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Contrary and capricious, Henry VIII’s expansive personality sits at the heart of the English Reformation. An enthusiastic sportsman and musician, this aspiring intellectual dispatched wives and political opponents with callous brutality. The one time “Defender of the Faith?initiated England’s break with Rome as a means to rid himself of an unwanted wife.

When it became clear to Henry that he would not have a son by Catherine of Aragon, he was determined to have his marriage to her annulled, so that he could re-marry and father a son to succeed him. What Henry had to do to secure this changed the course of English history forever. Catherine of Aragon would not agree to an annulment, which would make her daughter, Mary, illegitimate and unable to succeed to the throne, arguing that she was Henry's true wife, and had always been so.

In Tudor times, there was no divorce as such and couples who wanted to part had to seek an annulment, which would be the acceptance that they were never truly married in the first place. An annulment could only be granted in certain circumstances - such as one or both of the partners had been too young to marry, or the marriage was not properly conducted, or the couple were too closely related by blood. It was this that Henry initially used to try and obtain the annulment. Catherine had been the wife of his brother, Arthur, and after his premature death, married Henry. It said in the Bible that it was wrong for a man to marry his brother's wife, and if he did, they would have no children, and Henry interpreted this as the reason for his lack of sons. Henry put his case to the Pope who was in charge of annulling marriages, but did not get the response that he desired. Catherine was the aunt of the great Emperor Charles V, the most influential man in Europe, and knowing how Catherine felt about the annulment, the Pope could not afford to offend her great nephew.

Henry realized that if he wanted to remarry, he would have to find another way of annulling the marriage. He and his ministers found the solution in establishing a Church of England which would be totally independent of the Papacy. Protestants did not recognize the power of the Pope, and so Henry as King would be free to mold the church in whatever way he desired. Henry made himself "Supreme Head of the Church in England", and got his annulment, making him free to marry Anne Boleyn.

As head of the Church, Henry was effectively in charge of the Archbishops, Bishops and all the clergy that the English Church still retained. In fact, in many ways, the new English Church was very similar to the old Catholic Church. Henry was arguably a Catholic at heart, and changed the beliefs of the Church very little. But in other ways, the change of religion in England had enormous repercussions for the country.

The monasteries and convents of the land, which had grown rich over the centuries, fell prey to Henry and his ministers, and were all closed. Henry was covetous of their wealth, and his ministers declared publicly that monks, nuns and friars were living immoral rather than godly lives, living lives of luxury rather than of humility and poverty that was expected of them, eating good food, drinking good wines, and even keeping mistresses and lovers. This was probably untrue in the majority of cases, and simply a propaganda tool by the government to justify their action against them.

Hoping to minimize resistance, Henry closed the smaller houses first. Statutes of 1536 dissolved 327 establishments, transferred their estates to the Crown, and pensioned off the displaced monks. But when the conservative Catholics of the northern counties saw the priories closing they rose up in revolt.

Hurriedly assembling the King's forces against the rising, the Duke of Norfolk delayed the advance of this "Pilgrimage of Grace" by apparently acceding to its demands. These included the dismissal and punishment of Cromwell, the restoration of papal jurisdiction, and a Parliament free from royal interference. Within months the leader, Robert Aske, had been summarily tried and executed at York and many other leaders of the rebellion were publicly hanged all across northern England.

The southern counties gave no significant support to the uprising, giving Henry the confidence to proceed with the dissolution of the larger monasteries. Alarmed by the consequences of rebellion, Furness Abbey had already surrendered voluntarily to the King, but Cromwell ordered the trial and execution of the Abbot of Woburn for refusing to accept the King's supremacy. Having set this stark example of what resistance might bring, he sent his agents out to the remaining houses carrying a prepared document of surrender. In most cases frightened abbots gladly signed and accepted the honours and pensions offered in return for submission, but three great monasteries tried to make a stand against closure.

At Glastonbury, a sacred site so ancient that its spiritual authority had once rivalled that of Rome, Cromwell's agents tried Abbot Richard Whiting for treason, then dragged him through the streets and onto the Tor where they hanged him and dismembered his body. The abbots of Reading and Colchester also chose to die rather than submit, but their martyrdom achieved nothing, and with the surrender of Waltham in March 1540 the last monastery closed. The stones of the abbeys were carried off for building elsewhere, their libraries scattered, the choirstalls chopped up for firewood, their icons smashed, their paintings defaced. Around 5,000 monks, 1,600 friars, and 2,000 nuns were pensioned off, while others who had depended on the monasteries for welfare simply joined the ranks of "sturdy beggars."

An act of 1539 had secured the estates of the dissolved houses for the Crown, and if the King had been less pressed for cash he might have kept more of their revenues for himself. Instead, he sold the bulk of them at knock-down prices. Men such as the Duke of Suffolk, who acquired the lands of 30 monasteries, made huge fortunes from the spoils. Jack Horner entered folk-memory by the way he "pulled out a plum" from the Glastonbury estates. The King's own treasury profited by about one and a half million pounds. At the same time, the dispersal of the great monastic holdings earned the Crown the loyalty of a grateful squirearchy who now had their own sound economic reasons for supporting and maintaining the break with Rome.

That break left the English church in confusion over theological issues, however, and Henry's court remained a battleground between the radicals, led by Cromwell, and a more conservative faction that gathered around the Duke of Norfolk. As a commoner governing noblemen, Cromwell had made powerful enemies, and when he lost favour with the King after arranging the disastrous marriage with Anne of Cleves, his position became dangerously exposed. The last English abbey had been closed for only four months when this shrewd, self-made man, who had become the revolutionary architect of the Anglican schism, was arrested and condemned on charges of treason and heresy. Cromwell went to the scaffold in July 1540, claiming that he would die in the Catholic faith.

Towards the end of his life, however, Henry began to turn once again to Catholicism, and his apprehension over the way he had treated the monks, nuns and friars, is reflected in his alleged dying words, "Monks, monks, monks".

Fascinating information regarding the Tudors can be found at Elizabeth I , which gave us permission to use the primary source information for this series

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