Henry VIII's Reformation

From Londonhua WIKI

by Peter Beretich

Henry VIII's Reformation
Henry VIII
Artist Hans Holbein the Younger


My aim was to analyse King Henry VIII's personal agenda behind initiating the English Reformation in the mid-16th century. Starting out as a devout Catholic who would consistently defend the Pope and the Vatican, it is curious how he changed his mind so quickly when he wanted to divorce or annul his marriages. His greed and extravagant expenditure indicate ulterior motives when taking over the land owned by monasteries and appropriating their resources.

Through my deliverable, I analyzed how by forcefully exerting his will on many pre-existing institutions, Henry was able to bend the people to his will and quell even the thought of violence against him. By executing his enemies with limited evidence, he showed them as well as his allies that he was not afraid to kill in order to pursue his agenda, and he had the power to do so. Not even those who had been loyal to him for years were safe if they committed any mistake. Henry's successful power grab is comparable to those of modern history, specifically Stalin and his government during the 20th century.


This project focused on Henry VIII's initiation of the English Reformation, and why. There was a significant focus on the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which was particularly relatable to today's issues, because it involves examining a tyrant's seizure and appropriation of land by force, and many times under the threat of death.
This project looked into Henry's reasons for commencing the English Reformation, and some of the hypocrisy of his actions, especially considering he was a staunch defender of the Vatican, in response to Martin Luther's 95 Theses. The deliverable component of this project examined some of the politics and history behind the dissolution of the monasteries, primarily by creating profiles of several priories and monasteries.

Section 1: Background


Reformation’s sweep across Europe

The desire to reform the Catholic Church began in the 1400s, but it was not until the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 is what caused the movement to gain traction. Luther’s main argument was against the selling of indulgences, which supposedly reduced the punishment after death for sins committed.
In 1521, the young Catholic king, Henry VIII, rebutted against Luther with his piece “Defense of the Seven Sacraments.”[1] For this, Pope Leo X granted the King the title of “Defender of the Faith.” King Henry had demonstrated his faith and loyalty as a devout Catholic.

Catherine of Aragon

Henry was not the first in succession to his father, Henry VII. That position belonged to Arthur, Henry VIII’s brother. Arthur was betrothed to Catherine of Aragon, daughter of the King and Queen of Castile. At the age of 15, Arthur died. This threw off Henry VII's negotiations for a marital alliance with Spain. When Henry VII died, the younger Henry agreed to marry Catherine.

However, as the years passed, Catherine was unable to produce a male heir to the English throne, and Henry became more distant to her. She would eventually only produce one child, the future queen Mary. Henry knew from the loss of his brother that life could end quickly, and without a male heir the kingdom could be thrust into chaos. He needed to find a way to dissolve their marriage, and find a wife who would be able to grant him a son.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

The Field of the Cloth of Gold.jpg

Much of Henry VIII's legacy can be attributed to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Christ Church, a part of the University of Oxford, Hampton Court Palace, and the Palace of Whitehall are just some of the buildings initially built or improved upon by Wolsey, and then taken over by Henry VIII.

Wolsey himself was a brilliant negotiator and diplomat, and had the King's ear as Lord Chancellor for nearly 15 years. The meeting between King Henry and King Francis I of France, known as the "Field of the Cloth of Gold" was organized by Wolsey. This magnificent display of wealth held a summit between the two kings

Attempts at Annulment

Through the Pope

During the Italian War of 1521, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and the Papal States were allied against the French and the Republic of Venice. This was during the papacy of Leo X, who had entitled Henry Defender of the Faith in 1521. This alliance defeated France, but the Vatican, under the new leadership of Pope Clement VII, grew worried over the Holy Roman Empire's rising power, and its ability to control more of Italy. Because of this, the Papal States created the League of Cognac, becoming enemies with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. Perhaps in an attempt to gain favor with Pope Clement in order to attain an annulment from Catherine of Aragon, England joined the League.

When the Imperial army took over Rome, the Vatican was ransacked, forcing Pope Clement to escape. With the Pope and Vatican so weak, it provided an excellent opportunity for Henry to become a significant ally to the Papal States. In exchange, perhaps they would grant him a favor, namely an annulment of his marriage to a wife that could not produce a surviving male heir. Despite Cardinal Wolsey's best efforts, the Pope would not budge. There was no chance for an annulment from him.[2]

Because of Wolsey's failure, his fall from power was swift. In 1530, even after years of faithful service, and many of Henry's accomplishments attributable to Wolsey, he was ultimately charged with treason, and died before attending trial.[3] This would not be the first person dying after committing "treason" against the King.

Circumventing the Vatican

Henry had fallen for a new woman, Anne Boleyn, but she would not become just another mistress, like her sister had. In a secret wedding service, conducted by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. He had been approved by the Pope, who had no idea of the events about to take place. Within two years, Henry's marriage to Catherine was annuled, his marriage to Boleyn legitimized, and the King declared head of the Church of England.

