Monday, April 4, 2016

Henry VIII and the Break with Rome

Judith Arnopp

There are many unanswered questions about the Tudors but probably the most asked is ‘What makes the Tudors so fascinating?’ It could be that they are seldom out of the media. There are numerous films, shows, documentaries, books, articles, websites but there seems to be no definitive answer to their appeal. We have portraits (as discussed in my previous blog which can be read here), we have records of their actions, some good, many bad. We can visit their palaces, see surviving fragments of their clothing, pieces of furniture; examples of their handwriting, craft work, letters. We even have the wreck of Henry’s favourite flag ship. So, all this considered, we should know just about all there is to know about them.  But we don’t, or perhaps it would be better to say, we don’t know as much about them as we would like.

Everyone is an expert when it comes to the Tudors (myself included). We think we know them because we can recognise their faces, count off the names of Henry’s wives on our fingers, and tentatively find our way through the complexities of the Reformation. I am often asked questions about the Tudors that are impossible to answer but the most elusive of all are: ‘What made them tick?’ 'How did their minds work?' What did they think and why did they think it? My favourite question received this week is ‘What did Henry VIII really feel when he broke with Rome?’ I've  been thinking about it ever since but it is one of those questions we can never really answer. Henry is so many things to so many people. A monster, a bigot, a bully ... I could go on but I prefer to try to be objective.

The distance between the Renaissance and the world we know today is unfathomable; even the most astute of us can never begin to really understand the workings of the Tudor mind. Religion today is, in comparison, lax. Few of us are ruled by the teachings of the church as they were then. People of the period, even kings, lived by the dictates of religion; the hours of the day were divided by bells calling them to prayer, the months were marked by feast and saint’s days. Even their diet and sex life was ruled by the church. I don’t believe we can even begin to realise the magnitude of Henry’s break with Rome or the effect it had on society, or more importantly for the purposes of this blog, the impact it had on Henry himself.

In becoming God’s representative on Earth in place of the Pope, Henry must have feared deep down that he was in fact taking one step closer to hell rather than Heaven. His deep-seated Catholic upbringing taught that the Pope was unassailable; snubbing Rome was tantamount to snubbing God himself. Henry was stubborn, he refused the directives of the Pope yet, secretly, he must have trembled. Against his religious scruple, and despite the fact that he found many facets of continental reform troublesome, he was convinced by those eager for reform that a break with Rome was the only way to secure his dynasty. To convince the people, he allowed a bible to be printed, in the vernacular.

The Great Bible issued in 1539 was the first to be printed in English and we have only to turn to the frontispiece to see the change that has taken place. Gone is Christ in majesty; He is rather rudely ousted to the top margins of the page where He whispers God’s word into the King Henry’s ear. Henry, seated just below him, passes on the word of God.

The king is holding two copies of the scriptures, he gives one into the keeping of Cranmer and one into the hands of Cromwell, who in turn pass the word to the clergy and laymen, and so on to the masses (some of whom seem to be in gaol). Comic style speech bubbles give voice to the proceedings, ‘Vivat Rex’ they cry, ‘God save the King,’ praising Henry who is now the main conduit of the word of God.

Copies of this Bible were sent to parishes across the country and Thomas Cromwell ordered one to be placed in every church in England, a crucial tool in the campaign to subliminally persuade the nation of Royal Supremacy and to follow the dictates of their king.

This frontispiece is often used as an example of Henry’s megalomania yet although it was undoubtedly designed to flatter him, he had little to do with it other than to sanction its publication. It was designed by Myles Coverdale working under commission of Thomas Cromwell, whose agenda was to promote reformation and flatter his king.

Henry took his role of Christian King seriously; he was a theologian, the one-time Defender of the Faith, a title conferred on him by Pope Leo X for a pamphlet Henry wrote against Martin Luther. Yet the lesson imprinted on him by his father, Henry VII, on the importance of heirs seems to have obliterated his religious teaching. When the Pope refused to countenance Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Henry was cornered. He believed he had to marry Anne Boleyn and secure the Tudor dynasty by getting himself an heir. The Pope’s refusal to favour Henry’s suit made the break with Rome inevitable.

Many, many innocent people died for their refusal to follow Henry’s dictates, his quest for a son with Anne failed, and the subsequent marriage to Jane Seymour bore fruit but she died shortly after bearing him a son. Even having obtained his heir Henry could not forget the untimely death of his elder brother, Arthur, a death that made Henry heir to the throne. Terrified that history would repeat itself, Henry never gave up hope of more sons but, although the king married a further three times, Edward was his last child.

Contrary to the belief of many, Henry never abandoned Catholicism. After the break with Rome he became head of the Catholic Church in England, a reformed church, that dispensed with the Pope and the monastic institutions that rivalled his magnificence in England. Henry maintained his Catholic beliefs to the end and died in the faith. Protestantism was not established in England until the reign of Henry’s much cherished son, King Edward VI. It is my belief that Henry was not eager for reform. it was Catherine he really wanted to be rid of, not Rome but the Pope left him no choice. Had the marriage to Catherine of Aragon been annulled the reformation would never have taken place during Henry's reign but the wave of religious change in Europe was unstoppable and it would have come sooner or later, with or without Henry.

Illustrations from  Wikimedia commons 


Judith is the author of eight historical novels and is currently working on Book Two of The Beaufort Chronicles: the life of Margaret Beaufort. You can find out more here.


  1. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. I think I realised the all-pervasive aspect that religion had for people in the middle ages and Renaissance when I read Cynthia Harnett's wonderful books (written for children, but good for all ages). Her characters went to church frequently during the week, and especially on saint's days. I agree with you that Henry VIII was not a Protestant as we know it, and that his motivation was more about being able to have a legitimate male heir than anything else. But I find it more difficult and troubling to explain the Dissolution of the Monasteries as a positive action, rather than a greedy one for less than honourable reasons, given that the dissolution was not limited to institutions which were immoral or irreligious.

    1. I agree, however it could easily be all is well that ends well.. the established church did just that re-established a reign of King and Church, (however they left out the Holy Father) reconciling with The Holy Church is what is needed now and for Elizabeth II to do make it happen would certainly be a welcome ending to all of the problems. Please pray for the re-conciliation of England with The Holy Church. Please learn the lesson of Constantinople before it is to late, if it is not to late already..Glory be to God.

    2. rather than a greedy one...

      Indeed it was looting. One power takes the wealth of another power because it can. I believe that can be seen over and over world wide during the course of human history.

      Henry gave the Church's looted lands to his supporters for various goods and services ; he used the very bells for canon. Later Cromwell gave the Royalist's land he looted to his supporters and so on. It's about loot; fig leafed by religion. imo

  2. Really enjoyed this Judith. Very insightful.

  3. Who came up with the theology of the Divine Right of Kings so beloved by James I and VI and Charles I? It doesn't seem too removed from "He whispers God’s word into the King Henry’s ear." I suspect many reform European rulers were also looking for a useful philosophy to explain around their power.


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