Henry VIII’s key reason for the reformation


The break from Rome was the ending of Papal rule in England. Up until 1534 the Head of the Church in Catholic Europe (including England) was the Pope in Rome. However for several reasons which I shall discuss in this study, Henry VIII of England in 1534 decided to replace the Pope as Head of the Church in England and appointed himself as the Supreme Head of the Church of England and consequently ruling England as a Catholic country without the Pope. The points needed to be looked at in this study are the state of the pre-reformation church, power and money, and the divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

State of the pre-reformation church

It has been argued that the pre-reformation church was a corrupt and failing institution and therefore Henry had to totally overthrow the running of the church and appoint himself as the Supreme Head in order to reform church practice. Traditionally many historians have argued that the people of the early 16th century agreed with Henry in his decision because the church in England was a deeply unpopular institution. Anti-clericalism according to this line of argument was widespread. As G R Elton puts it, « People in England thought little of Priests ».

The clergy were widely despised. At the top, Archbishops and Bishops were disliked for their wealth and ostentation with Wolsey being an obvious example. He was never seen without fine clothes and expensive jewellery and had several homes – Hampden Court being his prominent residence. This was in sharp contrast to the example set by Jesus in the New Testament. They were further more seen as being guilty of pluralism and therefore non-residence as they were constantly moving between their dioceses. A Bishop was also obliged to attend Parliament, as he owed the service of counsel to the king, but not many attended regularly which would obviously anger a temperamental Henry. Another grievance towards the Bishops was sexual irregularity with many Bishops seemingly ignoring their vow of chastity by having mistresses and illegitimate children. Neglect of the care of souls and simony were also attributed to the Bishops. This would almost certainly reflect badly on Henry due to the parliamentary Statute of Provisors of the 14th century which meant that the king appointed the Bishops and not the Pope. If they failed to act appropriately then Henry would be blamed. This could have in turn caused Henry to think of a total reformation of the church.

The lower clergy and parish priests on the other hand were viewed as both rapacious and ignorant. They were very important for the vast majority of the English people, living in isolated rural communities as they were the only effective representatives of the universal church. Therefore, if they were ineffective many peasants would suffer. According to figures quoted by G R Elton this could be true. Educational standards were very low, so it was fairly easy for somebody to become a parish priest. A 16th century survey of the diocese of Gloucester showed that out of 311 clergy 168 could not recite the Ten Commandments, and 33 could not locate them in the Bible. 10 could recite the Lords Prayer, and 39 did not know where to find it in the Bible. Between 1500-50, 869 East Anglian clergy died and left wills and these reveal that only 158 possessed any books at all, and only 17 left Bibles. This would undoubtedly be a problem to Henry because of the disquiet of the quality of priests which meant that he may have to been seen to act in order to keep support. Perhaps Henry acted in his reform of the church before this became a major problem.

The exactions of the church were also bitterly resented and created disharmony during the reign of Henry VIII. Most obvious was the tithe whereby each man had to pay / of his annual income to the church. But there were other payments too. Priests could charge for weddings, churchings, confessions and taking communion to the sick. There were also mortuary fees and charges for funerals, which would frequently take the form of the best animal or gown. As Henry was not Head of the church he saw that this money went straight to the church and also to the Pope via first fruits and tenths, and from the payment of one third of a Bishop’s first years income. He knew that if he became head churchman in England the Bishops income and first fruits and tenths would go directly to him, and most of the exactions of the church he would receive too. This would interest Henry greatly as his war-like policy cost the country millions leaving him desperate to increase his income to maintain his lavish lifestyle, and his ability to wage war on his arch enemy France – or at various stages Spain.

Simon Fish highlighted these problems in his ‘A Supplication for the Beggars’, which was a vicious satire of the wealth of the clergy that accused them of making vast fortunes from tithes, probate and other exactions whilst living in idleness and sin. He also accused them of spreading leprosy and venereal diseases caught from whores. Henry would not like this but would have liked to tap into this so-called wealth.

Almost equally unpopular in the eyes of Henry were the church courts. Henry and his council had no control of the church courts. This was unacceptable to Henry, as he wanted complete control of his kingdom. The church courts dealt with wills and property, and a wide range of matrimonial and sexual activity. They were very much part of people’s everyday lives, and indeed the historian Derek Wilson has argued that, « They were closer to most Englishmen than the Royal Courts ». This enraged Henry because they had the unsavoury reputation as being expensive, slow moving and corrupt. This meant that people Henry considered to be a threat to him or his court could be let off lightly, whereas if tried in the Royal Courts could be punished appropriately. Henry knew that he could eradicate this problem by taking over the church courts and to achieve this a break from Rome would be needed.

