Written by Vladimir Moss



     The Anglican Church was conceived in adultery – King Henry VIII’s discarding of his lawful wife, Catherine of Aragon, and born in murder – the murder of his new wife, Anne Boleyn.[1] In the beginning religious motives paid hardly any part in the English Reformation. For the English people remained strongly attached to their Catholic beliefs, cults and ceremonies.[2] And Henry, too, remained Catholic in his personal beliefs and by no means wanted to allow the anti-authoritarian views of the Protestants into his kingdom. For, as the Scottish Calvinist John Knox was threateningly heard to say, “Jehu killed two Kings at God’s commandment…”

     Henry’s solution was a kind of Catholicism without the Pope… But it was not a real Reformation in the continental sense insofar as, in the words of Ralf Dahrendorf, “a falling out with the Pope is not the same as a true Reformation”.[3] Nevertheless, English monarchs’ quarrels with the Pope had often had important consequences in the past and could do so again: we think of King John’s quarrel with Pope Innocent III, which led to the famous Magna Carta in 1215, or the quarrel of King Harold Godwinson’s quarrel with the Pope that led to the Norman Conquest in 1066…

     In its origin, therefore, the English Reformation was not a religious event at all, but a political manoeuvre to give the English king more freedom not so much to satisfy his carnal lusts – these he was able to satisfy without killing his wife – but in order to get the male heir he desired so strongly. Thus in 1531, Henry was accepted by the Church of England as her “supreme Protector, only and supreme Lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even supreme Head”. Three years later, the Act of Supremacy removed the saving qualification: “as far as the law of Christ allows” and declared: “Be it enacted by authority of this present Parliament that the king our sovereign lord, his heirs and successors, kings of this realm, shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” It was the English equivalent of the Jewish cry: “We have no king but Caesar…”

     So the English, so proud of their freedom, voted through a democratic representative body to impose on themselves an absolutist despotism ruling both Church and State. The only palliative lay in the fact that formally speaking Parliament had bestowed this right, so Parliament could in theory take it away. And in the English revolution Parliament did just that, executing King Charles I for “treason” in 1649…

     “At first glance,” writes G.W. Bernard, “Henry’s policies seem confused and uncertain; on closer examination they are better described as deliberately ambiguous. For Henry knew what he wanted well enough and was sufficient of a politician to know when and how and when to compromise. He grasped that among churchmen and, increasingly, among the educated laity, religious convictions were polarising. If he were to win acceptance for the break with Rome and the royal supremacy, the pope would have to be denounced, but if radical religious changes were to be enforced, or even if they were simply to be advocated from the pulpits, he risked provoking serious rebellions like the Pilgrimage of Grace. For all the extravagant claims of the Act of Six Articles that it would abolish diversity of opinions, Henry more realistically aimed at steering a path between the extremes.”[4]

     “Nor was the Elizabethan religious settlement [the Act of Uniformity in 1559 and the Thirty-Nine Articles in 1571] unequivocally protestant. Elizabeth would have preferred something closer to her father’s catholicism, without the pope and without egregious superstition… Henry VIII and Elizabeth… saw the monarch as in control of the church, appointing bishops, determining doctrine and liturgy, and capable even of suspending an archbishop from exercising his power, a view perhaps symbolised by the placing of royal arms inside parish churches. At the heart of this monarchical view of the church lay a desire that was essentially political…; a desire for comprehensiveness, for a church that would embrace all their subjects. Religious uniformity was natural in itself; religious dissensions wrecked social harmony and political peace. Continental experiences – from the peasants’ war of 1525 through the French wars of religion to the Thirty Years’ War – reinforced English rulers’ fears of the disastrous consequences of religious divisions, and their success, until 1642, in sparing their realm from such horrors further strengthened their conviction of the efficacy of the policy…”[5]

