Lesson Three: Henry VIII and the Book of Common Prayer

Church of England during Henry VIII's

Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church and establishment of the Church of England was a gradual and complex process, marked by both significant changes and unexpected continuities. Understanding the evolving nature of these modifications is crucial for analyzing the early stages of the English Reformation.

While Henry VIII’s break with Rome undeniably transformed the English Church, his religious reforms during his reign were primarily characterized by pragmatic political motives rather than a full-blown theological revolution. He created a church that was nominally independent of Rome but still adhered to many traditional Catholic doctrines and practices.

According to historical accounts, Henry VIII received last rites from a Catholic priest Edward Norton, Dean of Canterbury.  Henry’s religious views during his final years were complex and nuanced. He continues to hold beliefs in many traditional Catholic beliefs and rituals. Therefore, his receiving last rites shouldn’t be interpreted as a simple reversal of his earlier reforms but rather as a reflection of his personal beliefs and the religious context of the time.

Major Parliament Acts Affecting the Church

Following the Supremacy Act (1534) transferring all papal authority in England to the monarch, Henry dissolved all monasteries and convents in England (1536-1539), confiscating their vast wealth and lands and significantly weakening the Catholic Church’s economic and social power base. Though Henry rejected the Pope’s authority over England, he remained faithful to the Church’s doctrines.

He sanctioned the passage of Ten Articles in 1536 at the church’s first post -papal convocation.  The document outlined Henry’s religious beliefs which generally adhered to traditional Catholic doctrine including the existing Catholic liturgy, rituals, and vestments. The Articles explicitly defended traditional practices like veneration of saints and pilgrimages.

Henry opposed the translation of the Bible into English, fearing it would empower the Lollards and lead to social unrest. Consequently, he banned vernacular translations in 1526 and actively persecuted early translators like William Tyndale, who was executed for his efforts.

After his break with the Catholic Church, he realized the potential of an English Bible in promoting his own supremacy and undermining papal authority. In 1538, he commissioned the Great Bible, a large-format English translation edited by Myles Coverdale. The following year (1539), Henry mandated a copy of the Bible be chained in every parish church in England. Concerned about the possibility of rebellion due to Protestant reforms pushed by Cromwell and Cranmer, Henry had Parliament pass the Act of Six Articles Abolishing Diversity of Opinion in 1539.  The Act was the last of his political actions dealing with the Church until his death.

In 1543, he published A Necessary Doctrine and Erudition for Any Christian Man Set forth by the Kings Majesty of England, commonly referred to as the King’s Book. While officially attributed to King Henry VIII himself, the book was likely a collaborative effort with significant contributions from Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and other theologians. Henry actively participated in shaping its content, ensuring it aligned with his vision for the Church of England. This official statement of doctrine clarified Henry’s position on contested religious issues, emphasizing the importance of traditional practices and sacraments while maintaining his supreme authority.