Why did the Reformation succeed? Historians have debated that question for centuries. Many factors led to the permanence of the revolt begun in Germany, including the political structure of Germany, the growing German nationalist movement that fostered resentment against the papacy, the threat of the Ottoman Turks, and the avarice of the nobility for Church lands and wealth.
But one significant factor is frequently overlooked: the events in England. At first blush, it seems farfetched to link the permanent success of a European continental revolutionary movement to the events across the Channel, but without England the Protestant Reformation would not have succeeded.
The English author Hilaire Belloc examined the role of England in the success of the Protestant Revolt in three books: How the Reformation Happened (1928), The Characters of the Reformation (1936), and The Great Heresies (1938). Belloc identified two phases to the Protestant movement: internal and external. The movement began as an internal civil disturbance described by Belloc as conflict not “between two religions but a conflict within one religion” (Great Heresies, 109).
The writings of Luther sparked debate, but soon the movement turned into violence. The second phase of the Reformation involved the cleaving of Christendom and the establishment of a new spiritual culture separate from the dominant, centuries-long Catholic culture. The separation involved violence and “what began as a sort of spiritual family quarrel and continued as a spiritual civil war, was soon accompanied by an actual civil war” (Great Heresies, 110). The history of the Church proves that heresy always breeds violence, but swift action by the Church and secular rulers usually prevented the permanent establishment of the heresy (although sometimes the heresy went dormant and returned centuries later with a vengeance).
Pope Leo X (r. 1513-1521) condemned Luther’s teachings in June 1520, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) declared Luther an obstinate heretic at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, but the Protestant movement gained momentum in Zürich under the leadership of Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) (until he was killed in battle in 1531) and later with John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva. The “reformers” agreed on some basic teachings in opposition to Catholicism, but disorder characterized their rebellion against the Church. Individually, some received support from secular rulers, but their efforts were uncoordinated and haphazard. There was no national movement from a monarch against the Church in a top-down approach until King Henry VIII of England.
The “English Accident”
The essential difference between the continental Reformation and the English Reformation was the involvement of the monarch. The “English Accident,” as Belloc described it, was an official act of the national government and that fact, more than anything else, helped ensure the permanence of the Protestant Reformation. Since the events in England are crucial to understanding the success of Luther’s revolt, it is important for Catholics to know the real story of the English Reformation.
The story of the Protestant Revolution in England is much different than the events on the continent. In England, there were no firebrand university professors or philandering, disgruntled priests whose heretical teachings created a groundswell against the Catholic Church. In England, the revolution began as a personal act of the king because he wanted a divorce.
However, the story does not begin with Henry VIII but with his usurping father. The Tudor family claim to the English throne was tenuous. The family came to power when the Welsh usurper Henry Tudor defeated King Richard III (r. 1483-1485) at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The great Plantagenet line came to an end, and the Tudor dynasty began. Henry VII died in 1509, and his second son, also named Henry, became king.
Henry’s marital woes
Henry VIII (r. 1509-1547) married his brother Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, in 1509. Although Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabel and King Fernando of Spain, she was beloved by the English people and was known for her pious, unselfish, and joyful personality. Henry was faithful to Catherine for nearly the first decade of their marriage, but the king eventually pursued other women. Most of his mistresses were content with royal attention and affection, but Anne Boleyn wanted more: she wanted to be queen.
In 1527 the king met with Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530), the Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England. Henry wanted Wolsey to acquire a declaration of nullity from his union with Catherine so he could marry Anne. Wolsey was confident the pope would grant the request and sent representatives to Rome to request a papal decision. However, Pope Clement VII (r. 1523-1534) was in no position to acquiesce to the personal whims of the English king. Rome had been recently occupied and sacked by the imperial troops of Charles V. The pope barely escaped to Castel Sant’Angelo with his life. As a result, Clement was not in the mood to entertain Henry’s request, especially since Catherine of Aragon was Charles V’s aunt!
Tribunal sides with the king
The pope did allow Cardinal Wolsey to initiate a marriage tribunal in England to gather evidence and provide a report to the pope, who would make a final decision. The marriage tribunal opened in May 1529 and was a unique event. Never before in European history had a reigning king and queen stood before an ecclesiastical court on the state of their marriage. All the bishops of England were present and two of them, John Fisher of Rochester and Henry Standish, O.F.M., Conv. of St. Asaph, were the queen’s counsellors.
Catherine read a document protesting the trial in England and requested its transfer to Rome. Henry’s case rested on his concern with marrying his brother’s widow, even though Pope Julius II had granted a dispensation to allow it. Catherine maintained that her marriage to Arthur Tudor was never consummated and therefore not a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church. (Catherine maintained this position throughout her life. It is entirely plausible, as she was married to Arthur only four months before his sudden death .)
After the royal testimony and evidence was presented, the bishops voted on a recommendation: all but John Fisher sided with the king and recommended the pope grant a declaration of nullity. Catherine sent a formal protest of the recommendation to the pope, who suspended the tribunal and remanded the case to Rome for further study.
Henry became impatient at the pope’s delay; ultimately, his decision took seven years, so when Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), one of the king’s advisors, approached him with a plan to expedite the process, Henry listened. Cromwell reasoned that the king is sovereign in his own lands, so why should a foreign ruler—the pope—hold authority and power in England? Cromwell urged the king threaten the pope with schism unless his marriage to Catherine was annulled.
