In This Chapter
● Heading up the Church
● Quarrelling with Rome
● Mixing with reformers
● Milking the monasteries
You can’t understand Henry VIII’s reign without talking about religion.
The fact that the Catholic Church was a political, money-making and greedy organisation and that all Christian kings had to work with the pope because he was ‘God’s vicar [number two] on Earth’ was bound to cause trouble in a century in which the Reformation was taking place all over Europe.
As we explain in Chapter 5, Henry’s reason for breaking with Rome was simple: he wanted to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. At first, Henry saw the break as a personal spat between him and the pope - what’s God got to do with it? Well, rather a lot, as it turned out.
The break with Rome didn’t affect ordinary people very much at first. Church services went on as before, priests went on as before. Church buildings were brightly painted with scenes from the Bible, and the mass was in Latin. In short, same old, same old. Among educated people, though, deep divisions and real concerns existed.
Catholic and Protestant: What's the difference?
Today's society in the Christian west is much more secular than in Tudor times, and the differences between Catholic and Protestant don't seem terribly important (although some Catholics and Protestants would no doubt disagree!). To explain the differences would take a For Dummies book in itself but, in a nutshell, 16th-century Catholics
● Believed in transubstantiation, the miracle of the communion bread and wine turning into the flesh and blood of Christ.
● Believed that the Pope, who ran the Catholic Church, was appointed by God.
● Believed that Heaven and Hell were real places.
● Believed that going on pilgrimage and suffering were vital to keep God happy.
● Used a Latin Bible.
● Held services (the Mass) in Latin.
● Believed that priests shouldn't marry. Protestants in the 16th century
● Didn't believe in transubstantiation.
● Didn't accept the Pope as their boss.
● Believed that Heaven and Hell were real places.
● Didn't believe in pilgrimage or self-sacrifice.
● Used vernacular Bibles (for example, Bibles written in English in England, French in France, and so on).
● Held services in the vernacular.
● Were quite happy with married priests.
Bearing all these points in mind can be helpful as you tour through the chapters on religion in this book.
Looking at Henry's Beliefs
Have a look at a modern British coin. You can see the queen’s head (the idea of putting the monarch’s face on coins as a regular thing dates from Henry VII, so everybody in the country knew what the king looked like). Along with the date, the coin also has a lot of initials. The initials DG sum up Henry VIII’s hotline to Heaven - Deo Gratias (by the grace of God). FD means Fidei Defensor (defender of the faith) and that’s a pretty strong hint about Henry’s personal beliefs. It was a title given to him in 1521 by Pope Leo X, for burning the books of Martin Luther, the German monk who’d dared to attack the Catholic Church four years earlier and began what came to be known as the Reformation.
Heaven and hell were real places to the Tudors. So was purgatory, a sort of halfway house in which sinners sins were purged (painfully) before they could enter heaven. Hell was terrifying, staffed by legions of devils. And of course it was St Peter (regarded as the first pope) who held the keys to heaven.
At first, Henry accepted Catholic ideas fully, knowing that not to was heresy and that a heretic would be excommunicated. Henry’s book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Assertion of the Seven Sacraments) was never likely to hit the bestseller lists, but it spelt out his Catholic ideas pretty clearly and the pope liked it.
Henry later came to believe in his own hotline to God and his people expected him, as king, to show the way in religious matters as in everything else.
Henry never doubted the thinking behind Catholic ideas (except purgatory - he wasn’t sure about that), but he did think that monks were a waste of time and he questioned the role of the pope. After all, the man was just another political leader (usually Italian), so Henry thought he shouldn’t be seen in any special light.
The seven sacraments
The Church looked after people's spiritual needs by carrying out the seven sacraments:
● Baptism: Dunking babies in holy water to make them members of the Church.
● Confession: Admitting sin to a priest with the idea of repentance and forgiveness.
● Confirmation: Confirming the promises made on your behalf by your godparents at baptism.
● Eucharist: Celebrating the mass in which you take bread and wine that become, by miracle, the flesh and blood of Christ.
● Extreme unction (last rites): Given by priests for the remission of sins and the comfort of the dying.
● Holy orders: Becoming a priest in the Catholic Church.
● Matrimony: The act of marriage.
