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The King’s Great Matter and the Henrician Reformation

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The King’s Great Matter and the Henrician Reformation

            The Reformation in Europe was a crucial period in history.  It was an occurrence which began in the end of the medieval era, where several important changes were taking place.  One of those changes which occurred in Europe was in relation to religion.  A new way of thinking that became prevalent after the Middle Ages caused the people to question the power and authority of the Church.  With the arrival of the 14th century, demands for Church reforms were heard all throughout Europe.

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  One of the European countries wherein the power of the Church was challenged was England.  Henry VIII was the reigning monarch in England during that time.  He had participated in the Reformation through his efforts to undermine papal authority.  The motive behind the monarch’s religious defiance was his intention to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.  This dilemma over the king’s marriage was known as The King’s Great Matter.

  This essay seeks to discuss and prove that it was indeed The King’s Great Matter which caused the Henrician Reformation in England.

            The situation of Henry VIII with regards to his marriage would only be understood if it was taken from the context of his life.  It is therefore important to discuss the monarch’s biography to grasp the problem in relation to his dilemma.  Henry was not supposed to have assumed the throne.  After all, he was the second son of Henry VII (Thurston, 1910).  His older brother Arthur was expected to become the successor of their father’s throne.  However, Arthur died in April 1502, suddenly making Henry the heir to the throne when he was barely eleven years of age (Thurston, 1910).

            Just as Henry was suddenly thrust into a role of governance, he was also immediately forced into a marriage.  Following the death of Arthur, it was suggested to Henry that he should marry Catherine of Aragon (Thurston, 1910).  Catherine was a Spanish princess who was previously married to Arthur (Perry, 1989; Thurston, 1910).  She was five years older than Henry (Thurston, 1910).  There was negotiations made for a marriage between Catherine and Henry, but it took too much time that Catherine’s mother Queen Isabella had become impatient.  In the beginning, the then Prince Henry was opposed to the idea of marrying Catherine.  When he was 14 years old, he filed a formal complaint against the arranged marriage, as he was not consulted in this matter.  However, he was forced to reconsider when Henry VII passed away in 1509.  Nine weeks after Henry became the king of England, he married Catherine at the age of 18 (Thurston, 1910).  This marriage was only made possible when a bishop in Rome granted that Henry can indeed marry the widow of his brother (Friedlander, 2000).

            Henry VIII proved to be a powerful monarch.  He was both a man of intelligence and a man of sports (Thurston, 1910).  Though he was very capable as a leader, the success of his reign cannot be solely attributed to him.  When Henry VIII assumed the throne, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey became both the Lord Chancellor and Cardinal Legate (“Henry VIII,” 2007).  Henry and Wolsey proved to a formidable team; their efforts had made England a major political influence in Europe (Thurston, 1910).

            Before The King’s Great Matter became a problem, Henry VIII had a great relationship with the Church.  In fact, in the start of the Reformation, he fought against the opponents of the Church.  The most prominent and important figure of the Reformation was a German monk named Martin Luther (Perry, 1989).  Opposition against the Church was significantly intense in the German-controlled states of the Holy Roman Empire.  Luther had encouraged many people to turn against the church when he pointed out their shortcomings.  Before Lutheran influence had become widespread, Henry VIII was already in good terms with the Church (Thurston, 1910).  He had established a great relationship with the Vatican, and had earned the approval of the papacy.  Pope Julius had given him a golden rose in April 1510; four years later, Pope Leo X presented him with a cap and a sword.  It was therefore no surprise that he fought on the side of the Church against the reformists.  It was in 1521 when Lutheran texts had begun to surface in England (Friedlander, 2000).  In response, Henry VIII  wrote a book to refute Luther’s claims against the Church.  The book, which was entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, upheld the teachings of the Church about the sacraments and the Sacrifice of the Mass (Thurston, 1910).  In addition, the book also insisted that papal authority was superior.  Because of his defense of the Church, Pope Leo X bestowed the title Fidei Defensor or Defender of the Faith on Henry VIII (Thurston, 1910).  In 1526, the attack against Luther continued as Wosley lead the burning of the books of Luther (Friedlander, 2000).

