From: Religious Context 16th Century Bible Translation               Return to Home            

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2016








Chapter Two:

Lighting the Fire of English Reformation:  Underlying Causes, Forces, and Influences 



            Computers and I have never been overly friendly, but in this case I must confess either tiredness or lack of careful observation caused the system to consume for “dinner” all of chapter two.  (Age can not fully be ruled out either.)  Having discovered the error after having completed the final reading of chapter one, I had the alternative to either abort this entire book or preserve the bulk of the contents and omit this section. 

            I have chosen the latter option to keep from having to scrap the entire project and because the “surviving” materials should be useful in their own right even without this section.  Having put considerable work into the project, I confess the omission was done grudgingly, but it simply seemed impractical at this late date (17 years after the original draft!) to attempt to rewrite an entire new chapter based upon new research. 

For one thing, too much time has passed by and it is no longer “fresh” in my mind.  It would also have provided a major temptation to expand the various sections at length when, in their current form, what we have is both concise and provides a good overview of the matters that are covered.

            The omitted section followed this outline of contents:   


            Moral Disintegration of Society at Large

            Anti-Foreign Resentments



            Indignation at the Moral Decay of the Church

            Indignation at the Economic Power of the Church

            Lollards:  Precedent and Continued Presence?

            Renaissance/Humanist Impetus to Rethinking the Past and the Present

                        Shared Interests of Humanists and Reformers

                        Differences of Emphasis between Humanists and Reformers

                        Erasmus:  The Man in the Middle

                        Humanist/Renaissance Input into English Education and Culture





Chapter Three:

Immediate Politico-Religious Motives

for the English Schism 



            Much of what we discussed in the prior chapter might be described as either idealistic or broad factors pressing in the direction of dramatic innovation or, at the minimum, setting the stage to make it feasible.  On the other hand, in the so-called real world, motives as often grow out of self-serving or self-justifying rationales. 

Except for the extremely callous, most individuals probably weave them together in an unconscious tapestry of motivation and incentive.  In other words, self-centered and abstract reasons are blended together to produce and justify a given path of conduct.  Indeed, due to the presence of both, the actual policy is more zealously held to than if either idealism or self-interest alone lay at its core. 

            We would be less than realistic, however, if we did not acknowledge that for many the idealistic motives were of modest importance and, in the worst cases, mere window-dressing.  A minority acted out of (almost) purely idealistic reasons--religious or political or both; another minority acted (almost) exclusively out of how the changes would benefit either themselves or those whom they served. 

There was probably a class difference involved among the “practical” minded.  Aristocrats could imagine expropriating (directly or indirectly) part of the wealth of the church; this was hardly conceivable for the peasant.  Yet part of the formulation for both “low” and “high” born might easily be destructive hostility and envy--the very reverse of constructive idealism!

            In this chapter we move from background reasons for the religious revolution of the sixteenth century into the more immediate ones.  At the hub must lie Henry’s desire to break the marriage bond with his first wife. 

            No one knows how deeply Henry really believed his protestations that he had a scriptural and canonical right to (at least) his first annulment.  Quite likely, at some point he did cross the line into such a belief--whether out of genuine conviction or self-serving delusion must be left to a far Higher Power whose judgment exceeds that of mere mortals.  The key here is that some way had to be found to justify an annulment if he were to fulfill a king’s ultimate obligation to the kingdom and his predecessors:  produce a heir. 

            With the church leadership in Rome in delaying approval, and with the wealth of the church proverbial (especially in the mind of a cash-strapped government), the church’s English possessions represented a tremendous target-of-opportunity.  Although a break with Roman ecclesiastical oversight was inherently dangerous, if he were able to successfully accomplish it, it would both enhance his power and his wealth.   Yet the gains to be made would never have been sufficient to run the risk if his perceived need to have a heir had not first existed.  Since both of these factors (heir and wealth) played major roles in his motivation--the first certain and the second extremely probably--they deserve more detailed attention.          




