The Commital of British Royalty to Catholicism

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In investigating Henry’s committal to Catholicism between 1529 and 1547, it is also key to explore the religious changes that took place and the developments that occurred as a consequence. The period of religious change that ensued, typically referred to as ‘The English Reformation’, can be generalised as the country’s move from Catholicism towards Protestantism as led by Henry VIII. The reformation came about as a result of Henry’s desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, due to both his love for Anne Boleyn and (perhaps more significantly) Catherine’s failure to provide him with a male heir.

When Pope Clement VII refused to grant a divorce, and then an annulment, Henry founded the Church of England within which he could obtain his divorce. This was reinforced by the 1534 Act of Supremacy which confirmed the Break from Rome and gave Henry the title of ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’. As such, many historians and indeed contemporary sources view(ed) the time period as one in which Henry was seen to have lost his religious beliefs, straying from his original faith of the Roman Catholic church. However others would look to Henry VIII’s creation of the church as merely a convenient and tactful means of obtaining his divorce, and therefore believe his views remained the same, denying a genuine loss of his Catholic beliefs. The religious evidence that can be used to assess Henry’s committal to Catholicism during the time can be divided into two categories: legislation/ writings and action.

A primary example of an action that affected religious policy was Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, leading many critics to believe he had lost his beliefs. Throughout both England and Wales, and indeed many parts of Europe, monasteries were looked upon as the basis of Papal Authority - in 1530, there were at least 825 religious houses; 502 were houses of monks, 136 were nunneries and 187 were friaries – and in many respects as a representation of what Catholicism stood for and its history. Of equal importance was the fact that the monasteries were some of the wealthiest institutions in the country, totalling an income of over £160,000 a year, and took over a quarter of all cultivated land in England, as revealed by the ‘Valor Ecclesiasticus’. By removing the monastic system Henry was able to claim all wealth and land, whilst also limiting the influence of the Papacy. This initiated the Act of Suppression in 1536, where by smaller monasteries were closed and stripped of their land, buildings and money. These smaller monasteries all had incomes of below £200 a year.

The Second Suppression Act three years later, in 1539, continued with the process by removing all larger monasteries and religious houses. By 1540, monasteries were being dismantled at a rate of fifty per month. Henry was greatly impressed with the final amount accrued from the dissolution of the monasteries, and it is said that the King’s own treasury profited by about one and a half million pounds. Whilst some historians would argue that in dissolving the monasteries Henry was making a clear movement away from Catholicism (therefore not being committed and losing his faith), I think it is more probable that he dissolved the monasteries largely for the financial benefit (a necessity due to his lifestyle and the cost of war). Although the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries would be the next logical step in forming the Church of England and breaking with Catholicism, it is often argued that Henry never intended to later close the larger monasteries until he saw how much he had acquired by dissolving the smaller ones. This would suggest that finance, as opposed to spirituality, was the main incentive behind his actions and therefore we can’t look to this evidence completely to indicate his loss of religion. As with many of the actions and legislations, Henry’s own personal gains appeared to be held to a higher priority than his religious commitments.

In terms of legislature, an example which many historians look to in order to refute Henry’s committal to Catholicism is the Act of 10 Articles. Founded in 1536, the Act provided a statement of faith for the Church of England, which until this point was without unique scripture. The articles, which served to define Henry’s church’s doctrinal position, were considered ground-breaking not only nationally but globally (with deviation from the Catholic Church still at this time being a very novel concept). In many respects, the issuing of the 10 articles can be argued to be a clear move on Henry’s part towards Protestantism. For example, they rejected four of the seven sacraments of Catholic belief; whilst Henry acknowledged Baptism, penance and Eucharist, the fundamental ideas of confirmation, ordination, marriage and extreme inaction were disregarded.

Historians have stated that this is of the greatest importance when considering whether Henry remained a committed Catholic between 1529 and 1547, as by denying the existence of four of the seven sacraments he was being overtly Protestant (or, at least, overtly un- Catholic). Some argue that this great of a deviation from traditional Catholicism can only be seen as proof of Henry’s loss of belief, since devout Catholics of the time would never challenge doctrine or scripture which they viewed as the exact word of God and the only valid accounts. The Act of Ten Articles for this reason could be seen as perhaps the biggest indicator of Henry’s dismissal of Catholicism, since he very openly challenged the foundations of the religion and thus, to practising Catholics, disrespected God. For a man who had previously been regarded as the ‘Defender of the Faith’, Henry VIII appeared here to have completely lost his faith.

