Monday, January 19, 2015

Henry VIII and the Break with Rome

Seventh in a Series on the Protestant Reformation

Fr. Charles Coppens, S.J.

Henry VIII of England
England had been an integral portion of the Catholic Church since A.D. 596, at which date St. Austin, with his forty monks, arrived there on a mission from Pope Gregory the Great, and soon converted a large portion of the inhabitants. During the nine centuries that had since elapsed, piety had flourished in the land to such an extent that the country was fondly called by its people "the Dowry of Mary;" whereby they wished to signify that they were more devoted than most other nations to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is so near and dear to her Divine Son. All the cities and towns contained substantial churches, many of them costly and beautiful, and from all of them rose one concordant voice of worship; from every pulpit the same doctrine was taught; and few persons there were in whose mind and heart religion did not hold an honored place.

Monasteries dotted the land, more than twenty to a county, homes of prayer, of learning and labor, from whose portals streams of charity and consolation ever poured forth to all the needy and afflicted of the neighborhood. And England was happy, happy in the blessings of time and of eternity; it was "merry England" then, but it is so no more. The Kingdom was powerful and prosperous, having a full treasury, an industrious, intelligent and contented people, at the time when our story begins, namely in 1509, when Henry VIII, then a most promising youth of eighteen years, succeeded his father, Henry VII, whose many good qualities had been somewhat dimmed by his well-known avarice.

The new King soon became the idol of his people. High ran the universal joy, when, but two months after his ascension to the throne, he was solemnly united in the holy bonds of matrimony to the virtuous princess Catherine, a daughter of Ferdinand, King of Castile and Aragon.

With this affectionate wife, he lived seventeen years, during which she bore him three sons and two daughters; but all these died in their infancy, except the princess Mary, who was afterwards Queen of England. In his public life he was generally reputed to be a model ruler, a model man and a model Christian. He had entered the lists as a foremost champion of the Catholic faith, by publishing a book in defense of the Seven Sacraments against the attacks of Luther, and he had obtained from Pope Leo X, in reward of his zeal, the title of "Defender of the Faith," which he was to wear till death, but which the Kings of England have unjustly retained to the present day. But in his private life, Henry wanted one important virtue; he was all along very unfaithful to his stainless spouse. When he was thirty-five years of age, Queen Catherine being then forty-three, he allowed himself to become infatuated with a young lady of twenty-two, the coquettish Anne Boleyn, and he put no check on his criminal passion. Of course, he could not marry her during the life-time of his lawful wife. It was secretly suggested to him by some flatterers that, with his powerful influence at Rome, he might perhaps obtain a separation from her, on the plea that she had formerly been married to his elder brother Arthur. But the latter had died when a mere boy of fourteen, and the marriage had never been consummated. Besides, whatever impediment existed had been removed by a formal dispensation of the Church before Henry's marriage.

However, in 1527 the King undertook to plead that this dispensation was invalid, that therefore Queen Catherine was not his lawful wife, and that his delicate conscience did not allow him to live with her. How hypocritical was this pretense is shown to evidence by many facts; in particular by his conduct during the epidemic called "the sweating sickness," which then visited England, and soon entered the royal palace. While he saw the danger of death before him, he became very pious, he confessed his sins every day, and received Holy Communion once a week; and during this season of piety he resumed his marital relations with the Queen until the plague was gone. Then he banished Catherine, recalled Anne Boleyn, and urged the suit for the divorce with renewed energy. But the Supreme Pontiff, Clement VII, thought at the time in extraordinary need of Henry's help against powerful enemies, remained firm during the five years that the divorce suit lasted, and finally refused any further litigation in the matter.

In that situation of affairs, an unprincipled courtier, Thomas Cromwell, made a wicked suggestion to the King, advising him to throw off the yoke of Rome, and to declare himself the head of the Church within his own realm; he could then appoint his own ecclesiastical court to dissolve the marriage; many princes in Germany had thus made themselves independent in spiritual things, and they had reaped a rich harvest in appointing to themselves the lands and buildings of the churches and monasteries.

The King was delighted with this counsel. He at once made Cromwell a member of his privy council, and followed his advice in all its details. For three years, he had secretly been living in adulterous union with Anne Boleyn, when, in 1533, her condition of pregnancy made it imperative that some decisive step should be taken to prevent public disgrace. Therefore, he married her privately on January 25, but it was given out that the ceremony had taken place on Nov. 24, 1532, because the child was born on September 7, less than eight months after the real nuptials. This child of sin was Elizabeth, who in course of time did probably more harm to England than anyone else has ever done, for she was the principal cause of establishing Protestantism in that land.

To bring about the divorce from Catherine, Henry appointed Thomas Cranmer to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, and made him the judge of the case, though the Pope had explicitly reserved the decision to himself. The servile court at last pronounced the sentence of divorce. Carnmer was well chosen for this disgraceful task, for he had himself, after ordination, secretly married a daughter of the Protestant leader, Osiander. Yet this is the infamous man who later on introduced the doctrine of the Reformers into England, and who composed the Book of Common Prayer.