 Lack of an Acceptable Solution

to the Politico-Religious Question

of Henry's "Divorce" 



            Was there a way (short of bearing a son) that Catherine could have been reconciled with Henry?  Not that he would have given up his mistresses; having those were a foregone conclusion to the monarch.  But could the marriage have survived and the resulting break with Rome be avoided?   Probably not, but the course Catherine followed in resisting the divorce was one that maximized Henry's irritation and minimized the possibility that he would either seek or even desire a reconciliation.  One modern student of the question has evaluated her motives and its counter-productive results in these terms,[1]


Her six year's seniority, and the fact that in their youth he had depended on her judgment, resulted in her thinking of him--and treating him--as an easily led, well-disposed creature of impulse, who, properly influenced, was bound, at long last, to come to a better frame of mind.  So he must on no account be indulged or placated, but scolded, threatened and, above all, reminded of his duty by her appearance at his side on every possible occasion. .  . .

[Her] thirty years' residence in England had taught her nothing of the varying currents of opinion outside her own constricted circle, and [she] was incapable of perceiving that . . . both the King and his people had changed, and were continuing to do so.  Nor does she seem to have realized that her insistence on her rights, combined with her virulent abuse of Anne Boleyn, as a shameless woman Henry "dragged about" with him, were driving him into hatred and contempt for herself, and for everything she represented. 

Finally, . . . [h]er letters show that his talk of conscience, sin and the dictates of Leviticus sounded in her ears like the foolish babble of someone temporarily unbalanced; and what may have most exasperated him was her making excuses for his convictions, and laying the blame on others, as if he, who had been King of England for twenty-one years, had neither knowledge, nor intelligence--nor even authority. 


            A very, very fatal impression to leave on as stubborn and determined a monarch as Henry!  Those who defend her, prefer to speak in terms of  Catherine being the only one in the whole affair (including the leaders of the church) who was unwilling to compromise personal moral integrity.[2] 

Even posed in these terms, one can not help but be skeptical of the way in which she expressed her principles, however.  To be in the “right,” steadfast, unbending is fine.  But if one is to convince others to change their course an astute perception of their needs, weaknesses, and ideals is equally essential in order to most ably make one’s case.  Such astuteness Catherine clearly lacked. 

            Henry's break with Rome was viewed by Catholics of the day as the triumph of lust over religion.  Yet when it came to lust, Henry had a ready supply of ready and willing female playmates.   Henry was interested in far more than just lust--he was interested in having a recognized “legitimate” (i.e., the fruit of marriage) male heir to whom he could entrust the crown and spare the nation another disruptive civil war among rival claimants.  

            Hence the lack of a readily recognized method of passing rulership peacefully along to the next generation when such a heir was lacking, produced a preoccupation with obtaining a male child.  That in turn, made Henry feel compelled to act in whatever manner that accomplished that end no matter how much it might compromise the religious principles he had been raised in. 

Indeed, viewed from his standpoint, did he have any other option?  Did he not owe not only his own Tudor lineage but the nation itself a male heir and the stability he could provide?  To him the logic was not only appealing but inescapable--though also self-satisfying and self-beneficial.

            Furthermore, there was ample reason to be optimistic that the desired annulment would be granted.  There was a long standing willingness of the papacy to grant just about any desired annulment if it met the dynastic needs of powerful contemporary rulers. 

            Margaret, Henry's own sister, had recently received such an approval.  Her plea was based, in part, on arguments clearly erroneous, and in part on arguments not proven.  Yet in March 1527 her annulment was granted.  The man she was currently living with was Charles Brandon.  Years before he also had pushed through a successful annulment proceeding under the most dubious reasoning. 

