Was Henry VIII Really a Protestant?

Henry VIII is credited with causing England’s Reformation. But how Protestant was he?

Apr 9, 2024By Jeff Williamson, MA History, BA History

henry viii protestantism


The Reformation in England is misleadingly credited to King Henry VIII. While Martin Luther was a contemporary of Henry, the association between the two was not cordial. Henry railed against Luther’s “heresies” and even after breaking with Rome continued to prosecute, torture, and execute reformers who challenged his nationalized Catholic beliefs.


The Reformation in Europe was not just fueled by spiritual differences with the Catholic Church, the religious and political powerhouse of Western Europe. It was the last part – the Church’s involvement in politics — that helped the Reformation bud, with local leaders throughout the continent looking for more autonomy, and protecting religious reformers. While this could apply to Henry VIII, he never disagreed with Catholic doctrine — only foreign control over his court.


Reformation Europe

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Jan Huss burning at the stake, from the Jensky Codex, 1490-1510, Source: Narodni Museum


Early in the 15th century, Jan Huss started the Bohemian Reformation. Papal politics were mixed into the politics of European states, especially within the Holy Roman Empire with its myriad of component cultural groups. Huss publicly spoke out against certain tenets of Catholicism, and his arguments were allowed by local leaders looking to weaken the papacy’s involvement in their local affairs.


Huss was invited to defend his position at the Council of Constance (1414-1418) — a meeting that was meant to resolve the Western Schism, which had created three competing popes. Unfortunately for Huss, who was granted a pass of safe conduct, one thing the rival popes could agree on was revoking his pass, convicting him of heresy, and then burning him at the stake. Designed to suppress opposition, Huss nevertheless became a (local) reforming martyr.

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When Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517 it was heralded as the birth of Protestantism, despite earlier, suppressed examples. Luther, like Huss, was given local protection, and then, like Huss, was invited to an ecclesiastical council (The Diet of Worms, 1521), under a pass of safe conduct to defend his position.


Luther held firm and rather than revoking the pass and preparing another stake burning, the Church, surprisingly, gave him the opportunity to go home and consider his “errors.” One can almost hear the ashes of Huss cough in indignation.


Luther’s points had gone international (“viral” in other words) thanks to the printing press, so he was essentially sent to his room to think about what he had done. To be ignored rather than martyred.


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Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton van Werner, 1877, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Perhaps Luther is considered the father of the Protestant Reformation because he survived. After his “time out”, the Church convicted him, but it was too late — the word was out and he was under the protection of Frederick III, Elector of Saxony.


Others followed his lead. Local religions, based on local interpretations of the Bible (a few even Luther found disagreeable but he had let the genie out of the bottle) were supported by local political authorities. Without whom these reformers would have gone the way that “heresies” had before.


Henry VIII

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Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein, 1540, Source: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


By 1521, Henry VIII, 30, had a decade on the throne, as the second monarch of the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors came to power in 1485 after winning the War of the Roses — a thirty-year civil war among English royal cousins, during which, Henry’s father, Henry VII, defeated Richard III. Though Richard lost both crown and life, he had a strong claim to the throne, one that Henry VII needed to equal to keep another cousin from challenging him in turn. Support came from the Catholic Church endorsing his authority.


When Henry VIII came to power upon his father’s death in 1509, he was 18, and his first act was to marry Catherine of Aragon. This marriage had been on hold because Catherine was the widow of Henry VIII’s brother, Prince Arthur. Married at the end of 1501 Arthur succumbed to illness in April of 1502. Henry VII was loath to return Catherine’s dowry but also not ready to redirect plans for his second son, Henry Jr. (future VIII). Instead, he kept Catherine on the back burner.


Church support was important to Henry Sr, and while likely not a primary concern, biblical law cited Leviticus (20:21) prohibiting one from marrying his brother’s widow. The debate centered on whether Arthur and Catherine consummated their marriage. Catherine insisted they had not. Seven years this went on until Prince Henry, already taken with Catherine, became king and the Church (eager to have the two kingdoms remain allied) ruled the previous marriage unconsummated; a Church dispensation allowed Catherine to marry Henry.


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Catherine of Aragon, by Lucas Horenbout, 1525, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The couple had at least six pregnancies, but only the fifth, their daughter Mary (b. 1516), survived. Henry was the second monarch of a dynasty who were the victors of a decades-long civil war, during which nobody could agree who was king. His father resolved that, but without a legitimate son of his own, Henry VIII could let England descend back into chaos. English history had one example of a daughter succeeding her father to the throne (Henry I and his daughter Matilda), an event that is literally known as the Anarchy. This put pressure on the King to produce.


In the 1510s, Henry had several mistresses. One, Elizabeth Blount, delivered a surviving infant son (Henry FitzRoy 1519-1536). Henry acknowledged him, but his illegitimacy caused no fewer problems than a daughter would. However, it provided an example of differential diagnostics: Henry could sire a son with someone else.


