Essay: Henry VIII

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  • Henry VIII
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In Henry VIII’s decision to ‘Break with Rome’ or rather what contemporaries label as his ‘Great Matter’ was one of the significant occurrences in British history transforming the dynamics of the English and European constitutional scene in 1527. From the severing of ties with the Papacy emerged the Church of England and with that, much disorder and ruin. The ‘Kings Great Matter’ was driven by Henrys decision to annul his marriage with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he may marry Anne Boleyn and he was able to do so with the help of his ministers. Their slow yet unfaltering dismantling of the church was a gradual process implemented through the passing of various legislature and legal processes which posed as detrimental to the finances of the church as well as its political foothold in England. The charge of the breach of Praemanire was the first first attack upon the Church in 1531-2 and the extinguishing of the authority of the Bishop of Rome in 1536 was the final act, securing Henry as the undisputed supreme head of the Church of England, thus leaving him in absolute sovereignty of his nation.
With this in mind, it is of utmost importance to consider how the intimate and administrative affiliations of the King influenced him so much to the extent that he rescinded his title as the ‘Defender of the faith ‘and condemned the authority which had granted him this title through his assumption of the role as the Supreme head of the church. Such a drastic and unruly change of sides warrants a deep rooted reason and such a bold and tactical move surely could not have been presided upon or pioneered soley by the King but would need key instigators.

It is indeed true that Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell were the key architect’s and masterminds who ensured that the break with Rome was carried out to its fullest potential and most importantly to the king’s advantage. Yet is this enough to deem them as the primary influencers for Henrys decision to break with Rome? It could be argued that Wolsey’s inability to secure an annulment through the orthodox route in the first place was what prompted and made the break with Rome necessary. Historians such as Starkey however would contend that it was Henrys wanton lust for Anne Boleyn that drove him to take such a drastic action. If this is infact the case, from another perspective it could be suggested that Anne would appear to be much more than just a mistress that Henry grew to be deeply infatuated with but instead a woman ahead of her time, who broke the mould and single handedly carved out her future with the end goal to be Queen of England. Could her presence have had a more influential part to play in Henrys decision to break with Rome beyond the grounds of ‘love’ for her King? Historians such as Rex on the other hand would accredit the sole influence of Henrys decision to be simply Henry himself and his fixation on having a legitimate male heir. This essay will first look at the roles of Cromwell and Cranmer and to what extent they had a part to play in the break with Rome. Following from this, the essay will assess the other individuals who may have had influence over Henrys decision, specifically Thomas Wolsey, Anne Boleyn and Henry himself.

Prior to his involvement in the Kings great matter, it has been suggested that Cranmer had already shown glimmerings of an anti papal zeal in the 1520’s which could possibly propose the notion that he had a personal brewing conviction and furthermore the extent of influence he may have had over Henrys decision to break with Rome. In his three decades at Cambridge Cranmer “has been portrayed as a humanist whose enthusiasm for biblical scholarship drew him naturally into the circle of those scholars fired to embrace reformism by the first years of Luther fame in the 1520’s”. Diarmaid MacCulloch however contends otherwise stating that there is little evidence to suggest that Cranmer had already shown signs of these radical conventions or reformist sympathies by 1520. He boils it down to the simple fact that humanism had no influential foothold within Cambridge for Cranmer to have even been exposed to it in the first place, using their delayed addition of Classical Literature and Greek into the curriculum in 1510 as evidence. However, during his MA at Cambridge in 1511, Cranmer’s work is criticized by an anonymous biographer to highly resemble that of the humanist, ‘Faber Erasmus, good Latin authors’, it may appear to be merely a coincidence that also in 1511 this same humanist arrived for his extended stay in Cambridge at the invitation of fisher. In addition to this an insight on Cranmer’s views in the 1520’s can be drawn from his annotations in Fishers Confutatio. According to Cranmer’s black ink marginalia he appears to have been a conciliarist as he objects to Fisher who states that the papacy has the authority to act apart from a council. Fisher begins by quoting Luther who states that even if the Pope and majority of the Church hold one judgment, it is still not a sin to believe otherwise until a general council has declared otherwise. In the margin of this quotation Cranmer writes ‘Here [Luther] seems not completely in the wrong’. Although these fragments of evidence may not hold enough weight to suggest that Cranmer was indeed an early reformer and more importantly one with a personal vendetta against the papacy so strong as to manipulate Henry into breaking with Rome, the notion should not be so quickly refuted. The suggestion of glimmerings may be too far fetched for this period of time , but we do see specks of an anti papal zeal.

