Even before the king’s “Great Matter” took center stage, Henry VII had a number of extramarital affairs, with both Catherine and the court looking the other way. In the case of Anne Boleyn, however, Henry did not simply desire a new mistress: to make the succession secure he needed a son, which meant a young queen strong enough to bear children. To achieve this goal, Henry needed a divorce, irrespective of his lust or Anne’s royal aspirations.
So though in his heart a true son of the Church, King Henry VIII’s personal attachment to Catholicism could not override his political motives: to support Protestant reform efforts in a pragmatic attempt preserve the stability of the realm after his death with a male heir.
Ironically, however, this very attempt to secure a legitimate male successor through a nominal change in theology opened the door to true radicals whose espousal of Protestant doctrine would reflect not just political expediency, but social reform that would serve to destabilize the social order Henry VIII valued.
But contradictions in scripture provided support for both Henry and Catherine—while a passage in Deuteronomy promoted the practice of levirate marriage, a man taking his brother’s widow as his own wife, two passages in Leviticus denounced it. Most compelling to Henry, Leviticus 20:21 stated that if a man marries his brother’s widow, “he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness” and, as a result, “they shall be childless.”
Because of these contradictions, a special papal dispensation had been required for Henry and Catherine to marry in the first place, as she had been the wife of Henry’s late older brother Arthur.
This very dispensation demonstrates the Vatican’s willingness to consider dynastic and political necessities in its interpretation of scripture, and so Henry’s desire for an annulment would not have been unreasonable—if he had not based his argument in the idea that the Pope had not had the right to issue the dispensation to begin with.
The king’s insistence on this argument Henry’s rejection of the concept dual loyalty to both a temporal power (the king) and a spiritual power (the Pope)—a break reflected in the Act in Restraint of Appeals and the Act of Supremacy in 1533 and 1534
Building on the precedent of the 14th century Statutes of Praemunire, which addressed the issue of “numerous persons being taken out of the kingdom to response in cases of which the cognizance pertains to the court of our lord the king,” the Act in Restraint of Appeals established the king of England as the highest justice to which an Englishman (or woman, like Queen Catherine) could appeal. Henry was accorded by “Almighty God with plenary, whole and entire power, preeminence, authority, prerogative and jurisdiction.”
The subsequent Act of Supremacy institutionalized what the Act in Restraint of Appeals had made true in practice: that “the King’s Majesty… is the supreme head of the Church of England.”
Yet even after this radical break from Rome, however, Henry VIII still saw himself as a devoted Catholic, the “defensor fidei” his renunciation of Martin Luther’s ideas had made him. Henry demonstrated near-orthodoxy in most areas of religious doctrine, simply replacing the Pope with himself.
His adherence to Catholic doctrine is reflected in the 1539 Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions, also known as the “Six Articles.” While Protestants rejected all but two sacraments (communion and baptism), this document upeld all seven, along with transubstantiation, communion under both species for priests and not laypeople, the doctrine of purgatory, and the vows of chastity made by monks or nuns—even after the dissolution of their monasteries.
The document, in fact, parallels his defense of the sacraments in response to Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church—Henry’s “Assertion of the 7 Sacraments” was the treatise that earned him the title “Defender of the Faith.”
Though a seeming contradiction, both Henry’s rejection of the Pope and support of otherwise “popish” practices ramify from his central motivation: to preserve the stability of the realm by upholding the “Great Chain of Being,” best maintained by the rigid hierarchical structure and doctrine of the Catholic Church.
When the young Edward VI succeeded his father, however, his Council of Regents found that Protestant doctrine carried with it inherently destabilizing ideas. The king could not simply be substituted for the Pope, because Protestants did not see the clergy as possessing special access to either truth or the path to salvation.
Catholic priests were the sole interpreters of a Latin Bible, but (like the Lollards before them) Protestants supported vernacular Bibles and preached a “priesthood of believers.
Catholics believed that one received God’s grace necessary to salvation through the sacraments, but Protestants rejected all but two sacraments and preached that one was saved through faith alone, or solefideanism, for which sacraments were not necessary.
Depicting this shift visually, the elevated altar of the priest is replaced with a simple table in the illustration of John Foxe’s book of Protestant martyrs, Acts and Monuments: the altar is labeled “The Common Table.”
These doctrinal positions undermined the authority of the religious hierarchy by emphasizing the essential spiritual equality of all believers, and were used as partial justification for Kett’s Rebellion in 1549.
Henry VIII’s disastrous economic policies of debasement of the currency and reckless spending on unsuccessful wars continued into Edward VI’s minority reign, leading to a century of high inflation and skyrocketing prices. The 16th century, the Tudor century, marked a time of rapidly deteriorating living conditions—what a common laborer could get for his salary during this time dropped to pre-plague levels.
(The Black Plague took a tragic toll on human life in Europe, but for the survivors—life was good. A radically reduced labor force meant that peasants could demand higher wages, lower rents—with landowners having no other choice but to cave. Essentially, the Plague, not any royal fiat, killed serfdom. By Henry’s time, however, these benefits had mostly eroded.)
These economic troubles led to social unrest in the mid 1500s and catalyzed Kett’s Rebellion, but were justified by an egalitarian Protestant doctrine similar to the rhetoric of John Ball, whose demagoguery used Lollard ideas of equality to preach “killing the great lords of the realm, then slaying the lawyers, justices and jurors,” and so on.
Edward VI’s deep Protestant piety had been shaped by the Regency council that educated him, and so when faced with this rebellion, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was a true radical who not only repealed Henry’s anti-Protestant legislation but went so far as to sympathize with the social application of Protestant religious doctrine.
Though he ultimately lost power for hesitating to suppress the uprising, Somerset illustrates how Henry VIII’s political pragmatism inadvertently undermined his own personal social conservatism.