Everything you wanted to know about the religious revolution known as the Reformation – from Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses to Henry VIII's break from Rome...


What was the Reformation?

The Reformation was a schism in the Catholic Church during the 16th century, which had major political, economic and religious implications and led to the creation of Protestant Christianity.

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of The Reformation: A History, answers...


How does the English Reformation relate to the wider European Reformations?


“The English Reformation was the outwash of something much bigger, which started in northern Germany in 1517 with Martin Luther – and spread out from there. If you're thinking about the English Reformation, you simply cannot ignore the other Reformations. 


“These Reformations came in waves. The first wave was from Luther. Then, very quickly, there was another wave from Switzerland – and then successive waves that created different sorts of Protestantism. (So there is a Lutheran Protestantism. There is also what you could label a ‘Reformed Protestantism’, which some people might call 'Calvinism' – although that is just not good enough.) 


“With the English Reformation, the big variable was the immensely insecure Tudor monarchy. They were always preoccupied with their succession, partly because they didn’t have a very good claim to the throne, and, later on, because they had problems reproducing.


"In the end, you get three children of King Henry VIII with different takes on reformation. Henry VIII had his distinct one. His son, Edward VI, had another take. Mary I had the absolute opposite stance: she was Catholic and attempted to restore the old church. And then finally, Elizabeth.”


Listen: Diarmaid MacCulloch answers everything you want to know about the Reformation on the HistoryExtra podcast

Why did the Reformation begin?

Although there had been previous calls for change, the Reformation was firmly established in 1517 when German religious thinker Martin Luther wrote his Ninety-Five Theses.

He argued for extensive reform of the Catholic Church, who were the dominant religious authority in Western Europe at the time.

One of the issues that concerned Luther was the sale of indulgences, whereby the church allowed people to escape punishment for their sins, but for a fee.

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According to legend, Luther nailed his Theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg

Luther's words tapped into existing frustrations about the state of the church, especially its wealth and power and the widespread corruption of some of its priests. These criticisms were not new – and nor was Luther the first to seek to reform the church.

Yet, the recent invention of a printing press meant that his ideas spread quickly across Europe, where they reached receptive audiences.

One of his most important publications was a 1534 German translation of the Bible, which allowed far more people to read it for the first time. The Bible had mostly been written in Latin and could only be read by the priests, but now people could form their own opinions of their faith.

Diarmaid MacCulloch answers... 

When and why did the English Reformation start – and who started it? 

“There are two different answers. There is a groundswell from below in England in the form of dissatisfaction with the old church; this went back to the 14th century and is something distinctively English, a movement called ‘Lollardy. This dissent met Martin Luther's rebellion in the 1520s. 


“And then you have the extraordinary fact of Henry VIII and his dissatisfaction with his longstanding wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry's attempt to find the ideal wife and create the ideal heir to the throne gets mixed up with this other, wider story. 


“And after that, there's always an official Reformation going alongside an unofficial Reformation in England. The fascination of the English Reformation is trying to sort them out and see how they related to each other.”


Listen: Diarmaid MacCulloch answers everything you want to know about the Reformation on the HistoryExtra podcast

How did Luther’s arguments lead to a split in the church?

While Luther hoped to reform the church, he did not plan to divide it. His vision of Christianity, however, went against the basic tenets of the Church and the authority of the Pope, so set him on a collision course with the church hierarchy.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X.

Europe’s growing Protestant movement (so-called because they were religious protestors) began to develop outside the Catholic sphere and Protestantism branched out into a number of different strands, including the Lutherans and Calvinists, named after another reformer, John Calvin.

What happened in Britain? Why did Henry VIII 'break from Rome'?

Although some churchmen and thinkers supported reform in England, King Henry VIII initially remained a staunch supporter of the Catholic church. But that all changed when he decided he wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn.

The Pope refused to allow the divorce, and so Henry and his advisors split the church away from Rome, a process completed in 1534.

Henry became head of the Church of England and, with no need to defer to the Pope, married Anne Boleyn.

Taking advantage of his new authority, Henry ordered the disbanding of England’s monasteries in order that he could seize their wealth for himself.

Despite these changes, Henry continued to be fairly traditional in his religious beliefs, and the Church of England did not take on a fully Protestant character until the reigns of his more reform-minded children, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.

As for Scotland, it had its own reformation led by John Knox, a follower of John Calvin. The Scottish reformers followed England’s lead and broke their church away from Rome in 1560.

