The English Reformation

In England, religious leaders like John Wycliffe had called for Church reform as early as the 1300s. By the 1520s, some English clergy were exploring Protestant ideas. The break with the Catholic Church, however, was the work not of religious leaders but of King Henry VIII. For political reasons, Henry wanted to end papal control over the English Church.

Henry VIII Seeks an Annulment

At first, Henry VIII stood firmly against the Protestant revolt. The pope even awarded him the title “Defender of the Faith” for a pamphlet that Henry wrote denouncing Luther.

In 1527, however, an issue arose that set Henry at odds with the Church. After 18 years of marriage, Henry and his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, had only one surviving child, Mary Tudor. Henry felt that England's stability depended on his having a male heir. He wanted to divorce Catherine and marry a new wife, hoping she would bear him a son. Because Catholic law does not permit divorce, he asked the pope to annul, or cancel, his marriage.

Popes had annulled royal marriages before. But this pope refused. He did not want to offend the Holy Roman emperor Charles V, Catherine's nephew. He therefore refused Henry's request.

Henry VIII Breaks with the Church

Henry was furious. Spurred on by his advisers, many of whom leaned toward Protestantism, he decided to take over the English Church. Henry had Parliament pass a series of laws that took the English Church from the pope's control and placed it under Henry's rule. The most notable of these laws was the Act of Supremacy, passed in 1534. It made Henry “the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England.”

By then, Henry had appointed Thomas Cranmer archbishop. Cranmer had annulled the king's marriage to Catherine. Henry married Anne Boleyn, a noble lady-in-waiting to Catherine. Soon, Anne gave birth to a daughter, Elizabeth. In the years that followed, Henry married four more times, but had only one son, Edward.

Many loyal Catholics refused to accept the Act of Supremacy and were executed for treason. Among them was the well-known English humanist, Sir Thomas More. More was later canonized, or recognized as a saint, by the Catholic Church.

The Church of England

Between 1536 and 1540, Henry ordered the closing of all convents and monasteries in England and seized their lands and wealth for the crown. This became know as the dissolution, the dissolving, or ending, of Catholic monasteries in England.

This move brought new wealth to the royal exchequer. Henry shrewdly granted some church lands to nobles and other high-ranking citizens, thereby securing their support for the Anglican Church, as the new Church of England was called. Henry used much of his newly acquired wealth to pursue wars in Europe.

Despite Henry's actions in rejecting the pope's authority, he was not a religious radical. He had no use for most Protestant doctrines. Aside from breaking away from Rome and allowing use of the English Bible, he kept most Catholic forms of worship.

Illustration of monks carrying belongings leaving a church, guarded by soldiers and a man holding a letter bearing a seal. In the sky, angels are watching and a banner reads, proceed to the dissolution and the defacing 1538.

Monks were forced to leave monasteries as part of the dissolution ordered by King Henry VIII. Henry ordered that Catholic convents and monasteries be closed, claiming they were centers of immorality.

Religious Turmoil

When Henry died in 1547, his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, inherited the throne. The young king's advisers were devout Protestants who pushed for Calvinist reforms.


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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments