Was the influence of Thomas Cromwell the main reason for reforms to the English Church from 1529-1540?

The Henrician reformation of the early fifteen hundreds was brought about by a culmination of people and factors. Before this period, Henry VIII struggled to produce an heir and the religious dominance of Rome was greatly felt by England. Factors such as these can be considered as reasons for the reformation, but they appear to be part of a much broader spectrum of issues. It is important to note from which people these issues sprang, and in order to understand the main reason for the reformation, one must consider who Henry VIII listened to when these issues were voiced. Cromwell did a great deal to steer the reformation into the direction in which he intended, but when considering the main reason for reforms to the English church from 1529 to 1540 one must look at all of those who surrounded Henry VIII, and Henry VIII himself. When examining the evidence it can be seen that Henry VIII was indeed the main reason for the church reforms, as without his initial anguish over his current situation, he would not have used Cromwell to reform Parliament.  

Due to individual influence of Cromwell, and his deployment of Parliament, one can see that his influence was a significant reason for reforms to the English church in the period of 1529 to 1540, but not the main reason. Cromwell should be credited and treated with significance in this way, as it was he who realised that Parliament was able to grant the annulment. Cromwell developed this idea further, and used Parliament as it was the official law-making body, it could be used to pass a series of Acts, such as the ‘Statute in Restraint of Appeals Act,’ in 1534 which recognised Henry as the final legal authority in matters concerning England. This use of Parliament would grant Henry the power he desired, by breaking with the Roman Catholic Church. Without this development, the reforms may not have occurred, as there would not have been many other ways to procure the break with Rome. Although this act alone proves that Cromwell was a significant reason for the reforms, one must note that without Henry’s initial desire for change, Cromwell would not have not have considered using Parliament for any such matter. When tasked with obtaining the annulment, Wolsey appealed directly to the Pope, and this action failed. Without Cromwell’s involvement, and his desire to use Parliament, one wonders whether the reformation itself would have occurred, making him a significant reason for the reforms to the English church. In 1532, it was Cromwell that used the people within Parliament to further Henry’s cause, by exploiting the anti-clerical feeling among them. By doing this, Cromwell ensured that those within Parliament would support new Acts and bills that he placed in front of them, as these acts would address their issues. This meant that acts, such as the ‘First Act of Annates,’ in 1532, would be passed quickly and more efficiently, thus speeding up the break with Rome. Cromwell can be seen to be a significant influence and reason for reforms to the English church due to his drafting of the ‘Act of Restraint of Appeals’ in 1534. This act barred Catherine from appealing to the Pope for help during ‘The King’s Great Matter,’ and the preamble of the draft outlined what was later identified as Royal Supremacy. This allowed Henry’s desire for caesaropapism to be written as a formal idea, which then became the aim of the reformation. Without Cromwell’s input, Henry’s wishes might not have been formed in a proper fashion that could be understood. This makes Cromwell significant in the matters and progressions of the reformation, as he put Henry’s ideas on paper, and sold the idea in Parliament by exploiting the anti-clericalism within it. 

To those in Parliament, Henry’s desire for absolute power would have combated some of the known clerical abuses, such as the use of clerical courts. Henry planned to remove benefits of the clergy, to ensure his absolute rule. In this respect, Cromwell’s exploitation of Parliament ensured that the idea of Royal Supremacy, that Cromwell helped shape, would gain more support. In the years that followed, Cromwell was made Vicegerent of Spirituals, which increased his influence over the King, which was already cemented by his previous successes in Parliament, and the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Throughout this time, Cromwell used propaganda to spread reformist ideas around churches, in order to make them cooperate and obey Henry’s wishes, such as accepting the divorce. Cromwell later spent four hundred pounds of his own money to get three thousand copies of Coverdale’s Bible printed in Paris, in 1539. While Henry instructed Cromwell and told him of his wishes, it was Cromwell who enforced them and made them happen, presenting Cromwell as a significant figure within the Henrician reformation. Cromwell also finalised the break with Rome by producing the act of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. Henry had reformist ideas that he passed on to Cromwell, in a passive manner. It was Cromwell who then actively reformed England with the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries Act,’ which destroyed smaller monasteries that were once loyal to the Pope, and gave their land to the crown. This physical action of destroying the monasteries displays the significance of Cromwell during the reformation of 1529 to 1540, as he had an active hand in enforcing Henry’s wishes and new reformist beliefs, whilst ensuring that Parliament were also swayable to new ideas. Despite Cromwell’s significant role, one cannot class him as the main reason for the reformation, as without the initial thoughts and ideas of Henry VIII, no religious change in England would have occurred.

Henry VIII can be seen as the main reason and influence for reforms to the English church in 1529 to 1540, as without his initial feelings, less religious change would’ve occurred in England. When looking at Henry’s situation in the late 1520’s, it can be seen that a culmination of factors and influences led him to push for religious change, as this allowed him the divorce and absolute power. Henry began to steer toward religious reform originally as Catherine could not produce a male heir. Although they had a son in 1511, he died several weeks later and only their daughter Mary survived. Henry believed that his lack of an heir, and therefore primogeniture, meant that God was judging his marriage unfavourably. Upon meeting and becoming enamoured with Anne Boleyn in 1529, Henry began to feel that if he were to divorce Catherine, and marry Anne, she would bear him sons. Without this initial desire for an heir, Henry would not have considered a divorce, and by extension the religious reforms in England, making him the main reason for the reforms that occurred. If Henry had no desire to marry Anne, or to have a son, the idea of divorce would not have crossed his mind, and there would have been no reform of the English church as there would have been no need for it, as a divorce would not be needed. Cromwell would have taken no action, as Henry would not have wanted to divorce Catherine, making Henry the greatest influence and the main reason for the reforms to the English church from 1529 to 1540. Although one could argue that without Anne, Henry would not have become interested in divorce, Henry should still be seen as the greatest influence of the reforms as he actively carried them on through the 1530’s, which led to his Royal Supremacy. It was not until 1530, after Pope Clement VII refused to grant him the divorce, that Henry became interested in new ways of religious thinking, which led to his reformist views. Although Henry did not agree with Luther, and wrote notable works against him such as the “Defence of the Seven Sacraments,” he was still influenced and interested by his reformist views, such as his emphasis on ‘sola scriptura.’ The court faction of reformers, such as the Boleyns, aided his ideas about imperial kingship, and Humanists within England also reached out to the court. John Colet in 1512 called on the church to reform from within, as did Thomas More’s ‘Utopia,’ written in 1516. Christopher St German also concurred that Henry should govern the church. These new ideas presented Henry with ways in which he could get his divorce, by manipulating and exploiting feelings of anti-clericalism and reform within England. Henry saw that by listening to reformers and using their ideas, he could become supreme head of his own church, which would satisfy all his needs, as he could then grant himself the divorce. Without the aim of divorce, Henry may not have listened to such ideas and they would have been quashed, as Henry was a Catholic, leading one to believe that Henry was the main reason for the reforms in England, as without his lack of an heir, he would not have considered divorce, and would then not have listened to reformers such as More and Colet. Upon launching a pamphlet campaign in order to question the Pope’s authority, which spread quickly due to the Printing Press, one can see that one event easily led to another. After Catherine’s failure to provide a son, and the arrival of Anne Boleyn, Henry became interested in divorce, and after his and Wolsey’s failure to obtain one; he looked to ideas of reform to reach his goal. These reformers, such as St German, then caused Henry to look into the idea of caesaropapism, which in Henry’s mind was Royal Supremacy, which if granted, would allow him to obtain his divorce. Henry realised that by achieving Royal Supremacy, with help from Cromwell and reformers, he could satisfy all his needs, and profit from the land and money of the church. In this manner, one can see that the feelings and needs of Henry were the main reason and driving force for the religious reforms in England throughout 1529 to 1540.

As previously noted, another significant reason for the reforms to the English church from 1529 to 1540 was the presence and influence of Anne Boleyn. Although Henry was frustrated with his wife Catherine, perhaps if Anne had not appeared at court, he would not have become interested in divorce so quickly. It was her presence and his immediate love for her that pushed the King to enquire about a divorce, and after his lack of success, onto ideas about religious reform. One could argue that her arrival at court in 1529 caused the reformation to begin with great speed, mainly because Anne refused to become his mistress, leading Henry to enquire about obtaining a divorce. As Anne refused Henry several times, she managed to prolong his interest for many years, whilst ensuring she was close enough to influence him. It was Anne’s refusal of him, and her demand that she should be his queen, that pushed Henry to ask Wolsey to get him a divorce, thus beginning the events of the reformation. This makes Anne a significant reason for the church reforms during the 1530’s, as if she had become Henry’s mistress, he may not have become interested in marrying her. Although any children between the two would’ve been illegitimate, it is logical to think that Henry would have tried to enter the child into the line of succession, as he planned to with Henry Fitzroy, around the time of his death in 1536. Anne was also a reformer, and along with her family, she pushed Henry to take control of the church in England. This secured her position, as if Henry got the power he craved, she would become queen, and her whole family would benefit. It was Anne that persuaded Henry to read Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man,” and also sponsored his New Testament. Her influence can also be seen in the appointment of evangelical bishops such as Latimer, Shaxton and Cranmer, who on the 25th of January 1533, married Henry and Anne. As Henry was in love with Anne, and as she managed to prolong his interest, she was at his side for a great amount of time making him easier to influence as her importance to the King was greater than that of other people. As he was in love with her, Henry protected her from her enemies, and emboldened her. In this position, by henry’s side, Anne was able to persuade him into looking at new ideas of reform, which would satisfy his desire as well as hers, to become queen. A combination of Henry wanting to have sex with Anne and her refusal forced Henry to look into the idea of divorce, in order to marry Anne as she requested, which opened him up to ideas of reform, which included caesaropapism, an idea that Anne Boleyn supported. This makes Anne a significant reason for the reforms of the English church, as her presence led to Henry discovering ideas of reform, all because he wanted to obtain a divorce in order to marry her. Although one could argue that Anne herself started the process, it was still Henry who chose to look into divorcing Catherine, and therefore into reforming the church, which he continued to do even after Anne’s execution on the 19th of May 1536. Throughout her life Anne had a great influence over Henry, up until her death. From this point onward, it Henry alone that continued to reform the church based on his own intuition and believe in change, making him the most important reason for reforms to the church in England. It was Henry who instructed those below him, such as Cromwell to carry out said reforms, making Henry the main reason for them, although Anne is still highly significant.  

When looking at all the factors surrounding the Henrician reformation of England, it can be seen that the main reason for the reforms is because of King Henry’s influence. If he had no initial desire for divorce, there would be no need to look into ideas of reform, and therefore the reformation would not have occurred. Although this desire was offset by the arrival of Anne Boleyn at court, Henry still maintained power over all the reforms that went on in his kingdom, and ensured that they benefited him and the woman who he wanted to marry. Cromwell also played a highly significant role, as he actively reformed the church by destroying the monasteries in 1536, and later in 1538. Despite this direct action, it was still Henry who passively instructed Cromwell, and used him to achieve his own wishes and aims, making him the greatest influence and the most important reason for reforms of the church in England from 1529 to 1540.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I'm a third year English Literature and History student, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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