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Henry VIII and the Church of England

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

Henry VIII and the Church of England

The Anglican Church, also called the Church of England, is unique in history for two reasons. First, it was created solely for political reasons, not religious ones. Second, it was the most sweeping assertion of secular authority in the history of Europe.

By the 1520s, King Henry VIII of England and the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon had been married for several years. Although Catherine had given birth to several children, only one, a daughter, had survived past infancy.

Lacking a male heir, Henry dreaded possible rival claims to the throne and a return to the civil wars that had battered England throughout the 1400s. He was also personally tired of Catherine. Therefore, Henry petitioned Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage. The king had fallen in love with lady-in-waiting Anne Boleyn, who was several years younger than Catherine and seemed likely to provide him with healthy children. (Ironically, only one daughter of their marriage would survive; Henry would have to marry yet again in order to produce a son.)

Henry VIII never tolerated opposition at any time in his life. When the pope refused to grant him his annulment, the king determined to find another way to get what he wanted. In 1533, he named Thomas Cranmer, a loyal official of the court, the new archbishop of Canterbury. Archbishop Cranmer granted Henry his annulment and then married him to Anne Boleyn. The new pope, Paul III, excommunicated both the king and the archbishop for violating the sacrament of marriage.

In 1534, the British Parliament retaliated against the pope by passing the Act of Supremacy. This act acknowledged the king as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus creating a new Christian denomination and eliminating any papal involvement in British affairs. In effect, the British monarch now had the same authority over England that the pope had over the rest of Europe. No secular government had ever asserted such power in a thousand years of Church authority.

It is important to note the role of Parliament in the creation of the Church of England. The king did not create the Anglican Church with a wave of a royal scepter; instead, the duly elected representative government passed the Act of Supremacy according to the laws of the land. Thus, Henry VIII could claim with some reason that the English people and the government fully supported his desire to break away from the Catholic Church.

In a clear sign that Henry’s action had been politically and not spiritually motivated, the Anglican Church continued to hear confessions and celebrate mass in just the same manner as the Catholic Church. Under Henry’s son and successor, Edward VI, the clergy introduced various reforms, such as permission for priests to marry. In 1549, Archbishop Cranmer published The Book of Common Prayer, which contained the prayers and proper forms of all Anglican services—in English, not Latin. During the next century, the status of the Church of England fluctuated according to the personal faith of the monarch.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The Reformation in Europe Practice Test

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