Protestantism was a big issue in the 16th century
Protestantism was illegal in the England of Henry VIII as in most of Europe, but it was gradually spreading. It was an important issue, because religion was important to almost everyone. It determined your way of thinking and your way of life. The Catholic Church had great power and wealth and employed large numbers of people. There had been clashes between kings and churchmen several times in the Middle Ages.
Protestantism was a big issue for Henry VIII
Henry had apposed the Reformation for the first 20 years of his reign. His change of attitude came when the Pope refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. It was not a decision he would take lightly, but his situation was desperate. He needed an heir and his wife was past child-bearing. Their only surviving child was their daughter Mary. He believed, wrongly as we now know, that the country would not accept a woman as ruler. Therefore, he feared civil war if he died without a son.
How would Protestantism help Henry?
If England was not to be a Roman Catholic country, the king could make the rules and grant himself an annulment. The recent BBC2 docu-drama series The Boleyns, a Scandalous Family claimed it was Anne Boleyn who put the idea to Henry. Whether that was the case or not, she would have liked the plan. She wanted to be queen. Once people became aware of the king’s thinking, religion became a crucial issue in English politics. Whilst I agree that the Reformation in England owed a lot to politics, I think the series gave too little attention to the religious issues.
Was Protestantism purely a political stratagem?
For some, it almost certainly was, but others who did agree with the Protestant faith had been practicing Catholicism as it was the only legal option. There were probably many more who were unsure and open to persuasion. As for the King? Historians and others argue about this. Personally, I think he persuaded himself after he had made the decision. I think he would have been surprised at the idea that he was just being cynical, even if he was.
Was Protestantism the only option for Anne Boleyn?
It would be hard to argue otherwise. She would obviously have been the last person to say Henry should remain a Roman Catholic and stay married to Catherine! However, for her, this was not a mere box-ticking exercise. From things she said and wrote, we can see that she understood the issues. She could and did argue persuasively in favour of the ‘New Religion’. According to the series, she had already taken a lot of interest in the subject before she became involved with Henry. I do not think she was being purely cynical, but the advantages for her were more than spiritual. Perhaps English Protestants owe her a lot, whatever her motives.
I have had enough of the Boleyns and the Tudors for now.
I have commented on those two families in a recent blog post and I may write more about them on my blog or in a future novel. However, as I said before, I think they get too much attention. That is why the 16th century is one of the few periods I omitted in my collection of short stories, Geoffrey’s Historical Shorts.