Henry VII: Brief Biography

Henry VII helped set the stage for the events that led his son, Henry VIII ,to break with Rome and thus encourage Protestantism in England.

For many centuries the Roman Catholic church was the most powerful ecumenical institution in Europe. All of Western Europe was united by the Christian faith, and that faith was defined by the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. But by fairly early in the fifteenth century, secular kings and princes had begun to successfully assert control over the personnel and property of the church within their own borders. In 1420, one pope even commented, "Not the pope but the king of England governs the church in his dominions."

Like any other powerful institution, the Roman church was riddled with corruption and greed, and over time the sacred rituals of the church had become more complex and more subject to abuse, and yet less able to meet the needs of the church's adherents. Although the actual Protestant Reformation was a sixteenth-century phenomenon, its roots reached far back into the fifteenth century.

The main agent of the Protestant Reformation in England--though that is not what he intended to be--was King Henry VIII, who in his fervent desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled ended up severing the English church from its connection to Rome and from allegiance to the pope as the supreme head of the church.

Unlike his son, Henry VII was not directly involved in the progress of Protestant reform in England. In fact, he died before the Reformation became a factor in the development of the English church. However, Henry VII was involved in the historical circumstances that set the stage for the choices his son felt he had to make when he became king--choices that pushed him inexorably toward a complete break between the English church and the Roman Catholic church.

During much of the fifteenth century, England was torn apart by several generations of bloody civil war, commonly referred to as the Wars of the Roses, after the white and red rose emblems of the competing houses of York and Lancaster, respectively. When Henry Bolingbroke, of the House of Lancaster, deposed his cousin King Richard II, of the House of York, he became King Henry IV. But because he had usurped the throne, his right to rule was never secure, and his reign was troubled by rebellion and civil unrest.

Henry IV's son, Henry V, managed to direct these hostile energies outward by going to war against France, to establish his own dynastic claim to the French crown. Having defeated a vastly superior French force at the Battle of Agincourt, Henry was able to set the terms for peace, including his own marriage to the French king's daughter, the Princess Katherine. This alliance established for his own descendants a place in the French line of succession.

Upon the death of his father, Henry V's son, Henry VI, ascended to the throne too young. He was a weak and ineffectual monarch, who, along with his son and heir Edward, Prince of Wales, was defeated in battle and executed by Edward, Duke of York, who then became Edward IV. After Edward IV's death, his sons, Prince Edward and Prince Richard, were imprisoned in the Tower of London, where they were murdered--probably on orders from their father's ambitious brother Richard, Duke of York, who then assumed the throne as King Richard III. Richard's reign was short and continually marred by rebellion. In 1499 he was decisively defeated and killed by Henry, Earl of Richmond, who then became King Henry VII.

Under Henry VII's shrewd and frugal stewardship England enjoyed many years of peace, stability, and prosperity. His elder son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, died while still a very young man, leaving Henry's second son, Prince Henry, as the only male heir. On the death of Henry VII, his son assumed the throne as King Henry VIII. Henry VIII married his brother's young widow, Catherine of Aragon, but after eighteen years of marriage, she had given him only one surviving child--a girl, the Princess Mary.

Like most of his contemporaries, King Henry believed that a woman could never securely hold a throne, and also that by nature women were inferior to men and ill-suited to rule. He was convinced that he must have a son, a male heir, to ensure that his line would continue to rule in England, and also to prevent the country from descending once more into the chaos of civil war, which the reign of Henry VII had so recently brought to an end. If his only heir were a daughter, he believed, civil war would be inevitable after his death.

When these political considerations were combined with his growing passion for Anne Boleyn, one of the queen's ladies in waiting, Henry determined to have his marriage to the now unattractive, aging, and barren queen annulled, on the grounds that church law prohibited marriage between a man and his brother's widow--even though he had sought and received a papal dispensation before marrying Catherine in the first place.

But Pope Clement was at the time a virtual prisoner of Catherine's nephew, Charles V of Spain, and was unwilling to anger him by dissolving his aunt's marriage to the king of England. Fearing both sides in the dispute, Clement dragged out for years his consideration of the case. Frustrated, Henry began to consult theologians in Europe and England who might bolster his case for annulment. Thomas Cranmer, who was named Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532, was sympathetic to the king's case, and already disenchanted with the dictates from Rome. With Cranmer's theological support, and the Machiavellian skill of Thomas Cromwell, Henry soon persuaded Parliament to pass laws that repudiated the authority of Rome over the English church and over the king's subjects. King Henry was declared supreme head of the English church, and an ecclesiastical court under Archbishop Cranmer declared the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be "null and absolutely void," freeing Henry to marry the now-pregnant Anne Boleyn.

During this period, Thomas Cranmer and other clergymen with strong Protestant leanings were moved into positions of prominence and power in the hierarchy of the English church. Henry VIII continued for the rest of his life to think of himself as a good catholic, but by breaking with Rome and by denying the supremacy of the pope, he had in fact created the conditions for the rapid rise of Protestantism in England.

Henry VII had given England many years of stability and prosperity after generations of civil strife. The lessons of the Wars of the Roses were not lost on his son, Henry VIII. Only a legitimate male heir could ensure a peaceful succession and prevent a return to the dynastic struggles of the previous century. Furthermore, Henry VII's eldest son and heir, Prince Arthur, had died young, a fact that impressed upon Prince Henry, the new heir, the precariousness of his family's hold on the throne. When he became king, he was determined to have a male heir--and preferably several--even if in the process of getting them he undermined forever the authority of the Roman Catholic church in England.

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