     “My argument is that Henry VIII, Elizabeth, James I and Charles I placed secular and political considerations of order above purely ecclesiastical and theological considerations…, and that from the start, from the 1530s, rulers faced limitations because some of their subjects were papists and some of their subjects wanted further reformation. Given the fact of religious difference, given that rulers knew that their subjects, especially the more educated, were divided, sometimes in response to theological debates European rather than just national in scope, a measure of compromise and ambiguity, particularly on points of doctrine or of local liturgical practice, was deliberately fostered.”[6]

     “Larger cracks can be papered over than one might supposed. But in extraordinary circumstances, if contradictions with which men have long deliberately or unconsciously lived can no longer be accommodated or overlooked, if a monarchical church is faced by urgent demands for unambiguous, uncompromising decisions of divisive questions, then the ensuing collapse can be violent. When Englishmen ultimately turned to war in 1642, those differences of religion that the monarchical church had striven to contain but to which it was always vulnerable proved to be the most embittering determinant of men’s allegiance.”[7]


     While this thesis is essentially correct, the Dissolution of the Monasteries was not without its strictly religious aspect. As David Starkey and Katie Greening write: “The principal motive of the Dissolution had been fiscal. Henry VIII’s extravagance in peace and war had long since exhausted the treasures left him by his careful father. Parliament, as usual, was reluctant to grant taxation. To bridge the gap, the king’s new minister, Thomas Cromwell,… persuaded Henry to re-endow the crown with the former wealth of the monasteries. This was mere expediency. But Cromwell, Cranmer [the Archbishop of Canterbury], and even Henry himself, were also concerned with the principles at stake. The vast endowments of the monasteries were justified by the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory was conceived of as an intermediate state between Heaven and Hell. The passage of the souls of the dead through Purgatory – providing they had not been irretrievably wicked in life – could be aided by the prayers and offerings of the living. These invoked the merits of Christ, His Mother and the saints, which were entrusted to the Church and dispensed by it – for a price. And the price, to cut a long story short, was the endowment of the monasteries, which paid for prayers, masses and a perpetual cycle of invocation and intercession – and for the professional musicians who sung it.

     “But where was Purgatory in the Bible? The new approaches to Christianity, called the New Learning by contemporaries and ‘Evangelical’ by historians, made the Bible – especially the Bible in English – the measure of all things. And Purgatory was to be found nowhere in the Bible. Nor were prayers, intercessions and sung masses for the dead. Instead, salvation depended wholly on the Christian’s relationship with God and his fellow men in this world, not the next.

     “At a stroke, the Dissolution was transformed from a fiscal expedient into a necessary step of religious reform. But how far would reform go? The great religious changes in England had begun for the narrowest and most self-interested of motives: Henry’s urgent desire for divorce and remarriage. But the coincided with the great European-wide movement of religious reform known as the Reformation. Henry’s relationship with the Reformation was an uncertain one. He had been one of Luther’s earliest and most prominent opponents, winning his papal title of Defender of the Faith for his anti-Lutheran text, Assertio septem sacramentorum, and the two were never reconciled. Cranmer’s theology, on the other hand, moved more and more into the mainstream of European reformed thought, even going beyond Luther towards the more thorough-going Zwingli and the other Swiss reformers.

     “While Henry lived, Cranmer kept all this more or less concealed. But with Henry’s death, his position was transformed. Under the old king, who prided himself on forging a lonely middle way between the extremes of the Old and New Learning, Cranmer had been one counsellor among many. With the accession of Henry’s nine-year-old son Edward VI, a regency government was set up in which Cranmer was one of the two principal voices: the king’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, exercised supreme power in mattes of state, while Cranmer determined the pace and extent of religious change.

