Common Misconceptions about the Reformation

One of my friends waltzed in this morning and said, “Our guest speaker at the college spoke on the Reformation this morning. He glorified Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII for bringing the ‘light’ to England, and referenced Katharine of Aragon and Mary in sneering terms.”

My response?


It is a blessing for many that I was not in attendance, because I am the sort of obnoxious soul who would have marched up to him after the service and corrected his multiple misconceptions about the Reformation and its impact on England, both then and thereafter. Not long ago my own pastor addressed the Reformation and touched on Henry VIII, but either knowing I was in the audience or out of wisdom through his research of the time period and individuals involved, he failed to make the same mistake of crediting Henry as the father of the English Reformation and as such, someone to be admired. (Even so, ever the anal and obsessive Tudorphile, I did e-mail him the next day to ask him for clarification on one point, in which I felt a statement he made about Katharine of Aragon was misleading. Much to my satisfaction, he was delighted to further clarify his meaning and it did not contradict my opinion on the matter. He actually proved himself in her favor with regards to the divorce, which made me happy.)

However, it has occurred to me that there is an immense amount of misconceptions floating around as to the role Henry played in the Reformation and it would benefit me (as well as please me, being a lover of history and particularly these events) to discuss it more at length and potentially disrupt some of the common Protestant teachings that prevail in mainstream churches. It is alarming how much erroneous information is passed off as fact, which it is relatively simple to learn the truth by opening any one of a dozen text books about the time period. (On that note, I am a fan of Antonia Frasier in particular — she does lean Catholic in her own views, but is for the most part non-judgmental about each of the wives and grants each the benefit of the doubt, which I appreciate. She presents the facts and permits her readers to draw conclusions themselves.)

Before I begin, it must be said that I am a Protestant, so please do not assume I enter into this with a Catholic bias — merely an independent state of mind that acknowledges both the virtues and flaws in each theological points of view. (However, I am not by any means anti-Catholic… which anyone who has read this blog for any length of time is already more than aware of.)

Myth #1: Henry is the Father of the Protestant Reformation in England

This is untrue for various reasons; it would probably astonish many to learn that Henry lived and died a devoted Catholic. It is true, because of his desire to divorce Katharine of Aragon and the Pope’s refusal to side against her (for good reason — Henry had no grounds for an annulment), Henry divorced England from Rome in the same broad stroke that severed his marriage to his Spanish queen. But it was not out of religious conviction or a fondness for the teachings of Martin Luther that he did so. Anne Boleyn introduced him to Reformist teachings that implied the king should not be governed by the Pope at the encouragement of her brother, but Henry underwent no change in essential theology. He adopted Reform as a means of gaining ultimate power in England and obtaining a divorce, so it was for no other reason than his own political advancement. Henry continued to debate from Catholic viewpoints for the rest of his life, as well as burned Lutherans at the stake for “heresy” (at the same time, executing Catholics for “treason” — nice guy).

Henry VIII created the Church of England, which is Catholicism without the influence of the Pope, without the presence of saints, without worship of the Virgin Mary, and with the provision (now) that priests can marry. During Henry’s time, however, it was even more Catholic in its origins — his priests were not permitted or encouraged to marry. Many of the essential teachings of Martin Luther that form the fundamental basics of accepted Protestantism were not adopted into this Church and are not currently incorporated in the teachings of Church of England (or the Anglican Church).

His introduction of the Reformation was made without religious motives or beliefs and thus was nothing more than a brutal dictatorship under which each side suffered over the next 60 years. His Cabinet wavered between two equally fanatical points of view, at times persecuting Reformists and Catholics; he made no distinction between them and killed each indiscriminately, often for his own amusement and pleasure. Henry abused and persecuted his first wife, abandoning her to live out the rest of her days in relative poverty and misery, in spite of knowing her innocence. He had his dearest friend Sir Thomas More killed because he would not renounce Rome. Anne Boleyn was executed on accusations of adultery, witchcraft, and incest that he knew to be untrue. In addition to divorcing and executing two more wives and threatening another with divorce, Henry mistreated and bullied his eldest daughter and it is calculated that he had between 40,000 and 72,000 persons executed during his reign, including participants of a Catholic northern uprising. Hardly the actions of a man worthy of admiration.

Myth #2: Henry Supported the Reformation

No, he did not. He tolerated certain teachings for a time as supported his claims of becoming the ultimate religious authority in England, but continued to attend Mass as well as dissuade and even punish Reformists within the court and at large in the populace. Early in his reign, when Martin Luther’s popularity was increasing, he exchanged correspondence with Henry of a violent nature in which Henry denounced his thesis and other writings in no uncertain terms. This argument earned the young monarch the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Catholic Church. (Subsequent quarrels, riddled with insults, were deferred to his friend and theological superior, Thomas More, who continued to bicker with Martin Luther for a short time.) Though Henry adopted faint impressions of Lutheranism later on in certain aspects of his new Church, martyred Thomas More for refusing to acknowledge him as the ultimate moral authority in England, and was excommunicated for it, he never renounced his earlier views and continued to worship in a Catholic style.

During his final years on the throne, Henry permitted the persecution and burning of various outspoken Reformists, including Anne Askew. His last wife, Catherine Parr, may have been put to death were it not for his sudden illness and subsequent death, as papers had been drawn against her accusing her of heresy due to her overt Reformist beliefs — implying that he would tolerate it in no one, even a marriage partner.

