Henry VIII’s key reason for the reformation

Texte d’approfondissement.




Introduction : 1534 is a pivotal point in English history as Henry VIII broke away with Rome, therefore becoming Head of the Church.


1. State of the pre-reformation church

The Church before the Reformation was said to be corrupted and unpopular.

1.1.  English people disliked archbishops and bishops, whom they accused of being guilty of pluralism (cumul des functions), sexual irregularity and unchaste. The top of the religious hierarchy was also blamed for neglecting the faithful.

1.2.  The lower clergy was ill-educated and rapacious. Almost anyone could become a priest, hence the ignorance of most parish priests.

1.3.  The money levied (prélevée) by the clergy, the tithe (dime) went both to the Church and the Pope so if Henry became Head of the Church the money would land straight into the king’s Treasury and help pay for the war and the expanses of court life. Simon Fish pinpointed the undue wealth of the Church and its moral corruption.

1.4.  The Church courts, which regulated many aspects of people’s everyday lives, were inefficient and corrupt and prevented the King from enjoying control over those domains.


  1. The revisionist view of the pre-reformation church

Modern historiography provides us with a more positive view on the Church. Some istorians argue that the Church was fairly efficient.

2.1.  Bishops were dedicated (dévoués), hard-working and well-educated. Some even went as far as to create colleges.

2.2.  Many churchmen held several posts or functions but it was necessary since there were too few educated churchmen able to occupy those positions.

2.3.  When bishops didn’t live in their parish, their representatives cared for the people so the parishioners (paroissiens) were seldom neglected.

2.4.  Sexual misdemeanour (mauvaise conduite) was rare though some priest did have mistresses. Even if the priests were not righteous, they performed their duties seriously.

2.5.  Parish priests, far from being wealthy, were on average rather poor. No evidence (prevue) substantiates the idea that priests and bishops were corrupt.

2.6.  Church courts were mostly lenient (laxistes) and protected the subjects against wrongful accusations from their neighbours. Henry must have disliked Church courts but the safer way to limit their power would have been to curtail (réduire) their powers.


  1. The alternative view to the Reformation.

Some historians claim that the Reformation is not due to the defects of the Church but to Henry’s own thirst for power and wealth.

3.1.  Political reasons and Henry’s desire to secure a male heir account for the break with Rome. 

3.2.  Cromwell and Cranmer may have influenced Henry’s decision to reduce the authority of the Church within the kingdom.

3.3.  After 1534 religious and political powers are in the hands of the monarch.

3.4.  Controlling the Church was a means to control education.

3.5.  If Henry could get the lands of the Church back he would increase his income significantly. Payments to the Pope were immediately transferred to the King.

3.6.  The dissolution of larger, then smaller monasteries, as well as the selling of the monasteries’ belongings (biens) brought in much money. In 1535 Henry had broken all ties (liens) with Rome and increased his financial power.


  1. The divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

The break away with Rome is indisputably linked to Henry’s eagerness to divorce Catherine of Aragon.

4.1.  In 1509 Henry married his defunct brother’s wife, Catherine of Aragon. When he decided to divorce, in the early 1520s’, he did not intend to break away with the Pope. His decision came gradually.

4.2.  Catherine was adamant that she would not divorce (she was determined not to accept the divorce).

4.3.  For he was under the sway (influence) of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, the Pope was reluctant (être reticent) to grant the annulment, which angered Henry VIII. Meanwhile, Henry was anxious to break his alliance with Spain.

4.4.  Cromwell’s role in the affair should not be underrated (sous-évalué). Cromwell passed an act that ruled Rome out of testamentary or matrimonial affairs and advocated (défendait) National Sovereignty. The outcome (conclusion) of these acts was the Treason Acts of 1534 through which Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn was made possible.

4.5.  As Anne Boleyn expected a child, a solution had to be found quickly.

4.6.  Worham, hostile à la decision du roi, mourut et fut remplacé par Cranmer qui, au contraire, appuya les idées du roi.



The reason for Henry’s decision to break away with Rome is not the state of the pre-reformation Church as it was neither corrupt nor inefficient. If Henry broke with the Pope it is because he had to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Yet, the supposedly (prétendument) corrupted state of the Clergy was a call for reform. Another incentive (motivation) was money : Henry knew that he could get much money out of the dissolution of monastery and the cessation of payments to the Pope. Giving landowners cheap lands was a means of securing their assent (accord). Wolsey embodied (incarnait) all the defects of the Clergy and Henry was pleased to be rid of him. However the main reason for the break was Henry’s divorce. The Reformation is therefore the result of two factors : Henry’s wish to divorce and to get a male heir and Henry’s hope to divert the money accumulated by wealthy churchmen and an all-powerful papacy.  





a) Henry VII aurait pu mieux surveiller la nomination des évêques.

b) Si les évêques n’avaient pas occupé plusieurs postes, l’Eglise aurait manqué d’hommes.

c) On dit que les prêtres étaient riches et corrompus mais en fait ils avaient à peine de quoi vivre.

d) Cranmer a convaincu Henry VIII de réduire l’influence de Rome en agitant le spectre de la peur.

e) Il y avait de moins en moins d’écoles gérées par l’Eglise.

f) Malgré l’argent que le roi lui offrit, Catherine refusa le divorce.

g) Si Clément VIII n’avait été influencé par Charles Quint, il aurait accordé le divorce au roi.

h) Si Henry VIII n’avait pas rompu avec Rome puis divorcé, l’enfant d’Anne Boleyn aurait été illégitime.

i) Contrairement à Cranmer, Worham essayait de dissuader le roi de rompre avec Rome.







a)      Henry VIII could have kept a more careful eye on the appointment of bishops. / Henry VIII could have been more careful in the appointment of bishops. / Henry VIII could have appointed bishops more carefully.

b)      If archbishops had not hold several posts, there would have been a lack of churchmen. / Had pluralism not existed among bishops, there would have been too few churchmen.

c)      Priests and bishops were said to be rich and corrupt while in fact they were hardly able to make (earn) a living.

d)      Cranmer frightened Henry into limiting (curtailing) the influence of Rome.

e)      There were fewer and fewer church schools.

f)        Despite (in spite) of the money she was offered (by the King), Catherine refused the divorce. / Even though the King offered her money, Catherine would not divorce.

g)      If Clement VII had not been under Charles V’s influence, he would have granted the King his divorce. / Had not Clement VII been under the sway of Charles V, he would have…

h)      If Henry had not broken away with Rome and divorced, Anne Boleyn’s child would have been illegitimate. / Had not Henry broken…

i)        Unlike Cranmer (Contrary to Cranmer), Worham tried to talk the King out of breaking away with Rome.