As Cranmer was employed by the royal diplomacy from 1527, he was unavoidably drawn into the king’s great matter, however his position and work within the business of the annulment didn’t gain substantial prominence until the summer of 1529. In this period it appears as though Cranmer had influence over Henry, after all it was him who suggested they redirect their focus of the campaign ‘from the legal case at Rome and towards a general canvassing of university theologians throughout Europe’ Although this was not particularly an innovative or radical idea nor did it have any substantial effect on Rome it suggests Henrys willingness to listen to Cranmer’s advise. Morice states that as time passed Cranmer met with Henry at Greenwich. Thomas Cromwell even recalled that Cranmer amongst many others theological thinkers were summoned to present him with an updated statement of the kings case. This further suggests that Cranmer was considered to be an integral part of the Kings annulment process. In 1636 Thomas Master found in the Exchequer of Receipt archive memorandum about ‘a bundle of books written as is supposed by Archbishop Cranmer and [John Clerk] Bishop of Bath in defense of the Kings title of Supreme Head and the divorce from his first wife Catherine and against Cardinal Pole’. This provides evidence which implies that Cranmer was a long standing advocate for absolutism and for the king to assume the role as the head of the church. With this in mind, in addition to his supposed influence over the king , it would appear that Cranmer had much contribution to Henrys decision to break with Rome.

This is evident by his actions before his ascent to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury……….

Cromwell’s career as a lawyer came to a standstill following his entry into the king’s service in 1530. He soon found himself in an advantageous position following the fall of his existing master, Thomas Wolsey in October 1529. Wolsey’s demise not only paved the way for Cromwell to assume control of his affairs at court but also placed him in a close proximity to the Centre of power thus implying that he was in a position to have had influence over the king. Cromwell is often recognized as being the mastermind who envisioned England’s break with Rome as a means of extracting Henry from his first marriage. The King went from a period of indecision to suddenly challenging one of the most engrained customs in England. According to Gittings up to 1529 there is no suggestion that there would be any radical change in policy. This would add weight to the emergence of Cromwell which occurred at the crucial moments of Wolsey’s downfall in 1529. The Kings sudden adoption of these radical ideas “would lead us to believe that Cromwell was the originator of these new schemes as well as the agent by whom they were later executed” “Who is this Cromwell that has grown to such importance?” wrote Cardinal Granvelle to imperial ambassador Chapuys. It would appear that Cromwell had amassed much influence at court to such a large extent that it has caught the attention and curiosity of foreign political figures further adding weight to the influence he may have had over Henrys decision.

