The Anglican Church

Beginning with Henry VIII in the 16th century, the Church of England broke away from the authority of the pope and the Catholic Church.


  • Describe the key developments of the English Reformation, distinguishing it from the wider reformation movement in Europe.


    • The English Reformation was associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, though based on Henry VIII’s desire for an annulment of his marriage, it was at the outset more of a political affair than a theological dispute.
    • Having been refused an annulment by the pope, Henry summoned parliament to deal with annulment, and the breaking with Rome proceeded.
    • After Henry’s death his son Edward VI was crowned, and the reformation continued with the destruction and removal of decor and religious features, which changed the church forever.
    • From 1553, under the reign of Henry’s Roman Catholic daughter, Mary I, the Reformation legislation was repealed, and Mary sought to achieve reunion with Rome.
    • During Elizabeth I’s reign, support for her father’s idea of reforming the church continued with some minor adjustments. In this way, Elizabeth and her advisors aimed at a church that found a middle ground.


  • PuritansGroup of English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries founded by some exiles from the clergy shortly after the accession of Elizabeth I of England.
  • annulmentLegal term for declaring a marriage null and void. Unlike divorce, it is usually retroactive, meaning that this kind of marriage is considered to be invalid from the beginning, almost as if it had never taken place. They are closely associated with the Catholic Church, which does not permit divorce, teaching that marriage is a lifelong commitment that cannot be dissolved through divorce.
  • nationalismA belief, creed, or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation. In Europe, people were generally loyal to the church or to a local king or leader.
  • Canon LawThe body of laws and regulations made by ecclesiastical authority (church leadership), for the government of a Christian organization or church and its members.



The English Reformation was a series of events in 16th-century England by which the Church of England broke away from the authority of the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. The English Reformation was, in part, associated with the wider process of the European Protestant Reformation, a religious and political movement that affected the practice of Christianity across most of Europe during this period. Many factors contributed to the process—the decline of feudalism and the rise of nationalism, the rise of the common law, the invention of the printing press and increased circulation of the Bible, and the transmission of new knowledge and ideas among scholars, the upper and middle classes, and readers in general. However, the various phases of the English Reformation, which also covered Wales and Ireland, were largely driven by changes in government policy, to which public opinion gradually accommodated itself.

Role of Henry VIII and Royal Marriages

Henry VIII ascended the English throne in 1509 at the age of seventeen. He made a dynastic marriage with Catherine of Aragon, widow of his brother, Arthur, in June 1509, just before his coronation on Midsummer’s Day. Unlike his father, who was secretive and conservative, the young Henry appeared the epitome of chivalry and sociability. An observant Roman Catholic, he heard up to five masses a day (except during the hunting season). Of “powerful but unoriginal mind,” he let himself be influenced by his advisors from whom he was never apart, by night or day. He was thus susceptible to whoever had his ear.

This contributed to a state of hostility between his young contemporaries and the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. As long as Wolsey had his ear, Henry’s Roman Catholicism was secure; in 1521, he defended the Roman Catholic Church from Martin Luther’s accusations of heresy in a book he wrote—probably with considerable help from the conservative Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher—entitled The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, for which he was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X. Wolsey’s enemies at court included those who had been influenced by Lutheran ideas, among whom was the attractive, charismatic Anne Boleyn.

Anne arrived at court in 1522 from years in France, where she had been educated by Queen Claude of France. Anne served as maid of honor to Queen Catherine. She was a woman of “charm, style and wit, with will and savagery which made her a match for Henry.” By the late 1520s, Henry wanted his marriage to Catherine annulled. She had not produced a male heir who survived into adulthood, and Henry wanted a son to secure the Tudor dynasty.

Henry claimed that this lack of a male heir was because his marriage was “blighted in the eyes of God”; Catherine had been his late brother’s wife, and it was therefore against biblical teachings for Henry to have married her—a special dispensation from Pope Julius II had been needed to allow the wedding to take place. Henry argued that this had been wrong and that his marriage had never been valid. In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, but the pope refused. According to Canon Law the pope cannot annul a marriage on the basis of a canonical impediment previously dispensed. Clement also feared the wrath of Catherine’s nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops earlier that year had sacked Rome and briefly taken the pope prisoner.

Portrait of Henry VIII (1491–1547)

Portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1539–1540.

In 1529 the king summoned parliament to deal with annulment, thus bringing together those who wanted reform but disagreed what form it should take; it became known as the Reformation Parliament. There were common lawyers who resented the privileges of the clergy to summon laity to their courts, and there were those who had been influenced by Lutheran evangelicalism and were hostile to the theology of Rome; Thomas Cromwell was both.

