The Anglican Church (Church of England) first arose during the reign of Henry VIII and the height of the Reformation in Europe. The followers of the Anglican Church were compelled to recognize Henry as the head of the church in his Act of Supremacy of 1534. Henry advocated a “middle way” and kept most Catholic doctrines and traditions alive during his reign. However, Protestant doctrines slowly took root during the reign of his children, Edward VI (1547-1553) and Elizabeth I (1553-1603). These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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By the time Henry VIII ascended the throne, the local Roman Catholic clergy were already unpopular among the people of England. The clergy’s nepotism, simony, greed, sexual immorality, and their display of excessive wealth became the chief cause of resentment among the common people. Henry’s main objective, meanwhile, was to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn so he could beget a male heir. His frustrations with the Pope led him to profit from the people’s resentment against the clergy. He later used it to break away from the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
Henry had already taken steps to weaken the authority of the clergy during the trial for his annulment. He first vented his frustrations concerning Cardinal Wolsey whom he accused of praemunire (the act of putting the pope’s authority above the King of England’s). Wolsey’s trumped-up offense was considered treason, and he was promptly summoned to appear for trial before the king. Wolsey died on his way back to London, and his position as Archbishop of Canterbury was given to Henry’s ally, Thomas Cranmer.
In 1533, the king went ahead and secretly married the now-pregnant Anne Boleyn. With the Parliament securely on his side, Henry then proclaimed Anne as the new queen during a public coronation. This act not only removed Catherine of Aragon as queen, it also signaled England’s defiance of the authority of the pope.
The break between England and Rome was nearly complete when the Council declared that the Pope had no authority in the kingdom. The declaration even referred to the Pope simply as the “Bishop of Rome.” The Council also insisted that the Pope had no right to interfere in the kingdom’s affairs.
The priests who were loyal to Rome were unhappy with the turn of events. Those who were sympathetic to the Lutheran movement, however, eagerly jumped on the bandwagon. What both sides did not count on was Henry’s independence. He advocated a middle way rejecting both pro-Rome supporters and the so-called Lutheran heretics (Luther earned Henry’s anger when he refused to support his annulment).
Between spring and summer of 1534, Henry revoked all preaching licenses in the kingdom. He also forbade anyone from defending or attacking the doctrines of the Catholic Church until a new and satisfactory set of doctrines could be established by his own Council.
In November 1534, the English Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy which recognized King Henry VIII as the head of the state and the church. He still considered himself a good Catholic, but he began to take steps to make it clear to his people that it was he who was in charge. He ordered the clergy to scratch out all references to the Pope in prayer books, and those who failed to do so would be punished. He also required the preachers to introduce him as the new head of the church.
The executions of pro-Rome clergy and Dutch Anabaptists started in earnest in 1535. Some of the most prominent victims were John Fisher (Bishop of Rochester) and Henry’s own councilor, the humanist Sir Thomas More. Meanwhile, Henry had elevated the chief minister Thomas Cromwell as the vicar-general and vicegerent for church concerns.
This promotion made Cromwell one of the most powerful persons not only in the state but also in the church. His first order of business was the dissolution of monasteries—a task that was not foreign to him since he did this in 1525 under Cardinal Wolsey. No one knew if Henry came up with the dissolution, but it was clear that the king eagerly embraced the project. He was happy to take the lands and treasures of the monasteries so he could use it to satisfy his own greed. No one stopped him as the English people viewed monks as lazy, greedy, abusive, and sexually immoral.
In 1535, the dissolution of English monasteries and nunneries started in earnest. Cromwell and his men first inspected the monasteries for the tiniest offenses that they could hold against the monks. If they found anything questionable, the monks would then be allowed to leave. Monks who were 24-year old or younger were allowed to leave immediately, while those who were older were allowed to leave the monastery after they were given a special license. Cromwell and his men then made life miserable for the remaining monks so they would be forced to leave the monastery. The same rules were applied to the few nunneries scattered around England.
Henry’s next step was to allow the circulation of Myles Coverdale’s translation of the Bible. Unlike Tyndale’s translation, Coverdale’s Bible was met with little resistance in England thanks to Cromwell’s patronage. Coverdale also appealed to Henry’s good side when he dedicated the first edition of his translation to the king himself.
If the English Protestants had any hopes that Henry would side with them, he crushed them as soon as he could. The rebellions that started in 1536 (Pilgrimage of Grace) and his desire to be seen as a true Catholic monarch forced him to issue the Act of the Six Articles in 1539. Also known as the “An Act Abolishing Diversity in Opinions,” the king strengthened the existing heresy laws that targeted the Protestants so that Francis I of France might see him as a good ally. It was followed up by the “Act of Ten Articles” (Articles Devised by the King’s Highness’ Majesty to Establish Christian Quietness and Unity Among Us) issued in the same year.
Beyond Henry VIII: Edward VI and Elizabeth I
It was not until Edward VI’s reign (Henry’s son by his third wife, Jane Seymour) and the regency of Thomas Cranmer that the Protestants finally gained the upper hand. The Scottish reformer John Knox became Edward’s chaplain, while the Strasbourg-based German reformer Martin Bucer became a professor at Cambridge University. It was also Bucer who encouraged Cranmer to adopt the beliefs of the Reformation. Cranmer abolished masses in 1549 and replaced it with a new liturgy. One of the most enduring Anglican books which emerged during Cranmer’s dominance was the Book of Common Prayer.
Protestantism experienced a decline after Edward VI’s death in 1553. He was succeeded by his half-sister Queen Mary I whose devotion to Catholicism drove her to persecute her Protestant subjects. Illness ended Mary’s reign in 1558, and she was succeeded by her sister Elizabeth to the throne. Protestantism underwent a revival during Elizabeth’s reign and continued to dominate uninterrupted up to the modern times.
Elizabeth reintroduced her father’s Act of Supremacy with Protestant backing and (just like her father) reinforced her position as the head of the Church of England. During her reign, the queen ordered the revision of previous acts. The result was the “Thirty-nine Articles of Religion” which became the doctrinal statement of the Church of England.
Elton, G.R. The New Cambridge Modern History. Vol. 2. Cambridge: University Press, 1990.
Key, Newton, and R.O. Bucholz, eds. Sources and Debates in English history, 1485-1714. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Ridley, Jasper Godwin. Henry VIII. New York, NY: Viking, 1985.
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