On May 28, 1533, he solemnly declared that the King had been lawfully married to Anne Boleyn, and that he now confirmed the marriage by his pastoral and judicial authority, which he derived from the successors of the Apostles. And yet only four years later, May 28, 1537, this same man again openly and solemnly pronounced "in the name of Christ and for the honor of God," that this same marriage was an always had been null and void. For Henry had become suspicious of his new wife, he had consigned her to the tower and condemned her to death for adultery, and she was beheaded on the day after her divorce.

The Many Wives of Henry VIII
Only five months after this, on October 12, his third wife, Jane Seymour, brought forth his son, whe became later King Edward VI; the mother died in childbirth. His fourth wife was Anne of Cleves, but he soon divorced her, too, and he punished Cromwell with death for having promoted that marriage. He next espoused Catherine Howard, but her also he soon divorced, accusing her of adultery committed before her marriage, and he had her beheaded for constructive treason, as her supposed sin was called. His sixth wife, Catherine Parr, barely escaped the like fate for having presumed to differ from him on a religious question; but when the officers arrived to convey her to the tower, she had appeased his wrath by a most humble apology.

And yet this monstrous tyrant and scandalous adulterer is supposed by many simply folk to have been the chosen instrument of Providence for separating the English Church from dependence on the one pastor of the one fold. When a Pope is bad, he is an exception in his line; but with "Reformers," badness is the rule, and Christ assures us that the tree is known by its fruit.

When Cromwell had advised separation from Rome, in 1532, Henry had immediately accomplished the design. For he at once summoned a convocation of the clergy, and required of it a recognition of his supreme headship of the Church of England. The act was passed, with the clause added, "as far as the law of Christ will allow." By this clause, the terrified clergy tried to save their conscience; but it was ignored by the tyrant. At once, he appointed the layman Cromwell to be spiritual vicar-general of the realm, and thus he set him over all the bishops. Their powers were suspended, and each of them had to sue for faculties from the King to enable him to govern his flock. Bishops and parliament trembled before the tyrant, and became mere tools of his will. At his bidding, parliament passed bills for divorcing and beheading the Queens, for settling the succession to the throne as pleased him, for condemning anyone to death.

To resist his will was to court death, to court death requires a hero, and few courtiers of politicians are heroes. The lord-chancellor, Blessed Thomas More, and Blessed Cardinal Fisher, bishop of Rochester, boldly refused to take the oath of Henry's spiritual supremacy. They were cast into the Tower and beheaded for the faith. So were many religious and seculars, men and women. The religious houses were confiscated, first the smaller ones; these were charged with relaxation, but the larger ones were declared to be above reproach. Yet, soon after, the larger ones also were suppressed, and their land and treasure usurped to enrich the King and his flatterers, while the poor people who used to be supported by their charity were left to starve of want, and later on were branded with a red hot iron for begging their bread, or given over as slaves to whoever convicted them of vagrancy. It is hard to trace the finger of God in Henry's work, but it is easy to see in it the influence of the Devil, the world and the flesh.


  1. After reading the book "Characters of the Reformation" by Hilaire Belloc I have been trying to find out WHY Henry VIII needed a papal dispensation to marry his first wife. Since his older brother never consummated their marriage with her why did he need one? He was trying to get this dispensation reversed so he could marry Ann Bolyn that started all of this terrible break with Rome. If you could clear up my ignorance I would be most thankful.

  2. Dear Theresa,

    As far as I know - I'm certainly no expert on the matter - the papal dispensation was obtained because of affinity, which was presumed - as the consummation, apparently, was in some doubt - to exist between Henry and Catherine by virtue of her previous marriage with Arthur. Even though Arthur was dead, Catherine was still technically related to Henry - his sister-in-law, in fact - and marrying your sibling, whether by blood or by marriage, was forbidden by the law of affinity and a definite impediment to contracting a new marriage, which could only be remedied by obtaining a papal dispensation.

    It was this very point which Henry later tried to use as leverage to force the Pope to grant him an annulment from Catherine, i.e. that she had been the wife of his brother, and Leviticus 20:21 appears to forbid such a union. In short, Henry was arguing that the Pope (Julius II) didn't have the power to grant such a dispensation in the first place, as to do so would be contrary to God's law; thus, the marriage with Catherine had been null from the start. Of course, Henry intentionally ignored that Deuteronomy 25:5 positively commands such a union in a case of the death of the first brother, and reveals that Leviticus 20:21 only applies to a case of taking a brother's wife while the first brother is still alive. Being in no way contrary to God's law, the Pope's dispensation was licit, and the marriage was very much a real one.

    Of course, if the marriage had never been consummated - as Catherine maintained - then there was no legal affinity between her and Henry, and the dispensation was entirely unnecessary. In that case, Henry's argument falls apart completely.

    I hope this helps. Reviewing the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Affinity (in Canon Law) might also help to clarify the matter.



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