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Henry VIII and the King's Great Matter

Updated on February 20, 2012

The Dream of power in Europe

King Henry VIIITH had been King since his eighteenth birthday and had spent the early part of his reign waging war before celebrating a glorious peace in 1520 marked by the wonder of the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, where King Henry met the French King Francis and glorified in their friendship and special peace.

After the 1520 reconciliation, King Henry met Emperor Charles whom he had met previously in Dover, England. Henry allied England with the Emperor and deserted Francis and France. The Emperor’s forces went on to fight the French at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and then, according to the agreement, Henrys troops who were by now assembled in Calais were to march to Rome, again the tricky politics of Europe intervened and Charles refused to support Henry’s troops in the field.

Tricky European politics

Wolsey and the King were devious men, especially where International diplomacy was concerned. Whilst England was openly supporting the Emperor Charles the Cardinal, with the King’s assent had been negotiating with the Pope and the Italian City State leaders who were growing in opposition to the Emperor. In 1526 the King Francis was released and joined this alliance but the Emperors forces were too strong. In May of 1527 the Emperors troops invaded Rome and the Pope effectively became a prisoner in the Vatican. The French were overwhelmed in the battle at Landriano in 1529 and the French asked for peace. King Henry was not consulted on his views on the breakup of the alliance

Failure of the illusion of power

The failure in the foreign policy was made worse by the remembrance of events such as the celebrations for the 1517 Treaty of London, when King Henry was given a vision of supremacy in Europe. The surrender of the French and the failure to receive support from the Emperor Charles showed to Henry how illusory the view of supremacy had been.

King Henry Viiith by Holbein
King Henry Viiith by Holbein | Source

Ruler without a male heir

About the same time as his foreign policy began to fail, Henry started looking around for a new wife. His wife, Catherine of Aragon had produced only one child, a girl, and was now virtually past child bearing age. Wolsey did not support the annulment of this marriage to Catherine in case it provoked the anger of her cousin the Emperor Charles. King Henry had succumbed to amorous adventures earlier in his reign, the best known being Bessie Blount, a young woman from a good family who had born him strong sons. Despite his fear of retribution by the Emperor Wolsey began to support the King in his wishes. He set an ecclesiastical court up in his home which found that Henry was guilty of living as man and wife with his brother’s wife for 18 years, thus opening up the way to seek annulment of his marriage.

A negotiated divorce?

Wolsey was sent to the imprisoned Pope to negotiate an annulment and whilst there he became out of touch with the English court where Anne Boleyn was poisoning the Kings mind against him. Whist Wolsey was away the King began to act like a King, to look at the small details and make decisions without Wolsey’s advice. Immediately upon his return Wolsey noticed the difference as no longer would the King sign a document he had written, unread and would only see him when he wanted, which was when he was away from Anne Boleyn as she made it clear to the King that she detested the Cardinal.

Cardinal Campeggio employs delaying tactics.

The summer of 1528 was hot and plague was rife, the King retreated from London but was pleased when Wolsey announced that his envoy Stephen Gardener had received permission from the Pope for the case surrounding the annulment to be heard in England. The Pope appointed Cardinal Campeggio, a man who was known to the King and would not arouse any trouble for the King. The main problem was the Cardinals age and infirmity which meant that the trip from Rome took four months instead of six weeks. It is believed that the Pope who did not wish his already poor relationship with the Emperor Charles urged the Cardinal to use the delaying tactic to play for time and so everything the Cardinal did was at an infuriating slow pace, especially for a King who wanted a quick divorce so that he could remarry and beget a male heir. The cardinal, trying to play for time, acted as a clergyman intent on fulfilling his pastoral obligations and presented a shocked King with his plans to reunite him with his wife and rekindle the flame of love between them. Henry was angry but became soothed by the Cardinal’s second plan which was to place Catherine in a nunnery as it was quick, inexpensive and a totally respectful way for a devout woman in the last decades of her life. Despite the entreaties of both Cardinal Campeggio and Cardinal Wolsey the Queen declined to become a nun!

