A question from a reader: Was he for or against the reformation? Was he protestant or catholic? Please explain and expand.
He was Catholic pre- Anne Boleyn. It wasn’t until he couldn’t get the Pope to grant an annulment for his and Catherine’s marriage that he decided to become protestant. Anne Boleyn actually had protestant leanings, whereas Henry just viewed the protestant reformation as a means to legally divorce Catherine and make Anne’s child a legitimate heir to the thone.
Henry was the first monarch in England to completely break with the Catholic church. Although, Henry did not subscribe to protestant religions on the continent (Lutherans, Calvinists, Arminians, etc.) instead Henry created his own church, the Anglican Church that still survives to this day and was intended as a “middle road” between Catholicism and Protestantism.
Many past and present believe that Henry’s, who was a loyal Catholic until the 1530s, would have remained so if it were not for his famous confrontation with the Pope when Henry requested a papal dispensation to divorce his current wife Katherine of Aragon and re-marry a noblewoman, Anne Boelynn. Divorce is considered a sin for Catholics, but Henry found a loophole and claimed that his marriage to Katherine should be annulled. The Pope delayed a final answer for years setting up mock investigations and trials until an exhausted Henry announced his break with the Catholic Church, divorced Katherine and married Anne without Papal authority, for which he was excommunicated.
That is the most popular version of events, but it often, for brevity’s sake, ignores many other events and aspects of this time period that were occurring both inside and outside England that were closely related to Henry’s “Great Matter” as contemporaries called it. To understand this one needs to step back and look at a broader view of the time period.
First of all, Henry was a monarch during an extremely competitive period of time for Western Europe. His reign was marked by constant competition with the French and Spanish on the content and the Scottish and Irish in the British Isles. Furthermore, even in England itself his father had usurped power during the War of the Roses and many still disputed the his family’s right to rule.
Given these complex and difficult circumstances facing Henry he had to use a variety of tactics to accomplish his political aims during his reign, and many of them laid on shaky moral ground. Nonetheless understanding the time period can add important perspective and rational on why he made those choices.
Katherine, for example, was Spanish and the niece of the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor of Germany Charles V, perhaps the most powerful monarch of his time. Although Henry may have felt comfortable with Spain in the earlier years of his reign when he married Katherine, by the 1530s he felt that the power of Spain under Charles was too great and threatening and he repeatedly tried to form alliances and friendships with his former enemy the French who were now constantly at war with Spain during this period. In these designs he was influenced mostly by the notorious Cardinal Wolsey who was his Chancellor and chief advisor.
Henry was also fearful of events in England, he was now in his 40s and he had no male heir and his family’s legitimacy was still disputed. Therefore Henry was desperate to continue the Tudor dynasty and now that relations with Spain were at a all time low, divorcing Katherine, who was barren and who was now virtually a Spanish spy at court, seemed a good strategy. However in 1527 Charles sacked Rome itself and held the Pope as a prisoner. Charles would never let the Pope give Henry permission to divorce his niece Katherine.
Therefore, in the end, it wasn’t so much about a divorce, or about an argument between King Henry and Pope as it was a competition between Henry and Charles and also about Henry’s family and domestic obligations to continue the Tudor dynasty. In the long run Henry’s break with Spain and with the Catholic Church put England on the side of the Protestants and with new friends like the Dutch and the Protestant princes of Northern Germany and occasionally the French. This coalition, of which England played a major role, would intermittently resist the growing power of Charles family the Habsburgs throughout the 16th and early 17th century.
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