The English Reformation: 1534 – 1536


We wrapped up “the King’s Great Matter” several days ago now, but I do think it’s worth one more post that closes out the three years that followed. These are, of course, the years during which Anne Boleyn was queen of England, but even more, they are the years in which the Reformation built the Church of England and the maneuverings that Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer orchestrated in the final years of the divorce proceedings took effect. The end result was that the last decade or so of Henry VIII’s reign look markedly different from the first two and his consorts, who now usually take center stage, were often just a domestic sideshow to an increasingly powerful and unpredictable king and government.

January 1534

Pope Clement VII informs the Count of Cifuentes that he is ready to proceed with a final judgment on Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Cifuentes responds that it would be better for Clement to wait until Katherine’s nephew, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, confirms he will follow up the Vatican’s verdict with military intervention in England, but Clement remains committed to wrapping this up (finally).

In England, Parliament opens to implement the “Act in Absolute Restraint of Annates” and the “Act for the Submission of the Clergy,” both of which were passed in 1532.

It is rumored that Anne is once again pregnant.

February 1534

Elizabeth Barton “the Nun of Kent” is put on trial in the Star Chamber along with five of her supporters. Barton became a minor celebrity thanks to her “visions” and “prophecies” in the late 1520s and early 1530s – at first considered mostly benign, she became a staunch supporter of Katherine and a critic of Henry’s relationship with Anne. Given that many members of the public believed that she communicated directly with God, this was problematic for Henry and his government, to say the least. Barton is swiftly found guilty and sentenced to death.

In taking her and her supporters down, Cromwell finds an opportunity to target his political enemies: Thomas More and John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester. The two men are indicted, though they argue furiously that their communication with Barton was never treasonous and they never encouraged her disloyalty to the King.

March 1534

On March 5, More writes a letter to Cromwell that lays out his entire history with Barton and with the King on his “great matter.” A lawyer, he is essentially laying out his case in writing to prove that Henry had for years never taken issue with his behavior or judgment. He does, however, note that there are limits to Henry’s authority in England and that he will never imperil his soul for his king.

Clement orders all of the cardinals in Rome to ready themselves to give their verdict, though he notes that he himself has problems with the logic of Katherine’s case that he will need her lawyers to address. Nevertheless, on the 23rd, Clement and the Consistory of Cardinals debate the case for six hours and in the end, Clement concludes that Katherine’s marriage to Henry was lawful and the Consistory upholds the 1533 verdict that the union wasn’t invalid.

Charles’s advisers in Rome are divided on how he should respond to the news – and to what extent he is truly obligated to enforce the Vatican’s judgment on behalf of his aunt. Cifuentes advises Charles that he would be better served by inflicting economic harm on England via sanctions than military force.

Meanwhile in England – also on the 23rd – Parliament declares in the Act of Succession that Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn is lawful and the crown will pass to his children by her – at this point, that is Princess Elizabeth. Katherine’s daughter, Princess Mary, is therefore delegitimized.

Furthermore, beginning on May 1, anyone who questions in word or action the validity of Henry’s marriage to Anne is guilty of high treason.

April 1534

On April 12, Thomas More is ordered to take the oath upholding the Act of Succession and Church of England. He refuses. Five days later, he is imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Three days after that, Barton is publicly hanged at Tyburn.

At the end of the month, Katherine is moved to Kimbolton. She finally writes to the Spanish Ambassador, Eustace Chapuys, that “stronger” methods should be applied against Henry to bring him to heel. It’s the first time she expresses disloyalty to the man she still believes to be her husband and her words are generally taken to mean she supports an invasion from Charles.

May 1534

Chapuys is summoned to meet Henry’s Council and Edward Foxe tells him that if “Madame Katherine and “Madame Mary” don’t take the oath then they will be punished according to the law. At this point, Chapuys, Katherine and Mary are all well-aware there’s a distinct possibility the two women will be put to death.

Bishops Lee and Tunstall are sent to Kimbolton by Henry to force an oath out of Katherine. She is promised the ability to be back in the King’s good graces and a return to an estate worthy of a princess – not to mention Mary’s safety – in exchange for confessing that her second marriage was a sham and her marriage to Prince Arthur consummated. She refuses. She later tells Chapuys that they threatened her with imprisonment and death. Four of her servants are arrested and others are placed under house arrest.

On May 14, Anne writes a letter to Cromwell on behalf of an English merchant previously persecuted as a heretic. It is one of the first acts of defense on behalf of the reformed church.

The Carthusians of Charterhouse are asked to make the oath, but they request a compromise. The London Charterhouse agrees that they will take the pledge, but only if they can add the words “as far as the law of Christ allows.”

June 1534

Another delegation is sent to Kimbolton. It, too, fails.

July 1534

On July 17, Chapuys rides past Kimbolton with 60 horsemen on his way to Walsingham. He is not allowed to see Katherine in person, but he sends riders as close to the house as he can so that Katherine can see them from her window. It is his way of ensuring she knows that she is not forgotten to him or Charles.

August 1534

It is possible that Anne miscarries around this time, though the timing of this second pregnancy is one over which there is some debate.