Myth #3: Anne Boleyn is the Unsung Heroine of the Reformation

This is stretching her role and motives quite a bit — Anne saw an opportunity to further her religious beliefs and introduced Henry to writers denouncing the claim of Rome over the monarchy, but she was not nearly as instrumental in spreading Reform as many of her contemporaries, women who were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, torture, and death but who continued to spread English Bibles, study and practice their faith in spite of all opposition. Anne’s actions also call into question her motives and religious convictions. Whether or not her intentions were noble, she did steal another woman’s husband and throne, and encourage the king in obtaining divorce (according to the Church, it remained a sin — although it was not her idea, she did support it in the end). Passionate, ambitious, witty, and outspoken, Anne had many virtues — but she also spoke ill of Katharine before and after her death, treated Lady Mary with contempt, made numerous insults against the Spanish ambassador, and many scholars believe she conceived Elizabeth prior to her marriage — thus compromising her virtue. (It is possible, however, that the two were married in secret in France.) Whatever the outcome, her actions should not be condoned nor admired, and in no way do they adhere to the basic principles of Christianity.

Myth #4: It was right of Henry to divorce Katharine of Aragon

Under no circumstances would Henry’s actions have been justified when it came to his first wife. Katharine was much loved by the people and showed an unwavering goodness of character that was admired by friends and critics alike. That she was Catholic does not infer that Henry did no wrong in his actions toward her, for he divided his nation and lost tremendous influence and respect at the same time. Henry’s divorce of Katharine and mistreatment not only of her but also of Mary is what compelled her daughter later to such fanatical behavior — but we cannot even be certain that accounts of her are entirely unbiased. During Elizabeth’s rule, her sister employed a legion of writers to support her own Protestant pursuits and vilify those who had come before her. Mary was the first that suffered the ill-effects, having been transformed into “Bloody” Mary in the years following her death, a stigma that has followed her to this day, when in reality her father executed far more individuals as religious martyrs than she did.

Myth #5: Only Catholics persecuted others for their religious views

This is untrue, but all too commonly taught. I do not dismiss either side’s evil in this matter, but religious persecution thrived under the reign of Henry VIII, his son Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, although it diminished significantly during her reign. (It did not, however, cease — it is during her reign that many fled to the New World to obtain religious freedom.) It continued through the reigns of several monarchs following her death, resulting in the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in England alone. It was not a holy war so much as a political one, with either side promoting an agenda. It abandoned the principles of Christ and the teachings of Martin Luther and escalated into something terrible, and both sides are equally to blame.

In Conclusion

It is my belief that how Reform came to England is not the method in which it should have arrived — it should not have been enforced by Henry, certainly not in a self-promoting watered down version, nor should it have been a source of political power. England would have been far better off for it to have entered much as it took over Germany, in a steadily growing base of public support through smuggled scriptures. Henry did not help England through his actions but instead hindered it, for it brought on a firestorm of hatred and prejudice rather than the devotion of those who had discovered faith for the first time by reading the Bible in a common language. I would venture to say the Devil had a greater hand in Henry’s involvement than God did, for the legacy of dissent and cruelty that appeared in its wake. Martin Luther began something tremendous, a reform that took over the Church and rejuvenated the teachings of Jesus. It created such a passion in individuals that they fought and died for their beliefs, much as the early Christians did. What better means of destroying it than introducing it to England not out of passion and devotion, but to a sinful and covetous end?

Stop crediting Henry with doing something good in the name of Protestantism. He didn’t and his actions, as well as those of most of the power-hungry individuals who surrounded him, are unworthy of praise.

3 thoughts on “Common Misconceptions about the Reformation

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  1. Naomi: contemplating what Henry VIII could have been if he had allowed God to govern his life instead of his lustful passions is indeed sobering. God permitted some good to come out of his decisions, but still an enormous amount of evil resulted — and that is his true legacy, even more than his notorious relationship with his wives.

    Anne Boleyn is frequently credited either as a heroine or a witch, and I feel the truth lies somewhere in-between. She was neither a saint nor a horror story, merely an ambitious young woman who made a great mistake.

    Hydra: I apologize, I did not mean to offend. Most Catholics do not “worship” Mary, but unfortunately, a few in third world countries do. (Primarily African countries where the message of the Church has been distorted over the centuries.)

    You make excellent points about Henry, although that does not clear up why Protestants would WANT to claim such a notorious blackguard as the “Father” of the English Reformation! He was the father of the Anglican Church, which is much different from most Protestant denominations — so I guess it could be argued both ways; but compared to modern Protestantism, his religion would be classified as much more Roman Catholic than Martin Luther.


  2. First of all, thanks for giving both Catholics and Protestants a fair hearing. However, I would ask you not to say that Catholics “worship Mary.” We never have, and we never will “worship” her.

    I agree with a lot of your points, but it seems to me that Henry VIII started his own Christian church, and – no mattter how similar to the Catholic Church – is therefore the father of the Protestant Reformation in England. The dictionary definition of a “Protestant” is “any Western Christian that is not an adherent of the Roman Catholic Church.” That would be Henry VIII. And it was because of his break from the Catholic Church that Protestantism came to England. Yes, his church had a very Catholic flavor. But once a group breaks away from the Church and denies any part of Catholic doctrine or practice, there's nothing to stop the new leader or a subsequent leader from altering other doctrines or practices. So, even though Henry VIII didn't really break away from many Catholic doctrines or practices, a later monarch was bound to do so. Henry VIII was the father of the English Reformation because his children (Edward and Elizabeth) were the ones who brought the full Reformation into England.

  3. I always had mixed feelings about King Henry. I believe that God used him to a certain extent, even with his selfishness. I often wonder how much good the man could have accomplished if he had accepted God and allowed that power in his life.

    Anne Boleyn was even more mixed for me, though. Thanks for clearing some of that up for me. I really should study it for myself but I appreciate your view of her role in the Reformation. You are correct.. she is nearly always treated as the 'unsung heroine' and I always felt that was not quite right.

    I feel sorry for them all. Imagine how much better their lives would have been and how many lives they could have blessed…

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