Was the Anglican Church Started Because the King Wanted a Divorce?

11 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  Enjoy.

A typical jibe against the Anglicans is that we were the ones “whose church was started because the King wanted a divorce.”  As can be seen from the previous posts (Click here for Part I.  Click here for Part II) the Reformation was well underway before the King initiated the process that ended in his divorce.  Nevertheless, the King’s “Great Matter” as it was called, was the official reason for England’s break with the Pope in Rome thereby establishing the independent Church of England.  For these reasons, the King’s divorce, no matter how unpalatable, played an important role in advancing the Reformation in England.  Perhaps here we must be content to say with Joseph, “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Gen 50.20).

Henry VIII was the youngest son of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch of England.  Henry VII had seized the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, thus ending the political upheavals and uncertainties that characterized the realm during the War of the Roses.  Henry VIII was not born to the throne.  Rather he was second in line to his brother Arthur, who died at the young age of sixteen in 1502.  Only then did Henry become the heir apparent.  Even so, his succession remained for a time uncertain.  The uncertainties regarding his succession were twofold.  The first problem was Henry’s age.  By the time Henry VII died, Henry VIII was only seventeen years old.  English law maintained that Henry could not manage his own affairs until he was twenty-one years of age.  Though he was the clear heir, his young age made him vulnerable in an already tense political situation.  This leads us to the second problem and that was Henry’s tenuous political situation.  It must be remembered that Henry did not come from a long line of English kings.  Henry’s father was the first Tudor king and he became so by violently taking it on the battlefield.  Henry’s claim on the throne was only as strong as his ability to maintain his grip upon it, as the Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, would prove when he secretly plotted to overthrow the King in 1521.  Henry personally investigated the affair and had the Duke executed on May 17th, 1523.

A key to understanding Henry is to understand this fundamental instability that (real or imagined) always lurked behind the scenes.  The first move of stabilizing the young king’s reign was marriage.  Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  The marriage gave Henry powerful political allies in Spain, but the marriage was not without its complications.  Catherine had been betrothed to, and eventually married Henry’s older brother Arthur.  The two had been married for six months before Arthur died.  When the time came to arrange the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine, it was thought that such an arrangement would be prohibited by Church Law.  The problem was Leviticus 18 vs. 16, which reads:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.

A more comprehensive reading of the Old Testament concerning such matters would easily demonstrate that the prohibition of marrying a brother’s wife applied only as long as the brother was alive.  The text therefore, was a prohibition against adultery as can clearly be proven by alternative texts where in the eventuality of a brother’s death the surviving brother is commanded to take his brother’s wife, not only to provide for her financially but to bear children on behalf of the deceased brother (See Ruth and Deut 25.5).

In light of the textual ambiguities, the English and Spanish authorities sought a Papal dispensation to overcome the presumed prohibition in Leviticus.  The Papal dispensation was written by Pope Julius II, who having been assured that Catherine did not know Arthur sexually, permitted Henry and Catherine to wed.  There is another text quite important to this matter that comes from Leviticus 20 vs. 21.  The text is essentially the same as that previously mentioned, but it adds a penalty to the sin that is not mentioned in the text from chapter 18.  It reads as follows:

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

Some have argued that as early as 1514, Henry had come to believe that his marriage with Catherine was unlawful before God and that he was under God’s curse, since the couple had failed to produce offspring, having experienced multiple miscarriages and stillbirths.  However, in 1516, Catherine gave birth to Mary Tudor (eventually “Bloody” Mary), and Henry’s fears were, for a time, eased.  Henry desperately wanted a male heir to the throne.  The Tudor dynasty was still fragile.  For the good of the realm as well as the dynasty, Mary was a promising sign, but what Henry really needed was a son.

It is hard to determine what rekindled Henry’s fear over the legitimacy of his marriage, but the events of 1519 could not have helped the matter.  As much as Henry agonized over whether or not his marriage to Catherine was lawful, he did not experience the same turmoil of conscience in the multiple affairs he is said to have engaged in.  One affair of great importance to our present subject was his affair with Elizabeth Blount, who sometime in June of 1519 gave birth to an illegitimate child of the king.  What made this child of particular significance was that this child was a boy.  Lady Blount had given Henry a son.

The boy was given the name Henry Fitzroy.  Fitz meaning “son of” and Roy meaning “King.”  Rather than hiding the affair and the child, Henry proudly received the newborn at court declaring him the “Son of the King,” even acknowledging the boy and granting him a peerage (nobility) as the Duke of Richmond and Somerset.  This was the first time since the 12th century that an illegitimate child of the King had been elevated to nobility.  Henry was clearly paving the way for Henry to take the throne, even suggesting that Fitzroy marry his half sister Mary, so that Fitzroy could reign as king.

Perhaps of greater significance to our present narrative however, is that Henry had proven that he was capable of producing a male offspring.  In his mind then, the problem did not reside in himself but was the product of his unlawful marriage to his wife, Catherine.  Henry returned to his study of the scriptural prohibitions in Leviticus and concluded that God was justly angry with him and punishing him for his sin in marrying his brother’s wife.  Henry’s conscience was not eased by the council of his clergymen, one of whom suggested that in the original Hebrew, the curse was not childlessness but specifically the death of sons.

