Henry VIII and the scourge of papal power

Henry VIII was a warrior king in every respect, says George Bernard, taking the fight to Frenchmen, Scots, his counsellors, wives and, above all, Rome...

Hans Holbein the Younger’s portrait of Henry VIII, c1537. Henry’s clash with the church was, says George Bernard, the most significant episode of the Tudor era and transformed England’s relationship with continental Europe. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Henry VIII’s most striking action and his lasting legacy was his break with Rome. In the 1530s he threw off papal jurisdiction, declared himself supreme head of the church on earth under Christ and denounced the usurpation of the pope and the superstitions of his church.

Of course, in many ways the church in England was already monarchical, with bishops long nominated by the crown from the monarch’s circle of counsellors and diplomats. But so boldly, persistently and vigorously to proclaim the royal supremacy was something new.

Henry’s daughter Mary reverted to papal obedience during her brief reign. Yet following Mary’s death in 1558, her half-sister, Elizabeth, pursued Henry’s policy of rejecting the authority of the papacy. Since then the Church of England has remained independent. And that has hugely affected English relations with, and attitudes to, the rulers and peoples of continental Europe. Nothing any other Tudor monarch did mattered as much.

Henry did not just break with Rome. He saw himself as an Old Testament prophet king, called upon by God to purify the church. And in the 1530s the monasteries were dissolved and the practice of pilgrimage – journeys to the sites of shrines of saints – was brought to an end. Both measures had immense consequences. A society with men and women who, at least in principle, turn their face from the world and devote themselves exclusively to the worship of God is qualitatively different from one which has no monks and nuns.

Immense consequences

Henry was also much involved in the codification of what Christians should believe. Although he had broken from Rome, dissolved monasteries and effectively abolished pilgrimage, he rejected the Lutheran doctrine of justification-by-faith-alone and remained devoted to the mass. Henry also authorised the publication and the reading in church of the Bible in English translation, a measure which over time has had immense consequences.

Henry’s was thus a remarkably hybrid church. Probably very few agreed fully with the king; most would have preferred to remain Catholic while a minority wholeheartedly accepted the changes but wanted much more far-reaching reform.

In many ways, Henry’s influence proved decisive when it fell to Queen Elizabeth to determine the church of her realm. True, the liturgy would now be in English; but the ambiguities and ambivalences of liturgy and doctrine were not unlike those of the church of Henry’s later years, just when Elizabeth was growing up. A Church of England that is, uniquely, no longer Catholic but not Protestant in any full sense, is very much Henry’s legacy.

Henry was also a warrior king. In 1513, 1523 and in the mid-1540s he launched invasions of France and continued to claim that he was rightfully king of France. Bold in ambition, cautious in practice, he was prepared to spend a fortune, not least the windfall of the dissolved monasteries’ lands, on military campaigns which achieved little, both in France and in Scotland. And he left an appalling financial legacy to those who ruled the realm in the minority of his son, Edward.

Henry was a passionate builder. Few monarchs have invested so much in grand palaces and hunting lodges. The hall of Hampton Court, which he largely rebuilt in the early 1530s, testifies to his ambitions. And his extraordinary collection did not merely leave its mark on contemporary architecture. The design of Nonsuch Palace, in which Henry was closely involved, had a huge influence on the great ‘prodigy houses’ of Elizabethan England, and is reflected in the eclectic style of Wollaton, Hardwick and Kirby halls.

Henry was also much interested in painting, and attracted to England Hans Holbein, one of the greatest artists of the age. Holbein’s image of Henry VIII has had an immense impact: no English king is more recognisable.

And then there are Henry’s six wives, a real-life soap opera that writers of fiction would be hard-pressed to surpass. First, Catherine of Aragon, loyal to the end, but repudiated by Henry after he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn; secondly, Anne, who three years after her marriage to Henry would be executed for treasonably committing adultery; thirdly, Jane Seymour, dying soon after giving birth to Edward; next, Anne of Cleves, a marriage arranged for diplomatic reasons but annulled as soon as foreign policy allowed since Henry found her physically repellent; then Catherine Howard, much too young, and also destroyed because she had committed adultery; and finally a more harmonious marriage to Katherine Parr.

Too often, the popular image of Henry VIII has been of bluff king Hal, affable and pleasure-loving. Yet there was a darker side. Henry was exceptionally skilled in attracting the devoted service of remarkably capable counsellors – Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell. He was very astute at allowing his ministers to take public responsibility for unpopular policies – from taxation to the dissolution of the monasteries. In fact, no other Tudor ruler was as successful in leaving the impression that others were responsible – so much so that many have been deceived into thinking that he was a weak man manipulated by factions. Yet that he repeatedly destroyed his closest advisers, when in his eyes they had served their turn, argues that it was indeed Henry who brought them down.

When facing opposition – or simply refusal openly to comply – no other Tudor ruler was quite so ruthless as Henry. Far from being a feeble monarch open to exploitation, he was an implacable king who, by the end of the 1530s, had turned into a tyrant.

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George Bernard is a professor of history at the University of Southampton specialising in the Tudors and the Reformation. He is author of The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church (Yale University Press, 2005).