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Source Exercises 5: The Henrician Reformation

The reign of King Henry VIII is remembered for two separate but linked developments: the king’s complex personal life, which led him into no fewer than six marriages, and the process by which Henry broke the English Church’s ties to Rome and established a new Church, with himself as its Supreme Head.

The religious changes of Henry’s reign are known as the Henrician Reformation, to distinguish them from other religious reform movements taking place at the same time. Although the English Reformation was closely linked to developments in continental Europe, in its details it was distinctive and developed in ways that were peculiar to England.

One such distinctive feature was that the English Reformation did not begin with a theological dispute, as the German Reformation had done, but with a very practical issue: the king desperately wanted to produce a son and heir to his throne. His Spanish queen, Catherine of Aragon, gave birth to a daughter, the Lady Mary, but as her subsequent pregnancies failed it became increasingly obvious that she would never bear Henry a son. When the attractive and ambitious figure of Anne Boleyn appeared at court, Henry grew impatient to end his marriage to Catherine so he could marry Anne. However, for a mixture of political and theological reasons, his wishes were frustrated by the pope, whose permission Henry needed to declare his marriage to Catherine null and void. Henry, encouraged by reform-minded figures at court (including Anne), therefore decided to take the momentous step of ending England’s long-standing attachment to Rome and establishing a new royal state Church which, as one of its first acts, would grant Henry the divorce from Catherine that he so ardently desired.

These documents look at some of the issues involved in the Henrician Reformation.

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