     “Now and only now, is it possible to talk of a Protestant Reformation in England…”[8]


     By making the King, and later Parliament, the supreme arbiter of faith and morals, the Act of Supremacy infused the English Church and people with the habit of compromise, of perpetually seeking some middle way between opposing opinions and allowing individual variations in faith that would not have been permissible in earlier ages. This habit was not unique to the Anglican Reformation. We find it also in, for example, the German Reformer, Kaspar Schwenkfeld, who asserted, in Jacques Barzun’s words, that “if each soul has a unique destiny, then each man and woman may frame his or her creed within the common Christian religion. They deserve to have faith custom-tailored to their needs.”[9] But from an Orthodox point of view, such individualism and ability to compromise, while useful in political situations, is extremely harmful in questions of religious truth, where, as St. Mark of Ephesus pointed out, there can be no middle way between truth and falsehood. The via media was imposed upon the Church because it had been chosen by the King, who, for political and personal reasons, wanted a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. It meant that henceforth the Anglican Church represented not one faith, but an uneasy compromise between two, with the king as the arbiter and supreme judge over both of them.

     Now “if the State, as law and authority,” writes L.A. Tikhomirov, “departs from its connection with a definite confession, that is, comes out from under the influence of the religious confession on religious politics, it becomes the general judge of all confessions and submits religion to itself. All relations between various confessions, and their rights, must evidently be decided by the State that is outside them, being governed exclusively by its own ideas about justice and the good of society and the State. In this connection it obviously has the complete right and every opportunity to be repressive in all cases in which, in its opinion, the interests of the confession contradict civil and political interests. Thus the situation emerges in which the State can influence the confessions, but cannot and must not be influenced by them. Such a State is already unable to be governed in relation to the confessions by any religious considerations, for not one of the confessions constitutes for it a lawful authority, whereas the opinions of financiers, economists, medics, administrators, colonels, etc. constitute its lawful consultants, so that in all spheres of the construction of the people’s life the State will be governed by considerations drawn precisely from these sources.

     “In such an order there can be no religious freedom for anyone. Perhaps – and this is doubtful – there can be equal rights for the confessions. But freedom and equality of rights are not the same thing. Equality of rights can also consist of a general lack of rights. The State can, [for example,] on the basis of cultural and medical considerations, take measures against circumcision and forbid fasting; to avoid disorders or on the basis of sanitary considerations it can forbid pilgrimages to holy places or to venerate relics; on the basis of military demands it can forbid all forms of monasticism among Christians, Buddhists, Muslims. The services themselves can be found to be harmful hypnotizations of the people not only in public, but also in private prayer. In general, there are no bounds to the State’s prohibitive measures in relation to religions if it is placed outside them, as their general judge…”[10]


     If Henry had confined himself to the Act of Supremacy, England might have remained an essentially Catholic country. But in 1536 there was a Catholic rebellion in the north called the Pilgrimage of Grace. Henry promised leniency to the defeated rebels, but broke his word and slaughtered them ruthlessly. Then came the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This destroyed the economic power of the Church, vastly increased the wealth of the Protestant landowners, who took over most of the monastic lands, thereby undermining property rights and respect for law and order in general.

     As Professor Christopher Hill writes: “The long-term outcome of the [English] Reformation was the opposite of that intended by the Machiavellians who introduced it. Charles I’s Secretary of State, the near-papist Windebanke, pointed out to the representative of the Pope in England the historical irony of the situation. ‘Henry VIII committed such sacrilege by profaning so many ecclesiastical benefices in order to give their goods to those who, being so rewarded, might stand firmly for the king in the lower house; and now the king’s greatest enemies are those who are enriched by these benefices… O the great judgements of God!’ The overthrow of papal authority by Henry VIII thus looks forward to the civil war and the execution of Charles I. The royal supremacy yielded place to the sovereignty of Parliament and then to demands for the sovereignty of the people. The plunder of the Church by the landed ruling class stimulated the development of capitalism in England. The attack on Church property by the rich led to a questioning of property rights in general…”[11]

