in the courts of Europe, he and his family were sympathetic to the new ideas about religion that were swirling around France and Germany.

“Catherine of Aragon” atttributed to Joannes Corvus. Photo: Public Domain

Anne’s father had cultivated a young theologian from Cambridge named Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer had traveled in Europe and made friends with some of the leaders of the Protestant revolution. When the leader of the English Church, Archbishop William Warham, died, Thomas Boleyn pushed the relatively unknown Cranmer forward. Why promote Cranmer to be archbishop? Because he would grant Henry VIII the annulment he desired, which then would open the way for his marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Therefore, there was more going on within Henry VIII’s love affair than simple lust. Behind the scenes, Thomas Boleyn was wheeling and dealing not only to get his daughter onto the throne as queen, but also to place his protégé Cranmer into the most powerful position in the English Church.

Cranmer and Cromwell

In the midst of all this intrigue, Henry VIII himself was increasingly unpredictable, with a violent temper and a taste for revenge. He was notoriously tossed about by his passions, and his courtiers knew how to manipulate him to press their own agendas.

The most successful manipulator was the king’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell described himself as “a ruffian in his younger days.” The son of a brewer and pub owner, he had traveled in Europe and worked as a soldier, spy, and money lender. Back in England he rose through the ranks to become the king’s favorite.

It was Cromwell who helped Anne Boleyn gain the king’s favor, and it was Cromwell who worked hard to get the decree of nullity from Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine. Henry VIII was completely controlled by Cromwell, and the devastation to the Church under Henry VIII’s reign shifted into high gear under Cromwell.

Realizing that the annulment of Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage would never be granted, Cromwell changed tactics. He got legislation through parliament asserting the king’s authority over the Church. He then ensured that no legal appeals could be made to Rome. When Cranmer was appointed archbishop, the way was open. Cromwell got Cranmer to declare Henry VIII and Catherine’s marriage null. The king and his lover were secretly married in 1533. Cromwell then began to attack the pope and make the break with Rome formal.

“Portrait of Thomas Cromwell” by Hans Holbein, 1532–1533. Photo: Public Domain

Greed, lust, and ambition

Henry VIII’s break with Rome is too often characterized as simply the result of his lust and desire for a male heir. As we have seen, the break with Rome also had to do with the rising beliefs of the Protestants, but the Protestant resistance to Rome was a clever pretext for Cromwell’s true ambition. He wanted to get his hands on the wealth of the Church for himself and his master.

Cromwell’s predecessor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, started the process of closing monasteries, stripping their assets, and claiming their land. He argued that he was only closing the smaller monasteries that were failing and in need of reform.

After Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne and the formal split from Rome, Cromwell stepped up his campaign. With full Reformation zeal, eventually all the monasteries were closed. Their assets were hauled off to the king’s palaces. Their lands were requisitioned and doled out to the king’s favorite courtiers and nobles. The remaining monks and nuns were expelled, pensioned off, moved into parish ministry, or — if they resisted — were executed.

It is difficult to comprehend the complete revolution brought about by Henry VIII and his henchman Cromwell. Every aspect of life had been interwoven with the Catholic faith, so the destruction of the Catholic religion affected everything. Not only did Henry VIII’s thugs grab all the Church’s possessions and land, but in his zeal to destroy “idolatry,” Cromwell had statues, paintings, and other artwork thrown on the bonfires. He raided the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge and burned all the books he deemed to be “popish” and superstitious.

Every aspect of life had been interwoven with the Catholic faith.

Henry VIII’s violent revolution was not motivated simply by lust and greed. In the end, it was about power. The Church controlled the law courts, universities, schools, and charities. Through the monasteries the Church controlled the vast majority of land. By controlling the land, the Church controlled the wealth, and by controlling the economy, the Church controlled the hearts and loyalties of the people.

Henry VIII’s revolution in England was therefore not primarily about religion. Indeed, he professed to remain a faithful Catholic to the end of his days. His revolution was about lust, greed, and power.

Losing the kingdom

King Henry VIII of England stands as a symbol of the perpetual power struggles in the world. It is a grim reminder that the Church has too often been drawn into the same temptations to lust, greed, and ambition.

Following the path of worldly power, the Church will inevitably clash with this world’s kings, and when that happens, the Church loses. The worldly powers will always triumph through the unashamed exercise of force. Driven by lust, greed, and ambition, Henry VIII and his henchmen defied the Church’s power and stripped her of her wealth. As a result, the Church was broken, divided, and impoverished.

But God is never finished with his Church, and one of the marks of Catholic authenticity is that God continually purifies his Church. Whenever the Church becomes enmeshed in the wealth, intrigues, and power struggles of the world, a purification takes place.

God continually purifies his Church.

Through Henry VIII, the Catholic Church lost her wealth and worldly influence, but this purification helped bring about the Counter-Reformation in which heresy was corrected, immorality was purged, corruption was rooted out, and a dynamic new era of evangelization and renewal sprang forth.

Henry VIII stands as a classic contrast to the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ. Henry VIII ended his life as a grotesquely obese symbol of the life of luxury, cruelty, violence, and greed. Henry’s famous arrogant pose says, “My kingdom is of this world.” Reigning from the cross, King Jesus says, “My kingdom does not belong to this world” (John 18:36). Having everything, King Henry VIII died and left everything. Losing everything, Christ the King rises in triumph and claims it all for his eternal kingdom. 

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