The evidence accumulated would suggest that Cromwell was instrumental in guiding Henry towards the notion of the royal supremacy, this is supported by Dickens who state
s that ‘the demand for a single sovereignty and an undivided allegiance savours strongly of the known convictions of Thomas Cromwell’ This is evident through the many acts he drafted in order to execute the dissolution as well as achieve supremacy , for instance the Act in Restraint of Appeals passed in 1533. This particular act is widely known for its opening as Cromwell refers to England as an ‘Empire’ thus essentially declaring the country to be a sovereign state with no submission to any other ruler. By attaching an imperial status to England, Cromwell decreased the power of the Pope, thus creating the foundations for a royal supremacy. Asides from Cromwell’s famous preamble, the act fundamentally prohibited all appeals to the Pope in Rome on spiritual or external matters, thus resulting in the King being the sole legal authority in all such disputes in England and other English possessions. This act also proved to have immediate effect as it provided a solution to Henrys problems, enabling him to once and for all tackle the issue of his divorce which had become of even more urgency than previously as according to Dickens, Anne Boleyn was presumed to have already been pregnant at this point in time. Cromwell had managed to kill two birds with one stone. “Having thus cut through the tangled skein of the divorce” as well as accumulated powers for Henry only dreamt of by other kings. Therefore, the notion that Cromwell may have had a high degree of influence over Henrys decision to break with Rome doesn’t seem so far fetched. In 1534 he passed a series of statutes through parliament such as the Act in Restraint of Annates , which “not only withdrew Annates from Rome but also forbade Englishmen to procure papal bulls for the consecration of bishops”, the dispensation act which stopped all payments to Rome and last but not least, the Act of Supremacy which officially recognized Henry as the Supreme Head of the Church as well as sanctioned his authority to tax the clergy. This was the grand finale that cemented the break with Rome.

Similar to his predecessor, Cromwell came to realize the massive financial gains that could be made from the break with Rome. The Valor Ecclesiasticus is considered by historians such as Dickens to be one of his most outstanding administrative exploits. This was a survey and evaluation of all clerical incomes in England and in Wales and proved to be of great significance to Cromwell. Through this it could be suggested that Henry would have seen the benefits that he would receive from severing ties with Rome as well as the dissolution of the monasteries thus strengthening the notion of the degree of influence Cromwell may have had over Henrys decision.

Thomas Wolsey could be perceived as an indirect influential factor regarding his decision to break with Rome. As a faithful servant would, Wolsey threw himself into the thick of the divorce case, but unfortunately the opposing political situation of the Pope made his efforts redundant. In 1527 the Holy Roman Emperor and his troops rendered Pope Clement VII a captive within the confines of his fortress of Castel Sant’ Angelo thus granting the emperor a considerable amount of influence over papal policy. Seeing as Catherine of Aragon is Charles’ aunt, it is evident why he was rather reluctant to consent to Henrys request for an annulment. Wolsey’s inability to secure the divorce through a conventional route paved the way for a more radical approach. Newcombe promulgates this notion as he stated that “Henry had very few options left open to him” , which begs the question of whether Wolsey’s unintended failure can be considered to be a factor significant enough to influence Henrys decision to take break with Rome?

Despite Cranmer and Cromwell’s orchestration as well as Wolsey’s inadvertent input to the break with Rome, it could be argued that Anne Boleyn’s powers of persuasion and tireless ambition is what laid the foundations for the occurrence of the phenomenon in the first place, for without the king’s great matter, would there have been a break with Rome? Starkey suggests that Anne’s resolve to keep Henry in suspense for over a year resulted in him being “well and truly caught” thus implying that she had a degree of influence over him , one so strong that he would make her his ‘sole mistress’ and later on the Queen of England. Although it could be perceived that Anne is hopelessly inured to the desires of her heart and only refused the king to protect her virtue and status, it could also be argued that her rejections were only made to intensify Henrys pursuit so much to the extent that his infatuation would drive him to annul his first marriage with Catherine of Aragon. There is no speculation as to whether Henrys love for Anne Boleyn existed and a wide range of letters exist to support this. “It is absolutely necessary for me to obtain this answer, having been for a whole year stricken with the dart of love” said Henry in a letter to Anne Boleyn. “…but also that I will take you for my only mistress, casting off all others besides you out of my thoughts and affections and serve you only”. Starkey supports the notion that Henry was compelled stating that Anne ‘wrought an alchemy’ turning ‘Henrys stilted sighs into real passion’ for he had experienced many extra-marital relationships, but nothing of this degree. These glimpses from Henrys letters are but a miniscule representation of the extent of love he had for Anne and although he fails to date his letters, through the context given we are able to denote that they derive from the earlier stages of their relationship. Although we are able to establish that Henry did infact love Anne Boleyn, it remains unclear whether Anne’s dangling of her virtue as bait was an intentional act employed to manipulate the King or rather one done to protect her self from securing the same fate as her sister, Mary Boleyn an all too common fate of a royal mistress. Regardless, either motive would have still brought about the same reaction, which still begs the question of whether Anne’s influence was enough to result in Henry severing ties with Rome, for it is one thing to request for an annulment, but another to entirely condemn the papacy.