Henry’s string of divorces and absolute cruelty towards his enemies makes it quite easy to cast everything that the man had done in a foul light.  But the early stages of Henry’s divorce deserve a sympathetic reading.  Here is a man whose claim to the throne was fragile and bought with bloodshed.  Men and women who saw the horrors of the War of the Roses, and the pain it brought upon the English people, would have still been alive to tell stories of their turmoil to the young king.  Stability and peace could not be had without a secure monarchy. To secure the monarchy Henry needed a son.  These concerns would be enough to bear down upon any person, but if you add a theological/religious dimension to this struggle, no matter how misguided and ill-informed, the burden would be crushing.  In his mind, Henry was not only dealing with the burden of the nation, he and his wife were being crushed by the wrath of God for their sin and Henry wanted to get out from under the terrible arm of the Lord.  It is telling that Henry’s interest in annulment preceded his involvement with Anne Boleyn by as much as two years.

Henry, a faithful Catholic, initially sought an annulment to his marriage through proper channels.  In May of 1527 Henry sent delegates to the Pope to make his case that the marriage was unlawful.  Henry was held in high regard by the Papacy.  In 1516 he had contributed 115,000 ducats to the Papacy to support Leo’s war against the French (In these days, Pope’s went to war!).  In 1521 he had authored a book against Martin Luther, and for his efforts was pronounced by the Pope to be the “Defender of the Faith.”  He believed in his cause and the theological arguments behind it, but he also trusted in the goodwill of the Papacy that had given him such a prestigious title in Christendom.  Despite Henry’s past support, it soon became clear that the Papacy had no intentions of supporting his annulment.  There is every reason to believe that the Pope would have granted the annulment had Catherine not been the King of Spain’s Aunt.  The Pope could not afford to make an enemy of Spain, who was a powerful ally against the French.

Seeing that there was little to be gained in this matter from appealing to the Pope, an alternative course was suggested by a hitherto underutilized cleric, university professor, and ambassador, Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer suggested that rather than continue negotiations with the Papacy, why not deploy teams of scholars across Europe to determine the lawfulness of the matter in the universities?  The European universities were stacked with humanists who wouldn’t blindly defer to the Pope, but would seriously investigate the matter in the Bible and in canon law.

Reactions both at home and abroad were mixed.  At home, the reforming humanist William Tyndale severely opposed the annulment on Biblical grounds.  The conservative Roman Catholic, Bishop Fisher, opposed the annulment out of deference to the Pope and mother church.  Across the English Channel, the marriage was opposed by Martin Luther, who had a low opinion of Henry to begin with that was only worsened by Henry’s marital infidelities.  The Swiss Reformers, Oecolampadius and Huldrych Zwingli were more sympathetic to the King’s trials of conscience.  In France, Henry failed to carry the majority of the theologians in Paris, though he did carry many of the most prominent.

What is easy to lose sight of to the modern reader, which would have been the obvious elephant in the room during this process was not so much a matter of whether or not the King had proper grounds for a divorce, but whether or not the Pope had the authority to set aside God’s law.  Leaving aside the tortured interpretation of Leviticus 20 for one moment, it was pointed out by Henry and others that if there was nothing wrong with the marriage in the first place then no Papal dispensation was necessary.  But a Papal dispensation was written, implying that in the church’s judgment the marriage was not entirely without its problems.  If the church had determined that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was forbidden by scripture, then the Pope had no right to set aside God’s law for political expediency This opinion was boldly expressed in the Censurae Determinations, or The Determinations of the most famous and excellent Universities of Italy and France, that it is unlawful for a man to marry his brother’s wife; that the Pope hath no power to dispense therewith.  The title itself is instructive.  To say that it is “unlawful for a man to marry his brother’s wife” was nothing new.  But to declare that the “Pope hath no power” to dispense the prohibition was especially provocative.   In the Determinations, Cranmer (most likely) wrote:

It shall be the duty of a loving and devout bishop not only to withstand the Pope openly to his face, as Paul did resist Peter, because the Pope verily is to be reprehended and rebuked, but also with all fair means and gentleness, and learning, in time and out of time ought to cry upon him to rebuke, reprove, beseech, exhort him that the persons so coupled together may forsake such marriages.

The message was twofold.  The Pope was not above scripture and could not set aside God’s law, no matter how good his reason.  Two, the Pope could fail in his duties to interpret scripture properly, and when he did it was the duty of faithful people to rebuke him.  We’re no longer just talking about divorce, but Cranmer and the other scholars involved in this project had begun a direct challenge to Papal authority on scriptural grounds.

It was not the divorce, but rather the challenge to Papal authority on the grounds that the Pope was not above Scripture which furthered the Reformation in England.  As was shown in the earlier posts, this challenge was not something that originated with Henry’s divorce.  Rather, Henry’s divorce gave the Reformers the chance to advance ideas they had been forming in secret for nearly a decade.  Namely, that no man is above Scripture.  King Henry, his infidelities and his temper remain a black mark on the period.  But good was brought from this evil.  It was through this evil that the English Bible eventually emerged, as well as Gospel centered preaching and Reformation liturgies.  We’ll learn more about these in the coming days.

You can learn more about Henry and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.




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