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Tell me about Henry VIII and the Church of England - A Quick & Easy Intro

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

King Henry VIII

In 1534, King Henry VIII declared himself the supreme Head of the Church of England.

I know what you’re thinking; “That’s nice. Good for him. Why's that important?”.

Well, by declaring himself as the head of the church, Henry was breaking England from the Catholic Church. And, more importantly, he created a huge divide between the Protestant and Catholic religions in England. This divide resulted in hundreds of years of clashes, wars, disagreements and the deaths of many, many people.

This time in history is known as the English Reformation. We still feel the effects of Henry VIII’s actions today.

Let’s begin at the beginning:

Henry VIII and the Catholic Church:

When Henry VIII was born, England was mostly a Catholic country and Henry was raised as a devout Catholic. Around 1517, a German priest Martin Luther criticised the Catholic Church and started a new version of the Christian religion, called Protestantism. This made Henry very angry and he wrote a book defending his church. Impressed, the Pope (the head of the Catholic Church) gave Henry the title “Defender of the Faith”.

So where did it go so wrong?

Henry VIII (centre) surrounded by all 6 of his wives

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon:

Henry VIII is famous for having many different wives (six wives to be specific) during his reign as King. In the 1520s, Henry VIII wanted to end his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Catherine had only managed to give Henry one child, a girl called Mary. But Henry wanted a son. To make things worse, another woman had caught Henry’s eye; Anne Boleyn.

The issue of annulment:

So Henry asked Pope Clement VII for an annulment of his marriage to Catherine. To annul a marriage means to cancel it and declare that it never really existed. In 1529, the Pope allowed Henry to put his marriage on trial. But in the end, the Pope refused to give Henry his marriage annulment.

The break from the Catholic Church:

So in 1533, Henry took matters into his own hands. He married Anne Boleyn in secret and gave his friend Thomas Cranmer the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He asked Thomas to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and stopped Catherine from asking the Pope for help. In 1534, Henry passed a law called the “Acts of Supremacy”, making himself the head of the Church of England instead of the Catholic Pope. By doing this, Henry had broken England's links to the Catholic Church and set up a new Protestant Church of England.

How did people react?

The break from the Catholic Church was shocking for most people in England and many weren’t happy with the change. But Henry passed another law, called the Treasons Act, which gave him the power to kill anybody who questioned or opposed him. Many people were executed.

The ruins of the St Augustine monastery

The dissolution of the monasteries:

Henry VIII sent inspectors to Catholic monasteries up and down the country and discovered that these monasteries owned a huge amount of land and that many nuns and monks lived in wealth and luxury. He stripped the monasteries of their treasures, demolished the buildings, sold the land and took all of the profits for himself. This was known as the “dissolution of the monasteries”. More than 800 monasteries were destroyed.

Queen Elizabeth I - Henry VIII's third child to sit on the throne

How long did the problems last?

The rift between Catholic and Protestant religions in England continued throughout Henry VIII’s reign and into the reigns of all three of his children. Edward VI, Henry’s male heir, was a devout Protestant, which lead to a Catholic rebellion. Then the Catholic Queen, Mary I (daughter of Catherine of Aragon) came to power and was nicknamed “Bloody Mary” after executing around 300 Protestant people. Henry’s final heir, Elizabeth I (daughter of Anne Boleyn), was a Protestant and tried to pass laws to ease the clashes between the two religions.


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