Read all about it
The clergy always said that only they could interpret the Bible, especially at a time when few people could read and the book was written in Latin and Greek. But Henry came up with the idea to publish an English Bible so that ordinary people could understand it themselves. The Bible came out in 1536, and after 1538 every church in the land had to have a copy available.
Henry was appalled at how casually people treated the Bible. In his last speech to Parliament in 1545, he said, ‘I am very sorry to know how unreverently that most precious jewel, the Word of God [the Bible] is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every ale house.’ He tried to recall the Bible so that only gentlemen had access to it, but that didn’t work; the Bible was everybody’s.
Getting back on track:
The Act of Six Articles
Henry must have realised that in attacking the pope, breaking with Rome (see the following section) and allowing the English Bible, he was beginning to sound a little bit like Martin Luther, whom he hated. So he got Parliament to pass the Act of Six Articles in 1539, which underlined the traditional ideas of the Catholic Church:
● Chastity: All priests were to remain celibate; no hanky panky.
● Confession: Good for the soul.
● Communion: Only bread could be given to laymen; no wine.
● Private masses: Should be held for the souls of the dead.
As far as the mass went, Henry put it front and centre in the religious scheme of things.
Transubstantiation was the Catholic belief that at communion the bread and wine actually turned, by a miracle, into the flesh and blood of Christ. Protestants were already saying the bread and wine were only symbols. Henry tried to reverse their view.
The official title of the act was ‘An act for abolishing diversity in opinions’. Big brother? You bet! Especially when Henry tried to include widows as a group forced into chastity on pain of death.
Rewriting The Bishops' Book
The Bishops' Book was written in 1537 without Henry's authority and he wasn't happy about it. What it said about the mass in particular seemed to be far too Protestant. The First Commandment made it permissible to pray to Christ, but not God the Father. The list of 'don'ts' in the book included 'divination and palm reading, uncleanly and wanton words, tales, songs, sights, touching, wanton apparel and lascivious decking'.
So he issued his own version in 1543, stressing the importance of Bible reading and deciding that no non-priests could hold services or deliver sermons. Henry made over 100 changes to the bishops' version. On the bit about all men being equal in God's eyes, Henry said this applied to the soul only. Nobody, in 1543, was ready for democracy!
Putting religion into practice
How did Henry run the Church after breaking with Rome? He saw himself as having potestas iurisdictionis (being the organisational head). He never claimed (unlike the pope) to have any priestly role, but he did call the shots as he made clear in the Articles of Visitation drawn up by Thomas Cromwell in the autumn of 1536, which decreed:
● English priests must now reject the pope. From now on, the pope was just the bishop of Rome.
● Lots of holy days (saints’ days) were to be removed from the calendar.
● Worship of images was banned.
● Churches had to provide English as well as Latin Bibles.
Laying the foundation for the Royal Supremacy
Henry believed his religious views were his own and he was answerable only to God. He listened to conflicting opinions and could argue well, but in the end his word was law.
In fact, English kings had often controlled sections of the Church before:
● They suggested bishops who the pope usually accepted.
● Henry II had gone head to head with Thomas Becket (the pope’s man) in the 1160s over the issue of criminal priests.
● In 1393 the Act of Provisors and Praemunire said that no foreign priest could be appointed without the king’s consent.
Henry sorted his position in relation to the Church through the sees of Canterbury or York. In Chapter 5 you see how closely he worked with Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, over his later wives. At other times Henry used Parliament to pass new laws (see the Cheat Sheet’s notable Tudor laws).
Here’s a rundown of how the king asserted his position:
● 1531: Henry accused all churchmen of having accepted the pope’s supremacy in making Thomas Wolsey the pope’s legate (ambassador). Essentially, this was the king throwing his weight around.
● 1532: The Supplication against the Ordinaries was a long list of grievances from Parliament about what was wrong with the Church (the list was actually written by Henry’s adviser, Cromwell) and from then on all Church laws were to be shown to Henry for approval.
● 1533: The Act of Restraint in Appeals meant that nobody could appeal to Rome as a higher authority than the king.
● 1535: Canonical (Church) law was banned as a study in the universities and all reference to the pope was removed from the liturgy (wording of services).
