Henry VIII, 500 Years Later

On the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s split from the Church, three prominent historians discuss the event’s repercussions on Christendom.

King Henry VIII may have lived five centuries ago, but he remains much in the news.

April 21 marked the 500th anniversary since his accession to the English throne, and June 11 marked 500 years since he married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

His insistence on a divorce from Catherine, against the wishes of Pope Clement VII, led to England’s break with Rome 25 years later and set the country on a Protestant path — one that would have enormous consequences for England, the Church and the world.

Three leading English historians were asked to put Henry’s actions into proper perspective.

The panel is comprised of Jesuit Father Norman Tanner, professor of Church history at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome; Eamonn Duffy, Catholic professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Cambridge; and David Starkey, an atheist and former professor of history at the London School of Economics and biographer of Henry VIII.

Father Norman Tanner

Hilaire Belloc once wrote that had Henry not broken with Rome “the Reformation would have failed and our civilization would have been today one Christian thing.” Is this true, in your view?

Yes and no. England was a very important part of the Reformation, as he said, and it’s in some ways surprising it happened in England, which was very devoted to the Catholic Church in the late medieval period.

It wasn’t as if there was a huge amount of discontent. It was notable for its loyalty to the papacy, on the whole. It might well have been that England would have remained Catholic [had Henry not pushed for a divorce against the wishes of Rome]. In that sense, he’s absolutely right.

On the other hand, there are other very important contributions to the Reformation: Germany, of course, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. There were other countries which remained Catholic and were on the edge and might have become Protestant, as it were.

What have been the most serious repercussions of Henry’s break with Rome that can still be felt in the Church and the world today?

They’ve been huge, really.

One very important and energetic part of the Catholic Church went its own way, of course. There were many faults within the Catholic Church; one understands that it’s open to criticism, but, nevertheless, this very important part of the Church became, at least partially, separated.

It’s certainly true that the Reformation contributed to the development of nation states, both England and all the countries of Europe, [so] in some obvious sense, the unity of medieval Christendom was fragmented. … It led to a kind of exaltation of the nation state, especially in the Protestant countries where the ruler, Henry VIII, made himself supreme governor of the Church as well as king.

Eamonn Duffy

How true is it that had Henry not broken with Rome, the Reformation would have failed and our civilization would have been unified?

Duffy: That’s just not true. The Reformation in Europe had established itself fairly strongly in middle Europe, in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany, and I don’t think English events had much impact on the subsequent development of that.

The English Reformation contributed very little to the maintenance of the Reformation abroad, although there wouldn’t have been a Reformation in Scotland — that’s clear. The English promoted a Reformation in Scotland.

What have been the most serious repercussions of Henry’s break with Rome that can still be felt in the Church and the world today?

I don’t know if it led to the growth of the nation state. You can see very similar developments in Catholic France. The crown of France seized control of France, for example, not at the cost of schism, but the growth of Gallicism.

The French monarchy appointed all the bishops and didn’t allow papal documents into France without royal permission. So you can see strengthening of the nation state happening anyway. The English example was one of a wider phenomenon. That was what [Cardinal Thomas] Wolsey’s legatine powers were all about. Wolsey was, in effect, the pope in England, and the very wide powers that Wolsey exercised meant that all sorts of things in other circumstances that would have been referred to Rome were dealt with domestically.

That’s what Henry had achieved without a break with Rome. The break with Rome meant he could seize the Church’s property and he could take control of doctrine as well as the day-to-day running of the Church. But it’s, if you like, an extreme development that a lot of rulers in Europe wanted to achieve anyway.

David Starkey

Hilaire Belloc once wrote that had Henry not broken with Rome “the Reformation would have failed and our civilization would have been today a one Christian thing.” How true is this statement, in your view?

Whether the whole Reformation would have failed if England hadn’t waded in at that stage is an open question.

I think there’s no doubt whatever that first Henry, then Edward, and then, much more importantly, Elizabeth, led to one of the major European powers becoming Protestant in the late 16th century, and that has an enormous impact on the broader European structure.

It certainly entrenches the Reformation and arguably ensures its worldwide triumph, which is what happens with the establishment of British America and its fundamental Protestantism. I think the broad thrust of what Belloc says is right.

What have been the most serious repercussions of Henry’s break with Rome that can still be felt in the Church and the world today?

What everyone is now recognizing is what everyone’s motives may have been, good or bad. And, I think, largely [during the Reformation] they were bad, in the sense that they were about self-fulfillment.

The old high-Protestant English view, that Henry was operating out of high moral motives and had profound high moral scruples about his first marriage, is manifest nonsense. He decides to marry Anne first and then, afterwards, decides to develop moral scruples like a bad case of German measles.

Nevertheless, what he did is of the most profound significance to the history of England and Europe. He represents a watershed in the medieval world in Europe. To talk about England not being fully part of Europe would have been nonsense [before Henry].

Again, the English idea of national destiny, empire and so on goes back to Henry. The Elizabethans are picking it up and running with it. Equally, of course, Henry shows no interest whatever in foreign exploration. On the other hand, the late generation of Henricians are precisely the pioneers of that idea and the whole development, not simply of the nation state, but a national church, as well — the idea of a national church because the nation state is sacred.

In the Middle Ages, of course, the universal Church is the vehicle of God’s revelation. For Henry and Henricians, it’s the nation.

What Henry did was a profoundly important thing, and the consequences of what he did are profoundly important. As I’ve been arguing in my biography in the exhibition at the British Library, he still fundamentally shapes our world.

He is, in terms of effect, by far the most important monarch of England — for better and for worse.

Edward Pentin writes

from Rome.