September 1534

Clement dies on September 25 in Rome at the age of 56.

October 1534

Cardinal Alessandro Farnese is named the new pope – he is called Pope Paul III. He makes it clear soon after that unlike his predecessor he wants to end the Vatican’s conflict with England.

January 1535

Henry uses his new title for the first time: “Henry VIII, by the Grace of God King of England and of France, Defender of the Faith and of Lord of Ireland and Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Cromwell is appointed Vicar General of Church and orders a survey of Church’s land and possessions.

The Carthusians are now asked to take the oath absolutely – without the additional caveat of Christ’s law.

In London, Cromwell and Chapuys debate back and forth over a path forward for their kings. Chapuys swears that Charles is not set on invading England, however states that he will never acknowledge Anne as queen. Cromwell returns that Henry will never let Mary live with her mother and believed that the new pope would soon validate his marriage to Anne and declare Elizabeth legitimate.

Mary, meanwhile, is in poor health and Katherine begs Chapuys to do his best to let the young woman come live with her. Chapuys goes to Henry and duly makes the request, but the King is unmoved. He then tries to place her under the protection of her former governess and Henry’s cousin, the Countess of Salisbury, but Henry is at odds with her too thanks to her son, Reginald Pole, a member of the clergy living abroad who has been an outspoken critic of his.

April 1535

Mary eventually moves to Hunsdon – 30 miles away from Kimbolton. It’s the best anyone can (or will) do.

John Houghton, Robert Lawrence and Augustine Websiter, three Charterhouse Priors, as well as other friars, are found guilty of treason for not taking the oath and sentenced to death.

Cromwell visits More in the Tower in the hopes of persuading him to give way to the King.

May 1535

On May 4, the friars walk from the Tower of London to be hanged, drawn and quartered – the most gruesome of public executions. The deaths are carried out one-by-one so that they must watch one another die. Anne’s uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, is present, as is Henry’s bastard son, the Duke of Richmond. From the Tower, More watches the friars leave with his daughter, Margaret.

Soon after this, Cromwell again interviews More and asks him to take the oath so as to spare himself.

On May 22, Pope Paul names Fisher a cardinal – he believes that in doing so he is preserving Fisher’s life in England. In fact, it has the opposite effect. When Henry finds out he says that he will behead Fisher himself so that his head could be sent to Rome for a cardinal’s hat. He orders that both Fisher and More must make the oath before June 24 or they will executed.

June 1535

Henry doesn’t wait for his own deadline – Fisher is executed on June 22. He is 66 years old and so frail and ill that he must be carried to the block.

Richard Rich, the Solicitor-General, interrogates More and is able to secure a slip of the tongue or words taken out of context that indicate he questions Parliament’s ability to confer ecclesiastical supremacy on the King.

July 1535

More is indicted at Westminster Hall on July 1. He is convicted by Norfolk, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Wiltshire (Anne’s father), Cromwell, Lord Rochford (Anne’s brother) and Thomas Audley. Knowing his fate, More uses his closing speech to defend the Pope’s authority. He is escorted back to the Tower with an executioner’s axe turned towards him – en-route, his daughter, Margaret, breaks through the crowds to embrace him.

Perhaps out of fear for the public mood or in a nod to their former friendship, Henry commutes the sentence to a beheading. It is carried out on July 6. Four hundred years later – ironically on the 399th anniversary of Anne’s own death – the Catholic Church canonizes More and Fisher.

From Rome, Pope Paul responds furiously that a cardinal has been executed. He invites Charles and King Francis I of France to join him in a military conquest that would remove Henry from the throne, but it is mostly seen as just talk.

August 1535

On August 30, Pope Paul formally excommunicates Henry.

October 1535

Anne becomes pregnant once more.

November 1535

It is reported that the Vatican intends to wait one year before acting to remove Henry from his throne. By then, however, Katherine was fatally ill. Thanks to strong stomach pain, she is unable to keep food down. Upset, Chapuys goes to Henry and begs leave to see her – he finds Henry looking forward to his former wife’s death on the grounds that it will repair his relationship with Charles.

January 1536

On January 2, Chapuys meets with Katherine for 15 minutes at Kimbolton in the presence of one of Cromwell’s men. The next day, they meet for an hour and in the subsequent three days, for about two hours. He leaves her believing that she is on the mend as she begins to eat.

The day after Chapuys leaves, Katherine writes Henry a final letter:

“My Lord and dear husband – I commend myself to you. The hour of my death draws near, and my condition is such that, because of the tender love that I owe to you, and in only a few words, I put you in remembrance of the health and safeguard of your soul, which you ought to prefer all worldly matters and before the care and tendering of your own body, for the which you have cast me into many miseries yourself into many anxieties.

“For my part, I do pardon you all, yes, I do wish and devoutly pray to God that He will pardon you.

“For the rest, I commend unto you Mary, our daughter, beseeching you to be a good father to her, as I heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage-portions, which is not much, since there are only three of them. For all my other servants, I ask for one year’s pay more than their due, lest they should be unprovided for.

“Lastly, do I vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.”

That afternoon, she dies.

