This Day in History: December 17th

Today in History: December 17, 1538

henry-VIIIWhen Pope Paul III excommunicated Henry VIII on December 17, 1538, it hardly came as a surprise. It was simply the inevitable outcome of a political game of cat and mouse between the English throne and the Vatican that dragged on for almost a decade.

By the 1520s, Henry was having doubts about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Though the Queen had been pregnant on numerous occasions, she had only produced one living child, a girl named Mary. Seven years Henry’s senior and rapidly approaching menopause, the likelihood that Katherine would give birth to a male heir grew smaller with each passing year.

Henry needed a son, and wanted out of his marriage to Katherine. Since she had been briefly married to his brother Arthur, he figured he had his biblical loophole. But Katherine was the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, and the aunt of Charles the Holy Roman Emperor. Not even the Pope Clement VII wanted to get on their bad side. Besides, Katherine swore her first marriage had not been consummated, and the Queen’s good character and piety was well known, pretty much rendering Henry’s argument moot.

The King’s plight became even more urgent as he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. The Pope, trying to maintain a precarious balancing act by keeping Queen Katherine’s powerful – and nearby – relatives satisfied, while also placating – and stalling – the King of England, must have known he could only pull it off for so long.

Henry’s patience finally ran out in 1533. He appointed Thomas Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, who granted the King his long-awaited annulment and married him to Anne Boleyn. The Pope declared their marriage invalid and ordered that Henry return to Katherine of Aragon, but the King was past caring what the Bishop of Rome had to say.

In 1534, the British Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared the King as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, heralding the end of papal authority in English affairs. The English monarch now held the same power in his kingdom as the Pope did in the rest of Europe, power no secular ruler had possessed in over a millennium.

Theologically, Henry’s move changed very little. Aside from the absence of the Pope, Catholic dogma was still firmly in place. Henry was certainly no Protestant, and many were disappointed that the King’s religious “transformation” was very much political, as opposed to spiritual.

This did not stop King Henry from plundering Catholic churches, monasteries and religious houses to fill his own coffers and those of his cronies. He even sanctioned the desecration on the shrine of St. Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, which had been a site of pilgrimage for many centuries. This was the last straw for Pope Paul III, and King Henry VIII was finally booted out of the Catholic Church for good.

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  • J. F. Gecik

    A few corrections are in order (as always seems to be the case when TIFO touches on matters Catholic, since its writers, maddeningly, do not know [nor seek to know] enough). I will give quotations followed by emendations …

    “Henry needed a son, and wanted out of his marriage to Katherine.”
    No, he did not “need” a son. He only desired a son. Had he died without a son, his daughter would have succeeded him. Had he not had even a daughter, a male heir from among his relatives would have succeeded him. He did not NEED a son.

    “Since [Catalina de Aragon] had been briefly married to his brother Arthur, he figured he had his biblical loophole. But Katherine was the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, and the aunt of Charles the Holy Roman Emperor. Not even the Pope Clement VII wanted to get on their bad side. Besides, Katherine swore her first marriage had not been consummated, and the Queen’s good character and piety was well known, pretty much rendering Henry’s argument moot.”

    These statements are ridiculous, in two respects …

    (1) The pope’s denial had nothing to do with “get[ting] on the … bad side” of certain rulers. He was not afraid to “get on the bad side” of Henry, and he would not have been afraid to “get on the bad side” of Catherine’s blood relatives, if justice had required this of him. Rather, the pope’s denial had to do with following the constant and unchangeable teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage. [How could the writer not know this? It is amazing!]

    (2) This article fails to point out that Henry had successfully appealed to the pope for a dispensation to marry Catherine, his brother’s widow (something normally not acceptable at the time). [Arthur and Catherine had not even consummated their marriage.] After about 24 years of genuine, valid marriage to Catherine, Henry’s appeal for a declaration of nullity [commonly mislabeled an “annulment”] was sickeningly ludicrous to almost everyone other than the lust-crazed Henry and his mistress.

    The article also fails to point out that the vast majority of the English people loved Catherine, and, being disgusted by what the king had done, mourned greatly when she died in 1536, just three years after being so horrendously maltreated. If only Henry could have been patient a while longer, his schism would not have occurred, and England would have remained a predominantly Catholic nation right down to our own time (without all the intervening strife and bloodshed).

    “In 1534, the British Parliament passed the Act of Supremacy, which declared the King as the Supreme Head of the Church in England, heralding the end of papal authority in English affairs.”

    The popes never claimed to have “authority in English affairs,” but only the authority that Jesus had given them over matters pertaining to the Catholic faith.

    “The English monarch now held the same power in his kingdom as the Pope did in the rest of Europe, power no secular ruler had possessed in over a millennium.”

    This too is wrong — and in three ways. First, in some parts of Europe (where Lutheranism and Eastern Orthodoxy held sway), others had attempted to usurp the pope’s spiritual jurisdiction. Second, the popes never possessed temporal power over all of Europe, but only spiritual jurisdiction. Third, despite what Luther and Henry had done, the popes of their time (and of all subsequent times) retained spiriual jurisdiction over northern Europe and England — and the whole world, for that matter, since they, being successors of St. Peter, the first pope, were/are the vicars of Christ on Earth.

    Thank you for this opportunity to set the record straight (especially for the impressionable young readers of the site, who were being led astray by this article for almost two years).