The state and quality of the English Church prior to the Reformation is open to interpretation. Some historians see it as a mass of abuses and lack of spirituality which would eventually have to have been reformed, Anne Boleyn or no. There was a growing tide of 'anti-clericalism' in England due to the abuses of pluralism and the associated problem of non-residence. Pluralism was when a cleric held multiple positions within the Church, and this led to him not living in the parish of his responsibility (non-residence). The Church was criticized for allowing parishes to be without their spiritual head in this way.

In 1529, Henry VIII called a session of parliament1. The parliament was not finally disbanded until 1536, and was remarkable for both its length and the quantity of legislation passed. There was little anti-clerical legislation passed at first, although contemporary chronicler Edward Hall wrote reams suggesting a hugely anti-clerical Commons was in action.

The divorce case was pressing heavily on Henry's mind. The actions of the Reformation Parliament can be seen initially as his way of putting pressure on the Pope to rule in favour of him, but once Henry realised he was onto a good thing he seemed to continue. As well as his marriage, the second strand to the policy seemed to be the concept of imperium, that England was a fully sovereign state and that no foreigner (such as the Pope) had the right to intervene in it. We should bear this in mind as we consider the sequence of events.

Things started to hot up in 1532, when parliament sent to the King a document entitled Supplication against the Ordinaries ("Petition against the Bishops"), which complained of the power and extent of the Church's courts2. Laws were soon passed disallowing any extension of canon law without scrutiny by the King, and all existing canon law was to be judged by a council of men hand-picked by the King (although half would be clergy). Also in 1532 an Act in Restraint of Annates was passed, annates being money sent to Rome by higher clergy in their first year of work.

The most important step came a year later with the Act in Restraint of Appeals, which made it illegal for any English countryman to appeal to a power outside England. The Pope could no longer act as the final court of appeal in matters of canon law - this now fell to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The short-term effect was clearly to get Henry a favourable ruling in the divorce case.

The Pope was now effectively powerless within English borders. There was only one thing left for Henry to do - get the power handed over to himself rather than going to Parliament or the clergy. This was achieved with the Act of Supremacy passed in 1534. The wording of the act was very precise - the monarch had always been the supreme head of the Church in England and Wales, this power wasn't being granted to him by parliament. This meant they could never take it away.

The Reformation was followed by the Dissolution of the Monasteries.


1. We don't really know why the parliament was initially called. It could have been to use against the recently disgraced Thomas Wolsey, or to try and gain leverage in the divorce case.

2. Whether this arose from the Commons as a representation of the views of the political nation or was engineered by Henry's henchman Thomas Cromwell is unknown.