The Pope excommunicated Henry and Cranmer. Henry, a lifelong devout Catholic, had abruptly abandoned the religion his nation had followed for centuries in an act of desperation.

The English Reformation

Acts of Supremacy

The 1534 Act of Supremacy did not have parliament give Henry VIII the power to be the head of the Church of England, but instead acknowledged what was his "God-given" power.

Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the king our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of the realm shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia.

— 1534 Act of Supremacy[4]

Dissolution of the Monasteries

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Blessed John of Houghton
Artist Francisco de Zurbarán
Year 1637-1639


In 1371, a piece of land previously used to bury victims of the Black Death was granted to Carthusian monks, in order to build a monastery.[5] However, nearly 150 years later, King Henry VIII enacted the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This act allowed the Crown estate to appropriate the income of priories, monasteries, and other Catholic buildings, which also resulted in the destruction of many of these.
Between 1535 and 1537, monks of the Charterhouse openly refused to accept Henry as head of the English Church, as demanded in the Act of Supremacy. The Prior of the London Charterhouse, John Houghton, was sent to the Tower of London, to await execution.

As John Houghton arrived at Tyburn, where he was to be executed, he embraced the executioner in order to pardon him for what he was about to do, and when asked whether he would submit to the King's laws in order to save his own life, he replied:

"I declare that I have refused to comply with the will of His Majesty the King, not from obstinacy, malice or a rebellious spirit, but solely for fear of offending the Supreme Majesty of God"[6]

In total, 16 members of the Charterhouse were put to death under King Henry, including both monks and lay-brothers who would not accept the King as head of the Church.[7]

Westminster Abbey beretich.jpg

Westminster Abbey

For other Abbeys, there was less backlash against the King, perhaps for fear for their life or a real desire to split from the church. The Westminster Benedictine monks owned a large amount of land in Westminster under the Abbey. In an unfair trade, King Henry took a large portion of land in Westminster, including Covent Garden and Hyde Park, and in exchange gave the Abbey the lands of the Priory of Hurley, after he had dissolved it and appropriated the lands.[8]

The Abbot of Westminster, William Benson, soon became first dean of the cathedral, however, the Abbey in this form only lasted 10 years. Henry VIII turned the Abbey into a cathedral during this time. This is odd because there already was a cathedral nearby, St. Paul's.[9] It is therefore likely that he did this to save the Abbey from the destruction other dissolved monasteries were facing at that time. It is probably why Westminster Abbey exists today as more than ruins.

Lewes Priory

The Priory was dissolved in 1537, and King Henry placed the destruction of the buildings under the supervision of Thomas Cromwell, who was Henry's right hand man after Cardinal Wolsey's fall from grace, and also orchestrated the dissolution of the monasteries. This land was granted to Cromwell. Cromwell hired an Italian engineer to destroy the priory, named Giovanni Portinari. Portinari came from London with his men and set about destroying the priory. This involved tunneling under the walls, setting wooden rods underneath, then burning the logs to have the walls collapse.

The materials of the priory were largely reused around the city. After the destruction was completed, "[l]ead from the roof was melted down on site in purpose-built portable furnaces, while the Caen and Quarr stone and flint were loaded onto carts, or barges at the quayside, and removed for re-use elsewhere in Lewes and its vicinity."[10]

Section 2: Deliverable

As a component of my deliverable, I also created a video profiling several monasteries during the time of the dissolution and what became of them. That can be viewed here.

Alternative Reasons for the English Reformation

While many historians enjoy analyzing Henry's scandalous divorces and women, there has been less talk about other advantages he may have considered during his reformation and takeover of the English Church. Admittedly Henry's sexual endeavors read like an HBO show, but some of his more horrible actions had little to do with his wives, namely the killing of monks, the executions of Roman Catholic protesters, and the diminishing of the rights of the people. All of these play as acts of suppression and tyranny, and were ways Henry could strengthen his grip over England.

Dissolution of the Monasteries

Henry's dissolution of the monasteries not only suppressed the spread and power of Catholicism but also gave Henry access to a newly accessible amount of money. Whether or not the granting of his divorce was his only initial reason for splitting from the Catholic church, it is likely that Henry or his advisors realized they could now use this excuse to gain access to the revenue of the monasteries, who were one of the biggest generators of revenue in the Kingdom. As recorded in the Valor Ecclesiasticus, a survey of the income of monasteries in 1535, the total monastic net income was £142,834[11] in 1535 pounds sterling, over £142 million in 2017 pounds sterling, and about $180 million in today's dollars. Henry VIII had been warring with the French on and off during this time, and he needed funding for what would become the Italian War of 1542–46. Henry had been given a goose that laid golden eggs, and of course he would seize the opportunity. By dissolving the monasteries, and appropriating their income and lands, he has made an absurd amount of money for very little loss.

