This Week in Church History: August 31: Henry VIII Excommunicated

On this day in 1535, Pope Paul III made the break between the English state church and the Roman church conclusive when he excommunicated England’s King Henry VIII. The circumstances leading up to Henry’s break with the established church are well known, of course. The king wanted a son and was convinced he would not have one if he remained with his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, annulled their marriage in 1533 and in 1534 Parliament passed the Acts of Supremacy, making Henry VIII the head of the English church.

In June of 1535 Henry further escalated the conflict with Rome by executing Bishop John Fisher, following that up with the execution of Sir Thomas More in July. Paul III’s decision to excommunicate Henry and put England under the interdict on August 31 thus ended a long, vicious conflict between the English crown and Roman curia.

In the aftermath of this decision, a new English church emerged under the leadership of Henry and, initially, Archbishop Cranmer. Henry would die in 1547 and be succeeded by his son, Edward VI. With Edward’s ascent, many thought the English church would take a decidedly reformed turn as Edward was widely known to be deeply sympathetic to the Reformed movement in Switzerland and south Germany. Initially that did indeed happen as Martin Bucer and Peter Martyr Vermigli came to England to take up Regius chairs of divinity at Cambridge and Oxford respectively in 1549. (NOTE: The Davenant Trust supports the ongoing work of the Peter Martyr Society, an organization dedicated to the translation and promotion of Vermigli’s work.)

However, when Edward died in 1553 and the throne passed to his Catholic half-sister, Mary, the English crown swung aggressively against the Reformation. It was only after Mary’s death in 1558 and the ascent of her Protestant sister Elizabeth to the crown that the English church finally began to stabilize. In 1558, then, England finally began to move toward a more stable church order, ending a period nearly three decades of upheaval that began with Henry VIII.