Henry VIII

Head of his church

Rarely has Europe seen a king with ecclesiastical loyalties so outspoken yet so susceptible to change as those of England’s temperamental Henry VIII.

Roman Catholicism initially found in Henry a champion, and Henry’s allegiance was expressed in both ink and blood. In 1513, the 22-year-old monarch waged a “holy war” in Europe on behalf of Pope Julius II, who had promised Henry recognition as “Most Christian King” if he would “utterly exterminate the king of France.”

Eight years later, Henry attacked Martin Luther in a book that defended Catholicism’s seven sacraments. For his rhetorical efforts, Rome titled Henry “Defender of the Faith.”

Other episodes from Henry’s early years, however, hint that his allegiance to Rome was anything but absolute. Henry was a Renaissance king—he learned to speak Latin, French, and Spanish; and he was an accomplished musician and dabbled in theology and in Renaissance humanism, which was often critical of Catholicism.

Henry had also welcomed the appearance in England of a New Testament in Greek and Latin, compiled by his friend, the famous humanist Erasmus—despite the protests of many Catholic clergymen, who believed the distribution of the Scriptures was a great threat to their religious control.

If Henry’s esteem for humanism weakened his bond to Catholicism, his passion for women severed it. Partly because he needed a male heir, and partly because he was infatuated with Anne Boleyn, Henry divorced his first wife, Catherine, during the late 1520s—and opened a split with the Catholic church that only widened in the 1530s.

The king’s disgust with his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, a Protestant princess, led to a divorce and a distancing from Protestantism. (Because ...

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