Cromwell was a lawyer and a member of Parliament—a Protestant who saw how Parliament could be used to advance the Royal Supremacy, which Henry wanted, and to further Protestant beliefs and practices Cromwell and his friends wanted.

The breaking of the power of Rome proceeded little by little starting in 1531. The Act in Restraint of Appeals, drafted by Cromwell, declared that clergy recognized Henry as the “sole protector and Supreme Head of the Church and clergy of England.” This declared England an independent country in every respect.

Meanwhile, having taken Anne to France on a pre-nuptial honeymoon, Henry married her in Westminster Abbey in January 1533.

Henry maintained a strong preference for traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of the Church of England. Indeed, this part of Henry’s reign saw trials for heresy of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

The Reformation during Edward VI

When Henry died in 1547, his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, inherited the throne. Under King Edward VI, more Protestant-influenced forms of worship were adopted. Under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a more radical reformation proceeded. Cranmer introduced a series of religious reforms that revolutionized the English church from one that—while rejecting papal supremacy—remained essentially Catholic to one that was institutionally Protestant. All images in churches were to be dismantled. Stained glass, shrines, and statues were defaced or destroyed. Roods, and often their lofts and screens, were cut down and bells were taken down. Vestments were prohibited and either burned or sold. Chalices were melted down or sold. The requirement of the clergy to be celibate was lifted. Processions were banned and ashes and palms were prohibited.

A new pattern of worship was set out in the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). These were based on the older liturgy but influenced by Protestant principles. Cranmer’s formulation of the reformed religion, finally divesting the communion service of any notion of the real presence of God in the bread and the wine, effectively abolished the mass. The publication of Cranmer’s revised prayer book in 1552, supported by a second Act of Uniformity, “marked the arrival of the English Church at protestantism.” The prayer book of 1552 remains the foundation of the Church of England’s services. However, Cranmer was unable to implement all these reforms once it became clear in the spring of 1553 that King Edward, upon whom the whole Reformation in England depended, was dying.

Catholic Restoration

From 1553, under the reign of Henry’s Roman Catholic daughter, Mary I, the Reformation legislation was repealed, and Mary sought to achieve reunion with Rome. Her first Act of Parliament was to retroactively validate Henry’s marriage to her mother and so legitimize her claim to the throne.

After 1555, the initial reconciling tone of the regime began to harden. The medieval heresy laws were restored and 283 Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. Full restoration of the Catholic faith in England to its pre-Reformation state would take time. Consequently, Protestants secretly ministering to underground congregations were planning for a long haul, a ministry of survival. However, Mary died in November 1558, childless and without having made provision for a Catholic to succeed her, undoing her work to restore the Catholic Church in England.

Elizabeth I

Following Mary’s death, her half-sister Elizabeth inherited the throne. One of the most important concerns during Elizabeth’s early reign was religion. Elizabeth could not be Catholic, as that church considered her illegitimate, being born of Anne Boleyn. At the same time, she had observed the turmoil brought about by Edward’s introduction of radical Protestant reforms. Communion with the Catholic Church was again severed by Elizabeth. Chiefly she supported her father’s idea of reforming the church, but she made some minor adjustments. In this way, Elizabeth and her advisors aimed at a church that included most opinions.

Elizabeth I and the Church of England

Dr. Tarnya Cooper, the National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator and Curator of Sixteenth Century Portraits, discusses Elizabeth I’s solution to religious turmoil in England.

Two groups were excluded in Elizabeth’s Church of England. Roman Catholics who remained loyal to the pope were not tolerated. They were, in fact, regarded as traitors because the pope had refused to accept Elizabeth as Queen of England. Roman Catholics were given the hard choice of being loyal either to their church or their country. For some priests it meant life on the run, and in some cases death for treason.

The other group not tolerated were people who wanted reform to go much further, and who finally gave up on the Church of England. They could no longer see it as a true church. They believed it had refused to obey the Bible, so they formed small groups of convinced believers outside the church. One of the main groups that formed during this time was the Puritans. The government responded with imprisonment and exile to try to crush these “separatists.”

Reformation and Division, 1530–1558

Professor Wrightson examines the various stages of the reformation in England, beginning with the legislative, as opposed to doctrinal, reformation begun by Henry VIII in a quest to settle the Tudor succession. Wrightson shows how the jurisdictional transformation of the royal supremacy over the church resulted, gradually, in the introduction of true religious change. The role played by various personalities at Henry’s court, and the manner in which the king’s own preferences shaped the doctrines of the Church of England, are considered. Doctrinal change, in line with continental Protestant developments, accelerated under Edward VI, but was reversed by Mary I. However, Wrightson suggests that, by this time, many aspects of Protestantism had been internalized by part of the English population, especially the young, and so the reformation could not wholly be undone by Mary’s short reign. The lecture ends with the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558, an event which presaged further religious change.