However, others have taken a different perspective on the Articles and have found that whilst it is clear that Henry is, in some ways, distancing himself from Catholicism, there is not yet a definite move towards another religion (i.e. Protestantism). For example, there are other significant aspects of Catholicism that the Ten Articles do not dispute, such as the Catholic position on the Eucharist, transubstantiation and the presence of Christ. Henry also maintained his previous stance on Lutheranism to an extent in the sense that Lutheran concepts were not explicitly outlined, and as such Henry’s deviation from Catholicism was limited. This could be used as evidence to suggest that Henry still remained in some ways loyal to Catholicism at this time, since he did not use the Ten Articles to discard Catholicism to the fullest possible extent, and so we could conclude that this is because he was on some level still faithful.

However, other historians have offered the alternative opinion that the minimal disputing writings were instead due to Henry’s need to make the articles acceptable to Conservative clergy, and hence he could not decimate Catholicism in the ways he perhaps would’ve preferred in the writing of these articles. Instead, Cromwell (who was largely behind the completion of this Act on Henry’s behalf) had to use ambiguous language. It is also important when contemplating what religious views of Henry the articles represent to consider the potential political consequences. For example, had Henry been completely transparent in his dismissal of Catholicism, his frankness could have resulted in civil, if not international war and conflict (or at least rebellion). Therefore his minimalistic language and refusal to further deny Catholic scripture may be due to tactfulness and not his personal beliefs. As such, the official religion of England (and therefore Henry’s personal beliefs) at the time of the Ten Articles’ issue was unclear and whilst some key Catholic traits of Mass and salvation were not condemned, what would later become the more simplistic Church of England existence was promoted.

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The lack of clarity in terms of both Henry’s and the nation’s religion was maintained when, in 1537, the ‘Bishops’ Book’ (an extension of the Act of 10 Articles) was created. This further outlined the beliefs of the Church of England, summarising and finalising the Act of Ten Articles. The Bishops’ Book acknowledged the validity of the four previously dismissed sacraments (but still appearing to regard them as lesser sacraments due to their later absence from Protestant scripture). Some Catholic ideas appeared to be respected, such as the significance of transubstantiation and the idea that ‘justification through the merits of Christ did not dispense with the need for good works’. However, there were equally deviances from Catholicism, with the importance of mass and purgatory reduced, the role of Priests challenged and a lack of distinction between the office of bishop and priest.

When sent a draft for approval, Henry (who was at the time fully occupied with the pending birth of his first son Edward VI) neglected to read it. As such, it is difficult to analyse the contents of the book as being a true representation of his views. However, since the publication of the Bishops’ Book greatly echoes that of the Act of Ten Articles (which Henry supposedly did have input into), we could derive that the book is (for the most part) representative of Henry’s faith. These conflicting views in the Bishop’s Book further highlight the narrative that England’s religion was not certain at this point.

More overtly Protestant perhaps were the two Royal Injunctions, in 1536 and 1538. The first of these attacked the Catholic practice of pilgrimages and religious instruction, along with Catholic imagery, shrines, relics and doctrines. In 1538, a second set of Royal Injunctions ordered by Cromwell demanded that an English Bible (which first appeared with the publication of the Matthew Bible in 1537) be in all parishes by 1540. However, the royal injunctions and indeed the most overtly Protestant documentations/ actions were largely coordinated by Cromwell. Without the input of Cromwell, the time period saw definite moves towards Catholicism, perhaps indicating that Henry was in some ways still a committed Catholic. An example of this includes The King’s Book.

The King’s Book, written in 1543, included Henry’s revisions from the Bishops’ Book (suggesting Henry was not happy with or did not agree with the presentation of faith given in the Book). This is a unique and valuable source in our investigation, since it was written by Henry himself. This is opposed to both the Act of 10 Articles and The Bishops’ Book, which were instead Cromwell’s interpretations of what Henry intended his country’s religion to be and therefore wouldn’t as accurately depict Henry’s personal beliefs. We could also infer due to Cromwell’s demise that his ability to correctly interpret and present what Henry wanted was limited, and so it is probable that (in terms of documentation) the King’s Book is the most valid indication of Henry’s view on Catholicism at this time. Here, Henry redacted any Lutheran connotations and outlined traditional Catholic scripture.