Breaking with Rome
The papacy wasn’t expecting Henry’s ‘great matter’ (his quest for a male heir; see Chapter 3) and his demand for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Petitioning the pope
As we explain in Chapter 5, Henry was desperate to annul his marriage to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she’d been unsuccessful in bearing him a male heir. But Henry’s legal team told him that the Pope couldn’t set aside God’s word, and in any case, Clement VII’s was in a difficult position: as we explain in Chapter 4, he was very worried about upsetting Charles V, Catherine’s nephew, whose army was camped outside Rome.
So Henry sent his adviser Wolsey to France to try to get himself set up as acting pope (he was a cardinal after all). But this didn’t work. So Henry sent two requests to the pope for annulment, which failed (as we explain in Chapter 5, Catherine got Charles on side, which didn’t help Henry’s case). Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner and Richard Fox all badgered Clement, but it was no go.
Stepping up the action
On 18 June 1529 a court was held at Blackfriars in London to decide on the legality of the Henry-Catherine marriage. Catherine gave her point of view and then left and refused to return. Henry gave his opinion. The whole thing became bogged down in technicalities and the case was adjourned until October. The court never met again. It was now that a furious Henry sacked Wolsey (see Chapter 4).
Next, Henry decided to canvas opinion and sent out letters to the great European universities as well as to libraries and known experts in Canon Law and the Bible. The replies were published in Latin and English in November 1531.
The king also got a number of his nobles to write to Clement, urging him to get a move on with a solution.
When none of this had any effect, Henry lost his cool and called the pope a ‘sinful bastard’ (technically, Clement was born out of wedlock) who’d bought his position (technically, right again) and who had no right to adjudicate on Henry’s marriage (ah, well, that was the whole point, wasn’t it).
Losing his patience
As we detail in Chapters 4 and 5, Henry now began to move faster.
● He threatened his clergy with the Praemunire charge (see ‘Laying the foundation for the Royal Supremacy’).
● Increasingly, he took the advice of his new legal eagle, Cromwell (see Chapter 4).
● He made Anne Boleyn pregnant.
● He married Anne secretly in January 1533.
● Henry’s marriage to Catherine was called null and void by convocation (leading churchmen) in April.
In retaliation Clement threatened excommunication: take Catherine back or face hell’s fire for eternity. Both men probably thought the other was bluffing - Henry was obstinate and opinionated; Clement was devious and evasive.
Divorcing the Catholic Church
Henry never accepted Clement’s excommunication - after all, the man was deeply flawed in every respect. What this meant was that the ideas of the new pope, Paul III (the legendary Peter O’Toole played him in The Tudors), which began the Catholic fightback in Europe called the CounterReformation, didn’t affect Henry or England at all.
Pope Paul tried to patch things up with Henry in the summer of 1536 after both Catherine and Anne Boleyn were dead. By this time, however, Henry had declared himself supreme head of the Church and was about to destroy the monasteries (see ‘Dissolving the monasteries’, later in this chapter). He believed his own propaganda that all this was God’s will and already had the scent of money in his nostrils.
Running a New Church
As supreme head of the Church, Henry acquired new powers.
● He ran the Church’s legal side.
● He appointed archbishops and bishops.
● He looked after all property (which was huge).
● He collected all Church taxes (such as Peter’s Pence and First Fruits).
● He decided how services should be run.
Taking the lead, bit by bit
Working out his new position took time, and Henry did it in stages;
● 1531: Henry tried to insist that pardons for offences must go through him.
● 1532: The Church passed its legal side to Henry.
● 1532: Parliament agreed to Henry getting Church taxes rather than the Pope.
● 1533: The Act in Restraint of Appeals severed links with Rome.
● 1534: The Supremacy Act said ‘the king our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church in England’. Job done!
Anybody who refused to accept Henry’s new position was guilty of high treason. Thomas More and John Fisher, look out! (See Chapter 4 on Henry’s enemies.)
Meeting the reformers
In Europe the Reformation, which began with the German monk Martin Luther in 1517, spread like wildfire and threw up other, ever more extremist revolutionaries - men like Melanchthon, Zwingli and Calvin.
Henry’s religious beliefs changed only slightly over time, and had more to do with politics than piety. But he had some home grown reformers in England.