Economic and Social Effects of the Dissolution

Monasteries were one of the largest forms of social welfare at the time. Before the dissolution of the monasteries, they gave £7,218 (Now £7.4 million) to the poor, but afterwards there was minimal support for the poor.[12] As in Aesop's fable, Henry had killed the golden goose by dissolving the monasteries. This is true in multiple ways. For one, now that the church was not responsible for social welfare, that duty would have to be transferred to the state. Secondly, while Henry could have easily taxed the clergy, as the Valor Ecclesiasticus was supposedly intended to determine the Church's taxable earnings,[13] he chose to instead get as much as he could at once. And finally, he had created a problem for his successors. Without the church aiding the poor, according to historian Paul Slack, the amount the church gave to the poor would not be "made good by private benefactions until after 1580."[14] This could very likely have had an effect on the civil war that came in 1642.

The Pilgrimage of Grace

The Pilgrimage of Grace was an uprising against the King's break from the Catholic church. It was largely orchestrated by Nobility in Yorkshire, but had the backing of nearly 40,000 peasants. As expected, Henry suppressed this rebellion through numerous executions. Over 200 protesters were executed, including both nobles and commoners.[15] A theme of Henry's rule over England seems to be the forceful quelling of rebellion or any dissent.

Henry's Control over the Legislature

Another way Henry suppressed dissent towards his new sect of Christianity was through the English Parliament and acts passed through them. The Act for the Advancement of True Religion took away the right commoners to read the bible, stating that "the reading the Bible is likewise prohibited, to all under the degrees of gentlemen and gentlewomen."[16] This was put in place to stop drunkards from citing scripture, fearing that it would diminish the legitimacy of the works. Looking back on this in modern times, this was a blatant act of censorship, removing an opportunity from the common people to educate themselves. This was especially worrisome, considering Henry was changing the church and the people could not know whether they agreed since they had not read the scripture. However, the literacy rate in England at that time was less than 20%,[17] so it is possible this law would not have had much of an effect.

Censorship of St. Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket's removal from churches and literature also shows Henry's attempts to maintain the power of the King. Becket is known as a Saint to Roman Catholics, for his defiance against King Henry II in the 12th century. During the English Reformation, Henry had the excuse of his removal with the movement of iconoclasm invoked by him. However, he had a particularly strong motivation to remove St. Becket from manuscripts and the names of churches. He issued a Royal Proclamation demanding that Thomas Becket should "no longer be named a saint," and that "his pictures throughout the realm are to be plucked down and his festival shall no longer be kept, and the services in his name shall be razed out of all books."[18]

Comparisons to other Regimes

Many of the actions taken by Henry are eerily similar to those of more modern regimes, that many consider tyrannical. One regime in particular that mirrors Henry's in multiple angles is the United Soviet Socialist Republic under Stalin. Even though Henry was religious and Stalin was atheist, they each had vital roles in shaping the religious future of their nations. The USSR under Stalin developed anti-religious propaganda and atheistic education in schools,[19] and was responsible for the execution of thousands of religious figures.[20] The Dissolution of the Monasteries bears obvious similarities to Stalin's gutting of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also to Stalin's first five year plan, which involved the collectivization of USSR agriculture. This involved land-owning peasants giving up their land to the Soviet government. In an event akin to the Pilgrimage of Grace, these peasants began revolting against the Soviet government.[21] This was likely a factor in the Soviet famine of 1932-33, where millions of peasants died of starvation.


The English Reformation was not just Henry VIII's opportunity to divorce his wives, but a way for him to increase his power and wealth. By setting himself to a God-like level by professing himself to be head of the Church, his people feared disagreement with him should they lose their opportunity to go to Heaven. Dissolving the monasteries allowed Henry to quickly produce a large sum of wealth for his military campaigns, while removing any disloyal clergyman from power. And in order to really strike fear in his enemies, he needed to show that he was not afraid to bend the power of parliament to his will. He did this by drafting acts that furthered his agenda, and backed it up through fear of death. Should someone disagree with them, he could charge them with treason and execute them, so through this fear, parliament or his enemies remained quiet and submissive. Henry was so successful in doing this that similarly successful military takeovers, even in modern history, were analogous to his.


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  2. Scarisbrick, J. J. (1997). Henry Viii. Yale University Press.
  3. Haigh, C. (1993). English reformations: religion, politics, and society under the Tudors. Oxford University Press on Demand.
  4. Henry, V. I. I. I. The Act of Supremacy. 1534. Documents of the English Reformation, edited.
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  6. Whatmore, L. E. (1983). The Carthusians Under King Henry the Eighth (Vol. 109). J. Hogg (Ed.). Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg.
  7. Plaque: Carthusian Martyrs. (n.d.). Retrieved June 20, 2017, from
  8. Westminster Abbey History - Benedictine monastery
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