Was Anne Boleyn or Thomas Cromwell the more influential in bringing religious reform in the 1530s?

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Harry W. D. Smith KS ME                Question #6

Was Anne Boleyn or Thomas Cromwell the more influential in bringing religious reform in the 1530s?

The 1530s was perhaps the most important decade in the history of religion in England since the re-introduction of Christianity by St. Augustine.  It saw the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the introduction of bibles in English, and the emergence of a Church governed not by a far-off Pope, but by the King of England, which undoubtedly made later, more religion-based reforms far easier.  What is not immediately obvious at first glance is how much Henry VIII’s failed ‘divorce’ from Catherine of Aragon, his first wife, in favour of his love for Anne Boleyn, caused these religious changes, and how far the Reformation’s success depended on the brilliant administrative skills (and Lutheran leanings) of Thomas Cromwell, the King’s Chief Minister, who first proposed the Break with Rome some time in 1531.


Catherine of Aragon had not had great child-bearing success.  She had miscarried one baby, another had been stillborn, and her only surviving child was Princess Mary.  Henry was beginning to get irritated about the fact that he had only one legitimate heir to carry on the Tudor line established by his father, and that she was female (he had an illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond, but his claim to the throne could easily have been contested); the previous female monarch had been Matilda, whose reign had left the country in a state of chaos after a civil war.  Henry was also an accomplished biblical scholar (his book attacking the teachings of Luther, published in 1521, had won him the title of ‘Defender of the Faith’ from the Pope), and he was worried about the legality of his marriage to Catherine.  Before the death of his brother, Arthur, Catherine had been married to him for a few months (although it was generally accepted that the marriage was unconsummated), and upon Arthur’s death, she married Henry.  Leviticus 20:21 says that ‘If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an impurity:  he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless’.  It is quite easy to see how Henry, fuelled by a love for Anne Boleyn and his own serious doubts about the legality of his marriage, could want to end his marriage to Catherine.


Unfortunately for Henry, Anne Boleyn, unlike her (married) older sister, who had been one of Henry’s mistresses, refused to become one of his lovers and then be cast off; she wanted marriage or nothing.  This was rather inconvenient, as, although several ways existed for the marriage to be terminated (among them, Catherine could have become a nun, a suggestion which she greeted with the response that she would be glad to do so if Henry would become a monk; Henry could have arranged for her execution on trumped-up charges, a method which he and his ministers frequently employed to rid them of their enemies (for example, two of his wives, including Anne Boleyn, and some of his ministers); or he could have asked for annulment on the grounds that the papal dispensation issued for their marriage was invalid), the only real option was an annulment, which had to be granted by the Pope.  Pope Clement VII, however, was virtually a prisoner of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, who was occupying Italy.  The Pope was also highly unlikely to admit that his predecessor had acted contrary to divine law, which would have been a cause of major embarrassment.  In such circumstances, the likelihood of an annulment being granted from the Pope was slim indeed, due to complex considerations of Foreign Policy, and particularly seeing as Henry was related to Anne by first degree of affinity (having had an affair with her sister), which was exactly the same relation as Catherine was to him when the dispensation was granted for their marriage!


In 1528, the Pope sent Cardinal Campeggio to England to decide, along with Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor, on whether an annulment could be granted or not.  Campeggio, due partly to old age, and partly to his lack of concern over whether a ‘divorce’ was granted or not, did not reach England until December of that year, and insisted on doing everything slowly, and following to the letter the instructions that he had been given by Clement.  In the middle of the summer recess observed by the courts in Rome, which Campeggio insisted on observing, the Pope decided that the trial had, after all, to be heard in Rome.  This was the end of Wolsey, as Henry started to believe those (including Anne Boleyn, one of Wolsey’s sworn enemies) who said that Wolsey was as much to blame for the failure of the trial in England as was Campeggio.  He was arrested in October 1529, but died at Leicester Abbey on the way to London from his diocese of York.  

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Henry was not pleased that the trial was recalled to Rome, but it was not until 1531 that the obvious and brilliant but extremely dangerous idea was had by Thomas Cromwell, one of the fallen Cardinal’s lieutenants, to Break with Rome.  This may in part have been due to his inclination towards Lutheran beliefs, but they are not necessarily as significant as they might appear, as Cromwell would probably have allied himself to any religion that was supported by his master.  The idea of G.R. Elton that the Break with Rome was an important stage in the creation of ...

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