The Revisionist view of the pre-reformation church

This view of the pre-reformation church is the view of most modern historians who challenge the traditional view of the early 16th century church. Men like J J Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Christopher Harper-Bill now argue that by the standards of the time the church in the late 15th and early 16th century was actually doing a reasonable job.

The Bishops firstly, according to J J Scarisbrick were, « Fairly conscientious men trying to do a conscientious job ». Many were low born and had risen on merit. There is plenty of evidence that they were dedicated to pastoral are and took their jobs seriously. Fisher of Rochester, Fox of Winchester and Nix of Norwich were known as both competent and hard working. According to Harper-Bill , Robert Sherbourne of Chichester completely overhauled the administration of his diocese. Also, between 1350 and 1525 Bishops founded nine colleges at Oxford and Cambridge – Fox for example founded Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Fisher helped in the foundation of both Christ’s and St John’s colleges in Cambridge. According to this line of argument, Henry VIII would have felt that the Bishops were actually doing a good job with many being prominent in improving education. Also, with them being low born, there would have been no threat to Henry as they had no independent power base and their jobs would have been the most important factor in their lives. Even if he did feel that they were corrupt and neglecting their duties, even more care in appointing them would have been necessary rather than a complete break from the Pope.

Clergy in general and Bishops in particular have been accused of pluralism. Technically this charge is undoubtedly correct. Even a critic of the church like John Colet was simultaneously Dean of St Paul’s, Vicar of Dennington in Suffolk, Treasurer of Chichester and Canon of York and Salisbury. However, Henry would certainly have realised that such a system was inevitable. The church and the royal government only had a small pool of educated talent to draw from. Without pluralism it is hard to see how church and state could have functioned efficiently. Henry would have accepted this.

The same is also true of non-residence. Furthermore there is little evidence that it led to neglect. Even when Bishops were foreigners (two were Italians in 1512), their representatives or suffragens seem to have performed well – examples being Roger Church of Bath and Wells, and Thomas Cornish at Exeter. Henry also would not have accepted criticism about this practice because in all but exceptional cases he appointed these Bishops.

It is important to judge the parish priests by the standards of the time. Highly educated clergy were not really necessary in rural areas. Sexual impropriety may not have been viewed in quite the same way as it would be now. Nor was it necessarily that common. According Harper-Bill, in Winchester archdeaconry in 1527-28 eleven clergy from 230 churches were accused of sexual misdemeanour, and four of these cleared themselves of the charge. This shows that only a minority of clergy misbehaved, however Henry would have understood this as it was recognised that a career in the church was one of the few opportunities available for ambitious men at the time. For chastity to be ignored was not unusual as Wolsey showed by having a mistress and illegitimate children. There was certainly no correlation between sexual offences and neglect of priestly duties within the parish.

Labelling the parish priests as rapacious is, in my opinion, wholly wrong. The economic situation of those clergy who remained without a benefice – who were the majority – was terrible. The average income in the diocese of Lincoln for the clergy was £5 3s 2d (£5.16) per year, but in many years it was only £2 9s 2d (£2.46). This was barely enough to live on. So allegations of neglect, for example the decayed condition of a church, were unfair in view of the economic condition of the clergy. All in all, as Harper-Bill says parish priests, « Were adequately equipped both by education and social background to exercise satisfactory the spiritual and social functions of rural curate ». There seems to be little evidence that Bishops and parish priests were corrupt or neglected so the view that the clergy were widely despised is probably wide of the mark and therefore not a key factor in Henry’s decision to break from Rome.

Research has shown that the church courts may well have been more efficient and humane than was once thought. Their treatment of those committing sexual offences (adultery, fornication etc) was lenient by the standards of the time. Fines seem to have been calculated to fit income. Humiliating spectacles like the Pillory were not used. Also, those accused could clear themselves by compurgation, whereby the defendant could produce in court a number of oath-helpers who testify to their belief in the defendant’s innocence. The logic of this was that it provided a safe ground against malicious accusation by personal enemies.

In testamentary cases there is little evidence of abuse. There were accusations of over-charging, but these are relatively common at any time. The problem for the church courts was often the bitter rivalry between them and the king’s courts. Secular lawyers, jealous of the large amounts of business that went to the church courts, would deliberately blacken their name. Simon Fish was one man who criticised church courts. His reliability must be questioned however. He was a common lawyer and had much to gain from attacking the church, as it would mean more work for him if the church courts were to be closed. There is little doubt that Henry did not like the church courts as they limited the power of his royal courts. However, deciding to sever links with the Pope would have been, to say the least, drastic. Other ways to limit church court powers such as whittling away the Right of Sanctuary and Benefit of Clergy would have been sufficient.

The alternative view to the Reformation

This is the view of those who feel the break from Rome was not caused by the state of the pre-reformation church or the divorce but by Henry’s own desire to be more powerful and wealthy.

