Martin Luther was a theologian. If you read the Ninety-Five Theses he reputedly tacked up on the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche in October 1517, it is clear his interest lay in the nature of sin, repentance, absolution, penance and salvation. Whatever else his wider agenda was – or became – his initial arguments were presented as scriptural debate on the revealed path to salvation.
The English Reformation, on the other hand, had no basis in theological debate.King Henry VIII despised Luther and all he stood for. Henry’s robust defence of the seven sacraments in the Assertio septem sacramentorum of 1521 was the first royal refutation of Luther’s ideas, and it did not pull its punches, using phrases like “filthy villain” and “deadly venom”. In recognition of its vigour, Pope Leo X granted Henry the title “Defender of the Faith”, and the book went through multiple reprints.
A decade later, Henry’s mind had moved on from the sacraments, and was preoccupied with the politics of the bedchamber and his dynasty. When Pope Clement VII refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon, Henry concluded that the most effective solution would be to sideline the Holy See.
Once settled on the plan, it all got going in 1533.
In January, Henry bigamously married Anne Boleyn, his pregnant mistress. In March, on Passion Sunday, the relatively unknown Protestant-leaning Thomas Cranmer was consecrated 69th Archbishop of Canterbury. In April, Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals, cutting off all legal recourse to Rome. And in May, Cranmer pronounced the long-desired annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, then presided over Anne’s coronation.
Henry now had what he wanted. But his new wife had come at a high cost. He had changed the country’s religion to get her, and now he had to implement the new faith nationwide.
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection