Home » News/Views » England's Break from Rome (1532-40)

England's Break from Rome (1532-40)

29 October 2016

Elizabethan picture showing Henry VIII handing over power to Edward VI, while the pope lies slumped below.

During the reign of Henry the Eighth, England broke from Rome and embarked on the Reformation, staggering events that fundamentally changed England’s outlook and behaviour...

The English Reformation evolved from something smaller in scale and scope, the need of Henry VIII to divorce and marry someone else. Such a relatively trivial episode in the Tudor soap opera led into a process that ultimately brought the total reconstruction of political power and social attitudes in England. The solving of the marriage problem catapulted English society in a wholly unexpected direction.

A few months after his accession as king in 1509, Henry married Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, his elder brother Arthur’s widow. Arthur had died young in 1502. For the marriage to proceed, the contracting parties had to obtain a dispensation from Pope Julius II. There were concerns that it contravened canon law and in particular Leviticus 20:21, which said the marriage of a man who marries his brother’s widow shall be childless. However, the papal dispensation was given and the marriage went ahead.

Female heir

Although Catherine produced a female heir Princess Mary in 1516, the marriage was blighted with a series of miscarriages, stillbirths or infant deaths occurring within a few days of birth. The Wars of the Roses were fresh in mind; the Tudor rule that followed was established less than 30 years beforehand. The establishment also remembered with anxiety Matilda’s unsettling rule in the twelfth century, the sole precedent of a female sovereign.

By 1525 Catherine was forty; there had been no pregnancy for seven years and Henry began to consider ending the marriage so as to strengthen the dynasty with a male heir. At some point between 1525 and 1527 Henry became attracted to Anne Boleyn. Preparations to annul the marriage began by May 1527 with the expectation it would be confirmed by the pope.

But in late May the situation drastically changed when troops of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain sacked Rome. They took the pope prisoner, making it impossible for him to grant Henry’s annulment to Catherine of Aragon without offending Charles, as Catherine was his aunt. For four years Henry tried everything to win over the pope but to no avail.


Getting older, in 1532 Henry elevated a new type of minister who was able to sort out the problem. He found someone ready to work out a national solution, someone unafraid to politically reconstruct England. The skilful exponent of this statecraft was Thomas Cromwell, who proposed a way to end the king’s difficulties. Cromwell had an ambitious plan that went far beyond Henry’s vague claims to supremacy by actually evicting the pope from England, thus making supremacy real.

The king would not only get his divorce but a lot more besides – a huge transfer of wealth and a politically reconstructed country. Though he owed his chance to the king, Cromwell expressed sovereignty in terms of laws and institutions rather than merely through the sphere of an overriding monarch.

'The church and papacy were attacked with real weapons instead of verbal threats.'

In the parliamentary session of 1532 a new temper to government was evident. The uncertainties of the previous four years were gone. The English Church and the papacy were attacked with real weapons instead of innocuous verbal threats. The first year of Cromwell’s ministry destroyed the constitutional and legislative independence of the English Church through the drafting of a parliamentary petition. Titled the Supplication of the Commons against the Ordinaries, it cleverly fused the multiple grievances of the parliamentary commons with the designs of the Crown.

Adroitly Cromwell allied the anticlerical zeal at large in society to the government-sponsored attack upon the church. The Supplication linked together an attack on the independent legislative action of the Church (which the King wanted to control) and the practices of the church courts (from which the laity desired to liberate themselves). In May 1532, the church Convocation acceded to all the royal demands in a document known as the Submission of the Clergy. The King was accepted as their supreme legislator; the pope had been evicted.

Next the Bill of Annates addressed a long-standing grievance and proposed to abolish the payments made by the bishops to the pope on succession to their sees (the area they controlled). Rated at one third of a year’s income these payments also provided for the consecration of bishops-elect by English authority. It wasn’t made effective immediately, as Henry wished to try one more set of negotiations with Rome. So Cromwell drafted a clause which held up its implementation until the king should confirm it by letters patent.


Henry had secretly married Anne Boleyn in January 1533, as she was pregnant. He was safe in the knowledge that Cromwell’s policies would ensure a legal marriage and a legitimate heir. Cromwell introduced the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which designated England a sovereign state, an “empire”, led by a king who owed no submission to any other human ruler, with royal supremacy over the English Church.

That Act also prohibited matrimonial appeals going to Rome from archbishop’s courts and declared they would now be settled in England. On 23 May Archbishop Cranmer’s court ruled that the marriage with Katherine was null and void and the one with Anne was true.

‘Cromwell elaborated a new legal relationship between Church and State.’

Cromwell elaborated a new legal relationship between Church and State. To this end he speedily produced a series of statutes that went through Parliament in 1534. The Act in Restraint of Annates not only withdrew annates payments from Rome but also forbade Englishmen to procure papal bulls for the consecration of bishops. Further, each cathedral chapter was obliged to elect as bishop the person nominated by the King to fill the vacancy.