As Margaret received her own annulment, Brandon was again seeking an annulment--this time to set aside all inconveniencing previous papal rulings so he could now marry Margaret.  Wolsey had maneuvered the original annulment through to acceptance and was currently beginning work on the second one for Brandon.  With such successes so close at hand, Henry had every reason to expect a satisfactory outcome.[3] 

            Henry is believed or known to have had sexual relationship with all six of his wives and at least two mistresses (Mary Boleyn and Elizabeth Bount).  Only four children were successfully born. 

Although one may blame Henry's genetic structure for a failure to father more male children, there is also the question of the odd inability of his wives to carry to term so few children at all.  Henry's first wife had five miscarriages out of six efforts.  Anne Boleyn had two out of three.  Mary Boleyn only became pregnant after her affair with Henry had ended and she had married someone else.  Likewise his final wife Katherine Parr only became pregnant after the king's death, in her following marriage.

            Women who could get pregnant who didn't; women who did get pregnant and miscarried.  Some of this could have reflected genetic difficulties of one party or the other or even both.  Perhaps because of anti-Henry sentiments the matter is nearly always posed in terms of Henry's failures and so far as the lack of fathering a male child goes, that is quite reasonable.  The number of miscarriages, however, suggest the possibility of significant genetic or medical problems on the part of the women he married as well.   

            More immediate causes have also been suggested as contributing factors to the failure to have a son.  In regard to his marriage with Anne of Cleaves, he claimed the inability of "will and power to consummate the" relationship.   Although the skeptic is tempted to dismiss this as a self-serving (though embarrassing) admission to escape the marriage, it is known that he consulted doctors about his problem.  Of course, how much of this was physical inability and how much annoyance at a woman he had come to intensely dislike is unknowable.

            Henry despisers have periodically looked with favor upon the possibility that he suffered from syphilis.  The medical treatment that Francis I received for that condition is so different from that given Henry, it seems most improbable that this particular problem tormented him.  The leg ulcer that repeatedly plagued him from 1528 onwards was far more likely the result of injuries from his jousting days than from any sexually transmitted disease.[4]  

            Statistically, the odds were not as favorable to Henry as his personal preference for a male child would have preferred.  A study of childbearing among the nobility of Henry's day reveals that first marriages carried a 19% rate of having no children at all and a 29% rate of not having a son.  Second marriages were even worse:  48% bore no children and 58% bore no sons.[5]  Of course a king was expected to have sons and Henry naturally thought of the successes he heard of rather than the failures that were so common.     

            We have approached this analysis from the standpoint of the traditional issue of why Henry had a child-fathering problem.  In reality, the difficulty is much exaggerated, as shown by the multiple pregnancies that occurred.  Nor was he unable to father a male child.  His problem, rather, lay in his partial inability to father a male child within the confines of a marriage combined with the inability of his wives to carry them to term.

            As an antidote to the mythology on Henry’s “inability” to father male offspring, two examples may be cited.  The first is of a child who was not carried to term; the second of one who was.  Henry’s determination to engage in vigorous jousting almost cost him his life.  In late 1535 he had an extremely serious fall during a joust at Greenwich.  For hours his life hung in the balance and no one could be sure whether he would live or die.  When Anne Boleyn heard the first report of the accident--and not knowing her husband’s ultimate fate--she went into a shock that produced a miscarriage.  The child was reported to be male and, if carried to term, would have produced the successor Henry so fervently desired.[6] 

            The second male child useful to discuss is that of his illegitimate offspring,  Henry Fitzroy.  At age six the son was made duke of Richmond.  Since this title had been that of both Henry VII and VIII before they came to the throne, it was a clear sign of Fitzroy's ultimate destiny if a legitimate son did not appear.  Other titles were given simultaneously that had been possessed by earlier rulers in their younger years.  Cumulatively, these honors resulted in the young man enjoying first place in courtly protocol.[7]  Catherine was so angered at Henry giving Fitzroy precedence over their legitimate child, Princess Mary, that she vigorously protested but to no avail.   

