Was the Henrician Reformation inevitable
In 1534 Henry VIII was declared ” the only Supreme Head on Earth of the Church in England… having full power and authority….. to the pleasure of Almighty God1″ The Reformation resulted in both political changes such as the headship of the Church, and religious movement away from strong Catholic beliefs such as superstition and purgatory. Traditional historians such as G. R. Elton and A. G. Dickins hold widely different views to revisionist historians such a C. Haigh and J. J. Scarisbrick concerning if the Henrician reformation was inevitable or not. Yet which of these views is most creditable?
Henry wanted increased power and he saw that by becoming the supreme head, the church could bring him increased power and revenues. According to J. J Scarisbrick, there were two political ideas present in Henry’s mind. The first was that he must get his divorce and the idea of ‘caesaropapism’ was one that seemed to grow with the divorce. Scarisbrick believed Henry had been having these ideas as early as 1515, and that if there had been no divorce, there would probably still have been a confrontation between the clerical estate and Henry; who was beginning to claim new spiritual jurisdiction.
The second idea was “That Kingship conferred on him a position in the Christian community that was not actually his, which had been usurped by others, which he must recover2″ It appeared that the first idea was already a certainty and the second to broke to the surface later into the reformation, with the Act of Appeals in 1533, which said ” that this realm of England is an Empire… goverened by one Supreme Head and King, having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial Crown3″ The two ideas later became indivisible and fed one another.
Thus with ideas of immense personal gain in his mind, perhaps the reformation was inevitable. Moreover, there were people around Henry that were pushing through the reform; and the more people that influenced Henry the more likely the reformation was to happen The individual who seized the opportunity to make a real difference by appeasing King Henry’s concerns and at the same time strengthening England was Thomas Cromwell; who rose to prominence in the early 1530’s and he was probably Henry’s main advisor by 1532.
He was described as the “architect of the English Reformation4. ” Cromwell had both political and religious desires that he wished to see the reformation fulfill. He provided the intellectual justification for Henry’s break with Rome and persuaded Henry and key individuals in Parliament of his ideas of caesaropapism; which was his main political contribution towards the reformation. This ideology was the political philosophy that Caesar, the chief secular power, ought to have authority over the pope, the highest sacred power.
Cromwell had spent several years in Italy, and knew the works of the Aristotelian, Marsiglio of Padua, whose fourteenth century writings were to prove so relevant and useful to the architect of the break with Rome. A number of humanist-trained members of court fully accepted this ideology, and Cromwell probably became more Protestant as time went on. Cromwell as vice genrant also made efforts to make religious changes too,such as discouraging images and superstition and began an extensive public-relations programme in which supportive humanists promoted Henry’s newfound sovereignty.
To him, the reformed church was to serve the purposes of the reformed commonwealth and undoubtabtly he influenced Henry into the first steps towards a reform with reformist undertones. However, Cromwell’s and Henry’s agendas never quite matched. While Cromwell pushed for a reformist church, Henry sought a divorce. Henry was able to use parts of Cromwell’s reform to obtain his divorce, but perhaps was unaware of Cromwell’s other motives. Thus with so many people wanting the reform influencing Henry, it would perhaps be inevitable. There were other figures in Henry’s life that urged religious reform.
Henry had people around him that were reformists and they all tried to influence the King; the closest to his heart and affection was Anne Boleyn, upto 1536. Henry was influenced by her acquaintance with a group of reformist writers and subsequently began to find that many of their ideas suited his own purposes very well. Simon Fish’s ‘ A supplication for the beggars’ was addressed to the King and fiercely attacked the clergy, which may have fuelled Henry’s already existing anti-clerical feelings. “These are the bishops… priests… monks… pardoners and summoners.
And who is able to number this idle, ravenous sort5″ In addition Anne was in regular contact with a group of reformist Cambridge academics who included Hugh and William Latimer, Matthew Parker and most importantly Thomas Cramner. The ideas of such reformers confirmed Henry in his view that he was well within his rights to reject the authority of the Pope, and gave him confidence to break from Rome. With so many influential reformist people surrounding Henry, perhaps reform was inevitable from the outset. However, it could be suggested that the church was in need of reform and religious reformation had been inevitable for a long time.
According to G. R. Elton Luther’s impact in England came early and began to infiltrate in 1520 and 1521. Within a few years his ideas were ” agitating some of the younger scholars, especially at Cambridge… among the interested were Thomas Cramner and Nicholas Shaxton, destined to be rulers of the church6″. With Lutheran ideas amongst influential people, reform could be imposed from above. However, Lutheranism was more than just a dislike of a corrupt Catholic church. There was a positive aspect to it such as the more rational and accessible attitude towards religion and dislike of superstition.
The historian A. G. Dickins believed that the church in 1530 could not possibly have remained unreformed. The state of the Catholic Church in England was so bad that Henry would have been unable to leave it unreformed; as the demand for reform from below was so great that reform would have become inevitable. Dickins also supports Elton in emphasising the role of Cromwell; that he pushed Henry much further into religious waters than he had ever imagined and his solution to the divorce dilemma marked the point of no return.