Henry hears the news two days later. He and Anne, dressed in yellow, hear mass and Henry carries Elizabeth in public to the sounds of trumpets. After dinner, he joins his court in a dance and is reported to be full of joy.

Two weeks later, he is knocked unconscious during a joust at Greenwich. It takes him two hours to regain consciousness, during which time his court and government were in crisis mode – their choices for successors are the toddler Elizabeth (considered a bastard by Catholics and most of Europe) or the 20-year-old Mary (declared a bastard by Parliament). Henry’s survival is a godsend, but it underlines the shakiness of the crown.

Five days later, Anne miscarries a son. When Henry finally visits his wife he says, “I see that God will not give me male children. When you are up I will speak to you.” Anne retorts that she miscarried because of shock over his fall and the attention he has been paying to Jane Seymour, one of her ladies-in-waiting.

One the same day as the miscarriage, Katherine is laid to rest in Peterborough.

When Charles hears of his aunt’s death, he expresses remorse of her loss and then, in the same breath, relief that he can once again regain good relations with England.

February 1536

Charles orders Chapuys to raise with Henry the possibility of Mary marrying his brother-in-law, Dom Luis of Portugal. The issue is raised and considered, but it means that Mary will have even more foreign backing to potentially depose her father on behalf of the Catholic Church or one days claim her birthright against Protestant half-siblings.

April 1536

On April 30, Mark Smeaton, a court musician is arrested and charged with committing adultery with Anne. For months now, Cromwell has been working behind the scenes, conducting interrogations and securing the evidence he needs to bring about Anne’s downfall on Henry’s orders. They are ready to go public.

May 1536

On May 2, Anne and her brother, George, with whom she is accused of having an incestuous relationship, are arrested.

Anne is accused of having affairs with Henry Norris in the autumn of 1533 (within a month of Elizabeth’s birth), William Brereton at the end of 1533, Smeaton in the spring of 1534, Sir Francis Weston in the spring of 1534 and with her brother towards the end of 1534. The cadence of these alleged affairs crucially don’t undermine Elizabeth’s legitimacy, nor do they interfere with her pregnancy that ended in January 1536.

On May 12, Norris, Brereton and Weston are sentenced to death. Three days later, Anne and George meet the same fate. Smeaton, who gave a confession under torture, is spared. You can read more about the trial here.

On May 17, Cranmer declares Henry’s marriage to Anne null and void based on the sexual relationship the King once had with Anne’s sister, Mary Boleyn. Elizabeth is thus delegitimized.

On May 19, Anne and her brother are both beheaded. You can read more about the events surrounding her execution here.

On May 20, Henry is officially betrothed to Jane Seymour. Ten days later, they’re privately married in the Palace of Whitehall by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.

In the middle of this, on May 25, Henry and Chapuys meet and it is agreed that Mary will write her father a letter asking for reconciliation.

June 1536

On June 1, Mary writes to Henry asking for his blessing and acknowledging how she has offended him. She congratulates him on his marriage two days before to Jane, who she acknowledges as queen, and she wishes him luck in securing the succession with the birth of a son. Nine days later she writes again.

It is unclear how Henry takes the letters, but Cromwell finally responds furiously, saying that he is sorry he supported her. Presumably their angst is over her having not disavowed her mother’s marriage to Henry or acknowledging her own illegitimacy. Mary continues writing to Henry regardless and then, finally, on June 22, capitulates:

“The confession of me, the lady Mary, made upon certain points and articles under written, in the which, as I do now plainly and with all my heart confess and declare inward sentence, belief and judgment, with due conformity of obedience to the laws of the realm; so minding for ever to persist and continue in this determination, without change, alteration or variance, I do most humbly beseech the King’s Highness, my father, whom I have obstinately and inobediently offended in the denial of the same heretofore, to forgive mine offences therein, and to take me to his most gracious mercy.”

July 1536

Two weeks after receiving Mary’s letter, Henry and Jane visit her at Hunsdon. Soon after, she is welcomed back to court for the first time since 1531.

Six months later, Jane would announce a pregnancy and in the autumn of 1537, Henry finally received the son he so desperately wanted. It cost him his third wife, but as we well know, he would go on to marry three more times. Before his death in January 1547, another wife would be divorced and yet another would meet her end at the block. Only one would survive as queen – and only just – though Katherine Parr mucked up her royal relationships when she privately wed Jane’s brother, Thomas Seymour, within months of Henry’s death.

The Reformation existed in three plains – that which unfolded legally in England, that which was dictated by the Royal Family and the succession and that which developed in Europe and thus dictated alliances. England’s Reformation by the summer of 1536 was not yet over, but its first phase was – the deaths of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn removed the domestic strife and Henry’s personal life from the immediate drama (for at least a time) and in that void came the meat of Cromwell’s work and the apex of his power. Arguably, Henry’s too.

But ironically, for a man who came to the forefront under Wolsey – and then in lieu of him – it would be a royal divorce that took him down, too. Henry’s displeasure with him came with the marriage of Anne of Cleves – or, more precisely, his ardor for Katherine Howard in her stead. This post essentially picks up where this one leaves off, though the last years of Cromwell’s career likely warrant their own post at some point.

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