            Provided with a fine tutor, Fitzroy gave indications of possessing a fine mind though he was easily distracted by the riding and hunting less academically minded friends preferred and encouraged him in.  When Catherine was divorced, it turned Mary--legally--into an illegitimate child herself and the same was true in regard to Elizabeth after Henry divorced her mother as well.  Since all were now on a legal par, some of his advisers lobbied for an official decision to bestow the succession upon Fitzroy. 

            But Henry was strangely silent.  Perhaps he still hoped for the birth of a legitimate child that would escape the stigma of being born outside of marriage.  On the other hand, there may also have been a major element of personal bad chemistry between father and son.  Although Henry had exhibited periods of kindliness and affection toward the young Mary, these had been conspicuously absent in regard to Fitzroy. 

Furthermore, in spite of the high titles, he was kept away from the court itself.  It was as if the king were determined to have him ready and prepared to become king, while seeking a more palatable solution if possible.  If so it was all in vain.  A few months after the execution of Anne Boleyn, the seventeen year old Fitzroy became sick, worsened, and died.[8]




Wealth of the Church as a Revenue Source

for Government



            The public might be aggravated at the flow of English gold abroad.  Posed in those terms, few would protest restrictions that kept this from happening.  There was another side of this, from the standpoint of the king:  to him keeping this gold in the kingdom meant diverting it into the coffers of his government and using the newfound wealth on personal and official expenses and to cement ties with the powerful men of the kingdom.

            Hence the people at large would be benefited little or none, but only the already rich and powerful and some of those on the way up the aristocratic totem pole.  So long as the emphasis could be retained, in the public eye, on the taking, support would be maximized.  To the extent that public attention turned to what was to be done with the seized wealth the door was open to scorn and disillusionment with the political and economic leaders of the country.

            Nunneries were a minor element in the British religious landscape.  In contrast to mainland Europe, Englanders were far less likely to follow the Continental preference for placing in them their "surplus" daughters and endowing the institutions with generous gifts in return.[9]  The nunnery at Syon was a major exception to this rule.  Serious piety was emphasized and the residents were from aristocratic families.[10]  Yet since the nunneries were such a secondary part of the religious environment, the impact of government actions is better revealed by centering attention on the male monasteries.  

            The government had investigated the allegedly prevalent corruption in 1535.  The second major investigation of that same year was of the financial resources and revenues of the various monasteries.  If purification of a decayed institution had been the only goal, this would have been an odd action.  In actual practice, the scandals spread far and wide by the government's "exposure" of moral corruption, providing an excuse for seizing the monastic assets discovered in the financial probe.               

            In 1536 a statue provided for the seizure of almost 400 such institutions.  A number had already "voluntarily" agreed to disband and the small size of all of them[11] made successful resistance nigh impossible anyway.  The remainder were individually forced into closing their operations.  In 1539 a new statute gave these individual closures the endorsement of explicit law.[12]

            The monasteries themselves and the wealth they had possessed became sources of revenue for the government.  Seized by the government, they were sold off over a period of time.  The jewelry and the silver plate were obvious moneymakers.  Less obvious to our age was the value of the leaded roofs.  This was stripped for reuse or sold.

The buildings themselves (unless sold to buyers in time) were likely to become local sources for building stone.  The precious manuscript collections were either destroyed by those unconcerned with intellectual and historical issues or scattered with little thought and foresight.  After all, they were of no monetary significance.[13]  Regimes change.  Buildings can be reconstructed.  But in that pre-technological age, a manuscript destroyed was a manuscript lost forever.

            Although state self-enrichment eventually won out, this represented a diversion of major economic resources from other potentially constructive usages.  Nor was it carried out without significant opposition from reformers in the court during the crucial discussions during the winter of 1535-1536.  Anne Boleyn convinced several ministers who spoke at the court to deliver lessons that would encourage the conversion of the monasteries to continuing, positive usages. 