According to Bernard it has become rather fashionable ‘to characterize Henry VIII’s second queen, Anne Boleyn, as evangelical in religion and as a patron of reformers’ If this is infact the case it would portray Anne to be a key influential figure in Henrys decision to break with Rome considering the notion that he was already highly infatuated with her. Historians such as Ives support this evangelical interpretation of Anne, stating that she was the first to showcase the potential advantages of the royal supremacy ‘for that distinctive English element in the Reformation, the ability of the King to take initiative in religious change’. This in addition to his belief that she had undergone a spiritual awakening as a youth during her time in France makes for a very cohesive and persuasive argument. Anne’s religious stance can be further supported by Cranmer’s letter to Henry where he states, ‘As I loved her not a little for the love which I judged her to bear towards God and His Gospel…’ Although this letter extends beyond our time frame having been written during the time of Anne Boleyn’s arrest in 1536, it provides an insight into her religious credentials. Foxes Act of Monuments share this same perspective as he credits Anne to be an active promoter of the gospel as well someone who indorsed reformers by bringing them into favor with the King. Despite this being Elizabethan material, it is important to acknowledge the context in which it was written in. Bernard diminishes the reliability of Foxes work as he reminds us that it was created for the purpose of propaganda. Considering that this book was drawn up during the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1559, it appears to be vehicle created to rehabilitate Anne’s i
mage , ‘they were not just presenting Anne as a pious evangelical, they were attempting to retrieve her reputation in general’ Reitha Warnicke further promulgates this argument as she argues that Anne was rather conventional in regards to her piety and beliefs. However it should be acknowledged that during the early reformation people often changed their religious opinions and ‘there is no better warning than Cranmer himself’. Therefore, the notion that Anne Boleyn could have had both conventional and reformist views in her life time should not be overlooked and in turn the influence her religious opinions may have had over Henrys decision to break with Rome. HER AND HENRY DISCUSSED THE ANNULMENT EVERYDAY , SHE BECAME A CONFIDANT , MCULLOCH

It is important not to overlook Henrys own role and motivations when considering the influences that lead to his decision to break with Rome. Richard Rex argues that there has been a reluctance amongst historians to place emphasis on Henrys own motivation to ‘resolve the problem of the succession’, instead they preferred to seek out a deep rooted cause for phenomenon’s such as the break with Rome as it makes for a better narrative. The lack of a legitimate male heir to inherit the crown presented itself as a serious problem during Henrys reign and although Catherine of Aragon had left him princess Mary and he had acknowledged his bastard Henrys Fitzroy given to him by Elizabeth Blount , ‘English history offered no successful precedent for a regnant Queen, nor had a royal bastard ever succeeded his father’. In light of this it seems appropriate to denote that the dynasty looked rather insecure following from its success in the Wars of the Roses. The Catholic church had forbidden the marriage to the wife of a deceased brother as blatantly expressed in two biblical texts, Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21.The latter appears more applicable to Henrys predicament as it stated ‘If a man shall take his brothers wife, it is an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness: and they shall be childless’. With this in mind the notion that Henry would make such a radical decision in order to have a male heir appears to be reasonable.