            The problem with Henry VIII began when he fell in love with Anne Boleyn.  This was not the first time that the king cheated on his wife, but it was most relevant relationship he had.  It was relevant in the sense that it caused Henry VIII to leave his wife and file for divorce, which eventually caused the Henrician Reformation.  In 1510, the king pursued the sister of Edward Stafford, the third duke of Buckingham (Bernard, 2007).  In 1514, he had an affair with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting named Elizabeth Blount.  The relationship had produced a son for the king; Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519 and became duke of Richmond in 1525.  Mary Boleyn also became the king’s mistress in the 1520s.  She was the daughter of the one of the monarch’s servants, Sir Thomas Boleyn.  Mary was already married to William Carey when she had an affair with Henry (Bernard, 2007).

            It was relationship of Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn that proved to be of social, historical and religious significance.   It was said that the monarch met Anne in 1525 (Friedlander, 2000).  By the early part of 1526, Henry was already devoted to the girl (Bernard, 2007).  The king was so drawn to the girl because she set herself apart from his other mistresses.  Anne did not want to follow in her sister’s footsteps; she did not want to be merely one of the king’s concubines.  She sought to be the king’s wife (Bernard, 2007).  Henry VIII agreed to Anne’s conditions, as he wanted to marry her as well.  This posed a challenge to the king, as he then sought to be divorced from Catherine.

            Though she proved to be a crucial factor in the divorce, Anne Boleyn was not the primary reason behind it.  Henry VIII had become frustrated with the outcome of his marriage to Catherine.  She was only able to produce one child, as the rest died during infancy.  Mary, who was born in 1516, was the only surviving child of the royal couple (British Monarchy, n.d.).  When the 1520s came to a close, Catherine was already middle-aged and Henry VIII still wanted a son.  Henry VIII was so desperate to have an heir to the throne that in 1519, he was quoted as saying that he would personally preside over a crusade against the Turks if God would bless him with a son (Bernard, 2007).  Therefore, the lack of an heir was also a contributing factor in Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine.

            Before the divorce of Henry VIII can push through, he must provide grounds with which to challenge the marriage.  The monarch did provide grounds, as Henry questioned the legality of his own marriage.  The king had come to the conclusion that his marriage was in violation of the law of God because he married the widow of his brother (Bernard, 2007).  This is the reason why he believed his marriage must be dissolved.  In addition, Henry VIII also questioned the legitimacy of his only child with Catherine.  He said that the Bishop of Tarbes had been skeptical of Mary’s status.  The skepticism is mostly due to the king’s own doubt that his daughter would not be considered as an heir to the throne (Perry, 1989).  It must be noted that prior to Henry’s case, there had been other royal divorces that had occurred (British Monarchy, n.d.).  In 1499, Louis XII was granted a divorce.  Margaret, who was the sister of Henry and widow of James IV, was also granted a divorce in 1527.  Nonetheless, the divorce on Henry’s situation was more complicated because it was also the papacy which gave him the permission to marry the widow of his brother (British Monarchy, n.d.).  The predicament on Henry’s divorce brought about what is known as the King’s Great Matter—it referred to the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine, a struggle which lasted from 1527 to 1533 (“Henry VIII”).

            It is the King’s Great Matter which basically caused the Henrician Reformation.  The divorce resulted in the Reformation by Henry VIII as it greatly altered the relationship between the king and the Church.  Prior to the divorce, Henry VIII had maintained excellent relations with the popes and the Holy See.  By the time the divorce was underway, the king had begun to challenge the authority of the Church.  The papacy was not in favor of the divorce from his wife and failed to grant him permission to do so.  Nonetheless, he did not let the disapproval serve as a hindrance against his wishes.  Instead, he asserted his won authority to undermine the authority of the Church to get what he wanted.  He challenged the same Church which considered him as its defender in the past.  The divorce was the root of the significant change between the monarch and the Church.  Hence, it was the King’s Great Matter which was the leading cause of the Henrician Reformation.