Diarmaid MacCulloch answers...


Would the English Reformation have happened if there'd been no love affair with Anne Boleyn? 


"The answer is yes and no. An English Reformation would have happened, but not the very odd tangled one which happened under Henry VIII.


"At the heart of Henry VIII's problems was his attempt to find an heir, but also the fact that he absolutely fell passionately in love with the young lady at court, Anne Boleyn.


"In the later 1520s, you've got this extraordinary attempt to get out of the marriage to Catherine of Aragon and create a marriage to Anne Boleyn, who rather interestingly could have stayed a mistress – but did not want to. She was determined to be queen. This would take an enormous amount of diplomacy and the only person who could really untangle it in the 1520s was the Pope.


"The Pope, for very good reasons, didn't want to. The most powerful man in Europe was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and he was the nephew of Catherine of Aragon; he simply put pressure on the Pope to stop this.


"It becomes an absolutely impossible situation, which Henry, with his enormous ego 'solved' by breaking his loyalty to the Pope and declaring that he, Henry, could make a decision on his marriage. So in that sense, Anne Boleyn is really crucial to the way the official Reformation in England started."


Listen: Diarmaid MacCulloch answers everything you want to know about the Reformation on the HistoryExtra podcast

How did the Catholic Church respond to the Reformation?

The Catholic Church fought back with the Counter-Reformation, a movement beginning in the reign of Pope Paul III (1534-49).

The Counter-Reformation sought both to challenge the reformers and to improve some aspects of the church that originally inspired the Reformation.

In general, the Counter-Reformation won out in southern Europe, while the Reformation remained stronger in the north of the continent.

Diarmaid MacCulloch answers...

Was Anne Boleyn a catalyst for the English Reformation or is too much made of her influence on religious reform? 


"Oh, she was a catalyst, no question. The distinctive thing about Anne Boleyn and her brother George was that they were already enthusiasts for reform in the church.


"Anne had spent time in France, in the French court, where she would have met people already interested in reform before Luther, (or independently from Luther). So she had a real enthusiasm for reform, which you wouldn't expect in a royal mistress.


"I should emphasize that her brother, George, was also important. They were both enthusiastic for reform. And so Anne Boleyn did influence Henry VIII, particularly once she was queen because she could influence who became bishops in his new Church of England. As vacancies happened on the episcopal bench, she could get her proteges in (examples being the great Protestant preacher, Hugh Latimer, and the Archbishop Cranmer, who had been chaplain to the Boleyn family)."


Listen: Diarmaid MacCulloch answers everything you want to know about the Reformation on the HistoryExtra podcast

What was the legacy of the Reformation?

The Reformation was without doubt one of the most important events in European and world history, leading to the formation of all the branches of Protestantism that exist today.

It also resulted in a great deal of violence, as Protestant and Catholic powers battled for supremacy in Europe for centuries afterwards.

In some places, these wounds have still not completely healed.

Diarmaid MacCulloch answers...


Was Henry a willing participant or just a pawn during the English Reformation? 


"He was both. He fancied himself as a reformer, but not really a Protestant reformer (you could never, ever say that Henry VIII was a Protestant). But Henry was a huge fan of Erasmus – that great reforming influence in Europe in the early 16th century – and sort of fancied himself as a mini Erasmus. But this is not really Protestantism; it's Henry's own agenda. 


"So was he a willing participant? A participant, yes. But pawn? Now, this is where it becomes interesting. Two key players Henry had put into power were Thomas Cranmer – a former Cambridge don who, to everyone's surprise, Henry made Archbishop of Canterbury – and Thomas Cromwell, who Henry chose to be a royal minister at the beginning of the 1530s.

"Cromwell had been Cardinal Wolsey's employee for a very specific purpose: to look after Wolsey's tomb design. Henry VIII, when he effectively destroyed Cardinal Wolsey, inherited Cromwell and the tomb, which was now going to be the king's tomb.


"So this is where Cromwell entered the story – and Henry very quickly recognised his talent. Now, Cromwell had a huge enthusiasm for the Reformation and had his own agenda (which he could very often often bend Henry VIII to). So, in that sense, Henry was a pawn in the hands of Cromwell from time to time."


Listen: Diarmaid MacCulloch answers everything you want to know about the Reformation on the HistoryExtra podcast

This article was first published in the July 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed


Diarmaid MacCulloch's answers are taken from a 2020 podcast interview on the Reformation, which you can listen to here