For example, The Creed, seven sacraments, Ten Commandments and Lord’s Prayer were reintroduced into the King’s Book, having been overlooked across Bishops’ Book and the Act of Ten Articles. In my opinion, this evidence points towards Henry being a committed Catholic, as when given full control of the reigns he appeared to lean more towards the Catholic faith and its doctrines, rather than discarding them as Cromwell had done beforehand. Cromwell’s previous actions may be, in part, due to his own views – whilst he maintained a relatively political attitude where dealing with England’s affairs, modern day scholars now believe that he personally held Protestant and Lutheran beliefs. As such, Cromwell’s vested interest may have affected the overall outcome of the aforementioned documents and articles. For this reason, I think that up until this period our clearest indication of Henry’s religious beliefs was the King’s Book, which depicted his favour for Catholicism. However, some historians also argue that the King’s Book was not Henry’s way of showing his dedication to Catholicism, but was instead a means of back peddling from the previous overt Protestantism displayed in order to find a middle ground, reaffirming the reforms whilst also restating Catholic ideology.

However, when given full control four years earlier, Henry similarly appeared to side with Catholicism, suggesting that Henry did to a certain extent remain a committed Catholic, or at least still regarded Catholicism to a high standard. This can be shown through The Act of Six Articles, 1539. A primary source that supports the idea that this was an apparent move towards Catholicism is in the form of a letter from Martin Bucer to Thomas Cranmer (October 1539). Here, Bucer describes the Articles as ‘a great change in England’s views’ in comparison to previous legislation. Indeed I know that the Articles were more to Henry’s liking, since it considered traditional Catholic theology that he assumingly still upheld. For example, transubstantiation was confirmed, the importance of private masses and confession emphasised and Protestant ideals of communion and clerical marriage banned. These laws were to be strictly enforced until Henry’s death, with failure to comply resulting in imprisonment, confiscation of property or death.

An example of this is John Lambert, who was executed for denying transubstantiation in 1538, and Anne Askew, who was executed in 1546 for the same crime. In the source, Bucer went as far as to assume that the drastic change was due to international interference, stating ‘we suspect that something has blown over from France as you no longer appear to have necessity for our alliance’. This source would confirm a definite move towards Catholicism, indicated through the writer’s surprise of Henry’s ‘rejection’ of his previous beliefs. However, it is important to note that the author of this source is a prominent German Protestant and therefore it makes sense that even the littlest of moves away from Protestantism may be exaggerated as Henry’s total abandonment of the Church of England. After all, the Act of Six Articles was the only legislation in this period that appeared to fully support Catholic beliefs and Bucer has a vested interest in acting horrified at Henry’s actions, since if in doing so Henry were to redact Catholic legislation, Protestantism would benefit greatly. However, I think it is fair to interpret the Act of Six Articles as a poignant move towards Catholicism, since they were largely formulated by Henry VIII himself and saw a scriptural shift in comparison to its prior writings (i.e. the Bishops’ Book and the Act of Ten Articles.) and the later writing of the King’s Book.

This implies that Henry did continue to commit to Catholicism, since at the time of writing the Six Articles he had no/ little vested interest (with his annulment to Catherine long since successful), and many historians view the Act of Six Articles as Henry’s reaffirming of Catholic worship. Furthermore, the Acts served by restoring papal authority in England, insinuating that Henry only removed this when it was of benefit to himself and he indeed did agree with papal authority (a key Catholic value).

A secondary source from John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyr’s’ also supports the view that the Act of Six Articles was a move towards Protestantism in comparing Henry’s reign to Mary I (a prominent Catholic). Confusingly, however, it appears that Henry deferred back to Protestantism between 1544 – 1547 (the years leading up to his death). An example of this is shown through the English Litany in 1544, which replaced the Catholic Latin litany, and the passing of an act for the dissolution of the chantries in 1545. The latter especially would’ve been a great attack on the Catholic Church, in a similar way to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and so many historians look back on this period as Henry once again losing his committal to Catholicism.

To summarise Henry VIII’s religious policy, 1536 - 39 appeared to see a swing towards Protestantism/ a reformed religion. Within these years, it appeared as though Henry was no longer a committed Catholic, since 1536 - 39 saw a loss of Catholic beliefs in legislation. In contrast, the years 1939 - 40 saw a return to more traditional, or Catholic, practices, leading some historians to believe that Henry, with less of an input from Cromwell, was returning to his Catholic roots. This would indicate that Henry was committed to Catholicism, since he returned to the religion and defended key Catholic scripture. However, the variety of legislation that was passed in 1536 - 40 led to some religious confusion, and so some historians (such as Peter Marshall, Professor of History at Warwick University) argue that the religious views portrayed were ones of Henry’s personal theology (i.e. Henricianism).

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