            Hugh Latimer, for example, appealed to the parable of the vineyard in Luke 20 to show that the repossessed vineyard was not destroyed but put to better use.  In a similar way, Latimer insisted, the monasteries should be turned into "places of study and good letters."[14]  The effort was unsuccessful but it revealed that many refused to accept the propriety of the use of the monasteries as merely a new economic resource to be utilized by the treasury.

            The suppression of the monasteries was one of several irritants that produced the first major Catholic military response to the Anglican Catholicism Henry was creating.  In the last six months of 1536 northern England erupted in the Pilgrimage of Grace.  It was motivated by popular sympathy with traditional Catholicism, anger at the elimination of the monastic system, discontent at the superior economic welfare of southern England, and fears caused by such local conditions as the enclosure movement and high taxes.

Small businessmen resented London's dominance; the towns in general were frustrated by the allocation of seats in Parliament which consigned them to perpetual under-representation; and key economic and political leaders felt a deep personal offense at Henry's most important advisors.[15] 

            The entire northern third of England was in rebellion and any insurrection produced by the social-economic-religious factors behind this one posed the potential for producing dangerous sympathy in other regions as well.  In order to co-ordinate the suppression of the rebellion, a "privy council" of major advisers was created by the King.  What was instituted as an ad hoc reaction to a threatening situation became an on-going practice as an effective utilitarian measure to maximize the ability of the King to rule his kingdom.[16]  

            The traditional Catholic clerics had strong economic (as well as religious) reasons to tilt them toward support of the rebellion.  Requiring the paying to Rome of the "First Fruits" (first years income from a benefice) was prohibited in 1533.  The following year an equivalent state fee was imposed upon all future acquired benefices; furthermore "Tenths" were to be required yearly in addition to this.  This annual 10% tax, when added to the “first fruits,” resulted in a 20% effective tax on all benefices over a period of a decade.  Within the political-economic context of the time, this was viewed as a horrendous figure. 

            In 1536 clerical pressure convinced the government (presumably reinforced by clerical support for the Pilgrimage of Grace) to provide a token lightening of the load.  Instead of having to pay the full value of the benefice and the first Tenth in the same year, the Tenth was to be dispensed with for that initial twelve month period.  The situation was worsened by the fact that the crown had not repudiated its right to receive a periodic "voluntary" gift from the church as a collectivity as well.  These were forthcoming in 1540, 1543, and 1545. 

The effective result of the direct and indirect clerical taxes was that the clergy carried a heavier burden of taxation than any other category of citizens.  So heavy was it that the Archbishop of York did not consider it an exaggeration to claim that the Pilgrimage of Grace erupted because of clerics’ outrage at the level of taxation.[17]

            Though the Pilgrimage was successfully repressed, many of the same causes embittered on-going regional feelings of social and economic injustice—not to omit the parallel suspicion that a policy of unwise religious innovation was being persisted in.  Decades later these sentiments erupted yet again in the Rebellion of 1569-1570.

            Church wealth as a motivation for governmental repression can also be illustrated by the assault on the valuable properties associated with the worship of the saints.  The reformers were vigorously opposed to belief in the miracle working power of the “saints” whose remains were kept at various shrines throughout the land.  The Injunctions issued by Thomas Cromwell in 1536 instructed all clergymen to refuse to “extol any images, relics, or miracles, . . . nor allure the people to the pilgrimage of any saint.”[18] 

            The Injunctions issued in 1538 ordered that “feigned images” were “abused with pilgrimages or offerings” and most were to be removed as quickly as possible.  The few to remain were to “serve for no purpose but as to be books of unlearned men.” The clerics were to explicitly tell the people that this was their only legitimate purpose.  Those clergy who had “heretofore declared to parishioners anything to the extolling or setting forth of pilgrimages, feigned relics, or images, or any such superstition” were to “now openly . . . recant and reprove” the practice.[19] 

            At this point politics and the reform agenda again interlocked.  Few of the saints of the church could be more repugnant to a thorough going royalist such as Henry VIII than Thomas a Becket.  In April 1538, Henry began to vindicate his anti-traditionalist stance while simultaneously venting his spleen upon this foe of an earlier English king.