            Henry VIII acted immediately to settle the divorce.  First, he sent his secretary William Knight to Pope Clement VII to ask him to declare the monarch’s marriage to Catherine as null and void (Thurston, 1910).  The king also wanted the Pope to approve the contract of a new marriage in the instance that the king is rendered free from his initial marital obligation.  The second condition would allow the monarch to marry Anne Boleyn (Bernard, 2007).  Catherine was opposed to the divorce and used her influence to prevent it (Perry, 1989).  She took advantage of the fact that her nephew, Charles V, was the Holy Roman Emperor at that time.  He could easily utilize his authority for Catherine’s sake.  Indeed, the emperor used his power and authority to influence the Pope’s decision (Perry, 1989).

            Because of Charles V, the pope became inaccessible (Thurston, 1910).  Knight was not able to meet the Pope and was forced to return to the king without success regarding the divorce arrangements.  The papal bull that Knight had acquired was dependent on the dissolution of the first marriage on grounds of its invalidity (Bernard, 2007).  Henry VIII soon gave the responsibility to Wosley.  Though he personally disagreed with the divorce, Wosley exhausted all options to make the divorce possible.  By May 1529, he still was unable to convince the Pope to agree on Henry’s divorce (British Monarchy, n.d.).  In July, Rome sided with Catherine against the divorce on the grounds of her helpless situation in England and the conditions in which she was immersed in (Thurston, 1910).  Henry VIII was so frustrated with the outcome that he had channelled his ire on Wosley.  Because Wosley failed in his task of gaining papal approval for his divorce, the king dismissed him (“Henry VIII,” 2007).  He was even arrested, but had passed away before he could attend a trial.  Soon after, Thomas More was chosen to replace Wosley (Thurston, 1910).

            The year 1529 proved to be a significant date in England, as it eventually marked the beginning of the Henrician Reformation.  It was the beginning in the sense that the king had started to disobey the Church at this point.  It was during this year that Henry VIII decided that he could have his marriage to Catherine annulled without the Pope’s blessing (Friedlander, 2000).  This was his first act of defiance against the Church.  The former defender of the Church had decided to bypass the Pope’s authority and placed the power to decide on the marriage issue in his own hands.

            With the help of his adviser Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII brought the marriage problem to the Parliament (British Monarchy, n.d.).  This decision worked to the king’s advantage, as the Parliament had adopted an anti-clerical position regarding the matter.  It also led to the Henrician Reformation; the king rejected the authority of the Church with the help of the Parliament, not only in terms of his marriage, but also in other matters as well.  The king urged the Parliament to pass legislation that would cut the ties between Rome and the clergy in England (“Henry VIII,” 2007).  This was done to coerce the pope to cooperate with the monarch (“Henry VIII,” 2007).

            The Henrician Reformation proceeded as more legislation from the Parliament severed the relationship of the English monarchy with the Church.  In 1532, Parliament passed an act that opposing Annates (British Monarchy, n.d.).  This move was evidently made to convey a message to the pope that the income of the Church would be threatened under the king’s control.  The next parliamentary legislation involved the installation of an archbishop.  Thomas Cranmer was a clergyman who upheld certain Protestant beliefs, but he was soon named as the Archbishop of Canterbury (Perry, 1989).  This was the highest position in the English Church.  Prior to his role as an archbishop, Cranmer had assumed the role of ambassador to the emperor (Thurston, 1910).  This appointment was relevant in religion; Cranmer was married twice, so the practice of celibacy among the clergy stopped (Friedlander, 2000).  Despite this, the Pope approved Cranmer’s appointment (British Monarchy, n.d.).

            In 1533, the English Parliament passed the Act in Restraint of Appeals (British Monarchy, n.d.; Friedlander, 2000).  This law disallowed appeals to the Pope, especially in relation to marriage (British Monarchy, n.d.; Friedlander, 2000; “Henry VIII,” 2007).  Consequently, Archbishop Cranmer had allowed for the marriage between Henry and Catherine to be annulled because of invalidity (British Monarchy, n.d.; “Henry VIII,” 2007; Perry, 1989).  Soon after, Henry married Anne Boleyn; she was declared as queen one week after (British Monarchy, n.d.).  As a result, Catherine was removed from the throne and her daughter Mary was considered illegitimate (Thurston, 1910).  Pope Clement VII was outraged by the annulment and the marriage that pushed through without permission from the Church (British Monarchy, n.d.; “Henry VIII,” 2007).  He soon excommunicated Henry VIII.

