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The English Reformation started in the reign of Henry VIII. The English Reformation was to have far reaching consequences in the Tudor England. Henry VIII decided to get rid himself of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, after she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne. He had already decided who his next wife would be — Anne Boleyn. By 1527, Catherine was considered too old to have any more children. 

However, a divorce was not a simple issue. In fact, it was a very complicated one. Henry VIII was a Roman Catholic and the head of this church was the pope based in Rome. 

The Roman Catholic faith believed in marriage for life. It did not recognise, let alone support, divorce. Those who were widowed were free to remarry; this was an entirely different issue. But husbands could not simply decide that their marriage was not working, divorce their wife and remarry. The Roman Catholic Church simply did not allow it 

This put Henry VIII in a difficult position. If he went ahead and announced that as king of England he was allowing himself a divosce, the pope could excommunicate him. This meant that under Catholic Church law, one's soul could never get to Heaven. To someone living at the time of Henry, this was a very real fear, and a threat which the Catholic Church used to keep people under its control. 

Another approach Henry used was to make a special appeal to the pope so that he might get a special ‘Papal Dispensation’. This meant that the pope would agree to Henry's request for a divorce purely because Henry was the king of England but that it would not affect the way the Catholic Church banned divorce for others. The pope refused to grant Henry this and by 1533 his anger was such that he ordered the Archbishop of Canterbury to grant him a divorce so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. 

The Archbishop granted Henry his divorce — against the wishes of the pope. But what else could the archbishop do if he wanted to remain on good terms with Henry? This event effectively leads to England breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. Henry placed himself as head of the church and in that sense. in his eyes, his divorce was perfectly legal. In 1533, few were brave enough to tell him otherwise! 

How did the people of England react to this? In fact. the vast bulk of the populations were very angry at the way the Roman Catholic Church had used them as a source of money. To get married you had to pay; to get a child baptised (which you needed to be if you were to go to Heaven — so the Catholic Church preached) you had to pay; you even had to pay the Church to bury someone on their land (which you had to do as your soul could only go to Heaven if you were buried on Holy Ground). Therefore, the Catholic Church was very wealthy while many poor remained just that poor. Their money was going to the Catholic Church. Therefore, there were no great protests throughout the land as many felt that Henry would ease up on taking money from them. Henry knew of the Catholic Church's unpopularity and, therefore, used this to his advantage. 

Henry was made Supreme Head of the Church by an Act of Parliament in 1534. The country was still Catholic but the pope's power had been ended. 

The wealthiest Catholics in England were the monasteries where monks lived. They were also the most loyal supporters of the pope. This made them a threat to Henry. 

By the time of Henry, many monks had grown fat and were lazy. They did not help the community as they were meant to do. All they seemed to do was take money from the poor. Also some monasteries were huge and owned vast areas of land. So here were monks not loyal to Henry who was also vety wealthy. Henry decided to shut down the monasteries of England. The monasteries were to disappear like sugar dissolves in hot liquid. This is why Henry's attack on the monasteries is called the ‘Dissolution’ — they were to be dissolved! 

Henry wanted to make the Dissolution appear to be backed by law. 

He sent round government officials to check up on what the monks.were doing. This was organised by his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The officials knew what the king wanted in their reports — information that the monks were not working, were not saying their prayers, etc. Anything to discredit the monks was considered useful. Sometimes, the monks were asked trick questions. "Do you keep all of your vows?" If the monks answered 'yes', but had taken a vow of silence, they had not kept all of their vows. If they refused to answer because of their vow of silence, they would be accused of failing to help the king. Or worse, were they trying to hide something? 

One report sent to Cromwell commented that the head of the monastery visited, the prior, was a 'virtuous man’. However, his monks were ‘corrupt’ and ‘full of vice'. The report claimed that the monks had eight to ten girlfriends each. This was all that Cromwell needed to shut down the monastery. - 

The allegations against some monks and nuns ‘spoke' for themselves. At Bradley monastic house, the prior was accused of fathering six children; at Lampley Convent, Mariana Wryte had given birth to three children and Johanna Standen to six; at Lichfield Convent, two nuns were found to be pregnant and at Pershore Monastic House, monks were found to be drunk at Mass. 

The smaller monasteries were shut down by 1536 while the larger and more valuable ones were shut by 1540. Few people in England were sorry to see them go. Few monks protested as they were given pensions or jobs where their monastery was. The abbot of Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, Marmaduke Bradley, was given a £100 pension a year for life — a considerable sum of money then. Some chief monks — abbots — were hanged but this was a rarity. 


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