Cranmer was a fellow (tutor) of Jesus College, Cambridge and a personal friend of Henry’s. He was a serious Bible scholar and knew his stuff, but he was sent by Henry on a diplomatic mission to Germany and there he saw Lutheran worship going on for the first time. He even married a German girl while he was there and came back to England rather reluctantly. When he was made archbishop of Canterbury in March 1533 he was pretty off the wall in traditional terms, but he wasn’t a Lutheran.
Tyndale was an Oxford scholar who was a humanist. He wanted to translate the Bible into English but couldn’t find Church support for this in England, so he went to Hamburg, Cologne and finally Antwerp to get his project off the ground. When the book first appeared in England it was destroyed on the orders of the bishops, so Tyndale holds the record as being the first Englishman to have his book burnt in his own country.
The Lutheran propaganda Tyndale wrote from 1528 was music to Henry’s ears because it said that the rulers of each state and not the pope should run their own churches and should beware of dodgy churchmen. Henry tried to use Tyndale’s propaganda skills via Cromwell and his agent Stephen Vaughn, but Tyndale was arrested by Church authorities in Antwerp and burned alive (the punishment for heresy) in October 1536.
Barnes was a Cambridge-based Austin friar who got into trouble with the university authorities in 1525 for preaching anti-Church sermons. In 1531 he went to Wittenberg in Germany and became a personal friend of Martin Luther.
Henry got Cromwell to persuade Barnes to come back to see whether he could be of use. Barnes acted as go-between in the political machinations involving the Schmalkaldic League (see Chapter 5).
Together with Thomas Garrett and William Jerome, Barnes fell foul of the arch-reactionary Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester, and found himself in the Tower. Because they were all Cromwell’s men and Cromwell himself was charged with heresy in 1540, all three were burned at Smithfield, London in July of that year.
There’s no doubt that Protestantism was catching on in England, Wales and Scotland in the 1540s and Henry’s break with Rome not only made this possible but encouraged it. All the tutors employed by Henry for his younger children - John Cheke, Richard Cox and Roger Ascham - were Protestants.
Bible reading became an important part of everyday life. Eventually, every family owned one and recorded family names in the front. The Bible became the most widely sold book in history and most people in the past learned to read from it. Today’s parallel would be the use of home computers, which has revolutionised communication and information over the last 20 years: something that was once available only to the few is now available to everybody.
Translating the Bible
Tyndale hadn't finished his translation when he died, and anyway, technically the man was a heretic. Miles Coverdale did a better version and this was approved by Henry, so sales soared.
In 1537 another English edition appeared, published by Grafton and Whitchurch and translated by John Rogers, who'd known Tyndale back in Antwerp. It was ready for use by Easter 1539 and ran to a second edition a year later. Because Thomas Cranmer added a preface, it became known as the Great or Cranmer's Bible. This was the edition 'jangled about' in the pubs that Henry tried to make available to gentlemen only (see the section 'Read all about it'). In fact, there weren't enough Bibles to go round - only 5,500 books and just over 8,000 parishes.
Dissolving the monasteries
If opposition to Henry’s supremacy over the Church was to exist, it would probably come from the monasteries, the centre of support for the pope. In the summer and autumn of 1534 royal commissioners toured the country, asking all abbots, abbesses, priors and prioresses (the monasteries’ top men and women) to take oaths to the Acts of Supremacy and Succession.
The next year, ominously, the commissioners came back to make an inventory of Church lands, goods and wealth.
The last time a monarch had done such a thing was in 1086-1087, when William the Conqueror wanted to know exactly how much his kingdom was worth. Frightened people thought this was the Day of Judgement as prophesied in the Bible and the book that resulted was called Domesday.
What was Cromwell trying to do with this inventory?
● Looking for excuses to topple the monasteries by finding them rich and corrupt?
● Listening to disgruntled people’s grievances, which were taken as fact?
● Choosing only certain houses (monasteries) to close down, in cases of genuine corruption?
Finding reasons to shut down monasteries
In 1536 there seemed to be no attempt to end monastic life for the sake of it. At first, Henry and Cromwell decided to shut down monasteries with less than 12 members and an income of less than £200 a year. All lands went to Henry.
