08 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (3) The Marital Woes of Henry VIII

At the same time other developments had been taking place within England itself. Henry VIII had been on the throne since 1509. He had inherited a wealthy kingdom blessed with peace and a very stable power base from his father, Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. However by 1527 he was still without a son to inherit his kingdom and his wife, Catherine of Aragon was beginning to show the signs of premature aging.

Into the scenario steps Anne Boleyn, a young woman who he thought had the potential of making the perfect wife. Only one problem stood in the way: Catherine. Henry, however, was no fool and he thought he had a way around her. Catherine had herself been previously married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died in his teens. This had made her technically ineligible to be Henry’s bride and their marriage was allowed only after papal dispensation on the basis that her former marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. Was it possible, argued Henry, that the series of sickly and stillborn babies born to Catherine were a sign that God’s blessing did not rest on their union after all?

So it was that Henry began a campaign to have the church declare that his marriage to Catherine had never been valid in the first place. He was not seeking a divorce. As a devout Catholic (indeed something of a self-styled theologian), he would not have admitted the legitimacy of remarriage after divorce (nor did the Church of England for more than four and a half centuries). What Henry was seeking was an annulment.

That, however, was no easy matter. For Catherine was well connected internationally. Her nephew was Charles V of Spain, who in 1527 had sacked Rome and kidnapped the pope himself. The memory of that painful episode and the threat of worse if the annulment were granted ruled out any hope of a favorable response from the pope. What was Henry to do?

The answer was to consolidate his power at home, within the borders of his own kingdom. In this Henry had the statute books in his favor. Since 1393 there had been a law called the statute of Præmunire, which restricted papal intervention in the affairs of the English church. Henry had the courts broaden its application to the point where in 1529 he could unseat the powerful Cardinal Wolsey and force the clergy into recognizing the king as “especial Protector, only and supreme Lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even supreme Head” of the church. By 1534 the payment of annates (a levy on diocesan and parish revenues) to Rome had been restricted, appeals to the authority of Rome were abolished, all the legal rights and duties of the pope were transferred to the monarchy and the Act of Supremacy declared the king as head of the church, this time omitting the crucial clause “as far as the law of Christ allows”.

Henry’s control of the church was complete. In fact the rejection of papal authority met with little opposition. And Henry’s goal from the beginning had been achieved, for the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had already declared his marriage to Catherine null and Anne Boleyn had been crowned as his queen on the Day of Pentecost, 1533.

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