March 18, 2016

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Renaissance Church: England’s conversion to Protestantism

John F. Fink(Seventh in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the start of the Protestant Reformation. After Martin Luther was denounced by the Edict of Worms in 1521, much of Germany ignored it and Luther continued to lead the Protestant Reformation there until his death in 1546. The Reformation also spread to Switzerland, first under the leadership of Huldreich Zwingli and then by John Calvin.

In England, King Henry VIII was a champion of Catholicism during the first years of the Reformation. After Luther rejected five of the seven sacraments, Henry wrote a book defending the seven sacraments—probably with the help of Thomas More. In appreciation, Pope Leo X bestowed on Henry the title “Defender of the Faith.” It was one of Leo’s last acts because he died on Dec. 1, 1521.

Later, though, Henry decided he no longer wanted to be married to Catherine of Aragon. She had borne him three sons and one daughter, but all three boys had died, so there was no male heir to the throne. Henry had earlier received a dispensation from Pope Julius II so he could marry Catherine, his brother’s widow. Now he appealed to Pope Clement VII to declare that dispensation invalid, and hence the marriage null and void so he could marry Anne Boleyn.

The pope commissioned England’s Cardinal Thomas Wolsey to examine the evidence and render a decision. Catherine, however, appealed the case to Rome. Her nephew, Emperor Charles V, also objected to declaring the marriage invalid. The pope, under such pressure, refused to approve the annulment.

In 1533, Henry persuaded the pope to appoint Thomas Cranmer the archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer had secretly accepted Protestant teachings and had married. After becoming archbishop of Canterbury, he pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine invalid and validated the marriage that Henry and Anne Boleyn had already contracted. The pope excommunicated Henry.

In 1534, Henry decreed the Act of Supremacy, making the king the head of the Church in England. He obliged every English subject to take the oath of succession, and thereby recognize the validity of the marriage between Henry and Anne. Anyone who refused was, by that very fact, guilty of treason.

Some loyal Catholics did refuse and were duly executed—usually by being hanged, drawn and quartered, a most gruesome method of execution. The most noted men who refused were John Fisher, bishop of Rochester and chancellor of Cambridge, and Thomas More, former chancellor of England. Henry, though, permitted them to be executed by beheading in 1535.

Henry had made his break with Rome. He had Thomas Cromwell close convents and monasteries and confiscate their property. He also had a succession of wives. He had Anne Boleyn executed in 1536, and married Jane Seymour, who died in childbirth. He then married Ann of Cleves, and divorced her within a year. His fifth wife, Catherine Howard, was beheaded in 1542 and his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, was about to be executed when Henry died in 1547.

Edward VI, the son of Jane Seymour, succeeded Henry. Thomas Cranmer issued the Book of Common Prayer in 1549, and this is considered the first official act of England’s conversion to Protestantism. †

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