The Dispensations Act finally stopped all payments to Rome and stipulated that dispensations (licences to allow departures from canon law) should be issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Act of Supremacy recognised the royal headship of the Church and assigned to the Crown the power to conduct visitations of the clergy.

In January 1535 Henry appointed Thomas Cromwell his vice regent, vicar general and special commissary. Cromwell proceeded to reorganise ecclesiastical taxation, conduct a visitation of the monasteries and take official precedence over the whole episcopate. In 1539 the Six Articles Act settled that church doctrine was under the sole authority of the King in Parliament.


The Act for First Fruits and Tenths not only annexed the first fruits of bishoprics to the Crown but extended this exaction to all spiritual benefices, high and low alike. It also demanded a tenth of their net incomes as a fixed annual tax, beginning at Christmas 1535. To implement this statute Cromwell produced a remarkable administrative exploit, the compilation of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, a detailed assessment of all clerical incomes from those of bishoprics down to those of vicarages and chapels. The sum raised £40,000 a year and formed a vast addition to the royal revenue. Before 1542 the Crown had never derived so much as this amount from its landed estates.

The Treason Act of 1536 made it treasonable to desire any bodily harm to the monarch and imposed the penalties of treason upon any clerical or lay official who refused an oath renouncing the jurisdiction of Rome. The threats of foreign powers and the rise of treason and minor rebellion at home brought the vast majority of the nation round to support the royal standpoint.

Thomas Cromwell, who transformed the country.

In 1534 Thomas Cromwell and his colleagues discussed a scheme for the financial nationalisation of the English Church. They envisaged the dissolution of all monasteries with less than 13 inmates, the transfer of episcopal lands to the Crown and a staff of salaried bishops. In addition, the King would receive annates and half the incomes of cathedrals and collegiate churches.

In the end this plan was discarded, probably to avoid uniting the whole clerical order in opposition. Instead the attack was narrowed to the dissolution of the monasteries which had broad lands, compliant heads – and advantageously plenty of hostile critics in the parliamentary classes and the secular clergy. Monasteries at the time did not have great popular esteem. Cromwell’s main aim was probably to endow the Crown in perpetuity as the expenses of government were fast multiplying. Particularly from 1534 onwards, the risk of invasion demanded military expenditure.


The dissolution of the monasteries was one of the most revolutionary events in English history. The Acts of Dissolution dissolved monastic communities and expropriated their lands to the crown (1536-41). The annual funds raised for the crown were colossal.

Cromwell’s ministry ended with his arrest and death in 1540; a result of aristocratic plotting. But the changes he bought about endured. After Cromwell’s demise, Henry squandered much of the new streams of income on the war against Scotland and France (1542-46). The former monastic lands were soon sold by the Crown between May 1543 and 1547 to pay for the huge costs of war. Most of the land purchasers were established local gentry, not necessarily the very rich.

‘The sale of monastic lands ensured there was no way back for papal power.’

This development ensured the survival of the protestant reformation in England. There was no way back for restoring papal powers. Dissolution of the monasteries meant a decline of clerical wealth and territorial influence together with a corresponding rise of large elements among the gentry. This had far-reaching consequences that were to feed the demands of the House of Commons for political and constitutional change and ultimately determine the tensions that spilled over in the Civil War of the seventeenth century.

Another significant organisational change was the introduction of parish registers by Cromwell’s injunctions of 1538, which developed baptismal and matrimonial records. The Reformation meant reform as well as confiscation.


These changes were not just political or financial but affected the culture of the nation too. Vice-regent Cromwell was a committed patron of English bibles, thereby popularising and enhancing the authority of the vernacular language at the expense of Latin, the language of church services.

Cromwell authorised the publication of Miles Coverdale’s Bible, the first complete bible to be published in English; John Rogers’s Matthew Bible and Coverdale’s The Great Bible (1539). The last of these was provided to churches and printed in a cheap edition for private reading. If the Cromwellian statutes crippled papal supremacy, then the production of the English bibles was destined to cripple state induced clerical hierarchies.

Cromwell’s statutes and the spread of the English bibles clinched the victory of the regime not only over papal authority but also over the saint-cults and idolatry. John Hilsey, Bishop of Rochester, was a debunker of miracles and exposed the Blood of Hailes, the Rood of Boxley and other time-honoured religious frauds. Superstition was under attack with the banning of chantries (payment for priests to perform masses for the dead), charges to view relics and pilgrimages. Many shrines were destroyed.

The Reformation freed England from following the papal bulls of mare clausum that allocated certain oceans and areas to the Spanish and Portuguese empires. British trade with the Americas could never have occurred without the break from Rome.

The eight years of Cromwell’s ministry form a truly notable episode in the history of the English State and the English Church, revolutionary years in part destructive, in part highly constructive as they attempted to make Britain more independent. Thomas Cromwell was the chief guiding force. Creation, destruction and change are everywhere; it was something like a planned revolution.

• A shorter version of this article was published in Workers November/December 2016 edition.