Elton also argues that Cromwell played an important part in the political aspect of the reformation. “we cannot… envisage Thomas Cromwell as merely a smart lawyer who made his fortune by solving the king’s matrimonial problem. For good or ill, he is a figure of far greater significance in our history7″Apart from supporting this view, Dickins also looked to other factors that made the reformation inevitable. The Lollards had been driven underground in the past, but their ideas were never completely suppressed by the church and this provided fertile ground on which Lutheranism could spread.
Secondly, according to Dickins,, they provided a spring- board of critical dissent from which protestant reformation could overleap the walls of orthodoxy. The Lollards were the allies of the anti-clerical feelings that; in Dickins view, made possible the religious changes in the Henrician reformation. With the Reform being initiated by the government, and supported from below in the commonwealth, it would seem the reformation was far from an accident There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the reformation was an accident and that Henry’s initial impatience for his first divorce led him to cut the first strings with Rome.
Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, refused to co-operate and at no point would she agree to a divorce. Henry had been longing for Anne Boleyn for over year before he told his wife of plans for a divorce, in the late 1520’s. However, at this stage Henry was limited on legitimate reasons to abandon Catherine; she had been a devoted and pious wife. Perhaps it could be argued that the trigger of Henry’s impatience was Catherine’s lack of cooperation. Moreover, Catherine would prove to be a political liability in obtaining the divorce.
She was linked to her nephew Charles V and it was this link to a super- power within Europe that would be Catherine’s weapon to prevent divorce and meant the very link with Europe that he needed cooperation from, now was an obstacle in his way. It would now be more difficult to achieve the divorce, perhaps making Henry take drastic measures he had hoped he would not have to. Charles V and Henry had a history of friction and competition; a compromise about the divorce was never likely between such similar characters.
In May 1527, Charles’s troops sacked Rome and took the Pope, Clement VII, prisoner. This annoyed and worried Henry as it made persuading the Pope near impossible and the Pope was unable to negotiate a settlement with Henry, as Charles was Catherine’s nephew. Even the Pope, scared by the power of her nephew, would not permit himself to entirely ignore Catherine’s cause. With the crucial lead figures in Europe making Henry’s divorce a distant idea, he was forced to take more drastic and unplanned measures against Rome to make it a reality.
It could be suggested that divorce seemed to be the trigger the move into reformation; one of the reasons being because it seemed a lengthy and almost impossible task. Henry had to apply directly to Rome to have his marriage annulled, and worrying about the time consuming task of traveling to Rome, Henry appealed to establish a court in England to hear the case in 1527. Eventually Pope Clement dispatched Campeggio to England who traveled slowly through ill health and once the case began at Blackfriars in 1529, he used delaying tactics under the instruction of the pope.
These delaying tactics annoyed Henry and this perhaps was the point that relations between Henry and the Pope began to crumble. On July 31st 1529, the Pope recalled the case to Rome. Success had slipped through Henry’s fingers and he suddenly needed a new way of obtaining a divorce. Through a lack of co-operation with one of the major powers in Europe Henry may have stumbled into the beginnings of a completely accidental reformation, all to achieve his divorce. Another religious factor suggesting that the reformation was an accident was Henry’s devout Catholicism and he had previously shown he would not tolerate heresy.
It has been said that the Act of Ten Articles of 1536 made concessions to Lutherans, but if so , they were concessions of omission rather than clear definition. The three of the seven sacraments that remained were defined in a strictly Catholic way; showing that perhaps Henry did not want to break with Rome, or indeed reform the Catholic church. In 1539 Henry passed the Act of Six Articles; a statement of absolute orthodox doctrine that reflected Henry’s own personal views on keeping the church Catholic.
For example his views on transubstantiation ” under the form of bread and wine, the natural body and blood of our saviour Jesus Christ.. 8″ There was never any doctrinal vacillation in Henry’s mind; he wanted to remain a catholic. He was prepared to adopt Lutheran ways when they suited him, for political reasons more than ones of doctrine. For example when he dissolved the monasteries it could have been seen as a decline in his belief in purgatory; but was more likely done for increased revenues..
The Act of Six Articles was a great blow to their hopes and encouragement to the orthodox faction led by Gardiner and Norfolk. The changes to actual doctrine that Henry made were hardly noticeable and he still remained a catholic. ” Henry’s Catholicism smacks strongly of the notional and the superstitious and seems to have been the very kind which a Luther or Loyola deplored and fought most- external, mechanical, static; something inherited and undemanding9″. This may explain why Henry was so reluctant to make changes to the doctrine.
However in the autumn of 1529 “a momentous thing happened10” Henry threw his lot in with anti-clericalism. Elton’s opinion on anti-clericalism is that it played a crucial role in ensuring that a catholic country underwent a relatively peaceful reformation. Yet it seemed that Henry turned on the clergy not in pursuit of Protestantism or an English church- he could not think of a better way to obtain his divorce than to bully the clergy. Henry wanted to remain a catholic but his support of anticlericalism, intended as a political weapon, was another accidental step into reform taken by Henry.
