Henry's Separation From Rome

Thomas Cranmer

An overruling hand of Providence brings men upon the stage of action at just the time they are needed to fulfill His divine purpose. Just as the most ardent foe of Protestantism was removed from the stage, two more men, each destined to play an important part in the events that were to shape the future of the nation, made their entrance.

The king, on his way to London from Grafton where he had retired to escape the vexations of mind that had resulted from, as Henry viewed it, his betrayal by the pope, he stopped to enjoy a chase in the forest. As there were too many courtiers to all be entertained in the abbey, two of his servants were entertained in the house of a citizen named Cressy. At the evening meal, they unexpectedly met a former acquaintance, Thomas Cranmer.

Cranmer, born in 1489 near Nottingham, was then a professor at Cambridge. The teachings of Luther were stirring much controversy in England just then, and Cranmer determined to know the truth from the Bible. After three years of study, without commentaries or the assistance of other humans, the darkness of scholasticism which had until then obscured his vision cleared; for the first time, he saw the beauty of the plan of salvation.

His two friends, knowing his eminence as a scholar and theologian, directed the conversation so as to draw from him an opinion as to the matter of the royal divorce. Little dreaming that his comments would ever be heard outside of the room in which he spoke them, he spoke frankly. “ ‘Why,’ he said, ‘go to Rome? Why take so long a road when by a shorter you may arrive at a more certain conclusion?’ His friends inquired as to what approach he spoke of, and he replied: ‘The Scriptures. If God has made this marriage sinful, the pope cannot make it lawful.’ His friends asked how one might know what the Scriptures said on this point, and the doctor replied: ‘Ask the universities; they will return a sounder verdict than the pope.’ ” Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 3, 392

Two days later, Cranmer’s were repeated to the king. On an earlier occasion he had approached the universities, but the question he had asked was not that which Cranmer proposed. At that time, he had asked both Oxford and Cambridge what they thought of his marriage; but now he did as Cranmer suggested and asked that they tell him what the Bible said of the marriage. In this proposal, Henry thought that he saw a possible solution to his dilemma, little realizing that in doing so he was accepting the fundamental principle of Protestantism—appealing the case from the pope to God, from the Church to the Scriptures. Cranmer was immediately summoned to court and commanded to begin gathering the opinions of the scholars as to what the Bible taught about his marriage. Clement VII had summoned the king of England to his bar; but instead, Henry would summon the pope to the tribunal of God’s Word.

Thomas Cromwell

At this point, we must introduce a second man who was to play a significant role in England’s emancipation from the Roman yoke. Thomas Cromwell, after returning to England as a military adventurer, became connected with Wolsey, whom he served faithfully. In Wolsey’s overthrow, which was largely the result of his subservience to the pope, Cromwell saw a new course set for himself. Going to Henry, with great courage and clearness he pointed out to the king the great humiliation and embarrassment that both he and his kingdom had suffered was due to their dependency on the pope. Who was the pope, he asked, that he should be monarch of England? And, who were the priests that they should be above the law? He pointed out that for Henry to submit his case to an Italian court was to be but half a king. He raised the question as to why the king should not declare himself head of the church within his own realm. If the king were to declare himself head of the church, it would put the clergy on the same level with all the rest of his subjects. As things then stood, the clergy did, indeed, swear allegiance to the king; but they then took a second oath to the pope that virtually annulled the first and made them more the pope’s subjects than the king’s.

During the few minutes that Henry listened to these courageous words, a revolution took place in his thinking. Fixing his eyes on the speaker, he asked him if he could prove the things he had said. Anticipating just such a question, Cromwell pulled from his pocket a copy of the oath every bishop was required to take. This was enough for Henry. As he listened with mingled astonishment and delight, a new future seemed to be opening to him.

In the days and weeks that followed, sweeping changes were instituted. The laws were changed, making the clergy amenable to the laws of the land, curbing to a large extent the abuses that had existed. An end was made to many of the payments to Rome, by which an enormous amount of wealth had been drained from the country. The law was repealed by which heretics might be burned on the sentence and by the authority of the bishop, and without writ from the king. Though this did not fully abolish the stake as a punishment for heresy, it was restricted to a less arbitrary, possibly more merciful tribunal.

It was foreseen that the new policy might eventually lead to the nation being placed under interdict; but this threat had lost much of the terrors it once had, even though it might yet cause considerable inconvenience. In order to help avoid a crisis should this take place, a law was passed that the English bishops were to have power to consecrate new bishops without license from the pope. It was forbidden from that time on for the archbishop or bishops to be nominated or confirmed by the pope.

Following the break with Rome, Henry and Cromwell undertook a reorganization of church and state. Henry was declared supreme head of the church in England, and all of the payments normally made to the pope now went to the crown. It was treason to question Henry’s new title of head of the church. The king accepted small changes in Catholic religious beliefs and practices. The Bible was translated into English, priests were allowed to marry, and the shrines of saints were destroyed, but Henry’s own religious beliefs remained essentially Catholic. Though many members of his court accepted the Protestant faith, by instituting the Six Articles of 1539, he prevented the more fervent of these from making radical changes to religious doctrine. This document outlined the tenets of the Church of England, all of which were Catholic in nature.

Edward VI

Henry found himself in the position of fighting Rome on the one hand and Lutheranism on the other. Many crimes stained Henry’s hands, and he has been severely blamed by both Protestants and Catholics. When, however, Henry’s record is compared with that of his contemporaries, Francis I and Charles V, he compares very favorably. Though at times cruel, he did not spill nearly as much blood as did Charles V; and he was never guilty of some of the barbarities practiced in both France and Spain. In giving to England the Bible, in breaking the chains of foreign tyranny, and in destroying the monastic system, though he did these things from very mixed motives, Henry’s policies laid the groundwork for making England a Protestant nation and foremost among the nations of Europe.

On January 28, 1547, Henry VIII died, and young and reforming Edward succeeded him to the throne. The Popish faction was still powerful. Had Edward VI lived, it is probable that many things in the worship of the Church of England, borrowed from the Roman Church, would have been removed. Despite the opposition that had to be overcome, a great work was accomplished in England during Edward’s reign, especially when we consider that it was all accomplished in six short years. Before the Reformation was to be firmly established in England, however, it would yet pass through another severe trial and test.

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