Then the process began to focus on the ‘manifest sin, vicious, carnal and abominable living’ that was supposed to go on in the monasteries. In the smaller houses, monks and nuns tended to come from a lower class than those in the great monasteries like Fountains and Rievaulx and their likelihood to sin was considered greater. (Figure 6-1 shows the locations of some of the better-known monasteries in England around this time.)
All those in holy orders (which, in this context, means those following a holy calling), male and female, took vows of poverty and chastity. They were supposed to be poor all their lives (Jesus’s teaching told them so) and to be, in the case of nuns, ‘brides of Christ’. These rules were widely flouted but probably less in the monasteries than elsewhere.
Figure 6-1: Some of the better-known monasteries in England.
The Rood of Grace
There were some genuine examples of corruption. At the Cistercian Abbey of Boxley in Kent was a rood (crucifix) in which the head of Jesus nodded, his eyes opened and his lips moved. This was just one example of the way in which the Church conned a gullible public because they charged them for the opportunity to witness this miracle. In February 1538 Cromwell's commissioners discovered that the figure was operated from behind by wires and pulleys worked by a hidden priest. For a more modern version, think Wizard of Oz.
Despite the Rood of Grace (see the nearby sidebar), the commissioners could find very little corruption in the smaller monasteries and some of them ended up begging Henry to keep them open. Henry refused, except for a tiny handful with which the king had personal dealings. About 290 were shut and selling off the land brought in £18,000 a year for Henry.
After the small monasteries there were about 185 bigger ones. There, most of the brothers went quietly, often under pressure from a local nobleman or gentleman who was keen to buy up the land. Many abbots and priors were probably bought off to enjoy a happy (and rich) retirement.
Cathedrals were different. Places like Canterbury, Norwich and Durham became secular (non-monastic) churches, run by deans, not priors. Most of the original priests stayed put, although some, pricked by their consciences, may have fled to Catholic Europe.
When the dust settled, over 2,000 monks were unemployed. Some took private work as curates or chantry priests (see Chapters 2 and 8). Now, Henry set up new sees at Chester, Gloucester, Bristol, Oxford and Peterborough.
Fighting friars without fire
Friars were different from monks. They lived in the world and cared for the old and sick. They were generally very popular - think Friar Tuck in the Robin Hood stories - and were also usually poor, known as mendicants or beggars.
Even so, Cromwell took them on, backed by parish priests who resented the friars muscling in on their territory. Cromwell chose the ex-Dominican monk Richard Ingworth to sort them out and he and his agents visited 380 friaries in England and Wales, telling the friars their future. Most of the friars couldn’t accept the laws Ingworth laid down for them, so they were allowed to go and their were friaries closed.
Destroying and pillaging
Cromwell's men wreaked large scale destruction as they looked for valuables. They smashed the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury (read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to see how important this had been to medieval men and women). They ransacked St Swithun's tomb at Winchester and threw about the bones of various Saxon kings. They melted down gold and silver, and smashed stained glass. They broke up abbey libraries and destroyed irreplaceable manuscripts. A group of Italians led by Giovanni Portarini were brought in as demolition experts, blowing up churches with gunpowder. Some monasteries had their lead roofs removed, their stones used for local building and were allowed to rot (check out their ruins all over England today).
Both monasteries and friaries had been blown away by the Royal Supremacy and went with hardly a whimper.
Clearing up the cash: the Court of Augmentation
The large monasteries netted Henry about £117,000 a year and the small ones £135,000 (because there were more of them). In the last year of his reign his additional income was £65,000, apart from the £2 million he made by selling off the monastic lands to the highest bidder. In total, he doubled his income as a result of destroying a way of life.
The cash was handled by a new government department set up by Cromwell - the Court of Augmentation of the King’s Revenue. Because Cromwell ran this, he increased his power and patronage, lining his own pockets and choosing his own cash collectors at every level.
The total capital raised was £2,780,000, which all went on buildings like Nonsuch, fortifications like Pendennis and Cowes and on war itself. Expenditure in Henry’s own household rose from £25,000 in 1538 to £45,700 in 1545. Henry believed in living life to the full!
By destroying the monasteries, and therefore the last link with the pope, Henry had ended a way of life that had dominated English history for centuries. No wonder his last words were said to be, ‘Monks, monks, monks.’