In spite of Henry’s motives at this point being purely based on obtaining his divorce, the steps he took moved more into reform. In January 1531 the southern convocation was told Henry wanted a considerable subsidy to cover the expenses of the divorce caused by delays in Rome. Within two weeks the Convocation voted i?? 100,000 and in return asked to be pardoned for threats of praemunire. Within this agreement Henry demanded recognition as ‘ sole protector and also supreme head of the Church of England’.
This would mean Henry taking the place of the Pope, but he was fearful of arousing strong opposition, therefore he allowed the Council to suggest a qualifying clause ‘ so far as the law of Christ allows’. The reluctance displayed by Henry to make a confident break with Rome straight away, signals that he did not want a reformation and in no ways was in inevitable. Henry also directly bullied the papacy to try to get his divorce. His first attack on the papacy again displayed a reluctance to break from Rome.
The Act in Conditional restraint of Annates in 1532 said that in future only 5% of the first year’s income of spiritual men should be paid to Rome. “it is therefore ordained and established… that the unlawful payments of Annates…. shall from henceforth utterly cease… or hereafter in this present act is declared11″ The act was not to come into force until Henry himself issued the letters, to allow more time for negotiations with Rome ; it was hoped that the threat would force Clement to agree, without breaking any links with Rome.
Clement, however was doing nothing; hoping that the problem would resolve if Catherine would accept the divorce or by the death of one of the parties. The lack of cooperation from Clement mean that Henry grew increasingly impatient and began to cut links with Rome; pushing him into Reform of the Church in England. Another factor that may suggest the reformation was an accident was the state of the pre-reformation church. Historians’ opinions are split over whether the church was in need of reform or if the reform was an accident. The revisionist historian J. J.
Scarisbrick believes ” Despite what has sometime been said or implied, it is probable that the English church was in no worse condition in 1529 than it had been fifty, a hundred or a hundred and fifty years before. The picture of a slow, steady decline into Nemesis is suspect12 ” It is possible that what had happened, according to the historian Claire Cross, was not so much any change within the church as a rise in standards of lay society without it. The poor standards of literacy amongst the clergy had not been noticed, but now were more obvious and would be less tolerated .
People still loved their church, as can be seen by people leaving bequests in their wills to their local priest or church. Another revisionist historian, C. Haigh, shares this view. He thinks that ” The English people had not turned against their Church and there was no widespread yearning for reform. The long-term causes of the Reformation- the corruption of the Church and the hostility of the laity- appear to have been historical illusions13″. Evidence suggests that support for parish churches in general remained high ; for example large numbers of extensions to churches and chapels were built between 1490 and 1529.
There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the Church was in good condition and anti-clericalism only existed in small pockets ; partly amongst jealous lawyers who thought the church courts had no right to deal with temporal matters such as wills. Most the Bishops were ‘good’ such as Fisher; it was people such as Wolsey that deserved criticism for living a life of luxury. Therefore, if the church seemed in a reasonable condition and people were happy with it, then a reformation would not be inevitable.
Once Henry had become supreme head in 1534, he had unlimited authority over the church as an institution and over the spiritual concerns of the nation. However, Henry made very few changes to the doctrine of the Church of England; the main change being the bible in English as opposed to Latin. If Henry had set out to reform the church, his actions to do so would have been much faster. From one point of view, it seemed that Henry’s desperation for a divorce and a male heir , together with the lack of co-operation with Charles V and Clement VII, had forced him to push into a reformation that was neither necessary nor inevitable.
Henry’s motives behind the reformation give us a clue as to whether it was an accident or inevitable. It seems Henry never envisaged schism or reform but soon realized that the church could bring him massive revenues, land and power e. g. the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The importance of the divorce to Henry played a major role in triggering the reformation and the actions that he had to take to obtain this pushed him into cutting all ties with Rome and stumbling into the reformation. The fact that the reformation occurred in such a piecemeal manner suggests that Henry had not intended on this massive reform.
The fact that there was so little opposition to the reformation does not necessarily suggest it was wanted; ” at any ones time there was not much Reformation to accept and England accepted its reformation because it didn’t quite see what it was doing14 ” The divorce along with the powerful influence of reformists at court meant Henry embarked on a reform that seemed an accident in its time. In looking at different historians points of views, the traditional theories behind the reformation are widely respected but some can have its downfalls.
For example, it is argued by C. Haigh that the historian A. G. Dickins has a ‘whiggish’ point of view and his perspective on the reformation is too highly influenced by his protestant perspective. The more persuasive revisionist point of view on the reformation offers a much more balanced point of view that analyses the evidence. “So there was no cataclysmic Reformation, to be explained by mass enthusiasm. Instead, there was a piecemeal reformation, to be explained by the chances of day-to-day politics15”