Political reasons must have been foremost in Henry’s mind when the call for Reformation was made. Henry needed to secure the dynasty. He felt that Catherine would bear no more children and therefore he needed to divorce her and marry Anne Boleyn who was pregnant. As the Pope would not grant this, Henry had to ‘divorce’ the Pope in order to obtain it.

It can be argued that Henry’s desire, encouraged probably by Cromwell and Crammer to take over the church as an institution and use it to extend his power both at home and abroad, played a pivotal role in the Reformation. Henry wished to curtail the Pope’s influence in England. The Pope was, for example, the sole arbiter of the beliefs of the new Church of England. After the Reformation, Henry became sole arbiter and immediately concerned that the Catholic Church in England had developed into a ‘state within a state’ due to its tax privileges, won courts. Henry wished to control this ‘state’ as he wanted sole power on everything within his country.

Henry wanted this cesaropapism – the power over both the state and the church – to increase his own power. He eventually gained this in 1534 due to the Act of Supremacy. This meant that Henry’s full claims over the church were placed on the statute book. The whole independent power of the church became largely a thing of the past and was no longer a state within a state. He could only have achieved this by breaking from Rome.

Henry also wanted to run the church so he could oversee the development of education. The educational role of the church was in decline. Church schools were often of poor quality and in many areas simply did not exist. This was important to Henry, as a literate population would be essential in helping the Tudor dynasty to run the country.

The wealth of the church was another political reason for Henry’s decision to break from Rome. The crown was always in desperate need for money and Henry himself was always short of money. The wealth and land of the church were therefore obvious targets, particularly when Thomas Cromwell reminded Henry of them. The church owned between 4 and 2 of all land in England. Henry knew that if he could become head of the church then he would own this. Consequently he could sell this land or rent it providing a steady income of money to the crown. This was important as the number of country gentlemen increased by several thousand, therefore helping the stability of the realm. Becoming Head churchman meant that Henry could pass acts such as the Act of First Fruits and Tenths in 1534, which meant the transferring of these payments from the Pope to the king. Also the Act of Annates was passed through parliament, which ended the payment of a third of a Bishop’s first year’s income to Rome and instead it went to the king.

Henry could also close down monastic institutions and strip them of their belongings. Ornaments, statues, windows and roofing were all taken and sold with the proceeds going straight to the king. In some cases he sold the entire monastery to wealthy landowners to convert into homes. There was also a large lump sum gained from the sale of bullion, plate, jewellery and bell metal from the monasteries. Also Henry’s original intention was to close the smaller monasteries. However, the larger institutions began to dispose their assets so Henry closed them. In other words as Randell puts it, « Henry intended to steal half the apples, and then found the rest virtually fell into his lap ».

The only way Henry could have obtained this obvious church wealth was to become the Supreme Head of the Church of England which he did in January 1535, therefore cutting all ties with the Pope in Rome.

The divorce from Catherine of Aragon

        A major reason why Henry decided to break with Rome can be explained with reference to the peculiar set of circumstances which frustrated his search for the annulment of his first marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon.

Henry had married Catherine soon after his accession to the throne in 1509. In order for this to happen Henry had received a special dispensation from the Pope because Catherine had been previously married to Henry’s brother Arthur who had died. Otherwise the marriage might not have been allowed by Canon Law. Sometime in the mid to late 1520’s Henry began to think about divorce.

At first when trying to obtain the divorce, a break from Rome would not have crossed Henry’s mind. He was determined to ‘do things by the book’. Henry’s decision to break from the Pope and obtain the divorce himself was a gradual build up of the following factors.

From the outset he was thwarted in his plans. Catherine refused to cooperate, and at no stage would she agree to any divorce or annulment. Henry was understandably furious as he thought his own power would be enough to persuade Catherine to ‘go quietly’. However, despite generous offers of money from Henry, Catherine would not shift her position. Henry needed to find another way to divorce Catherine and far from breaking from Rome he instead asked the Pope for help.

Henry needed Papal support so not shadow could be cast over the children of any subsequent marriage. Henry doubtless believed that the divorce would be granted relatively quickly. The Pope himself, Clement VII, would probably have agreed (despite the implication of an earlier error). Domination of north Italy and the Papacy by the emperor Charles V (Catherine’s nephew) meant that this was not to be. Charles V would not let the Pope grant the divorce because of family ties between himself and Catherine, coupled with rivalry and possible dislike between Charles and Henry. The Pope’s decision to procrastinate over the annulment angered Henry. Until 1534 the Papacy did not actually refuse the divorce. Clement VII, hoping for the best, simply made no decision, as he wanted the problem to resolve itself either by Catherine accepting the divorce or by the death of one of the parties. Catherine was also vulnerable due to European affairs. She was becoming a diplomatic liability to Henry who wanted to move away from his alliance with Spain and to align himself with France because he felt Spain was becoming too powerful.