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Martin Luther, by Mucas Cranach the Elder, 1529, Source: Wikimedia Commons


In addition to (or because of) his philandering, Henry also attended to religious matters, including the Lutheran “heresy.” Henry opposed reformation, to the point that he had penned his own treatise, the Defense of the Seven Sacraments (Assertio Septem Sacramentorum), against Luther. This started a 16th-century blog-battle between Luther and the King that earned Henry the title Defender of the Faith (Fidei Defensor) from the papacy. The Church and the King presented a united front against Lutheranism.


When the idea that Henry should set aside Catherine (she was his senior by half a decade, and each pregnancy had ended in despair or disappointment) the “logical” reason, to Henry, was that his marriage to Catherine violated Levitical law. The Church merely had to recognize God’s “obvious” disfavor and issue a new dispensation nullifying the earlier dispensation that allowed the marriage. Easy.


The issue was that the papacy was not in a position to support Henry’s wishes. Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V, and the papacy were having their own disagreements, with Imperial troops in Rome, even the Pope’s personal safety was threatened. Charles had an opinion on Aunt Catherine’s premarital purity and was not shy in supporting his point with force. This was 1527.


By 1532 Henry was not getting younger, and while a young Anne Boleyn was an agreeable replacement bride the Church would not nullify Catherine or their earlier decision. Henry tried to play by the Church rules, with heavy reliance on his trusted advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, but even the Cardinal could not get the annulment passed, hastening Wolsey’s fall from favor.


Henry was the protector of England but could not protect it because a priest in Italy could not understand the stakes. When it was suggested that the King take matters into his own hands for the good of the kingdom, he agreed.


The Act of Supremacy

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Protestant Martyr Anne Askew, by Hans Eworth, 1560, Source: Artuk.org


The Act of Supremacy (1534) placed the king at the head of the Church of England, which severed all ties with the Church of Rome. This was followed by the Treasons Act, making anyone who would not pledge support to the Act of Supremacy (and Henry’s divorce from Catherine and remarriage to Anne) a traitor worthy of death; the most prominent conviction under this Act was that of Sir Thomas More.


These acts did not change English religion — just politics. Henry as king was head of the Church.  Not the Pope. All Church property was accordingly redistributed — making a few rather wealthy and upsetting quite a few others (during the Pilgrimage of Grace for example). Wolsey’s successor, Thomas Cromwell, served as a scapegoat for the unpleasantness and followed More to the gallows. In ecclesiastical practices, the Church of England changed very little from the Church of Rome.


Religious reformers in England hoping to find safety were disappointed. Over 60 people were condemned to death (often after a turn at torture) for Protestantism/heresy under Henry VIII between 1530 and the end of his reign in 1547.


Henry’s last wife (number six for those keeping count) Catherine Parr expressed Protestant ideas at court where she risked running afoul of her husband. Henry’s heresy hunters even secured an arrest warrant for her, which was only reversed by the King the moment it was being served. Catherine wisely corrected her course and became a source of relative calm in the last years of Henry’s reign.


Protestantism After Henry VIII

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The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, by Paul Delaroche, 1833, Source: The National Gallery


It was some time, and many lives before Protestantism was safe in England: Edward VI, the long sought-after son of Henry VIII (via wife #3, Jane Seymour) succeeded in 1547, at the age of nine.  It was Edward’s advisors (mostly his maternal Seymour uncles) who brought Protestantism into England — clearing out the last vestiges of Catholicism that Henry had held onto. The young king, however, fell terminally ill at 16.


This encouraged the Protestant leaders in power, fearful of a return to Rome, to circumvent Edward’s successor — Princess Mary, the only surviving (and very Catholic) child of Catherine of Aragon (remember her?). This circumvention — a coup-d’état promoting a royal cousin, the reluctant Lady Jane Grey — was such a hijacking of the state that even English moderates threw their support behind the woman later known as Bloody Mary. Jane was an uncrowned queen for nine days before happily handing over the crown. She was sent to the executioner to prevent her later becoming a Protestant phoenix rising in another revolt. She was just 17.


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Mary Tudor, by Anthonis Mor, 1554, Source: Museo Del Prado


Mary’s reign lasted four years — in that time she executed over 200 Protestants earning her that sanguinary moniker — before she too died and was succeeded in 1558 by her half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn.


Elizabeth, an outed Protestant at her coronation, admirably stated she would not build windows into men’s souls so long as they remained loyal to her. Unfortunately, numerous plots to overthrow or simply assassinate her by parties promoting Catholicism made those who subscribed to the religion of Rome less and less free to practice and the English government more and more hostile to “popery” during Elizabeth’s 45-year reign. Elizabeth cemented Protestantism in England because, like Luther — she survived.


While few reformations of the 16th century could have survived without secular support, their motivations were religious and political. Henry was a devoted Catholic to his end intent on securing his kingdom’s future. Henry’s “reformation” had little to do with religious ideology and everything to do with authority. To him, the suggestion that he was a Protestant would get the suggester sent to the gallows.

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By Jeff WilliamsonMA History, BA HistoryIn school, Jeff studied medieval and ancient history, then US History in graduate school. He spent 15 years being a history adjunct teaching Western, World, and US History and another five learning to conserve gravestones in abandoned cemeteries – especially slave graves in New Jersey. In between pawning antiques and pedaling words for his daily bread, he plans harebrained expeditions to the Scottish Highlands.