Another factor that has been presided over by 20th century historians is the view that the pre-reformation church was a fraudulent and declining institution. Conacher argues that it is widely known that during the reign of Henry VIII there was widespread anticlericalism in England. It could be perceived that the rising anticlerical feeling was an influential factor prompting Henry to break with Rome. The ‘reformation parliament’ called on the 3rd of November 1529 to limit abuses in the church, lends aid to the notion of the rising anticlerical sentiment in England and this is supported by Dickens as he states that ‘over the next three years there followed a sequence of statutes which, though still carefully avoiding schism, involved the most seriously curtailment of ecclesiastical privilege since the fourteenth century’. Although Conacher believes anticlericalism did exist in England, he doesn’t accredit the eradication of corruption within the church to be a factor which influenced Henry to break with Rome, but rather one used to ensure action is taken in favor of his divorce by placing pressure on the Pope. ‘After six years spent in seeking unsuccessfully a papal annulment of his marriage, Henry, now with Thomas Cromwell…broke all ties with the papacy by getting the Reformation Parliament to pass the Act of Appeals.’ This diminishes the argument that Henry broke with Rome due to his passion to eliminate corruption, this is further supported by Rex who states that Henrys decision to break with Rome lay not ‘as he maintained in scruples of conscience’ However evidence has emerged indicating that Henry was infact a devout Catholic, ‘The bede’ which is a prayer roll inscribed with Latin prayers around 13 feet long displays a series of illuminations including the Trinity, the Crucifixion and scenes from Christ’s Passion, the role provides a guideline explaining how the devotions are to be performed and under the central image there is an inscription by Henry which reads “Willyam Thomas, I pray yow pray for me your lovying master: Prynce Henry”. In light of this, the perception that Henry was a sceptic on matters of Catholicism or the notion that he underwent a conversion during the process of his annulment thus resulting in his decision to break with Rome has been diminished. This would further propel the alternative claim that Henry was financially motivated as the financial benefit is evident through the legislation passed by the reformation parliament, however this would appear to be more of a secondary benefit as there was no urgent need for money. The existence of the Bede however not only diminishes alternative claims of Henrys faith but also offers another perspective as it could be suggested that as a devout Catholic he was driven to break with Rome to eradicate corruption within the church and in turn improve it .

After critically analyzing the roles and actions of each protagonist in the break with Rome, it is possible to place each figure in chronological order of importance. Henry would seem to be the most important individual overall as he was in the highest position of power, thus resulting in his motives and personal desires taking precedence over that of other significant figures. ‘(Henry) always retained the right to have the last word; therefore fore he was the ultimate arbiter of policy’ . For instance, his desire to marry Anne Boleyn as well as to have a male heir played a significant factor prompting him to request an annulment for his marriage with Catherine of Aragon which ultimately lead to the break with Rome. Henry was the deciding factor on the matter and it is as a result of his desires that certain actions were taken. This is not to diminish the influence in which his ministers may have had, Cranmer and Cromwell certainly enlightened Henry and broadened his perspective on the matter through the process in which they orchestrated achieving the annulment, however they were merely acting upon Henrys requests. Cranmer suggested the change in their approach from a legal to a theological one thus opening up a doorway of ways to diminish the Popes authority whilst Cromwell administered an array of acts which not only enabled Henry to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon but increased his power financially and politically in England, allowing him to see the potential advantages of breaking with Rome. Cranmer and Cromwell both had a significant degree of influence over Henrys decision, Cromwell more so than Cranmer. As Cromwell was involved in the Kings great matter from an earlier time, he was naturally able to accumulate more power and influence in court to assume the role of ‘prime mover’. Wolsey’s importance is more complicated to quantify as his role differs from the other figures in that it was unintentional. In the scheme of things however, Wolsey would appear to be the most insignificant figure to influence Henry in his decision to break with Rome as had he been successful in achieving an annulment from the pope, the break with Rome may have still occurred. Wolsey’s significance lies predominantly in the divorce case, which is only one aspect of the break with Rome. In this respect he is less important that Cranmer and Cromwell who were involved in the entire process leading up to the phenomenon. Similar to Wolsey Anne Boleyn was only involved on matters of the divorce case unless we incorporate speculation of her having been an evangelical into the equation. In this regard, her influence over Henrys decision would have been far more than just on matters of an annulment. However due to a lack of substantial and reliable evidence, it would seem that her influence simply resided on matters of marriage. In this aspect, Anne was clearly the most significant figure as she was the woman who drove the king to request for
an annulment.

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