The Protestant Reformation in England (c.1530 - c.1600) is a unique and fascinating event in the history of this country. In one sense, it is connected to the greater Reformation in Europe as a whole, but in other ways it is very unique in its circumstances.

Henry VIII wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. She had failed to produce him a male heir, and was past childbearing age. Henry's amorous attentions had turned to Anne Boleyn, as well. England, being a Catholic state, needed papal dispensation. Now, the Vatican was normally in the practice of granting such annulments, but the Pope was under extreme pressure from Spain not to allow the annulment to occur. So, in 1528, the request was denied.

Exhausted of ordinary legal avenues, Henry called on Parliament to replace the Pontiff with the English Monarch as supreme head of the church in England, which they did in 1531. He now had the legal grounds for annulment.

Meanwhile, in the Holy Roman Empire (modern-day Germany), Martin Luther had started a movement to separate from the Catholic church on theological grounds. These separatists would eventually come to be known as "Protestants." Ironically, in the 1520s Henry had been an outspoken opponent of Luther, and defender of Catholic theology. What Henry established in the 1530s and up until his death in 1547 was a Catholic church in England, without the Pope. Theologically, and ceremonially, this church was Catholic.

During this period, England had become a safe haven for Protestant clergy and scholars from the Continent. Loyal Catholics, on the other hand, left England. Thus, while the king was theologically conservative, his bishops and members of his administration became increasingly Protestant. And those charged with educating his son, Prince Edward, were Calvinists. These were extreme Protestants who belived that the theology and ceremonies of Catholics were wrong and anti-Christian. In the 17th Century they would have been called Puritans.

So, when Henry VIII died, he was succeeded by Edward VI, who was an extreme Protestant, and only nine years old. His advisors, who ran the country, were also Protestant. Naturally, during this reign, the church in England became extremely Protestant, abolishing Catholic ceremony and priestly vestments. But Edward died in 1553, and was succeeded by Mary, Henry VIII's daughter by Catherine of Aragon.

Mary I, or Bloody Mary, was loyal to her mother, and her mother's Spanish family. Naturally, she was a devout Catholic. Immediately, she began to overturn the religious settlements of the past 20 years, in an attempt to return England to Catholicism. Her methods were brutal and harsh (thus her nickname), but she might well have succeeded, had she not died five years later, in 1558.

After Mary came Elizabeth I, another of Henry's daughters, this one by Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but she also understood that the country was deeply divided between Catholic supporters of Mary's policies and extreme Protestants who wanted to do away with every hint of Catholicism (i.e. theology, ceremony, vestments, hierarchy). Elizabeth was somehow able to strike a compromise, often called the via media, that kept many of the Catholic ceremonies, as well as the hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, but was also theologically soundly Calvinist.

Elizabeth's church settlments during her reign formed the foundation for the modern Anglican Church, which is known as the Episcopalian Church in the United States.

In summary, what began as a singly political spat in 1527 ended up changing the entire religious landscape of a country.

This work is mine, and mine alone (thus, no citations). I'm a history major, and I've done extensive work on this topic. I've probably messed some stuff up, or left stuff out, though.

The Reformation in England gained very little ground until the ultra-Catholic King Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce. The Pope had been captured by Charles V of Austria, who was Queen Catherine of Aragon's nephew, so no papal permission was forthcoming. The king who had previously been awarded the title 'Defender of the Faith' by the Pope declared himself the head of the Church of England in order to get his own way. The fact that his new queen Anne Boleyn was herself an anti-papal Protestant accelerated matters too. Subsequent reforms under consecutive monarchs eventually produced a church that was Reformed, and Catholic in nature, but not (generally) Protestant. Edward VI] was ultra-Protestant; Mary I was ultra-Catholic. Elizabeth I and James I were not at all Catholic, but were not hardline Protestants either. Following the Civil Wars, Charles II provided the Book of Common Prayer, and Queen Anne set the seal on the Church of England much as it is today.

The state and quality of the English Church prior to the Reformation is open to interpretation. Some historians see it as a mass of abuses and lack of spirituality which would eventually have to have been reformed, Anne Boleyn or no. There was a growing tide of 'anti-clericalism' in England due to the abuses of pluralism and the associated problem of non-residence. Pluralism was when a cleric held multiple positions within the Church, and this led to him not living in the parish of his responsibility (non-residence). The Church was criticized for allowing parishes to be without their spiritual head in this way.

In 1529, Henry VIII called a session of parliament1. The parliament was not finally disbanded until 1536, and was remarkable for both its length and the quantity of legislation passed. There was little anti-clerical legislation passed at first, although contemporary chronicler Edward Hall wrote reams suggesting a hugely anti-clerical Commons was in action.

The divorce case was pressing heavily on Henry's mind. The actions of the Reformation Parliament can be seen initially as his way of putting pressure on the Pope to rule in favour of him, but once Henry realised he was onto a good thing he seemed to continue. As well as his marriage, the second strand to the policy seemed to be the concept of imperium, that England was a fully sovereign state and that no foreigner (such as the Pope) had the right to intervene in it. We should bear this in mind as we consider the sequence of events.

Things started to hot up in 1532, when parliament sent to the King a document entitled Supplication against the Ordinaries ("Petition against the Bishops"), which complained of the power and extent of the Church's courts2. Laws were soon passed disallowing any extension of canon law without scrutiny by the King, and all existing canon law was to be judged by a council of men hand-picked by the King (although half would be clergy). Also in 1532 an Act in Restraint of Annates was passed, annates being money sent to Rome by higher clergy in their first year of work.

The most important step came a year later with the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which made it illegal for any English countryman to appeal to a power outside England. The Pope could no longer act as the final court of appeal in matters of canon law - this now fell to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The short-term effect was clearly to get Henry a favourable ruling in the divorce case.

The Pope was now effectively powerless within English borders. There was only one thing left for Henry to do - get the power handed over to himself rather than going to Parliament or the clergy. This was achieved with the Act of Supremacy passed in 1534. The wording of the act was very precise - the monarch had always been the supreme head of the Church in England and Wales, this power wasn't being granted to him by parliament. This meant they could never take it away.

The Reformation was followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


1. We don't really know why the parliament was initially called. It could have been to use against the recently disgraced Thomas Wolsey, or to try and gain leverage in the divorce case.

2. Whether this arose from the Commons as a representation of the views of the political nation or was engineered by Henry's henchman Thomas Cromwell is unknown.

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