            That month saw an order read aloud before the tomb ordering Becket to appear within thirty days before the King’s Council.  Since, for obvious reasons, he was unable to do so, the Council proceeded against him.  Accusing him of needlessly disturbing the realm, and therefore causing his own death, the Council stripped him of his title of martyr.  His bones were to be removed and burned and the valuables given to his Canterbury shrine to be confiscated for the state’s treasury. 

            A royal proclamation of November had Henry proclaiming to the people that Becket’s death was “untruly called martyrdom; . . . and further . . . his canonization was made only by the Bishop of Rome because he had been a champion to maintain his usurped authority.”  Now only were all of his pictures and images to be removed but henceforth there would be no feast day in his honor.[20] 

            The plundering of the tomb had produced three hundredweight of gold.  Twice that amount of silver was removed, as well as many valuable gems.[21]  The king had enhanced his stature with the more militant reformers by his willingness to wage war on the idols of pseudo-saints.  Of course it did not hurt that he also built up the size of his treasury--an admirable (from his standpoint) combination of faith demonstrated by works as well as a means of meeting the costs of the regal household and government

            At least one other similar action was taken the same year against another major shrine, that of St. Swithun, located in the Winchester cathedral.  Similar actions were taken against other such sites in the following years.[22]        






[1]Hester W. Chapman, The Challenge of Anne Boleyn (New York:  Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1974), 95.


[2] For this approach see Albert, 131.


[3] For a discussion of the tangled annulment histories of Margaret Tudor and Charles Brandon, see Carolly Erickson, Great Harry:  The Extravagant Life of Henry VIII (New York:  Summit Books, 1980), 200-201.


[4] For an effective examination of the difficulties Henry had in fathering children, especially male ones, see Eric Ives, Anne Boleyn (Oxford [England]:  Basil Blackwell, 1986; paperback edition, 1988), 236-239.


[5] The findings of Lawrence Stone in his Crisis of the Aristocracy, as summarized by Karen Lindsey, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived:  A Feminist Reinterpretation of the Wives of Henry VIII (New York:  Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995), 64.


[6] On losing the child see Neville Williams, The Cardinal and the Secretary:  Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell (New York:  Macmillan Publishing Company, 1975), 186.   


[7] Erickson, Bloody Mary, 57. 


[8] On the relationship between Fitzroy and his father see Ibid., 162-163.


[9] Matthew, 21.


[10] Ives, 309.


[11] Bindoff, 106.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Ibid., 106-107.


[14] As quoted by Ives, Anne Boleyn, 310.


[15] For a discussion of the causes see Bindoff, 107-108.  Actually, historians commonly lump together several separate rebellions under the label “Pilgrimage of Grace” since they occurred more or less close together and had overlapping agendas.  We have done the same here.


[16] On the importance of the Pilgrimage of Grace as creating the precedent for a de facto privy council (even before it was formally acknowledged as such) see Eric Ives, "Henry VIII:  The Political Perspective," in The Reign of Henry VIII:  Politics, Policy and Piety, edited by Diarmaid MacCulloch (London:  Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1995), 27-28.


[17] On clerical taxation see Richard Hoyle, "War and Public Finance," in The Reign of Henry VIII:  Politics, Policy and Piety,  edited by Diarmaid MacCulloch (London:  Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1995), 80-81. 


[18] As quoted by Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 69.


[19] As quoted by Ibid., 69-70..


[20] As quoted by Ibid., 70.   On the plundering of the tomb also see Diarmaid MacCulloch, Thomas Cranmer:  A Life (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1996), 227-228.                


[21] Lehmberg, Reformation of Cathedrals, 70. 


[22] Ibid., 71-76.