Certain factors encouraged Henry to seek a domestic solution to his ‘great matter’. Henry was unsure about his next move as Catherine and the Pope would not agree to the divorce. G R Elton believes, and I agree, that the turning point was when Thomas Cromwell was promoted to the Inner Ring of the Council in 1531. Cromwell was the first to argue that if the Pope would not grant the divorce, then get rid of the Pope. Cromwell’s idea to use Statute law to Papal influence was a major reason in Henry’s decision to break with Rome. The Act in Restraint of Appeals in March 1533 was passed. This had dual significance. First and most obvious there were to be no more appeals to Rome in testamentary or matrimonial cases. This was a significant step towards eradicating Papal influence in England. Secondly and more profoundly, most historians believe that this was an explicit statement of National Sovereignty. England was declared to be a sovereign state free from all outside interference. The pre-amble to the act states that, « this realm of England is on Empire governed by one supreme head and king ». The succession and Treason Acts of 1534 emphasised this as Henry’s first marriage was declared invalid and his second to Anne Boleyn was declared valid and to deny this in print was treason and by word of mouth was misprision of treason.

Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy in late 1532 would probably have made Henry think about ending Papal influence and giving himself the power to divorce Catherine and marry Anne, otherwise their forthcoming child would be illegitimate. This would have been unacceptable for an heir to the throne.

The death of Worham, the Archbishop of Canterbury in August 1532 was of significance. Perhaps events would not have occurred as they did if he had lived. He was a staunch believer that the Pope should be head of the church in England and he might have challenged Henry’s decision to break from Rome. The new Archbishop Thomas Crammer was happy to go along with Henry’s decisions.


After analysing the factors in Henry’s decision to break from Rome, I believe that the key factor in Henry’s mind was his need for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. However, the build up of the following factors cannot be ignored.

The state of the pre-reformation church was not the key reason for the Reformation because, on the whole, the church was not corrupt or anachronistic and the majority of the clergy at every level were hard-working and carried out their duties well. However, it would have been a background factor for Henry’s ‘reform-mindedness’. Henry used this perceived corrupt condition of the English church as an excuse to reform the church and appoint himself ‘Supreme Head’.

Money and ultimately power would have been an encouraging factor for Henry to break with Rome. He realised that if he could run the church for the crowns benefit then it would certainly increase his revenue. Henry knew that the sale of church lands to the laity might induce them to become enthusiastic supporters of the government’s policies. They would have much to gain if the power and wealth of the church were broken. Again we can see that the sale of land for money was not the true reason. The real reason was that he wanted as many people to support his decision to divorce Catherine, and this meant offering them incentives to support him – for example inexpensive church land. Henry realised cesaropapism would make him more powerful, but as devote Catholic his personal greed would not have been a strong enough reason to break from the Pope. His need to secure his dynasty would have been strong enough however.

Jealousy provoked by Wolsey’s wealth could also have been an encouraging factor in Henry’s decision to break from Rome. He was Papal Legate and therefore head churchman in England. However, he did not act like a churchman – he was arrogant, corrupt and immoral. He personified the worst abuses of the church. The allegations of pluralism, simony and nepotism were all labelled against him. He also had a mistress and illegitimate children. After the break from Rome, Henry ran the church and therefore he was in a position to set an example for all churchmen. However, to suggest this would be anything more than a background factor would be wrong.

The influence of Protestant ideas in the lead up to the Reformation may also have been a contributory factor. There were some Lutherans in England in the 1520’s (with Cromwell being prominent) but they probably numbered hundreds rather than thousands, and therefore no real pressure on Henry to break from Rome and turn England Protestant.

However, these were merely additional factors to the divorce issue. It became obvious to Henry that Catherine, because of her age (born 1485) would probably have no more children. Henry, and indeed almost everybody else, was convinced that a male heir was needed to secure the dynasty. Henry had also fallen in love with a young courtier – Anne Boleyn. In addition, Henry had convinced himself that his marriage was wrong in the eyes of God. Furthermore God’s punishment was the lack of a male heir.

I consider that the break from Rome can be defined by two quotes, the first from Christopher Haigh, « The Henrician Reformation when it came was not the product of long standing discontent with the church …… it was a crisis which blew up out of nothing ». And from Christopher Harper-Bill, « we must return to Henry VIII’s matrimonial problems and financial needs as the ultimate cause of the Reformation in England ».

The quotes in the previous paragraph show that the reasons for the Reformation were a combination of disquiet of the wealth of the Papal church, and the need to continue with the royal dynasty. In my opinion it is therefore difficult to attribute the Reformation to just one key factor. However, my final conclusion is that it was Henry’s deep (if belated conviction) that his marriage was invalid and therefore should be annulled, that ultimately led to the Reformation. Without this, disquiet with the church and its wealth would not on its own, in my opinion have led to a break from Rome.