Authority over the Church
Henry began the process of separating the Church in England from Rome. In 1531 the king ordered the English clergy assembled at an ecclesiastical meeting to agree to laws granting the king authority over the Church. At first the clergy resisted, but eventually they caved under royal pressure. That same year Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), a former student and professor at Cambridge University, was appointed chaplain and religious advisor to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was a secret Lutheran who ingratiated himself with the king. The following year (1532) Henry appointed Cranmer archbishop of Canterbury.
On his own authority, Cranmer opened a marriage tribunal to determine the validity of the king’s marriage. He pronounced Henry’s marriage to Catherine invalid and witnessed the king’s “marriage” to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer did not have papal authority for his decision, and the action placed England on a dangerous path.
In March 1534 Clement VII issued his decision on Henry and Catherine’s marriage. He ruled in favor of the bond. This greatly angered Henry, since he had already “married” Anne, and their daughter Elizabeth had been born. Henry decided to settle the matter by calling Parliament to issue several pieces of legislation in the spring of 1534.
In April, Parliament passed the Act of Succession, which indicated the king’s “marriage” to Anne was valid and that his daughter Elizabeth was legitimate and heir to the throne. The act stipulated that anyone who committed an exterior act against the king’s marriage to Anne was guilty of high treason. Citizens were liable to take the Oath of Succession agreeing with the contents of the act, which included a denial of papal authority.
Many Catholics refused to take the oath including Sts. John Fisher (1449-1535) and Thomas More (1478-1535), who were imprisoned and eventually executed for their support of papal authority. In November, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared the king to be the supreme head of the Church in England. This act also required an oath, and refusal to swear it was treason punishable by death. These acts placed England in schism and separated the English from unity with the pope in Rome.
Henry continued his attack on the Church through the dissolution of the monasteries. This action resulted in the stamping out of monasticism throughout England. In 1535 there were 825 religious houses in England; by 1540 none were left. Henry undertook this action as a means to weaken the Church in England and to enrich himself and his friends. He distibuted the Church’s land and assets to his loyal supporters. This action helped to solidify the break with Rome, since nobles were hesitant to support reunion in the future for fear of losing their land and wealth.
Schism and then heresy
At this point the Church in England was in schism and had not yet embraced heresy. Henry VIII, outside of rejecting papal supremacy over the Church in England, remained faithful to the Church’s doctrines. He had Parliament pass the Act of Six Articles Abolishing Diversity of Opinion in 1539 that, among other things, affirmed transubstantiation. The majority of Englishmen were still Catholic in belief and practice, but they were also loyal to their king. Henry died in 1547 after six “marriages” that produced only three children who survived infancy: Mary (with Catherine of Aragon), Elizabeth (with Anne Boleyn), and Edward (with Jane Seymour).
After Henry’s death, England embraced Protestant teachings and entered into heresy through the actions of Archbishop Cranmer during the reign of Edward VI (1547-1553). Cranmer’s secret Lutheranism became public when he issued a new liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer in 1548. This liturgy removed all references to the Mass as a sacrifice. People were not pleased with the change, and riots erupted. Parliament required all citizens to attend this new liturgy and banned attendance at Mass.
Cranmer also revised the Rite of Ordination in 1550, which included no mention of the priesthood as a sacred office or the conveyance of supernatural power to consecrate the Eucharist. This new ordinal broke the chain of apostolic succession in England and made Anglican orders null and void, a fact Pope Leo confirmed in Apostolicae Curiae (1896). It was Cranmer under Edward VI who led England into heresy, but it was during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) that England became a Protestant nation.
English Anti-Catholicism cemented
Elizabeth was raised Protestant and initiated the first state-sponsored persecution of the Catholic Church in Europe since the Roman Empire. It was illegal to be Catholic in Elizabethan England, and hundreds of faithful men and women gave their lives for the Church. The Tudor dynasty ended in 1603 with the death of Elizabeth, and although the Faith existed in an underground Church, it was seen as a foreign influence so much so that even today it is illegal for the English monarch to be Catholic.
When England separated from the Church under Henry and then embraced Protestantism under his son Edward VI, the rebellion against the Catholic Church was guaranteed success (despite the brief Catholic interregnum under Queen Mary Tudor from 1553 to 1558). The long reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and the work of her Secretary of State and spymaster extraordinaire, William Cecil (1520-1598), solidified England as a Protestant nation and identified the Catholic Faith as “un-English” and treasonous.
England’s growth from separated island on the fringe of European politics to colonial powerhouse ensured the spread of Protestantism throughout the world. The Protestant movement took root in the English colonies of North America and was the dominant influence in the nascent United States of America. The “English Accident,” brought about by the selfish desire of a decadent king, is the key historical event in explaining why the Protestant Reformation succeeded. Belloc was right when he wrote, “If England had not broken off, the Reformation would have failed and our civilization would have been today one Christian thing” (Characters of the Reformation, 16).
What began as a small revolt by a scrupulous Saxon monk in a faraway province of Christendom grew into a conflagration fanned by the events in England that eventually engulfed the world and misshaped our modern society.