Let me just recap for people that might just be picking up the thread—and it will be important for them to go back and trace this series from the beginning—that the Church of England does not have its origins in Henry VIII. The Church of England can be traced back to the late first and second-century Roman settlements in Britannia. While the Romans brought Christianity to Britain, Britain was not a “daughter Church” of Rome but always an independent Church. There was no universal jurisdiction of the Roman See in the first, second, or—for that matter—first five centuries of Christendom. Churches were “in communion” with one another which means that as long as they were in doctrinal harmony they shared access to the Eucharist and other sacraments and recognized the apostolicity of each other’s ministry, but they were all self-governing. The Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries drove British Christians to the western regions of the island where, under the influence of the Irish missionaries and monks, they picked up certain features of the Celtic Church that were markedly different from Roman customs. The Anglo-Saxons were Christianized by missionaries coming in the North from Ireland and in the South from Rome. The Bishops who followed the Celtic traditions refused to recognize the authority of the Roman-sent Primate, Augustine who came to Canterbury (the capital of the Kentish Kingdom) from Pope Gregory in 597. The breach was healed at the 664 Synod of Whitby and the English Church was reunited. The union brought strong ties to the Church of Rome but the English Church retained its autonomy with unique canon law and its several distinct rites. Those unique rites would remain until the Reformation. The Roman Rite was not used in Britain until the late sixteenth century, long after Henry’s break.
It is with the Norman Conquest of 1066 that Roman authority begins gradually to be introduced into the English Church and it was not without resistance. Bishops are chosen by their Cathedral Chapters (usually with some Royal nomination) and gradually the custom evolved of sending the election to Rome for confirmation. An important exception to this process is the 668 appointment of Theodore of Tarsus as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian, but this was done in conjunction with King Ecgberht of Kent and King Oswy of Northumbria who had sent their candidate, Wighardt to Rome for consecration. When Wighardt died en route, Pope Vitalian—with the advice of several counselors—chose the Greek monk and scholar, Theodore, in Wighardt’s place and sent him back to Canterbury. His successors in that see were elected in the traditional way—by the monks of the Cathedral priory at the urging of the King for his particular candidate.) An other variation in this process took place when Stephen Langton was elected by a delegation of Canterbury monks in Rome after Pope Innocent III refused to accept either the monks’ original choice of one of their own or the King’s choice of the Bishop of Norwich. In the fourteenth century Parliament passed a series of laws prohibiting appeals from England to the papacy and limiting papal authority in Britain. It was these laws that Henry used between 1531 and 1536 to snap the ties with Rome.
Henry’s break with Rome was a schism such as the schism of 1054 that has divided the Catholic and the Orthodox. Henry was an avid persecutor of Protestantism both before and after his break with the papacy. Catholic doctrines such as Transubstantiation, efficacy of prayers to the saints, use of images were all maintained. Monasteries were closed and monks and nuns sent home but that was an economic measure to appropriate the monastic wealth for the impoverished royal treasury. Henry insisted on clerical celibacy (though, never chaste himself, not on clerical chastity) refusing to allow clergy (and ex-monks and ex-nuns) to marry. Masses for the dead were maintained, as was the doctrine of purgatory. The liturgy remained unchanged in England’s ancient rites. Most people thought that the schism would be temporary and that all would be well again in the future with the Roman Communion eventually restored. They were naïve.
There had been some minor destruction of shrines in 1539 and 1540. These had, for the most part, been either sites connected with Saint Thomas Becket or such images as the Rood of Boxley which were either fraudulent or obviously superstitious. The Becket cult was ended because Becket was the very embodiment of Church resistance to royal authority and Henry was not about to let that continue. Some of the shrines of saints were dismantled for the great wealth that had accumulated there as votives over the centuries. In these cases, such as Saint Frideswide at Oxford or Saint Cuthbert at Durham, the relics were duly reburied and the gold and silver votives carted off to fund Henry’s projects. The cult of the saints continued however without the shrines.
Beneath the surface of Henrician Catholicism was a whirlpool of Protestant innovations just waiting for their season. Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s Archbishop of Canterbury, continued to celebrate Mass and the Sacraments in the ancient rites but he spent his evenings in his extensive library reading both the continental reformers—Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, Bucer—and the Greek Fathers. His own theology was somewhat eclectic but tended toward the ever more radical. Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s chief Minister after the fall of Sir Thomas More, advanced crypto-Protestants to whatever offices of State and Church he could. The Bishops, on the other hand (and except for Cranmer) tended to be ultra-orthodox and resisters of the Protestant cause. Bonner of London was a particular hunter of heretics and under Henry those who were openly Protestant were subject to the most brutal punishments and executions.
The problem was that Henry would not live forever. His heir was his son, Edward, who was born in 1537 and thus a child. Henry had no brothers to serve as regents—just as well given the recent history of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. Henry was the marrying sort of man, but the only one of his many wives who would have known how to be a regent was his first, Katherine of Aragon, and she had died in 1536. And Henry had been estranged from her in any case and would never have given her the regency. Henry therefore needed to appoint a Council of Regency. The heir’s closest relative was his uncle Edward Seymour, first earl of Hertford. Seymour actually had custody of Edward’s person, which gave him an advantage in the power market. Henry appointed a council of 16 men. They included Seymour, his brother Thomas Seymour---Lord High Admiral, Archbishop Cranmer, John Dudley—the Earl of Warwick, Sir William Paget, Thomas Wriothesley—Earl of Southhampton, Sir Anthony Denny, Sir Anthony Browne, Sir Edward Montagu, Sir Edward North, Sir Thomas Bromley, Sir William Herbert, Baron John Russell, Cuthbert Tunstall—Bishop of Durham, Sir Edward Wotton, and Thomas Wotton, Dean of Canterbury. (I have seen two lists of this Council that differ, one excluding Thomas Seymour but including Sir William Paulet. While only one or the other could have been on the Council, both were men of considerable power in the first years of the reign of Edward VI.) Notably excluded from the Council were Stephen Gardiner—Bishop of Winchester and leader of the religious conservatives and Thomas Howard—Duke of Norfolk. Norfolk was in prison and awaiting execution for treason and while he had supported Henry’s break from Rome was a religious conservative. Gardiner had been maneuvered out of the King’s favor by those who knew he would block religious reform once the Protestant party could come out into the open after Henry’s death.
Henry tried to balance his council to draw on the talent of the Protestant faction but with the orthodox party strong enough to hold them in check but in the end he was unsuccessful. Henry’s increasing health problems left him largely incapacitated in the final years of his reign and his plans for continuity with his policies went all awry. The omission of Gardiner from the Council of Regency was a huge problem for those who wanted England to stand firm in its ancient faith. Cranmer, Seymour, Dudley, and Russell were convinced Protestants and anxious to push for radical religious revision once Henry was dead. Browne was a religious conservative who would have opposed them on the council, but he died in 1548 and so was removed from the group trying to check the Protestants. Paulet blew with the wind religiously, changing his opinions to suit whoever was in Power, but under Edward that was the Protestant side. Paget and North seem to be uncommitted religiously, though North tilted a bit to the Catholic side. Denny and Nicholas Wotton were in the Gardiner party and Edward Wotton presumably shared the religious conservatism of his brother. Herbert leaned to the Protestant cause. Tunstall was a rabid conservative who was not only opposed to any religious change but anxious to restore the Roman communion. Nevertheless, Edward Seymour and Thomas Cranmer had the greatest influence over the young king and in the end there was no checking the Protestant party. Henry was barely rotting in his grave before a new religious wind blew through England.