Cardinal Wolsey
Cardinal Wolsey | Source

Cardinal Campeggio's inquiry

The fall of Wolsey

Catherine struck back against the King producing a copy of a papal bull which seemed to answer al the questions the King had been asking so Catherine was sent away to Greenwich and was forbidden from seeing her daughter, Lady Mary. Cardinal Campeggio opened the hearing in June 1529, fifteen months after he had received his commission from the pope; the delaying tactics had worked well. Both the King and Queen attended by the Queen, after professing that the case be heard in Rome, and pledging her love to her husband, fled the hearing. The court adjourned for the summer, as per Papal custom, leaving King Henry in another towering rage. During the adjournment, the court and the King were summoned to Rome, for further proceedings. Wolsey had failed in his attempt to get a swift divorce for King Henry. Two days after seeing the Cardinal Campeggio off on his trip to Rome the Cardinal was ordered to surrender his seal of office. Some fourteen months later he was taken from York to London to await trial. On his way he stopped overnight at Leicester Abbey and died that night, 29th November 1530. The Abbey is long gone but a statue of Cardinal Wolsey is to be found in Abbey Park.

Growing anatagonsim in the relationship between church and state

Henry did not want to go to Rome, as if to beg for his divorce. There was growing antagonism in the country against Papal power and the real and imagined excesses that Cardinal Wolsey had shown. The church owned approximately one third of the land in England, more than the King, and had fantastic wealth. A large amount if their money seemed to be spent on display and self indulgence rather than good works such as helping the poor, sick and lame.

"Benefit of the Cergy"

The church took tithes, a levy which was compulsory paid on probate of wills or interment from even the poorest of people. There were ecclesiastical courts to which people could be summoned for non-payment with no right of appeal. If a priest committed a crime it was transferred to the ecclesiastical courts where he was tried by friends and peers- this was known as the “Benefit of the Clergy”. It is difficult to calculate the depth of any individual’s spirituality but by the sixteenth century popular opinion was condemning the clergy for their parasitical nature and lack of religious functionality. In 1529 Simon Fish produced “A supplication for the Beggars” which was a bitter attack on what was seen as greedy and gluttonous priests. The King appointed Thomas More as his chancellor to replace Wolsey and summoned Parliament, making no effort to stifle their anti clerical feelings.

Parliament of 1529

The Parliament summoned in 1529, acted exactly as King Henry envisaged and they sent him a petition to ask what “laws of God and the Holy church”, enabled the priests to live as richly as they did and far away from their parishes. The Parliament was allowed to make 3 bills which were sent up to the House of Lords, where the bishops sat. The bishops offered no opposition, many had been sent to see the King before the vote, in his star chamber and were well aware of how feelings were turning away from them. Within weeks clerics who were guilty of non residence were appearing before the Exchequer rather than the ecclesiastical courts. Added to this was that anyone who reported an absent or pluralist cleric received a percentage of the fine and any cleric who thought to appeal to Rome was fined £20 and told that the Pope’s advice would be ignored.

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer | Source

Thomas Cranmer

Towards the end of 1529 King Henry met his next confidante, Thomas Cranmer. The story is that Cranmer was working as a private tutor when he met Stephen Gardiner who was staying at the house. Gardiner later reported to the King that Cranmer had suggested that the King might like to gain the opinion of all the Universities on the legitimacy of his marriage. The King thought that this was an excellent idea and summoned Cranmer to his court. Riders were sent searching a over Europe, looking for favourable opinions, none of which was ignored. In Italy sums of money started to change hands in exchange for supportive opinions , so much so that by 21st March 1530 Pope Clement issued a bull prohibiting people to speak or write about the marriage so it transpired that the 8 favourable judgments that Henry now had were useless. Ate in 1530 the King asked his representatives in Rome to secretly search the Vatican to see if there were any secret documents to support his claims that his marriage was illegal.

