Collins Center for Reformation Anglicanism: Henry VIII Defender of the Faith

Reformation Anglicanism

By the Revd Chuck Collins

Henry VIII Defender of the Faith

Henry opposing Martin Luther and, as a reward, was given the title Fide Defensor – “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X October 11, 1521. Henry VIII was certainly not Protestant? No! He killed Protestants who threatened the Roman Catholic air he breathed. Up until the very end of his life he resisted the Reformation’s central idea of justification by faith alone, and with the help of Cardinal Wolsey and others, ordered the burning of Martin Luther’s writings, and imprisoned and killed his followers. Historian Alec Ryrie must have been right when he wrote that Henry’s reforms look more like “Catholicism without the pope” than “Lutheranism without justification by faith.” But later in his life he sometimes tipped his hat towards the Protestant movement in surprising ways. Under the same roof of tip-toeing evangelicals who were deeply influenced by Tudor humanism and the continental Reformation (Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cranmer, and Katherine Parr), the staunch Roman Catholic King of England and Ireland helped paved the way for the decidedly Protestant sovereigns who followed him on the throne, namely his son Edward VI and daughter Elizabeth I. 

In his last speech before Parliament (1545), during which he reportedly wept, King Henry placed his stake in the middle ground between those who “be too stiff in their old mumpsimus” and  those who were “too busy and curious in their new sumpsimus.” Thomas Cranmer and others certainly agreed with the middle way, they just had different understandings of what the middle was. When Henry wrote his Assertion of the Seven Sacraments, Luther replied in his predictable antagonistic way, permanently souring Henry to Luther. But he found in Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s protege and successor, a moderated Luther, and he was eager to discuss with Melanchthon the differences he had with the reformers. Melanchthon was twice invited to teach in England which he never ended up doing. His 1535 edition of Loci communes was dedicated to King Henry, but after all the effort, Melanchthon decided to direct his time and energy away from England toward others who were more receptive to reforming the church. Clearly Henry’s relationship with Melanchthon and the quiet Lutherans on his staff and in his family had an influence on him. 

Henry had a love/hate relationship with the Bible. After observing the rumblings caused by Luther and the similar theological disturbances of the Lollards (the Bible-loving followers of John Wycliffe in England), he outlawed Bible translations in English and prohibited people from reading it. Before the 16th century Reformation, the church held tenaciously to the belief that the Bible cannot be trusted to be understood by untrained lay men and women (what Alister McGrath calls “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”). Henry even had William Tyndale tracked down in exile overseas and killed for promoting the idea that the Bible should be available for popular consumption. Tyndale had predicted that the Bible would one day be available to everyone, and that the common plowboy would know more Holy Scripture than the pope. But, in a change of mind, Henry issued a royal proclamation May 6, 1541 that an English translation of the Bible be placed in every church in England. This was on the heals of the Vicar General’s order (Thomas Cromwell, 1538) to provide “one book of the Bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it.” The Bible commissioned by King Henry was The Great Bible, a 1539 revision of William Tyndale’s New Testament and Myles Coverdale’s Old Testament translation. Between 1527 and 1547, about 800 separate editions of Christian books (mostly Protestant) were printed in English. The Bible in English and the content of those published books changed everything!

Henry also developed an evangelical-like distrust of clergy, monks, and nuns, especially those who were hiding behind the Medieval veil of privilege and pompous entitlements. This led him to downgraded “those of the traditional church’s seven sacraments whose administration might be seen as unnecessarily emphasising clerical mystique: confirmation, unction and ordination” (D. MacCulloch). Henry fully supported Cromwell’s plan to destroy the bastions of Roman Catholicism: shrines, monasteries, and images which were the objects of devotion and pilgrimage – seizing and dismantled over eight hundred religious houses starting in 1536. He also permitted Anne Boleyn’s and Thomas Cromwell’s involvement in the selection of many bishops and leaders who were sympathetic to evangelicals (the 16th century term for Protestants), he allowed Protestants to teach and mentor his own children (not least of which was his last wife, Katherine Parr), and he attacked the Medieval Church’s understanding of penance – reducing purgatory to a vague idea and forbidding people to use the word “purgatory” (in his Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man, also called the King’s Book, 1543). 

Henry’s middle ground was in many ways a political Reformation of convenience, and he clearly did not intend his heirs to embrace Protestantism. Nevertheless, his actions helped make a way for this outcome. There is no question but that Edward VI and Elizabeth I anchored the newly formed Church of England on the Protestant teaching of the centrality of the preaching and consumption of the word of God, to worship in the common language of the people that expresses the truth of justification by grace through faith alone, to a new view of priesthood as universal priesthood (of all believers who each has equal access to God), and to an understanding of “real presence” as the spiritual presence of Christ that is not in the bread and wine of Holy Communion but in the hearts and affections of those who receive the grace of the sacrament by faith.

John Foxe, a sympathetic Protestant historian at the time, recorded that Henry VIII came to an evangelical understanding in the hours before he died. As Diarmaid MacCulloch describes it (quoting John Foxe):

“The King asked specifically for the Archbishop to be with him. By the time that Cranmer reached him in the small hours of that morning, Henry was already incapable of speech, but reached out to his old friend.

‘Then the archbishop, exhorting him to put his trust in Christ, and to call upon his mercy, desired him, though he could not speak, yet to give some token with his eyes or with his hand, then he trusted in the Lord. Then the King, hold him with his hand, did wring his hand in his as hard as he could.’

Quietly playing out his calling as royal chaplain, Cranmer had won a final victory in his years of argument with the King on justification. No last rites for Henry; no extreme unction: just an evangelical statement of faith in a grip of the hand. Thus ended the most long-lasting relationship of love which either man had known.

The Revd Chuck Collins is the Director of Center for Reformation Anglicanism.