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  • Matthew Castro

A King and His Mistress

By Matthew Castro

The English Reformation is one of the most fascinating chapters in church history. While the reformation on the continent of Europe was born through doctrinal protest by a German monk, the reformation on the British Isle was sparked by a royal divorce and the absence of a male heir. The events in England during the 16th century influenced the future of Christianity in a dramatic way.


Henry VIII was king in England from 1509 to 1547. He fell madly in love with the dark-eyed lady-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, while he was still married to his Spanish wife, Catherine of Argon. Catherine, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, gave birth to five children, but the only survivor beyond infancy was Princess Mary. Henry desired a male heir. He convinced himself, that the reason he had no heir, was due to a curse from God.

Catherine was originally married to Henry’s brother, Arthur, who died. Henry married Catherine months later. Henry believed that God had cursed him, because he sinfully married his brother’s wife. In the book of Leviticus, Moses wrote, “If a man shall make his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing . . . they shall be childless” (Lev. 20:21).

Pope Julius II granted special permission for the wedding of Henry and Catherine. Therefore, since the pope declared the wedding legal, Henry was sinless in his actions with Catherine. However, Henry came to the belief that maybe Julius had overstepped his sacred authority, and the marriage to Catherine was illegitimate.

Therefore, he sought a divorce from Catherine, who was already 40 years old. He then declared the desire to marry his new, younger love, Anne Boleyn. He asked Pope Clement VII to declare his marriage of 18 years to Catherine invalid. However, the political situation was complicated.

Catherine was the aunt of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain. If you don’t remember, Charles V was overseeing Martin Luther’s Diet of Worm speech, and powerful adversary to the Protestant cause. Clement had no desire to offend the emperor by allowing Henry to humiliated Charles’ aunt through divorce. Clement rejected Henry’s divorce to Catherine.

In January 1533, Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn. In May, an English church court ruled that Henry’s marriage to Catherine was invalid. In September, Anne gave birth to a baby girl, which they named Elizabeth.

The pope responded to Henry’s divorce and remarriage by excommunicating him from the Catholic Church. At that time in England, anti-papal sympathies were trending. Many of the instructors at Cambridge would gather at the Inn of the White Horse, and discuss the works of Luther. So the king sensed he had the support of the people to oppose papal authority.

In 1534, the Act of Supremacy was passed. It said, “The king’s majesty justly and rightly is and ought to be and shall be reputed the only supreme head in earth of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia.” The pope in Rome had no authority in England. The Church of England was born, and the head of the church was the king. The Archbishop of Canterbury became the highest office in the Church of England.

Henry’s sole accomplishment was breaking from papal authority. However, he had no desire to break from Catholic dogma. He was not a supporter of Luther. In his Defense of the Seven Sacraments, he called Luther a “poisonous serpent” and a “wolf of hell.” Catholic doctrine was still practiced in England. There now was a Roman Catholic Church led by the pope in Rome and an English Catholic Church led by the King of England in London.

Henry did suspend the monasteries in England, which provided a vast amount of wealth for himself. This decision also allowed him to concentrate power and diminish opposition. He also had the English Bible installed in all the churches in England.


Rome at that time rejected any translations that were based on the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. They preferred translations in the native tongues be based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. The reason for this preference was certain, crucial doctrines in Catholicism were based on the Latin version not the original Hebrew and Greek. The Latin renders “do penance,” which is the source for the belief in the mediation of the priests. However, the original Greek states simply “repent.” The original manuscripts do not proscribe confessing to priests as the biblical process for repentance of sin. Jesus Christ is our only mediator. To him alone do we confess our sins. The publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament in 1516 led to new versions of the Bible appearing in German, French, and English.

William Tyndale desired to place the English Scripture in the hands of the people. Due to opposition within England, Tyndale fled to the Continent, where he began working on his New Testament. In 1526, he smuggled the first copies of his work into England. In 1536, Tyndale was captured and imprisoned. He was then burned at the sake. His dying prayer was, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Miles Coverdale was able to acquire Tyndale’s work, and completed a first edition translation of the Bible. Then a year later in 1537, John Rogers finished the Matthew Bible, which was a well-edited compilation of Tyndale and Coverdale’s work. Henry VIII under the direction of Thomas Cranmer authorized the Bible, which was called the “Great Bible,” to be used in the newly established Church of England. The English people now had access to the living Word of God.


After Henry’s death in 1547, his only son, Edward VI, was crowned king. Edward was only 10 years old, when he became king. So the power of government rested with a group of royal advisors, who agreed with the beliefs of the Protestant Reformation. England began to be shaped by the views of the reformers.

Priest were now allowed to marry in England. The old Latin service of worship was replaced by Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. In 1553, Cranmer wrote the 42 Articles, which outlined the faith and practices of the Church of England according to Protestant beliefs.

The Protestant transition came to a sudden standstill when Edward died in 1553, and Mary, the daughter of Catherine, ascended to the throne. Mary attempted to lead England back to their old Catholic ways. She ordered the execution of 300 Protestants including Archbishop Cranmer. She became known as Bloody Mary.

After Mary’s death, Anne Boleyn’s daughter, Elizabeth, became queen in 1558. She led the nation of England to a compromise to establish peace. In 1563, she passed the 39 Articles, which looked to satisfy both Protestants and Catholics. It was known as the Via Media, the Middle Way between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Some, who had fled to Switzerland during Mary’s reign, returned to England unimpressed with the changes under Elizabeth. They believed the church needed further changes, so that a pure church could be established in England, which truly reflected the Bible. These reformers became known as Puritans, because they argued for a pure church.

Next weeks article will be on the Puritans.


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