The clergy are fined

In January 1531 the clergy were collectively charged with paying allegiance to Rome to the detriment of the King. A guilty plea was received and a handsome fine of £100,000 paid. Despite the threats, bullying and exhortation Henry was still married to Catherine with no living male heir. In 1532 the long list of complaints made by the 1529 Parliament was moulded by Thomas Cromwell; who had replaced Wolsey, into three specific practises to be reformed:

- That all future clerical legislation should only be made with the Kings consent

- All legislation should be examined by a Royal Committee who would either authorise its continuance or reject it

- All clerical legislation past and present must have its authority not from a clerical source but from the sovereignty of the King.

The effect of these proposals was to reduce the power of the church and to increase the power of the King. The Bishops and clerics rejected this immediately as they saw how strongly King Henry was attacking the church. Henry produced a copy of the Bishops Oath of Allegiance to a delegation from Parliament on 11 May 1532. He dramatically said that the Bishops lack of support for this plan showed that the Bishops still valued the Pope above their King. On 15th May 1532 the clergy submitted to the King’s power in a vote where many either abstained or agreed but with reservations. As a result of this vote, Thomas More resigned as Chancellor.

Anne BOLEYN | Source

The King's Great Matter

The Kings “great matter” now faced a real urgency as Anne Boleyn became pregnant and King Henry married her on 25th January 1533. Luck was on Henry’s side as the aged Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Wareham had died the previous summer and his successor nominated by the Pope was Thomas Cranmer, unsuitable, inexperienced but for some reason appointed into the job. His appointment was consecrated in April 1533 and within weeks he was writing to the King asking why he had been living in sin with his brother’s wife for twenty years.

Marriage to Catherine of Aragon is declared invalid

On 9th April a deputation was sent to Queen Catherine telling her that her husband had taken another wife and that she was now the “Princess Dowager” or widow of the Kings brother. The following month Cranmer opened his court of enquiry which the Queen refused to attend. Her lack of attendance did not matter much as Cranmer declared on the 23rd May 1533 that the King and Queen had never been married and that his recent marriage to Anne Boleyn was valid. Anne was crowned Queen within a week.

The marriage was not popular and many people were also not in favour of the extent to which the changes had been made in the church reformation. I can only liken it to Edward VIIIth abdicating his throne for marriage with Mrs Simpson whilst Henry changed the faith people had followed for centuries all for marriage to Anne Boleyn.


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    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      phdast 7- Thankyou for your visit and your kind comment, really appreciated

    • profile image

      phdast7 5 years ago

      Great detail, but very readable and understandable. Nice work. :)

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 5 years ago from England

      J Kenny- Thanks for the vote of confidence. My daughter is training to be a teacher and they have to jump through so many hoops it is unbelievable-

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      A very comprehensive and compelling about good old King Henry, definitely voting this one up. I was astounded by the teacher mentioned by Judi, what on earth does it take to become a teacher nowadays? No wonder so many of our kids receive poor education.

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

      No, she is a history teacher! In past encounters she hasn't known in which century the Spanish Armada occurred, didn't know how to pronounce Passchendaele, or indeed where it was. But she is young and energetic, which counts for a lot in today's British schools. It's a triumph of style over substance! OK, rant over!

    • Just History profile image

      Just History 6 years ago from England

      Judi Bee- thanks for your visit- I bet you had to sit on your hands and cover your mouth when she said that! Perhaps she was a maths teacher sitting in!

      Glad you enjoyed it!

    • Judi Bee profile image

      Judith Hancock 6 years ago from UK

      Coincidentally, I was with a Year 7 class today who are just starting this topic. The history teacher began with writing up "relevant" keywords which included "Prime Minister" and "1600s" - oh my! Should show your hub to her!

      Voted up etc.