            Henry VIII fought in response to his excommunication by the Pope.  According to a law passed by the Parliament, England was an empire which was excluded from papal authority (British Monarchy, n.d).  The empire was ruled by a single leader and monarch who held absolute power over his territory.  Such power made any statements or declarations from the Pope as invalid.   Then, Henry VIII pursued the separation from the Church, again with the help of Parliament.   The monarch and Cromwell started a project which sought to separate the Church and the state.  Prior to the king’s annulment from his first wife and second marriage, there was a law passed by the English Parliament to pardon churchmen accused of violating the Stature of Praemunire (“Henry VIII,” 2007).  In this law, Henry VIII was named as “protector and only supreme head of the church and clergy in England” (as cited in “Henry VIII,” 2007).  A few years later, another law would reassert this claim.  In 1534, Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy (“Henry VIII,” 2007; Perry, 1989).  The law made Henry VIII “the only supreme head of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia” (as cited in “Henry VIII,” 2007).  The policy eliminated the supremacy of the Church by transferring such authority to the monarchy.  In addition, the law created a new religion through the establishment of a new church.  Therefore, the Act of Supremacy installed Henry VIII as the leader of his own religion since he had overthrown the power of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church (Thurston, 1910).

            There were other laws which were passed by Parliament through the reign of Henry VIII.  One of them was the Act of Submission of the Clergy (British Monarchy, n.d.).  Another law was the Act of Succession.  From 1535 until 1540, more laws were passed by the Parliament that redirected England from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism, with continuance with the Henrician Reformation (“Henry VIII,” 2007).  Some of these laws sought to close convents and monasteries in England (Perry, 1989).  The lands and properties of the aforementioned religious institutions which were seized were sold to those who were loyal to the king. From 1535 to 1536, 200 more minor monasteries were closed by statute; from 1538 until 1540, the bigger monasteries were also dissolved (British Monarchy, n.d.).  This resulted in an increase in royal revenue.

            How was the King’s Great Matter the leading cause of the Henrician Reformation?  The King’s Great Matter was the divorce of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon.  The divorce became the leading cause for religious change to occur in England because it prompted the king to go against the very institution he sought to defend.  It may appear to some that the reason why the Henrician Reformation took place was the fact that Henry VIII fell in love with Anne Boleyn.  It is true that the king’s affection for Anne was the reason why he wanted to file for divorce in the first place, but it was not the direct reason for the occurrence of the Reformation.

            The Reformation was a period in history where the once absolute and religious authority was undermined.  The Henrician Reformation was the time in England where Henry VIII undermined the power of the Roman Catholic Church to further his own ends.  This eventually resulted in the prevalence of Protestantism in England.  The main cause of the Reformation was the divorce itself.  What prompted the king to disregard papal authority was the failure of the Church to grant him permission to divorce his first wife.  There had been royal divorces granted by the Church before Henry planned to separate from Catherine.  However, his was a special case as the marriage itself had been granted by papal authority as well.  The reluctance of the Church to respond to his request and to consider his first marriage as invalid had frustrated the monarch.  When he had exhausted all options and exerted all efforts to invalidate his marriage, Henry VIII decided he did not need to rely on the Church to make the decision.  He would simply decide for himself.  It was at this point that the monarch decided to move away from the Church and assert his own power. Indeed, the King’s Great Matter—the divorce of Henry VIII from Catherine—was the leading cause of the Henrician Reformation.


Bernard, G.W. (2007). The King’s Reformation: Henry VIII and the Remaking of the English Church. London: Yale University Press.

British Monarchy. (n.d.). Henry VIII. History of the Monarchy. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://www.royal.gov.uk/output/page19.asp

Friedlander, E. (2000). 1517-1564: The Reformation. Anglican Timeline.  Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://justus.anglican.org/resources/timeline/06reformation.html

“Henry VIII.” (2007). Archontology Web Site. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://www.archontology.org/nations/england/king_england/henry8.php

Perry, M. (1989). A History of the World. Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin.

Thurston, H. (1910). Henry VIII. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 12, 2008, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07222a.htm


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The King’s Great Matter and the Henrician Reformation. (2016, Oct 05). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-kings-great-matter-and-the-henrician-reformation/

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