     Thus “men learnt that church property was not sacrosanct, that traditional ecclesiastical institutions could disappear without the world coming to an end; that laymen could remodel not only the economic and political structures of the Church but also its doctrine – if they possessed political power. Protestant theology undermined the uniquely sacred character of the priest, and elevated the self-respect of the congregation. This helped men to question a divine right to tithes, the more so when tithes were paid to lay impropriators. Preaching became more important than the sacraments; and so men came to wonder what right non-preaching ministers, or absentees, had to be paid by their congregations. It took a long time to follow out these new lines of thought to their logical conclusions; but ultimately they led men very far indeed. By spreading ideas of sectarian voluntarism they prepared the way for the Revolution of 1640, and trained its more radical leaders.

     “In the Revolution episcopacy was abolished, bishops’ and cathedral lands confiscated, the payment of tithes challenged. The radicals rejected not only Henry VIII’s episcopal hierarchy but the whole idea of a state church. ‘O the great judgements of God!’ Windebanke had exclaimed when contemplating the paradoxical outcome of the Henrician Reformation. Henry VIII had denied the supremacy of the Pope; he had confiscated church property; and he had allowed the Scriptures to be translated into English. These challenges to the authoritarianism, to the wealth and to the propaganda monopoly of the Church opened doors wider than was perhaps intended. A century later the authority first of King, then of Parliament, was challenged in the name of the people; the social justification of all private property was called into question; and speculation about the nature of the state and the rights of the people went to lengths which ultimately terrified the victorious Parliamentarians into recalling King, House of Lords, and bishops to help them to maintain law and order.”[12]

     Until the death of Henry, the English Reformation had been a mainly politico-economic affair that affected only a small section of the population. But when, in the reign of Edward VI, the Calvinists took over the reins of government, the dissolution of the monasteries assumed such large proportions and brutal destructiveness as finally to arouse the indignation of large parts of the population, who remained essentially Catholic in their sympathies. Then, during the reign of Mary, a Catholic who was determined to stamp out Calvinism, a persecution of Calvinists got under way that had the good fortune (from a Calvinist point of view) of finding a talented chronicler in the shape of John Foxe, whose Book of Martyrs has been called “the third Testament of the English Church”[13], so influential were its gory descriptions of the torture of Calvinists.

     As Owen Chadwick writes: “The steadfastness of the victims, from Ridley and Latimer downwards, baptized the English Reformation in blood and drove into English minds the fatal association of ecclesiastical tyranny with the See of Rome… Five years before, the Protestant cause was identified with church robbery, destruction, irreverence, religious anarchy. It was now beginning to be identified with virtue, honesty, and loyal English resistance to a half-foreign government.”[14]


March 8/21, 2017.


[1]Historians have debated extensively over who was really responsible for Anne Boleyn’s death. I follow William Starkey in laying the principal blame at the feet of King Henry,

[2]Dominic Selwood, “How a Protestant Spin Machine Hid the Truth about the English Reformation”, History, May 23, 2014.

[3] Dahrendorf, in Jeremy Paxman, The English, London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 98.

[4]Bernard, “The Church of England c.1529-c.1642”, History, vol. 75, no. 244, June, 1990, p. 185.

[5]Bernard, op. cit., p. 187.

[6]Bernard, op. cit., p. 188.

[7]Bernard, op. cit., pp. 205-206.

[8]Starkey and Greening, Music & Monarchy, London: BBC Books, 2013, pp. 16-18.

[9]Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present, New York: Perennial, 2000, p. 33.

[10]Tikhomirov, Religioznie-filosofskie osnovy istorii (The Religio-Philosophical Foundations of History),Moscow, 1997, p. 269.

[11]Hill, “Social and Economic Consequences of the Henrician Revolution”, in Puritanism and Revolution, London: Penguin books, 1958, p. 47.

[12]Hill, op. cit., pp. 56-57.

[13]Paxman, op. cit., p. 89.

[14]Chadwick, The Reformation, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 128; quoted in Paxman, op. cit., p. 91.

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